Posts by author:

John Holbo

Shadowgraph of a Mouse

by John Holbo on November 19, 2017

I’m reading a fun book, Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief and World-Making In Animation, by Donald Crafton. The author is an animation historian/film studies scholar. I’m interested in the history but also – as is the author – the theory of animation ‘performance’. I’ll snip a nifty bit from Chapter 4, about the evolution of devices, conventions and styles for handling space. The author uses the evolution of the treatment of shadows as a nice hook, per his book title. [click to continue…]

{ 9 comments }

Versailles et Paris en 1871, by Gustave Doré

by John Holbo on November 16, 2017

15

I am a serious lover of, semi-serious scholar of (hemi-demi-semi-serious practitioner of) caricature. I’m here to deliver the goods.

Honoré Daumier is crowned 19th Century French master of this form. For so he is. But Gustave Doré, better known for his Dante, Bible and fairy tale illustrations, is as good, I say. The Internet Archive has a decent copy of Versailles et Paris en 1871, published in 1909. (Oddly, Wikipedia doesn’t even know it exists.) The Archive interface is ok, but this one needs a thumbnail gallery. Also, their PDF is messed up. So I made three Flickr galleries for the three sections of the book. First is “L’ Assemblée Nationale”. Next is: “La Commune”. Last is “Magistrature”. Then I realized I had nowhere to put the artist himself. Here he is. A Crooked Timber exclusive. [click to continue…]

{ 24 comments }

The Reactionary Mind, 2nd edition – Meet The New Boss

by John Holbo on November 15, 2017

If you haven’t heard, there’s a new edition out [amazon] of our Corey’s The Reactionary Mind. I have duly purchased the updated version. He didn’t just drop Palin and add Trump. It’s better put together, as he says in the Preface. I bought the basic argument first time round. I found some things quite clear and compelling that I know others did not. Perhaps this time the more benighted shall see the light. Here’s hoping this new edition wins over skeptics.

It would have been funny if the new subtitle were: ‘I totally told you so and now LOOK!’ But I guess Oxford doesn’t play that way.

Let me try to be frank and blunt about the standard complaint against the book and why I think it misses the mark. Robin’s line seems too reductive, too quick to cast all philosophical conservatives as moustache-twirling villains. Conservatism is a bunch of reactionary bastards punching down. Always has been, always will be. But surely – especially in the realm of ideas! – better can be said on its behalf, hence should be said. Doesn’t he miss the interest and sophistication of the best conservative thinkers? Even the fact that, yeah, Trump fits the model may fail to seem so powerfully predictive. A stopped clock is right twice a day. Someone standing on the corner shouting ‘hey asshole’ at everyone isn’t necessarily a prophet or great student of the soul, even if he’s right a lot. (I’m looking you, Bob McManus!)

Passages like this set readers off: [click to continue…]

{ 160 comments }

Bendis?

by John Holbo on November 8, 2017

Congrats to Democrats on their wins! It’s a good day. Virginia ain’t for haters after all!

But before that news broke, my Facebook feed was taking note of the big news that ‘Marvel suffers ‘gut punch’ of losing Bendis’; ‘Bendis Signs Exclusive Deal With DC’. Some people where all ‘what’s Bendis?’ You could read the NYTimes article. Or you can just take my word for it that it’s all footnotes to Plato. Bendis is a Thracian huntress/moon goddess, so DC is showing it is committed to serving its ancient Thracian readership. This is the biggest move for Bendis since … well, there’s some controversy about it. Then as now, the comics world was abuzz. As the geographer Strabo wrote in the 1st Century BCE: “Just as in all other respects the Athenians continue to be hospitable to things foreign, so also in their worship of the gods; for they welcomed so many of the foreign rites that they were ridiculed for it by comic writers.” As in ancient Athens, where the point seems to have been a kind of deliberate, syncretic blurring (Artemis/Bendis), so today we read in the NY Times interview: “I was trying to break down that Marvel vs. DC craziness that some fans have.” That’s smart. Obviously all this is crucial to Plato’s Republic, because Book I begins with Socrates ‘going down to Piraeus’ to celebrate the civic ratification of the Bendis move deal. In Republic Book I the focus is not (yet) on justice but more injustice, as exemplified by the confused thinking of the three interlocutors – Cephalus, Polemarchus and, above all, Thrasymachus. DC, of course, has a major series focused on the theme of injustice and gods among mortals.

You can read about it all in my book [Amazon], especially pp. 281-88. Or you can read it for free here. You want Chapter 9.

What Am I Seeing?

by John Holbo on November 7, 2017

BoingBoing sent me here. Then I was down the rabbit hole to this. This was an interesting explainer. But then this (I watched so you don’t have to. Really, you probably don’t want to.) I’m struck by the weird parallel with the story I linked in my previous “What Can I Say?” post. Failures across cognitive platforms and all. It’s the combination of randomness and infectiousness that is so skin-crawling. If only a few kids found and watched these videos, that would be one thing. It’s not surprising that kids like to watch weird, violent gross-out stuff to do with toys. If your kid acted out some of this stuff with toys it would just be funny. Dr. Hulk needs to give the Minion a shot because he cut his foot, or whatever. But somehow the algorithmic weaponization of that is just alarming. So pardon me while I have a moral panic. The clowns aren’t helping. (I hope I can laugh about it in 20 years. “Remember how, in 2017, everyone thought YouTube Kids would warp little minds? And, by the way, it turns out President Pregnant Spider-Man isn’t really authoritarian, he’s more just incompetent.”)

Tolkien the Utopian

by John Holbo on November 5, 2017

I enjoyed this thread and was very proud of my own ability to stay out of it when the inevitable is-Tolkien-a-racist/fascist? arguments erupted. The thing is: I forgot to refute everyone who wrongly argued that Middle Earth isn’t a kind of Utopia. Then the thread closed. Damn.

I did start the job. In comments, I corrected cited this bit from “On Fairy-Stories”:

“And if we leave aside for a moment “fantasy,” I do not think that the reader or the maker of fairy-stories need even be ashamed of the “escape” of archaism: of preferring not dragons but horses, castles, sailing-ships, bows and arrows; not only elves, but knights and kings and priests. For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of “escapist” literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say “inexorable,” products.

“The rawness and ugliness of modern European life”— that real life whose contact we should welcome —“is the sign of a biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false reaction to environment.” [Tolkien is quoting a social darwinist at this point] The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant’s bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real. Why should we not escape from or condemn the “grim Assyrian” absurdity of top-hats, or the Morlockian horror of factories? They are condemned even by the writers of that most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science fiction. These prophets often foretell (and many seem to yearn for) a world like one big glass-roofed railway-station. But from them it is as a rule very hard to gather what men in such a world-town will do. They may abandon the “full Victorian panoply” for loose garments (with zip-fasteners), but will use this freedom mainly, it would appear, in order to play with mechanical toys in the soon-cloying game of moving at high speed. To judge by some of these tales they will still be as lustful, vengeful, and greedy as ever; and the ideals of their idealists hardly reach farther than the splendid notion of building more towns of the same sort on other planets. It is indeed an age of “improved means to deteriorated ends.” It is part of the essential malady of such days — producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery— that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty. In Faerie one can indeed conceive of an ogre who possesses a castle hideous as a nightmare (for the evil of the ogre wills it so), but one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose — an inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king—that is yet sickeningly ugly. At the present day it would be rash to hope to see one that was not — unless it was built before our time.”

Insofar as it seems to me quite obvious that the production of Tolkien’s own ‘fairy-stories’, from The Hobbit on, is motivated not just by the need for a place to store his made-up languages, but as a cry against the alleged ugliness of modernity – an attempt to wake people up that ugliness, by contrasting with an ideal alternative – it’s utopian. If News From Nowhere is utopian, then Tolkien is.

But, as I said, I forgot the clincher. Off To Be The Wizard is a pretty funny novel. Plotspoilers under the fold.

[click to continue…]

The Trinet

by John Holbo on November 2, 2017

Discuss.

Before the year 2014, there were many people using Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, there are still many people using services from those three tech giants (respectively, GOOG, FB, AMZN). Not much has changed, and quite literally the user interface and features on those sites has remained mostly untouched. However, the underlying dynamics of power on the Web have drastically changed, and those three companies are at the center of a fundamental transformation of the Web

….

We forget how useful it has been to remain anonymous and control what we share, or how easy it was to start an internet startup with its own independent servers operating with the same rights GOOG servers have. On the Trinet, if you are permanently banned from GOOG or FB, you would have no alternative. You could even be restricted from creating a new account. As private businesses, GOOG, FB, and AMZN don’t need to guarantee you access to their networks. You do not have a legal right to an account in their servers, and as societies we aren’t demanding for these rights as vehemently as we could, to counter the strategies that tech giants are putting forward.

The Web and the internet have represented freedom: efficient and unsupervised exchange of information between people of all nations. In the Trinet, we will have even more vivid exchange of information between people, but we will sacrifice freedom. Many of us will wake up to the tragedy of this tradeoff only once it is reality.

What Can I Say?

by John Holbo on November 2, 2017

“Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across online platforms and we must identify, expose, and defend ourselves against similar covert influence operations in the future,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said during a hearing on Wednesday with executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Depressing, obviously. At a more fundamental level, Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across all human cognitive platforms. It’s hard to think of a technical patch, or a legislative fix, that doesn’t significantly infringe the freedom to think and say (stupid) stuff. It’s like we need a Voight-Kampff test, to separate bots from real people. But, like in the original PKD novel, I’m kind of worried that the humans will start failing.

You can (and should!) identify Russian troll farms and try to weed stuff out, weed it again. Facebook and Twitter can self-police; legislators can make law (well, if theory.) But, in a sense, what we have are online platforms that connect people, and then people being people. Other people are exploiting this. There’s an irreducibility to that. ‘We have met the troll farm, and he is us.’ [click to continue…]

Lafcadio Hearn In The Days Of The Machine

by John Holbo on October 20, 2017

A few months ago I read Flaubert’s Temptations of St. Anthony, translated by Lafcadio Hearn. At the time there was a niggling, nagging thing in my brain. I knew I had read some philosopher/intellectual discussing – pontificating about – the thought of Lafcadio Hearn. But where would I have been reading about that? ‘Lafcadio’ is, of course, an unusual name, mostly associated with lions that shoot back, so ‘Lafcadio Hearn’ is a name to conjure with. But conjure what, and when, where? But this week I solved the riddle. Here is my favorite passage from E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909): [click to continue…]

Utopian Commonplace Book

by John Holbo on October 18, 2017

Per my previous post, I’m thinking about utopia/dystopia. Do you have any fun quotes from philosophers or poets? Here are a few: [click to continue…]

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”:
[click to continue…]

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…]

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.

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.

Robert Heinlein writes letters to editors and librarians

by John Holbo on September 12, 2017

Enough Lovecraft! Robert Heinlein! I’m reading Innocent Experiments:Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, by Rebecca Onion. Chapter 4, “Space Cadets and Rocket Boys: Policing the Masculinity of Scientific Enthusiasms” has quite a bit of good stuff on Heinlein – well it would have to, wouldn’t it? If you’ve read some Heinlein you kind of know what Heinlein is like. But there’s good stuff here about his exchanges with editors. The guy was one serious SJW, insisting on his minority quotas. Of course, he always manages to make it weird in his cosmopolitan-but-All-American, messianic-rationalist-masculinist libertarian-disciplinarian anti-authoritarian-but-in-an-authoritarian-way way.

In a [1946] letter to Blassingame written while he was working on Young Atomic Engineers [which became Rocketship Galileo], Heinlein wrote that his heroes were of Scotch English, German, and American Jewish extraction and warned, “You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of these three boys is a ‘must’ and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism.” The conflict did not arise, perhaps in part because Morrie, of Rocket Ship Galileo, was never explicitly identified as Jewish, despite the presence of certain vaguely invoked cultural and religious markers. During the editorial process for Tunnel in the Sky, which included a prominent black female character, Caroline, Heinlein told Dalgliesh [this is 1955] that he “wanted Caroline identified as Negro from the start. . . . This girl’s characterization all through the book is believable only if she is colored, I want her tagged from the start.” Replying to Dalgliesh’s concern that “this Negro secondary character would lose us sales in the South,” he wrote back, “This is not a point on which I am willing to budge.” He did, however, change the identifier used to describe Caroline from “black” to “Zulu,” thereby giving her an exotic provenance that would explain her “characterization” as a brash, uncouth female warrior while also abstracting her from present-day conflicts in the United States. While Heinlein defended Caroline’s right to exist, he marked her as different: loud, violent, and romantically unfit (important in a book whose plot included more than a few romantic pairings).
We can laugh about it now, but it was 1955 at the time.
[click to continue…]