Friday, October 30, 2009

A Hard SF Version of The Female Man?

The October 2009 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction features an article of Aqueductian interest by Shery Vint, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Scientists? Gender and Genetics in Gwyneth Jones's Life." The title, as many people will probably guess, is inspired by Linda Nochlin's 1971 essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" As Vint notes:

Ramone, a character in Gwyneth Jones's 2004 novel Life, makes a similar point about the talented women in history: what "these women had in common was the same as any women struggling to have power in a man's world. The eating disorders, the mysterious illnesses, the hysteria. If you were Albert Einstein and born female in the fifteenth century, you'd end up in some convent fasting yourself crazy, writing liturgical music, or reforming the Carmelites."

Life demonstrates the degree to which our institutions and education continue to shape women's and men's lives in distinct ways, focusing on the world of professional science.

Vint suggests that--
In many ways, the novel seems to be in a dialogue with a classic feminist text of gender identity, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, a work that explores the consequences of social institutions on female subjectivity in patriarchal society.

--and explores that dialogue, concluding

In some ways, Life seems to be a hard sf version of The Female Man, though its depiction of the continued psychological and material problems of institutionalized sexism gives us cause for lament instead of rejoicing. But we might more optimistically see Life as part of what Geoff Ryman has characterized as the mundane sf movement. Mundane sf begins from the premises [sic] that interstellar travel and communication with other species and alternative worlds are all unlikely for a variety of reasons, and that an investment in such fantasies can encourage a wasteful attitude toward Earth; it calls for sf to consider likely futures and to apply its speculations about technology and alternative humanities to possible futures materialized here on Earth. Jones's focus is on not only a possible genetic shift in gender identity but further on the politics of dominance and resource allocation that must be differently configured if feminization of the disencranchised is no longer the ideological axiom.


The NYRSF doesn't put its stuff on line, so if you're dying to read this, you'll need to buy a copy of it (for $4) from Dragon Press, P.O. Box 78, Pleasantville, NY 10570.

Missing Invisibles?

I'm in San Jose this weekend, for the World Fantasy Convention. The last time I attended a WFC, it was in Tempe and Gwyenth Jones was a Guest of Honor and Gwyneth, Eileen Gunn, and I had just spent ten days on tour together promoting Life, Stable Strategies and Others, and Love's Body, Dancing in Time. That was five years ago; it seems almost another time.

Just before I left home yesterday morning I saw Adrienne Martini's post over at the Locus Roundtable: Where Are the WOACAs? WOACAs is shorthand for Women of a Certain Age, which is an expression used to refer to women past childbearing age who are "not yet crones." (Which for me raises another issue: when do women become "crones"? When does a woman cease being "middle-aged" and become, simply, "old"? What is the magic year of doom?) But here's what she says in her post:

A recent Making Light post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden about her invisibility at Home Depot got me to thinking about women of a certain age,* one of which I am rapidly becoming. Not only are we difficult for Home Depot employees to see, we also seem to be largely invisible in science fiction as well. ** In fact, I'm not sure I can think of more than a half-dozen. And even a couple of those are fraught, like Maureen in To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

But what's more interesting to me is that the WOACAs who do show up, don't get to do all that much. I can list quite a few men in the same age range who are the SF story's main actor. But women like Bujold's Cordelia don't get to do all that much once they are done with having their young. Is it that they stop being interesting after that point?

I feel as if I'm missing quite a few of these characters, however. Who would be on your list? And what part in the story does she play?

I think she's missing quite a few, too. The first one to occur to me is Vandana Singh's eponymous "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet." I invite you all to help make a list to bring some of these characters a bit more visibility.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Notes from the Seattle Anarchist Bookfair, Oct 17-18

by Kristin
Aggressor Accountability
Panel Description
Aggressor Accountability is a group dedicated to survivor defined support after an assault or abusive behavior takes place. Our workshop demonstrates the ways in which communities and specific community members can hold aggressor’s accountable and challenge them to grow while simultaneously supportively responding to survivors. It runs at about an hour or so.

Presentation
· Discussion of pronouns – he, she, they – and which pronouns people prefer to use
· Acknowledgment of complexity of gender, trans folks, male-assigned people, female-assigned people
· Who the group is, why they were formed – formed in response to a situation in another community. Very new organization, can’t share case stories yet
· Use of terms “survivor” and “aggressor”
· Sexual violence as a power thing
· Role of community in addressing sexual violence. Very powerful group activity: Handed out cards for people to read. Mock situation where someone had been sexually attacked, and the things often said by intimate partner, police officer, parent, friend, bystander. First time around, it was clear how often the community makes it worse for the survivor. Second time around, it was clear how a community could be supportive.
· Also some role-playing of ways the community can communicate with the aggressor in the most effective way
· Discussion of where a survivor turns. Sometimes police, most often a close friend. That’s why a community-based response is needed.
· Discussion of times police involvement may make the situation worse, such as with queer/trans folks.
· Discussion of accountability process and survivor’s role in it.
· Acknowledgment that each situation is different and needs to be handled differently – no “one size fits all” procedure
· Discussion of how the whole community is affected by an act of violence.
· Discussion of violence in intimate partner relationship, cycle of anger. Look at who has more power, who has less. It may change.
· Question about “what about the really violent people.” Answer: this is a toolkit, but not a solution for everything. Who knows what solutions may become available.

Transformative Justice
For Crying Out Loud, Common Action, and others

Panel Description:
Transformative Justice is a radical strategy of response to conflict, a revolutionary alternative to the on-going violence and oppression of the State’s criminal justice system.

As an analysis, it takes seriously conflict’s place within systems of oppression. As a practice, it strives to put justice in the hands of the communities directly involved.

A panel featuring members of For Crying Out Loud, Common Action, and others, will discuss their perspectives on Transformative Justice, how it differs from other forms of justice, their groups’ successes and difficulties in applying it, and its relevance to anarchists. The panel will then be opened to Q & A and general discussion.

For Crying Out Loud is a group dedicated to preventing, addressing, and talking about sexual assault and perpetrator accountability in an anti-authoritarian setting. For a lot more info go to: http://forcryingoutloud206.wordpress.com

Common Action is a regional anarchist organization in the Northwest United States with members representing the cities of Seattle, Bremerton, Tacoma, and Olympia. Check out http://www.nwcommonaction.org for more info.”

Presentation and Discussion

· Touched on ideas from aggressor accountability panel.
· Discussion of terms “survivor” and “aggressor,” and how we are all survivors and aggressors at one time or another.
· Each situation is very different and needs to be handled differently.
· An accountability process that Common Action is going through right now. A situation came up before Common Action had any experience or plans for an accountability process. Common Action developed an accountability process mostly from reading texts from Gen5 and others.
· Common Action member pointed out that in every activist community he’s worked with, some kind of situation has come up and divided the community. Even if we don’t divide the community ourselves, it is a point of vulnerability where someone could come and intentionally do it.
· Work on accountability is not something that distracts us from our real work, it is our real work.
· An accountability process as an act of love for the aggressor. Sticking with it shows we care.
· How to make sure an accountability process follows a person from one group or city to another.
· Common Action wants to share their work on accountability with other activist groups.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A few thoughts on representing history in fiction, part 2

At the end of the first part of this post, I questioned the idea that authors have an ethical obligation to write to the naivest readers. Anent audience naivete, historian Natalize Zemon Davis, discussing historical films, declares,
The passive spectator, naively accepting what comes off the movie screen, has disappeared from film theory, and should also disappear from historical criticism of films. Spectators may delight in a historical film, be interested in it or repelled by it; they may replay parts of it in their minds and visualize Raymond Massey when they hear the name Abraham Lincoln, or Anthony Hopkins when they hear that of John Quicny Adams. But they do not believe automatically what they see in a historical film: rather, they ask about it, argue about, and write letters of protest about it.

It's rare that I don't have bones to pick with either prose fiction or films set in times and places I know something about. I've been hesitant, though, to make judgments about the quality of such works merely on that basis, out of concern that doing so is likely missing the point. And so I found Natalie Zemon Davis's discussion of the matter in her Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision particularly welcome.

What is film's potential for telling about the past in a meaningful and accurate way? We can assess it under the same headings used for poetry and history: the subject matter or plot; the techniques for narration and representation; and the truth status of the finished product....Feature films are often described as creatures of invention, without significant connection to the experienced world or the historical past. The term "fiction films" is often applied to them in cinema studies, highlighting a contrast between unconstrained imaginaiton in feature films and "truth" in nonfictional documentary. It is precisely this dichotomy that I want to question, not merely because there is a play of invention-- of "fictive" crafting-- in documentary film, docudrama, and cinema verite (as there is also in prose historical texts), but also because feature films can make cogent observations on historical events, relations, and processes.(4-5)
Davis notes that unlike historical writing, film as a medium for presenting history is only a century old and is "only beginning to find its way as a medium for history." She talks about the various modes in which the past is recounted in film; she places great emphasis on the immense significance of the techniques used in making the film:

The thousands of choices made can all make a difference to the historical narrative: the actors and their interpretation, the locations and sound; the film (black and white, color) and lighting; the ordering of time (flashbacks, jumps, slow motion, cutting form one event to another or presenting them simultaneously) and the ordering of space (close-up, bird's-eye shot, wide-angle, movement around a room, view of the same scene from different angles); and the framing devices, objects, and props. These choices all have an impact on what is being stressed or questioned in the film, on the different reactions of participants to what is happening, on explanations for why events have taken place, and on claims for the certainty or ambiguity of the historical account.(7)
She also notes that films are collective productions that depend on a myriad small decisions from many sources, such that no one person can control every aspect of the production. After reviewing historians' criteria for the historical narratives they write (which she neatly sums up in five points), she wonders whether the rules she's offered are "relevant to the historical quality and truth status of feature films." She then suggests that "historical film and historians' prose venture into different turfs in regard to claims of truth," and takes Carl Theodor Dreyer's Passion of Jeanne d'Arc as an example. This difference does not necessarily negate the interest for historians in historical films, for she proposes that "historical films can be a thought experiment about the past, involving many participants." (A bold idea that would have startled me had I not already read remarks she's made on the subject elsewhere.) She even goes so far as to say
As long as we bear in mind the differences between film and professional prose, we can take film seriously as a source of valuable and even innovative historical vision. We can then ask questions of historical films that are parallel to those we ask of historical books. Rather than being poachers on the historian's preserve, filmmakers can be artists for whom history matters.

That just blows me away. But then the Old Guard among her colleagues have grumbled about Davis since the publication of The Return of Martin Guerre (which she interestingly wrote after the production of the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre, to which she herself had contributed).

In the chapters that follow the introductory chapter of Slaves on Screen, Davis puts five films under the historian's microscope: Kubrick's Spartacus, Pontecorvo's Burn!, Gutierrez Alea's The Last Supper, Spielberg's Amistad, and Demme's Beloved. Interestingly, in her examination of their representation of history, she not only assesses the accuracy of their representations, but also whether their deviations from the historical record serve to illuminate a larger historical truth or enhances the film aesthetically. She singles out particular accomplishments of each film. In the case of Spartacus, she applauds its "outstanding" depiction of important social proccesses and critical experiences of the past." In the case of Burn!, she praises it as a "successful experiment in telling specific and general stories at the same time. Burn! not only suggests how events of the past are experienced by village groups or lived out in the personal rivalry of two men (the microhistorical potential of film) but also tries to give a general account of shifts in power and class and the rhythm of historical change (the iconic potential of the film)." Of the four films she examines, The Last Supper hews most closely to history, even to the most minute details of different types of grinding mills, residence habits of plantation owners, and so on, and is based on a well-documented incident that occurred on Maundy Thursday, 1789. "This underpinning," Davis writes, "is not only gratifying to the historian's sense of veracity but also engenders a concrete richness in the film. It creates a more believable and distinctive world for spectators. Beyond believable concreteness, The Last Supper brings multiplicity to the past in its representation of social types." The "historical strength" of Amistad, writes Davis, "is in its portrayal of the Africans, and most strikingly in its representation of the seizure of Cinque, the Middle Passage, and the revolt." As for Beloved, it "is a cultural and psycho-social exploration par excellence of the traumas of slavery and the struggle to resist it."

What Davis criticizes, however, are departures from "historical truth" that chiefly serve to make a bid for appeal to late-twentieth century audiences. Here is how she sums up "fictionalizing" through the ends of the historian's rules about evidence. Of Spartacus, she says that "some exciting historical possibilities were lost through indifference to evidence." But, as she notes, "true events" were "not a major concern" in the film. It is Amistad in particular that she focuses on here, "because its quality as a historical film is in some ways so very good and in others disappointing." Here are the questions she asks about it (that could be asked about any historical film):
Are the fictional elements in Amistad used to fill in the inevitable gaps in the historical record? Are they historically plausible, so they can effectively serve as "approximate truths" and "thought experiments"? Or do they override perfectly good historical evidence in a way that risks misleading?

Davis points out and objects to "inventions in the film that do not fill in gaps in the evidence or bring undervalued people and processes to the fore, but supplant clear evidence with an erroneous picture of antebellum politics and sensibility." These fabrications
come from a wish to make patterns of alliance and friendship in New England in 1839-40 resemble egalitarian hopes in late twentieth-century America. Wish fulfillment is a fine goal for certain genres of films (as for certain genres of writing), but it should not steer the imagination in a historical film....
. . . .
....Why should a film with serious, even passionate, intention behind it...go off track in this way? It is due, I think, to two habits of thought that we simply must shake. The first is too cavalier and attitude toward the evidence about lives and attitudes in the past.... The second is a bad habit of underestimating film audiences. To be moved, entertained, instructed, and engaged by a historical film, spectators do not need to have the past remade to seem exactly like the present.

To that I want to cry Amen! This at least partly about being able to perceive difference and respect it, wherever it is found.

To return to the issues raised in the first part of this post: I think what I object to most in historical fiction and in the many pastiches of Austen et al as well as the film versions of Austen's novels is the insistence on homogenizing them and rendering invisible everything that doesn't appeal to or perplexes or turns off current-day audiences. Sure, it's all in fun. The past (as well as the fictions of the past) is just one big playground for us to romp in, without significant interest in its own right. Isn't it a hoot to see a whole slew of characters from different novelists' works all jumbled up together into one big spoof? I've done it myself. (In, for instance, A Case of Mistaken Identity, which was published by Pulphouse in 1991.) And yes, there are some pretty sophisticated metafictions that do that (Christine Brooke-Rose wrote one, set at the annual MLA conference, for instance) with arguably serious intent, and how can I not enjoy reading them. And, too, occasionally someone like John Kessel comes along and does something refreshing and absolutely delights me. But for the most part, the unceasing cranking out of them in murder mysteries and genre fantasies (the insertion of zombies and vampires is perhaps a sign that the subgenre has just about run its course) has had the effect of transforming characters into mere caricatures.

One could dismiss this appropriative trend as an aspect of our commodity culture and the extent to which writers dance to the music of the market place (whether they're conscious of doing so or not). But that's just a Marxist super-structure argument, which has never been one I've found satisfying for explaining most aspects of our culture. I suspect that part of the problem arises from the completely wrong-headed assumption that's fairly prevalent in the US that who someone is has nothing to do with the context in which they live and have been shaped. Just as some people believe their are only five or seven stories that can be told, there are people that believe that there are basically just a few types of personalities, and that in theory personalities transcend time and circumstances, and that of course it's possible to know who someone is apart from the context in which they exist. (People are just people, right?) Assimilating the past to the present is a basically conservative move. For the homogenization of the past erases it as the place we look to to understand how we've gotten to where we are, how we've become the people and culture we are. Or, as Davis puts it, "Wishing away the harsh and strange spots in the psat, softening or remodeling them like the familiar present, will only make it harder for us to conceive good wishes for the future."

Davis's notion of historical fictions as thought experiments is, I think, key. (That was certainly how I conceived of "The Heloise Archive" and even "De Secretis Mulierum.") I don't know if such an approach would satisfy Byatt's or Kay's concerns. But it would preserve respect for past lives while offering ample latitude to the writer to explore the past creatively.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

I have trouble listening to what [Cheney] says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he’s talking, but my response is this: he’s just angry because the president doesn’t shoot old men in the face. But by the way, when he was done speaking, did he just then turn into a bat and fly away?”--- Rep. Alan Grayson, speaking on MSNBC's Hardball, Oct. 22, 2009. [Video clip here.]

Friday, October 23, 2009

Gwyneth Jones's Imagination/Space


Here's a heads-up about a new Gwyneth Jones title being released by Aqueduct in November. (It's at the printer now.) Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics collects twenty-one pieces of nonfiction by Gwyneth and covers a lot of territory, from speeches and talks delivered at conferences and conventions, to science fiction criticism and a sharp critical reconsideration of the feminist sf canon.

One of my favorite pieces is "True Life-Science Fiction: Sexual Politics in the Lab," which describes her experience shadowing Dr. Jane Davies in her lab as preparation for writing the PKD-Award-winning Life (which Aqueduct, as everyone here knows, published) and engages in a conversation with 1970s feminist sf. Here's a taste:

I saw a woman in a white coat, maybe a few years older than myself (but I'll feel childish 'til I die), with a warm smile. I stumbled through my intro, and Dr. Davies showed no sign of impatience. Unprepared, and babbling I'm afraid, I began to tell her my story....

....I trembled every time I had to use a technical term. Mitochondria, how do you pronounce that? I rambled around, explaining about taking things apart, identifying er, the basic components, as if that's what's important... I remember Dr. Davies gently prompting me. "Reductionism--?"

"Uh, yes."

Reducing dramatic situations to their component parts, isolating them from the real world, is science fiction's most treasured technique, borrowed from science itself. But Anna's story had to be natural, complex, full of inextricable connections, like a novel about real life. And here I was asking a scientist to help me...

Needless to say, I'll let y'all know when it's available.

Claire Light interviewed

Rick Kleffel has a podcast of his interview of Aqueductista Claire Light at The Agony Column, made on October 10, 2009 at SF in SF Litquake. This is his teaser:
"The way that writers of color use science fiction is very different..."
— Claire Light

Kleffel also offers podcasts of a panel at Litquake as well as interviews of the other panelists:
Looking for a science fiction convention that meets once monthly and offers just one reading, one panel, comfortable seating and a bar? I can't imagine anything more ideal, really, none of the usual running about from one back-killing chair to another. But that's SF in SF, even when it’s also part of Litquake.

The panel on Saturday, October 10, 2009, was no exception, except that there were three authors rather than the usual two. Jewell Gomez, Marta Acosta, and Claire Light moderated by Terry Bisson proved to be as entertaining as you might expect, offering a variety of opinions and experiences with regards to the topic of "Color Me SF: The Science Fiction Worlds of Octavia Butler and Carl Brandon." We got the lowdown on Carl Brandon, the challenges faced by people of color writing speculative fiction — SF, horror and fantasy — and lots of fascinating anecdotes about Octavia Butler.

Claire's Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories and Three Drabbles, Vol. 26 in the Conversation Pieces series, will be out from Aqueduct in December.

A few thoughts on representing history in fiction

The ethical issues of representing historical persons, events, and even places in fiction has been on my mind since last summer's meeting of Sycamore Hill, when one of the writers attending wondered if it was wrong to use straight history without invention, as she did in the story she brought. A few weeks later, Alison Flood reported in the Guardian that A.S. Byatt
has launched a vigorous attack on writers who combine biography and fiction, calling it an "appropriation of others' lives and privacy". Her broadside against authors of "faction", which she describes as "mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention", is particularly startling given that it could be applied to her rival for this year's Man Booker prize, Hilary Mantel, who is longlisted for her historical novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall.

"I really don't like the idea of 'basing' a character on someone, and these days I don't like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead," said Byatt in an interview with the organisers of the Booker prize. "It feels like the appropriation of others' lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them." Oscar Wilde appears in her own Booker-nominated novel, The Children's Book, she added, but "the novelist doesn't say what he thinks".

Guy Gavriel Kay then wrote a follow-up essay for the Guardian, Are novelists entitled to use real-life characters, arguing that the culture of reception has changed in such a way that writing about people who were once alive has become ethically risky:
Here's the New York Times on Oates's, Blonde: 'If a novel can't deliver Monroe's beauty ... it can give us her interior world.' What has happened when a reviewer suggests that a novel gives us the true inner world of a real person? This is nonsense, and it is pervasive.

Though Byatt and Kay have different concerns about historical representation in fiction, it would seem that simulation that isn't hedged about with certain kinds of ironic distance are anathema to both.

As it turns out, of course, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize for fiction. In an essay for the New York Review of Books, How It Must Have Been, Stephen Greenblatt, whose academic specialty is the British Literary Renaissance (particularly Shakespeare and Marlowe), reviews Wolf Hall. Judging by what Greenblatt says about the book, Mantel doesn't attack the morally loathsome Cromwell so much as make him her sympathetic hero (though I don't know if that attitude holds for all the other characters based on real persons who are in her novel, many of whom were in the same moral league with Cromwell):

Mantel decisively distances herself from those—and they are legion—who regarded Thomas Cromwell as the devil incarnate, a man born, as Cardinal Reginald Pole put it, "with an aptitude for ruin and destruction." For many Tudor historians, as well as for the innumerable contemporaries who feared and loathed him, Cromwell has been the man who worked tirelessly to satisfy the ruthless appetites of the monstrous Henry VIII, to expand the power of the state over lives and property, to accumulate wealth for himself and his cronies, to crush with merciless efficiency any resistance from any quarter. Cromwell was a master of Machiavellian realpolitik. He had a particular gift for luring people to their doom by promising them the King's pardon, as he did Robert Aske and the other leaders of the Catholic Pilgrimage of Grace. One would think that the first few broken promises would have been enough to scuttle that particular trick forever, but it proved irresistible again and again, so much were people conditioned to accept the solemn word of a prince.

I imagine that most people likely to read Wolf Hall will be familiar with at least the broad outlines (if not the many particulars) of the fates of the novel's many characters based on real historical persons. (The court of Henry VIII has long been a favored subject of historical novels, television series, and movies as well as popular histories.) So I find it interesting that Greenblatt says
Mantel invites us to forgo easy irony and to suspend our awareness of what is going to come to pass. To be sure, she offers aficionados of the period quiet pleasures: when Holbein complains that he has to complete a portrait of the French ambassador de Dinteville, we know that he is at work on his magnificent painting The Ambassadors; when Thomas Wyatt discloses his erotic obsession with Anne Boleyn, we know that his private notebooks are full of the love poems for which he is now celebrated; when we glimpse the unctuous musician Mark Smeaton hovering around the court, we know that he will eventually be accused of adultery with Anne and executed along with her other alleged lovers. But none of this latent knowledge actually matters. The triumph of the historical novel, in Mantel's vision, is to reach a point of ignorance.

Putting aside any ethical questions about its desirability, is it really possible, I wonder, to suspend awareness of what's going to come to pass? And how does an author "invite" readers to do that? What exact arts are involved in issuing such an invitation?

The extent to which authors write over the heads of their characters to wink or exchange knowing glances with readers has mildly obsessed me for the last couple of years. I'm fine when the style warrants it-- when the author is addressing the reader as s/he unfolds the tale. I recently wrote a story in which the narrative voice openly toys with the characters in this way from the first sentence, cuing the reader to take the narrative as playfully metafictional. But when, in a straight narrative that adopts a neutral voice of apparently transparent realism, the author introduces a referent loaded with significance for the reader that is unremarkable for every character in the story, the effects of such irony can range from deliciously witty to sublime to portentous (when deployed as a foreshadowing device). In stories told in a purportedly realistic style, it bothers me when the irony is gratuitous, just a trivial joke aimed at the reader that the character(s) can't possibly get. Other uses of such irony, intended to enhance the reader's pleasure or emotional involvement in the story, may backfire, putting the reader at an emotional distance from the characters, or as in the case of at least one novel I can think of, flattening the characters into cardboard by overshadowing them with the cloud of future events the reader knows lie in the pages ahead that the characterization is not substantial enough to carry. Science fiction that involves time travel or historical simulations is most susceptible to this, as is fantasy that lies in the historical (and especially recent) past.

Greenblatt's observation that Mantel invites her readers "to forgo easy irony" made me realize that competent writers of historical fiction must be fully aware of the many temptations and pitfalls of that kind of irony, an irony that almost inexorably separates the characters in a historical novel from the reader (even more than the vast gulf created by their cultural difference must do [if the writer knows much about the time and place they're writing about]).

Do multiple reads of stories (where, that is, one hasn't forgotten their narrative events) inevitably introduce that same sort of irony? I suppose it's only the extent to which a narrative succeeds in maintaining a powerful flow of now-ness (i.e., its ability to hold the reader's attention fixed only on the moment)-- through that flow banishing all foreknowledge to the very back of the reader's mind-- that the reader can "forgo" that irony. Sometimes the irony makes the story more poignant or even delicious. (Twelfth Night springs to mind as an example of the latter.) Take Hamlet and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex: surely simply knowing the outcome of the action in these plays does not suffice to block the emotional intensity of their performance for audiences. If a story emotionally resonates with its reader or viewer with sufficient power, detachment is impossible, no matter how well the reader or viewer knows it, no matter how many times the viewer sees it performed or the reader immerses themselves in a textual narrative of it.

Still, how one re-reads a story can vary. Some books we reread because we want another hit of the emotional kick we got from them or for comfort; others we reread because we want to understand what we missed the previous time(s) we read them; and still others we reread because we want to revel in their complexity, or their coolness, or their sense of wonder, or their beauty, or their insights, to revist a particular state of mind that that particular story has the power to create for us.

To go back to the issue Kay raises-- the concern that the reader (reviewer!) will take the narrative as naked, revealed truth, a sort of inside scoop-- if this is a real concern (and with movies I often think it is), then occasional or intermittent ironic distance would surely be an effective ethical solution. And yet... I find myself balking. Must writers write to the most naive portion of their readership (or even their possible readership)? To tell the truth, I'm fairly gobsmacked at the idea of a reviewer for the NY Times taking Oates's novel as revealing Marilyn Monroe's interior life. I didn't see the review he cites. Could he have misread it?

But what interests me more, I think, are issues of representation not covered by either Byatt's or Kay's essays. Since I've already gone on far too long here, I'll continue this in a second post, which I'll try to put up in the next day or two.

ETA: Part 2 can be found here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Emma Goldman, Feminism, and Anarchism

In Kristin's comment to my post of Oct. 19, Different Drummers? But see, Sousa's just noise to some of us, she asks

What is it that has alienated anarchism and feminism, when there are so many commonalities? The anarchist Emma Goldman springs to mind - we have her to thank for the availability of birth control, which has been central to our ability to do critical work, but I don't think most feminists know about her. And then there's Lucy Parsons, an anarchist and woman of color who is even less well known.

Ariel, in her comment, replies to Kristin
I am not sure what has alienated feminism and anarchism because I see both as deeply interconnected struggles against hierarchy, patriarchy, and state violence. I've certainly encountered male anarchists who are dismissive of feminism as divisive and a special interest, in the style of the "it's all about class struggle" old left style and until I met some really awesome anarchists of all races and genders, I thought anarchism was a young white boy's club--and it can be at times. Fortunately, though, I feel like those of us dedicated to collective liberation are finding one another and doing organizing together.
I'd like to offer a somewhat roundabout reply to the question. Back in the days of Second Wave US feminism, feminisms were widely classified as coming in three flavors: socialist, liberal, and cultural-- which could probably be roughly translated respectively as radical, conservative (back then, though the politics of 1970s "liberal feminism" would now be characterized as "moderate"), and essentialist). (Of course this left out a lot of differences among feminists that didn't fit comfortably into these classifications: it took white feminists a long time to grok intersectionality.) One of the chief preoccupations of socialist-- also known as "materialist"-- feminists was the "unhappy marriage of feminism and Marxism." The reason for this was that the political left back in the '60s and '70s considered race and gender issues to be mere artifacts of the capitalist system and thus not worthy of special attention. If we'd just subordinate our concerns for these to overthrowing capitalism, was the left's attitude, all these issues would simply melt away. In other words, Second Wave feminists felt burned by the left. (Many Second Wave feminists started out in leftist activism, particular civil rights and anti-war activism and became feminists because they got fed up with their second-class status.) The academic journal Feminist Studies (especially its earliest issues, dating from the '70s), founded by socialist feminists, was exemplary of feminists working hard to analyze and salvage that "marriage."

A few titles on socialist/materialist feminism I can suggest off the top of my head: Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, ed. Lydia Sargent (1981); Feminism and Materialism: Women and Modes of Production, ed. Annette Kuhn and AnnMarie Wolpe (1978); Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zilla R. Eisenstein (1979).

Oh, and Joanna Russ, who in the Second Wave was classified as a socialist feminist, has a chapter on many feminists' hostility to Marxism in What Are We Fighting For?

Needless to say, because I wrote Alanya to Alanya in 1984, when feminist issues were still considered special pleading (like all so-called "identity issues") in many mixed activist groups, some of this friction cropped up in the book (via Martha's relationship with Walt). A friend who read the ms in Dec 1984 (and later become one of the Marq'ssan Cycle's greatest fans) chided me for that depiction as unnecessarily disloyal (airing dirty laundry in public). But you know, I was still coping with those attitudes even as late as 1987 when I and another woman and a man organized an art workers collective for producing a four-day mixed-media event in Seattle focused on El Salvador. There was a huge amount of "shit work" to be performed, and the guys in the group actually attempted to relegate all the many details and tasks to the women in the group-- while reserving for themselves all the big decisions. But we women were old hands at mixed group politics; to the guys' shock, we flatly stated that decisions would be made by consensus of the people who were actually doing the work. A couple of years later I wrote up an analysis of this experience for a special issue of a San Diego activist group's newsletter aimed at raising the consciousness of the men in the group. I think the gender politics of mixed-sex activist groups started changing in the late 80s & that this had to do not only with the long-term effects of Second Wave feminism but also with the character of Latin American solidarity work (but this is my personal take and could be mistaken).

A related issue might be why there has traditionally been hostility between Marxists and anarchists. Staughton Lynd talks about this in Wobblies & Zapatistas, which I bought after our panel, at PM Press's table, and am now reading. Lynd himself advocates the "Haymarket Synthesis":
What is Marxism? It is an effort to understand the structure of the society in which we live so as to make informed predictions and to act with greater effect. What is anarchism? It is the attempt to imagine a better society and insofar as possible to "prefigure," to anticipate that society by beginning to live it out, on the ground, here and now.

Isn't it perfectly obvious that these two orientations are both needed, that they are like having two hands to accomplish the needed task of transformation?

At any rate it is clear that during the past century and a half neither Marxism or anarchism has been able to carry out the transformative task alone. Marxism has produced a series of fearsome dictatorships. Anarchism has offered a number of glorious anticipations, all of them short-lived and many of them drowned in blood.

Before turning to North America [from Europe], with its quite different experience, I wish to note that in their best moments Marxists have acknowledged their comradeship with anarchists. Marx spent a great deal of energy denouncing efforts to imagine the future, but when his anarchist opponents in Paris created the Paris Commune he defended them and even declared that they had discovered the form of the future Communist state. Lenin, hiding out in Finland on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, described in State and Revolution a state that "every cook" would be capable of governing, anticipated in the Russian soviets.

The term "Haymarket Synthesis" pays tribute to the Chicago socialists of the 1870s (among whom numbered Lucy Parsons, whom Kristin mentioned in her comment), who were militant socialists who began calling themselves anarchists.

In the section immediately before his discussion of "the Haymarket Synthesis," Lynd talks about how the Zapatistas started out as traditional Marxist guerrillas advocating violent revolution-- only to embrace the political philosophy of the Indians of Chiapas (which is both anarchist and feminist).

As far as feminists and Emma Goldman goes, some of that may have to do with Goldman's essay "The Tragedy of Women's Emancipation," which, as Alice Wexler notes,
criticized the American feminist movement for focusing too narrowly on the "external tyrants" while neglecting the power of the "internal tyrannies" which "seem to get along as beautifully in the hands and hearts of the most active exponents of women's emancipation, as in the heads and hearts of our grandmothers." Goldman wrote that the narrowness of the modern ideal of emancipation induced women "to make a dignified, proper appearance, while the inner life is growing empty and dead." It had made of her "a compulsory vestal," fearful of love and sexual intimacy. "The tragedy of the self-supporting or economically free woman does not lie in too many, but in too few experiences." Only by "emancipating herself from emancipation," that is, by beginning with her 'inner regeneration," and cutting loose "from the weight of prejudices, traditions and customs" that stifled her sexual and emotional life, would she really liberate herself from the chains of the past.

This quote comes from Wexler's afterword to the text of Goldman's "On Mary Wollstonecraft." ("Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft," Feminist Studies 7,1 Spring 1981.) Goldman took Wollstonecraft as one of her personal heroes (much as I've taken Goldman as one of mine); Wexler characterizes Goldman's view of Wollstonecraft as romantic, which I think is fair. My sense is that Goldman had trouble with the feminists of her day for the same reason that First Wave feminists had trouble with Wollstonecraft: both Goldman and Wollstonecraft refused middle-class notions of morality, both engaged in "free love" (though Wollstonecraft changed her attitudes about this not long before her untimely death). Both were passionate, even charismatic personalities.As Wexler says,
If Goldman had romanticized Wollstonecraft, she nevertheless grasped the radicalism of Wollstonecraft's project, both in life and in thought....Reacting against the conservatism of the middle-class American suffrage movement in the years before World War I, Goldman saw Wollstonecraft as a great historical heroine whose vision was far more radical than that of the suffragists....Goldman's feminism was one aspect of a total ideology of anarchist revolution. The liberation of women involved the transformation of all aspects of society.
Interestingly, this sort of turns the Old Left's view of feminism on its head.

It was only in the '70s that (at least some feminists) rediscovered Emma Goldman as one of their own. (Surely her most famous bon mot these days must be "If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution." Though I'm not sure that knowledge of Goldman goes much farther than that.) Anyway, I think that if more current-day feminists were actually to sit down and read some of Goldman's writings they'd find them both congenial and inspiring.

Happy birthday, Ursula!




Hey everybody, today's Ursula K. Le Guin's birthday! And not only that, it's the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Left Hand of Darkness.


Happy birthday, Ursula! We love ya!

Monday, October 19, 2009

A New Kid on the Block

Although the miseries of a cold kept me from attending any other panels at the Seattle Anarchist Bookfair this weekend, I did have the pleasure of browsing at the table of a new press that I hadn't previously heard of. PM Press is located in Oakland and though it's only about two years old has an impressive list of titles, all beautifully designed. I was pleased to see some reprint sf (work by Terry Bisson and Kim Stanley Robinson), some comics, film criticism, a book on graffiti by guerilla artist Banksy in London, another titled Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today, practical political theory like Labor Law for the Rank and File: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law), classics of political theory like C.L.R. James's The Invading Socialist Society and Every Cook Can Govern. I bought one book that I've already started reading-- Wobblies & Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History-- and have my eye on Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca and Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico. Go to their site and browse: there's much, much more!

As I mentioned, I've already started reading Wobblies & Zapatistas. It's a book composed of conversations between Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic; and the introduction makes it clear from the start that the book is rich with stories (not lectures), stories of the kind I'm always hungry to read, stories that are not heard or told in the mainstream. And also, in case you're wondering? The Zapatistas in the title refers not to the mainstream glamor of "the first cyber revolution," but to the Mayan struggle against the appropriation of their lands that accompanied NAFTA.

Three cheers for PM Press!

Different Drummers? But see, Sousa's just noise to some of us

Yesterday at Seattle's Anarchist Bookfair, I participated in a panel on Anarchism and Science Fiction. Understandably, our discussion barely scratched the surface, but I was fascinated to note that I came away from it filled with a sense of just how important the topos of anarchism has been for feminist sf. I have an urgent wish, now, to read an intelligent exploration and speculation about that-- not in general terms, but in very specific examinations of texts and tracing of genealogies of texts and their ideas.

So imagine my bemusement this morning, when I read an article in the new issue of Foundation, "Biological Determinism, Masculine Politics and the Failure of Libertarianism in Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," by Jason Bourget. (You may be wondering what "masculine politics" might be. I know I did, when I first read the title. But given the context in which he uses the expression, I believe that by "masculine politics" the author means "masculinist politics.") Why bemusement? Because while the article, drawing on an essay by Neil Easterbrook, argues that Heinlein's version of libertarianism is an elitist tyranny based on a masculinist ("masculine," in the author's words) biological determinism-- taking note chiefly of the inequality of the sexes in Heinlein's "libertarian utopias"-- the article begins with the (likely inadvertent) exclusion of political science fiction written by women (much of which is feminist sf), which is an irony too familiar to be anything but wearying. Here's the first sentence:

In his essay on "Politics and Science Fiction," Ken Macleod boldly declares that "the central political voice in genre sf is that of Robert A. Heinlein" and that "the political strand in sf can be described as a dialogue with [him]."

Much as I've enjoyed reading some of Ken Macleod's novels, and much as I've enjoyed reading essays by many science fiction writers, I've pretty much dismissed Macleod's critical writings as worthy of my time and interest. And that's precisely because of his essay "Politics and Science Fiction" (a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction ed. James and Mendlesohn), which I read a few years ago and that pretty much convinced me the man's understanding of science fiction is of the mangled truncated variety that either does not see or cannot understand feminist sf. His essay mentions work by only three women writers: Le Guin, Russ, and Bujold, while at the same time generalizing wantonly about "feminist sf" without offering any examples other than Russ. Just about all the guys who talk or write about "political science fiction" routinely, probably unconsciously, exclude feminist sf from the category, but the fact that it's a widespread practice doesn't excuse it. (They did it at a WisCon panel a few years ago, by the way, and didn't get called on it there. Still doesn't excuse it.) In this case, Macleod actually devotes a whole paragraph out of his chapter to misrepresent feminist sf. In short, he bluntly dismisses feminist sf as "a more troubling exception to the generally progressive spirit of sf."

Each time I've read this statement, I've felt as though Macleod had turned the world on its head: since, as far as I'm concerned, most sf is ideologically conservative and most feminist sf is ideologically progressive. And each time I read it, I did a double take a few sentences later, when I realized that by "progressive" Macleod doesn't mean politically progressive, but instead means buying hook line and sinker into the full 19th-century liberal ideology of "progress." Here's what he has to say about feminist sf:

Some of [feminist sf] does indeed turn its back on progress and the conquest of the universe as a typically male power fantasy-- and to that extent, and perhaps for that reason, it has isolated itself from all but a few sf readers.

Are we to understand from this that women writers are ignored because they want to be? I guess Macleod doesn't think much of Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing.

But not all feminist sf, even of the most radical kind, takes that view. Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) carries a militant message of progress in its title. That the English word for the human species and the word for the male sex is the same, with its implied exclusion of half the human race from the achievements ascribed to all of it-- "man's conquest of space," and so on -- is an old problem.
"Progress" is a loaded word with a truly terrible history of encouraging and accommodating simplistic thinking. Combine that with "man's conquest of space" and what do you get? It would seem that Macleod believes that we (feminists) feel excluded from the fruits and glories of imperialist conquest and thus repudiate "conquest" out of nothing more than sour grapes ressentiment, while Russ, by contrast, finds the grapes of imperialist conquest sweet and makes no bones about wanting them for herself, just like your typical 19th-century white feminist lording it over the inferior races, I guess. Can he really believe this about Russ? Does he actually thinks that's what Russ is complaining about? Reading on, it seems that he does:

While some feminist writers have responded by repudiating the achievements,

Not only has he thrown the ideologically loaded "progress" at us, but now he's conflating "achievements" with "conquest"? That's a slippery rhetorical move if I've ever seen one. And who, exactly, are these "feminists" who are repudiating human achievements (that women, contrary to general opinion, have had an important role in performing and for centuries have been being denied credit for)? I can believe there are such feminists, since "feminist" covers such a wide spectrum. But whoever these feminists are, they aren't anyone I read (or personally know). I do think Macleod needs desperately to read Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. (It will be out from Aqueduct in December, folks.)

Russ stakes a claim on all of them for women.Women can be Man, without being men. Russ makes a passionate claim for freedom and achievement.

By eliding conquest with achievements, he slickly covers over a significant theme in Russ's work. Who, after reading We Who Are About To... could see Russ as a propagandist for triumphal human chauvinism? And where does he get off thinking that most feminist sf doesn't "make a passionate claim for freedom and achievement"? Clearly, our panel yesterday would have been incomprehensible to him. (As would most WisCon panels, I suspect.)

What most frustrates me about Bourget's article is that while Bourget views "masculine" (masculinist?) politics as at the heart of Heinlein's political fiction, he fails to explore what that means for males who do not fit the masculinist ideal of masculinity. (Instead, he attends to an already well-worked vein, viz., the suppression of women's public agency and speech in Heinlein's ideal political systems.)

What most strikes me about Bourget's article is that if Macleod is correct that all political science fiction [by men, that is] is in dialogue with Heinlein, then Bourget would logically have to argue that most political science fiction is Tiptree Award material, for if masculinism is supposedly at the heart of all political science fiction, then all political science fiction is necessarily about definitions of masculinity-- either challenging or exploring said definitions. Stan Robinson's fiction often does this, occasionally incisively, and Chip Delany's Triton addresses the issue dialogically, but can we honestly say that most other political sf novels [by men] have provided fresh insight into the issue that Bourget describes?

I seriously hope that someone someday will make a thorough exploration of the topos of anarchy in, as well as its significance for, feminist sf. Because that's a piece of critical writing that I would love, love, love to read.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Actually, kind of an SF geek"


Rick Kleffel's The Agony Column is offering a podcast of his KQED interview with Margaret Atwood. No one will be too surprise to hear that he describes himself as having been "seriously conflicted" when he "signed up to interview Margaret Atwood." After all that he'd heard and read about Atwood and her attitude toward science fiction, he found himself asking "Who was Margaret Atwood and why did she write what I, at least, thought was "science fiction"? As he writes:

If I interviewed her, I'd have to ask some hard questions. And here again, at KQED, I was destined for a happy surprise. Atwood proved to be immensely charming and, what's more something of a scholar of science fiction. She wrote a paper on turn-of-the-last-century SF, and was tossing about 'The Purple Cloud' and even more obscure titles as we talked. I did ask her directly about science fiction, speculative fiction, space squids and talking cabbages. The bottom line is that Atwood is something of a science fiction fan and actually, kind of an SF geek, in that she knows all sorts of things about the genre that most folks can't spout off at the tip of a hat. The dry sense of humor you'll find in her books (you need the right sensibility to do so) is ever more apparent when she speaks. I had an absolute blast talking to her; and I think when you give the interview a listen, it should once and for all crush the idea that she's a literary elitist who sees herself above the genre. It's actually rather the opposite, because she clearly respects the knowledge of science required to write what is generally termed as "hard science fiction." To have your head turned round with regard to the delightful Margaret Atwood, just follow this link to the MP3 audio file of our conversation.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Red Herrings, anyone?

Over at the Nation, Robert Scheer opines that US politicians and media are using the health care issue to distract attention away from the government's much more costly tight relationship with Wall Street:

The healthcare issue should never even have been brought up at a time when the economy is reeling and we are running such immense deficits to shore up the banks. Instead of fixing the economy by saving Americans' homes and jobs, we are preoccupied with pie-in-the-sky rhetoric on a hot issue that should have been addressed in calmer times. It came up now because, despite all the hoary partisan posturing, it is a safer subject than the more pressing issue of what to do with Citigroup, AIG and General Motors, which the taxpayers happen to own but do not control. While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plots in secret with the top bankers who got us into this mess, we are focused on the perennial circus of so-called healthcare reform.

There is an odd disconnect between the furious public debate over healthcare reform, with its emphasis on the cost of an increased government role, and the nonexistent discussion about the far more expensive and largely secretive government program to bail out Wall Street. Why the agitation over the government spending $83 billion a year on healthcare when at least twenty times that amount has been thrown at the creators of the ongoing financial crisis without any serious public accountability? On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that employees of the financial industry that we taxpayers saved are slated to be paid a record $140 billion this year.

If you want to know who actually runs this country, just look at the phone logs, released by court order last week, revealing Geithner's nearly constant calls to solicit the advice of the fat cats who caused the banking implosion. It's the same as when he was chair of the Federal Reserve in New York, before Obama appointed him to his current job. Only back then, as he blithely ignored the impending financial meltdown, it was easier to have lunch with the bankers as well as to chat by phone.

In an earlier Freedom of Information expose, the New York Times reported in April: "An examination of Mr. Geithner's five years as president of the New York Fed, an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry, shows that he forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street's giant financial institutions. His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry's interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records."

Nothing has changed since then. Meanwhile, we all get in a tizzy about fake efforts at health reform as immense decisions are being made to ensure the health of financial institutions that should have been left to die.

Seattle's Anarchist Bookfair

An anarchist bookfair is being held this weekend in Seattle at the Underground Events Center (2407 1st Ave, between Battery and Wall Streets). Three Aqueductistas will be appearing on a panel there Sunday at 11 a.m.:

Beyond The Dispossessed: Anarchism and Science Fiction

This panel, presented by Common Action, will consist of local anarchist fans, writers, and scholars of science fiction. The panel will discuss major works of anarchist and leftist science fiction, and anarchist themes in science fiction; i.e. anarchist utopias and dystopias, class struggle, radical social movements and revolutions in sci-fi. We will also explore the intersection of feminist, anti-racist and Marxist science fiction with anarchist sci-fi. We will discuss the dynamics of anarchists in sci-fi fandom, and sci-fi fans in the anarchist movement. The workshop will also cover the relationship between social movements and sci-fi’s representations of the future, and the transformation power of speculative literature.

Panelists: L. Timmel Duchamp, Eileen Gunn, Kristin King, Saab Lofton, Nisi Shawl, Ariel Wetzel


I think the panel that most interests me (perhaps because I've just done a stint of jury service) is this one:

Community Accountability/Transformative Justice (Panel)

Transformative Justice is a radical strategy of response to conflict, a revolutionary alternative to the on-going violence and oppression of the State’s criminal justice system.

As an analysis, it takes seriously conflict’s place within systems of oppression. As a practice, it strives to put justice in the hands of the communities directly involved.

A panel featuring members of For Crying Out Loud, Common Action, and others, will discuss their perspectives on Transformative Justice, how it differs from other forms of justice, their groups’ successes and difficulties in applying it, and its relevance to anarchists. The panel will then be opened to Q & A and general discussion.

For Crying Out Loud is a group dedicated to preventing, addressing, and talking about sexual assault and perpetrator accountability in an anti-authoritarian setting. For a lot more info go to: http://forcryingoutloud206.wordpress.com


Many of the other panels really grab me, too; they cover a broad spectrum of subjects (as you can see from the schedule I'm pasting in below). Imagine, a walking tour of Seattle's Radical Past and Present! You can read about all the programming they're offering here. & here is the full schedule:


Tentative Workshop Schedule
Saturday

Time Location Title

10:00 W Ganging Up on the Bosses: a New Model of Direct Action Organizing
10:30 S Anarchy and Art! Discussion and Making things
11:30 W Panel: Too brown or not brown enough: Response from the fringes
12:00 S Anarchy and Improvisation: workshop and discussion
1:00 W Panel: Aging, Disability and Allyship in the Community: Don’t leave us behind at the end of the march!
1:30 S Panel: Community Accountability/Transformative Justice
2:30 W Panel: Building Alternatives to Capitalism: Egalitarian Economics at the Emma Goldman Finishing School
3:00 S Aggressor Accountability
4:00 W Your Eyes My Body My Eyes Your Body: Body Image
4:30 S
6:00 W Walking Tour of Seattle’s Radical Past & Present
Sunday

Time Location Title

11:00 W Panel: Beyond The Dispossessed: Anarchism and Science Fiction
11:30 S Our Archives–writing & preserving anti-authoritarian history
12:30 W Intro to Video Activism
1:00 S Anarchists Against the Wall: who are they and why is everybody interested in Israel/Palestine talking about them?
2:00 W Intellectual Property is Intellectual Theft: anarchists, free software, and the digital commons
2:30 S North West Anarchist/Autonomous People Of Color on Racism, Sexism, Homophobia Now in Anarcho-Radical Movements presentation/panel
3:30 W Panel: Collective housing/Intentional Community
4:00 S Sex, Riot, and Queer Potentiality
5:00 W Panel: Anarchism and anti-racism

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics

I'm currently performing jury service; I wrote this post before being called back into a courtroom this morning and am posting it on my lunch break, here at the Seattle Public Library, which is only a few blocks from the King County Courthouse. This is Day Two for me. As anyone who has done jury service knows, it means mostly sitting around waiting.

Imagine, in one corner of the juror assembly room one can find junk food vending machines that have long yellow stickers on them that say: "Smart food choices promote and maintain health. Eat Smart King County. Move more." Inside this particular machine are potatoes chips, cheetos, fritos, pop tarts, cup of noodles, popcorn, pretzels, Chex mix, oberto sausange, chocolate chip cookies, Ritz crackers, Reese's peanut butter cups, almond joys, & so foth & so on. This machine of the seven vending machines alone is characterized as part of the King County Healthier Snacks Program. "Healthy Vending Where Nutritious Meets Delicious." Whatever can they be thinking?

This morning, before I left home, I downloaded a Guardian story, Nobel economics prize won by first woman, before leaving home. I didn't have time to read it, but thought I might have time to look at it during a waiting period, and I did. It's short. The article notes that although only 40 women have ever been awarded the Nobel, this year five women were, including the 76-year-old Elinor Ostrom.

A political scientist from Indiana University whose work exploring how people come together to preserve their collective resources may provide important clues in the fight against climate change has become the first woman to win the Nobel prize for economics.

Elinor Ostrom, 76, shares the award with fellow American academic Oliver Williamson, 77, whose work focuses on a similar area of the relationship between individuals, companies and government.


The article notes that Ostrom faced gendered obstacles in her career. (Big surprise, hunh.) For one thing, she "was discouraged from taking a PhD when she applied for graduate school." The article also notes that she had an unusually interdisciplinary approach (which I imagine didn't cut much ice among traditional economists): "Early on she gained a reputation for bringing economics, political science and sociology together." And then, when one thinks about the Group Think that worships at the altar of Capitalism that has increasingly dominated economics (and, hell, just about any other discipline in the US) for the whole of her career, one can well believe she was astonished at being awarded the Prize.

What interests her is how common property can be managed successfully through groups in society. One of the first subjects that interested her was management of water resources.She has also looked at the management of fish stocks, pastures, woods and groundwater basins.

The findings of her research have been striking, as the Nobel committee pointed out, because they have challenged the established assumption that common property is poorly managed unless it is either regulated by government or privatised. She has shown how disparate individuals can band together and form collectives that protect the resource at hand.

That is an important message at a time when policymakers are grappling with how to cope with global warming. Again, it challenges a conventional assumption that without regulation or the action of private enterprise, no progress to change individual behaviour can be made.

"A lot of people are waiting for more international co-operation to solve [global warming]," Ostrom said being told she had won the award. "There is this assumption that there are public officials who are geniuses, and that the rest of us are not.

"It is important that there is international agreement, but we can be taking steps at family level, community level, civic and national level … There are many steps that can be taken that will not solve it on their own but cumulatively will make a big difference."


Ostrom's research is a welcome message, these days, when many governments, who are virtually ruled by an oligarchy of large corporations (witness the determination of the health care issue in the US), are refusing to address the problem of Global Warming in any noncursory way.

And now, I have to be getting back to the jurors assembly room.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

An Informative Question

I see that over at the Sci-fi Wire, Paul Di Filippo is asking

Why does the jury that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature hate us?

By "us," I mean, of course, hardcore writers and partisans of fantastika, people unafraid and unashamed to boldly identify themselves primarily with the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, rather than with mainstream, mimetic literature.

I think I can safely say, without being privy to their secret deliberations, that the jury has never once seriously considered confering a Nobel Prize on any writer whose overall body of work has been in science fiction, and who has forthrightly labeled himself or herself an SF geek.

Hmmm. Mr. Paul Di references Kim Stanley Robinson's criticism of the Booker Prize. Could this be his inspiration, do you think, for complaining about the Nobel? To my ear, Stan Robinson's comments lacked the "why do they hate us" tone... I wonder if the analogy is appropriate, myself. For one thing, the Nobel Prize goes to an author for a body of work, not to specific books. I don't imagine that when they gave Doris Lessing the Nobel they were thinking it was for all her work except her science fiction. Mr. Paul Di does concede

Now, it's true that quite a few Nobelists have dabbled in fantastika to a greater or lesser degree. Here's a partial list, in chronological order of their award: Rudyard Kipling, Maurice Maeterlinck, Anatole France, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Sinclair Lewis, Herman Hesse, Bertrand Russell, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Harry Martinson, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Golding, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Gunter Grass and Doris Lessing.

That's an honorable lineage of fantastical writers, many of whom you would find in the library of any broad-minded fan. But not one of them is a truly satisfying representative of the beating, sense-of-wonder heart of modern science fiction, those unabashed proponents of ray guns and aliens, space operas and cyberpunk, dystopias and steampunk, time travel and miraculous technology.

And he proposes

This blatant, painful injustice is why we feel compelled to nominate eight writers whom we feel truly deserve a Nobel Prize. Eight names of artists who have enriched our literary culture at least as much as, say, Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939); Eyvind Johnson (1974); or Wisława Szymborska (1996).

Now, while there are scads of living writers in our field who have produced monumental works of value, we've acknowledged in our choices the fact that the Nobel judges exhibit certain prejudices: They like to pick older writers with a certain extra-literary gravitas and political-cultural credentials. So that eliminates for the moment such figures as Ian MacLeod, Ken MacLeod and Gwyneth Jones, whom we at first considered.

Here are our candidates, ranked in order from least likely to get the nod to a possible shoo-in.

Needless to say, not all of the people commenting agree with his choices. You can see who they are here.



Monday, October 5, 2009

Links for a Monday

---Lawrence Weschler, writing for The New York Review of Books, describes the development of a new medium for art in David Hockney's iPhone Passion, in which the famous water colorist gets hooked by the possibilities of iPhone technology:

Hockney first became interested in iPhones about a year ago (he grabbed the one I happened to be using right out of my hands). He acquired one of his own and began using it as a high-powered reference tool, searching out paintings on the Web and cropping appropriate details as part of the occasional polemics or appreciations with which he is wont to shower his friends.

But soon he discovered one of those newfangled iPhone applications, entitled Brushes, which allows the user digitally to smear, or draw, or fingerpaint (it's not yet entirely clear what the proper verb should be for this novel activity), to create highly sophisticated full-color images directly on the device's screen, and then to archive or send them out by e-mail. Essentially, the Brushes application gives the user a full color-wheel spectrum, from which he can choose a specific color. He can then modify that color's hue along a range of darker to lighter, and go on to fill in the entire backdrop of the screen in that color, or else fashion subsequent brushstrokes, variously narrower or thicker, and more or less transparent, according to need, by dragging his finger across the screen, progressively layering the emerging image with as many such daubings as he desires.[2]

Over the past six months, Hockney has fashioned literally hundreds, probably over a thousand, such images, often sending out four or five a day to a group of about a dozen friends, and not really caring what happens to them after that. (He assumes the friends pass them along through the digital ether.) These are, mind you, not second-generation digital copies of images that exist in some other medium: their digital expression constitutes the sole (albeit multiple) original of the image.

I'm particularly fascinated with the discussion of technique:
I've noticed that most users of the Brushes application tend to trace out their brushstrokes with their pointer finger. (The screen measures changes in electrical charge, and can be operated only with a conductive object—like a finger—rather than a pen-like stylus.) As I discovered on a recent visit, Hockney limits his contact with the screen exclusively to the pad of his thumb. "The thing is," Hockney explains, "if you are using your pointer or other fingers, you actually have to be working from your elbow. Only the thumb has the opposable joint which allows you to move over the screen with maximum speed and agility, and the screen is exactly the right size, you can easily reach every corner with your thumb." He goes on to note how people used to worry that computers would one day render us "all thumbs," but it's incredible the dexterity, the expressive range, lodged in "these not-so-simple thumbs of ours."

Wechsler provides a few astonishing examples of Hockney's iPhone paintings images. Have to say that my respect for the opposable thumb has been positively soaring lately.

---Tansy Rayner Roberts reviews Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's Writing the Other: A Practical Approach for As if! Australian Specfic in focus, and concludes
Where Writing the Other is strongest is in its exploration of the nuances and subtleties that come from writing characters whose experience is outside your own, and particularly in addressing the various problems with or arguments against such writing. For such a slender volume, it packs a very useful punch, and I am sure I will be referring back to it on multiple occasions. I haven't come across a better, simpler or more elegant work which so clearly explains the many complex issues of constructing characters of different cultures/race/sexualities etc. in such a non-judgmental, empathic way....

While Writing the Other is framed as a “how to” book for writers, I would suggest that anyone - reader, editor, critic - who is interested in the representation of diversity in fiction could benefit from reading it. Apart from anything, it provides some great material to help a reader understand and empathise with other readers of different backgrounds and why they might interpret fiction differently - and could also provide some helpful back up for people trying to explain these issues to those who blindly argue against the necessity for diversity in fiction, speculative or otherwise.

---In Are You Happy? Katha Pollitt, writing for The Nation, takes strong issue with antifeminist claims based on the suppposed "declining female happiness" in the US, recently proclaimed at the Huffington Post by Marcus Buckingham, claims that rest on the statistical interpretation of a survey made by Wharton's Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (which U Penn professor Mark Liberman took a critical look at a couple of years ago here, here, and here at the Language Log). But Pollitt doesn't only take issue with interpretations of the survey data: she also expresses basic skepticism on the inherent meaningfulness of such a survey to begin with:
Am I happy? What a stupid question. Do you mean happy as in content? Joyful? Hopeful? Relieved? Counting my blessings? Intent on absorbing work? Depending on your definition--and when you ask me, and who you are--I could give a dozen different answers. If you really want to know how I feel about my life, you would have to get to know me and ask me a whole lot of particular questions, which could not necessarily be boiled down to a single answer, and could certainly not be used to compare my happiness with someone else's--because how can anyone know if what I mean by happiness is what that other person means? Keats was happy when he wrote "Ode to a Nightingale," Eichmann was happy when he met his daily quota of murdered Jews, and I am happy to be living this year in Berlin. Only a pollster (or an economist) would conflate these things. In fact, only a pollster would think that people tell pollsters the truth.

---Check out The Resistance: Why Writing about Sex Matters by a vflox at blogher. She reflects
In a sense, we've come a long way. Sexuality, once locked up and hidden from view, is once again able to flow freely across the blogosphere in a beautiful return to the tradition of storytelling. But it would be inaccurate to say that this indicates that social perceptions of sexuality have changed much—after all, how many people writing about their sexual experiences are doing so under their real names?

The truth is that we are living in a strange duality—an open culture which politically seems to encourage and support sexual self-expression, and a “don't ask, don't tell” society where people do still judge those who share about their bodies, their desires and their sexual choices.

It makes me think of something the philosopher Alexandre Koyré once said:

I have been saying that modern science broke down the barriers that separated the heavens from the earth, and that it unified and united the universe. And that is true. But, as I have said, too, it did this by substituting the world of quality and sense perception, the world in which we live, and love, and die, with another world—the world of quantity, or reified geometry, a world in which, though there is a place for everything, there is no place for man... True, these worlds are everyday—and even more and more—connected by praxis. Yet they are divided by an abyss. Two worlds: this means two truths. Or no truth at all.