Friday, October 25, 2013

The Epistemology of the Chamber Pot

I had high hopes for Ari Folman's new movie "The Congress" (2013).  I liked Folman's previous movie "Waltz with Bashir" (2008) and I love the novel his latest movie is ostensibly based upon: Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress (1973).
When I realized that in California you could not see "The Congress" for love or money, my hopes were raised even higher. Surely, I thought, it is going to be an underground masterpiece, a brave challenge to the mindless Hollywood pablum, an Israeli ticket to the international SF Hall of Fame. I suspect the director thought the same.

Of course, the higher up you are, the further down you fall. "The Congress" is a great idea gone awry; or rather, a couple of ideas pulling in different directions and ending up in a mess. It is almost as if Folman fell victim to the syndrome described in his source novel: ontological confusion. Lem's hero does not know what "movie" he is in, and neither, it seems, does Folman.

Lem's delightful satire describes the adventures of hapless Ion Tichy who is invited to a futurological congress where chemical means of manipulating reality perceptions are being tested. Having clashed with a would-be papal assassin, played cards with rats, and repeatedly fallen into the sewer, Tichy is frozen and wakes up in the utopian future where all desires are satisfied by taking little pills that enable you to experience whatever you want to experience, and be whoever you want to be. Whether you scale Everest, play violin, or sleep with the most beautiful woman in the world - any experience is ultimately translated into the chemicals sloshing in the brain. And it is easier to tweak neurotransmitters than to do all the tiresome things involved in changing the physical world.

But the problem with virtual reality is that it is never virtual enough. Somebody has to make those little pills that give us paradise; somebody has to wash, and clean, and empty the chamber pots of the happy sleepers. At the end of the novel Tichy confronts the rulers of the chemical utopia who push their drugs on the increasingly sick and deprived population, while enjoying real food and real sex.

Folman's movie has a very different story which adds "human interest" on top of political satire.The first part deals with the travails of the aging actress Robin Wright who is "scanned" into the computer and put out to pasture.The opposition is clear: human complexity versus artificial simplicity; nature versus imitation; reality versus illusion. The first part employs flesh-and-blood actors, and Robin's aging but still beautiful face dominates the screen.

In the second, animated, part Robin is invited to a futurological congress where she acts the part of Tichy, enmeshed in layers of hallucinations and unable to discern what, if anything, is real. She wakes up twenty years later into a chemical paradise where she searches for her sick son.

But what is wrong with the simulacrum? Why are we to identify with Robin's desire not to become an image or with her impassioned speech that  decries the manipulation of reality by corporations? Why is nature better than civilization?

There are two answers to it: one given by Rousseau and one by Marx. Rousseau's answer is that nature is better by definition. Marx's answer is that civilization is better but you have to grapple with nature to produce civilization - and people who do the grappling are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

This is Lem's point in the original Futurological Congress. Virtual reality is a mere sop given to the poor whose labor is exploited and whose bodies are ruined. Simulacrum is not evil in itself but only insofar as it blinds people to the reality of their situation.

Folman's movie seems to come close to this position, especially in the striking images of the filthy, sick, deranged masses that Robin encounters when she takes an antidote to the hallucinogens. But then the movie quickly changes course and has Robin go back into the chemical utopia where she can find her son - or a simulacrum of thereof. Perhaps the ending is supposed to be a paean to maternal love. But to me it just felt disappointing and incoherent. Folman started with a critique of Hollywood as the drug-pusher of international capitalism. But he ended up with a Hollywood sob story.

As for me, I am with Lem - and yes, with Marx. I would love to be scanned into a computer and to enjoy the freedom of virtual reality. I'd love to live in an animated utopia where smiling babies grow on rose-bushes. But in our world, somebody has to change the diapers.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Zombies on the march

So here are your zombies: an unstoppable human wave, climbing walls, sweeping over firing soldiers, overturning cars, smashing everything in its path. Blind, deaf, pitiless, faceless - and all powerful.

Saint Petersburg 1917. Paris 1968. Cairo 2013.

And Brad Pitt saving his sniveling family from the horror of the masses and presumably bringing it back to the suburban paradise, complete with pancake breakfasts and picket fences.

"World War Z" is a bad movie: not just because it is incoherent but because it is false in its message. It is telling its viewers that the huge crowds and flash mobs they are seeing daily on their screens can be contained by individual heroism and stockpiling of guns: a Tea Party ideology in the age of global movements. Max Brooks' "World War Z" tried to revive the spirit of communal action by looking back to World War 2. The form of the book, with its many individual voices telling a common story, is a pastiche of Stud Terkel's "The Good War". It may be preposterous in its premise and naive in its depiction of individual countries' politics (Israel's going to bring all the Palestinians into its shelter? Really?) but it is responding to the real challenges of       globalism. "World War Z" the movie is hiding its head in the sand and hoping the revolution will pass it by.

The zombie, like all pop-culture monsters, is a metaphor for our fears. Like all such monsters, it is polysemic. It may represent the fear of the body, the fear of death, even, as I argued in my recent article, the fear of language.

But the movie is quite clear in what fears in invokes. The opening (and visually most impressive) shots are of huge crowds, multitudes, people-choked giant cities. Small-town America looking at the world and seeing zombies on the march. And small-town America is right: the zombies are coming. I, for one, hope they'll get here soon.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Maya Kaganskaya

Today is the second anniversary of my mother's death. I don't believe in commemorative dates. Memory has no calendar; it comes and goes as it wills. Like writing, memory is free; like writing, it stays with us, sometimes receding into the background and sometimes coming back at unexpected moments as a flash of illumination or a stab of longing. My mother's writing is alive today, somewhere in the world. And so is my memory of her.    

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jewish Storytelling

Last month, a conference on Jewish storytelling took place at Stanford University ( Unexpectedly there was a lot of talk about science fiction and fantasy: a discussion of contemporary Israeli fantasy by Danielle Gurevitch and Vered Shemtov, Samantha Baskind’s lecture on Jewish graphic novels, my own talk about Jews in/as SF and so on. This is different from similar gatherings a couple of years ago when the discussion would be safely confined to the American-Jewish realistic canon of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth etc.
But while the boundaries of genre were breached, the boundaries of ethnicity were not. Most talks took the “Jewishness” of the texts discussed for granted, either because they were written by self-identifying Jews or because of the topic, such as the Bible. For example, the scriptwriter Michael Green talked about his adaptation of the Biblical Book of Kings for TV (the series failed but the talk was quite interesting).
But if anything written by a Jew belongs to “Jewish” literature by definition, we risk instituting a sort of literary Nuremberg laws, roping into our enclosure a lot of people who have no interest in being in. Stanislaw Lem was born a Jew and in fact barely escaped the Holocaust but he was raised Catholic, wrote in Polish, and did not think of himself as Jewish. On the other hand, Isaac Asimov self-identified as a Jew and spoke Yiddish but had little to say about Jewish history or tradition.
So how about the topic? The Bible is a Jewish scripture but for millions of Christians who were the intended audience of Green’s TV series Kings, it is now their book. If we take the Holocaust as the defining historical experience of Jewry in modern times, many great Holocaust books were not written by Jews. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an alternate history of the Holocaust but so are The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris. Roth is Jewish, Dick and Harris are not.
This is the conundrum that bedeviled Jewish literature for many years; but now it increasingly seems to be spreading into literature as a whole. More and more writers write in languages not their own; more and more live and/or publish in countries not of their birth. Both people and stories freely circulate in the borderless online universe.
Still, I do not think that it means we can abolish all national designations and speak of “global” literature. Doing so would blur the real issues of economic inequality, historical heritage and political power. Words may have no country but people do.
So perhaps conferences like the one at Stanford would do better to shift emphasis from the adjective (“Jewish”) to the noun (“storytelling”). Maybe the point is precisely that some genres, such as SF, are better at dealing with issues of homelessness, alienation, historical injustice and rapid change overtaking our world. Maybe the point is not that there is Jewish SF but rather than all SF is, in some sense, Jewish.     

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

M for Mummy

Now we know what M in the James Bond franchise stands for. Mummy, of course.

For those who have not yet seen the latest James Bond movie "Skyfall", it is highly recommended. It manages to be tongue-in-cheek without being cutesy; nostalgic without being soppy; and action-oriented without wasting an entire arsenal of ordnance. The visuals are great: Daniel Craig is good-looking in a craggy, unshaven sort of way; and the plot (almost) makes sense.

But the greatest achievement of the movie as far as I'm concerned is to rewrite the foundation of Western civilization: the Oedipal myth. Until now, the conflict between fathers and sons has been central to our most exalted narratives (see Hamlet and Star Wars). If you believe Harold Bloom (I don't), the father-son relationship underlies the dynamics of literary creativity (see The Anxiety of Influence). And yet James Bond has as little regard for Dr. Freud as he had for Dr. No.

The plot of the movie (spoilers alert!) hinges on the fact that Bond's boss, M (superbly played by Judy Dench,) has betrayed an agent named Silva to the nefarious Chinese.

(Incidentally, here is the link to a hilarious article on the Chinese reaction to this:

The agent comes to extract revenge and is defeated by Bond, who holds the mortally wounded M as she lies dying. No romance here: M is an old lady. But it is very clear that her relationship with Silva and Bond is the relationship between a stern mother and two sons who compete for her affection and approval. Silva is practically hysterical, begging M to kill both of them because, of course, matricide is the ultimate tabu. Bond is less emotional but more dutiful, which is why he becomes M's heir designate, continuing her work on behalf of Queen and country. There is no ghost of the father haunting this movie: authority and power are represented by a mother figure. It is as if Hamlet contested the crown with Gertrude or Luke Skywalker crossed swords with Mrs. Darth Vader.

What difference does it make? Very little, in my opinion. Power is power, whether wielded by a man or a woman. Family romance does not go very far in describing the dynamics of social hierarchies. But in the light of the latest soap opera unfolding in the CIA, with General David Petraeus brought down by a silly affair with his biographer, perhaps we could use some more of M's no-nonsense, I-told-you-to-clean-your-room maternal authority.   

Monday, July 16, 2012

My last thoughts on the sad plight of American cities - and the promised solution.

The modernist utopia of the city as a machine for living (Le Corbusier) is gone, together with the rest of modernist utopias: Communism, fascism, Nazism. I can recommend an excellent book by Mark Mazower "Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century" which describes the utopian tide that swept over the West in the aftermath of the butchery that was World War One - and its result in the even greater butchery of World War Two. So I will not mourn the loss of Detroit as a Fordian model for the future city, in which disciplined armies of uniformed workers produced uniform Models T for the uniformly happy citizens.

On the other hand, the deadly boredom of the suburbia is unsustainable, both economically and socially. I'm sick of seeing empty streets, occasionally relieved by a waddling figure of gargantuan proportions (this is, if the street even has a sidewalk).

So here is my own utopian solution. Bring in those "hungry multitudes" of Mexicans, Indians and Chinese who still believe in the American Dream abandoned by most Americans. Dump them in the ruined heart of Detroit, Oakland, Buffalo NY and similar urban wastelands. Promise them a path to citizenship if after five years they are still living in the city, paying taxes and have opened a small business or found a job. Send them back if they move to suburbia.

It's not going to happen, of course. There is no political will for doing something like this. And am I not contradicting myself, by mocking modernism's social engineering, while indulging in a social engineering of my own?

Very well, so I contradict myself, as Walt Whitman said. It is still the only way. Without it, American cities will die, while cities in the rest of the world (especially Asia) will grow and prosper. And cities are not only cultural and economic centers but a way to avoid the ecological catastrophe of cancerous growth, unrestrained traffic, and greenhouse-gas pollution.

On the other hand...On a recent visit to Oakland CA, which looks like Detroit's depressed sibling, we suddenly heard a buzz of human voices in the desert of abandoned buildings. We followed the sound...and were engulfed by a crowd of shoppers. They were all Chinese. Oakland's Chinatown on Sunday was so bustling that some dim-sum places had waiting lines. (Oh yes, the mayor of Oakland is Chinese).

"What is the city but the people?" Shakespeare, Coriolanus.            

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dispatches from Detroit - 2. Who Killed the Big D?

Detroit is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

I can just imagine the reactions to it. To most people, word associations with Detroit are: crime, decay, bankruptcy, apocalypse (not necessarily in this order). Most people are right, and still I stand by my assertion: Detroit is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

                                                       Part of the Rivera murals

Yesterday a couple of people from the conference I'm attending (Science Fiction Research Association annual gathering) drove to Detroit Institute of Art. This is a world-class museum, better and bigger than the De Young and Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It has a stunning collection of contemporary art, a great 19th century display (including Whistler, Pissarro and Gauguin), and the jaw-dropping atrium painted with murals by Diego Rivera. The murals show Detroit in the 1930s - the city of the future, with the industrial armies marching boldly into the working-class utopia of glass, skyscrapers and red stars (Rivera was a communist, a fact tactfully avoided by our helpful guide). But no matter: the murals are so stunning that for a moment one feels like belting out "The International". The atrium (newly renovated) should be filled with oohing and aahing crowds - and in San Francisco it would be. This Saturday morning in Detroit a couple of tourists wandered through the giant museum, looking lost and vaguely embarrassed.

Outside the museum, broad avenues of Art Deco high-rises, brownstone mansions and jewel-box churches stretched into the sunlight. The high-rises are abandoned -  vertical ghost-towns. The brownstones are locked up. The churches are burnt. In five blocks, we saw one person - a homeless black shambling through the empty city like an escapee from a zombie invasion.

                                                These skyscrapers are empty

The municipality has dotted the downtown with pretty little parks. I was relieved to see them empty. This morning, one of the participants in my panels described those green places as sites where bodies are dumped. I guess they had been removed earlier.

So what happened? Who killed the Big D? One of my fellow visitors reminded us of the concerted efforts of car companies in the mid-twentieth century to undermine public transportation. There are no more streetcars named desire, and Ford, GM and the rest of them are to blame. There is racism, of course. Segregation is just a word until you see the streets of Detroit where a white face means a visitor. And there is an all-American glorification of small-town life, which has created the nation of overweight gun-toting SUV-drivers. And still, it seems unbelievable  to me that a symbol of national aspirations and a world-class city would be just left to rot. Can you imagine the English walking away from London? The Italians abandoning Rome?

I have no complete answer to this enigma. But do I have a solution for Detroit? You bet. See the next installment.