Hero Culture

America loves ostentation. It is deeply embedded in the value of individualism. As we value individuality and distinctiveness, every person must carefully cultivate a certain amount of display of unique features. This value of individuality and need to quantify this data via display is deeply embedded in everything we do, from our job hiring process to our love of the hero, to our psychological mimetic fiction to our cultural sayings and historical memory. America is a different sort of civilization than has ever come before, and we are young, and we are still figuring ourselves out. Perhaps America is the perpetual teenager, or early 20-something. Our social norms change rapidly. Our population demographics shift rapidly across time. We have yet to completely acknowledge as a country that we’ve ever really lost a major war (we might all be aware that Vietnam was not a success, but I argue in our cultural consciousness it is not a loss in the same way that European countries have long understood as a lost war).

Hipsters are just a rebellion in the definition of ostentation from pop culture ostentation, sports ostentation, college life ostentation, political ostentation and the weirdly enmeshed intellectual/anti-intellectual ostentation. I like their values more than I like any other groups, but it is still an example of American polish obfuscating materialism.

As many before and after have realized and written about, this frequently gets in our way. For example, the hero figure. The Martian, still making its theatre run, is a lovely example of this.

The entire world throws billions of dollars of equipment and human brain power at the task of pulling one man off Mars before he dies.

I’m told to ‘accept this as a convention of the story-telling,’ a mere ‘dramatic effect.’ However, I think this speaks to the heart of the issue of American nationalistic pride today.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for propagandizing NASA.

However, it is literally insane to accept the current permutation of that Yankee can-do know how that creates the foundation for this movie and novel.

Sure, cultural symbols and people as cultural symbols are important, but to swallow whole cloth the risking of so much investment of time and money and resource when our political environment is what it is is to be too accepting of the cognitive dissonance that is American behavior today. We cling to fantastical visions of ourselves in movies and in reality, and the doing so will only worsen the negative consequences that arise from such fantasizing.

I don’t want to believe it, but popular SF sure does serve the deadening narrative of the status quo rather than awaken us to proper respect for the Earth and our fellow man.

Can we please move past the hero worship? Can we think productively in terms of group character and group identity rather than excess reverence for someone ‘unique’?


From Stand on Zanzibar to The Windup Girl: A Brief review of changes in the story of dystopia.

Stand on Zanzibar and The Wind Up Girl are both multi-national stories of the dystopian future. The tracing out of the cause in both stories relies on the actions of different governments as well as individuals with different cultural heritages contributing to their particular personality characteristics.

In some ways, the comparison is impossible because Zanzibar overshadows The Windup Girl the way Tchaikovsky overshadows Led Zeppelin. Both are amazing within their ambitious reach, but Zanzibar is creating music out of a host of instruments whilst Windup Girl are a 4-piece unit (5 if you count the swinging of Plant’s hips and hair but I never got to see them live). However, certain plot and world-building elements can still be put side-by-side to reveal interesting developments in the way the world(overgeneralization) sees a major potential future timeline.

Also, it must be acknowledged that the masses understand potential future timelines in the simplistic plot structures of cinema. One simply cannot evoke the complexities of a major bureacractic infrastructure in a movie the way one can in a novel–although Jupiter Ascending sure gave it a good shot.

So, what do we get when we stack the two novels side-by-side?

  1. It’s even more clear a dystopian future is going to be the result of multi-national interaction. Dystopian futures are the futures of massive bureacratic structures making decisions that individuals can do little in response to.
  2. Destruction of agriculture is a major contender. It is quite amazing how little backstory Bacigalupi has to put into the failing agriculture system.
    1. That shows how little ‘the average person’ understands or pays attention to the day-to-day common knowledge of the inner mechanics of agriculture, unlike say, the ongoing stream of pop music/celebrities/actors. (It never fails to amaze me when I go out how much people know about this facet of culture, everyone with their own little niche, but everyone knowing some niche). Or, with how much people know about the banking system but not the element of economy that is most subject to random chance–agriculture.

The lack of understanding of the workings of agriculture reflects the means by which a potential disaster might affect us. What people are deciding policy about agriculture? What constituent groups voting on what issues? How much lobbying money is spent in this arena compared to others?

…Why don’t news shows give us this information? Why is agriculture not a major segment of the news?

….I will follow up next week with more thoughts that come from side-by-side comparisons. I would love to hear any and all answers to the questions at the ends of these posts.

Conspiracy Theories

A running joke in America. Perhaps partly because we all have our pet untried ideas about how the world works. Perhaps because it’s unfathomable that someone could be a zealot about something with so little support.

Really, conspiracy theories make perfect sense. Abstract thinking is very challenging. Abstract thinking that then becomes an emotional response is even harder to do. Anyone who has ever tried to diet knows this. The more abstract and isolated from context the thinking, the more difficult to translate it into an emotion. This is why we need reading and music. It is hands down the best way to invite an emotional response to an abstract idea.

Ideally, our public education trains us in the appropriate modes of abstract thinking. As the Oct 2015 Analog’s editor’s note shows, science trained minds grow bewildered at the habits of thought of those who do not adhere to the principles of those who (cannot/do not/will not) adhere to the tenets of scientific observation and rationality.

It seems clear that this requires new ways of thinking about how people think in our daily lives. The hatred I’ve seen expressed in slang terms about political parties is not condoned in any other area of our lives. I think it is ok if people do not value rationality. What’s not ok is not understanding it, because it is the dominant mode of thinking of crucial facets of 21st humanity. What does one do when one has a large segment of the population that does not want to listen to science?

One writes good stories, and finds ways to get people to be active readers.

One also strives to bring science into everyday conversations with everyday people. I’m only 26, from a small, distant segment of American society, but I have seen enough to begin to comment. People talk only to their people entirely too much for anyone’s good.

Of course there are many avenues in which we do grow to know strangers–primarily through introductions or forced encounters via a larger social mechanism (i.e. attending class, or working in customer service). We do not practice it naturally as children because our parents bar us this (for many reasons), as well as our school systems. Not talking to strangers is one way of coping with the lack of control that dominates the American psyche today.

However, why don’t we come to know strangers by sharing our opinions on the state of the world today? Codes of politeness make the road to conversations about things of import (both public and private) a tricky road to navigate.

More conversations ought be struck up between strangers. The chitchat of the people must include not only weather, celebrities and food, but also politics. Perhaps a heroic utopia is one in which Walter and Case and Babbitt all chat with the persons sitting around them in the places where they hang out.

Let’s take the time to strike up conversations with strangers. See if we can grow the conversation towards a better shared language of the American people.

Auguries of Immortality, Malthus and the Verge

Rick Searle presents here a brilliant perspective that points out that we must think of the individual at the same time we tackle large-scale issues that are part of the population explosion/industrial revolution

Utopia or Dystopia

Hindu Goddess Tara

Sometimes, if you want to see something in the present clearly it’s best to go back to its origins. This is especially true when dealing with some monumental historical change, a phase transition from one stage to the next. The reason I think this is helpful is that those lucky enough to live at the beginning of such events have no historical or cultural baggage to obscure their forward view. When you live in the middle, or at the end of an era, you find yourself surrounded, sometimes suffocated, by all the good and bad that has come as a result. As a consequence, understanding the true contours of your surroundings or ultimate destination is almost impossible, your nose is stuck to the glass.

Question is, are we ourselves in the beginning of such an era, in the middle, or at an end? How would we even know?

If I…

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A poem

sorts itself in vitro



Shredded sausage hands its job

over when the tech mechs

air in canned laughter.


Job for hands require key broads,

Breathy sorts. Or what’s your type?


Mechanical pencils are a simple lever,

No chemical process, no subtle technical skill

Of fingers. Erratic breathing means

Nothing. Unless paid performance of guffaw.


I’m sorry, did you want to feel something from this poem?


Pull out your private stash, throw it on in the background

Let your eyes unfocus as words wash over

Cunt. Fuck. Jargon.


The mechanical pencil is as simple as all heading to Oz

In that delightful journey where innocence correctly

Accidently kills the right person.


In a sense, you’ve lead poisoning.




Existence cannot be reduced. Except

You have to tell time so you reduce it to

Days and minutes and calendared meetings.


I also decided to reduce it to being a womb

For technology; days are built around

Perpetuating advances. The fetus develops,

The fingernails of the womb body are largely unimportant.


Someone told me a story of my body and a magic watch,

They purported to put the control of my appearance

In my hands, I wish

The control of the importance of my appearance

Was in my hands. In my hands I have a lot of wrinkles, rough skin.

I work for a living.


You work for a living, too, in vitro, in glass refined

You find a living. Your beer is delicate yet full bodied,

Your body is delicate, it mandates insurance, it

Wants its magic watch with an oreo. Living in glass

Requires documentation. Too much is happening but everything

Must be observed.

Even if the observation is only words

Because there are too many people for trust

To be part of the system. Besides, social sciences revealed unto

Us that we can’t trust trust.

We get by with our bank trusts and market shares

In America we trust the new standard measure of money

In china they love European culture, their money is invested and spent

On culture.


We watch movies of heroes in post apocalyptic worlds, and we forget

That most of us are Chinese laborers destroying

Our bodies over delicately shaped glass

Cradling wiring.


We were all Alexander the Great and we will all have Michelle Obama’s arms. Turn on

And let go. Caress the belly of hope

That is

Your capacity

To misattribute.


Metropolis is a must-see for those interested in dystopian story-telling. It’s influence on later movies is easy to see (Blade Runner, Batman (1989), Gattaca and on and on).

H.G. Wells disdains Metropolis. Egbert, and those on imdb think it brilliant.

What is each side valuing that leads to such a rating? And why does Wells feel like a bit of a lone voice?

As Wells notes, it adds nothing to the conversation on the social and political trajectory of mankind. Hackneyed and oversimplified, it gives socialism a bad name and reinforces misapprehensions about the state of relations amongst classes, even in the time it was written. Yet it is now a “must-see classic,” and hundreds admire it for its aesthetic and story-telling brilliance. These quotes from Wells and Egbert sum up the difference:


But a mechanical civilization has no use for mere drudges; the more efficient its machinery the less need there is for the quasi-mechanical minder. It is the inefficient factory that needs slaves; the ill-organized mine that kills men.

The whole aim of mechanical civilization is to eliminate the drudge and the drudge soul.


Lang develops this story with scenes of astonishing originality. Consider the first glimpse of the underground power plant, with workers straining to move heavy dial hands back and forth. What they’re doing makes no logical sense, but visually the connection is obvious: They are controlled like hands on a clock. And when the machinery explodes, Freder has a vision in which the machinery turns into an obscene devouring monster

“Metropolis” does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world. The ideas of “Metropolis” have been so often absorbed into popular culture that its horrific future city is almost a given (when Albert Brooks dared to create an alternative utopian future in 1991 with “Defending Your Life,” it seemed wrong, somehow, without Satanic urban hellscapes). Lang filmed for nearly a year, driven by obsession, often cruel to his colleagues, a perfectionist madman, and the result is one of those seminal films without which the others cannot be fully appreciated.


Metropolis evokes the feel of dystopia without mind to the practicalities of what it is like to exist in the complex chemical equation of capitalist-determined relations. It allows an opportunity for viewers to feel a sense of connection to those in a similar plight. The workday of the low class is illogical. The feeling of marching in to work in such misery is accurate. The blandness of the middle class goods is illogical. The feeling of boring same-ness is accurate.

Wells’s disgust for the movie stems from his intense commitment to furthering a complex and collective understanding about the state of society. Yes, that understanding is undermined by creating such blatantly false pictures of the relationship between power and science, and the relationship between those who wield power and those who are oppressed by power. We do need stories that help further our sense of how science, technology, mythologies of ‘normal’ etc help to create the world we live in and the world we will live in.

We also need what is powerful in its simplicity. We need stories that connect us to each other, and help us understand on a visceral emotional level what it is like to suffer.

I do wish, though, that as a culture concerned with dystopias, we were more interested in how these stories shape what we understand about science and technology. The madman scientist (or master manipulator of innovative technology) is limiting and dated, and yet continues to make appearances.

The emotional impact of a story and the intellectual impact of a story should not get measured by the same yardstick.

A thought on “cognitive estrangement” pt II

Last post, I mentioned returning to cognition. Here it is.

Spiegel’s fantastic breakdown of the facets of how an estranging effect is worked upon an audience by the formal and stylistic devices of a text throws out cognition entirely.

My goal is to unpack how, when, why, cognition is a useful tool in terms of comprehending the effect of estrangement.

Cognition is heavily mediated by emotion. Emotion is heavily mediated by what one has been socialized into perceiving as a natural or unnatural response, according to the society’s dictates on what counts as “good” or “bad” behavior. This, of course, is then highly mediated by individual differences as well as ‘innate’ primate responses. The body is aroused, and then the  arousal is processed and interpreted. Matsuda and Kitayama point out that arousal in Western cultures tends to be interpreted subjectively, whereas in other cultures, the interpretation tends to be inter-subjective.  The West also has a causality bias. That is, in the West, when we are aroused, we take complete responsibility for the body-feeling and that shows up in how we interpret the emotion and assign it a cause. When we feel stressed, we tend to interpret it in terms of individual responsibility (or in shifting away from individual responsibility, hence the prevalence of the blame-game in our culture.) Intense emotions tend to need to be assigned a cause as part of the process of reconciling them, and we tend to assign a cause in terms of our individual reality (either by taking responsibility or by ascribing responsibility to events in our memory). I.E. I’m so messed up because my parents did x while we were kids, and now I can’t help feeling this way. (the blame game).

Of course, recent shifts in psychology in particular in terms of mindfulness, are attempting to shift people away from this mode of thinking, teaching distancing cognitive behaviors to help people realize that emotions are but one facet of reality and that they don’t have to over-identify with them.

Keeping in mind this is highly generalized.

What does this have to do with SF? Well, I think it is important to look at emotional appeals as part of the stylistic/formal devices of a piece of text in more detail than the lovely umbrella term “estrangement” allows for. Granted, estrangement does a fantastic job creating a useful flexible generalized term to encompass the variation of audience response.

One way to do this is by setting up a taxonomy of “emotional intelligence” for central characters as part of investigating how literature develops empathy, or as part of acknowledging that most readers read in order to identify with the main character in some way shape or form.

Another way to do this is to examine how characters are set up as constrained by the emotional weight of certain key beliefs, and how those affect decision making (logic is constrained by emotional beliefs).

Another way to do this is to historically situate a text, looking at how it uses formal elements in its response to the structure of feeling of its time. Is it reflecting it, refracting it, denying it, etc etc etc.