Monday, April 13, 2009

Week 12: Red Mars, part 2

Given the chance, would I choose to terraform Mars? Should the technology come available and I fell into a position where opportunity allowed me to go, would I do it? The fear of leaving a comfortable home put aside, the question is about the creation of a society, the restructuring of a planet, and the shaping of a new humanity. Robinson responded to this question on, ambiguously stating only that the reflection of this question is what drove him to write the trilogy and that he believes we should, in fact, terraform Mars (assuming there is no life there) if we would only leave the higher elevations in their natural state. His response is an environmental one, a comment on the ability to live in a place and not destroy its “sublime” qualities and “its own intrinsic worth,” he says. But the issue, certainly is much larger. The question reminds us of the early North American colonists who, in their own way, terraformed a new land. Of course, those early colonists disregarded the life—the societies and culture of the Native Americans—already existing in this new land, and reshaped a world for both democratic and financial prospects.

When Marian talks to John about the establishment of a Mars treaty under the rule of ‘dictators’ from Earth, John argues that the new Mars inhabitants have the right to frame their world in their own way. Referring to the American Revolution, he says “it may not be 1760, but we have some of the same advantages: we’re at a great distance and we’re in possession” (348). While a major driving force for the establishment of a new land in 1760 may have been for the freedom of religion, it is easy enough to argue that today, should we terraform a new planet and a society were to form, it would be less about religion and more about political, environmental, and moral ideologies. Distance may allow a people to separate themselves from the ideological traditions of the past, but that is a physical separation. When John then states “the important thing is not to fall into their way of thinking, into the same old violent mistakes,” he is raising a much more humanistic question about the nature of the human being. Would we really be able to distance ourselves from the violence and moral and ethical decline of a world fighting between capitalism and communism (and all the other social and political ideologies)?

Sure, with the right people, a generation or two may pass with a new perspective, but hasn’t history taught us that when large groups of people assemble together, governments form, laws are passed, and criminals, dictators and power mongers are born? What is it that a new place would offer? Perhaps, even if Robinson says he thinks we should terraform, we can learn from Red Mars that the grass isn’t always greener (on another planet). Part of the human struggle is battling through opposition that will unfailingly exist no matter where we choose to land. Red Mars shows that humanity, in all its attempts to improve is, after all, still humanity. And in that one very sure thing, nothing will ever change.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Week 11: Red Mars

I start by saying that Red Mars has been, by far, the most interesting and engaging read of the semester for me, primarily because I have a sort of weakness, I guess you could say, with imagination. I must find myself grounded in “the real” or “the possible.” Red Mars, in many ways, has made me engage in a very real set of political and hierarchical value systems that the other science fiction books have not been able to do. Plus, the characters seem tangible and realistic, which I feel should be at the heart of any well-written story. If an author can’t emotionally connect the reader to the characters, something very, very important is lost.

What I would like to discuss in this post is historical reverence—and perhaps arrogance—to the historicity of America’s hierarchical value system. As is the case with most organizations, unique respect and attention is given to the “firsts.” In America, we reverence people like Cristoforo Colombo, our revered explorer; the pilgrims who founded the first colonies; and the Forefathers who established the Constitution. Red Mars similarly establishes the lives of the first 100, who are shown in what is a future history of the colonization of Mars, those to later be recognized as the pilgrims of a new planet. Red Mars, however, functionally demonstrates and exploits character flaws within these first 100, flaws that are shaped by political history, language, and personality. While in recent years, perhaps, the character blemishes of persons Americans have worshipped now for over two centuries—like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus—have come forth (about the way they treated slaves, their sex lives, and their political pitfalls), ignorance is preferred. When we make statements like “that’s unconstitutional!” we are falling into the hierarchical bandwagon that assumes a document created 230 years ago meets our current needs. The reverence we place on people and documents tends to be founded in a modern arrogance of the accomplishments of these historical persons. I believe Red Mars is able to effectively show the arrogance that is built from historical people and traditions. America, especially, is shown as the arrogant nation—one that has grown to see itself as the world leader, the archetype for all to adhere to. English is shown as the language used to “accommodate the Americans,” purportedly because Americans are unwilling to learn other languages. American characteristics are said to be “big, loud, maniacally energetic, confident, and restless.” In other words, bombastic. But, America is also presented as a country of sheep, followers who blindly—and egocentrically—follow the traditions of what has worked in the past. Even, for example, the “Puritan streak in Americans, that sense that sex was wrong and something that men had to trick women into.” Red Mars shows, I believe, an incredible perspective into the way which our future histories are written by the pilgrims of today.

The question is then, of course, raised: who are the pilgrims, the metaphorical colonizers of today? Who is it that Americans will be calling the “first 100” 100 years from now? Certainly, the forefathers fall into that description, but I’m talking about modern political, economic, and social figures—people like Obama—that are perhaps, in their own way, shaping the way we will perceive the shaping of a country, a people, and a planet that people will revere years down the road. What are their flaws and what will they lead us into? What have people like Henry Ford done, after all, in this past century and what might be different if they were shaped by different “first 100s” of their time?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Week 10: A Door Into Ocean

A Door into Ocean is a book about culture and, more specifically, the dichotomies that divide cultures from one another. On the flip side, it is about finding the bridge between the dichotomies to mold cultures together. More so than any of the feminist books we have read so far, I felt that Ocean was really about understanding and coming to terms with perhaps traditionally polarizing traits—rather than, like so many others, showing primarily the differences. On Slonczewski’s (how do you pronounce that name, by way!?) website (, she gives a chart of the book’s polarities as described between the Sharer and Valan worlds—male-female, organic-inorganic, natural science-physical science, healthy-sick, weak-strong, and finally, subject-object. One that she strangely fails to mention, and it is one that I tend to always pick up on (apparently I have a fetish with it) is the capitalism-sharing polarity. And I do see this as a polarity. Early in the book, Spinel is pressured into finding a sponsor. His mother, mistakingly thinking that he is about to announce his new sponsor (when he is, in reality, about to announce leaving for the Ocean Moon) asks him if he is going to a gem manufacturing firm—apparently a desirable occupation. Much like in the world of capitalism, the pressure to obtain recognition, sponsors, and “stonesigns” seems to forget to recognize the human desire to also be altruistic. The sharers, however, live by a system—and through a language—that doesn’t comprehend outdoing someone else for gain, power, or money. Interestingly, it is their language—this subject object phenomenon where both object and subject “share” the same action—that bridges the polarities back together. The idea of such a small language difference that completely alters the way a society views itself and others makes for very important multicultural communication barriers and other considerations.

Slonzcewski convincingly argues for a consideration of what the breakdown of such a language barrier might mean. Again on her website, she notes that

profound insights…may be reached when one dissolves the subject-object distinction. For example, when an unborn child exists within a mother, "the mother exists within the child." This is literally true; much of the mother’s substance forms the substance of the child, and this understanding is fundamental to prenatal medicine. Women who smoke or consume unhealthy substances fail to appreciate this phenomenon.

Such a small, yet profound perspective, can make a considerable difference in the way humans act with each other and with nature. A Door into Ocean really is all about this—breaking down a traditional mindset of subject and object that has for long controlled the way in which human “nature” is constructed. Perhaps something as small as a change in language could alter the way in which we view power, government, and economic systems. It makes me wonder: if the subject-object relation is so polarizing and in effect so detrimental, what might the subject-predicate relationship alter if changed?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Week 8: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Wikipedia generously gave me this quote from Tiptree: “A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” I’m trying to figure this author out. Yes, she had a PhD. Yes, she was in the military. But what makes her think she was the first in these occupations, and why use the word “damned”?

Honestly, her stories were hard for me to stomach. There are authors/writers who are offensive, but they make a good point, a thought-provoking catalyst into a much needed discussion. Then, there seems to be a post-modern approach to being offensive just for the sake of being offensive—a shock-and-awe sort of phenomenon that I have come to loathe. These kinds of artists make a stir, gather a crowd, and raise questions within the field—these are people like Damien Hirst. But there is a third category: offensive because you are sedistic or perhaps unstable. It seems as though Tiptree falls into this category.

This post isn’t a good literature analysis. Tiptree hasn’t put me in that kind of mood. She has made my stomach churn. My questions this week are about an author’s ability to make such hostile arguments and sound legit. How is her making cruel stabs at masculenity, claiming them to be natural rapists and violent animals, any different than racistly generalizing an entire minority and claiming them to be seditious, sex-driven maniacs? Her biggest offense, other than being blatantly graphic, of course, is that she pretends women (all of them) are naturally the opposite—good, wholesome, pure—and that men (all of them) at the root have evil brooding to emerge and explode. She offers no apologies and no rebuttal to this argument, at least not in “Houston.” Perhaps God, though, is used as a scapegoat. I don’t expect everyone to be religious, but her agnoticism (perhaps even making a joke of God) in “Houston” and her it’s-God’s-fault scapegoat argument in “Screwfly” don’t do much for me either. They are weak, unsettling, and superficial finger-pointing statements. All men are evil, raping, killing machines—must be no God. All men are evil, raping, killing machines—uh, God did it, his fault. Seriously?

Perhaps the exclamation to Tiptree’s offensiveness is that she feels impelled to use a pseudonym under which to hide her character. I understand the difficulty women had of being recognized and appreciated in the early ‘70s. I do. And I can see why many felt the need to label their writing under a man’s name to get attention, to be published and read. But if you’re going to be this offensive, then stand up and take the criticism. But the fact is, for stories like “Houston” and “Screwfly,” she had no argument. At least not in her stories. So what I am hoping here is that some light will be shed about her life in the presentation in class. I can only, in the kindness of my heart, give her the benefit of the doubt that her anger has grown from a seed of unfortunate abuse in her life. She obviously has a serious, deep-rooted and vindictive bone to pick with men and I can only assume that she has lost her trust through abusive childhood and marital relationships. What else would cause such sickening writing to be spilt?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Week 7: Woman on the Edge of Time

Woman on the Edge of Time is a blunt and brutal attempt to reflect and foreshadow humankind’s—particularly America’s—ailing social condition. Utopian science fiction often does this sort of thing, but (and I say this with my very limited experience reading science fiction) few so blatantly evoke a sentiment of such fierce anger towards a degenerating society. The culprits blamed are many: sexism, racism, environmental ignorance, capitalism, even the family unit. Separating this book from similar utopian science fiction novels, however, Piercy argues for violent insurgence to invoke a shift in societal change. Her protagonist, Connie Ramos, is a complicated and sometimes awkward—though effectively intriguing—central figure to the novel that many (myself included) would have a hard time cheering for. The perplexing nature of her psyche and the ambiguousness of her mental stability make the reader even question if this is a science fiction novel at all, or simply a psychological thriller grounded in social insurrection.

This novel demonstrates a clear beef that Piercy has for social subjugation, a fury for oppression that not-so-subtly pervades every shadow of American culture. Through Connie, and the representatively gay figure Luciente, Piercy unashamedly argues that a white-dominated, sexually focused, patriarchal capitalism has spun us into a tailspin that will inevitably produce nothing but social ruin and that currently engenders a loss of humanism and respect for the human being. Social class systems where race divides the poor from the rich, the healthy from the sick, the educated from the ignorant are unacceptable. Oppression is observed under patriarchy where women and gays are marginalized and under capitalism where the socially weak acquiesce to those in greater position. One of the most persistent attacks Piercy makes on society’s course is that of familial relationships. A dichotomy is introduced that polarizes the family into two extremes: on the one hand, families run by men in patriarchal units lead to broken homes, abuse, female submissiveness, heartache, and bitter mental turmoil. On the other, families raised in non-traditional, sexually-equal parenting situations offers what appears to be superficial love but structured and nonetheless happy. Piercy seems to suggest here that the oppression that marginalized communities experience is in part routed in the idea that the family unit—the nuclear family structure—is unnatural an ineffective. Or, even if it is natural, isn’t justified.

While her arguments are interesting and Women on the Edge of Time is a compelling and engaging fiction, it still is very much a fiction. Admittedly coming from a conservative, religious, and “practical” perspective, I confess that I find her arguments less persuasive than a mere rant. And I have had this issue with all the stories we have read so far. Piercy has an incredible ability to show the oppressive nature of the human being through Connie’s struggle with Geraldo, Dolly, Angelina, the various mental institutions, and her relationship with Luciente. The arguments here are powerful, engaging, and real. But I am left to wonder about the overtly socialist, feminist, environmentalist, and “anti”-racists perspectives of her alternate futures. Like much of the problems I find myself having with science fiction, I ask myself again here: why make it a fiction? At least, why make it unrealistic? If the issues are as she says they are and there is, in fact, something we can do about it, why not keep us on the ground, talking about the issues, rather than floating around in time and space? This is where she loses me and where I begin to lose faith in her tirade.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Week 6: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed is in so many ways a fascinating novel of the complexities of human interests, desires, passions, and relationships. While many science fiction novels are able to pinpoint and effectively critique mechanisms of modern societies, this is the first we have read this semester, I believe, that effectively portrays the myriad dichotomous relationships that define who we have become (and are becoming). While there is so much that could be said of this book—including discussions about religion, anarchy, capitalism (once again), feminism, and so forth—the separation of societies is something I would like to touch on. The Dispossessed shows the awkward separation of two societies that have for so long chosen not to associate much with each other. Within these two societies, though, exist other dialectical associations—relationships between men and women, between countries (A-Io and Thu), and between children and parents. Such relationships often show a disconnect between the way we choose to interact. Motivation is an interesting concept here as we see anything from animalistic sex drive to politics to consumerism as a source of desire that drives the human will. What is it, though, that forces us to make separations from each other? Why, since the beginning of man, must there always be a power struggle—an opposite to which organizations must compare themselves?

I see this phenomenon happening in nearly every aspect of our lives. Where there is a sports team, there is almost always a heated rival between another team. In the military, we see ideological schisms between the Army and Navy. Countries typically have a number one foe on their hit list. Religions find their counterparts and pursue heated and even violent debates. The Dispossessed shows the estrangement between two very different societies—Annares and Urras—where the latter exiled the former to a desolate land. I couldn’t help but make the association between the early American settlers and the American Indians. Mankind has a unique trait that searches for a reason to dominate, to control. Such is also represented with the men over the women in Urras. This book effectively shows these relationships and their complex and recurring-ness in daily human life. One very important reason for this, as LeGuin shows early on in the book, is a difference in language.

As one who studies communication, the separation of ideologies because of language is interesting. Shevek and his planet (moon) struggle with the notion of ownership in great part because their language doesn’t allow for it. Instead of saying “you can borrow my shirt,” Anarresti are forced to say “you can use the shirt I wear,” effectively removing ownership from the sentence. This very subtle difference in language mechanics can shift an entire ideology. Thus, is it fair to say that language shapes us rather than the way around? Certainly. The way we think and react is contingent upon the way our language works. And there are so many things we can’t say simply because out language doesn’t allow for it. In the world how much of our struggles and our polarized relationships develop as a direct or indirect cause of our language?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Week 5: The Sheep Look Up

The Sheep Look Up addresses, like any good political novel, the daily idiosyncrasies that humanity—by virtue of ignorance, greed, and selfishness—apparently naturally succumb to. Idiosyncrasies, of course, that are leading us into an inevitable apocalypse. Sheep, different from the previous novels we have read, pays particular attention to environmental neglect, a prescient topic that rings surprisingly loud today, particularly as we engage in the discussion about global climate change.

But what is this discussion really about? Is it about mankind’s natural lack of concern for the environment? Doubtful, since many less technologically savvy cultures have been reliant on, and thus show much care for, the environment. It isn’t necessarily that we don’t care. Perhaps the discussion is of laziness. Is it humanity’s tendency to build what makes life easier—the wheel, the printing press, the computer—in order to be more efficient that simultaneously drives us to use a car to go even a block down the street or that makes us panic when we lose the television remote? The ambitious nature to produce effort-saving devices perhaps also makes us lose sight of their consequences. Or, is this discussion once again reverted to capitalism? Does the desire to produce for the Almighty Dollar make us selectively incoherent of damage that we cause?

Interestingly, the United States and the world seem to be fairly polarized on the issue of environmentalism. While on the one hand many countries are making their political voices heard about saving the planet, on the other, these same countries are boasting of industrial growth that seems to counter environmental progress. Perhaps perpetuating the problem, we see first world countries exploiting third world nations to acquire further profit in places where environmental laws fall low on the list of priorities.

It seems, though, that this has become a problem of ignorance as a result of avarice. In determination to build the biggest company, the strongest conglomeration, and even the most powerful country, over the last two centuries we have seen an almost entirely one-sided focus on strength through money. This has left humanity to forget about the source of the material from which they receive their profit. And when an issue is one that is felt not day to day or year to but generation to generation, it is easy to neglect the longterm consequences. But we are arriving at a tipping point—at least that is what Brunner and Al Gore and Rachel Carson would argue. But as they mention, humanity’s even more powerful to survive, its “obligation to endure” makes this question crucial to our current ideological discussion. Apocalypse may be a strong, pessimistic term, one that Brunner seems to ideologically thrive on. But then again, maybe it is the most appropriate. And seeing that environmentalist pursuits won’t likely be able to catch up with the global capitalism, only time will tell…

Monday, February 2, 2009

Week 4: Dr. Bloodmoney

Week 4: Dr. Bloodmoney

I just came across an article that reminded me of the MAD (mutual assured desctruction) declaration of the United States to its nuclear counterparts—you bomb us, we bomb the world and everybody dies. Whether or not this is in fact real I have yet to determine. But it has always raised in my mind many of the issues that Dick addresses in this book. What if? What then? How would we go on? What would we value? Dick mentions in his afterworld that Dr. Bloodmoney shows a prediction of an inverted society. Value becomes less about money and more about skill—yet commodities are certainly a driving factor in society. We are a bargaining species—we have an innate “what’s in it for me?” attitude. We want prescription medicine in exchange for eyeglasses. At least, without money, that is how we function, right? That is how we define ourselves. Well, that is how the book portrays it. As Enns notes that Freeman and Durham say: “If we are economically constituted as capitalists and wonder who must buy and sell human labor that is commodified in to labor-power, then we are physically constituted as paranoid subjects show must seek to interpret the signification of the objects—commodities—which, in a quasi-living manner, mystify the way that they and we are defined.”

But while I was very impressed with Dick’s ability to show human emotion, human thought and character, I had to wonder about this commodity exchange. My recent fascination with the attacks in literature on capitalism has made be question this sort of thing. What would we do? I think Hurricane Katrina taught us a great deal as we watched Americans—simultaneously labeled as survivors and looters—struggle to survive a catastrophe. Sure, many helped others. But the fight to survive was ultimate. And perhaps along with that, there was a desire to preserve the past. Many, even after being ordered to leave their homes would not. They could not give up their past.

When placed at the brink of extinction, where does instinct put the human race? As survivors? As salesmen? Powermongers? Is capitalism instinctual? Or is it more natural to acquiesce to dominant personalities, to succumb (or rise up to) monarchy and totalitarianism?

I think what Dick does particularly well in this book is show us that the character of the human soul is complex, intelligent, and mystical. It is uninterpretable, dialectical, and anti-instinctual. It is individualistic in nature but simultaneously reliant on social construction. And it is through this social construction that culture is developed and diverged, reliant on personalities and knowledge bases that exchange rationalities and justifications for their systems. As Jameson notes: “this [complexity of characters] is at one with our fragmented existence under capitalism; it dramatizes our simultaneous presence in the separate compartments of private and public worlds, our twin condemnation to both history and psychology in scandalous concurrence” (351).

What seems to be missing from Dr. Bloodmoney book, though, is something I’ve noticed missing in the other two science fiction stories—the concept of sorrow. There seems to be a “brushing over” of the idea of sadness. Yes, there were those in Brave New World who became sad, but they could get rid of it instantly with a quick shot of happy juice. And in Dr. Bloodmoney, Mrs. Dangerfield commits suicide. But these are moments that are only mentioned, never elaborated. Rather, a mood is set that humans learn to cope with loss and get over it. One man (his name now escapes me) has a daughter who is about to die—but you never really feel like he is sad. Why is it that these authors feel it possible to brush over such a vital part of being human? Grief, remorse, depression, sorrow, fear—without these at least prevalent, is it not hard to recognize their opposites? While Dick by far is much more apt at creating a realistic human emotion—much more so than the women of Herland and the Alphas, Betas, and Gammas of the World State—he is still voiding the human of an essential quality.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Week 3: Brave New World

So…space and place and the infinite think tank. Science fiction as a thought farm producing contradicting ideological…goods? Science fiction as a hegemonic knowledge distribution factory? What exactly is going on here, anyway? Huxley’s dystopia overtly condemns capitalism by using the World State as a mirror of the practice through ideology, consumption, and domination. Science fiction here, however, is simultaneously the milieu for thought consumption. Are we buying into it? What isn’t to buy, though? It makes clear and concrete critiques that are justifiable and valuable for the further production of discussion. But Huxley doesn’t appear completely opposed to capitalism. He is fascinated by it. He wonders what its limits are, where we will be able to push it. Perhaps that justifies using a capitalistic device to sell an idea. On the other hand, how else would he do it? Force-feed? Well, that’s the communist way—he seems equally intrigued with that as well. What we have here is an obvious contradiction of space, an imbrication of ideologies that present a clearly problematic place—a place that cannot become a utopia without a dystopia and vice versa. There is no perfect method—capitalism, Marxism, uptopianism, communism. Happiness and order are reliant on their opposites to sustain potential to exist. No ideology has the power to sustain them both all of the time. Thus, we can clearly agree with Lefebvre when talks of thinkers like Huxley:

“Some over-systemic thinkers oscillate between loud denunciations of capitalism and the bourgeoisie and their repressive institutions on the one hand, and fascination and unrestrained admiration on the other. They make society in the ‘object’ of a systematization which must be ‘closed’ to be complete; they thus bestow a cohesiveness it utterly lacks upon a totality which is in face decidedly open—so open, indeed, that is must rely on violence to endure. The position of these systematizers is in any case self-contradictory: even if their claims had some validity they would be reduced to nonsense by the fact that the terms and concepts used to define the system must necessarily be mere tools of that system itself” (11).

Can the thought-production necessarily be done—through any venue, be it science fiction, fantasy, poetry, art, or any other—of creating a utopia without becoming self-contradicting and reductionist, removing the innermost qualities of the human being? Can it be done without separating capitalism from Marxism?

Sometimes it amazes me how much the same discussion can swirl around for decades—even centuries—about the foibles of humanity and how we find ways to destroy our self worth. The dystopia presented in Brave New World offers many of these same complaints, particularly aimed at a critique of consumerism—capitalism in general, exploitation of consumer goods, the commodification of sex, the reductivist attitude of religion, a desire for power, and a yearning for cultural stability. Such a world as the World State, as presented by Huxley, does what similar books have done (like 1984 and Lord of the Flies), creating a world that superficially seems so different than our own but yet mirrors many of our innermost human appetites and shortcomings. Perhaps this method of critique finds a way to horrify us more than an expository article would because we slowly come to recognize our world within the framework of the dystopia—a frightening disillusioned world that seems absolutely repulsive yet eerily so similar to the one that we are familiar with.

What particularly sticks out to me, though, about this discussion is that capitalism seems to take quite a beating over and over again. Many former elitist thinkers and even contemporary academics appear to have a penchant for Marxism and a disdain for anything capital. While I read Brave New World, I couldn’t get past this thought—that characters like Bernard (with not-so-subtle last names) are introduced to break the cycle of a mindless consumer society, arguing that capitalism sucks the life right out of us and we need something to shake that up. Huxley seems to make his overall argument that capitalism offers no purpose in life, no big picture, other than the consumption of goods (which, apparently, includes orgies and animalistic sexual desires). Of course, Brave New World criticizes many other aspects of human nature, but why this topic? And why so frequent? Perhaps the argument wasn’t so common when Huxley wrote this (although I know it was quite a spinning debate, particularly during the 1930s) as it is today, but the theme is an onslaught nowadays. When will we get a dystopia that presents capitalism as the redeeming hero? I’m waiting for that story…

This holds true with the reading for this week by Lefebvre, who himself was a Neo-Marxist, and once member of the French Communist party. It isn’t that I don’t understand the importance of discussing the issue. Indeed, there is much to be critiqued with capitalism and great potential with Marxist thinking. But why so one-sided? Why so feverishly adamant that consumerism is killing our ability to be human? The arguments can be clearly made—even while looking at worlds like the World State or even Herland—that such controlled societies are even more damaging. Yet academia and “high society thinking” typically tend to head that direction. I’ve yet to see a good well-balanced argument.

Excuse my ignorance. And, excuse the lack of insight here into Brave New World. Much more wonderful things can be said of this book which I’m sure we’ll touch on in class.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Week 2 - Herland and the Female Utopia

I don’t mean to overtly, unabashedly slander the work of Gilman, though my thoughts may occasionally reflect that sentimentality. The pessimism, negativity, and somewhat passively caustic insults that Gilman tries to pass as logical arguments against American society have, I guess you could say, rubbed me a bit the wrong way. In subtle, perhaps even accidental retort, I may come off as ignorant, and unjustified in my attempt to discuss what we can learn from Herland. But let me clarify. Please.

It isn’t that I resent the idea of positing a female utopia to exploit and divulge the faults of our male-dominated society. Indeed, much can and should be learned about where we have gone wrong and a fictive “Herland” is an appropriate avenue to pursue such a persuasive argument. I think what bothers me is in part the seemingly automatic acquiescence of the narrator (a man) to their ways of thinking. Gilman organizes the story such that repeatedly ideological comparisons are made between the two societies (often through exchanges between Van and Ellandor or his tutors); the women present a “better” ideal; and the men concede that they were wrong and the women are right. Of course, Gilman uses Terry to provide the counterargument, but Van or Jeff are always there to offer a submissive rebuttal that the reader is expected to accept. This wouldn’t be entirely problematic if there appeared to be an equal exchange of acceptance and rejection between the men and the women. But as the book continues, it becomes clear that Gilman views about 98% of American society as problematic—the way we control population, the clothes we wear, the emotions we express, our educational system, even the trees we “allow” to grow—and somewhat humorously is narcissistic enough to reduce the root of the problem to men. Gilman says (through her narrator Van):

As I learned more and more to appreciate what the women had accomplished, the
less proud I was of what we, with all our manhood, had done. You see, they had
had no wars. They had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were
sisters, and as they grew, they grew together—not by competition, but by united
action. (61)

The sentimentality of women being perfect without men to “taint” their inner potential is the theme throughout the book. And while I realize Gilman probably didn’t actually envisage a perfect world where no men exist, it’s hard to read this book without thinking she does and constantly approaching her reductionist arguments with a “yeah right.” Her contradictions (such as the fact that the women never cry or never fear but have temples where they can be given comfort—pgs 104, 111) are also annoying.

What this book does do for me, though, is make me consider how to logically construct a utopian society. Arnold’s article on cognitive mapping makes an important claim in regards to creating a utopia: “Not only must the current world be mapped, the social landscape surveyed, but also the desired land must be explored and presented” (300). What she fails to mention here, though, is that while both worlds are being explored and presented, the utopia must build off of the current world, not simply dismantle and destroy it. Gilman does this very thing, dismantling our current world and destroying the very essences of what make us human—fear, anger, jealousy, pride, loyalty, obedience, courage, determination. In my mind, a truly ecofeminist utopian construction (as explained in Goldsmith’s article) must go beyond simply eradicating patriarchy to employ a matriarchic “unity of ideas and action in a democratic and cooperative community” (22) and implement a convergence of the two cultures where trust and understanding exist based on these human qualities. Eradicating human qualities such as fear and sorrow simultaneously eradicate joy and triumph, thus ultimately reducing the society, as Terry exclaims, to insects. No matter the arguments she made to try and justify it, I just couldn’t get past that idea. Emotionless societies cannot be utopias but I think that’s where Herland leaves the reader believing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Course Expectations

I'll be honest. Science fiction has never been my "thing." I guess you could say it probably dates back to my disdain for Star Wars and the princess' earmuff hairdo. I have a sort of typecast, stereotypical perception of science fiction that is difficult for me to break away from: little green men, cyborgs, the destruction of Earth.

So for an expectation, let's just say I first and foremost hope to break myself of this negative perception. That, of course, is a personal objective, although the influence of those in the class--including Dr. Sparks--will help. I am quite open minded, so I don't see this being an issue.

Perhaps more than allowing me to "broaden" my perspective, though, I have a keen interest in developing a deeper understanding of technology and its influence on humanity. This has been an interest of mine for a while, though I have approached the answers in a much more "practical" manner than through the lens of science fiction. I hope to take the discussions from fantastic to practical, applying epistemological, heuristic connections to the narratives in order to engage in something more closely related to my areas of interest--professional communication, multimedia heuristics, instructional technology, and information design.

I look forward to the course. Let the intergalactic mind benders begin!