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Hiatus

I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars a few days ago, and, while it offered a tremendous amount to think—and, presumably, to write—about, I can't quite summon the necessary energy actually to gather my thoughts and present them.

The fault is certainly not in the book: I am beyond eager to read the next two installments in the trilogy and I cannot praise Red Mars highly enough. It is almost precisely the kind of book which should lead me to all kinds of verbosity, and which almost certainly should provoke at least an attempt at sustained engagement with the text. I mean, Fredric Jameson is in the acknowledgments and provides a blurb for the novel—I'm not sure any other work of fiction can make that boast.

And if that is the case, I think it is probably time to put this blog into something like hibernation, at least until the end of the year, when my academic obligations shift not so much in their weight or density but in (I believe) their distribution, and I may find some time to try out my ideas here once more.

My neglect of the past few months (if not longer) has probably already winnowed this blog's reader base, but I assume (or rather, Google Reader tells me) that some people are sticking around on RSS, for  which I'm quite grateful.

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"Desire Is a World by Night," by John Berryman

The history of strangers in their dreams
Being irresponsible, is fun for men,
Whose sons are neither at the Front nor frame
Humiliating weakness to keep at home
Nor wtnce on principle, wearing mother grey,
Honoured by radicals. When the mind is free
The catechetical mind can mincn and tear
Contemptible vermin from a stranger's hair
And then sleep.

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          In our parents' dreams we see
Vigour abutting on senility,
Stiff blood, and weathered with the years, poor vane;
Unfortunate but inescapable.
Although the wind bullies the windowpane
Are the children to be kept responsible
For the world's decay? Carefully we choose
Our fathers, carefully we cut out those
On whom to exert the politics of praise.

Heard after dinner, in defenceless ease,
The dreams of friends can puzzle, dazzle us
With endless journeys through unfriendly snow,
Malevolent faces that appear and frown
Where nothing was expected, the sudden stain
On spotless window-ledges; these we take
Chuckling, but take them with us when we go,
To study in secret, late, brooding, looking
For trails and parallels. We have a stake
In this particular region, and we look
Excitedly for situations that we know.
—The disinterested man has gone abroad;
Winter is on the by-way where he rode
Erect and alone, summery years ago.

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When we dream, paraphrase, analysis
Exhaust the crannies of the night. We stare,
Fresh sweat upon our foreheads, as they fade:
The melancholy and terror of avenues
Where long no single man has moved, but play
Under the arc-lights gangs of the grey dead
Running directionless. That bright blank place
Advances with us into fearful day,
Heady and insuppressible. Call in friends,
They grin and carry it carefully away,—
The fathers can't be trusted,—strangers wear
Their strengths, and visor. Last, authority,
The Listener borrow from an English grave
To solve our hatred and our bitterness..
The foul and absurd to solace or dismay.
All this will never appear; we will not say;
Let the evidence be buried in a cave
Off the main road. If anyone could see
The white scalp of that passionate will and those
Sullen desires, he would stumble, dumb,
Retreat into the time from which he came
Counting upon his fingers and toes.

-from The Dispossessed, (1948), reprinted in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Other Poems, (1968)

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Wikipedia article for your reference]
I doubt I will find many fellow readers of Le Guin who will agree with me, but I was shocked (and obviously seriously dismayed) to find a subterranean similarity to Ayn Rand, and particularly to Anthem, in this novel.

There are a couple of positive references (1, 2) to libertarianism in The Dispossessed, but that is somewhat misleading and not what I am talking about; Anarres, the homeworld of the novel's protagonist, is diametrically opposite to the unfettered market and ultra-individualism that mark Rand's political visions. Anarres lacks any form of market whatsoever, and its basic unit of political organization is not the individual nor even a family but a syndicate or a work gang; the only forms of exchange are carried out in central depots or stockrooms where one may swap a broken chair for a new (or more likely a newly repaired) one, a mended pair of boots for a worn set. Possessiveness is absolutely minimal in Anarresti society, and if its inhabitants have a fault, it is that they push back too reflexively against anyone "egoizing"—drawing attention to themselves or attempting to consolidate power or authority, preventing either from being continuously and randomly distributed and redistributed. And if this weren't clear enough, Le Guin offers us a sort of techno-capitalist society for contrast: A-Io, a nation on Anarres's twin-world Urras, is much like the United States, only it reveres scientists and engineers much more, treating them like pashas. The class structure is also much more openly defined; the only societal arrangements that Le Guin shows resemble the upstairs-downstairs divisions of British manor houses. This isn't very much like Rand either.

What Le Guin's book holds in common with Rand, however, is an unfailing excitement at the quite adolescent belief that genius, like murder, will out, that the brightest lights can never be smothered or hidden, that even if you try, no bushel-basket will obscure nor occlude nor even diminish the full force of one's magnificence. "But you are not like other men," Shevek, the galactically brilliant physicist-protagonist, is told, "There is a difference in you." "Since he was very young he had known that in certain ways he was unlike anyone else he knew. For a child the consciousness of such difference is very painful, since, having done nothing yet and being incapable of doing anything, he cannot justify it." "If there was a circle of silence around him, it was no bother to him, he had always been alone." The scientist (or industrialist, for Rand) is a hero not so much for specific real achievements, but for being a sort of symbolic force in and of himself, a natural aristocrat, uncontainable, transcendent, magnetic. His suffering, which is a sort of Passion, occurs because (or occurs if) he feels slightly bad for being so naturally transcendent and wants to try to be ordinary, to put his shoulder against the common load.

I frankly found the supposedly charismatic Shevek to be fairly flat and dull, although I suppose some will claim that his blandness and generally self-righteous insipidity is beside the point—I forget, the focus of the book is the world-building, the world-building. I would believe that, only the world-building falls into some grey limbo midway between ethnography or microhistory and allegory; we get lots of lovely and highly textured detail, but Le Guin seems dissatisfied with letting anything remain a detail—her worlds don't just function (and frankly, I feel that at some points, their functionality is very open to question), but more importantly, they mean. Le Guin's world-building is too efficient—all material problems, such as famine, communication, violence, sexual reproduction, and so on, are squeezed for every drop of potential macro-level political analysis: every situation, every feature, every difference is an opportunity not for description, but for observation and a full-scale society-wide evaluation—an opportunity to turn the society into a metaphor, singular, smooth, and homogeneous.

Unlike many readers, I don't particularly mind preachiness or even propaganda in literature—or in film: concurrent with reading this novel, I watched and hugely enjoyed the USSR-Cuban collaboration Soy Cuba, which one might say is on the didactic side. I adamantly do not think that undigested political content is objectionable or automatically flaws a work. What I am objecting to about Le Guin's novel is not that its fingers of rhetoric are blunt and rather clasping. My objection is simply that Le Guin, rather like Rand, fails to acknowledge that those fingers might not grasp firmly enough: Le Guin has too much faith that her political analysis and her world-building are mutually supporting, that the worlds she builds furnish all the evidence she needs for the hypotheses she is testing, and that those hypotheses adequately encompass the worlds she is building. Nothing escapes.

It's not that there isn't variety within Anarresti society (or Urrasti society): there are people of many kinds, certainly. But society isn't really made up of people or even structures for Le Guin: it's made up of ideas—big solid ones, like anarchism or social Darwinism, which can be chosen as if on a menu, only not ever a la carte but always prix fixe. Furthermore, these big ideas, and the choices between them, are always present, even immediately available, to all the characters. There is no mediating term, or set of mediating terms, between the symbolic and the material—everyone is always conscious of the full ideological ramifications of each decision, each action, each word—there is basically no such thing as false consciousness or even indifferent consciousness. No one writes, no one works, no one speaks without considering where they stand ideologically. Everything is a clash of ideas, a validation of one idea or a rebuttal to another. It's somewhat exhausting, like an all-night freshman year bull-session. Or, perhaps, like certain moments in the Cold War.

This super-consciousness of ideology is, in a kind of brilliant but also a very overstated way, a politicization and massive enlargement of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which Wikipedia pointed out to me is a major theme of the novel). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, in simplistic terms, that the language you use (more accurately, the language that your society gives you to use) determines the way that you can think about the world. For instance, early in the novel, Shevek notes that the way Anarresti society acknowledges the importance of something is to say that it is "more central," whereas the way that Urrasti society flags importance is through height—better things are "higher," worse things are "lower" (15). The political ramifications of this basic divide are clear and rather elementary, although for a truly radical anarchism (as Le Guin claims Anarresti society is), ranking things based on their relationship to a center would still be a form of hierarchy; to some extent, it is that Le Guin's own conceptual categories are impeding her ability to form a clear distinction between the societies—she assumes hierarchy can only be vertically oriented.

Yet that is not the vindication of Sapir-Whorfianism that one might think, as the whole distinction makes little practical or experiential sense. It is worth noting, as it is rather indicative of my issues with Le Guin's schematism, that most English-users, at least those I have encountered, often use a mixture of these categories, and at times even invert the "high-low" valuation—when you say something is "more fundamental" or "more basic" or that you are "getting to the bottom of something," isn't the idea that the more valuable or more important things reside lower down? We may also conjoin temporality with significance: something that has greater "priority" is obviously more important, better for you to attend to. Even weight may serve to order degrees of importance: a light matter is a lesser matter. For Le Guin, as for the stronger versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, these kinds of mixtures are at least unlikely if not illusory; one can divide and analyze societies based on the metaphors or conceptual categories they employ because they are assumed to employ only one.

I think Le Guin probably knows that, actually, but the reason she makes things so stark and univocal is that she believes that a revolutionary society (like Anarres) will enforce such univocality (how that explains the starkness of Urrasti linguistic categories, I don't know). And to some extent, this is historically correct: in the wake of many revolutions, an attempt to "correct" or standardize language is common, from the renaming of months and the abolition of hereditary titles after the French Revolution to the distribution of Mao's pamphlets in the Cultural Revolution. Yet the story she tells about her revolutionary society—150 years before the action of the novel, there was a minority religious dissident group who convinced the Urrasti majority to transport (and abandon) them to their habitable but desolate "moon," Anarres, where this dissident group founded a new anarchist society and invented a new language—is peculiar, or rather inconsistent.

The point of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least as I understand it, is that someone is generally not aware of the conceptual limits placed upon her by the language she uses: she doesn't experience her language as insufficient, as "not having words for some things." The conceptual limits of a language are experienced as natural limits. Natural, that is, unless one comes into contact with a language that has words which have no possible cognate, or none that is easily articulable. Now, Le Guin attempts to isolate her revolutionary society so that these limits should not be experienced; communication with Urras is extremely limited, taking place within a very small circle of people, and knowledge of the Urrasti language is highly controlled. Yet the fact that the Anarrestis originated on Urras makes this isolation sort of hopeless: for instance in one scene, Shevek addresses his partner Takver thus: "What are you doing—indulging guilt feelings? Wallowing?" And Le Guin tells us in an aside:
The word he used was not "wallowing," there being no animals on Anarres to make wallows; it was a compound, meaning literally "coating continually and thickly with excrement." The flexibility and precision of Pravic [the revolutionary language of Anarres] lent itself to the creation of vivid metaphors quite unforeseen by its inventors. (332)
The Pravic word that Shevek uses—whatever it is—may be new, revolutionary, not indebted to Urras, but the concept "coating continually and thickly with excrement" is unthinkable apart from a memory of something that actually does this action—an Urrasti memory. Humans do not undertake this action and no one would think to associate self-indulgent self-recrimination with this action merely out of the blue; it seems implausible that anyone would even conceive of this action without some awareness of it being done by something somewhere. The name may have changed, but the persistence of the concept proves a continuity that suggests that Anarrestis must, from time-to-time, still experience linguistic lacks, unnameable residual concepts that make visible the artifices of their recently created language.

It is possible—in fact, it is definite—that Le Guin knows that the Anarresti revolution, the overthrow of "archism" (as in the opposite of anarchism) is always going to be incomplete, that power collects, aggregates, if not in the hands of individuals, then in the customs of society. This is largely the "lesson" one gets from reading the book. Yet that does not really let her off the hook. The point is not that no revolution can ever be complete (or, in slightly different language, that any revolution is perfect), but that the distinctions she draws between Anarres and Urras are not supported by the world she describes. The incomplete revolution is still so nakedly different from the lack of a revolution, and no one ever forgets that, not even while dealing with "excrement." Le Guin seems to assume that this permanent consciousness in fact determines the social being of her characters, but it becomes quite clear that this idealism is no more convincing than a vulgar materialism—social being mechanically determining or producing consciousness.

The Dispossessed is an experiment that quietly buries a number of its variables under the weight of metaphor. It wants to dramatize ideas without dramatizing enough life, and even on its own terms, I think it misses the mark it sets for itself.

From Warren Susman, Culture as History

From the Preface (pp. x-xi):
In the beginning there are the words, all kinds of words from all kinds of places: words from philosophical treatises and tombstones, from government documents and fairy tales, from scientific papers, advertisements, dictionaries, and collections of jokes. There are, of course, other sources of information: images, sounds, objects of use and of enjoyment, ledgers of debits and of credits, gathered statistics—countless cultural artifacts, each of enormous value but analyzable only when translated into words. Thus the historian's world is always a world of words; they become his primary data; from them he fashions facts. He can then go on to create other words, propositions about the world that follow from his study of those data.
This creation of fact is never an easy task. The historian must discover the precise nature of the human experience the words attempt to describe, the particular attitudes toward that experience they define. Thomas Hobbes warned us centuries ago that "words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon with them, but they are the money of fools." The historian must learn to tell the wise man from the fool—and then learn from both of them. He must learn how people do in fact "reckon" with words.
But the good historian is not done when he has presented the facts. He must be able to take words seriously but not always literally. He must pay special attention not only to what writers "parade but what they betray": the unstated sassumptions that make the stated words intelligible. The historian searches not only for truth but for meaning. In that process the very words the historian uses become symbols themselves. Each age has its special words, its own vocabulary, its own set of meanings, its particular symbolic order. This is true of the world about which the historian writes; it is equally true of the world in which he [sic] writes. Turning facts into interpreted symbols, the final stage of the historian's craft, becomes the most difficult and the most intellectually dangerous.
(Warren I. Susman, Culture as History. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003. Reprint of New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.)