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Science, Fiction, and points in between
Thursday 27 September 2001
What Does It Mean?
Will a consequence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC be... the end of irony?
For some 30 years--roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright--the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes--our columnists and pop culture makers--declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life. ...
No more. The planes that plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were real. The flames, smoke, sirens--real.
Or perhaps, the rejection of postmodernism and postcolonialism?
In general postmodernists challenge assertions that truth and ethical judgment have any objective validity. Postcolonial theorists, who focus on cultures that have experienced Western imperialism, agree in part, suggesting that the seemingly universalist principles of the West are ideological constructs. Many have also implied that one culture, particularly the West, cannot reliably condemn another, that a form of relativism must rule.
But such assertions seem peculiar when trying to account for the recent attack. This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective.
The attacks were the ultimate faith-based initiative...
In the twentieth century, war was made on civilians. In the twenty-first century, war will be made by civilians. It will be the definitive "faith-based initiative," requiring neither guns, tanks, ships, planes, nor missiles. Like other faith-based initiatives it will bypass the conventional state. All it will need is planning skills and a willingness to die for your beliefs. Everything else--machinery, technology, targets--will be furnished by civil society, its victim.
So maybe the villain is religious fundamentalism.
Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche: mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards. On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from.
It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.
(Elsewhere, Dawkins is mind-boggled by creation-scientist Kurt Wise, who
volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have a mind capable of such doublethink.
Which brings up this week's PBS series Evolution, criticized by Slate as "creationist appeasement" -- but not so much that creationists aren't running banner ads to a website that corrects the "facts" of evolution. The New York Times calls the series "soothing".)
Is the terrorist war one against the Enlightenment, against modernity? (An evolutionary struggle for survival among cultures?)
So why the suicide bombing, the hijacking and the massacre of innocent civilians? Far from being endorsed by the Koran, this killing violates some of its most sacred precepts. But during the 20th century, the militant form of piety often known as fundamentalism erupted in every major religion as a rebellion against modernity. Every fundamentalist movement I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced that liberal, secular society is determined to wipe out religion. Fighting, as they imagine, a battle for survival, fundamentalists often feel justified in ignoring the more compassionate principles of their faith.
Then again, the terrorist attack is an event so vast, it enables anyone to perceive in it their own prejudices (as Jerry Falwell has demonstrated). Satire:
Of course the World Trade Center bombings are a uniquely tragic event, and it is vital that we never lose sight of the human tragedy involved. However, we must also consider if this is not also a lesson to us all; a lesson that my political views are correct. Although what is done can never be undone, the fact remains that if the world were organised according to my political views, this tragedy would never have happened.
And perhaps irony is needed more than ever.
I'm thinking we need a profoundly ironic outlook to avoid being swept up in the new jingoism, to see that the best intentions might lead us further astray, to protect ourselves from the manipulative propaganda that envelops us in wartime. ...
Because I doubt shallow cynicism ever really did dominate the national mood, I'm happy to join in the chorus of goodbyes to the über-smartass, the kind of "ironist" so detached that heart and head were all but amputated.
Which, hopefully, now opens the way to a golden age of irony. The real stuff. The kind of irony that drove Socrates' queries, the irony that lies at the heart of much great literature and great religion, the irony that pays attention to contradictions and embraces paradoxes, rather than wishing them away in an orgy of purpose and certainty.
David Beers, Salon, Sept. 25, 2001
(Some of these links acquired via Arts & Letters Daily and Raphael Carter's Honeyguide Web Log.)
Friday 14 September 2001
Let's All Read a Book Together
Chicago is trying to get everyone to read the same book -- Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird -- at the same time, or at least during the seven weeks that began August 25. The idea began in Seattle and has spread to other cities, Chicago being the largest so far. The Seattle librarian who conceived it said,
"This whole idea is spreading hugely, and we're getting tons of inquiries," Ms. Pearl added. "It's based on the noble idea of community. My noble idea was that people would come together who would never come together any other way. Literature brings them together because a book touches them."
In San Francisco, David Kipen reports on the trend (commenting that Seattle's selection this year is Molly Gloss's Wild Life) and invites Bay Area readers to submit nominations for his city.
But Not an E-book
Not so long ago, revolutionary pronouncements were still being made about e-books.
A year later, however, the main advantage of electronic books appears to be that they gather no dust. Almost no one is buying. Publishers and online bookstores say only the very few best-selling electronic editions have sold more than a thousand copies, and most sell far fewer. Only a handful have generated enough revenue to cover the few hundred dollars it costs to convert their texts to digital formats.
Literary or Not
The career of Salman Rushdie is a case study in the conflict between art, commerce, and celebrity. His new novel Fury has been almost universally panned in the UK, perhaps due in part to controversy over embargoed sale-dates and unauthorized pre-reviews.
The prejudging of Rushdie's book is a disgrace. The chorus of premature dispraise another. Never has the British book trade looked such a bad-tempered, ill-disciplined, petty-minded rabble.
Guardian, September 3, 2001
letters in response: Guardian, September 4, 2001
(Here's a wiseacre condensed version of Rushdie's novel.)
Or are the critics jealous of Rushdie's celebrity and lifestyle, out to take revenge for his abandonment of the UK for a glamorous girlfriend in Manhattan?
People are still talking (or at least writing) about the Atlantic Monthly screed by B.R. Myers against literary fiction; here's Judith Shulevitz on "Fiction and 'Literary' Fiction".
If Myers's essay deepened our understanding of the American literary condition, it would mean a victory for an instinctively appealing kind of populism -- the globalist kind. A lone amateur with wide experience of the world would have bested a bunch of provincial elitists at their own game. He'd have proved that a critic needs nothing more than taste to make a case. Does Myers's essay do all this? It does not, because Myers doesn't have a sure grasp of the world he's attacking.
Shulevitz acknowledges some of Myers' hits but ultimately accuses him of two fatal weaknesses: "a tin ear and the lack of a sense of humor."
Then there's the story of the screed-monger who made good. Five years ago Jonathan Franzen decried the current literary state in a Harper's Magazine essay; now he "shows the world how its done" with The Corrections (Farrar Straus & Giroux), his just-published novel garnering almost universal praise.
August Aether Vibrations