From the category archives:

Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic

Radically Transformative Virtue Ethics

by John Holbo on January 23, 2019

I have an idea that there is sort of a hole in the ethics literature. I could be wrong! So tell me where I’m wrong.

The idea is this: transhumanism is virtue ethics. But no one seems to call it that. “Man remaining man, but transcending himself.” That’s Huxley, introducing transhumanism, and it specifies a delicate virtue balance to be maintained, if I make no mistake. Yet ‘virtue ethics’ is associated with conservative opposition to this sort of radical change option. (Here is Steve Fuller saying so. Not that him saying so proves it is so. But he says exactly what I expect lots of people to say, and it was the first Google hit.)

It’s like there’s this open question: what sort of people should there be? [Amazon – damn, Glover used to offer it free from his personal site, but it appears to have evaporated.] And ‘virtue ethics’ names only views that answer conservatively. Virtue ethics says: the sort we’ve already got. A subset of that.

Why not also call it ‘virtue ethics’ if the answer is: some new sort we haven’t got yet?

It isn’t mysterious that virtue ethics is associated with conservative attitudes towards virtue, given its connection with natural law thinking and grumpy old After Virtue and a bunch of other stuff. But that ought to be regarded as a contingent link.

Glover has an epigraph from Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men: [click to continue…]

Air Is Real

by John Holbo on October 20, 2018

This image (I snagged it from an FB group) is evidently from this book [Amazon]. Science For Work And Play (1954).

I think someone should write Philosophy For Work and Play. “Error is real.” We could keep the picture the same.

Zizek Says Something Smart

by John Holbo on September 27, 2018

Once in a while it’s good for the soul to acknowledge that someone you regard as stupid said something smart. Here’s Slavoj Žižek on the wisdom – that is, stupidity – of proverbs: [click to continue…]

Absurdism

by John Holbo on September 8, 2018

As Sparknotes writes,

Endgame’s opening lines repeat the word “finished,” and the rest of the play hammers away at the idea that beginnings and endings are intertwined, that existence is cyclical. Whether it is the story about the tailor, which juxtaposes its conceit of creation with never-ending delays, Hamm and Clov’s killing the flea from which humanity may be reborn, or the numerous references to Christ, whose death gave birth to a new religion, death-related endings in the play are one and the same with beginnings.

I cannot help but think of this passage as I read Jonah Goldberg’s erudite musings in the pages of National Review.

In the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, Brittanica.com explains, European playwrights “did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre. There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence.”

That’s a pretty good description of the sound and fury signifying nothing on display this week from Democrats and protesters alike.

In this blog post I would like to argue that, as in the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950’s and 1960’s, in Goldberg’s essay, “Theater of the Absurd Has Taken Over The Senate,” what we see is a conservative intellectual tradition that is ‘finished’, and yet at the same time intertwined with its own beginnings. The life of the conservative mind is cyclical, juxtaposing attempts to kill the stubborn flea of liberalism with lofty dreams of the rebirth – ever-promised, never fulfilled – of the conservative mind.

To put it another way, as Shmoop writes:

Waiting for Godot is hailed as a classic example of “Theater of the Absurd,” dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name. This particular play presents a world in which daily actions are without meaning, language fails to effectively communicate, and the characters at times reflect a sense of artifice, even wondering aloud whether perhaps they are on a stage.

In conclusion I would like to argue that, just as the ‘theater of the absurd’ is about dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name, so ‘conservatism’ is about works that promote the philosophy of its name: namely, conservatism. And, just as this particular play presents a world in which language fails to effectively communicate, so Goldberg’s essay fails, effectively, to communicate. It seems like “a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets [its] hour upon the” front page of National Review, then is heard of no more.

Spiritualism and Uncanny Fiction

by John Holbo on April 16, 2018

Pursuant of to my uncanny researches I’ve been thinking about ‘supernatural’ and how the term has wandered over time. I got to thinking, as well, about the growth of ‘spiritualism’ in the 19th Century – theosophy, all that stuff – and how that fed into fiction. What with one thing and another, I found myself reading The Supernatural In Modern English Fiction (1917), by Dorothy Scarborough [Project Gutenberg link]. It’s interesting to see through the eyes of an author who has done her best to read it all up to the early 20th Century, for the sake of offering a broad, general survey. She knows Blackwood and Machen. She doesn’t mention Hodgson or M.R. James. (I realize I don’t know how widely either of those now-classic authors was known by, say, 1915.) Here is one passage in which Scarborough scribbles out, off-handedly, a lot of things to come.

The investigations in modern Spiritualism have done much to affect ghostly literature. The terrors of the later apparitions are not physical, but psychical, and probably the stories of the future will be more and more allied to Spiritualism. Hamlin Garland, John Corbin, William Dean Howells, Algernon Blackwood, Arnold Bennett, and others have written novels and stories of this material, though scarcely the fringe of the garment of possibilities has yet been touched.

If one but grant the hypothesis of Spiritualism, what vistas open up for the novelist! What thrilling complications might come from the skillful manipulation of astrals alone,— as aids in establishing alibis, for instance! Even the limitations that at present bind ghost stories would be abolished and the effects of the dramatic employment of spiritualistic faith would be highly sensational. If the will be all powerful, then not only tables but mountains may be moved. The laws of physics would be as nothing in the presence of such powers. A lovelorn youth bent on attaining the object of his desires could, by merely willing it so, sink ocean liners, demolish skyscrapers, call up tempests, and rival German secret agents in his havoc. Intensely dramatic psychological material might be produced by the conflict resulting from the double or multiple personalities in one’s own nature, according to spiritualistic ideas. There might be complicated crossings in love, wherein one would be jealous of his alter ego, and conflicting ambitions of exciting character. The struggle necessary for the model story might be intensely dramatic though altogether internal, between one’s own selves. One finds himself so much more interesting in the light of such research than one has ever dreamed. The distinctions between materializations and astralizations, etherealizations and plain apparitions might furnish good plot structure. The personality of the “sensitives” alone would be fascinating material and the cosmic clashes of will possible under these conceived conditions suggest thrilling stories.

Titanic psychic battles! Astrally-projecting criminals, detectives and secret agents oh my! Mike Mignola, call your agent! This passage is the earliest occurrence I know of some ideas for really gonzo comic book and occult action plotlines. (Obviously you’ve still got to actually write them for it really to count!) [click to continue…]

Adam Roberts, “The Thing Itself” – a Review

by John Holbo on March 14, 2018

Last week I finished Adam Roberts SF novel, The Thing Itself [amazon]. (Adam is, you may have noticed, a regular commenter here. I’ve been friendly with the dear fellow for years.)

The mash-up joke at its heart: it’s The Thing (you know: the John Carpenter film, remake of the 1950’s film, adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella, “Who Goes There?“) meets Kant’s Ding An Sich!

That’s a good joke! I like jokes like that. Adam likes jokes like that. I haven’t read as many of Adam’s novels as a good friend should, but the author of a humorous sequel to The Brick Moon, and a little thing called Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, likes to take an idea, give it a spin. Just drop it. See how low it can go.

Back to The Thing Itself. What if Kant were on to something? Some Thing. What would the possibilities be, for space travel, for sanity, for commerce, for common-sense, if we could sidestep, as it were, space and time? (I don’t think this is going to satisfy sticklers for Kant scholarship, but attempts are made to keep up the conceit. Fiction often involves implausible leaps, as many important writers have noted.) [click to continue…]

The Slippery Slope of the Sum of All Fears

by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Before March 18, 2018: No collusion!

March 18, 2018: “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take these series of inadvertent contacts with each other, meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a fiction and turn it into a page-turner, spy thriller.”

Six months from now: Yeah, but it’s like one of those late Tom Clancy ones. The ones written after Clancy was dead, or retired, or counting his money? Maybe it’s just a video game.

12 months from now: OK, it’s definitely as good as early Tom Clancy. The really good stuff. But some of the characters are unbelievable, in a way that pushes the reader out of the story. Like the Mooch. True, Clancy wrote flat, one-dimensional, omni-competent heroes. This is like – the opposite? The thing has reality show pacing, not ‘proper’ thriller structure. Clancy would not have made that mistake.

18 months from now: Wow! I could not put this one down! It was unbelievably thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering whether this was it. And the big reveal! You realize everything up to that point was just the tip of the iceberg. Hunt For Red October Surprise! But we still have to completely ignore all these revelations because: no zombies.

24 months from now: Zombies!

[NOTE: this post is intended as a joke, although I think there is a point to the joke. There was some confusion concerning an earlier post, due to confusion as to whether it was a joke: it was. This one is a joke. I don’t expect zombies.)

Crowley On Ancient Blurb Technology and Le Guin

by John Holbo on March 8, 2018

I was most gratified when John Crowley showed up – easy as pie – in comments to my “Omelas” post. I will try to repay the compliment of this gesture (nigh-effortless to its author!) by linking to his new Boston Review piece, reminiscing on Le Guin and blurb technology of yore.

In 1973, when I finished my first novel, the difficulties of the blurb-solicitation process were enormous, or would surely seem so to writers now who send digital files effortlessly to famous people through websites and email. The great new advance then was the Xerox machine; you at least didn’t have to produce carbons (hopeless) or photostats (expensive) to send out. But still, as often as not—or more often than not—your solicitations weren’t responded to, which could seem like a foretaste of failure: perhaps readers wouldn’t respond either. Now and then a query would get a curt reply asking that the manuscript not be sent, that the recipient didn’t read such submissions.

For my first novel, I received a hand-written postcard from Ursula K. Le Guin welcoming me to the fold.

I once sent a large manuscript to Anne Rice, the vampire biographer­. What I got back was a postcard, filled edge to edge with typing, asking why I felt I had a right to send her this mass of paper, did I really think she had any reason to read it—she did not—and what was she supposed to do with it? I thought of writing her back to say that she might just toss it in the trash with the rest of the week’s paper, but I didn’t.

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I’m doing a lot of SF research these days. Specifically, I’m reading (takes a breath): The statesman’s manual: or, The Bible the best guide to political skill and foresight: a lay sermon, addressed to the higher classes of society, with an appendix, containing comments and essays connected with the study of the inspired writings, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816).

It’s not really about science fiction. It’s best known, I guess, for Coleridge’s well-known distinction between allegory and symbol, drawn in these pages. But it’s fun! Remember when I had the great idea of reading all the Silmarillion in the voice of Lumpy Space Princess? Well, I would get behind a Kickstarter to record all of the Statesman in the voice of Monty Burns:

Yet this again – yet even Religion itself, if ever in its too exclusive devotion to the specific and individual it neglects to interpose the contemplation of the universal, changes its being into Superstition, and becoming more and more earthly and servile, as more and more estranged from the one in all, goes wandering at length with its pack of amulets, bead-rolls, periapts, fetisches, and the like pedlary, on pilgrimages to Loretto, Mecca, or the temple of Jaggernaut, arm in arm with sensuality on one side and self-torture on the other, followed by a motly group of friars, pardoners, faquirs, gamesters, flagellants, mountebanks, and harlots.
[click to continue…]

Adam Roberts has been fighting the good fight, keeping blogging real. He’s been reading his way through H.G. Wells’ collected works so you don’t have to. You can just piggy-back along for the ride. But all good things must end. He just published the post for Wells’ final work, Mind At The End of Its Tether. I’m no Wells scholar but I actually had read that one. It’s astonishingly pessimistic. Nigh-Lovecraftian. And it isn’t even supposed to be fiction. It’s what Wells was feeling in his last days. Here is the book’s opening: [click to continue…]

The Fallacy of Unnatural Deceleration?

by John Holbo on December 9, 2017

As a reward for my sins, I read this review of Daniel Dennett’s latest, by David Bentley Hart. (My efficiently causal sin being: reading The Corner.) [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.

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”:
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“Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth …” – H.P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West – Reanimator”

Years ago I made a parody Christmas book mash-up of Lovecraft/Haeckel/Clement Clark Moore. I called it Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness: A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep. I made print versions but then took them down (they weren’t quite it.) Yet it lived, lurking beneath the surface, in the form of a perennially popular pair of Flickr albums and this old Hilo post. Hidden, winter sun-dappled tide pools of hideous, unfathomable, happy depths for kiddies to dip their toes in! But 2016 is the year of fake news. You can’t spell ‘fake’ without the ‘Haeckel’. So my fraudulent yet innocent concoctions have wandered and, eventually, been mistook for genuine Victoriana. Oh, well. I can’t completely blame them. Real Victorian X-Mas cards are often dark and weird. Hence the joke.

Caliginous gloom is the best disinfectant. If, as some whisper, ‘even death may die’, then perhaps it is possible to quash a rumor that Haeckel actually designed X-Mas cards. Accordingly, I have seized the seasonal opportunity to republish and set the record straight. A new, improved version of the print edition is now on Amazon! It is also available on Kindle. Somehow Amazon not seen the connection yet, but I imagine that will resolve itself. (Also, I made slightly different covers for the two editions. Which do you prefer?)

For impoverished urchins, with nary a penny to spare, yet high-speed internet access, I have updated the Flickr galleries with some higher quality images. The old ones were skimpy. My most popular images, Blue Boy and Feeding Birdies, are available in larger sizes. Some others, including several of my favorites. (Maybe I’ll get around to doing all of them. But not today.)

Boy Blue and Blue Jelly (front)

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