SF humanism, literary fiction and indie rock

December 11th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Science fiction is the first human literature

That’s Ken MacLeod attempting the most extreme claim possible in defence of SF. I don’t buy his rosy view of SF as humanist, or that “mainstream [literature] is mostly about things we share with other animals – love and hate, war and peace, dominance hierarchies, sex and violence“. But I don’t have to: he’s just turning the contrast right up to clarify the picture.

Also makes me realise how twisted it is that my ideas of ‘being human’ are all in opposition to being cold-hearted, calculating, machine-like, etc. i.e. to me, ‘being human’ generally means ‘being animal’.

I’ve never read Heinrich Böll, but this interview makes me want to for the first time.

I also guiltily enjoy the grumbling about mainstream American literature. It’s an easy bogeyman, and hardly a new one: male, middle-class, academic, urban, dull. The most common hate figure is Jonathan Franzen, or at least his critical canonization. It’s striking how many writers whose (online) work I enjoy come out with similar criticism. But I don’t read enough novels to judge if it’s accurate, and I don’t have enough historical perspective to know if it is more than the perpetual siege of the centre by the periphery.

Much the same with indie music. Take Sasha Frere-Jones:

I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness….Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain? I can’t imagine [James Brown or the Meters] retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.

That isn’t the most interesting version of this critique, just the one I have to hand. IMO the race angle is more a symptom than a cause — the fundamental problem involves social and economic power, geographical centralization of the chattering classes, critics facing practical incentives to discuss the cultures they know and understand. In short, it’s The System. Or it’s The Kyriarchy, to use this decade’s terminology — the idea is the same.

ETA: less convinced by both these arguments the more I think about them.

December 11th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Ken MacLeod:

I was on a panel with Charlie Stross, and he did a very impressive Charlie-style riff on how SF is actually the agitprop department of an early 20th-century totalitarian movement that never made the big time with the flags and uniforms and revolvers and never got a mound of skulls to call its own. Technocracy, the movement in question, has dwindled to a handful of old men in Oregon, busy putting the Northwest Technocrat on the Web after decades of cyclostyling, but SF soldiers on. It’s as if collectivization and the Five-Year Plan had never happened but there was this genre, socialist realism – SR – that kept going on and on and on about tractors.

Ödön von Horváth

December 10th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Someone wrote to me about Ödön von Horváth, a Weimar-era playwright and novelist who wrote these wonderful absurdist pieces about how nuts fascism was — the point being that its inherent craziness hid how evil it was. His work is laugh-out-loud funny while being shiver-down-your-spine chilling. But he was a Hungarian living in Berlin and eventually had to flee the Nazis. An epically difficult thing in itself, and he must have felt a unfathomably-deep sense of relief when he finally got to Paris… where he was promptly struck by lightening and killed while taking a victory stroll down the Champs Elysee. How can we not champion this guy? He must not be forgotten.

Bookslut | Heinrich Böll and the Literature of Aftermath: A Correspondence

December 10th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

What is Anonymous

What does anything have to do with the other? People are dead. Other people are rich. Some people’s day was ruined. Other people were embarrassed. Some people laughed. What is the end result? Human history. The world, every damn day. Welcome to the never-ending old sick twisted mostly unfunny joke that is life. The human mob, again and again and again. Until there are none of us left.

So what is Anonymous? Whatever you want. In my definition, the closest that a boring and trite platitude can get to summing up human existence while still missing it completely. Sorry. Add your own politics/doom/disappointment/enthusiasm/distrust/anger/fear/love. It’s jokes, all the way down.

In other words, it’s the mob. we got a little less used to the mob in the era of Fordism, when people were more regulated and had to get up at 9am. Now, the internet is in many ways bringing us back towards the pre-industrial. And 4-chan is the new mob.

SF and victorian realism

December 8th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

The Goggles Do Nothing — Crooked Timber

The ancestry of modern SF lies as much in the 19th century “condition of England” novel as it does in more obvious ancestors like Frankenstein. That is to say – one of the skeins one can trace back through modern SF is a vein of sociological rather than scientific speculation, in which events happening to individual characters serve as a means to capture arguments about what is happening to society as a whole. In the nineteenth century, there was clearly a tension between the novel-as-fleshing-out-of-individual-experience and the novel-as-depiction-of-our-social-state (Middlemarch is one of the few novels I’ve read from this period that really manages these tensions successfully). Science fiction took one of these routes (an awful lot of early SF - e.g. H.G. Wells is primarily sociological speculation). Returning to the long nineteenth century is nothing more and nothing less than SF coming back to its roots.

Wikileaks, Mr Miyagi, cells and mass movements

December 8th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

This is the key question for the long-term impact of wikileaks:

Assange’s hypothesis may or may not be true, but his belief that WikiLeaks will lead to greater government transparency is blinkered in the extreme. Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates. American foreign-policy bureaucracies have and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information.

The effect of wikileaks is to clamp down on all partially-secret information. If you want to act, you now must make a choice: either you act entirely in the open, or you keep it all locked down*. Keep things partialy secret, but not entirely, and you’re going to experience the worst of both worlds.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s how political groups must act under threat from a repressive government. Choose transparency, act like Aung San Suu Kyi. Depend for your survival on public support domestic and international, on the efficiency of open communication, on having a morally-defensible public face. Or act as cells. Be small, be secretive. Renounce the possibility of building a mass movement. Be a small group of committed citizens, maybe not even knowing the names of one another.

But don’t choose a path in the middle. To adapt Mr. Miyagi:

Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, [makes squish gesture] get squish just like grape. Here, karate secrecy, same thing. Either you karate secrecy do “yes”, or karate secrecy do “no”. You karate secrecy do “guess so”, [makes squish gesture] just like grape. Understand?

The same applies to governments, lobbyists, firms worried about leaking secrets to one another. The latest leaks were visible to 3 million Americans. It’s a reasonable bet that Russia and China had already gained access to them. Similarly I wouldn’t be at all surprised if big corporations already knew about some of what the State Department were secretly saying about them. You can easily imagine somebody in Bradley Manning’s position going on to work for Halliburton, bringing with him any documents discussing the corporation.

The bulk of the leaks consists of political analysis, gossip, pen-portraits of powerful figures. It’s the kind of commentary that circulates pretty freely among journalists, lobbyists, activists, civil servants and other politics nerds. People in power already had it, albeit not in written form. What’s new is letting the public into it, warts and all.

* The effect isn’t total, but it’s heading in that direction. In the specific case of the Bradley Maning leaks, some half-competent database management would have cut them off at the pass.


Anonymous take down mastercard.com

December 8th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

This is a pretty impressive success for Anonymous, taking down a very prominent site.



In an attack it is calling “Operation: Payback”, a group of online activists calling themselves Anonymous appear to have orchestrated a DDOS (“distributed denial of service”) attack on the site, bringing its service to a halt for many users. Attempts to load www.mastercard.com are currently unsuccessful.


Interestingly, this is sandwiched half-way between being a mass action, and being merely the work of a small, elite group of hackers. I’m not sure what system they’re using, but the ‘distributed’ element of the DDoS almost certainly comes from thousands of /b/tards running some code on their own machines. For that matter, it could well be that a bunch of them are sitting on mastercard.com and hitting refresh. 

Mastercard statement: “MasterCard is experiencing heavy traffic on its external corporate website – MasterCard.com. We are working to restore normal speed of service

CT on fees

December 8th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Now that fee-paying is part of the culture, government has taken the opportunity to expand the principle. Whereas we might once have hoped that, as society became wealthier, ever wider access to the goods of higher education (and many other cultural goods) would be possible, now it seems that “we can’t afford it”. What was once an essential component of the good society—remember Harold Wilson’s enthusiasm for the Open University?—becomes an expensive luxury whose only acceptable public justification is economic benefit. So much for John Stuart Mill.

Post mainly to see if ScribeFire is going to help me at all. Probably not


Data Liberation

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Gah! I’m frustrated trying to figure out how to back up all the data I have splurged across the web.

Is there a service that will do it for me? That is, a backup system set up to work with the backup options of all the big sites I use (LJ, blogger, facebook, delicious, etc). Let me just click an ‘export LJ’ button, have them slurp out the data using whatever half-baked interface is available, and either let me download the data or store it online for me.

I’d pay a fair amount for such a service, and I’m sure many others would too. It’s an obvious idea. So where is it?

by the way, the Facebook ‘export my data’ option is excellent, once you find it. Gives you all, for instance, all your wall posts since you joined the site — so you can search through and find what it was you said to somebody a year ago, should you need to.

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

It is hard to exaggerate Mr Erdös’s passion. For 19 hours a day, seven days a week, stimulated by coffee, and later by amphetamines, he worked on mathematics. He might start a game of chess, but would probably doze off until the conversation returned to maths. To find another life this century as intensely devoted to abstraction, one must reach back to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who stripped his life bare for philosophy. But whereas Wittgenstein discarded his family fortune as a form of self-torture, Mr Erdös gave away most of the money he earned because he simply did not need it. “Private property is a nuisance,” he would say. And where Wittgenstein was driven by near suicidal compulsions, Mr Erdös simply constructed his life to extract from his magnificent obsession the maximum amount of happiness.

Source; there’s much else on the site.

Also here are personal reminiscences. Fun to think how, in 60 years time or so, we’ll be seeing the deaths of the last mathematicians who worked with him directly. The last people who really knew (i.e. who worked with) the man himself.

Counter-view here

Sex and space

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Just unearthed an old email I wrote about the relationship between sex and sexuality. Figure I may as well put it up here, since I’m not likely to do anything more with it otherwise.

The basic idea is that many elements of sexuality aren’t usually considered in terms of space — but they could be. A cluster of intimate practices are based around the restriction of space (and the associated physical sensations of pressure, darkness, the touch of whatever boundary is limiting the space). I’m thinking of hugs, bondage, the wearing of corsets and latex, perhaps with vacuum-beds as an extreme case. These tend to also be ‘about’ the complete control and presence in that restrained space and sensations of security (think of people who feel safe when a partner is sitting or lying on them). Often they’re described in the language of restricted freedom; thinking about them instead in terms of space maybe leads you to more psychoanalytic interpretations of the practices; i.e. connecting them to being in the womb. [I have no background in the area, but it certainly seems a possibility]

But you’d need, somehow, to connect that to the sensations of DISembodiment and DISplacement during sex — orgasm, in particular, seems often described in terms of being away from the surrounding environment, in a space which has shrunk to just the two(?) partners. If you cease to be separate bodies, can you still be separate bodies in space? To put it another way, ‘staring at the ceiling’ is a common idiomatic description of being bored during sex. If you’re aware of where you are, the sex isn’t good enough.

[based on reactions to a talk at Salon Populaire 6 months ago]

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Why /are/ there ‘y’s in the English name of Kyrgyzstan? Almost everywhere else the country is ‘Kirgistan’, ‘Kirgisia’, or something similarly y-free. Going through wikipedia, the only other non-cyrillic languages* to use y are Aceh, Cebuano (Philippines), Min, Turkmen, Vietnamese, and others whose names I don’t recognize.

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

oddly decent article by John Naughton in the Guardian:

Consider, for instance, how the views of the US administration have changed in just a year. On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. “Information has never been so free,” declared Clinton. “Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”

She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had “defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.” Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

The state of Wisconsin has gone an entire deer hunting season without someone getting killed. That’s great. There were over 600,000 hunters.

Allow me to restate that number. Over the last two months, the eighth largest army in the world – more men under arms than Iran; more than France and Germany combined – deployed to the woods of a single American state to help keep the deer menace at bay. [source]

Envisioning (unreal) utopias

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Charles Stross on the utopia shortage:

we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems.

Or in the words of Zizek (who is a reliable source of one-liners, if nothing else): “it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system“.

Not that utopias need to be anticapitalist, mind. My own daydreams mostly involve capitalism withering slightly, as some areas currently market-driven are replaced by more satisfying forms of interaction. Same with the other utopia I find most appealing: the amorphous vision implicit in pirate/transparency/open-data circles, slowly coming into focus as those groups become aware of themselves. You can construct non-market versions of those ideals, but they pretty much degrade into communism, anarchism or (rarely, but IMO very plausibly) slavery. Otherwise, you’re left with the market/state/kindness for physical goods, sharing for intellectual goods, and probably some kind of permanent fudge in the middle.

Anyway, utopias: let’s have more of them, regardless of plausibility. What’s yours?

ETA: Although maybe there are a lot of utopian ideas floating around — just not ones I find remotely appealing. Religious fundamentalism is going strong. Pure no-holds-barred capitalism is a utopian ideal for some, and still a long way from being put into practice.

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Bitchy Jones, of course:

My point is this. Femdom is broken. It’s not even there. In a way you can’t blame mandoms for thinking there are no actual dominant women. Real femdom based on the desires of dominant women and submissive men coming together to find places of intersection is gone or never was. All there is a male-desire based economy so pervasive that even people doing stuff for themselves think the women needs to be dressed like and advert for herself as if she needs the business. And it isn’t really surprising that this popular idea of femdom fake out doesn’t have the visceral power of the popular idea of mandom. Because it isn’t real.

December 7th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Sad news for French multiculturalism, as the only (!) politician who dared wear an islamic headscarf* has left the Nouvea Parti Anti-Capitaliste. Brent Whelan:

Moussaïd gave the party its most widespread–though least welcome–burst of publicity last February when she appeared on the list of local candidates in the regional election wearing the Islamic headscarf she favors. Squeezed between the strident criticisms of feminists and secularists, she held her ground–and insisted on her qualifications as a long-time social and party activist–with grace and poise that belied her 21 years. (See my previous post, “Veiled Threat,” 2/15/10) After a storm of polemics, mostly hostile, both inside the party and in highly visible venues such as the Idées pages of Le Monde, Ilham and her local supporters had hoped the delicate issues of tolerance and diversity she raised could be fully aired in a party congress. But as that public debate receded in time–originally scheduled for November, then December, now February–she apparently lost confidence in the party’s openness to her situation, and now her chapter is closed.

* We’re not even talking about a hijab here, by the looks of it — just a hair covering. i.e. something that wouldn’t be the faintest bit controversial in any halfway-sane political climate.

Jet and Coal

December 6th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Surprising to read in BldgBlog about jet engines being used to put out fires in coal mines.

The engineering field of putting out coal fires has intermittently intrigued me since I heard that they (supposedly) account for as much CO2 emission as all road vehicles in the US. Putting out these fires is an incredible engineering challenge, and one that even the most narrow-minded environmentalist couldn’t object to.

So I can’t help daydreaming about the kind of organization that could put out the fires. A band of idealistic engineers — top graduates from Caltech and IIT, grizzled mechanics who’ve spent decades underground, geologists whose morals wouldn’t let them stay in the oil industry. They’re funded by a philanthropic tech billionnaire, or perhaps just from carbon offsetting. Together they cross the world, dragging exotic equipment and wrangling McGyver-like contraptions to deal with each mine. One day they land Thunderbird One in Centralia, point the engines down one of the shafts, and finally put out the fires that have been burning for decades.

Privacy, Secrecy, Pseudonyms: between Kurt and Pandora

December 6th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Productivity and secrecy don’t go well together.

I’ve been slow to accept this, because my private emblem of productivity is the neurotic workaholic. I find it most comfortable to imagine people driven by self-hatred, flinging themselves into creative obsessions to justify lives they would otherwise consider unacceptable, or as a diversion from the emotional wildfires and the social obligations which would otherwise pursue them.

This, of course, says more about me than about the outside world. Sad-but-productive has always been a figure of hope for me, alongside all those people who claim to ride out emotional troubles by burying themselves in work. It’s appealing precisely because it’s never worked for me — because my ability to get anything done evaporates when I’m down. I’d love to clap my hands and believe that if I just learn to mope in the right way, I could be simultaneously sad and productive.

Because the alternative model of productivity — the stronger one, the one built around self-expression rather than self-loathing — is even harder to picture myself in connection with. But this is the more internally coherent kind. It comes from treating everything you encounter with open acceptance, welcoming all of life as material for creation. From not (as I do) ramming 90% of life into the closet, and trying to show people the remaining 10%.

Using your entire life in this way necessarily means abandoning the old pseudo-Romantic lie that each lifetime tells only one story. It requires saying “I am large. I contain multitudes”

Pseudonyms form one escape. Remember Weimar’s cluster of insanely prolific intellectual streetfighters, people such as Kurt Tucholsky. Most of them were forced to write under multiple aliases. Partly this was for political reasons, partly to deal with the sheer volume of their output. Also, though, it was (was it?) to allow free rein to the different parts of their personalities, without running everything through one brand. Multiple personality as lifestyle choice, 70 years before Grant Morrison.

Friendship, therapy, confession

December 6th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

The therapist, the priest, the penpal, the stranger on a train. We always need some confessor who isn’t among our friends. Why? Because in order to respect our friends, we must believe that they will disapprove of some things — particularly, that they share something of our own set of morals. So when you’ve done something shameful, there’s no hope in telling your friends. Either they’ll lose respect for you, or (worse?) they’ll accept your failure, and so you’ll lose respect for them.

Just as Groucho wouldn’t join a club that would have him as a member, so — beyond a certain threshold of self-hatred — you can’t befriend somebody who would have you as a friend.

Here’s the role for the expendable not-quite friend, whatever medical, spiritual or social guise s/he may take. Here also is another reason why religions and mores usually have some system of penance and forgiveness — not just for patching up broken relationships, but because the /possibility/ of repair allows for openness.

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