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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Footnotes to Plato

I've accepted an invitation to join the new Footnotes to Plato [edit: "Cogito"] blog at The Conversation. As yet, none of the blog members have dipped their toes in the water and begun writing there, but it's an interesting - and certainly diverse - group of philosophers based at Australian universities. My author profile at The Conversation is here.

I'll link to any and all future publications on The Conversation's website.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Amanda Marcotte, Black Widow, and Avengers: Age of Ultron

While I'm giving credit to Amanda Marcotte - a cultural commentator with whom I've sometimes disagreed in the past, and one with whom I'll doubtless have disagreements in the future - she also offered some charity and clarity in recently discussing Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Here, the issue was an allegedly sexist representation of the Black Widow, when it's revealed in her dialogue with Bruce Banner that she was forcibly sterilized at the command of her political masters. I share some of Marcotte's annoyance at the frequent valorization of motherhood in our culture, but I also share her understanding that forced sterilization is a terrible event for any woman to have to endure. Moreover, as Marcotte points out, we are given plenty of other information about what else the character was put through in her back story and the deeds she's carried out that make her (in her own eyes) a kind of monster. The attempts to find sexism in the relevant movie scene show an overly hostile or suspicious approach to the movie mixed with (as Marcotte makes clear) a degree of cinematic illiteracy.

Age of Ultron came in for a lot of flak on grounds relating to its supposed sexual and racial politics, but none of the flak really seems to have much merit. In an email exchange with Jerry Coyne, I tried to get clear what the issues seemed to be, and (with my permission) Jerry published my comments in a post a few weeks ago, where he discussed the whole kerfuffle. With one spelling correction, I'll repeat what I said in order to get it all in one place:

I do have some insight into the background, having seen the movie and knowing a bit about the Marvel Comics stories that it draws on. There seem to be four things that have led to the attacks:

1. The movie is as violent (in a stylised way, etc.) as you’d expect of a superhero movie. There’s a scene, as I mention in my review, where it makes some fun of male competitiveness, etc., but as you’d expect a lot of it consists of battle scenes. [Jonathan] McIntosh has been banging on about this on Twitter: “toxic masculinity” and so on.

2. The main female superheroine is the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. In her backstory, she was a Russian spy, trained to be a perfect/near-superhuman assassin before she turned good, etc., etc. Some people seem to object to the revelation that she was trained and brainwashed from childhood, which I suppose might arguably deny her agency and responsibility or something. Second, she is captured at one stage by the villain – the malevolent artificial intelligence, Ultron – creating a “damsel in distress” situation. Third, it’s revealed that she was forcibly sterilised as part of the process of brainwashing/training her. In a scene with Bruce Banner (the Hulk), with whom there’s a romantic sub-plot, she reveals this, and she comments that both of them are monsters. This has been taken to indicate that Whedon thinks that women who can’t bear children are monsters. In context, that’s not what she’s saying at all. She’s reassuring him, in response to his fear that any children he had would be freaks, that she can’t have children anyway. She also tells him that both of them are, in their ways, monstrous.

3. At one stage Tony Stark/Iron Man – who is always a bit of an ass – apparently jokes (I missed this entirely) that if he were in charge he’d institute the right of primae noctis. This is apparently viewed as a rape joke.

4. Whedon is supposed to be a racist for presenting two characters – Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch – as Eastern European but not of any other particular ethnicity beyond the fictional Balkan country they are from. In the comics, they were long supposed to be the children of Magneto (who is Jewish) and his Roma wife, and they were brought up as Roma. Eliding this supposedly makes Whedon/Marvel Studios racist. I liked the connection with Magneto myself, and I regret that Marvel has now altered it in the comics as well, but much of what is going on here relates to intellectual property rights. The movie rights to Magneto are held by FOX, not by Marvel Studios. The IP thing with these companies/properties is a mess.

Some of these points about the movie could be worth civil, subtle discussion by aficionados, but nothing in them could possibly excuse the way Whedon has been abused.

I don't propose to go more deeply into these points. Some might be arguable, or at least worth discussion, but they are all dubious, and, once again, at a minimum none merit the abuse that was handed out to Whedon on Twitter.

For the sake of completeness and fairness, I should note that Whedon subsequently played down the abuse as a factor in his decision to leave Twitter. I gather that many people think this was disingenuous, but I'm inclined to take it more or less at face value. It seems that it was not just the abuse on this particular occasion that got Whedon to leave so much as Twitter's ongoing effect in distracting him - not only the abusive comments, but even comments expressing praise. As he says (see below), he is used to being "attacked by militant feminists" so that in itself would not have run him off Twitter.

That makes sense to me. Twitter can, indeed, be irritating and distracting. To be honest, I sometimes feel that it's bad for me, helping make me a more anxious, exhausted, distracted, bad-tempered person than I want to be ... and I'm sometimes tempted to leave it, even though I find it useful.

Still, none of that excuses the abuse Whedon received, even if that particular wave of inexcusable abuse was not, in some simple, direct cause-and-effect way, the cause of his departure.

I don't necessarily agree with every point Whedon makes about the internet, Twitter, and the current culture wars, but I must also note (and I share) his exasperation with feminists and liberals who waste time and resources by attacking their allies rather than showing solidarity:
"Believe me, I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause."
Yes, quite. Later in the same interview, he expresses frustration at the endless, politicized hyper-analysis that he receives:
"I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically," he said. "Because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you." 
That noted, these issues do need to be discussed. But they can be discussed carefully and charitably, with some media literacy (such as I've praised Marcotte for) and without the layers of hostile parsing and decrying, and the "hate and then hate and then hate".

Finally, Marcotte's piece makes a fair point - which I've also made in the past - that it would help if there were more women in leading roles in, for example, movies based on Marvel's Avengers. I'm pleased that there will be a movie based on Captain Marvel, a character I've wanted to see in the Marvel/Disney movies for a long time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein - review with spoilers

Following yesterday's post about Starship Troopers, I finished reading the book. To keep all this in one place, I'll self-plagiarise, with small adjustments, some of what I said yesterday, before making some observations about the book as I encountered it this time round. I need to talk about some of its overall structure, which inevitably means that there will be spoilers for people who have never read it.

Starship Troopers is one of Robert A. Heinlein's most loved, yet most reviled works. It won Heinlein a "best novel" Hugo Award in 1960, but it is despised by most academic critics and many others.

From my viewpoint, it is a key novel in Heinlein's oeuvre, but also in science fiction's tradition as a literature of ideas. Does that mean I actually agree with its ideas? No. But the book is written off by many people who seem unwilling to grapple with its merits, its philosophy, and its complexities. Up to a point, it can reasonably be viewed as militarist propaganda. At the same time, it is an important and thoughtful didactic novel that deserves careful, imaginative engagement - and some close attention and nuanced discussion.

The book features an ongoing interstellar war between humankind and the alien "Bugs", but it does not portray the Bugs' ultimate defeat. As the novel ends, the war continues, despite some military successes for the human side. It is also notable that no justification is given for the war beyond the rival territorial ambitions of the two species. The implication is that war is inevitable, and must be accepted - and we must plan accordingly. Moral systems that condemn war outright or justify it only in narrow circumstances (as in the scholastic tradition of just war theory) are non-starters. For Heinlein, it seems, morality has to work with inevitabilities, and warfare is one of them. That is going to be an unpalatable message for many of us, and to that extent the book deserves its reputation for militarism.

If the story is not of military victory against the odds, what is it really about? The narrative voice gives us a clue: it is narrated in the first person by its protagonist, Juan Rico, who clearly survives the action and is now reflecting - from a position of greater wisdom and self-understanding - on his own life trajectory. He tells a story of the formation and building of a military officer, from his confused decision to enlist through the accumulation of events that moulded him into a man who can lead other fighting men.

Thus, the story is not humanity's war against the Bugs, but, rather, an individual's psychological (as well as physical) growth through hardship and dedication. As Rico undergoes the rigours of military training and combat, he learns - and we are shown - that military life is an honourable and (if things go well amidst the dangers) satisfying choice. Again, many of us may find that an unpalatable message - one that we might naturally tend to resist - but Heinlein builds an impressive case: this is done not so much through the book's heavy-handed passages of debate and instruction as through the accumulation of events that we share with Rico as he endures and matures.

Rico tells us about the events in a way that is slightly distanced from them - there is a certain amount of personal reflection woven through his narration, and the prose is not quite as thick and gritty as we might expect from a third-person style of narration focused on the character's moment-by-moment thoughts and perceptions. Nonetheless, we are shown the hardships of military life in considerable detail; indeed, Heinlein ups the ante by presenting us with a military system that is supposed to be extraordinarily efficient, but also very brutal by modern standards, with routine use of flogging as a punishment. (Some of the most off-putting material in the book, from my perspective, is rather crude propaganda for corporal punishment, not only in the military but also in the process of child-rearing.)

Notoriously, Starship Troopers portrays a society in which the right to vote is granted only to retired military personnel - not necessarily those who fought on the frontline, but anyone who volunteered for service and successfully served out their term. This limited franchise is defended not as a reward for virtue or as a recognition of any form of intellectual superiority (the latter idea is explicitly dismissed); rather, the idea is that those who volunteered and served have demonstrated they are exceptionally responsible people who place the welfare of the many ahead of their own personal safety. Thus, they can be trusted with the vote. Supposedly, this system works well in producing wise political decisions.

Since the story is set in the future, Heinlein can postulate new developments in human knowledge, not limited to technological advances. Most importantly, moral philosophy has supposedly become a mathematically exact science. This is bluff, of course, and despite much talk of mathematical demonstrations the classroom debates that we are shown involve rather banal and sloppy arguments. Still, this device enables Heinlein to suggest the possibility of a single true moral theory (at least for human beings) based on various levels of survival: individual, familial, social, etc., up to the level of the species itself. Just how all this is supposed to be reconciled is never explained (perhaps just as well!), but we're assured that the future society can somehow justify all its political structures and decisions, including the various rituals, customs, and quirks of the military.

Although this is bluff, it works to the extent that what we are actually shown (or at least told about in detail) is consistent with the sketchy theory. Rico really does seem to mature as events move on for him, the military forces of humanity really do seem to operate efficiently, the regime of harsh training and discipline seems justified insofar as it produces desired results, and so on. All of this could doubtless be criticised from numerous viewpoints - not least one that notes an element of sentimentalising of senseless violence - but the book is, by and large, successful on its own terms. At a minimum, it is a highly skilled exercise in recruitment propaganda: it shows military life as hard, rigorous, and unglamorous, yet gives that a sort of glamour or allure of its own.

No one could claim that Starship Troopers is an anti-war book that merely shows the honour and the plight of the troops. It openly embraces the necessity of war. Again, that might be an unpalatable (and perhaps untenable) message. However, some critical readings or comments that I've encountered strike me as exercises in avoidance of the book's genuine literary skill and power. Even potentially embarrassing scenes, as when Rico's forty-something father follows his son into military service near the end of the book, are handled rather deftly.

Starship Troopers was rejected by Scribner's for its series of juveniles by Heinlein, and, indeed, despite its relatively young protagonist, this does not feel like a book written primarily for an adolescent market. For younger readers, it offers something of the mystique of military life, but it is also a novel of ideas - primarily ideas in political and moral philosophy - aimed at an audience of all ages. Palatable or not in its ideas and its occasionally over-explicit didacticism, it puts science fiction tropes to serious use in examining deep questions about the nature of a good society and a good life. It merits thought, and perhaps even some hostile scrutiny, but it is not an achievement that we can dismiss.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Currently reading Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

It is many, many years since I read this novel, which is one of Heinlein's most loved and most reviled works. Starship Troopers won Heinlein a "best novel" Hugo Award, but it is despised by most academic critics and many others.

From my viewpoint, it is a key novel in Heinlein's oeuvre, but also in science fiction's tradition as a literature of ideas. Does that mean I actually agree with its ideas? No. There is much, I think, to view with horror! Yet, this book is written off by many people who seen unwilling to grapple with its merits, it philosophy, and its complexities. Up to a point, it can reasonably be viewed as militarist propaganda. But at the same time, it is an important and thoughtful didactic novel that deserves careful, imaginative engagement and some nuanced discussion. I have about 50 pages to go, and I'll give it some sort of review very soon.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Amanda Marcotte on Game of Thrones - major spoilers if you click on the links

Amanda Marcotte is undoubtedly not my favourite cultural commentator, and she sometimes takes serious missteps. There will be times when I'll want to criticise her judgment. This, however, is not one of those times.

Credit to her where it's due: whatever her faults and past mistakes, she sometimes shows an appreciation of contemporary art and entertainment that is superior to most. At her best, she has an ability to see and explain the complexity of what's in front of her nose when she's looking at, say, a statue, a movie, or a television episode. When she's in the zone, she resists vulgar, crassly politicized interpretations, rather than trying to rationalize them; yet she still provides some sharp commentary.

This week, while many other people were writing pretentious, censorious pieces about Game of Thrones - often seeming to rationalise essentially irrational responses - Marcotte wrote a couple of Slate articles that largely defend the show, and specifically defend its most recent episode.

I don't necessarily accept every general point that she makes in (major spoilers in the link!) the first of these pieces, although where she is critical of GoT I do see the basis for her argument. However (same warning about major spoilers), the second article gives the first more credibility: it is exactly right - exactly what was needed in the circumstances - and it shows a strong intuitive and intellectual understanding of the TV series' dramatic intentions. That gives her more credibility in general.

If she can keep producing analyses as detailed, careful, and critically sensitive as the second of these pieces, in particular, then more strength to her arm.