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!