Monday, February 14, 2005

A Divide Within the Arts: Modernism vs. Romanticism in Fiction Part 12

Part 12 on Modernism:


I began examining the harsh divide between modernism and its enemies in a much narrower context.

The field wherein I've made much of my living, Speculative Fiction - or SF - consists largely of novels and stories that are not set in a standard, contemporary setting or time. (Of course that includes historical fiction, but that type is treated separately.) Most people see SF consisting of two main branches - science fiction and fantasy.

A lot of argument roils around defining what either separates or unites these two genres that are lumped together in most book stores. Superficially, one branch features swords and magic spells while the other uses spaceships and lasers. But that kind of superficial dismiaal heeds only pop imagery, ignoring deeper issues.

I don't perceive the division as a matter of tools and furniture at all. It is really all about the author's attitude toward change and the improvability of humankind.

Through a series of controversial essays that ran in Salon Magazine, I tried to show how supposedly high-tech space operas like Star Wars ( and The Matrix ( are in fact deeply anti-science fantasy stories that hew to an ancient storytelling tradition that abhors progress or change, casting doubt upon the whole process of open advancement using tools of science.

k7803It is a tradition made explicit by Joseph Campbell in his series of books and television interviews, e.g. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. While Campbell emphasized some deeply moving aspects to this tradition, he glossed over its darker side -- for example the way that fantasy tales nearly always extoll feudalism, mysticism, mystery cults, secrecy, and inherited social position, even when they are set in "the future" or in outer space.

Above all, they promote the notion of a static social order - the kind that most of our ancestors toiled under for most of the last six thousand years. As if following a long and eerily consistent checklist, fantasy tales nearly always choose sides, preferring:

- tradition over innovation

- the pastoral over the urban

- craftsmanship over production

- apprenticeships over universities

- the subjective over the objective

- incantation over skill in the physical arts

- secret knowledge hoarded by a suitably chosen elite

- heroes who are destined for greatness because of inner qualities rather than relying upon social mobility among diverse and resilient citizens

- villains who are evil by their basic nature as a type, rather than by individual choice

- inherited hierarchies over democratic institutions

- the notion of a lost-lamented golden age, over ambitions to build a new one.

giftset1vol-cover-rszIn another Salon article, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age,  I extended this appraisal to include a fantasy series that I actually quite admire, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. As nostalgist romantics go, Tolkien was among the most erudite, sincere, deep-thinking and - above all - honest. His characters, images and stories resonate with the romantic in each of us, including myself.

And yet, if I must choose sides (and during this era, I contend that we all must) then the woldview pushed by Tolkien is one that I must respectfully oppose. (

Because - like every modernist - I have to believe that it is possible for human beings to improve through science, reason and goodwill, and thereupon to make a better world.

... on to Part 13: Crichton & Atwood...

or return to the beginning of this series


NoOne said...

While I generally like Brin's analysis of the struggle between modernity and tradition, I think he went way off the mark in his "Modernism Part 12."

Specifically, while the first Matrix story was deliberately retro-romantic, the second and third movies were not. The third movie set up a three way conflict---between machines, humans and programs---with the machines finally uniting with the humans to fight a renegade software virus. This results in concrete improvement via a rapprochment between humans and machines and furthermore, a radical break from a cyclic tradition.The second place where Brin makes a huge mistake is when he chastises the retro romantics for championing "the subjective over the objective." There has been a longstanding debate between materialism and other theories of consciousness and even a partisan materialist would have to conclude that materialism faces a very difficult task in explaining consciousness. Brin in his attempt to shoehorn everything into a neat dichotomy would presumably be forced to categorize people like David Chalmers---a leading philosopher of consciousness---as a retro romantic.

Finally, it is quite difficult to easily categorize mysticism. Brin lumps mystics together with romantics in a slapdash fashion, but the genuine mystics have almost always sided with the rationalists. Go to Integral Naked for a concrete example. It is run by Ken Wilber and I challenge anyone to show me that Wilber is a retro romantic. I also recommend Horgan's book Rational Mysticism for more on the same theme.

Anonymous said...

I'm not entirely sure that I see apprenticeship vs universities as a bad thing. Yes, I realize that one is suposed to reach more people than the other, but a lot of the classes I attend are just lecture as opposed to "learn by doing." (and miss a lot of the one-on-onerelationship that many students need, in my opinion) Also, this may be splittling hairs, but I got the feeling that Darth Vader is who he is because of choice, but I remember that "There was a prophecy." Ah well, I'm probably a bit off track. I don't see this whole thing as a fight between romantics and the enlightenment; I see the current situation (politics) as a struggle between imperialists and the rest of us. I'd love to have romanticism and enlightenment reconcile by remembering that we shared values early on (and Thoms Jefferson.)


David Brin said...

You are both right in your own ways, of course. My attempt to create a grand-sweeping dichotomy is ironic since I spend time in The Transparent Society assailing "the devil's dichotomies" and a lot of time recently attacking the left-right political "axis".

But note that all three of us are CAPABLE of re-appraising our favorite dichotomies, as I am doing now. We are capable of viewing them as tentative, contingent models that are distinct from a much more complex objective reality.

Yes, you can find excuses for The Matrix, as you can for Tolkien and even Star Wars. Still, the long list of ritual storytelling features, from the ordained and predicted demigod-hero to portrayal of the masses as sheep to the dismissal of enemies as evil-as-a-class to the apprenticeship model of the wizrd-apprentice to the notion of secret knowledge... these really are chillingly consistent and persistent.

I agree that Thomas Jefferson was the archetype of a man in whom romanticism and enlightenment values shared a common soul in near-perfect comfort. That is because romanticism still portrayed democracy in ideal forms. Because there was no living example of democracy in action. Once romantics saw democracy in gritty action and realized that it was a matter of lawyers, farmers, tradesmen and bourgeoise merchants yelling and making deals... they swiftly turned their backs on it and returned to Plato's undying enmity for the common man.

Indeed, as an author, I find that romanticism is a key portion of my being and of my creativity. If you read my essays, I do NOT disparage it as a force in human art, emotion, love, passion... only as a force in human policy-making and decision-making. Because it is rooted in our passionate immaturities, it should stay in art, where it belongs.

(Alas, it controls nearly every portion of today's decision-making system except for one institution, the Democratic Party, which still appears to be marginally modernist... though that may evaporate very fast as anger surges through the Old Union over the Confederacy's new sway.)

Finally, we must remember that "rational" does not necessarily mean modernist. Plato is the greatest enemy that democracy, science and modernism ever had. Because he seduced many with rhythmic incantations that appeal to the intellect... but boil down to magic and hypnotism.

The French branch of the Enlightenment got suckered down that path and we wound up with "modernist" architecture, post-modernist deconstructionalism, Sarte, Foucault... urgh...

Anyone who assumed that he knows about such issues better than our grandchildren will... and that is the assumption of many "philosophers"... has taken sides against those smarter grandchildren. Our job is to MAKE those smarter people.

NoOne said...

Brin said "Plato is the greatest enemy that democracy, science and modernism ever had." Sorry to nitpick, but you probably mean that the most common interpretation of Plato is antithetical to science and democracy and not Plato himself. There's plenty of "Divine effulgence" and the "radiant splendor of the Many" in Timaeus (quotes may be wrong) which run counter to the shadow and the light dualism found elsewhere. It looks like we (collectively) picked one footnote to Plato to focus upon and ignored the rest.

David Brin said...

Actually, Plato started as a devoted member of the anti-democracy party in the Athenian polity. He was a propagandist against the Pericleans.

Moreover, while Thucidydes was also a member of that element, Thucidydes was astonishingly honest and recorded all sides sincerely, giving us the best transcripts of the remarkably modern-sounding pro-democracy speeches of Pericles. Plato, on the other hand, spewed slander.

Now it is true that the democrats did not have their shining moment when they later tried and executed Socrates, Plato's teacher. Indeed, as I allude in The Transparent Society, Athenian democracy had many repulsive aspects after the death of Pericles robbed it of its best guiding hand. Plato had some cause for vengeful feelings and some grist for his preachings about the failings of democracy.

(Today, viewing the maniacal hubris of the neoconservative adventurists, one can only conclude that Alcibiades has been reborn in all of his arrogance and brilliance and tomfoolery.)

As I say in The Transparent Society, democracy is HARD! In many ways, people simply weren't ready in 500 BCE. (Though - ironically - they did great till democracy was robbed of its greatest leader.)

When Athens fell, the surrounding tyrants piled in, not only militarily but with subsidized propagandists to bury the experiment. Thanks to Plato, despots were given every excuse to quash the democratic experiment... till at last it finally was tried again in a new world.

So it is no single misquotation that shows Plato's disdain and contempt for democracy, the common person, open social systems etc. It can be found throughout his writings.

His ideal "Republic" is a total oligarchic dictatorship. Relentlessly, he says that all men should subject their wills to the man appointed above them and that those at the top should use any means to stay in power, including free-flowing lies.

Accountability? Not for the elect. Not for self-selected philosopher kings.

Have you READ the Dialogues? The Platonic 'reason' that mesmerized 2500 years of scholars today reads as horrific sophistry. A chain of "if...therefore..." so-called "logic" that a bright freshman today could demolish in minutes.

Above all, he pushed belief that romantic principles should prevail. The past was better. The subjective world of the mind trumps objective experimentation. Incantations (in this case "reason") outrank evidence or practical arts. And so on.

We are today ruled from a White House filled with the followers of Leo Strauss, a Platonist/Hegelian who fled WWII-ravaged Europe determined to repay our hospitality by infecting us with the same horrific worldview. And at last, he appears to have succeeded.


Read about Alcibiades... then look at Condi Rice... and shiver. Where are the pragmatists... Nixon, Kissinger... or the American idealists like Goldwater. Hell, even Reagan. The right always had its flaws, but at least there used to be some brains.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm jumping even further off track, but isn't that last statement (about how the right, for all of its flaws, used to be better)a bit of romantic look-back? In "The Life Eaters" the most "romantic" part, in my opinion (and in the best sense of the word, I think) is when the protagonist longs for what the U.S. used to be. To paraphrase, "It was noisy and frustrating, but dammit, it worked!"
I can empathize with Romantics who want to find, "The ultimate, perfect, unchanging, truths" within our own lifetimes (although that leaves the question of what our kids will have left to discover; I say new combinations/patterns of these truths, but I digress.)and I think of how frustrating it is that we'll kick off for parts unknown without really "getting it." I cheered when I found out that Einstein (and Sagan) were wrong; some things (information) *can* go faster than the speed of light in a lab. I also look on it with a little sympathy and regret. "If they were wrong, won't our kids chuck out our theories and laws and where does that leave our legacy?"

The short version: I'm a bit agnostic. I'm willing to entertain the thought that an ultimate truth is out there, but I'll demand proof and say that each generation has the right to test it for flaws. (Every kid has the right to drop something in the hope that one day it falls up.)

But this has little to do with the local/current scene. I haven't read as much as you on the subject (and it's gonna take a while for me to fix that) but, I still don't see it as Romantics vs. Enlightenment.

My short version: Romantics say, "Don't chain me with your logic, science, reason, or mobs! I want to go out there and find the truth for myself. I'll read Blake and Shelley and Byron and dream and skip and play and read Herman Hesse and get killed fighting for Turk independence etc. Vive joy! Vive freedom! Vive le revlucion! Down with conformity!"

The Enlightened say, "Don't imprison me with your dogma, mysticism, superstition, and worship of the past! I always have the right to change my mind and check the new evidence. If I have new evidence, then I get to say that the authorities are wrong! Up with logic! Up with reason! Freedom is sometimes the freedom to say that 2+2=4! I'll try it my own way, listen to you, and we'll share results. Up with independece! Down with conformity!"

Imperialists say, "Do as we say. Just 'cause." My biggest problems are with those who don't vote, those that just voted for Bush because, "he was likable" the ad hominem mudslingers ("damn commie liberals") and the so called rational, old school conservatives who respect debate, diversity of opinion and thought, while voting for a party that respects none of this. That's my toughest problem, the "good conseratives" who support this bunch. Party loyalty and distrust of Kerry aren't enough to explain them. I really just don't get it. Even though I have read your neocon/neoconservative/romantic essays.

I still think that our solution has to be finding the biggest common ground we can (romantics, enlightenment fans (damn, we need a better term), libertartians, those who refuse to categorize, and pretty much every anti-imperialist we can find. That shouldn't be too hard, should it? I hate to steal a page from some of history's worst monsters, but isn't it sometimes worth it just to found a cause against something, rather than obsessing on an optomistic plan to be shared by everyone? I've read your survey/questionaire; sometimes I think it's right to join with the short-termers who hate the same problems that you do (U.S. + U.S.S.R vs. Axis anyone?) Sometimes that is the best way to get something done. Anyways, it's late and I've ranted too much. Back to reading (and working with,, Protect, Aclu,, etc. etc. etc.)

So much for a short post.


W.T. Foxtrot said...

While I find a critical analysis of the modern world refreshing, I must confess that Mr. Brin's take on the classical and Traditional world-views is a bit one-sided. As is to be expected, of course, when we promote that which we believe to be true.

However, it is dangerously misleading, and epistemologically hazardous to assert that every generation has the potential to know more and other things than its ancestors did -- a trivial observation -- and that in consequence of this new and increased knowledge the sum total of their trasitions are to be discarded.

Our traditions are, after all, the concretized expressions of our experiences, as individuals and as societies. All progress is made, not against the previous order of things, but rather on the basis of an existing tradition.

To recognize that the inherited experience of people remarkably like ourselves -- and the ancients ARE remarkably like us, else Mr. Brin would not be able to judge of their actions and intentions, or to lionize Pericles, who preached democracy at home and empire abroad -- might have some application in our own time is not to slavishly devote ourselves to the ways of our ancestors, but is rather a simple acknowledgment that while we might ahve been born yesterday, so to speak, others have been here before, and we might profit from their experience.

NoOne said...

Brin asked "Have you READ the Dialogues?" No, at least not all of 'em. Very fragmented reading at best. However, I found the following in the Statesman and it is quite cute.

"Str. The government of the few which is intermediate between that of
the one and many; is also intermediate in good and evil; but the
government of the many is in every respect weak and unable to do
either any great good or any great evil, when compared with the
others, because the offices are too minutely subdivided and too many
hold them. And this therefore is the worst of all lawful
governments, and the best of all lawless ones. If they are all without
the restraints of law, democracy is the form in which to live is best;"

In other words, if there are no laws, democracy is the best according to the Eleatic Stranger :-) But I agree with Brin that Plato is generally very authoritarian in his outlook. However, I'm not sure we can fault him for that. Plato reflects the tenor of his mythical times and occasionally rises above it. And he has no real understanding of the value of empiricism. We have had at least four hundred years of accumulated empirical knowledge which he had no access to obviously. So, while I don't condemn Plato, I will take Wolfowitz, Perle, Kagan, Kristol and the gang of neocon nutcases to task for their obvious regression into mythical thinking. As an aside, perhaps we could have an equation:

Reason - Empiricism = Myth :-)

As for pragmatism, I've heard and read that Plato is somewhat pragmatic in the Laws but in a heavyhanded way but could not find an appropriate quote this morning. But that's besides the point isn't it? We can't hold Plato up to our standards but we sure as heck can hold our current "oligarchy in the making" to them.

David Brin said...

Wow. If any other site has a higher level of discussion, with brighter members, I'll eat my bits. ;-)

Please note that I posit that romanticism and enlightenment can coexist. Indeed, nobody knows this better than an author, who may scream at the gods in a lightning storm, like Shelley... but who must then edit the "genius" ravings the next day and somehow use skill and criticism to make it actually work.

Nevertheless, romanticism seems to hearken to a very weirdly predictable set of behaviors and beliefs. I don't think anyone has listed them before the way I have and they DO hold together with eerie consistency, merging into the dark side of Joseph Campbell's mythic system.

Combine all these traits with these added facts. That indignant self-righteousness has been found to be a chemically addictive self-doping state, a high that rewards romantic dogmatism. And the most prevalent propaganda message - Suspicion of Authority (SOA) - persuades all of us to portray our side as heroic against authoritarian monsters. Result? Pragmatism hasn't a chance.

I do not see this dichotomy as permanent or essential. I am not a Platonic essentialist. But I DO see it as mapping onto the real crisis that we see around us today. It maps far better than any hoary Left-Right "axis".

If pragmatic modernists were politically aware of the real issues and determined,we would see incremental action on everything from climate change and pollution to democracy-promotion to nation building to abortion to the stimulating of small business startups to creatively compete with stodgy megacorporations.

We would do this with a MIX of state and private action... the same way we have used a mix to get where we are today.

Above all, we would stop letting shrieking maniacs force us to join their paranoid trips.

Anonymous said...

Speaking for myself as a would-be Romantic Enlightened Pragmatist, I'm overwhelmed by it all. If SOA was as strong as I wish, then Bush and co wouldn't have been reelected, or able to get away with Iraq, Anti-Environment Legislation, Denial of due process, Destroying Social Security, their entire administration so far, ad really nauseum.

I'm overwhelmed by all of those causes you listed, from heart disease on. I can't be involved with all at once and still get the job, pay the bills, complete the studies, find time to relax and learn, etc. etc. etc.

If you don't think that pragmatic modernists are not aware of the "real" issues, then where exactly are they? As for me, I've got another student meeting to attend. (I'm with the local Jewish Student Union and we're trying to get the Muslim Sudent Union to co-sponsor a speaker on the slaughter of Muslims in Darfur/Sudan. Onward pragmatic compromisers ho!)


Anonymous said...

While much of what passes for fantasy fiction is just cheap retro-romantic knockoffs of Tolkien in one way or another (I've read more than enough Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, Tracy Hickman, et al. to comment on this- notice that "shared world" pulps, especially those associated with Dungeons and Dragons, are typically the worst offenders?), there are fantasy authors who revel in flouting the conventions of the genre. Terry Pratchett seems to want to turn every stereotype on it's head, or lampoon it in one way or another- yet he's more of a humorist than a fantasist. Michael Moorcock has had a prolific career in both fantasy and fantasy tinged sci-fi, though he seems to merely replace the Rousseauianism of most fantasy with Nietzsche (Moorcock says his most major philosophical influence is the "anthroposophist" and Rosicrucian mystic Rudolf Steiner, but Steiner comes out of the same tradition as Hegel and Nietzsche, and Moorcock tends to want to add a tinge of punk nihilism to all his writing as well). China Mieville is similiar to Moorcock, though he takes Moorcock's "punk" tendencies to the nth degree, and replaces the Nietzsche with Marx- his books are permeated with class struggle and dingy industrial images straight out of Dickens' England. The last of the anti-Tolkienist fantasy authors I can think of that I've read in any depth is Neil Gaiman, who seems to be beyond characterization- though trying to get a philosophical message out of "American Gods" or "Neverwhere" is a task that would take a lot more analysis than I'm willing to give it right now...

I agree with "noone" on the Matrix- the first one was Manichean, while the second and third introduced a much more complex, multi-layered reality. They're worth watching with the Wilber/West commentaries on the Ultimate Matrix boxed set, as well as with the Animatrix (esp. "The Second Renaissance", which paints the machines as misunderstood, and ultimately more compassionate, protagonists). The Ultimate Matrix set is a must for any sci-fi fan's DVD collection- even if you're lukewarm on the sequels, they get much better when seen as part of the greater whole of the Matrixverse (and the commentaries definitely add to the experience).

"noone" also mentions Ken Wilber (and his online "talk show", Integral Naked), who I've talked quite a bit about as well. Wilber actually devotes a great deal of his work to attacking "retro-romanticism", which he calls the "pre/trans fallacy"- to mistakenly come to the conclusion that prerational nonsense is the gateway to progress to transrational superconsciousness. He also spends a lot of time on the strengths and failings of both Neoplatonism and German Idealism, without writing off either one. In fact, the whole idea of integralism seems to be that empirical and subjective data are not ultimately incompatible, and can- nay, must- be integrated in order to find the truth about reality. Wilber is just trying to tease the wheat from the chaff of this subjective dialogue. I'd say Wilber's approach runs something like this-
No Reason or Empiricism = Magic

Reason - Empiricism = Myth

Reason + Empiricism = Modernity

Reason + Empiricism + Meditation = Transrationality

Now, you can have meditation/mystical disciplines without reason, but those generally amount to mythic prayer or magical rituals. You can have it with reason but without empiricism- which essentially sums up much "rational" religious doctrine (though most of the mysticism has been stripped out over the years). But he'd say that there's a big difference between authentic divine cognition and pure subjective whim- they key is knowing the different patterns they follow, which can only be extrapolated from observation of external phenomena, and cross-cultural communicative verification...

Anonymous said...

Sorry Willey, I have a tendency to make tangents go completely off the rails... :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you've recieved thousands of negative responses to your essays on Tolkien, and perhaps I have nothing to say on the subject you haven't already heard, but seems to me that you have gotten caught up in the window dressing of his work (The killing of Orcs being without moral consequence, the devine right of kings, ect.) so much that you have missed many of the pro-enlightenment themes.

In a very real sense, LOTR is a fond farewell to Romantacism, the story of a fictional world growing up. Wasn't it wonderful when (almost) all-wise wizards told us what good and evil were, and saved us the trouble of thinking for ourselves? Wasn't it nice to be a child, only having to ask an adult what was right and what was wrong?

Of course it was....but the flip side of Gandalf is always Sauruman, and if we choose to surrender the greater part of our "power" (free will, the only power we have) to a sweet talking Sauron, we will be betrayed in every age.

So, just as in the true evolution of human culture, it is better to bid wizards goodbye and stand for ourselves, be our own rulers, and make our own decisions. We will put our faith in the courage and adaptability of the every man.

LOTR doesn't call for a return to Romantic ideals anymore than A.A.Milne calls for a return to childhood in The Hundred Acre Wood. It illustrates a simple truth, that even though it's for the best that our childhood ended, growing up is hard ... whether it is a species or an individual doing the growing.

That, of course, is the prime difference between Tolkien and so many of his immitators, movement and progression. Middle-earth moves forward as few Fantasy worlds do.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion, but some of the political commentary on this site seems to fly straight in the face of Empiricism (specifically, Popper) and taints (but, no, not obliterate) all other arguments about Modernity and Romanticism (et cetera). The problem with most political opinion (there is probably a definition of the very term, "political" in here) is that many of these opinions cannot be disproved. Not being able to disprove something, like the existance of God, is very, very bad for the honest Russelesque Skeptic and scientist. It is the falsification issue in which I find David Brin's political commentary and conclusions suffering the most.

Like I said David's political commentaries do not obviate any of the general "Mysticism" discussions, but I would like to make a plea to David and all of his readers: Watch out! Do not use the conclusions of non-disprovable political commentary as a valid theory in any other discussion. Instead, use terms like " perhaps tainted by a likely..." to whittle a political conslusion into a form usable in any other discussion.