Friday, January 30, 2009

The Paranoia of Utopias

"As if one man could bring about a world war and the deaths of millions, even if he wanted to" (Dick).

In the Prison-house of Language, Fredric Jameson observes of the semantic triangle that it is "deigned to diagram the way in which, from any given starting point, S, a whole complex of meaning possibilities, indeed a complete meaning system may be derived" (163). I.A. Richards, a proponent of the New Rhetoric, saw in the semantic triangle, the better form of communication; one that de-emphasized persuasion and moved it into a hermeneutic—a place for understanding the text. According to this theory, words/language are indeterminate; they are instruments. Signs, on the other hand, are more comprehensive than words themselves, so meaning has to be interpreted in a larger context. In this context, ambiguities are the hinges of thoughts as they help open things up. By this logic, thought creates an indirect relationship between the symbol and the thing.

Understanding the semantic triangle made up of the symbol (or the word), the thought expressed in the words used to describe the referent, and the referent itself, that which is conjured up in the mind depending on the words, is a useful form of deciphering communication. It is made meaningful more so in Dr. Bloodmoney, given that Phillip K. Dick leaves it to the reader to decide for herself what's real and what isn't. By Jameson's semantic triangle, Dick succeeds in elevating his form of fiction from the usual response to the concrete historical dilemma in the form of the bomb, to an iteration of a truly different world as a result of that bomb. The remaining inhabitants are left to decide their future from hereon depending, not on past privileges or disadvantages accorded say, by race, social class, but on sheer skill and ingenuity. The characters free their imagination and so do we. As readers, we have to allow our imagination to be free of our representation of the world before we can make meaning of the fantastic world that is conjured up in most science fiction. Jameson makes us aware that discussing a future society that can't be represented realistically is complicated because it demands a paradigm shift in our imagination. The racial undertones present occupy that familiar place in the American psyche. Dr Bloodmoney may be a work of fiction, sf at that; but at a certain level it is not. Note that Dr. Bloodmoney is set in Berkeley, West Marin County, and it mentions familiar places, such as the Pentagon, Washington, NY City, and deals with familiar concepts—family, love, etc. It also orbits the earth via satellite, occupied by Walt Dangerfield. Thus, we are simultaneously required (in our imagination) to move back and forth between the real and the fantastic.

In Dr. Bloodmoney, we are not focused on what is human, or real, (Hoppy Harrington) or even sane (Stuart McConchie); we weave among all three; we navigate the politics and the personal in light of the catastrophe that has just been witnessed. The characters are sandwiched between two catastrophes—the explosion; the war. Out of the catastrophe emerges a simpler world. In the process, though, we see a glimpse of how humans survive in situations like this; how they maintain their personality and how they remain true to their values—values they once held before all hell broke loose. Thankfully, the message of hope and unity endures in the character of Walt Dangerfield despite the loneliness he suffers following the suicide of his wife.
We are left to distinguish between the physical and the psychological explosions. Are we under the spell of Bluthgeld and his psychic powers? What is real? imagined? the semantic triangle might help us make meaning here. Again, Dick seems to be dealing with a futuristic world in a world where the future has come and gone. But it isn't predictive in that none of that happened. Perhaps it forces us to consider what could be, if it were to occur. The atomic blast occurred and now survivors of the blast are attempting to forge their way ahead.

Dick's narrative strategy seems to suit Jameson's description of science fiction (sf) novels. Notice how Dick extrapolates the reader into negotiating the "relationship between the author's environment and the created world" (44). We find ourselves in the suburbs of San Francisco where, along with the characters, we encounter and navigate the catastrophe orchestrated by Dick's imaginative mind. We are drawn into his personal moral and psychological concerns about good and evil. In fact, there are more instances in which tendencies in the historical environment are played out in the alterative world. These include war, nuclear disasters, protest letters (to President Johnson), etc. And in this third world that is being remade, we see unfolding before us, a sort of bucolic existence in which great cities and technological advances are not the mark of progress.

Everything that runs on electricity gets thrown out as kipple, a manifestation of entropy---Dick's idea of entropy--a state of inaction

Idios kosmos (solitary delusion--Hoppy; Bluthdel) koinos kosmos (shared world--book ending). Is Dr. Bloodmoney in the genre of science fiction? Given the scene that occurs after the holocaust, it is. No so much a fantasy element, but science gone wrong leads to an evolvement of changes that take us to the next level...atomic/radiation changes.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Technological Utopia: Wilderness

Once again, through the eye of Ecocriticism, we see the relationship in The Machine Stops and in Brave New World, between human and machine. In The Machine Stops, Vashti, her son Kuno, and fellow inhabitants of the technological underworld, give a new meaning to the term humanity. Here we have human beings, who despise, shun elements of humanity, preferring instead the mechanized world orchestrated by the machine. The scientific revolution has entrapped the very people who created it, trapping them literally underground in tiny little cells and in isolation from other humans. It has reduced communication and narrowed it to Skype—like technology, and mobility is limited to automated modes akin (in our world) to elevators and fast trains. The air they breathe is bottled (air conditioning). The technological imagination of E.M. Forster is 21st century and beyond!

The irony is that less is more; a room that contains but a reading table and an armchair in fact has everything—at the switch of a button. Bath, food, literature, and essentials necessary to keep this race going, and Vashti, who we see up close and personal, productive reduce life to a minimal. Everything else in inconsequential. But, wait a minute, isn't that the work of machines? to be productive? Instead the situation is reversed. The place is totally sanitized, and the humans have been drained of all humanity (which also applies to BNW); the machine is now revered, and worshipped. In the words of Kuno, they have forgotten that they created the machine and they are beginning to worship it. This world has given up the sense of space (Kuno's words). The machine blurs human relationships, renders all things artificial and mechanical. That no one is in control of their own lives doesn't seem to bother them, except perhaps for Kuno, poor thing.
In A Brave New World, the themes are no different: avant-garde developments in science and technology, genetic engineering, mutations, bio-technological advancements and how they take man away from nature.

From the onset, we learn that technology is used to control the affairs of this society from fertilization through growth to specific roles each ought to play in maintaining this utopia. Every detail is meticulously directed; there is conditioning, and a blunting of emotions. Symbolically, The Ford model is cast as a capitalist symbol juxtaposed alongside a collectivist world. Ford T model as a symbol of this brave new world represents a significant break from the past, which includes religion, family, love, freedom, and all emotional ties. The irony is that in this technically engineered world; one whose goal is to eliminate suffering and other touchy-feely emotions, there are unhappy, anxious, even uncertain inhabitants, who constantly banish this unpleasantness with the drug soma. Worst of all, life may be good, but it lacks a zing; excitement—it's mechanical, quite literally.

Moreover, there is this element of a caste system, even in this BNW. What's with having a stratified layering of people into intellectuals and laborers? Why in a state that can be engineered to be free of all things unpleasant? Also, in a society so driven by technology, why is there a lack of a robust debate on intellectual and scientific inquiry? This situation alone works against both technological utopias, rendering them static and eventually leading to their implosion. Just like The Machine Stops, BNW favors conformity and shuns external influences, all of which may cause them become dystopias, rather than the utopias they set out to create.

In Wilderness, we grapple with themes of space and the landscape. However, while both are considered unbridled, language is even more so, as Gerrard puts it language is, "wild in the sense that it 'rises unbidden' and eludes our intellectual capacities" (83). Contrast that wild capacity with the domesticated nature of the wilderness. What a paradox! Perhaps it borders well with the dystopias now seen in both BNW and The Machine Stops.It which case, Wilderness is a fitting rationale for this fascination with utopias.

With Huxley and Forster, they both project a culture into which people are lured into docility because of instant satisfaction. These elements undermine humanity in as much as totalitarianism. Conventions threaten to close off people's emotional access. There is a difference between the isolation sought by Kuno and that by Vashti.

Next time:
Jameson and The Semantic Dick (the novel) and Jameson

Friday, January 16, 2009

A female Utopia

Gilman's is a socially feminist perspective, which seems to be validated by the narrator, a sociologist, who is sympathetic, in awe, and even supportive of the utopia of Herland. Vandyck, the narrator holds views that are contrary to those represented in Herland. He holds, for example, that women are inherently inferior beings. Vandyck also believes that women in general are incapable of being on their own; of sustaining a civilization and maintaining social order complete with advancement in fields such as geography, anthropology, geology (54), etc. Those views may be the result of his own social influence through education, and upbringing. It is therefore remarkable that he of all three men is the one who makes a 180, and is in awe of Herland. The very nature of Herland is a complete rebuttal of his long held views, demonstrated in the first instance with the men's subjugation and eventual conversion. This, of course, may be testament to Gilman's technique--her choice of a male narrator, who is the most skeptic of them all and therefore whose turn around serves as a form of verification for her ideas.
Herland's founding is both temporal and spatial. It is physically removed from our land; is located in an elevated place accessible only through great scaling and striving, symbolically indicating the superiority of women in relation to men and their place in society. Gilman represents Herland as the best of what our-land could be, but for the constraints.

It is not without faults, though.

I found Herland so unbelievably non-fictional, and utopian, with a few sprinkles of romance. For the most part, I found the tale to be a yarn. A yarn highly critical of the status quo, of the world outside of Herland, but that holds little in a way of sustained interest given the bizarre revelations surrounding the parthenogenetic form of reproduction attributed to Herlanders. These asexual women, who perpetuate and maintain a homogeneous society of all white women who wear their hair short and portray a mechanized form of cognitive and human emotions. The only imagination I could conjure up is that of the famed Stepford Wives. They also harbor and practice eugenicist tendencies, allowing only those women deemed suitable to procreate and raise their own girl-children. This flaw is just a little different but similar to Darwin's origin of the species and the theory of natural selection—the drive to physical perfection precludes those who are not "fit for that supreme task" (85).

Clearly, Gilman resents the ways in which men outside of Herland gain control over women economically, socially, culturally, sexually. She indicates how the advanced women of Herland avoid that fate by showing self reliance and even demonstrating superiority in their creating of a world without men. They do not even need each other sexually, as I do not read any indication of lesbianism otherwise alluded to Lesbos. I do not necessarily agree with Gilman's assessment of the origins of gender restrictions; I think they are rooted in the larger nature of who we are as a human race and how we have attempted to make sense of and live in it. At any rate, Gilman succeeds in making women the norm and men the other.

The men hold a number of stereotypes of women when they arrive in Herland, and most, if not all, are systematically disproven. Interestingly, there are instances where the men and women agree on stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Still, there are traits Gilman seems to consider female and male. The desire to dominate, exemplified by Terry is seen as unwelcome, and even uncouth and is a constant cause of embarrassment for his buddies. Terry breaks eloquently exclaims "They've neither the vices of men, nor the virtues of women- they're neuters!" (84). Terry, is obviously quite frustrated at this point. On the other hand, there is noting wrong with being soft and unafraid to show emotions, female traits, which Jeff personifies, and which is lauded by Gilman.

In as far as there is universal peace…good will, and mutual affection, Herland is a utopia. Here is a world where there is no poverty, no crime, and people are self-motivated. There is no competition, no strife.

Gilman critics the male-dominated science and its negative consequences on the very environment it purports to better. She therefore chooses to present an alternative kind of science; one that is community-based and that values the interconnections between itself, nature, and femalekind. She ventures into ecocriticism by displaying her knowledge of ecology and literature by presenting to us a kind of Eden, an exemplary world that offers solutions to ecological problems (Greg Garrard 6) given the forward thinking nature of Herlanders. These women's spirituality is a form of mother/goddess worship dedicated to progress, without resorting to capitalism or globalization.

The standard of living in Herland is infinitely better. The clothes feel smooth to the skin, the food tastes better, the fruit is richer, the air is cleaner, the linen feels good to the is an ecotopia!

Public and private sphere....women were shut out of the public sphere and never allowed to speak out. Herland may have been in response to this status quo. They were not even allowed to publish in the public press...

Perkins having grown up in a culture for domesticity for women resented and fought the status quo, which, along with a series of personal tragedies, led to her writing The Yellow Paper. As well, the situation of women in 1915 warranted this kind of response.

see Technology of Orgasm...women and technology.
Van as a sociologist is good for Herland, because a scientific view can't hurt. Gilman is a pre-Victorian romanticist who likes the pastoral rather than the sublime. The women had a pragmatic outlook to surviving
social construction versus essentialism...the book is rhetorically structured to force readers to engage with social construction; to separate biological issues of female/male from gender issues of the limitations/superiority of each.
intersection of patriarchy, violence, capitalism (simple minded take)
attitudes toward science
language and naming

scientist of Van and closeness to nature
the romantic notion of female relations to motherhood
racism, lack of diversity
lack of desire to explore
anti-patriarchy/pro-matriarchy (chauvinism reversed)

Monday, January 5, 2009


My Utopia

is the Swahili name for place. Less common than Hakuna Matata, if you have watched Disney Jungle Book. But, I digress. Just feeling a little nostalgic, is all.

In the context of this course, I am prompted to pause the question: what is the idea of real Utopias? Contradictory, right? Given the fantasies associated with utopias, once cannot help but be in agreement with realists, who eschew any mention of the concept of utopia. Does this mean we waste time discussing the term?

Why waste time on an idealistic state when there are so many practical issues we can devote time and mind to?

Perhaps it's this element that makes the subject of utopia sexy; the dramatic tension that oozes out of this tension between the ideal and the real. After all, we humans have never stopped dreaming of what could be; humans' imagination cannot be limited by reality. Some seemingly impossible visions have been realized this way, albeit with tragic consequences as in the Waco or even Jonestown massacres, and closer to home for me, we have Kanungu mass murder. Others such as the FLDS are treated with suspicion and considered extreme, or lately, fundamental! What these purported utopias have in common is religion and exclusion. Hmm! Others are based on visions of grandeur, related to racial superiority as Afrikaner Separatism in South Africa, the Biafra War in Nigeria, Negritude in Francophone Africa, and countless separatist movements in Spain, Iraq, India, Latin America all in the quest of the ideal. There is the sense that such movements have their roots in radical social changes needed to reduce oppression as a motivating factor; this motivation is sufficient to birth a movement, even though the likely actual destination may fall short of the Utopian ideal.

Sadly, as pointed out in the examples above, the road to utopia may lead us astray, spurring us on trips that have no real destinations at all, or worse, lead us to some unforeseen abyss. This is no indictment on utopian ideals, often grounded in the real potentials of humanity; but not every follower is privy to information regarding Utopian destinations and how to access them. This secrecy is often a means of manipulating the masses, and, who knows? They may be the impediment to practical tasks necessary to attaining utopia.

As far as my expectations for the course, I am happy about what seems to be the literature component of the course, a welcome respite from all the theory (an not all of it unified). I have been pulled and stretched in so many directions, the only thing I look forward to is engaging with the course material. There are a number of courses I have taken that I was initially opposed to, but found intriguing once I engaged with the course content and the instructor. The dynamics of the class itself also play a role.

I am leaving myself open, which is a good thing given that this is the semester in which I get to streamline my research topic.