September 30, 2010

On the Corrosion of Character

Sennett's evocation of the nature of work in postmodern capitalism is spot-on in recognizing and explaining the alienating factors at play in a de-centered, job-based not career-based working world. In fact the book, a long essay, was in places hard to read because he evoked some memories of my own encounters with this world. It was harder to read also knowing that the research and the ideas driving the work were in place during the time of writing. Much has changed in ways that only amplify the alienation felt by workers. If, as Sennett claims, that the breakdown of the corporate structure is bad news psychologically for the worker -- where there is no clear antagonist in the workplace -- then the alienation is exponentially more evident in a world with ten percent unemployment. This essay was true when he was writing and the US economy was creating over a million jobs a year. The issues he explores are only more true now.

September 28, 2010

On Crazy Like Us

Watters argues that western medicine, aided and abetted by the western drug companies have systemically globalized the idea of mental illnesses that exist in those western companies as a universal set of conditions.

I have never thought of this, but it makes sense that the cultural conditions of a mental illness manifest in the cultural context of its origin. I have long thought of the universal nature of mental illnesses at all times and places. I have done this in spite of knowledge of old-timey mental diseases that are no longer in vogue. The very fact that each update of the DSM is a contentious process full of deletions and additions and refiguring the definitions of diseases show that mental illness is contingent on the cultural milieu.

Therefore, In Watters’ investigation, we learn that the mutability of mental illness is a problem because we in the west want to impose our definition and cure for diseases we have already named, even if the underlying conditions and symptoms are not a perfect fit with western views of the course of the diseases. This is problematic because whether or not it is for altruistic or profit reasons, we have ignored key issues underlying the diseases. Not only does this globalization ignore the root cause, it imposes questionable treatment regimens that may or may not help.

I am not sure if Watters proves his point. First off, there are only a few specific incidents he highlights, and these separate incidents seem to hinge on the testimony of one or two researchers. For me the specifics are interesting, but I am not sure if they speak to a generalization that can be proven. Secondly, the problems he addresses can be shifted so that treatment of mental illness is done with full cultural awareness, but I feel that this is just an issue of globalization inexorably happening but being done backwards. This is exogenic cultural change, done from the top. It does not look pretty, but it is what is happening. I cannot help but think of the famed Cargo Cults as we just look at different ways that east reconciles with west.

September 21, 2010

On the Second Foundation

I read the book _Second Foundation_ and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I have sat on writing the review for the main fact that I will largely be antagonistic towards a series that is highly lauded and in fact won awards for being such a fantastic trilogy. I have not read, nor do I have plans to read, the surrounding books that prop up the universe that Asimov created for the Foundation series. The following review will look at all three books of the central series

First off, I have to give Asimov credit for looking at technology as an emancipatory element. Nuclear power in the series gives those who control it a wonderful command over the physical universe. Many of Asimov’s contemporaries in the genre were much more pessimistic about the future of the technology and the human race. I am thinking here of apocalyptic thrillers and thought-exercises like Neal Schute’s _On the Beach_. In spite of my own questions about the safety and the general possibility of the scaling down of nuclear devices in this way, I will give Asimov the benefit of the doubt (even if current nuclear power only generates electricity through mechanical conversion and I have no idea how you had power a spacecraft with hot atoms).

Nevertheless, this technological element is troubling. On one side, it is fantastic that in the future cancer has been beat: people still smoke and can carry around decaying atoms with no real ill effects. On the other hand, it is difficult to look at when Asimov was creating and not criticize him for missing the computer revolution. He was able to see nuclear devices shrink, but not electronic transistors. While this may not have been a problem at the time of creation, it sticks out that travelers were having to chart out their hyperspace jumps with slide rules and that a novel device is one where the physical object of a pen translates your speech to text sounds remarkably similar to Dragon Naturally Speaking, a software program that has been out for at least a decade.

This does not destroy the premise in the writing of Asimov here. We know that the empire lasted for 12,000 years, but we don’t know what lead up to the founding of the Empire, how many galactic boom and bust cycles had to happen before generalized peace spread throughout what is assumedly our Milky Way Galaxy. Asimov brings this question up briefly in the first installment by noting the debate about where human existence arose within those stars. I will accept, with reservations, the world Asimov builds here.

I will also accept the Seldin premise. With enough data points, and enough computing power, and the right mathematical model, you can assumedly predict the future. Although, without continued monitoring and readjustment of the model, your predictions would become more and more unreliable the further you moved from your zero-point. Thus, the existence of a second Foundation is not only a narrative nicety, but also a necessity for the working of any ‘Seldin Plan’. While I like the set-up, the resolution at the end of Second Foundation does seem more like a move that is too clever by half to reinstate the universal ignorance of the Second Foundation (236). The resolution as a whole left a bad taste in my mouth, but I swished it around and swallowed.

The structure of the series, as it covers over four hundred years of galactic history, is somewhat uneven. There are characters and whole time periods that exists but fail to engage me. The most exciting section, as a reader of narrative, is the section dealing with the character of the Mule. The reader spends the last half of the second book on a planet-by-planet chase on the run, and then we are treated with a twist (that I for one did not see). Although the second text closes with a little much explanatory monologue, this part feels like the high point of the entire series and the last book is just an unwinding of the consequences of the second book.

However, the troubling aspect here is that there is no reason for the existence of the Mule. Asimov goes through gyrations to show that there have been genetic mutations all along and his existence is an unpredictable outlier, but to me he just does not fit in the universe Asimov created. This mirrors the explanation given to the explanation of how the Second Foundation speaks, moving past speech into some form of platonic ideal of communication (106). Both feel unnecessary and unbelievable. Again, this is coming from a much more advanced scientific understanding of the world than the one Asimov had in the early 50s, but one thing that troubled me is that over the years there had been no evolution from our current state. There is no evidence for evolution that I saw except for a reference to a facial feature found on the women of the inner galaxy. I just have a sense that genetic drift would have happened quickly amongst the millions of planets with vastly different climates and ecosystems to the point where speciation would have happened. I am also assuming that interplanetary travel is relatively rare and limited to the upper classes.

No, apparently I am wrong and Homo Sapiens Sapiens is the final product of evolution excepting the Mule and he was the end of his line. The Mule’s existence feels fake because he does come ex nihilo and did not have to climb what Dawkins would call Mount Improbable. I just cannot reconcile the Mule’s existence with the lack of evolution elsewhere; it just poisons the well for me. While I am picking nits and I know it, writers of science fiction have a very high level of responsibility of to keep up the suspension of disbelief, as they are not just writing a world that they know but they are instead the creators and destroyers of worlds.

A final example of the previous concerns is found in the use of language. Language changes much faster than genes do, but there is no evidence of that in the series. Again assuming the isolation and the lack of a central entertainment and news distribution network to help standardize the language (although the newspaper of Tantor may have been published everywhere), the English language that somehow won out in the remote past and is the language of empire (again!) remains identical to a mid-twentieth century English spoken in America. For this, there are not tortured explanations why it happens. Even if it is necessary for storytelling ease, it is a structural brick of the world Asimov built that rings false. While this issue was on the edge of my consciousness for the series, Asimov point out the inconsistency in the last book, referencing a dialect of an isolated people (45), which shows that he was on some level conscious of the problem but chose not to engage in an explanation of the contradiction.

In the end, the books are interesting. I can see the interest in the worlds built by Asimov and marvel at the man’s learning and prolific nature. However, his works are clearly a product of his time and the associated concerns of the time. While they may not be universally applicable, they can teach the reader much about the time they were written

September 12, 2010

In September:

The last
watermelons fight
for space
with new
pumpkins. And
the buildings
fall; teaching
the difference between
and awe.