08 May

Lecture on Postmodernism

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that, but Modernism in a nutshell is all about the attempt to find the foundation or underlying truth.

Nowadays, however, we live in a postmodern society. Postmodernism is almost the next logical step to follow Modernism. In short, Postmodernism critiques the critics and claims that you can’t come up with universal theories to explain the world.

Some more definitions:

Some guy named Lyotard, whose name immediately makes me think of this,
a leotard,
argued “that Modern philosophies legitimized their truth claims not on logical and empirical grounds, but rather on the grounds of accepted stories (metanarratives) about knowledge and the world. In our postmodern condition, these metanarratives no longer work to legitimize truth claims.”

Postmodernists are “skeptical of binary oppositions [. . .] such as the expectation that the philosopher may cleanly isolate knowledge from ignorance.”

Postmodernism is “an openness to meaning and authority from unexpected places, so that the ultimate source of authority is the ‘play’ of the discourse itself.”

Following this at all? Freud’s got some interesting theories, but he had an abusive father (maybe) and he did a lot of coke, so, you know, those things might have gotten in the way of his uncovering the underlying truth.

Postmodernism takes Modernism one step further. It’s like, “okay, that’s not a pipe, I get it, but then what about this:”
is it a triangle?
Is it a triangle?

This might prompt you to say “whoa!” like Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix. If so, you might be on to something. This French guy, Jean Baudrillard, wrote a book called Simulacra and Simulation, which is one of the first books attempting to theorize the postmodern condition. He’s close to impossible to understand, but in the first chapter of his book, he references a story by Jorge Luis Borges in which some cartographers draw up a map of an Empire. The map is so detailed, it “ends up covering the territory exactly.” As the Empire declines, the map begins to fray and fall apart, except in the deserts, where it remains visible.

The story is a metaphor for our society nowadays. Our current culture presents a representation of real life that is more real to us than what it’s representing. Does that make sense to you? It’s like when people who spend a lot of time online begin typing “teh” to mean “the,” or “pwns” to mean “owns.” The typos become the word.

The distinction between reality and the representation is so blurred that we’re essentially living in the representation (the map). Think about it: this is what The Matrix is all about. Everyone is literally living in a virtual reality. But is The Matrix descriptive of our lives? Aren’t we all in some sense plugged into media, into consumer society, into just being fuel for a greater system?

Think of how many people wouldn’t eat chicken if they had to actually watch the animal being killed. They’re removed from the reality of what eating meat means.

Think about how many people go around quoting from their favorite movies or TV shows all the time.

Think about how many people believe there was a link between Saddam and Osama.

Think about video games. Or that online game called Second Life.

In The Matrix, when Morpheus is explaining the matrix to Neo, he shows him the real world and says, “Welcome to the desert of the real.” This is a direct reference to Baudrillard, who claimed that our current world is like Borges’ fable except that we’re living on the map and the actual territory is rotting away — with a few exceptions in the deserts.

All sorts of interesting philosophical issues emerge from postmodern theory:

07 May

Lecture on Modernism

Busy week. Sometimes, there’s just no way around taking in papers in every class you teach. This week was one of those times.

That’s my excuse for the lack of material in the past few days.

And in order to avoid having to make an excuse for the next couple of days, I’m just going to post the rough drafts of my lectures for my Science Fiction class, which means that you all (all six of you) will get to learn about Modernism, Postmodernism, and what those two terms have to do with current science fiction. Yay!

Lesson one is on Modernism.

Western culture (which means Europe and the US, for the most part) goes through cultural periods; you’ve probably heard of some of them. The Rennaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Victorian Age — those sorts of things. These periods are defined by the trends that go on in philosophy, science, literature, art, music, and politics (to name just a few things).

We’re concerned with the Modern period and the Postmodern period since the vast majority of all science fiction can be said to be the products of these two periods.

First, Modernism. Modernism came about in part because of the industrial revolution (which happened in the early 1800s). These sorts of dates aren’t like the war of 1812; it’s a little harder to pin down a change in culture. But people who know these things usually say that Modernism started somewhere around 1880 or 1890.

Modernism was critical of society. It didn’t trust progress. It was revolutionary. But it did have faith in rationality and it was holistic. A wikipedia entry says that “modernism attempted to wrest universal principles from situations.”

Let’s start with this famous painting by Magritte:

This is not a pipe.

Those French words mean, “This is not a pipe.” Magritte’s point was that his painting was in fact, not a pipe! It was a painting of a pipe, and the sooner we all admit that, the better off we’ll be. See, man, you’ve got to look beyond your subjective view of the world to the foundation underneath — the underlying truth.

From here, art moves toward color and shape, away from its attempts to depict things realistically. Check out cubism:

or artists like Kandinsky:
Composition VIII

Or we can move away from art into psychology! Take Freud, who claimed the “mind had a basic and fundamental structure,” (a foundation — an underlying truth) “and that subjective experience was based on the interplay of the parts of the mind. All subjective reality was based, according to Freud’s ideas, on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived” (wikipedia).

That’s it. That’s Modernism. In short, they claimed that there was an underlying truth, but that you had to get beyond your subjective experience of reality.

25 Apr

Sci Fi

Today in my Science Fiction class, we had a discussion about robots. It went swimmingly. It always does. The question that generated the most discussion: What’s the definition of a robot?

Crazy, huh?

The discussion even moved smoothly into my follow-up question: Should we pursue robot technology? Once again, they surprised me by expressing a majority opinion I wouldn’t have guessed. They mostly argued that we should not pursue robot technology, and they cited lots of valid economic and socio-cultural implications that I won’t go into.

Years ago, when the second Matrix movie came out, a colleague of mine said something along the lines of “I don’t understand how anyone can care.” Prior to teaching the class, I may have said the same thing. But when I did teach it, I discovered all sorts of interesting philosophical thought experiments — like the brain in the vat, Plato’s cave, communism, and the Garden of Eden — all of which were lurking between the lines of these sci-fi stories.

I’ve always been interested in philosophy, so the various thought experiments helped hook me. And then in classes, I’d sometimes sit back with amazement at how alarmingly well some of the discussions could go. At times, I felt like I was sitting in on a pizza lunch at a Sci-Fi convention; everyone had something to say, most everyone was enjoying themselves, and the vast majority were comfortable. Of course, the conversations would occasionally take a turn towards the absurd (like when someone asked whether or not a microwave that could automatically detect the size, weight, and chemical make-up of your food and heat it without human input would qualify as a robot), but for the most part, I enjoy the philosophical debates that spring up easily when a bunch of Sci-Fi fans are gathered together in one spot.

Not all my students feel the way I do. There are the occasional students — mostly seniors who have taken the class because they think it will be easier than their other options — who come into the class all snooty about Sci-Fi as a genre. They roll their eyes at the students who like being there; they complain about the stories we read; and around this time of year, they begin tuning out completely and/or skipping class altogether. There aren’t many of these types (all of whom chalk their disengagement up to “senioritis”), but they annoy me. They make me cynical. In a different class of mine, I had a pregnant student who recently dropped out. She had to fight to get re-enrolled in school at the beginning of the semester; and then I deal with these entitled seniors (all of whom are pretty well-off, and almost all of whom are going on to college next year), who turn their noses up at an otherwise engaging class.

It’s not that I’m now a proponent of Star Trek conventions; nor am I going to dress up like Neo when the fourth Matrix comes out; nor am I going to be the guy who says, “um, actually, there won’t ever be a fourth Matrix.” It’s just that I’m a little more tolerant of tastes that differ from mine.

On the other hand, it’s true that there won’t be a fourth Matrix. It was a trilogy from the start.

16 Apr

The Lord God Bird

This past Thursday in my Creative Writing class, we listened to a segment from NPR on Sufjan Stevens. For those who don’t know, Sufjan Stevens is a musician whose recent album, Illinois, was the most critically-acclaimed of 2005. It’s hard to describe the music. I guess it’s folky rock, but it’s full of varied instrumentation and choir singing. when I first heard his music months ago, it just struck me as strange. But he came highly recommended by my friend John, who’s my musical soul mate, so I got the Illinois album and it grew on me. I now think Sufjan Stevens is a genius, but I haven’t fully articulated why.

His songs have long titles, like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” which hint at an ironic or kitschy quality, but the music is sincere. His voice is intimate; it sounds like he’s trying not to disturb someone in the next room — perhaps some sleeping children or an ailing grandmother. And in his lyrics, he frequently repeats lines, like “I made a lot of mistakes/I made a lot of mistakes,” which drive home the sincerity.

He often throw in some archaic language, which should end up having a laughable effect on the poetry — misplaced hallelujahs and grandiose Os initiating lines. But somehow the effect isn’t mockery, satire, or mockable material for satire; instead, it’s very sincere. In the afore-mentioned “Predatory Wasp of the Palisades,” whose subject is boyhood friendship, there are a pair of lines that illustrate this incongruous sincerity. The first line of the pair states, “O, how I meant to tease him.” But then just as you’re about to laugh at the mismatch between the “O, how,” and the teasing, the next line makes you think that maybe the emotions here are genuine: “O, how I meant no harm.” Isn’t that accurate to child intentions? You simultaneously meant to tease and meant no harm.

Anyhow, I’m getting carried away. Despite my admiration for Sufjan Stevens, my lesson plan on Thursday really had little to do with him. The NPR segment in question was a piece on Brinkley, Arkansas. Apparently, Sufjan Stevens has announced the intention to create an album for each state. He’s already got Michigan (his home state) and Illinois (where he’s never lived). So some radio producer put together some interviews of folks in Brinkley, Arkansas and asked Sufjan to write a song. And I decided I’d ask my students to do the same: listen to the interviews and write a story, poem, or essay inspired by the interviews.

You can listen to the segment here. It’s about the town, which has recently undergone a transformation with the discovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker, previously thought extinct. The bird is known as the “lord god bird,” or the “great god bird.”

As we listened in class, we took notes. Then we took about ten minutes to jot down ideas. Here’s what I wrote:

“The first time hearing this, I didn’t hear that the sewing machine company Singer had come to Louisiana and had had such an impact on the region. You gotta wonder if industry — “what makes America great” — caused the initial extinction of the bird, and no that he’s back, they’re making an industry out of him. But the bird is deified because he can be exploited, not because anyone respects him. In fact, one guy says he’s a little ticked off at first; another guy calls it the yellow-billed woodpecker.

“We’re fickle with our gods. We worship whatever will get us a better life. Maybe I could have a phone conversation with a girl who has graduated and left town (one man said that graduation is a sad event because young people leave –they want to escape), and she calls home but gets a wrong number (at one point, an interviewee said that in this town, you can call a wrong number and talk for five minutes).”

Now, the trick is to see if I can stay inspired by this premise and write something from it. I’m assigning myself the same exercise.

15 Apr

Global Warming

This past week was like, Boom! Summer. Temps on Friday got into the 80s. If it doesn’t get cold again, the next two months of school are going to be miserable because a) my classroom is about 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperature, making even the 70s too hot, and b) students have a hard time staying focused when it’s nice outside. All week, I heard, “Can we have class outside?” On Monday, I relented and took my creative writing class out, since it didn’t disrupt the day’s plan to respond to various prompts in journals. Unfortunately, twenty minutes after settling in at a nice location, some doofus started yelling out the 3rd-floor window, “Alex Murphy is gay!” Alex is in my class, though that’s not his real name, and to his credit, he didn’t respond, but 3rd-floor dufus kept it up, yelling out his very witty “Alex Murphy is gay!” revelation about ten more times, so we left and moved to a different location.

I think I’ve decided on going part time, though now rumor has it that we’re losing a lot of teacher allocation in the English department next year, so class size is going to go way up. If my request gets granted, I wonder if that allocation will just be lost, further burdening the rest of the English department. If so, I’m tempted to resign so the have to replace a full 100% teacher rather than lose 30% of one.

If these education budget cuts continue, the coming years will be even worse: more teachers will be “surplussed,” as they say, pushing class sizes above 30 and thereby affecting the quality of instruction because individual teachers will have to deal with more behavior issues (which increase with class size), and individual attention will become more difficult. And since grading essays takes about 15 minutes per essay (at least), an addition of 7 students per class will up the grading time by hours per week! I’m pissed.

On Thursday night, there was a wonderful electrical storm off in the distance in the western sky, clearly visible through our open bedroom window. Eileen and I had just gone to bed and we were watching the show when it started to hail. I put on my glasses and approached the window to get a closer look. Golf-ball-sized hail was thumping onto the grass and I said something like “Holy Cow” upon seeing the things, which provoked Eileen to sit up and look out the window too. “Oh my God!” she said. “They’re the size of tennis balls.”

“Uh, no,” I replied. “I think you’re looking at tennis balls,” pointing out that with her glasses on, she might notice that our dog’s outdoor stash of numerous fetch toys was a different thing altogether.

She put on her glasses and we had a good laugh over that one. If only it were so easy, when people don’t see the world like you do, to just say, “put your glasses on.”