26 January 2014


Lizzie suggested I put up a short version of my thesis, since I guess I never got around to doing that. Here's the full abstract. A year of my life, in encapsulated text form.

A Moveable Feast is a memoir about Hemingway's early years in Paris from 1921-1926, written as a series of themed sketches – each sketch focused on an event, a place, or a person. The food and fights of Paris were vividly recalled and displayed, at times matching or exceeding anything Hemingway had written before. The book also perpetuated the public image that the author had so carefully crafted over the years; Hemingway portrayed himself as both fresh young artist and rugged man-of-the-world. It settled many old scores from the author's past, most particularly with Gertrude Stein, and gruffly described Hemingway's loss of innocence as he broke with his first wife, Hadley Richardson. But these very personal elements had proven difficult for the author to write, and he had never been able to settle on a final form. In addition to artistic concerns, he was worried about hurting those who appeared in its pages, worried about being sued by those still living, and worried about his legacy: as described years later by Gerry Brenner, “How would you like to be remembered? By the people you knew, or the people you knifed?” (Paul 2009, 19). Vacillating even as he approached the end of the editing process, Hemingway added a terse note to the final typescript: “This is too dangerous and libelous to publish. Absolutely” (Tavernier-Courbin 1991, 36).

Hemingway’s uncertainty about A Moveable Feast led him to leave it in a problematic state. Essentially complete, the text was nonetheless rough. It was too substantial to be offered in exact reproduction as a reference for scholarly curiosity, but it was too unpolished to send straight to the printer. Yet fierce editing had long been a hallmark of the Hemingway style, as he would relate in the text itself, making it difficult to conceive of a Hemingway work that could be judiciously presented as “unfinished.” Further, one of the editors of the novel was to be his fourth wife, Mary. She had been helping him in his writing for years, but in many ways A Moveable Feast was Hemingway's book-length paean to his salad days with Hadley, and it held unalloyed adulation and apologies to the woman who would later say that it recalled the “sweet young man I had married” (Lipscomb 2009).

Mary and Scribner's Harry Brague approached the project seriously, taking pains not to add any new material, except for passages from previous drafts. In addition to standard editorial efforts, they reordered some of the sketches in the book, assembled a final chapter from two of the sketches, and cobbled together a foreword via selected sentences from Hemingway's many attempts at composing one. They also changed the style in numerous places, apparently seeking consistency with the author's previous works – in several places, for example, Hemingway's use of second-person narration is changed to a more conventional first person. When published, however, none of these changes were revealed: the text was explicitly presented as if it had been completely finished, and no hint was given that the editors had found it necessary to make significant alterations. It was not until years later, when scholars such as Gerry Brenner and Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin gained access to the manuscripts, that critics realized that A Moveable Feast had been altered in many ways from what Hemingway had left behind. 

The publication in 2009 of A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition was intended to address many of these concerns. As noted by Robert Trogdon in “A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition: a Review and a Collation of Differences,” the new edition eliminates some of the most questionable editorial alterations, such as the shift in person and the editor-assembled preface (2009). The changes, both large and small, have a serious effect on the work and on how a reader experiences it. Some of these alterations in the reader’s experience appear to have been intended by the new edition, but others were not. The very nature of a restored edition, with its foreword (and justification) and a collection of “new” sketches after the formal chapters, shifts the way the text is read and appreciated.

This thesis traces the shifts in style, the results of the changes, and the journey from one edition to the next over the course of forty-five years. A Moveable Feast exists in numerous distinct forms, and accordingly presents a variety of possible experiences for the reader. In my first chapter, I explore the development of these versions from a much-corrected manuscript to the published first edition in 1964, as well as the subsequent development of a hypothetical “ideal” text by critics, and finally the publication of a “restored” edition in 2009. An understanding of the history of the text is essential, because the intertextual relationship is so rich: A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition is not only a new version, but also an explicit response to the initial publication and to scholarly criticism.

In my second chapter, I examine how the production of the Restored Edition calls into question many casual assumptions about the possibilities of publication and the hypothetical Feasts that might have been. It is tempting to describe a continuum stretching from an un-edited facsimile of the typescripts to a wholly rewritten edition, a closer examination of these extremes reveals that the relationship of a new edition with its predecessors, with its critical commentary, and with its own physical nature complicates the picture beyond a single axis of editorial intervention. Instead, as I will show, the 2009 edition exists as simply a new and inconclusive outcome of the process by which new versions are produced, driven by the contrary goals of authorial intention and inclusiveness. This is not intended as condemnation; the new edition is successful in many ways, and critics should keep in mind Darcy Cullen's succinct and complete description of the purpose of publication. "The purpose of publishing," Cullen says, "is to bring a text to its readers" (Cullen 2012, 3).

In my third chapter, I address the manifold specific alterations between the 1964 edition to the 2009 edition. Every sketch has been changed at least slightly, and many of the sketches have been very significantly altered. Further, the shift in the ordering of the sketches and the break-up of the last sketch into its component parts changes the structure of the book in a way that realizes a pattern spotted by Gerry Brenner in 1982. All of these changes alter the manner in which a reader experiences Feast, and many of them also highlight the contradictory goals of the new edition.

I hope the results compel new reflection on the editing of all of Hemingway’s work, a well as the production of posthumous texts in general, by focusing attention on the way in which transtexts involve implicit claims of authority. The inclusion of fragments and alternates, the label of “revised” or “restored,” and other elements assert hidden messages about the pedigree of a text. Both scholars and readers should be wary of the necessary deference to the myth of authorial purity inherent in these messages, which establish textual authority in an intuitive but false appeal to direct authorial transmission, ignoring the fact that any text is the product of a social process.

This appeal is easily accessible and suggests a simple rule, but ample scholarly work has shown that any version of any text is the work of many hands, and continued aspiration to a pleasant myth undermines the necessary transparency that is especially required in posthumous texts. It is only once intervention is freely admitted that the principles involved can be discussed and disclosed to the reader – and that the reader can select a text to enjoy.

On a shelf here, there's a red leatherbound edition with gold lettering. I'm still waiting for publishers to contact me. Any day now.

25 January 2014

Niche: Lila Squad and the Metaphysics of Quality

I like learning about things, especially weird and intricate and insular things.  The Internet has allowed people of all different kinds to find each other, and has given strange ideas the opportunity to find a cult following.  Today I'm starting a series of posts on these niche communities, many of which I have been privileged enough to personally experience.  They range in size from thousands of individuals to a scant few dozen.  Welcome to the niches of the world.

The first community we'll examine is the Lila Squad, the dedicated philosopher-fans of Robert M. Pirsig's 1991 Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (and to a lesser extent its bestselling 1974 predecessor, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).  I wrote about them a few years ago, investigating their community and the LessWrong community.
You have probably heard of Robert Pirsig's enduringly popular novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You may have even had the pleasure of reading the book. It's a pleasant and seductive story of a man who takes a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and some friends. The narrator's journey across the country reconciles him with his son as well as leading him to a coherent understanding of the world that rejects the distinction between Apollonian "truth" and Dionysian "quality," returning to what he considers to be an ancient and more useful understanding of a combined notion of real Quality. It is wonderfully-written, clear and clever, and it uses a gentle series of approachable examples to usher in a radical reinterpretation of how we know things and how we see them. Pirsig's philosophy, later expanded on in his only other book (Lila), is called the Metaphysics of Quality. 
To quote from Dr. Anthony McWatt's introduction on the subject (and as the only person to obtain a philosophy PhD through his study of the Metaphysics of Quality, he's probably the most-qualified guide), the Metaphysics of Quality is a "metaphysical system" - a way of thinking about the world - built on the "postulation that everything is a type of value."  This value, the eponymous "Quality," is described as a universal trait.  The difficulty of subjective assessment and cultural bias is dealt with by factoring in  "cosmological evolution," "attempting to place morals on a more rational and impartial foundation."

Huh.  Okay, so breaking it down a little more, the MoQ argues that there are four types of "static quality patterns" (or "stuff," as we might more intelligibly say): inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual.  These static patterns work against and with "dynamic quality."  "They have built on each other over time with the process of evolution; ...the universe is evolving from a condition of low quality (quantum forces only, no atoms, pre-big bang) toward a higher one (birds, trees, societies and thoughts) and in a static sense (world of everyday affairs) these two are not the same." (quoted from a letter from Pirsig to McWatt, excerpted here)

So what is Quality?  What is the value that is trending upwards in this process of cosmic evolution?

Alas, this is a term that goes conspicuously and specifically undefined.  Robert Pirsig identifies this, in fact, as the reason why the Metaphysics of Quality has been generally ignored by philosophers, saying "Most academic philosophers ignore it, or badmouth it quietly and I wondered why that was. I suspect it may have something to do with my insistence that Quality not be defined."  Quality, like the Buddha-nature and the Dao (both referenced and influential on Pirsig's work), has a no-thingness quality.  It's not nothing, but neither is it a thing.

I don't have much sympathy for that insistence on non-definition. I think it's a way of evading serious interrogation and thought - no one can ever really pin you down in a contradiction or fallacy if you refuse to be exact.  You can escape ever being wrong, by never being strictly right.  It's cleverness disguised as knowledge.  And really, it's not being practiced here, since Pirsig does have a functional definition of Quality: it's something akin to complexity. From Lila:
Is it immoral, as the Hindus and Buddhists claim, to eat the flesh of animals? Our current morality would say it's immoral only if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist. Otherwise its OK, since morality is nothing more than social convention.

An evolutionary morality [like the Metaphysics of Quality], on the other hand, would say it's scientifically immoral for everyone because animals are at a higher level of evolution, that is, more Dynamic than are grains and fruits and vegetables.
Another concrete example is when Pirsig talks about how he has proven that there is an "objective Quality" to his students, by having them all review each other's papers, four a day for many days, and then showing them that their assessments all tended to match up.  They can't define Quality, but they all know it when they see it and agree on it.

Here's a graph from robertpirsig.com, illustrating Quality in the universe over "evolutionary time" (which seems to just be "time"):

Against a destructive background of "dynamic quality," the evolutionary process slowly pushes towards greater quality along all four types, while the proportion between them gradually increases towards the higher levels.  The cosmos is gradually becoming more full of Quality, and that Quality is getting more advanced.

Let's briefly talk about criticisms, and then talk about the Lila Squad.

Evolution isn't progress.  That's a mistake that's been made by generations of dilettantes and eugenicists.  Evolution is the continued adaptation of organisms to their environment.  There's no direction to evolution.  If a carbonaceous meteor burned up in the atmosphere and drastically increased the amount of CO2 in the air, then the animals that survived - including humans - would be the ones that were best at breathing a lot more CO2 (at least long enough to pass on their genes).  This wouldn't be "dynamic quality" and its destructive influence, except inasmuch as humanity places a higher value on the ability to create a great painting or engineer a new polymer than it does on the ability to successfully breathe more CO2.  And that is what Quality really is... stuff people like, which can't really be defined because it isn't really much more than the conglomerate of current fads and historical trends.

Pirsig tries to squish together the ideas of no-thingness - the Way that cannot be spoken - and this vague indefinable stuff-people-like.  But the Tao is defined as non-definition in a deliberately counter-intuitive way, and so while Pirsig interestingly talks about no-thingness in such work as his essay "Subjects, Objects, Data and Values," he never convincingly marries the two.

That said, a small gathering of people have found Pirsig's ideas to be not only important, but some of the most important work that's ever been done.  They were initially known as the "Lila Squad" and in a 1998 letter to this Internet discussion group, Pirsig recognizes that they had become the central following of the Metaphysics of Quality, including and supplementing the small strain of MOQ study found in Liverpool (under the leadership of the aforementioned Dr. Watts):
I sometimes see you as a group of surveyors at the edge of a kind of intellectual wilderness. You're all engaged in a creative activity rather than just sitting back parroting and dissecting old masters. This is real philosophy. I can't tell you where to go because I don't really know for sure myself. And if I did, I probably shouldn't tell you anyway because that might spoil all the Dynamic adventure and excitement this wilderness offers.
The Lila Squad, which is now more commonly known as MOQ_Discuss (after their newsgroup), remains and is fairly vigorous.  It has a dozen intensive and long-term contributors, and a wider group of readers and occasional commentators.  Here's a sample of a conversation between two people (who I won't name here for the sake of their Google results, except that they're both Davids.
David 1: [Your idea of MOQ is too] much like idealism, I prefer concepts are a higher form of SQ, real but at a level above pre-conceptual SQ, there is inanimate SQ, animate and living SQ, cultural and conceptual SQ, all real, some pre-conceptual and cultural, some not.

David2: Reality is flowing and undivided but words chop it up and concepts are divisions.

David 1: Yes but two fingers together being experienced have a joined up pattern, they stand out in experience due to their SQ, they stand out from the flux, we add further SQ to this with concepts and make the division from the flux more fixed and abstract, but there is clearly an experience that is had prior to the move to conceptualise and speak of these patterns.

David2: The analytic knife cuts it up well or badly. And these divisions and categories are so well carved that we mistake them for reality itself. That's what SOM does to subjects and objects. That's what scientists do to gravity and causality. These dialectician don't know that these are just analogies and they don't know that everything is just an analogy.

David 1: Your view suggests that we are capable of not spotting that we have hands, we might carve up experience and ignore the experiencial reality of similarity between hands, this is both laughable and is anti-realist absudity.

David2: The MOQ is one giant anti-reification program. DQ reality isn't nothingness. It is no-thing-ness. Why? Because DQ is preconceptual and all "things" are concepts. It seems that you and [other contributor] Marsha want there to be DQ, sq, AND also things like tomatoes and wooden ships.
And so on like that.  It is fantastic - a sort of amateur philosopher fandom, arguing about a new way of understanding the world.

There is a problem, however.  After peaking twice in 2006 and 2010, the MOQ community has steadily shrunk.  Recent discussion and interest is a tenth of what it was at the peak, and much devoted to irrelevancies.  Former group member Marsha V has received the blame, and has been removed "in order to give the list a fighting chance of resuming intelligent conversation that centres on  Robert Pirsig's MoQ."  It's unclear if that will occur, and if this center of discussion of a remarkable and independent work of philosophy can continue.

It would be a shame if it didn't.  I might not favor the MOQ as a way of understanding the world, but this is an amazing community that found its perfect niche.  Who knows what might come of it?

23 January 2014

Hemingway's letters, V. 2

I started reading the second volume of the fantastic Cambridge editions of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Sandra Spanier, Alberto J. DeFazio III, and Robert W. Trogdon.  Spanier and her associates have done another great job (having already, in the first volume, revolutionized Hemingway scholarship) and there are some delightful tidbits all through Hemingway's letters.  He was a prodigious and funny correspondent, and this volume covers 1923 through 1925 - those big years where he published in our time and gathered the material for The Sun Also Rises, A Moveable Feast, and Death in the Afternoon, as well as had his first child and fell in love with his second wife.

From a letter to Ezra Pound (p. 9), who had recently reviewed a book by Dr. Louis Berman about how glands regulate human behavior (book available free here).  Hemingway mocks the entire idea.
This high altitude has made me practically sexless.  I don't mean that it has removed the sexual superiority of the male but that it has checked the activity of the glands.  I would like to discuss the matter with Burman.  It could make an interesting contribution to a monograph on the increasing scarcity of prostitutes above 2000 meters u/s and a strange exception to the movement in the Engadine Valley where an annual winter concentration of prostitutes is effected at St. Moritz altitude 2001 meters u/s.  I daresay it all could be worked out to the accompaniment of graphs and temperature density charts.
From another letter to Pound (p. 83), this obscenity-filled screed emerges.  Hemingway hated Canada, and his tirade against it becomes a general railing.
For christ sake never come back.  Dont let Strater kid you or Heep and Co.  Heep and Co. dont live in any country.  Those people live in Homosexualia which is international.  They tote it with them and set it up wherever they go.
But for a man who likes to drink and fuck and eat and talk and read the papers and write something and keep clear of the shits, literary shits, artistic shits, photographic shits, journalistic shits, high minded shits, low minded shits healthy shits, sickly shits, money making shits, poor shits, book shop shits, book review shits ignorant shits, Dull Dial shits, bright Vanity Fair shits, eager shits, tired shits, virgins, cock suckers, lawyers, land lords, city editors, pullman porters, masturbators, Ministers, Gilbert Sedes, all his friends, Everybody in New York, The Governor General, Lady Byng, Mr. Atkinson, Charlie Goode, The Arts and Letters Club, D.H. Lawrence, Mickey Walker, Yeats the Senator, Norman Douglas, Norman Angell, Norman Hapgood, Norman Blood, the Labor Party, Protection, Free Trade, Mr. Coolidge, Strater's Old Man, Strater's Conscience, Scofield Thayer, Buggary, Sodomy, ass licking, cunt lapping (except among friends) Cancers, The Nobel Prize, Millerand, --
Shit on them all
A charming note by the editors to explain one bit of oddment: in the fall of 1922, Pound put out an advertisement for Hemingway's new book, part of the Inquest series of releases.  Hemingway was away covering the Greco-Turkish War for the Toronto Star, and hadn't told the advertiser the title, so it was just listed as Blank.  Unbeknownst to each other, Hemingway's parents each individually wrote to Pound and requested five copies of Blank, which they assumed was the title (p. 64).

To Pound, Hemingway writes about having to go to work, reporting on a coal mining scandal, very near his wife's due date (p. 58).
Was on train at a smut session with correspondents and titled coal barons in the press car while baby was being born.  Two o'clock in the morning.  Heard about it ten miles out of Toronto and came in intending to kill City Editor, Hindmarsh.  Compromised by telling him would never forgive him of course and that all work done by me from now on would be with the most utter contempt and hatred for him and all his bunch of masturbating mouthed associates.  Also offered knockdown if editors trap opened.  Consequently position at office highly insecure.
To Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, Hemingway writes about going to bullfights with his friend Chink (p. 128).  Chink can't ignore the horses that are maimed and die during the process.
Hadley and I love the corrida [fighting] more than ever in spite of Chink's non conformist attitude toward the Varas [horseback lancers].  It must be hell to feel that way about it but I don't and never have.  Chink has a good head and he is so absolutely right but the horses just don't bother me.  He's had an English education and the English have made sacred cows out of horses.  It's spoiled bull fighting for him because everybody wants to argue with him and that, of course, makes him get it all straight in his mind and serious about it again just when he is getting so he can kid about it.  It is terrible to get anybody serious about anything on a fiesta.  Oh well.

13 January 2014

Borges' Theme

Last year, I wrote about Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, and I tried to express the impression that I'd had of his fascination with a single idea.  For years, I'd been thinking about it, and I'd always settled uncomfortably on the notion that he wrote about various forms of infinity:
Another aspect of Borges' work that is made clear by a single unbroken experience is his utter devotion to the idea of infinities. From start to last, he wrote of unending libraries, perfect memories that encompass every shade of color in every day, and loops of time that mirrored each other in eternal regression. I'd noticed the pattern before, but I'd thought that it was a theme of the collections. Instead, it seems as though Borges was singularly fascinated by infinity: his stories almost invariably describe people, places, or objects that have some aspect of boundlessness.
Even as I wrote this, though, I was aware that it was somehow not exactly correct.  In "The Garden of Forking Paths," there was an element of the infinite to be found in the titular book, but there was also a clever hooking twist to the story's conclusion that is only tangentially related to that sort of boundlessness.  The book within the story is a representation of infinite times, but that book is only described and becomes a plot element - you couldn't use it as synecdoche for the whole story, because there's more there.

The same construction is found in "The Theologians," where infinite recursiveness is once again the subject of the plot (via the heresy of the Monotoni), but the story itself is resolved in a neat twist.  If we picture the shape of "The Theologians," it could only resemble a pretzel or Möbius strip, in which identity is twisted around on itself.  Likewise do we picture the mediocre "The Shape of the Sword," when courage and narratorial reliability become tangled in each other.  These and other stories all do touch on the infinite, and some aspect of the unending appears within them, but their plots revolve around a trick or quibble.

Still other stories, like  "Three Versions of Judas" or "Man on Pink Corner," don't really dwell on boundlessness at all.  I'd considered them outliers.  "The Three Versions of Judas" concerns the compact Hegelian spiral of a Swedish heretic, whose three contemplations eventually lead him to the conclusion that Judas was Christ: it is a story of paradox and shock, but not a story of the infinite.  And "Man on Pink Corner" is the story of an Argentine knifeman, one of several clever stories about this breed of outlaw.

It was not correct for me to say that Borges wrote of the infinite from "start to last."  But even as I reflected on this mistake, I considered that I still felt that there was a unifying quality.  Infinity was a major theme - the dominant theme, certainly - but there was a larger pattern of monomania in Borges' work.  He wrote about one single thing, I was sure of it.  And after long thought, his theme might have been this: extravagance.

The swaggering knifeplay of the Argentine gaucho, the breadth of heresy in making Judas into Jesus, the spite of a coward towards himself, and the fiery denunciation that burns the speaker... these are all extravagances, and metaphorically akin to the infinities of the Library of Babel or the perfect memory of Funes.

It seems to me that this is the central theme of Borges' work, to the extent that there is a central theme.  Time and time again, he probes the idea of meeting the limits of the mundane and exceeding them - not just slightly, but to the height of his imagination.  He goes beyond expectations.

This is really a pretty workaday insight, if I can even call it that.  But the tension between my articulations of Borges' work and the unspoken feeling I'd been off the mark had been bothering me like a sore tooth.

Next week, I'll probably decide I'm wrong again.

04 January 2014

"The Dharma Bums" and "Red Mars."

The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac

The 1950s began modern interest in Zen, as pacified Japan became a new cultural resource for America.  Great teachers, most notably D.T. Suzuki (whose work remains essential for American teachers of the religion) came to the States and went on lecture tours.  Conclaves of artists and poets seized these new ideas and selected from them what they needed, as always happens when culture meets culture.  In the process, the aspects of Zen most attractive to Western thought were embraced and encouraged, altering Zen and yielding up a new version of the philosophy.  There's probably a complicated set of jargon to describe the process, but I'll just call this the birth of Hippie Zen.

Hippie Zen is with us still, and thank goodness.  The exotic lure of the koan and the transcendent pleasure of not-being is something that everyone should at least know about, if not experience.  If you turn your nose up at it because you think it's somehow "lesser" than a mythical pure version of Zen, then you should pause to reflect that the only systems that remain static are the dead ones.

The Dharma Bums is a Beat work, and one of the greatest of them.  Raucous and childlike in all the best ways, it's a recounting of a brief period of Kerouac's life, mostly centered around a friend of his (renamed "Japhy") who introduced him to the Hippie Zen life (this was technically before there were any hippies, but Beatnik Zen just doesn't have the same ring to it, so to hell with it).  The narrator and Japhy go on great adventures of sex and hiking and drinking, dedicating themselves to the reality of experience so as to pierce the illusions of the world.
"Give me another slug of that jug. How! Ho! Hoo!" Japhy leaping up: "I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that's what I like about you Goldbook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead."
One of the challenges of reading The Dharma Bums is not how to understand it or to enjoy it - neither process needs help - but simply how to read it as a text.  If you're not careful, you get caught up in associations and history and ideas, and you spin away from the experience of the book itself.

Needless to say, that's a great problem to have.  Read The Dharma Bums immediately.

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

There are different kinds of science fiction.  There are space operas, which emphasize smashing great romantic adventures (and which have increasingly resembled space westerns since the cult success of Joss Whedon's Firefly).  There are utopias and dystopias, popular enough to be considered genres of their own.  There's cyberpunk, about the underworlds that churn forth from the impact of machine on man.  There's steampunk, which embraces the past's vision of the future.  And so on - there are many, many more.

One of the most important distinctions made when speaking of all kinds of science fiction, though, is how "hard" or "soft" it is.  If a text is too speculative, it's "soft."  If it sticks to roughly the laws of nature as we know them, it's "hard."  There's some wiggle room: other critics claim that the two describe the degree to which a book focuses on the social implications of the future world.  The term comes as an extension of the "hard sciences" (biology, physics, etc.) and the "soft sciences" (psychology, political science, etc).

Before I go on, let's pause to look at the snobbery inherent in our terminology, here.  Hard/soft is a binary opposition - one of those pairs of terms that exist in opposition to each other, as identified by Ferdinand de Saussure.  Saussure would say that all words are binary opposites, but let's leave that.  Moreover, this is a privileged binary, as Jacques Derrida would call it (in deliberately obscure French) - one of the terms reigns over the other in our thinking, because the other is primarily defined in terms of its absence.  Science fiction is soft to the extent that it is not hard, but not really the other way around.  This is true, even if it's not necessarily logical when put in those terms.  When we talk about the hard science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, we speak of his emphasis on all the technical detail of how his spacemen made their flights.  When we talk of the softer science fiction of Isaac Asimov, we speak about how he fails to include those same sorts of details.  However much critics might object to this practice, it is nonetheless what occurs.  Hardness is a privileged and vaguely good quality for a text, while softness is just some degree of not-hardness.

That's all a long way of saying that hard science fiction is considered subtly better than soft science fiction by many adherents.  This has many reasons, but first among them is probably the barely-hidden belief that soft science fiction is just easier to write and requires less of the reader.  Gary Westfahl has written of this idea in an essay in  2008's A Companion to Science Fiction, writing that hard science fiction is sometimes thought to be the "most challenging and intellectually rigorous form of science fiction" - even though, as he notes, the "extrapolated aliens and future societies" of soft science fiction are "every bit as fascinating and intellectually involving as the technological marvels and strange planets of hard science fiction."

But while you and I and Westfalh and everyone else may reject a dichotomy of hard and soft when we discuss science fiction, and may scorn to say that hard science fiction really is more challenging, and we may even choose to move away from those labels entirely, the underlying mechanic is there.  This is apparent in the culture of science fiction: authors are proud to call themselves authors of "hard science fiction," and there are readers who actively seek it out.  And as Westfahl dryly comments, "There has never existed a community of soft science fiction writers or an audience clamoring for soft science fiction."

But as Kim Stanley Robinson shows us in Red Mars, hardness is overrated.

This book is the first in a trilogy about the settlement of Mars.  It describes the times and troubles of the first hundred settlers.  Traveling to the planet on a spaceship named Ares, they struggle through years of colonizing toil just to survive on the icy, red surface.  Their solutions to the inevitable problems are ingenious - they are perhaps the hundred most brilliant people alive, after all - and Robinson takes care to describe the principles involved.  Even their games have a scientific spin.
Sometimes she went with them up to the hub at the end of a work session, to play a game they had invented called tunneljump. There was a jump tube down the central shaft, where all the joints between cylinders had been expanded to the same width as the cylinders themselves, making a single smooth tube. There were rails to facilitate quick movement back and forth along this tube, but in their game, jumpers stood on the storm-shelter hatch, and tried to leap up the tube to the bubble-dome hatch, a full 500 meters away, without bumping into the walls or railings. Coriolis forces made this effectively impossible, and flying even halfway would usually win a game. But one day Hiroko came by on her way to check an experimental crop in the bubble dome, and after greeting them she crouched on the shelter hatch and jumped, and slowly floated the full length of the tunnel, rotating as she flew, and stopping herself at the bubble-dome hatch with a single outstretched hand.
The speculations of Red Mars are wonderful.  Robinson describes brilliant ideas, like robotic factories that churn out millions of automated windmills, to turn the whistling gales of Mars into atmospheric heat.  Or we can look at his description of how a space elevator might be built - his treatment of this innovation is perhaps the best part of the text, as he writes of the diamond-latticed, carbon-fiber cable slowly descending from orbit.

But as wonderful as this might be, and even though it's the hardest science fiction around, this story suffers from its attempts to make "hard" characters that act like "real people," while also weighting them down with symbolism.  It's a heavy load to carry, and his creations fail at the task.

Each character is laden with meaning, slathered on with a trowel:

  • John.  The most obviously symbolic character, John is both John the Baptist (as the forerunner and only character who has already been to Mars) and John the Evangelist, recklessly preaching a new world.
  • Frank.  The American leader, he represents realpolitik: he will do whatever is necessary to move forward in some fashion and maintain certain control.
  • Arkady.  A Russian revolutionary who disrupts systems.  He is all revolutionaries, and exactly as interesting as such a vague smear of rebels might seem to be.
  • Maya.  The Russian leader (remember this was back when they were the other major world player), her name means "illusion" - as in the complicated illusions of servant and master.  She spends most of her time caught between contradictions.
  • Nadia.  A nine-fingered character who's especially fond of the underground city Underhill, and whose earnest simplicity is intended to show up the ideological concerns of politicos?  How very like a certain hobbit.
  • Sax.  An owlish devotee of terraforming, he's named after a musical instrument, one of the heights of human achievement.  He works relentlessly to transform the planet.
  • Phyllis.  She represents major corporate interests.  Need I even describe her further?  She's exactly like the image that springs to mind.
  • Anne.  This geologist's last name is "Claybourne," and she is in love with Mars itself, unsullied.  She fights desperately to preserve it.
  • Hiroko.  The book was written in the early nineties, and Hiroko, the gardener and mysterious mother-goddess-of-fertility figure, is very much in vogue with the rush of japanophilia that struck during that era.

The basic moral of the book is that it is wrong to try to be involved with human society, and that you should instead try to separate and create your own world.  I'm not sure if that was the meaning that Robinson intended, but it's the one he gives us.  There are movements that try to work with others and change their minds (Frank, Anne, Sax, Maya, Phyllis, etc.) and they are depicted as petty and wrong.  And there are movements that abscond or stay aloof (Hiroko, Nadia, the settlers as a whole), and they are noble and exotic.

These flaws of characterization are a major weakness of an otherwise good book.  Each character flounders into pre-written scripts and cliches, united behind a single mediocre moral.  This is a shame, because otherwise the writing is fairly good.
Arkady cackled. “Still my same John Boone! I love it. Look here, my friend, I will tell you why these things are happening, and then you can work at it systematically, and perhaps see more. Ah, here’s the subway to Stickney— come on, I want to show you the infinity vault, it’s really a nice piece of work.” He led John to the little subway car, and they floated down a tunnel to near the center of Phobos, where the car stopped and they got out. They pushed across the narrow room, and pulled themselves down a hall; John noted that his body had adjusted to the weightlessness, that he could float and keep his trim again. Arkady led him into an expansive open gallery, which on first glance appeared to be too large to be contained inside of Phobos: floor, wall and ceiling were paneled in faceted mirrors, and each round slab of polished magnesium had been angled so that anyone in its microgravity space was reflected in thousands of infinite regresses.
Observe how the Russian revolutionary cackled good-naturedly, and the American adventurer was gamely interested - but also observe the obvious delight Robinson takes in the implications of technology, and how it ably includes us in his fascination.

Ultimately, this is a book only for science fiction fans, or for people who are particularly interested in giving the genre a try.  I would recommend it strongly for them, but not especially for general interest.

Dispensational Truth images

Devoted followers have scanned and made freely available the full text and images of Clarence Larkin's groundbreaking 1918 work of premillenial dispensationalist Christian theology, Dispensational Truth; or God's Purpose and Plan Throughout the Ages.  It was first brought to my attention by James Elkins' discussion of painting, What Painting Is, and I looked it up... and the images are amazing!

Click for large.

A history of the world that has been, and the world that will come, through Larkin's interpretation of the Bible (i.e. mostly the books of Genesis, Daniel, and Revelations):

 And there's a schematic of all of human history, which will last only seven thousand years.  Each thousand years is equivalent to one of the days of creation:

 This time of man is marked by seven eras of crisis:

Man must muck his way through as best he can, relying on his threefold nature:

 If you screw up, there's a whole lot of judgment waiting for you:

We're in the sixth thousand years of the world, so the Antichrist is loose on the planet.  He's about fourteen years old now, in fact:

 And to help us, there's Jesus and the saints, compared and shown here with sun, moon, and stars:

Watch out for that Great Throne Judgment - it's gonna get ya!

Truly a beautiful book!

01 January 2014

Objectivist and the Ideological Turing Test

In the current Winter 2013/2014 issue of The Objective Standard, a magazine that expounds the Objectivist philosophy of author Ayn Rand, editor Craig Biddle has an article that contrasts libertarianism with radical capitalism.  You can read it here, if you're interested.  To me, the actual interesting thing was not the purported topic; Biddle's confused invective against a series of artificial ideas, conjured up for the purposes of glorious defeat, really isn't very compelling.  Instead, the interesting things were his summaries of different belief systems, which fail Caplan's Ideological Turing Test in a hilariously complete way.

The Ideological Turing Test is the sensible proposition that anyone who is trying to tear down a system of belief should fully understand the system of belief, and should be able to prove that they understand that system by ably stating its arguments.  For example, if someone is in favor of permitting gay marriage, they should really also be able to adequately argue against gay marriage, if asked.  To truly pass the hypothetical test, in fact, their arguments against gay marriage should be indistinguishable from the arguments of a real opponent of gay marriage.

Even if the formal test might be a little silly in practice, I think that the principle is sound: if you don't understand the other side well enough to adequately restate their arguments, then you haven't learned enough to make a fully informed decision.  To wit: the Biddle essay in question.

In The Objective Standard, Craig Biddle devotes some space to considering the idea of "natural rights" from the perspective of three other belief systems: utilitarianism, altruism, and egalitarianism.  In each case, he describes how these "dominant moralities and philosophies reject the possibility that rights exist."  But Biddle's summary of how these systems think is remarkably different from anything that an actual proponent might say.  His straw men exist only in order to be knocked down.  Let's take a look, for example, at his summary of how utilitarians might view the idea of natural rights:
[O]ne of the most widely accepted moral codes today, utilitarianism, holds that the standard of moral value is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”5 On this view, the idea that people have inalienable rights is, as utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham puts it, “nonsense upon stilts.”6 If the standard of morality is the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then the notion that an individual should be free to live his life (the right to life), according to his judgment (liberty), using the product of his effort (property), for his own purposes (the pursuit of happiness) is ridiculous. Suppose the greatest number say his doing so makes them unhappy. Or suppose a majority, such as white southerners, is happy to enslave a minority, such as imported black southerners. Or suppose a majority, such as non-Jewish Germans, is happy to exterminate a minority, such as Jewish Germans. Clearly, utilitarianism is incompatible with rights.
This is one of the most shallow treatments of utilitarianism I've ever seen.  Biddle didn't bother to investigate what actual utilitarians might argue, because otherwise he would have seen that the field has somewhat advanced in the years since Bentham, and that most utilitarians are "preference utilitarians."  They believe something remarkably similar to the idea of natural rights Biddle is espousing, because they think that we shouldn't consider everyone's raw happiness, but rather their ability to fulfill their preferences in life (in other words, "the pursuit of happiness").  Treating the ideas of Bentham as the final word in utilitarian philosophy is a lot like treating Newton as the reigning authority on physics.

Biddle also didn't bother to think carefully about his own argument - it would have taken about thirty seconds of reflection to realize that the unhappiness of Jewish Germans is going to weigh rather heavily on a utilitarian scale of pain vs. pleasure.  Utilitarian philosophers have a way of talking about these things that's heavily jargonated, but the word "hedon" is useful to us.  A "hedon" is a theoretical and arbitrary measurement of pleasure/utility/preference.  A delicious sandwich when we're hungry might be worth 30 hedons, while a warm coat when we're freezing to death might be worth 3,000 hedons.

You can probably see where this is going... the negative experience of being enslaved, starved, and murdered might be pegged at some -10,000 hedons, while the positive experience of having your racial prejudices fulfilled is worth... what, 100 hedons?  Clearly, the Holocaust can't be justified by this basic utilitarian view.

A common response is that enslaving, starving, and murdering just one person might be outweighed by the preferences of millions, in a sort of moral "tyranny of the majority."  If a million people got 100 hedons from your death, then their preferences might outweigh your own very strong preference not to die.  But aside from the point that this is what we do already because it's convenient (e.g. Cameron Todd Willingham) there are second-order responses a utilitarian might give.  They might say, for example, that preference utilitarianism might eventually suggest a basic level of minimum rights, whose presence generally raises the civilizing bar for a society and makes everyone better-off.

But hey, that's a deeper level of thought, and while it would be nice if it was part of Biddle's essay, I don't expect it.  But I do expect at least some thought - some evidence that Biddle tried to actually engage with the ideas involved, rather than just tossing off the first thought that came to mind.

Biddle's essay shows that he not only doesn't really know about the arguments about his ideological opponents, but that he didn't even bother to give their ideas more than a moment's reflection.  It doesn't disqualify his own arguments; they take care of their own disqualification.  But it's certainly not a good sign - both for The Objective Standard and the Objectivist movement - that this is a flagship article in an Objectivist journal.