Norming, performing

Novelists, Philosophy, Science Fiction, Television

Thomas More notes of the Utopians that ‘they believe that the dead mix freely with the living… the sense of their ancestors’ presence discourages any bad behaviour in private.’ Observation is control; bad behaviour here is deviance from social norms, rather than anything more fundamentally immoral – and the observing dead ensure that those social norms are adhered to, everywhere.

Which made me realise how a sense of being observed is key to social control; and why, in certain kinds of religion, it’s very important that the deity is known to be omniscient. And that leads to ‘1984’, and Orwell’s treatment of Big Brother. Can ‘1984’ be read as religious as much as political satire? Really, it’s taking on any kind of oppressive social structure, however it’s dressed – political, religious, cultural, etc.

And that leads on to a very different kind of ‘Big Brother’. On reality TV, ‘bad behaviour in private’ is actively encouraged – conflict is drama, after all. The purpose of observation here isn’t to enforce a set of pre-existing norms; it’s to encourage the extreme, for our viewing pleasure.

So we’ve inverted Utopia, Airstrip One, and arrived at a place where observation is for the creation of extreme entertainment. Or are these the new norms that we’re meant to embrace? Over-reaction, exhibitionism and a slow process of knock-out until only one of us wins…

Grey stone, white plastic

Landscape, Philosophy

A few weeks ago; leaving Colchester, by train. As we accelerated out of the station we passed a little grey church sitting in the middle of an industrial estate, a dove nesting in a litter of polystyrene. It made me think of how swans choke to death on discarded lead fishing weights, or strangle themselves in old plastic bags.

Heidegger talked about how buildings change landscapes, dragging them by force into denaturing, alienated narratives; but buildings can become victims of that process too, whole antique ideologies broken by modern bric-a-brac culture. ‘A tawdry cheapness shall outlast our days’, infecting and corroding the quality of more aesthetically committed ages. There’s a hierarchy of value in buildings, too; it’s not just man vs nature.

What’s important is the contrast between different orders of presence in the landscape – the narrative that that contrast creates. A swan in a free-flowing river is beauty; a swan in a polluted canal is tragedy. It’s the nature of the contrast that creates the narrative, indexing for us the quality of our engagement with the world.

‘I cannot make it cohere’ – or, utopia

Philosophy, Science Fiction

Been pondering utopia, largely because I’ve just been reading ‘Utopia’. Like Heaven, Utopia is a post dramatic place; drama being conflict, the only drama that can happen in a utopia is a fall from perfection, because that’s the only way of inducing conflict. That fall’s either going to be the fall of the individual, or the fall of the Utopia. The dramatic choice – which am I going to show?

‘Paradise Lost’ a great example of the first. In religion, utopia exists and is uncorruptible. It’s only us that screw up – so drama in a religious context uses the utopia as a baseline to set individual redemption / corruption against. Thinking more broadly, is any set of absolute moral standards a utopia? ‘Absolute’ implies achieved perfection, changelessness, which isn’t really what us humans do.

The second offers more dramatic possibilities… the fall of a utopia; either the breakdown of a utopian system or the discovery that all is not as it seems. ‘Brave New World’ in this context? Bernard the atypical alpha (shorter than the norm) and John the Savage provide non-utopian viewpoints that critique and corrode the utopia. ‘1984’ – a fallen utopia, in fact a warning against utopias, betrayed as evil by its treatment of the individual.

More recently, there’s Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. Simmons’ Hegemony is an apparent utopia; as the novel cycle progresses, we’re educated along with the characters and understand how the impacts of the Hegemony are profoundly negative. What’s most interesting is that many of those impacts aren’t even registered by Hegemony people; apart from anything else, very effective satire on us, now.

Also, a critique of the Culture – always something of a smug utopia. Over and above this, one of the interesting things about IMB is the extent to which he has to drive plots by introducing external, non-Culture elements – whether from sub- or super-Culture sources. Again, you can only get drama out of a utopia by destabilising it, and if the utopia is pretty much perfect (as the Culture is – a heaven analogue, perhaps?) that destabilisation has to come from outside.

Of course the final outside is us the reader. We break utopias by reading about them, comparing their (inevitably) limited solutions to the problems of life with our own complex lives. A systemic mode of life can never respond adequately to the complexities of being human. As people, we are destroyers of systems, because if we don’t break them, they break us. And, broken, we end up inhabiting limited utopias of our own, pitied by externals – readers – deep in experiences that are completely denied to us.

Lathes, heavens

Philosophy, Science Fiction

‘The Lathe of Heaven’ as a reflection on writing; the writer breaking down and remaking the world, maintaining the familiar but balancing it with the novel… fading memories of the real world as you dive into the book. George Orr is the point of contact between different worlds – is he author or reader? Author, because he takes an old world and makes the new from it. Haber as reader, demanding utopias which never quite meet his needs. The neccesity of conflict for drama; utopia implies a lack of conflict, impossible in a dramatic form. Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ is a description, not a narrative.

Video ergo sum

Landscape, Philosophy

Description used to be a rarity; now it’s universal. Foucault – ‘Power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’. Forms of control have always involved precise description, defining the terms of control, that controlled.

The information revolution means that everything can be described, categorised, held; tags on the side of the page. Your purchases tracked. But that description is democratised – I describe, with my camera, impose my own little world. Am I a collaborator with, a participant in or a prisoner of description? All three, at one time or another…