About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunday supervillainy - how to talk about science fictional aliens

I'm currently reading Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism: Beyond the Golden Rule, by Elana Gomel. I have a number of reasons for enjoying this book, apart from my interest in the topic (including the fact that I'm writing a book that covers some of the same territory). I find many of Gomel's discussions of particular texts involving alien encounters to be accurate and (where they go beyong the facts) plausible. I also like particular aspects of her style and critical approach, not least her rather light and deft use of critical jargon.

Every field of learning or practice relies to an extent on specialised terminology to describe what is theorised and/or the techniques that need to be practised. Professionals in the fields of prose fiction and cinema certainly use specialised terms to communicate with each other, and critics adopt much of this terminology as well as adding some of their own. There's nothing wrong with that, and critics are entitled to write on the assumption that some of this terminology is transparent to their readers. Obviously, however, it makes a difference whether I am writing a movie review in a newspaper (aimed at a popular audience, albeit one with an interest in seeing movies) or whether I'm writing for a peer reviewed journal, where much more can be assumed about my readers' theoretical knowledge and terminological sophistication.

Accordingly, I'm not totally opposed to the use of jargon by literary and cultural critics. Things only go wrong when, for whatever reasons, the use of jargon moves beyond whatever is needed for concise, accurate expression and starts to take on the appearance of writing to impress others, rather than writing to communicate. As it happens, we have inherited much language from over the centuries that is still useful - words and expressions such as "plot", "character", "theme", "narrative suspense", "climax", and so on, and in many cases this kind of language is perfectly adequate for what needs to be said. We also have more sophisticated terminology, such as "narrative viewpoint", with ideas such as "first-person narrator" and "omniscient third-person narration" - this terminology has to be consciously learned (in my experience, it is not necessarily transparent to first-year Arts students), but it is still relatively straightforward. By contrast, a great deal of other language depends on the acceptance of speculative and contestable (not to mention dubious) theories of culture and language, and it is often used more to signal the critic's wider theoretical commitments than to be helpful to readers who don't necessarily share them.

Some of the aliens discussed by Gomel could almost be considered supervillains, though I admit to being a bit Procrustean in squeezing this post into my Sunday supervillainy series. Oh well, sue me!

A good example of such alien supervillainy is the shapeshifting creature depicted in John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?", and in the movies based directly on it. In Campbell's original novella, he makes some key choices as to how he will convey the alienness of the alien while protecting the suspense of the narrative. Readers familiar with Campbell's work will appreciate Gomel's point that he was a versatile writer who knew exactly what he was doing in making choices of technique. Against that background, and in a discussion of the superhuman imitative powers of the alien species portrayed by Campbell, Gomel has this to say:
[I]t is also acted out on the level of the novella's narration. "Who Goes There?" has a third-person extradiegetic and omniscient narrator and is marked by a total lack of focalization. The characters' actions are described, and some information on the setting is given. But there is no access whatsoever to any of the characters' interiority. Whether man or monster, we know only what each of them does, not what he feels or thinks.
This sounds right, though I need to go back and re-read "Who Goes There?" to make sure.

Note that Gomel uses some unusual terms (unusual, that is, in everyday English), such as "extradiegetic" (outside the fictional reality constructed by the story), "focalization", and "interiority". By this stage of her book, the terms should be fairly clear even to people who are not otherwise familiar with them, but it is more important that she uses them lightly - they appear in sentences that are otherwise perfectly comprehensible, and they do allow her to communicate accurately and concisely to other people who spend much of their time thinking about fictional narratives.

Also, she is making a point that is actually useful to people wanting to understand more about how professional writers make choices of technique and achieve their effects. I am unhappy with much of the literary and cultural criticism that I read because it is not useful in that sense (and does not appear to proceed from that kind of understanding of art and literature, but rather from some sort of political or quasi-political, theory, combined with an urge to judge art according to how it serves or fails to serve the critic's politics).

I like Gomel's book - at least so far - because it does what I also aim at. It produces synthesis and understanding when discussing cultural products, and in doing so it draws on intimate familiarity with, and reasonably robust theoretical understandings of, the relevant traditions. There is very little sense here of attempting to stand in judgment of art primarily from the perspective of certain current political imperatives. I don't expect critics to throw away their practical and theoretical political commitments entirely, but I do hope to read their work for greater understanding of how art and literature actually work: in particular, how they achieve their effects. This requires a different kind of knowledge and understanding. Whether or not I succeed in particular cases, this is what I aspire to in my own discussions of art and literature.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - editing my ORCID account and a new piece at Academia.edu

ORCID accounts seem to be increasingly relied on in academia these days as a way to gather together diverse information about individuals' work. So, I've been doing some editing to make my own ORCID account a bit more comprehensive. It still has gaps, as well as some ugly repetition, but I'm sure I'll be able to improve it over time.

In addition, as mentioned in the previous post, I've added one item to my page on Academia.edu. (You might want to check out my Academia page if you haven't already; it includes, for example, a full-scale academic CV.) The new item is my paper "What if nothing is sacred? Politics and bioethics without sanctity", previously published last year in Australian Humanist.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What if nothing is sacred? Politics and bioethics without sanctity

Over on my Academia.edu page, I've uploaded a copy of my paper "What if nothing is sacred? Politics and bioethics without sanctity".
I delivered a version of this paper at a conference in Melbourne last year, and also at last year's Australasian Association of Philosophy conference in Canberra. I was approached on behalf of Australian Humanist as to whether they could publish the paper, and I agreed. As a result it has previously appeared in last year's (southern hemisphere) Spring issue.

Unlike Jonathan Haidt, whose views I discuss at some length, I'm not a fan of taking into account ideas of sanctity and the like - ideas that are the stock in trade of social conservatives - when developing public policy. I especially resist such ideas for the development of bioethical principles and rules. However, I agree with Haidt that current political debate is too Manichaean - with warring political tribes demonising each other. Do check out the whole paper if this interests you, but it builds to the following conclusion:


Often it is assumed that restrictions on legitimate public policy considerations operate unfairly against conservative thinkers, and especially against religious conservatives. Up to a point, that is understandable: it is most likely to be religious conservatives who will attempt to bring concepts of spiritual or metaphysical harm, and perhaps of a literal and supernatural sanctity, into public policy – and all of the reasons for secular government stand against their being allowed to succeed (again see Freedom of Religion and the Secular State).

But it is worth acknowledging that left-wing thinkers can also elevate their favourite objects, ideas, symbols, beliefs, causes, and so on, into something of extreme value – if not viewed as literally sacred, nonetheless considered beyond criticism, questioning, satire, or levity – while treating other objects, ideas, etc., as equivalent to blasphemy or pollution, something to be met with loathing and disgust.

We can see this in contemporary debates over genetic technologies, where, as it appears to me, a mental association that they make with past eugenics movements drives some well-intentioned people on the Left to extremes of hostility. You may be able to think of other examples.

Haidt’s work raises issues that go well beyond those to do with bioethics, and examining them any further would need to await another occasion. Still, I leave you with the thought that we can all lapse into taking extreme, dogmatic, even authoritarian, attitudes to opponents and their ideas. We can display closure to evidence, engage in uncharitable and hyperbolic attacks on others, and excuse behaviour from our allies that would move us to outrage if it came from opponents.

Self-interrogation about these things is a worthwhile discipline, I suggest. It may be a counter to the worst tendencies in contemporary debate over politics and culture.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sunday supervillainy - Doctor Doom as the Infamous Iron Man



It seems that Iron Man (Tony Stark) may be in for a rocky time as the current Civil War II series/event unfolds in Marvel Comics. We don't know what is in store, except that there are two ongoing series planned, with one version of Iron Man (the Invincible Iron Man) played by a Black teenage girl (Riri Williams) and another version (the Infamous Iron Man) played by Doctor Doom, who is currently reformed from his usual villainous, megalomaniacal self. Doom has a new set of Iron Man armour that draws on his own classic look.

Poor Tony Stark may be dropping out of the picture somehow! Let's hope they don't kill him off as they've done to some other classic heroes of late.

Having Doom as a good guy of sorts is not all that unusual these days. He's one of those villains who are so interesting, and have become so popular, that you have to keep telling stories about them. And those can't, at the risk of boredom, be story after story in which a charismatic adversary like Doctor Doom simply loses, with various heroes in sequence foiling his various evil plans. He has to do more interesting stuff than that, save the world now and then, and generally get to kick ass in his own right.

This syndrome whereby a well-constructed and charismatic villain becomes a sort of hero or anti-hero - and certainly a character with depth and motivational complexity, and a code of honorable conduct - has a venerable history in popular culture. In the long-running serial form of comics, it's almost inevitable that many fan-favorite villains will take that path. At Marvel alone, there are now innumerable villains who've become much-loved semi-heroic characters despite their moral flaws (as well as several out-and-out heroes who began as villains). Even monstrously powerful hardened criminals, like Juggernaut and Absorbing Man, are shown to have likeable sides.

However, it's a bit more than that with Doom, since the events of the most recent Secret Wars event have left him very much physically and psychologically changed.

The creation of Riri Williams is transparently part of Marvel's ongoing attempt to create a more diverse (in terms of race, sex, cultural background, sexuality, etc.) crop of superheroes for our contemporary world. Most of Marvel's core recurring cast - its most iconic characters - were created in the 1960s (or even earlier in a very small number of cases); as a result most of them are white, male, and straight, and many of the heroes in particular are from conventional American backgrounds (as imagined around the middle of last century).

I'm good with the attempt to alter this mix, but the trick is to create great new characters whom readers relate to and actually care about. Readers won't warm to characters out of a sense of political duty, but must come to love them because they engage interest and concern, and because reading about them is actually fun. So it has to be an organic, carefully thought out process. It seems to have worked well with the new Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), so I'll hope Riri Williams will also turn out to be an engaging character.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Margaret Somerville and the Perils of Bioethics"

I've long been troubled that much in contemporary bioethics is illiberal, unjustifiable, and motivated by quasi-religious (or outright religious) sentiments that should have no place in public policy. This does not apply so much to philosophical bioethicists employed as university academics, but even here too much free rein is given to views that are put forward as having policy implications while being at least quasi-religious in nature. "Margaret Somerville and the Perils of Bioethics", first published back in 2001, was an early effort of mine to articulate some of this at length. In this case, I was replying to The Ethical Canary by Margaret Somerville, which I think exemplifies the troubling tendencies in the bioethics discipline.

At this stage of my life, I had a law degree, a deep interest in bioethical controversies, some relevant publications, and some experience working in the health/medical law area of a major Australian law firm. I did not, however, have formal qualifications in bioethics as an academic discipline. My thinking about such issues led me to do something about that, and I went on to do a Masters degree in bioethics at Monash University in 2002. (Monash has long had a very respected program in philosophical bioethics - perhaps the most prestigious in the southern hemisphere.) Since I was doing a lot of other things at the time, I could easily have justified doing this over two years... but I managed to complete it in one year, with a perfect run of High Distinctions in my coursework and research essay.