Thursday, May 26, 2011

2011.05.26 — Beyond Fate by Margaret Visser: Begun

Margaret Visser.
Beyond Fate,
Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.
ISBN 0887846793

This book has begun in a good, but not great manner. I thoroughly enjoyed Visser's Much Depends On Dinner and The Gift of Thanks. What I'm finding is that the text in this book is too literally a transcription of the oral lectures from which it derives. Visser's manner of oral presentation does not transcribe well to the written word. Briefly, so far — 20 pages — it strikes me that it would benefit from some editing.

Visser - Photo with Permission from John MacDonald
Nevertheless, Visser's argument and ideas are interesting and challenging. For example, she begins with by looking at "time-lines" with an examination of how our language predicates (is predicated by?) the notion of a beginning, middle and end with no going backwards. She makes an interesting link to how our pictorial methods of representing time, such as a line, also create straight and narrow thinking, a rigidity when it comes to accepting too easily what is perhaps something not really fated but that is instead an opportunity to exercise personal creativity in overcoming an ostensible destiny.

Here's a short extract showing the role the Greeks had in linking fate to geometry:
Ancient Greeks thought a great deal about fate, and when they did, the metaphors they used to think with were often spatial, indeed geometrical. The Greeks were obsessed with geometry. Among the first traces of them that we possess are their pots in the style called Geometric, after its most obvious characteristic, the geometrical patterns drawn on the curved clay surfaces.
Several hundred years later, by which time Greek thinkers — leaning heavily upon mathematical interpretations of religious ideas and religious interpretations of mathematics — had permanently altered the intellectual history of the world, we find Plato writing over the gateway to his Academy, "Let no one enter here who does not know geometry." Fate, for them, was a spatial and diagrammatic idea from the beginning. It was a gigantic blueprint, a "design" laid out in advance. A tendency to lean on linear metaphors continues both to inspire and to haunt our imaginations today. We need think only of the signs of the zodiac and their interpretation in astrology, or of palmistry, the reading of people's characters and fates from the lines on the palms of their hands. Geometrical metaphors in general can predispose us, when we are being careless, to cage up our vision and fail to let go of fatalism. I'll be giving in the course of this book lots of modern examples of the fatal diagram.

In traditional poetry, a person's life has often been imagined as a line representing time: a thread spun by the gods, by fate, or by the three Fates. In Greek, the names of these relentless mythical crones were Clotho (Spinner), Lachesis (Allotment), and Atropos (Not to be Turned Aside). They indicated past, present, and future: the past as already spun and purely linear; the present an intersection, station, or point marked out upon the line; the future as what you think you can control but cannot, Roman, Scandinavian, and Germanic mythologies also knew three Fates. They spun or braided the ropes of events in world history. They also made individual fates for human beings, in parallel with a life, the thread starting at its beginning and being snipped off when the time came to die. Or the fate was complete from the beginning, and it remained only for the person to travel his or her allotted span, the "road" of life. The three witches in Macbeth are versions of the Fates.
deviantart 3 witches
Shakespeare, however, insists on his characters' free will: the riddling fiends mislead, but they never force decisions.

What the myths of fate express is the sense we all have at times that we are not in charge; that events, rules, and systems act upon us, or make us act, in ways not of our choosing. It is entirely right that we should realize this, but we have to discriminate between what is in fact changeable and what is not. The diagram metaphor — its very clarity, its self-evidence — leans heavily on the side of inalterability, of the hopelessness of change (11-2 my emphasis).
We'll see how it goes.

It is interesting to me, in a way, to pick this book up while reading Chomsky. He is fighting to wake up American's to their not being fated to ignorance and manufactured consent for brutal hegemony.

And I'm reminded of something Linda McQuaig said in an interview or panel discussion many years ago.
Paraphrased she pointed out that when it comes to fighting inflation, the press argue that we are powerful and will win the fight by tightening our belts, reducing our expectations and accepting diminished social benefits in our brave struggle against succumbing to the ignoble fate of bankruptcy. She added that when it comes to issues of reduced corporate taxation, unemployment and the social costs of free trade and 'globalization,' however, they become flaccid apologists who vociferously argue that we are helpless to these 'natural' economic forces and to accept them as it is our fate.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2011.05.15 — Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky: Begun 2011.04.25

Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky.
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
New York. Pantheon Books, 2002.
Pages: 480. ISBN: 978-0-375-71449-8.

[The above is to the currently available edition. The edition I'm citing from — pictured left — is the 1988 edition, 412 pages: ISBN 0-679-72034-0.]

I'm barely into the book — around page 65 — and already it has shown itself to be extremely interesting and important. So much so that I'd like to post several passages from it now. From the preface:

... the democratic postulate is that the media are independent and committed to discovering and reporting the truth, and that they do not merely reflect the world as powerful groups wish it to be perceived. Leaders of the media claim that their news choices rest on unbiased professional and objective criteria, and they have support for this contention in the intellectual community. If, however, the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear, and think about, and to "manage" public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns, the standard view of how the system works is at serious odds with reality.

The special importance of propaganda in what Walter Lippmann referred to as the "manufacture of consent" has long been recognized by writers on public opinion, propaganda, and the political requirements of social order.
Lippmann himself, writing in the early 1920s, claimed that propaganda had already become "a regular organ of popular government," and was steadily increasing in sophistication and importance. We do not contend that this is all the mass media do, but we believe the propaganda function to be a very important aspect of their overall service (p.xi my emphasis).
And these opening paragraphs set the tone for H&C's calm, detailed and dispassionate examination of both the truthfulness and quality of popular corporate news. Even if you think that H&C are wrong, this opening premise is not justifiably dismissed before examining the careful arguments and detailed evidence that comprise this book.

Because they are presenting the antithetical idea that the free media in America, the land of free, is not really 'free,' H&C have indeed proceeded carefully, with detail and detailed references. That some of the right-leaning ideologues dismiss their argument solely with epithets and rah-rah America is effective proof that they haven't read it — or if they have, further evidence that there is no breadth of untruth that delusion cannot span nor propaganda fail to deify.

I was particularly bemused by H&C's effort to pre-empt standard 'conspiracy theory' arguments that are still being leveled against them.
Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as "conspiracy theories," but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of "conspiracy" hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a "free market" analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces. Most biased choices in the media arise from the pre-selection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power. Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organizations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power (p.xii).
And so far, in what I've read, they haven't proposed a 'conspiracy' as such, but more a confluence of like actions by like people predicated on common principles of capital ownership and the expansion and consolidation of American-based economic power and world hegemony.

And in principle this is an argument that is neither unreasonable nor ideological. The owners of the media are relatively small in number, which is well detailed in Manufacturing Consent. Furthermore, the owners are generally guided by quite narrow and institutional financial demands, the influence of government regulation and advertising revenues, and personal gains in remuneration and social prestige. For these reasons alone, not withstanding a degree of democratic capitalistic ideology, it is not unreasonable to see how the owners of the media, and in turn those whom they pay, will be at least tempted to de-emphasize certain stories and emphasize others from time to time.

Now, it is possible that the ambitious may turn away from the financial and career costs of biting the hands that feed them. But the record of the powerful in history, let alone pragmatic honesty with regards to human nature when faced with wealth or penury, would bely that: greed and ambition are far more stupefying and corrupting than sex ever has been. (E.G. The Golden Goose,
Midas Touch, The Emporer's New Clothes, all attest to the archetypal presence of greed's ability to easily stupefy and for power to facilitate delusion.)

With an honest eye open to the record of human corruption with, by and for the powerful, one would expect that, in a reasonable world, it would be the role of the ideological right to prove that those who are running the country's media and purse strings are keeping to the straight and narrow. However, what we ignorant masses get instead are knee-jerk dismissals and epithets, even after the recent criminal banking practices and multi-mulit-billion dollar payoffs. Perhaps that reality is the true testament to the effectiveness of America's 'democratic' propaganda machine.

And, as if to confirm this argument, a Google search directed me to an interesting talk given by Chomsky following the publication of Manufacturing Consent . In it, paraphrased, he relates his personal experience with the power of media ownership to shred free speech and, worst of all, to stand by while it is done and remain mute. And by that silence rests democracy's quietus, for the media have by their inaction disavowed themselves from integrity, honesty and, worst of all, their responsibility to defend against such attacks on the basis of plain and simple human decency.

March 15, 1989       Noam Chomsky Manufacturing Consent: A Talk Recorded at the Memorial Union Theater on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, Wisconsin.

Let me begin with two recent events, both of them widely publicized. The first has to do with the famous Salman Rushdie case. A couple of days ago you may have noticed that the prime minister of Iran suggested a very simple way to resolve the crisis concerning Rushdie. He suggested that what should happen is that all the copies of his book Satanic Verses should simply be burned. And I guess the implication is that if that happened then they could cancel the death sentence. That's one case — lots of [media] coverage. Second case had something to do with an interesting thing that happened here. There was what some people are calling a mega-merger, of two media giants.
Walter Lippman Sep 27, 1937
Time Incorporated and Warner Communications Incorporated. Each of them huge conglomorants, and coming together they've formed, apparently, the world's biggest media empire. Now that also had a lot of publicity, even outside the business pages. And there was concern over the effects of the merger by increasing media concentration so effectively — the effects on freedom of expression.

Well these two events, they seem rather remote from one another. And in a sense they are. But we can draw them together by recalling an event which was not considered important enough to be reported. But which I happen to know about because I was personally involved. The title for this talk is, you may have noticed, "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media." That's actually the title of a recent book I was co-author of with — my co-author was Edward Herman. And the two of us have been working together for many years. Our first book was published in 1974, a book on American foreign policy and the media, in fact. And it was published by a ... flourishing text book publisher, which happened to be a subsidiary of Warner Communications Incorporated.

Well, unless you are a very rare person you never saw that book. And the reason was that when the advertising for the book appeared, after 20, 000 copies were published, one of the executives of Warner Communications saw the advertising and didn't like the feel of it and asked to see the book, and liked it even less. In fact, was appalled. And then followed an interaction which I won't bother describing. But the end result of it was that the parent company, Warner Communication, simply decided to put the publisher out of business, and to end the whole story that way. Now they didn't burn the books, they pulped them. Which is more civilized — and also books don't burn very well, actually, I'm told. They're kind of like bricks. [Some laughter.] But pulping works. And it wasn't just our book that was eliminated, it was all the books published by that publisher.

Well, there are a couple of differences between this and the case of the Prime Minister of Iran. One difference is that this was actually done, not just suggested. [Applause.] The second difference is that it wasn't just one book, it was all books which happened to be tainted by being published by the publisher who had done this bad thing. A third difference is the reaction. The reaction in the case of the Warner Communications putting a publisher out of business to prevent them from publishing our book — the reaction to that was zero. Not because it wasn't known, it was just not considered to be of any significance. Whereas the Rushdie affair, of course, has had a huge furor, as it should. And the prime minister's proposal was greeted with ridicule and contempt, as a demonstration of what you could expect from these barbarous people. So there are some differences (2'08"-6'20").
For the complete talk, go to Manufacturing Consent.

Addendum 2011.05.20
I tried to be lazy with this post by omitting the text's notes. However, it didn't feel right reading Chomsky without reading also his endless, invaluable references. So, without the footnote numbering within the text, here are the footnotes — please consider them to be a kind of reference bibleography. And I have been unable not to include links to various references, bios, etc.

Preface Notes pages x-xiv

1. We use the term "special interests" in its commonsense meaning, not in the Orwellian usage of the Reagan era, where it designates workers, farmers, women, youth, blacks, the aged and infirm, the unemployed—in short, the population at large. Only one group did not merit this appellation: orporations, and their owners and managers. They are not "special interests," they represent the "national interest." This terminology represents the reality of domination and the operational usage of "national interest" for the two major political parties. For a similar view, with evidence of the relevance of this usage to both major political parties, see Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), pp. 37-39 and passim.
2. Herbert Gans, for example, states that "The beliefs that actually make it into the news are professional values that are intrinsic to national journalism and that journalists learn on the job.. .. The rules of news judgment call for ignoring story implications ..." ("Are U.S. Journalists Dangerously Liberal?" Columbia Journalism Review [Nov.-Dec. 1985], pp. 32-33). In his book Deciding What's News, (New York: Vintage [Out of Print], 1980), Gans contends that media reporters are by and large "objective," but within a framework of beliefs in a set of "enduring values" that include "ethnocentrism" and "responsible capitalism," among others. We would submit that if reporters for Pravda were found to operate within the constraints of belief in the essential justice of the Soviet state and "responsible communism," this would be found to make any further discussion of "objectivity" pointless. Furthermore, as we shall document below, Gans greatly understates the extent to which media reporters work within a limiting framework of assumptions.
3. Neoconservative critiques of the mass media commonly portray them as bastions of liberal, antiestablishment attacks on the system. They ignore the fact that the mass media are large business corporations controlled by very wealthy individuals or other corporations, and that the members of what the neoconservatives describe as the "liberal culture" of the media are hired employees. They also disregard the fact that the members of this liberal culture generally accept the basic premises of the system and differ with other members of the establishment largely on the tactics appropriate to achieving common ends. The neoconservatives are simply not prepared to allow deviations from their own views. In our analysis in chapter i, we describe them as playing the important role of "enforcers," attempting to browbeat the media into excluding from a hearing even the limited dissent now tolerated. For an analysis of the neoconservative view of the media, see Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead, "Ledeen on the Media," in The Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian Connection (New York: Sheridan Square Publications, 1986), pp. 166-70; George Gerbner, "Television: The Mainstreaming of America," in Business and the Media, Conference Report, Yankelovich, Skelly and White, November 19, 1981; Gans, "Are U.S. Journalists Dangerously Liberal?" [I couldn't find a link to that article, but found this instead: "The Illeberal Media" by Edward s. Herman.]
4. See Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1921; reprint, London: Alien & Unwin, 1932); Harold Lasswell, "Propaganda," in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 1933); Edward Bemays, Propaganda (New York: H. Liveright, 1928); M. J. Crozier, S. P. Huntington, and J. Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Govemability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: New York University Press, 1975). For further discussion, see Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War (New York: Pantheon [out of print], 1982), chapter I. and references cited, particularly, Alex Carey, "Reshaping the Truth: Pragmatists and Propagandists in America," Meanjin Quarterly (Australia), vol. 35, no. 4 (1976).
5. Public Opinion, p. 248. Lippmann did not find this objectionable, as "the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality" (p. 310). He was distressed that the incorrigible bias of the press might mislead the "specialized class" as well as the public. The problem, therefore, was how to get adequate information to the decision-making elites (pp. 31-32). This, he believed, might be accomplished by development of a body of independent experts who could give the leadership unbiased advice. Lippmann raised no question about possible personal or class interests of the "specialized class" or the "experts" on whom they might choose to rely, on their ability, or their right, to articulate "the common interest."
6. For example, Claire Sterling and the experts of the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International StudiesWalter Laqueur, Michael Ledeen, and Robert Kupperman—have been established as the authorities on terrorism by the mass media; on the Sterling and Paul Henze role in working up the Bulgarian Connection in the plot against the pope, see chapter 4. In the case of Latin America, the media have been compelled to avoid the usual resort to the academic profession for expression of approved opinion, as the profession largely rejects the framework of state propaganda in this instance. It has therefore been necessary to create a new cadre of "experts" (Robert Leiken, Ronald Radosh, Mark Falcon", Susan Kaufman Purcell, etc.) to whom they can turn to satisfy doctrinal needs. See Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism (Boston: South End Press, 1988), for examples. On the process of creating experts to meet system demands, see our chapter i under "Sourcing MassMedia News."
7. Like other terms of political discourse, the word "democracy" has a technical Orwellian sense when used in rhetorical nights, or in regular "news reporting," to refer to U.S. efforts to establish "democracy." The term refers to systems in which control over resources and the means of violence ensures the rule of elements that will serve the needs of U.S. power. Thus the terror states of El Salvador and Guatemala are "democratic," as is Honduras under the rule of the military and oligarchy, and the collection of wealthy businessmen, bankers, etc., organized by the United States as a front for the Somocista-led mercenary army created by the United States is entitled "the democratic resistance." See further, chapter 3.
8. In the eighty-five opinion columns on Nicaragua that appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post in the first three months of 1986, during the "national debate" preceding the congressional votes on contra aid, not a single one mentioned this elementary fact. For a detailed review, see Noam Chomsky, "Introduction," in Morris Morley and James Petras, The Reagan Administration and Nicaragua, Monograph I (New York: Institute for Media Analysis, 1987).
9. Only two phrases in the eighty-five opinion columns cited in the previous footnote mentioned that the Nicaraguan government had carried out reforms; none of them compared Nicaragua with El Salvador and Guatemala on this important question.
10. See Dianna Melrose, Nicaragua: The Threat of a Good Example? (Oxford: Oxfam, 1985); see also chapters 3, 5, and 7, below. n. In an article highly critical of the Reagan "peace plan" for Nicaragua in August 1987, Tom Wicker says, "Whatever his doctrine, the United States has no historic or God-given right to bring democracy to other nations; nor does such a purpose justify the overthrow of governments it does not like" ("That Dog Won't Hunt," New York Times, Aug. 6, 1987). Wicker does not contest the claim that Reagan seeks democracy in Nicaragua; it is just that his means are dubious and his plan won't work. We should note that Wicker is at the outer limits of expressible dissident opinion in the U.S. mass media. See further, chapter 3. For additional references and discussion, see Chomsky, Culture of Terrorism.
12. For example, in response to the Guatemala peace accords of August 1987, the United States immediately escalated the supply flights required to keep its forces in Nicaragua in the field to the phenomenal level of two to three per day. The purpose was to undermine the accords by intensifying the fighting, and to prevent Nicaragua from relaxing its guard so that it could be accused of failing to comply with the accords. These U.S. initiatives were by far the most serious violations of the accords, but they were virtually unmentioned in the media. For a detailed review, see Noam Chomsky, "Is Peace at Hand?" Z magazine (January 1988).
13. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (New York: Knopf, 1965), pp. 58-59.
14. A careful reader of the Soviet press could learn facts about the war in Afghanistan that controvert the government line—see chapter 5, pp. 226-27—but these inconvenient facts would not be considered in the West to demonstrate the objectivity of the Soviet press and the adequacy of its coverage of this issue (331-4).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

2011.05.14 — Beatrice & Virgil Finished 2011.05.05

☆☆☆☆☆ out of ☆☆☆☆☆.
Finished 2011.05.05. Begun 2011.05.01.

Yann Martel.
Beatrice & Virgil.
Toronto: Random House, 2010.
ISBN 9780307398772.

I was originally tempted to give this four ☆s because the ending just didn't ring true to the story told. (I'm not sure how the ending could be improved, however.) But the book has gripped my intestines and rattled my imagination so much so that since finishing it nine days ago, I'm still struggling to put into words the complexity and beauty and shear power of this story. (I will blog that extended reaction soon — I hope.)

There are passages in the book with prose as beautiful as anything I've ever read. For example:

BEATRICE: As for the other quality that gives Virgil his name, how to put into words something so astounding to the ears? Words are cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field—but they're all we have. I will try.

A howl, a roar, a howling roar, a deafening roar— these barely hint at the reality. To compare it to other animals' cries becomes a kind of zoological one-upmanship that addresses only the aspect of volume. A howler monkey's roar exceeds in volume the cry of a peafowl, of a jaguar, of a lion, of a gorilla, of an elephant—at which point the inflating of hulk stops, at least on land. In the ocean, the blue whale, which can weigh well over one hundred and fifty tons, the largest animal ever to grace this planet, can put out a cry at a volume of one hundred and eighty decibels, which is louder than a jet engine, but this cry is at a very low frequency, hardly audible to a donkey, which is probably why we call the whale's cry a song. But we must, in all fairness, grant the blue whale top spot. So there, if they were lined up side by side, between the massive bull elephant and the colossal blue whale, involving a serious dropping of the eyes, stands Virgil and his kind, without a doubt the most noise per kilo of any life-form on earth (88-9).
Scene from LoP
At my prompt my friend RT — a huge fan of Life of Pi — read the book, albeit with some hesitation because I'd warned her that there are some brutal bits. When she finished it she thanked me and said that it has become her number one favourite book. She told me she was going out the next day to buy her own copy so as to read it again. My other friend, TR — a voracious reader — also read it at my prompting, and thought it great too. And I just finished talking with AG, the friend who prompted me to read it, and she too found it impressive and complex and challenging, and tough.

Since I loved Life of Pi I was skeptical that Martel could surpass it. I would have been overjoyed if he could even have matched it. But to my shock, Beatrice and Virgil is a better book than LoP for many reasons: B&V was a far tougher story to tell, and it was told very well; it followed a brilliant book; Martel used animals again, but kept it new and fresh; he successfully explored the limits of text to express emotion in a multilayered, contra textual way about an emotionally, psychologically and historically sensitive subject.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Monday, May 2, 2011

2011.05.01 — Beatrice & Vigil by Yann Martel begun and a fushigi*

Yann Martel.
Beatrice & Virgil.
Toronto: Random House, 2010.
ISBN 9780307398772.

Last weekend my friend AG visited and when our conversation turned to books she said she was reading Beatrice and Virgil. She said that she was enjoying it. I remembered that it was somewhat controversial when it was published, as it had something to do with The Holocaust.

When I did not find it at my local used book store, I took advantage of an unexpected stop near my library to borrow the book. When I began reading it Saturday, I was bemused that a howler monkey
Howler Monkey
was a character because on Friday I stumbled into the interesting 2004 film "The Blue Butterfly" on TV. I don't remember having heard of this movie before Friday, when I read the TV station supplied synopsis that it was about a grouchy butterfly scientist. I turned to it primarily because of the presence of Pascale Brussières,
Pascale Brussières
an intriguing Canadian actress whom I associate with interesting independent films.

As it turned out, there are several 'nature' shots of
Spider Monkey
spider monkeys, which have a similar albeit thinner profile to the howler monkey. Okay, that is only barely amusing. It does get more interesting.

So I was surprised when I read in B&V, following a long listing of the contents of a taxidermist's store:
Next to the table stood a glass cabinet with an array of insects and colourful butterflies arranged in different display boxes,
some featuring a single, spectacular speciment — a large blue butterfly or a beetle that looked like a small rhinoceros — others filled with a number of species playing on variety (60).
This surprised me because not only was the Blue Butterfly (Blue Morpho) central to the story, obviously, but at one point Hurt's character picks up a giant Rhinoceros beetle.

And, today, the final straw. Martel writes about his character's own fushigis.
The taxidermist nodded and continued [to read from his play]:
Virgil: Pity there's no coffee.
Beatrice: Pity there's no cake.
Henry was struck by the irony of the timing. Just as coffee and cake were being delivered to them, Virgil and Beatrice mourn their absences. And earlier Beatrice had said how the sun had gone, leaving them both without faith, and here they were basking in sun. It also struck him how naked and alive Virgil and Beatrice were, so much more revealing of themselves than their author (125).
And this amuses me, because this kind of observation and writing is something I do. I have rarely seen it alluded to in fiction let alone in this manner, which mimics mine almost exactly. Does that constitute a fushigi? Hmmmm. Probably not, but it is amusing.

And Martel is being very clever here, because he continues to use that kind of irony as a mirror:
As soon as the question had left Henry's lips, the irony of it leapt to his mind. It was the same question the historian had asked him during that terrible lunch in London nearly three years ago, the question that had gutted and silenced him. And here he was aksing it himself (134).
And this is, I think, a fundamental structure of the book as it relates to writing about the Holocaust. I expect that will reveal itself later in the book.

But there are parts of this book that are beautifully written.
I will be citing some of them on my 'finished' post. I expect to finish the book in the next day or two.

Oh! I forgot to include a picture of Beatrice. So, here it is — with Bridget Hall. I tried to find one with Virgil sitting on her back, but this was kind of the closest I could find to a monkey sitting on a donkey.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

2011.04.24 — Oryx and Crake finished

☆☆☆☆☆ out of ☆☆☆☆☆.
This was a very well written, structured and characterized book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Margaret Atwood.
Oryx and Crake.
Random House Inc.
Pages: 416 | ISBN: 9780385721677

Despite a few comments to the contrary that I read on Goodreads, the science fiction presented in the book is linked strongly enough to examples of current real world science to be taken seriously, as is Atwood's ecological links to the effects of global warming. And this is where it is dark, because the bleakness of the future is 100% plausible.

It struck me that some of the criticism against it from the science fiction readers is that in Atwood fashion it is the characters that drive the story and not the science, even as their situation derives from the science. In a peculiar way the science is secondary to the story, which makes it an odd sci-fi book, but in doing this Atwood has perfectly mimicked how the nuts and bolts of our science is secondary to us in our daily lives: the iMac I'm writing on and its connection to the world, smartphones, TV, radio, the automobile, all exist in my life with greater or lesser importance. However their creation, production and distribution are at best of passing concern. And so it is with the protagonist who, again in typical Atwood fashion, is a fully fleshed and flawed human who feels — and largely is — overwhelmed by life in a way that makes him somewhat unlikeable even as we can sympathize with his attitudes.

At one point Jimmy, the protagonist, having proved himself a poor student of privilege, wound up going to Martha Graham, a 3rd rate Arts university. I was amused by her pointed anti-school barbs, and by my finding them similar in spirit to those she wrote in The Edible Woman:
Jimmy had few illusions. He knew what sort of thing would be open to him when he came out the other end of Problematics with his risible degree. Window- dressing was what he'd be doing, at best—decorating the cold, hard, numerical real world in flossy 2-D verbiage. Depending on how well he did in his Problematcs courses—Applied Logic, Applied Rhetoric, Medical Ethics and Terminology, Applied Semantics, Relativistics and Advanced Mischaracterization, Comparative Cultural Psychology and the rest—he'd have a choice between well-paid window-dressing for a big Corp or flimsy cut-rate stuff for a borderline one. The prospect of his future life stretched before him like a sentence; not a prison sentence, but a long-winded sentence with a lot of unnecessary subordinate clauses, as he was soon in the habit of quipping during Happy Hour pickup time at the local campus bars and pubs. He couldn't say he was looking forward to it, this rest-of-his-life.

Nevertheless, he dug himself in at Martha Graham as if into a trench, and hunkered down for the duration. He shared a dorm suite—one cramped room either side, silverfish-ridden bathroom in the middle—with a fundamentalist vegan called Bernice, who had stringy hair held back with a wooden clip in the shape of a toucan and wore a succession of God's Gardeners T-shirts, which—due to her aversion to chemical compounds such as underarm deodorants — stank even when freshly laundered (229-30).
Amusingly, even as I enjoyed her satire of the trend of arts departments striving to be seen as corporately viable and important in our corporatist world, it was here that Atwood allowed herself to step oh-so slightly outside of character.
Morris Berman
The class 'Relativistics and Advanced Mischaracterization' will never exist on an arts' course calendar. Not that such courses don't exist! But instead they would be called something benign like 'Relativistics and Perceptions of Truth'. Lest you think I jest, Morris Berman cites an article about Stanford Business School ethics:
... In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle of 20 October 1985, David Lampert, himself a graduate of Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, described the "hidden curriculum" of the school as "the subconscious destruction of democratic values." The school's "ethics" course, B295, is (or was then*) a training in how to outflank any external forces attempting to limit managerial autonomy — things such as constitutional entitlements, property, civil rights, and so on.

The course teaches the future business elite "how to stonewall the media, how to present oneself on television and protect corporate interests, [and] how to manipulate the public and Congress ...." Student papers on issues such as the Love Canal come back with comments such as, "Why didn't you advise Hooker Chemicals to sue the journalists who exposed the story?" while an exam question in another course states, "Assume that the memorandum you are writing will be burned before it reaches the Anti-Trust Division of the Department of Justice" (68).
*Note: a quick search on Stanford's web page did not find B295. But a search for 'ethics' found 2135 hits, including such things as Empathy and Ethics - Drivers of Our Shifting Culture.

This is an excellent read.