Simple and Sophisticated Pleasures in the Capitol

While he was driving me to Toronto a few months ago, Jon and I were talking about YA fiction. Somehow in the course of that conversation I mentioned that I understood the Hunger Games films as containing a libertarian subtext, and that I had read an article about how many YA dystopia books have such a subtext. After Jon pressed me for further explanation, I interpreted The Hunger Games as a libertarian film for him; I was certainly not the first to notice its ideological commitments, and you can see some examples linked in my combative annotated bibliography on libertarianism. But part of my explanation is rooted in how The Hunger Games and its sequels depict the wealthy people of the Capitol as both gender-non-conforming and decadent. The luxury and sophistication of the Capitol citizens are intrinsic markers of their moral corruption above and beyond those pleasures’ costs to the poorer Districts, I said, and I went on to allude to a history of anti-luxury and anti-sophisticated-pleasures sentiment in Protestant and American conservatism. Jon has since asked me to write this up further for use in a high school classroom, but it might also be useful to others too.

an image of several elaborate chocolate cakes, including some with rabbit decorations

Karen Roe’s “The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012”

I have attempted to write this post a few times with little luck. A large part of the problem is that I do not remember how I came to understand this history of opposition to sophisticated pleasures and its relationship to American-style libertarianism. I do know of a few bits and pieces. There is a passage in H P Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness which used “decadence” in a way then unfamiliar to me which only afterwards made sense. There was an academic article I read about the characters of Falstaff and Prince John in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV which referred to competing economic theories of luxury goods (especially “sack,” meaning a fortified wine) in Elizabethan England. There have been perhaps a half-dozen posts on the blogs of Roman Catholics like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry which observe that Catholic countries have better food than Protestant countries because the former know how to enjoy life’s physical pleasures. I remember less well the dozens of broad generalizations of the effects Protestantism has had on the Low Countries, England, and North America I must have read between high school history classes, undergraduate courses at Queen’s, and graduate courses as UBC, or the lectures on the history of belief in the rise and fall of civilizations, or the articles about the effects all these have American culture today. Moreover there is the pattern of observations I have had in my own rural working-class childhood and in the time I spent in Fort McMurray.1 I cannot begin to summarize all of this. And if I cannot marshal all of these sources appropriately, I cannot make an argument, exactly; I do not expect anyone to just take my word for all of this, and yet I don’t even really know what my own sources are. What I can do is sketch out my position, and gesture toward some related material, and hope that I can supplement this with a better-researched piece later.

I have spent enough time in academia and then in a museum to be leery of making broad claims without substantiating them, but this is a blog post after all; if I cannot do this provisional kind of writing here, I cannot do it anywhere.

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Consistency in Two Traditions of Fantasy, Part 2: The Deathly Hallows

A Second Possible Consistency

In Part One of this discussion, I introduced the problem of appreciating different kinds of consistency in fantasy literature and then I elaborated the planetary correspondences of The Chronicles of Narnia as an example of a fantasy series which uses a different kind of consistency than a logical one. Now, I am not going to argue that L. F. Baum also had planetary correspondences in his work, or that the Harry Potter franchise has some hidden theological depths. What I want to suggest, though, is that each might have something more like a thematic or atmospheric consistency in place of a logical one.

A painting of a thestral

Carol Smith, “Harry Potter-47”

I think it is worth making a distinction between two ways in which that might be true. First, it might have achieved such a consistency which is easy to overlook if you aren’t primed for it; Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, according to Ward, Are an example of this. Second, it might attempt such a consistency but not have achieved it. What I mean by this is that various markers in the text suggest a sort of consistency which it aims at but a careful examination of the text will nonetheless reveal it was not successful. In that case logical consistency of the sort at which G. R. R. Martin excels would not necessarily be the best standard by which to judge the text; however, the best standard by which to judge the text is some other kind of consistency at which it also fails.1 In such a way it might be analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which really doesn’t work in the sense of logical consistency: the population distributions and the modes of agriculture, resource extraction, and economics are all impossible or at least seriously implausible. However, Tolkien does a sufficiently good job of making all of the cultural aspects look coherent that this is easy to overlook. So it might be more accurate to say that these other texts might be better judged by different standards of consistency than it is to say they are consistent in different ways, because they may have failed to meet those different standards of consistency.

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Consistency in Two Traditions of Fantasy, Part 1: Narnian Astrology

A Problem with Harry Potter

Due to the news that in the latest Harry Potter film the snake Nagini is revealed to be a human woman transformed, there has been a recent popular re-evaluation of the seven novels which originated the franchise. Many of the observations that I’ve seen on Twitter have focused on Rowling’s troubling use of racist stereotypes and her very Anglocentric errors. I have little to add as far as that goes because anything I’d have to say has been said already by others; the most relevant Twitter threads are Alexandra Erin’s and Shivam Batt’s. There is an assumption in some of these threads, however, that the world of Harry Potter could be or ought to be logically consistent in much the same way that our own is, which I consider to be mistaken. Take, for instance, questions of scale: of course it is logical nonsense that a school the size of Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in Britain given what the population of wizards in Britain seems to be in the books. And by the standards of something like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series or G. R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, which have admirably plausible, intricate, and well-developed worlds, that’s a problem. The assumption that fantasy worlds must be built on some sort of logical or plausible structure is very characteristic of how mainstream fantasy1 does often operate, but I think it is worth observing that there have always been other kinds of fantasy which do not share this assumption: Barrie’s Peter Pan books, Carrol’s Alice books, and Baum’s Oz books come most readily to mind. These books’ lack of logical consistency does not mean that they lack any internal consistency; rather, they may have consistency of a wholly different kind. I think the best way to begin exploring this other kind of consistency is by examining Michael Ward’s interpretation of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which I will spend the rest of this post doing. In a subsequent post I will speculate about possible consistencies in Harry Potter and other fantasy.

A reproduction of one of the original illustrations of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, depicting a faun with an umbrella and a girl walking through forest.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA are in the public domain in Canada, and my understanding of Canadian copyright law is that the original illustrations therefore would be as well. Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong in this.

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MacIntyre on Sophoclean Tragedies

Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom, in the comments of my second to last post, “A Partial Apology for Liberalism,” recommended that I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Though I was skeptical for the first few chapters and I found some of the prose unclear, I wound up quite enjoying it. I’m not convinced of the demonstrative half of his argument, but I will discuss that in greater length later. Right now I want to focus on his discussion of Sophoclean tragedies.

dp67Vf

Source: UCI UC Irvine at flic.kr/p/dp67Vf

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From “The Imaginative and the Imaginary”

Not only the most fascinating play of the period, but its greatest prose work (in England), has melancholy for its theme. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is an exhaustive analysis of the causes, symptoms, treatment and cure of melancholy, with two enormous appendices on love melancholy and religious melancholy. Burton was an Oxford don, and his chief amusement is said to have been going down to the Isis river and listening to the bargemen swear. The story may be true, or it may have been invented by someone who noticed that the qualities of Burton’s prose, with its vast catalogues, piled-up epithets, Latin tags, allusiveness and exhaustive knowledge of theology and personal hygiene, are essentially the qualities of good swearing. Burton assumes rather than discusses the connexion of melancholy with creative power: being a scholar himself, like Hamlet, he associates it rather with the scholarly temperament, and includes a long digression on the miseries of scholars. On religious melancholy his position is simple: one can best avoid it by sticking to the reasonable middle way of the Church of England, avoiding the neurotic extremes of papist and puritan on either side. But in love there is no reasonable ground to take, for its very essence is illusion.

This comes from Northrop Frye’s “The Imaginative and the Imaginary” in his Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. Frye is considered obsolete in the discipline, but as with almost any critic who has had any popularity or respect in the field at all, he has excellent observations. I rather like the ones above.

After the End P.1: Madness and Meaning on the Fury Road

flic_dot_kr_slash_p_slash_sK8Pe3

Source: Kaysha at flic.kr/p/sK8Pe3

Watching Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller 2015), which I very much enjoyed, I was struck by how existentialist the film was; indeed, it made me realize that all post-apocalyptic fiction has an existentialist seed. But then, there is also something post-apocalyptic about existentialism. God is dead, spake Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. God remains dead. And we have killed him. If that doesn’t announce an apocalypse, I don’t know what does.

When Nietzsche declared God dead, he was not making a metaphysical claim but rather a moral and psychological claim: at one point, humanity relied on the authority of God to guarantee moral questions. In order to decide what to do, what kind of decision to make, they appealed to God; moreover, this appeal was beyond question. But as Nietzsche pointed out, by the end of the seventeenth century God no longer had ultimate moral authority. People might well still believe in God and derive their morality from that belief, but it was no longer the case that any moral code, any moral prescript, was unquestionable. God as a figure for absolute norms was dead. This was not a physical apocalypse but it was, at least, a social and ethical one. And as with so many apocalypses, some of us survived it (though, as Dallas Hunt might point out, the question is not so much “did we survive?” but “who is the ‘we’ that survived?”).

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Headcanons, Singer-Songwriters, and J. K. Rowling’s Tweets

The Problems

In what I called A Theory of Reading 1.0, a series at The Thinking Grounds, I tried to articulate and justify what seemed to me to be the underlying assumptions and approach of literary interpretation in the English discipline. In its supplementary materials, I tried to tie up some loose ends, especially shoring up my explanation against authorial intent and reader-centred interpretations. I’m glad I did that work, because it led to my writing about Twitterary Theory, which I’m pretty happy with.

However, there are some outstanding problems with that version. I say “version” because I understood it as an initial attempt. One day I am going to attempt a 2.0, maybe a 3.0, as needed. I expect that I will need to update my understanding of interpretation as I learn more. Even as I wrote it, I knew that I was weak in the area of what Foucault calls the “author function.” I still do not feel equipped to deal with that problem. Since writing the series, a few more problems have come up, too.

First, what about singer-songwriters? My friend Jon Wong insists that listeners understand songs in relation to the real biography of singer-songwriters. For the most part I would say that my explanation of the problems of reading are universally binding; whether or not listeners attempt to understand songs in relation to their singers is utterly irrelevant to the dynamics of interpretation in the same way it is irrelevant with readers, books, and writers or viewers, paintings, and artists. I do want to bookmark Jon’s concern, though, because it will come up later.

flic_dot_kr_slash_p_slash_ahSdHz

Source: InSapphoWeTrust at flic.kr/p/ahSdHz

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Twitterary Theory

In my last term before graduating as a library student, I took a course in social media for library professionals, and for this course each of us had to maintain a blog. There is one particular post (link) for that blog which I want to share. (While I am arranging a move, I thought it would be smart to re-run old work.)

A little background, first: One of my classmates, Fiona Hanington, wrote two posts about Twitter (which I linked in the post, if you want to read them, which you should do), considering specifically how context relates to what a particular tweet means. This sort of question was in my wheelhouse, as I had fairly recently been tackling the problem of interpretation on a much broader, more summary scale (see here for a table of contents), so I used that background to reply to Fiona’s more specific questions. That post is as follows:


Twitterary Theory: Meaning, Context, and Responsibility

An image of many pigeons--at least four dozen--on telephone lines.

Gustavo Gomes, CC BY 2.0: https://flic.kr/p/57P7Ms

A few days ago Fiona wrote two posts about Twitter, tweets, and Twitter essays: in the first, she discusses Jeet Heer, who numbers tweets to structure them together into an essay; in the second, she talks about how a person ought to read tweets. In particular, Steven Salaita had an offer for a tenure position withdrawn over a tweet which seemed, on its own, to be incendiary:

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A Mad Anthropologist’s Book Collection

1. A Far From Serious Thought Experiment

Shaft into Cold War bunker; photo by Tom Blackwell at flic.kr/p/71UJKc.

Shaft into Cold War bunker; photo by Tom Blackwell at flic.kr/p/71UJKc.

Imagine that humans have learned to colonize other planets, but once people have arrived at their colony it is unlikely that they, or their descendants for quite a few generations, will get to leave. Or imagine that the earth has been stripped of resources and humans are beginning to launch space stations on which they can survive. Or imagine that, in anticipation of nuclear war, people are building and moving into underground vaults. The specifics don’t matter—what does matter is that some people live in small, isolated, pre-planned communities. More importantly, imagine that the people who planned these communities decided it was a good opportunity to do some unethical experimental social science, as in a certain computer game.

The social scientists constructed libraries for each colony (or station, or vault); about 2 000 volumes represent the entire cultural legacy for each community. The vast majority of these volumes are identical across communities, but they have made careful adjustments to a randomly-selected sample of libraries. For instance, while most libraries contain J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and derivative works, a few stations (or vaults, or colonies) have L. F. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and derivative works in their place. A few vaults (or etc.) have been carefully combed over to remove any work by or reference to William Shakespeare. In others, it is William Wordsworth who has been so excised. Perhaps a few libraries have more radical changes—one has no works authored exclusively by men, or by white people, and another has only works written by people who went, or are rumoured to have gone, blind. These more radical changes are really just an indulgence, I guess; it is not the best experiment design, to change so much. Continue reading