Utopia and Fairy Tales

by John Holbo on October 17, 2017

I’m lecturing about Utopian/Dystopian SF this week. I’ve lectured on this before but I’m looking to up my game, so I’m open to suggestions. Lots of writings on or around this subject, as well as stories to choose from. We had a whole book event about Real Utopias here at CT. What critical writings in this vicinity do you find particularly insightful/interesting?

Yesterday I was browsing through The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, seeking inspiration/information. From the introduction to Kenneth M. Roemer, “Paradise Transformed: Varieties of 19th Century Utopias”:
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Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas houses

by Chris Bertram on October 15, 2017

Pézenas

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Robert A. Heinlein and James Branch Cabell

by John Holbo on October 14, 2017

A few weeks ago Henry linked to the pledge page for Farah Mendlesohn’s forthcoming Robert A. Heinlein book. I’m glad to see she’s now hit the mark but it’s not too late for you to join the cultural clamor of folks banging their desks, demanding hefty Heinlein monographs! I just chipped in modestly to the tune of an e-version of the final version, but I’ve already been working through a draft she was kind enough to share. I’m not going to quote pre-print stuff but I’ll pass along one detail I never would have guessed. Heinlein was, apparently, a huge James Branch Cabell fan. He loved Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice. I have just started rereading Jurgen myself, since I’m done with Dunsany. (I’m not making any systematic early 20th century fantasy circuit, mind you. We just shifted houses and, somehow, an old, long-unregarded 60’s paperback copy of Jurgen floated to the top. Perhaps this universe’s God is a Richard Thaler-type, giving me a nudge. Also, Mendlesohn is apparently not the first to note that Heinlein liked Cabell. Wikipedia knows. I am, apparently, last to know. But perhaps you have been in that sorry boat with me.) [click to continue…]

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The Political Theory of Trumpism

by Corey Robin on October 12, 2017

The magazine n+1 is running an excerpt from the second edition of The Reactionary Mind, which comes out next week but is available for purchase now. The n+1 piece is titled “The Triumph of the Shill: The political theory of Trumpism.” It’s my most considered reflection on what Trumpism represents, based on a close reading of The Art of the Deal (yes, I know he didn’t write it, but it’s far more revelatory of the man and what he thinks than even its ghostwriter realized) and some of his other writings and speeches, as well as the record of Trump’s first six months in office.

Here are some excerpts from the excerpt, but I hope you’ll buy the book, too. It’s got a lot of new material, particularly about the economic ideas of the right. And a long, long chapter on Trump and Trumpism.

IN THE ART OF THE DEAL, Donald Trump tells us — twice — that he doesn’t do lunch. By the end of the first hundred pages, he’s gone out to lunch three times. Trump claims that he doesn’t take architecture critics seriously. On the next page, he admits, “I’m not going to kid you: it’s also nice to get good reviews.” Trump says the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is “the place to go” to become a great entrepreneur. In the next paragraph, he states that a Wharton degree “doesn’t prove very much.”

Inconsistency has long been Trump’s style. But while his critics seize on that inconsistency as a unique liability, yet another difference between him and his respectable predecessors on the right, a happy avowal of contradiction has been a feature of the conservative tradition since the beginning. Originally, that avowal assumed a tonier form,…

The consonance between Trump’s inconsistency and the right’s embrace of contradiction raises a deeper question: Is Trump really a conservative? For many of his critics, on the left and the right, the answer is no. Trump’s racism, irregularity, and populism, and the ambient violence that trails his entourage, are seen as symptoms of a novel disease on the right, a sign that Trump has broken with the traditions and beliefs that once nourished the movement. Yet while the racism of the Trumpist right is nastier than that of its most recent predecessors, it is certainly not nastier or more violent than the movement’s battle against civil rights in the 1960s and ’70s, in the courts, legislatures, and streets. The weaponization of racism and nativism under Trump intensifies a well-established tradition on the right, as studies of American conservatism from the 1920s through the Tea Party have shown. Likewise, the erratic nature of Trump’s White House, the freewheeling disregard of norms and rules, reflects a long-standing conservative animus to the customary and the conventional, as do Trump’s jabs against the establishment. There are important innovations in Trump’s populist appeals, but populism has been a critical element of the right from its inception.

In other words, conservatives have breached norms, flouted decorum, assailed elites, and shattered orthodoxy throughout the ages. Still, Trump does represent something new.

Yet there is an unexpected sigh of emptiness, even boredom, at the end of Trump’s celebration of economic combat: “If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer.” In fact, he has no answer at all. He says hopefully, “I’ve had a very good time making them,” and wonders wistfully, “If it can’t be fun, what’s the point?” But the quest for fun is all he has to offer — a dispiriting narrowness that Max Weber anticipated more than a century ago when he wrote that “in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.” Ronald Reagan could marvel, “You know, there really is something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate. As the song says, ‘This could be the start of something big.’” But there is no magic in Trump’s market. Everything — save those buttery leather pants — is a bore.

That admission affords Trump considerable freedom to say things about the moral emptiness of the market that no credible aspirant to the Oval Office from the right could.

This is what makes Trump’s economic philosophy, such as it is, so peculiar and of its moment. An older generation of economic Darwinists, from William Graham Sumner to Ayn Rand, believed without reservation in the secular miracle of the market. It wasn’t just the contest that was glorious; the outcome was, too. That conviction burned in them like a holy fire. Trump, by contrast, subscribes and unsubscribes to that vision. The market is a moment of truth — and an eternity of lies. It reveals; it hides. It is everything; it is nothing. Rand grounded her vision of capitalism in A is A; Trump grounds his in A is not A.

TRUMP IS BY NO MEANS the first man of the right to reach that conclusion about capitalism, though he may be the first President to do so, at least since Teddy Roosevelt. A great many neoconservatives found themselves stranded on the same beach after the end of the cold war, as had many conservatives before that. But they always found a redeeming vision in the state. Not the welfare state or the “nanny state,” but the State of high politics, national greatness, imperial leadership, and war; the state of Churchill and Bismarck. Given the menace of Trump’s rhetoric, his fetish for pomp and love of grandeur, this state, too, would seem the natural terminus of his predilections. As his adviser Steve Bannon has said, “A country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” Yet on closer inspection, Trump’s vision of the state looks less like the State than the deals he’s not sure add up to much.


Again, read the whole excerpt here, and then buy the book!

I’ll be doing a bunch of interviews about the book, including one with our very own Henry, so keep an eye out at my blog for more information on that.

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Socialism for the Information Economy

by John Quiggin on October 9, 2017

I have a long article in the Guardian putting forward some thoughts about a socialist economic policy program for the 21st century. The headline “Socialism with Spine” is a shortening of my observation that:

As it is used today, the term socialism does not reflect a well-worked ideology. Rather it conveys an attitude that could be described as “unapologetic social democracy” or, in the US context, “liberalism with a spine”

The contraction might have led some readers to expect a position more radical than the one put forward in the article. I’m advocating both a restoration of those aspects of 20th century social democracy that are still relevant today and new ideas to turn the 21st information economy to the benefit of the many, not the few.

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Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on October 8, 2017

Pézenas

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I’m reading Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924). I’m also preparing to lecture on fantasy and fairy tales in my Science Fiction and Philosophy module (fun!) So I am pleased to find the following passage about the forging of the hero Alveric’s blade. The sword is made from thunderbolts, you see, dug up from a witch’s cabbage patch. (She lives in an especially thunder-prone mountain region. Nothing special about cabbage, apparently.) Thunderbolts are unearthly space metal knocked from the sky in thunderstorms. Science fact.

Nobody can tell you about that sword all that there is to be told of it; for those that know of those paths of Space on which its metals once floated, till earth caught them one by one as she sailed past on her orbit, have little time to waste on such things as magic, and so cannot tell you how the sword was made, and those who know whence poetry is, and the need that man has for song, or know any one of the fifty branches of magic, have little time to waste on such things as science, and so cannot tell you whence its ingredients came. Enough that it was once beyond our Earth and was now here amongst our mundane stones; that it was once but as those stones, and now had something in it such as soft music has; let those that can define it.

So there’s my epigraph for the chapter about the relationship between science fiction and fantasy, when finally I get around to writinbg it. Science fiction is like that sword.

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Catalonia: petition for de-escalation

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 5, 2017

Philosophers from Catalonia are circulating a petition to plead for de-escalation of the current conflict. As this newspaper article reports, and as was confirmed to me by one of the original signatories, the group who took this initiative includes people in favour as well as against independence for Catalonia (and, presumable, some who think “it’s complicated” and have no firm views).

You are all invited to sign in order to call upon both the Spanish and the Catalan politicians to de-escalate and put in place a proper process through with all parties can peacefully engage with these questions, and hence replace confrontation and violence with a proper dialogue.

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The British Dream

by Harry on October 4, 2017

As someone who has had nightmares every night that I can remember since the earliest part of my childhood that I can remember, I love the idea of a British Dream—which is, apparently, Mrs May’s brilliant idea for renewing her premiership (bonus in link—you can see Amber Rudd telling Johnson he has to stand to applaud, and the Rees-Mogg look-alike handing May a P45). It reminds me of Gordon Brown’s search for a new slogan/motto for Great Britain (my personal favourites were “Mustn’t grumble”; “At least we’re not France” and “We’re British, we don’t need a slogan”).

My own version of the British dream would be sitting on a slightly slimy wooden bench, eating fish and chips soaked in vinegar, on a dreary drizzly November evening, next to an oily beach in a depressed seaside town on the North Sea. But yours might be different: lets hear them!

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Catalan referendum – open thread

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 1, 2017

Catalonia is holding a referendum today on secession from Spain. Apparently it’s illegal because the Spanish constitution doesn’t allow anything that can threaten Spanish unity. I haven’t been following the arguments pro and con and don’t know to what extent the separatist views are widely shared among the people living in Catalonia. So I don’t have an informed opinion about Catalonia’s striving for independence, and know from the Belgian/Flemish case how the political background of striving for independence can be very complicated, and how easy it is as an outsider to know half of the facts and sensitivities, and make overly quick judgements on that partial knowledge. But one doesn’t need to have a well-informed view on whether or not this referendum should have taken place, to see that it’s a violation of human rights as well as politically utter stupid of the Spanish government to react with police violence (BBC, Guardian). Anyway, consider this an open thread on the Catalan referendum.

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Sunday photoblogging: at Bouzigues

by Chris Bertram on October 1, 2017

Pézenas-3

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Just a thought. I’m not on Twitter so it works as a post title. It flattered my vanity that, when I googled, no one had made the joke yet.

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Miéville on revolution

by Henry on September 28, 2017

I’ve a new piece up at Jacobin, talking about how the discussion of revolution in China Miéville’s October (his wonderfully written non-fiction book on the October Revolution), is prefigured and informed by his earlier novels, Iron Council and Embassytown. China’s politics are different than mine (I’m a standard-issue meliorist social democrat), but I’m cautiously happy with how the piece has turned out, and hope that it shows how China’s way of thinking captures possibilities that other, more ground-hugging ideologies such as my own are liable to miss.

October, China Miéville’s new book, describes the October Revolution as a moment of possibility. In its closing pages, Miéville explains why he wrote the book, despite the revolution’s aftermath:

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

October depicts a pell-mell avalanche of one event crashing down on another, and men and women trying with varying success to guide the collisions — or at least survive them. Miéville’s novels often show people who thought themselves to be acting freely discovering that instead they have been enacting an inexorable logic, which, while not entirely determining their fates, renders many of their actions perverse or irrelevant. Yet there’s also a thread of counter-argument — a skein of moments in which people turn the tables on structure and write their own history.

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Crowd-funding Robert Heinlein

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Farah Mendlesohn, a long time friend of Crooked Timber, writes:

I had to withdraw my book on Heinlein from the original publisher due to length. As I explored other options it became clear that no academic publisher could take it without substantial cuts, and no one who read it, could suggest any. In addition, the length would have pushed up the price for an academic publisher beyond what people could afford. Unbound, a crowdsourcing press, have agreed to take the book and have been able to price it at £12 for the ebook and £35 for the hard back.

The crowd-funding site is here. I’ve read and loved two of Farah’s previous books on f/sf (and have been contemplating a reply to her analysis of Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Wall for several years) – I’ve no doubt this is going to be great.

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Anthem Sprinting

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Tyler Cowen on American reverence for the Star Spangled Banner:

At a rally on Friday and on Twitter since, we have seen President Trump taking pokes at NFL players who do not show what he considers sufficient respect for the national anthem, namely by kneeling in protest during the song (is it so bad to kneel in public on a Sunday?). On the other side, some NASCAR team owners have threatened to fire drivers and crew members who don’t show proper respect during the anthem. Such disputes won’t improve the quality of either our sports or our politics. We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.

This reminds me of one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, “The Anthem Sprinters,” based on his experiences in Ireland while working on John Huston’s Moby-Dick. The story isn’t available online (though brief summaries can be found here and elsewhere, but the plot is straightforward enough, concerning an American visitor’s discovery of a peculiar national sport. Since there was a requirement after all cinema performances that the Irish national anthem, a peculiarly lugubrious number called “The Soldier’s Song,” be played, and since Dublin cinema goers were more enthusiastic about getting to the pub to get a round or two in before closing time than about demonstrating their fidelity to the national ideal, they used to rush towards the exits in a class of a race, to avoid having to stay and stand through the rendition. Bradbury’s suggestion that this was transformed from a disorganized herd-like stampede into an actual sport is probably poetic exaggeration, but I don’t doubt that the underlying practice existed.

I’m sure that I’m not the only imported American to find the required sincerity of American nationalism a bit disorienting – it’s not what I grew up with in a country where even the greenest of 32 counties Republicanism was shot through with ambiguities. It’s not just a right wing thing either (the Pledge of Allegiance having been famously written by a socialist). Nor did I realize until the recent controversy that one of the verses of the “Star Spangled Banner” apparently looks forward to the death of American slaves freed by the British who fought in their regiment. A little more ambiguity and anthem-dashing might be no bad thing.

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