Beta-minus

May 26, 2012

I figure that in Huxley’s Brave New World,I would rank as a Beta-minus, on the scale from Epsilon-minus up to Alpha-plus.  Not on the basis of my intelligence, mind you, but on examination of my status in society and the nature of Huxley’s dystopia.  Hmm…maybe I should exit for 1984.

It has been eighty years since Huxley’s satire was published, and it remains fresh and entertaining, and sharp, precisely because it was written as a satire, and not an attempt at ‘science-fiction’, which hardly existed as a genre in that day.  Of course, he was remarkably prescient on some points, genetic engineering, before genetics was even developed in its modern form, for example, but that’s a small thing next to his wicked skewering of industrial-consumerist-ideology and religion.  The people of his future world worship Henry Ford, swear by him, “By Ford!”, and display ‘T’ pendants (for the Model T, that is) everywhere, conveniently similar to the ancient Christian cross.

Huxley gets in a sly observation about the literary history of cults and religions, the way that popular culture and orthodoxy twist and mold the facts of history, when he remarks on Ford and Freud.  Freud too, is revered in the new world, but his name is unknown.  His ideas are assumed to have been those of Henry Ford – how could two such moral and mental giants have existed?  Scholars, exegetes, and philosophers have simply determined that Ford, when he spoke of matters psychological, chose to speak under the name of Freud.  The prophets have their ways.

The book is marvelously funny, and the device of having Mr. Savage, a visitor from the ‘uncivilized regions’, speak constantly in Shakespearean verse, a result of his compulsive reading of the only book he has ever seen, is wonderful. Sometimes, I feel exactly the same way when I read The Bard, i.e., that the glorious quality of his words is somehow an ironic comment on, and critique of the world I live in.  It also provides a frame on which Huxley can hang his implied and explicit speculations about culture, civilization, and politics – always the weakest point in any of his books.

Despite his brilliance and originality, Huxley always seems to me to be tip-toeing through the muck of modern culture: shocked and appalled by it, and so concerned that it not dirty his clothes.  How paltry all this is, he is thinking all the time.  Oh dear, nobody has time for real culture, but these…ordinary people…are so interesting at times, their pastimes and songs, and whatnot…  For me, his work’s appeal is limited by the fact that it is that of a man who never quite shakes off the upper-class twit aspect of his social background.

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Stop and Frisk: A Modest Proposal

May 19, 2012

In NYC, there is a lot of discussion of the NYPD policy of “stop and frisk.”  They tend to stop young men of color, and have done so at an annual rate that equals the entire young African-American and Latino population of the city.  For this, they have  netted a few arrests, and the smoldering animosity of an entire generation of young men.  Seems rather inefficient, don’t it?

I would like to advance a modest proposal, in the spirit of Mr. Swift, that will be familiar to all aficionados of sci-fi stories and films, and that would make this approach to crime fighting very productive:

Simply provide every citizen with an identify card that contains a computer chip with a GPS and encoded ID info.  Police can scan people without stopping them, and interrogate them if they are without their papers.  Other countries do this (minus the technology.)  Also, the  movements of every citizen could be tracked and interrogated by the police, and compared with real-time data on crimes.  “Sir, you were at that drug store at 11:32 p.m. when a robbery occurred.  Please come with us...”  (Oh, yeah, you’re not white either…)

Just to keep it all on the up-and-up, there’s no reason for this data to be secret.  The social network Big Brothers of the world might be persuaded to cooperate in this brave new adventure in positive social engineering by posting all the movement data on every citizen.  We would have the same data as the cops, and could keep tabs on everyone!  Think of the adulterous affairs that would be nipped in the bud – a boon for family life!  Drug use among teenagers would probably take a hit from vigilant parents.  Facebook and Google would find ways to make billions of dollars off ad revenue for lawyers, counselors, drug programs, and the like that would be tightly focused.  Imagine!  You are arrested, and lawyers are waiting for you at the station, eager to represent you!  Surely, a positive development for civil rights.

Maybe some day we can go the next step of implanting the chips in newborns.  All under the beneficent gaze of the supervising corporate entities, keeping us entertained with spectacles, as in Rollerball.   Sometimes, these days, I feel we’re almost there.


Alpha Noir

March 8, 2012

Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good.  The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so:  the control of tone never wavers.  Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!

I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s.  I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive:  In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz.  But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…

A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city.  Well, maybe not.  “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!

The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun.  He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist.  The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris.  Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC.  Lemmy drives American cars, of course.

Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s  a noir, it’s all rather deadpan.  A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him.  Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances.  How was he to know it was just a psychological test?  Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.

Lemmy is a hard-boiled type.  He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology.  I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone.  He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about.  But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior.  He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death:  “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.”  Hard-boiled, indeed!

 

Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks.  Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We.  Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies.  She’ll betray him, of course.

When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love.  The shot below is a portent of 2001.  With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died.  Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.

Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?

The use of sites is very clever.  While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.

Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation.  The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy:  then they pummel him into submission.  Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner?  Maybe not – it’s so French.  Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…

Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.


Information Superhighway

July 19, 2010

At last, here by popular demand! The original text of the amazingly prescient essay on Flaubert and the Internet from 1994!!


Work Ethic

July 28, 2009

hamster_wheel

A fable from Zamyatin’s We:

Record Thirty-four:

Keywords:  The Released, A Sunny Night, Radio Valkyrie

The Three Released – a story that every schoolchild knows.  It’s a story about three ciphers who, for the sake of experiment, were released from work for a month:  to do what they wanted to do and go where they wanted to go.*  These unlucky types loitered around the place they usually worked and peeped inside with hungry eyes.  They stood in plazas for hours at a time; they performed the very movements that were appointed to that hour of the day as needed by their organism: they sawed and planed the air, they rattled invisible hammers, thumping on invisible blocks.  And, finally, on the tenth day, they couldn’t bear it anymore:  linking arms, they walked into the water and to the sound the March, they plunged deeper and deeper, until the water ended their torment…

* This was long ago, back in the third century after the Table.


Free and open elections

July 26, 2009

Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin – He was the author of the great anti-utopian novel, We.  Orwell admired it, and he thought Huxley had been influenced by (copied?) it.  He died in exile, after his letter to Stalin gained him permission to emigrate rather than remain in the USSR without the permission to write.  Considering the contents of his 1923 essay, On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters,  it’s a wonder he wasn’t just taken out and shot.

Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.

Where the flaming, seething sphere (in science, religion, social life, art) cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma- a rigid, ossified, motionless crust. Dogmatisation in science, religion, social life, or art is the entropy of thought. What has become dogma no longer burns: it only gives off warmth- it is tepid, it is cool.

The novel, We, is a memoir written by a prominent engineer in the glorious future One State in which human life is totally regulated.  Mathematics has trumped all poetry.  Individuals rejoice in their state as ciphers.  Sex is proscribed to limited “private hours” regulated by the Book of Hours, and access to sex partners is free, and regulated with a system of recorded pink chits.  The book is a little heavy with literary experimentation as it seeks to evoke the mentality of the future man who revels in his routine and lack of spontaneity, but it is prescient of so many things, in culture, in politics, and especially in the entire future of science fiction, that it amazes.  It also has a very sharp and dark humor.

They say that the Ancients conducted elections in some kind of  secrecy, hiding like thieves … Why would all this mystery be necessary?  Even today it is not understood conclusively; the likeliest explanation is that elections were connected to some sort of mystical, superstitious, maybe  even criminal rites.  For us, there is nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of:  we celebrate election day in the daytime, openly and honestly.  I see everyone vote for the Benefactor; everyone sees me vote for the Benefactor – and it couldn’t be any different, since “I” and “everyone” are the unified “WE” …And if you even suggest the impossible, that is, that there could be some dissonance in the usual homophony, then the invisible Guardians are here, among our ranks:  at any momen, they can stop ciphers who are falling into error and save them from their next false step – and save the One State from them.

Need I add that the “hero” is undone by love, by sex, by a femme fatale ?  At their trysts outside the glass wall of the city, in the museum of the Ancient House, she wears a yellow silk dress.  Her teeth are like daggers.  She scorns the One State, respects nothing.  She is irrestible to him, the engineer of the great spaceship Integral, the vessel that will bring the happiness of tyranny to other planets.  She drives him crazy…makes him…human?


The Prisoner has escaped

January 15, 2009

resigned

Patrick McGoohan has died at the age of 80.  The opening sequence of The Prisoner is the best in TV history, I think.  Watch the clip below…

—- Other Posts —-

Why did you resign?

Going Nowhere Fast

Memorial Notice on Jahsonic

New York Times Obituary

prisoner02

No. 6 addresses the court in the final episode, Fallout.

prisonerlotus7

That car! From the opening sequence.

From my favorite episode:  “A, B, and C” in which No. 2 manipulates No. 6’s dreams.