Still too swamped for detailed posting on the topic at hand. Sorry. I am trying to write a review of Robert O'Harrow's new book for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist... for the pay of a mug and a T Shirt. Heh.
I did find one older item that I'll share this week, that is relevant to both recent topics... modernism and bad sci fi. It doesn't use the word "modernism" yet. WARNING: this will seem a bit repetitious so those of you who are impatient with that sort of thing should give this one a pass. But it shows how my ideas were evolving a couple of years ago.
The 18th vs 19th Centuries...
It’s been said that western civilization has spent the last hundred years trying to resolve a deep cleavage in our culture -- a continuing struggle between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries... between prescriptions offered by the Enlightenment and those of the later Romantic Movement.
For generations, a vast majority of writers, artists and academics have sided with romanticism. From Keats and Shelley to nearly all modern musicians or movie stars. Seizing every opportunity to extol emotion and put down “cold” reason has become as natural as breathing. George Lucas expressed this reflex. “I’d say the primary word for me is romantic. I like the esthetics of the Victorian age.”
With nearly all of society’s most expressive and persuasive voices raised on the romantic side of this old struggle, it is a wonder that notions of cooperative progress and confident pragmatism survive at all. Even science fiction has grown much more cynical. Noir cyberpunk images push aside much of the can-do spirit seen in earlier times. Speculation about alien life is replaced by introspection about alienation.
Scholar and author Judith Berman, in a much-discussed 2001 study, showed how this trend has penetrated the very center of Science Fiction. Focusing on the flagship Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, once a daring journal devoted to ideas. Her landmark analysis revealed that a profound change had occurred. Almost none of the stories published during a year-long period had anything to do with exploring interesting futures. Even plausible “dark warnings” were avoided in favor of pieces about nostalgia, alternate pasts or presents, or featured characters who wallowed in loathing toward technology or progress.
And, mind you, this is in science fiction. Clearly the campaign against the future must have progressed even farther, elsewhere.
There is nothing new in this, of course. Cynicism has many advantages over enthusiasm. (And make no mistake. Romanticism is not the polar opposite of cynicism. Romanticism and cynicism are deeply connected, even Janus twin faces of the same personality. Every generation of romantics, since Shelley, has believed that they invented the studded-black-leather look. The howl of rage. A poetical worship of despair. It is an easy crutch, especially for people with more verbal talent than useful skill. We can all recall from the schoolyard how easily a sneer overcomes and defeats any gushing expression of enthusiasm.
What is so amazing is how they even manage, while doing this, to portray themselves as the underdogs!
In how many popular films does a skillful nerd prevail over the romantic loner? Values like competence and egalitarian advancement are seldom defended in media...
...and yet they remain popular at a deep level -- perhaps out of gratitude for the real life-improvements wrought by people like Franklin, Edison or Salk... and in part because citizens sense the underlying themes of inequality and egotism that drive so much of the Romantic Movement.
Individualism is fine. Both enlightenment and romanticism prescribe it. This link goes back to when they were allies against feudalism and monolithic religion. This is why our great modern propaganda campaign -- Suspicion of Authority -- accompanied by memes of tolerance of difference and acceptance of eccentricity, appears to be a consensus product of BOTH enlightenment and romantic impulses.
But many of us realize a stark truth -- that not everyone can be a king or rock star or handsome loner. The rest of us need fairness more than we need egomania. We rely daily on the amiable skill of countless strangers, rich in craft and diversity, who are fellow citizens of a civilization. They are more important to us than any Leader... or any Rebel.
This contrast is distilled when George Lucas says: “...there's a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There's a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled.”
Lucas has a point. I concede the great attraction of the image that his Star Wars universe offers, while opposing it with all my power. (Especially the most evil elf ever depicted, that nasty, uncooperative, smarmy, patronizing, sourpuss, unhelpful, oppressively-secretive and cynically manipulative oven mitt... Yoda.)
Indeed, the Twentieth Century has been a battleground between these two occidental visions of human life. Two great utopian idealisms that continue to wrestle over the heart of the West. Marxism and Naziism were both deeply romantic. So was the Southern Confederacy. So are the leftist postmodernists and the right wing neoconservatives. Most ideologies are, because ideology is a phenomenon fundamentally based on a romantic need to encompass all of humanity within a single, simple and compelling worldview, replete with perfect heroes and perfectly detestable villains. Given the incredible harm that’s been done in the name of dogmas, monarchs and ideologues, their absence from a progressive 21st Century will be no great loss.
With so many enemies, coming from so many directions, should we marvel that the Enlightenment achieved anything at all? That fact, alone, attests to the incredible power of science.
(The landscape can get more complicated if you step back. Intellectuals of the Confucian East and Pious South despise both Romanticism and Enlightenment as expressions of crazy euro-american-individualist egoism. Moreover there are splits within, as well. The French wing of ‘enlightenment’ - rooted in Platonism - is fundamentally different than the Scots-American wing with its fixation on pragmatism. But these complications can await another time.)
Out of this welter and confusion, I don’t know which zeitgeist will prevail. Perhaps even a synthesis?
Pragmatism would be comfortable with that notion.
Here is another way of posing the issue. A great science fiction author once said -- “Keep asking questions! The more irksome the better!”
Now who do you think would be more comfortable with that notion? Percy Shelley or Ben Franklin? Star Wars or Star Trek? A world filled with black-and-white certainties? Or one where openminded people devote their passion to finding out what works?
Okay... fire away. I hope to get back to the main serialized train of thought soon.
--See the next part: The Propaganda of Enlightenment--
Or return to Part 1 of this series...