Sunday, April 29, 2012

Just a Sunday afternoon in spring

It's been a long time since I've posted here: sorry about that! My allergies have been in high gear for the last few weeks, compounded, alas, by a persistent sinus infection. As a result, I've spent little time online, except for doing stuff that absolutely had to be done. Today actually seems to be headache-free, probably for the first time in two or three weeks. In fact, I dared to visit the Lake Union Fill to look at birds this afternoon, thinking I'd probably be sake, for the sky is heavily overcast, the air very still, and the air so heavy with water that I swear I could feel tiny, invisible drops brushing my face. And lo, I didn't start sneezing, my eyes didn't run, and a headache didn't start up in my left eye! Yay!

We saw few ducks today (though we did see a spectacular cinnamon teal), but Vaux's swifts were to be seen everywhere, swooping and darting, red-winged blackbirds (of course), and--Great Blue Herons, in the most definite plural. My first sight was of one in a tree, then of several roosting in another tree. And of another one, which looked on the small size, standing in the reeds at the edge of the lake, darting forward and pulling a fish out of the water. That one then took to the air and flew off, to relocate in another set of reeds near the stadium, as we discovered when we continued our walk. We then saw another, much larger blue heron in the southwest pond, standing very still, peering down into the water. Everywhere across the expanse of the fill we passed photographers with huge cameras set on tripods-- a typical of any spring Sunday at the Fill. I heard various warblers, but never managed to actually see any. I was amused to pass a small boy shakily riding his bicycle followed by his father, jogging along behind him: a fortuitous arrangement that probably won't last more than a few months more, since even shaky as he was, the boy already had his father running at a good clip. A robin atop a thin trunk of a dead tree about twice as tall as I caught my amused attention because he wasn't perched on it, as one might expect, but lying on it such that he looked as though the trunk had been thrust through his breast. Since he was singing quite lustily, it was clear that no such thing had happened. We were getting out our cameras in the hope of taking his picture when he flew off, annoyed at us for staring at him.

Bird life in our own yard continues to be interesting. A Stellar's jay, beautiful even in profile, spends most of his time in the tree facing the windows of my office and also likes to forage in the turned-up garden plot in our back yard. The humming bird that visits our yard as part of its routine in the summer has begun making occasional appearances. And sometimes, in the morning, when I look out the window over the kitchen sink, I see black-capped chickadees perching in the kiwi vines below my neighbors' bay window.

I won't speak of the crows, the seagulls, or the geese. No doubt they consider themselves the city's true rulers. They can be seen--and heard-- everywhere.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mind-bending ontology

My brain is tying itself up in knots trying to grok how "life" can "begin" two week before conception. The certifiably insane legislators and governor of the fine state of Arizona have passed and signed into law new, draconian, women-hating legislation that among other things declares that pregnancy does indeed "begin" two weeks before conception. Considering that pregnancy often results from a spontaneous, unplanned union of zygotes, a union that cannot be predicted by anyone (human, anyway), and that determining when pregnancy begins is itself a sketchy business even for obstetricians, I'm having a heck of a time trying to imagine the ontological basis of such a law. When I mentioned to Tom that the lunatic governor had just signed this law, he scoffed at me and said that I'd been taken in by a hoax. I hadn't-- though I do admit that I keep doubting much of the news I read about what governments (especially in the US) are up to, and having to double-check. (As I did with this.) This law is known as as the "egg drop"bill. It bans all abortions after 20 weeks-- which is to say, in actuality, 18 weeks (i.e., 20 minus the two before conception). Here's
Planned Parenthood of Arizona lobbyist Michelle Steinberg called the law the country’s “most extreme piece of anti-abortion legislation.”

She said the law defines pregnancy in a way that bans abortion two weeks before the other seven states with similar laws, because it calculates gestational age starting with the first day of the last menstrual period rather than the date of conception.

During the hearings on the bill, doctors said many women don’t discover their fetus has a severe or life-threatening problem until an ultrasound at about the 20th week. The doctors — and several women who had faced this issue — testified that this law would arbitrarily cut off the right for these women to have an abortion.

“My heart goes out to the families that will be impacted,” Steinberg said. “Women are being forced to carry children that they know will end up dying within hours of birth.”

Debate on the bill was emotional.

Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, who sponsored the bill, said the goal was to protect both the health of women and that of the fetus.

“The state has a compelling interest to protect women from the serious health and safety risks of abortion,” Yee said.

Brewer in a news release said the new law is consistent with her support of anti-abortion measures.

“Knowing that abortions become riskier the later they are performed in pregnancy, it only makes sense to prohibit these procedures past twenty weeks,” Brewer said in her release.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, said the new law was “a horrible thing to do to women.”

“Once again, (Brewer) and the Republicans in the Legislature have decided that they know better than women,” she said. “They are again saying that women are incapable of making those decisions.”
I'd say that the law "is consistent" with Brewer's history of supporting hateful, narrow-minded, and idiotic legislation designed to render the state a miserable place to live for the majority of its population. A new question: will medical textbooks need to be rewritten now? I fully expect a whole slew of insane legislatures to follow Arizona's lead. State legislatures, as the Texas legislature has brilliantly demonstrated, are perfectly capable of altering "facts." I can hardly wait to see what the next whacko idea coming out of the state will be now that they've broken the Ontology Barrier.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Oh Jack Coetzee No, Part 2: Coetzee at Colonus (with Philip Roth spoilers)

Suffering from a bad case of Impostor Syndrome vis-à-vis my claims to know something about disability literature and contemporary fiction, I sought to improve my credentials recently by reading a little novel that falls into both categories, Philip Roth’s Nemesis. I ended up rather enjoying it and thinking I would use it in the classroom someday. Then, remembering that my friend Natalie Zemon Davis had criticized the article in question, I decided to revisit J.M. Coetzee’s rave review of the book that appeared in the nyrb upon its release. And I reread it, and now I feel like dedicating the rest of my humble life to fighting the attitudes and approaches that Coetzee’s review exemplifies until they are expunged from the earth.

Nemesis basically follows the pattern of the novels in Roth’s “America trilogy”: a narrator reminisces about a fellow working-class New Jerseyan guy he used to idealize, whose life has collapsed; it initially seems that Idealized Guy was destroyed by his interactions with a strong-willed but two-dimensional woman; Narrator Guy ultimately discovers that Idealized Guy’s fate was sealed by aspects of his character or values that go back to long before he met her. In this case, Idealized Guy is the courageous twenty-three-year-old gym teacher Bucky Cantor; Narrator Guy is his student Arnie Mesnikoff; 2-D woman is Bucky’s fiancée Marcia. The catastrophe seems to be Bucky’s decision to leave his job in Newark during the 1944 polio epidemic to work at a summer camp alongside Marcia: Bucky comes to believe that he had been an asymptomatic polio carrier and brought the disease to the camp. After falling ill himself, he breaks off his engagement and becomes a guilt-ridden recluse. The novel’s final scene is an encounter between Bucky and Arnie in 1971: Arnie, also disabled by polio, has led a less self-dramatizing life, marrying, having children, and becoming an architect specializing in barrier-free environments. He is hard-pressed to understand why Bucky clings so fiercely to his martyrdom. The story can be read as Arnie’s attempt to understand his childhood idol’s fall.

Mark McGurl recently suggested that late Roth can be understood in terms of existentialist thought, as it became fashionable in the late-1950s U.S. when Roth’s career was beginning; and that perspective is certainly relevant to Arnie’s argument with Bucky: Arnie tends to think that Bucky is guilty of a kind of mauvaise foi, abnegating the freedom and responsibility to choose the narrative he will make of his life. Roth, I would suggest, keeps the question open of whether Bucky has that kind of freedom or whether the facts of his upbringing more or less doomed him to an understanding of guilt, duty, and masculinity that made it impossible for him to interpret and respond to his illness any differently than he has. We are in the realm of Wharton and Dreiser and Fitzgerald, with the strong suggestion that character, as formed (or distorted) by specific imperatives of U.S. life, is destiny. More generally, Roth is partaking of the anti-transcendent tradition in American literature from Hawthorne to Egan: the seductions of the grandiose narrative are very great, this tradition tells us, but it will destroy your relations with others — you’d far better settle down and work for your family and community.

Now, posthumanist hipsters like you and me are exquisitely aware of the shortcomings of existentialist thought, of its universalizations, its voluntarism, its struggles to account for social change and sustained collective action. So it’s a kind of triumph on Coetzee’s part that he makes the existentialist approach look positively progressive (although, to be sure, the bar is low enough that he makes a pillar of Catholic conservatism like René Girard look progressive too). Because Coetzee, reading the novel’s title unironically, interprets Nemesis through a theory of tragedy that has no room for atheism and little space for society. Of Arnie, he writes, “A modern soul, Arnie has found ways of navigating a world beyond good and evil; Bucky, he feels, should have done the same.” But surely Arnie thinks Bucky has done serious evil to himself, to Marcia and her family, and to the community he has abandoned. The images of evil Arnie rejects are the melodrama of Bucky’s theology, in which “God was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two—a sick fuck and an evil genius,” and his morality, in which he is responsible for having infected dozens of children under his care. Arnie also seems to recognize evil in the shame that attends Bucky’s disability: “He could never show his withered arm and withered leg to anyone other than a doctor or, when she was living, his grandmother.”

Wrestling with the question of what could have brought him to such a tragic pass, Arnie speculates on the strengths and weaknesses of Bucky’s character:
He was largely a humorless person . . . someone instead haunted by an exacerbated sense of duty but little force of mind, and for that he had paid a high price in assigning the gravest meaning to his story, one that, intensifying over time, perniciously magnified his misfortune . . . Nothing he does matches the ideal in him. He never knows where his responsibility ends.
This sort of meditation, considering how a noble person encountered the very circumstances in which his strengths become destructive forces, is a pretty routine approach to understanding tragedy, one that respects the tragic hero while grieving the ironic fate that s/he has met with. But Coetzee, possessed of an eccentric understanding of classical tragedy, is having none of it—Arnie’s realist perspective is, to him, a denial not only of “good and evil” but of humanity:
God may indeed be incomprehensible, as Marcia says. Nonetheless, someone who tries to grasp God’s mysterious designs at least takes humanity, and the reach of human understanding, seriously; whereas someone who treats the divine mystery as just another name for chance does not. What Arnie is unwilling to see—or at least unwilling to respect—is first the force of Bucky’s Why? (“this maniac of the why,” he calls him) and then the nature of Bucky’s No!, which, pigheaded, self-defeating, and absurd though it may be, nevertheless keeps an ideal of human dignity alive in the face of fate, Nemesis, the gods, God.

Okay, Jack. A guy witnesses catastrophe and discovers that life is wickedly unjust. Unsurprisingly, he asks Why? and rails at God. Simultaneously, determined to find someone culpable for the depredations of illness and premature deaths, he blames himself and spends decades scapegoating himself for his and others’ misfortunes. And the friend who tries to “get him to see himself as something more than his deficiencies and begin to liquidate his shame” is denying human dignity? There’s something odd going on here, something more than the rejection of the old existential insight that ya gotta make your own meaning of life. Maybe it’s just religious mania, or a tendency to empathize with the lone grandiose antihero. But that “dignity” thing, in light of Bucky’s condition, bothers me. See, another newspaper reviewer (whose review I can’t track down) endorsed Bucky’s decision on the grounds that surely no man would want to become so dependent upon his wife as the crippled Bucky would in a marriage to Marcia. As if most able-bodied guys born in 1921 were not pretty dependent upon their wives already; as if there were people who led autonomous lives with no dependency. This idea that Bucky’s withdrawal from human connection is somehow ennobling suggests a very Libertarian concept of “dignity.”

Coetzee’s finding an ideal of human dignity in the defiant self-pity that Kundera would call litost is particularly sinister under these circumstances. Because what Bucky has been deprived of, leading him to insist that Marcia cannot possibly know her own mind when she insists she still wants to marry him, is his old life as a strong, able-bodied authority figure in a sunny homosocial environment. The novel’s final scene is a flashback to Bucky’s demonstrating his skill with the javelin to the schoolchildren under his care: it’s a celebration of primal muscularity worthy of Leni Riefenstahl, and Arnie (with the verbal awkwardness Roth gives him whenever he reaches for the sublime) quite explicitly recalls the event as a masculine ritual: “Through him, we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender.” The scene perfectly illustrates the ideal in the face of which disability is incompatible with potency, community, and masculinity. It also illustrates another of Roth’s favorite themes, grandiose misidentification. From The Ghost Writer, in which Zuckerman points out that the Jews who lived through the war in Newark cannot claim the moral authority of the Holocaust (“We were not the victims of that crime!”) to I Married a Communist, in which he realizes that Murray has done a lot more good for humanity on the school board than has Ira fighting for world Communism, we see people who bitterly pit themselves against Evil in the service of what turns out to be a false ideal of solidarity, one that actually militates against productive relationships with others. Bucky takes the problem to an extreme in that his false ideal creates an imaginary from which he has abjected and scapegoated himself.

Roth’s perspective may not be a radical one, but in this time and place, I think taking a stand against the lone defiant hero and the myths that support him is useful. For as Ron Silliman points out,
The isolato in American literature is little more than a tribune for the most imperial and corporate of impulses . . . If you are responsible to no one, you are in the exact same position that capital and profit play in the world economy. What might be noble in such attempts at outsider independence – a resistance to being used by others for purposes that one might find repellant – nonetheless reminds me of the flaw at the heart of Timothy Leary’s old slogan: Tune in, turn on, drop out. There simply is no “out.” It’s as identifiable a location in the game of life as any other. We are all of us on this planet together. You can choose which side you are on, but there is no “nobody’s side” to pick. That one already belongs to Mr. Murdoch, the Koch brothers & their buds.
The narrative of the righteous outsider, however tormented he may be, really doesn’t keep human dignity alive — if one concedes that there are other humans than oneself.

The Fourth Issue of the Cascadia Subduction Zone is now available for free download

You can download the pdf of Vol. 1, 4 here.

This was a special issue on Women and Science. Here's the issue's table of contents:

Gender, Science, and Narrative Inversion by Ann Hibner Koblitz
Women in Science and Science Fiction: A Mutual Relationship? by Helen Merrick
Bad Science: The Flawed Research into Gender Differences in the Brain by Nancy Jane Moore
Where the Juice Is: An Interview with Julie Czerneda by Nisi Shawl
Grandmother Magma
Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis reviewed by Andrea Hairston

Tesseracts Fifteen edited by Julie Czerneda & Susan MacGregor reviewed by Nic Clarke
Frankenstein's Monster by Susan Heyboer O'Keefe reviewed by Siobhan Carroll
The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski reviewed by Karen Burnham
Revolution World by Katy Stauber reviewed by Tom Foster 

Featured Artist
Jennifer Mondfrans

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Brit Mandelo's We Wuz Pushed: Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling

It's my pleasure to announce that Aqueduct Press has just released a new volume in the Conversation Pieces Series, We Wuz Pushed: Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling, by Brit Mandelo. "To speak radical truths—unapologetically, ferociously, rudely when necessary—is the central purpose of Joanna Russ's influential body of work," declares Mandelo in her essay on Russ's radical, groundbreaking literary and critical work. Mandelo’s essay traces Russ's evolving efforts to speak truth throughout her literary career—examining both Russ's successes and failures in doing so. She insists that Russ problematized and individualized her ultimate understanding of truth without rejecting its possibility. Rather, Mandelo argues, the trajectory of change in Russ's work and her revision of prior truths itself constitutes a valuable part of the truth-telling project. Russ emerges in Mandelo's essay as a heroic though all-too-human intellectual and artist, one whose angry, brilliant work we cannot afford to ignore or forget.

To tell you the truth, when this arrived in Aqueduct's mail, I snatched it from the pile to read first, rather than let it go to Kath, as mss sent to us usually do--and I devoured it one sitting. I suspect that a lot of Aqueduct readers will be as riveted as I by this essay.

You can buy the volume here for $9, or the e-book for $5.95. I'll be interested to hear what its readers might have to say about it. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 2, 2

The new issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 2, #2, is out! This one, in honor of National Poetry Month, is a special issue on poetry, including essays about poetry and writing poetry by Liz Henry and Mark Rich, thoughtful reviews of books of poetry By Eileen Gunn, Liz Bourke, Rachel Swirsky, and others, and-- of course!-- poetry.

Here's the table of contents:

Undines, Vampires, Statues, and Space...Women’s Poetry
by Liz Henry

Writing, Race, and Poetry
by Mark Rich

Crow at Solstice by Mark Rich
Said in Tones of Conversation by Mark Rich
Bird-Winged by Michele Bannister
East Coast Summer by Emily Jiang
The Problem of Two Bodies by Michele Bannister

Grandmother Magma
Promised Lands: Poems from the Sovereign of Dishpan Sonnets by JT Stewart
reviewed by Eileen Gunn

The Moment of Change edited by Rose Lemberg
reviewed by Rachel Swirsky
He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices by Stephen Mills
reviewed by Evan J. Peterson
Suspended Somewhere Between: A Book of Verse by Akbar Ahmed
reviewed by Liz Bourke
A Mayse-Bikhl by Sonia Taaffe
reviewed by Amal El-Mohtar
When the Only Light is Fire by Saeed Jones
reviewed by Sheree Renée Thomas

Featured Artist
Terri Windling

You can subscribe to the CSZ or purchase the new issue as a single here.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Gender balance in sf reviewing venues-- 2011 update

Niall Harrison and associates have posted a 2011 update to his 2010 report on gender balance in sf reviewing venues. You'll particularly want to check out his bar graphs (with men represented by red and women by blue). This year, by the way, The Cascadia Subduction Zone was included in the count, as well as two additional venues not included last year. Here's the bottom line (bearing in mind that the Locus numbers are skewed by what Niall calls "the Cushman effect"):

Summary for books reviewed