Hard not to think of Ignatius Donnelly when reading yet another account of the 1 percent society: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/02/i-crashed-a-wall-street-secret-society.html.
Donnelly wrote that “there are but two great classes in the world, those who create wealth and those who appropriate it” (54n2, journal entry of 17 Dec 1888; in Fish, Donnelliana 2.51). This is in keeping with his description of “the two great divisions of society,” which cannot be mended because of the selfishness of the rich: “the events which preceded the great war against the aristocracy in 1640, in England [and 1789 in France, and the Civil War in the United States] all show how impossible it is, by any process of reasoning, to induce a privileged class to peacefully yield up a single tittle of its advantages. There is no bigotry so blind or intense as that of caste; and long established wrongs are only to be rooted out by fire and sword” (54).
At this point in the novel, Gabriel Welstein, the narrator, is trying still to convince the Brotherhood of Destruction not to unleash revolution against the oligarchy, but he holds out little hope: “If I believed that this wonderful Brotherhood was capable of anything beyond destruction, I should not look with such terror as I upon the prospect. But after destruction there must come construction—the erection of law and civilization upon the ruins of the present order of things. Who can believe that these poor brutalized men will be capable, armed to the teeth with deadly weapons, and full of passions, hates and revenges, to recreate the slaughtered society? In civilized life the many must work; and who among these liberated slaves will be ready to lay down their weapons and take up their tasks?” (56). Donnelly then brings to mind the revolution in Haiti, where food is naturally abundant on the tropical island, and compares it to the necessity of hard labor to bring enough food from the soil in the “temperate regions of America and Europe” with “vast populations,” thus using an historical example to counter what he implicitly sees as the naivete of Griffith and Bellamy and their utopian kindred.
Today I am thinking about adaptation. I am teaching this winter George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first book in his series A Song of Ice and Fire. The students first read essays by Le Guin, Moorcock, Tolkien, and some others. I also have some additional background readings and links for them to follow and pointers for secondary materials. They read as well a short story by Le Guin that takes place in her Earthsea milieu, and a short story by Moorcock that is about Elric and the time he met Moonglum. (Aside: they loved the Le Guin essay and story and hated the Moorcock essay and story. The essay they hated because he attacked Tolkien and other Sacred Authors beloved of the Tribe Fantastic; the story they hated because they hated the essay. Some of their criticisms were, no doubt, valid, but they were also quite emotionally loaded.) After those initial readings, we went quickly through A Game of Thrones. Surprisingly, there was little emotional response to Eddard Stark’s death, and almost no condemnation of Sansa’s craven behavior or of Joffrey’s cruelty and insanity. In fact, many of them were almost eager to blame Ed for his own death because of what they saw as his naivete. There was little enough swooning over Jon during the reading of the novel.
So much of our time is spent administering. Writing letters and emails. Filing things. A person in my station a century or so ago would have had a personal secretary in many cases. Think of that. Also probably a cook and a maid and perhaps a butler or driver. And my wife would not have been as likely to work, although by 1913, it would have been possible, particularly if she were a writer. And someone could actually make a living as a writer then. Our lives have gotten so complex and so dominated by management concepts: we manage our time and productivity–how I hate that word–and we, if we are so inclined as I am, track our data. That what we eat and the how much and how much exercise, how many sets and reps. And we still are fat and tired. More tired, I am sure, than people who lived before television and computers, who read and ate and drank and read some more and then went to sleep. Which would have been a minority, because the poor and the destitute lived then much as they do now, hand to mouth, job to job, and without a great deal of time for leisure. How is it that in the century, almost a century-and-a-quarter since the nineteenth century we have managed to come exactly no further in the evolution of human society toward something more humane? Read the rest of this entry »
Here are some visualizations of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, the third in the Three Californias trilogy imagining different futures for Orange County, CA. First: a static timeline:
And, a link to an interactive, web-enabled version. Haven’t figured out how to embed it.
A Quicktime fly-through in 3-D, which you speed up or slow down to your heart’s content.
I’ve been online since 1985, when I first sent messages from the wire service bureau to headquarters in Washington, D.C., and used a terminal to write with. I bought my first CompuServe as soon as I knew what it was. I’ve been teaching in networked classrooms since 1990, first with Daedalus Interchange, and then with a variety of other products: Norton Textra Connect, Commonspace, Storyspace, MOOs of various stripes that have passed into the and writing or or whatever. You can see what I thought of some them here. I’ve taught and worked with Blackboard, D2L, and other CMS or platforms, and even rolled my own with a MOO that my university let me run for a while.that year, too, and was on
Lately, I’ve scaled back some of what I used to do–less email with students, for instance. More discussion boards, which I am very careful to let student voices dominate. Next semester I’ll be using Twitter in my classroom for the first time, following up on some very intriguing reports about Twitter for teaching, including this one. I will continue using timelines and unstructured research projects to get students engaged with history–it is very, very hard to read and understand utopian literature without understanding the historical conditions that prompt a dream of the alternative.
Why do we imagine the alternative?
There must be thousands of reasons. People might be naturally dissatisfied–there might be a biological basis for our Blochian desires. This makes some sense. If we are programmed to resist stasis we are programmed to evolve or to at least force ourselves into productive stimulation. This would the sort-of-Darwinian model of social change, arguing that we dream because it helps propagate and improve the species.
We might, too, simply wish to be in charge. For every vision of the alternative requires the seer to be also the creator of the change, and thus in charge of it. This drive is stronger in those who wish to actually be in charge: the bossy among us, we might say. But even amongst the meek, to imagine an alternative is to imagine shaping that alternative, not just have it happen, and that is an assertion of will.
I rather like the biological imperative idea. That change and shift is like sand in an oyster, forcing a pearl into being. That is too pretty an image for what really happens in the world. It is more like we are all driven to question and alter things just to see what an alternative would look like. This is the root cause of political behavior; something in us gets up in the morning and must do, must act. That acting is integral to human behavior. We don’t just want to have survived the night. We want the day to bring something different.
That is true even for what we might think of resistance to change. If human society–if human beings–is endlessly variable and always changing, shifting, moving, growing, shrinking, then the conservative desire for fixity is just another desire for change. It is a desire to stop movement and settle in a particular configuration. And it is just as coercive as any other mass effort.
This is important to understand. The conservative impulse is to slow or stop change. It is to fix society in a particular mode, one which requires the eradication or denial of many aspects of human life. In contemporary American life it requires a complete acceptance of an imaginary narrative centered on a particularly ethnocentric, religious set of beliefs that are demonstrably false. But conservatism itself does not have to be of the evangelical Christian variety we see in this country and time today. It only has to be a desire composed of nostalgia and other emotional responses to alterations in the present condition, a desire to return to something which has never been fully present in the real world.
Change is a fact. We age. We grow. At the cellular level, we are in a ferment of activity all the time. Even breathing, that act central to life, is a process of change: air taken is altered by the body and then expelled. Everything is change. There is no fixity. It is a hoary maxim that we never step into the same river twice.
But there is a qualitative difference between acknowledging the dynamism inherent to life and desiring to influence change. We can understand that the planets are in motion along with the rest of the universe, even if we do not perceive that motion for the most part. We can accept that life has a beginning and an end, and that in between living things are constantly altering. We can accept that time is marked by change.
But to imagine an alternative is to participate in, to alter, the natural process of change. It is to assert the will.
The drive to imagine alternatives might be to resist the natural laws of change: conservative is a process of change but its impulse is toward fixity. Revolution is the opposite, perhaps, a desire to create change for change’s sake. Any political philosophy is inherently an argument for change. Invariably such changes are presented as desirable improvements in the conditions in which humans live, and thus as part of the evolution of the species as social beings. Sometime such arguments are self-serving: the fascist dictator whose political philosophy ultimately serves the fascist dictator surely knows that most will live under grueling conditions if that set of conditions are to become real. Sometimes such arguments depend on other forms of mass- or self-delusion. But at their hearts, all such ideas and efforts are part of the dynamism of human culture.
I think I am arguing myself into a kind of evolutionary psychology position with which I am not entirely comfortable.
http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/simple-scheme-for-self-assembling-robots-1004.html makes me think of only about a million SF stories, pre-Singularity tales of robots with autonomy.
In this case, there is an alienness to the robots, too: the story says the shapes are random, but couldn’t it just be that we don’t see the pattern, or can’t?