Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Polygenism of Science Fiction

I just finished reading Ben Bova's Mars Life, largely because of its enigmatic dedication to the former polygenist, Carleton S. Coon. Coon was the last of a long, if disgraced, line of anthropologists at Harvard who promoted the "American school"--the idea that races evolved separately. Needless to say, these theories, long superseded by data in population genetics, were utilized to justify any number of racist policies, including (but not just limited to) slavery in the US and apartheid in South Africa.

The anthropologist in Bova's novel, Carter Carleton, seems to embody what I imagine Coon to have been like--curmudgeony and atavistic (he, of course, may not have been). Pace the general characterization of anthropologists in fiction, he's a sexual brute; falsely accused of rape on Earth, he is nevertheless aggressive in his attempts to bed women he meets on Mars--the male version of the sexualized female anthropologist stereotype based on Margaret Mead. Thoroughly unpleasant in all respects, Carleton fails to even discover physical remains of Martians; rather, he takes the credit from a young colleague who stumbles on to the site.

Of course, given this ambivalent characterization of the anthropologist, this still begs the question--why Carleton S. Coon? Well, Coon was in some ways the darling of science fiction anthropology in the 1950's and 1960's, contributing to the 1968 edited volume of anthropological science fiction, "Apeman, Spaceman." The reasons are obvious--the "hard" science fiction of the time espoused a kind of galactic polygenism, still preserved (like a fly in amber) in Star Trek episodes, where different "races" populate the universe, each originating on a separate planet, with plots hinging upon the mechanics of "racial" conflict between these different groups. If it looks vaguely Victorian, that's because it is--the supposed conflict of nations/races that legitimated empire building in the 19th century, most recently given new life by Samuel Huntington.

On the one hand, this "racial" understanding of the alien other is just so much space opera, providing a patina of Gernsback-ian "wonder" to tales of space travel. But, on the other, it projects a conservative, even procrustean, understanding of races as separately developing, conflicting "types" to our future encounters and ultimately works to legitimate racist reactions to other peoples and other cultures today. Without polygenism as a body of theory in anthropology, what would epic science fiction have been like? Can we imagine a science fiction without it? What would that be like? Can we, for example, imagine an alien that was never separate from the non-alien . . .The galactic equivalent of mitochondria?

Bova, of course, is not advocating polygenism, nor, I suppose, is he really suggesting that we pick up the Carleton S. Coon again. His somewhat ambiguous rationale is described in the "Biology in Science Fiction" blog. I see it as an interesting form of reflexivity. The antiquated Carter Carleton, by excavating the Martians, is simultaneously excavating the polygenism of the genre, the history of science fiction that has never been separate from the constellations of power/knowledge that supported it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

On the Trail of Emergence

As the Python sketch said long, long ago: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" By definition, future forms and practices will be unexpected, i.e., inexplicable from our perspective now. One reason--technologies, behaviors, ideas, social relationships will combine in unforeseen ways and result in some novel assemblage. This semester, we're on the trails of these sites of emergence in my "information age cultures" class as we plumb the depths of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in East Asia. By looking at the flow of new technologies and concomitant social practices in Korea, Japan and China, we can, perhaps, tease out (yet not predict) the emergence of new forms in the U.S. It's not that U.S. practice will ineluctably follow on the tails of East Asia (although this has often been the case), it's that those different social and cultural perspectives suggest the possibility of future differences here . . .

Anyway: check out our messy, messy ning site, "Information assemblages."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The End of the Free Market, and the Future of Culture

In the New York Times on Friday (10/24), a really astounding admonition by Alan Greenspan, looking a bit like a drunk on the morning after: "Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets" (A1). Although we're supposed to take this as his belated indictment of mortgage-backed securities, I see it as a much more sweeping confession: that, far from describing some objective, underlying reality to which the rest of us non-economists should concede, the "free market" is not some fact of nature circumscribed by Netwonian law, but an amalgam of greedy institutions acting in concert with government to expropriate wealth from the rest of us. Greenspan's contrition should lead us to a cascade of revelations--perhaps austerity measures and free market propaganda foisted onto developing nations weren't such great ideas? Perhaps the derivatives-led interpenetration of global finance isn't the inevitable fate of an evolving 'global economy' after all?

Most of all, Greenspan's belated apology gestures to the need for alternatives, and underlines the paucity of social theorizing over the past 30 years. As Fredric Jameson points out, a whole generation of critics systematically legitimated free market ideologies, if only by omission. Where is the cultural other to the "culture of capitalism"? How much of our anthropological work has been framed by assumptions about the inevitability of globalization? About vectors of development? Even critical work presupposes the (dismal) course of a free market development. What have we ignored in the meantime? And is it too late for anthropology to awaken from its theoretical sleep? When we look around at other anthropological responses(e.g., savage minds), we can see this struggle--not just to critique, but to move in some alternative direction.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Future Baltimore!

It's pretty hard to imagine a more Gothic city than Baltimore (in the literary sense). You've got the Faulkner-esque kind of gothic with over-grown gardens, crumbling shacks, shambling, sclerotic citizens. And also the northern gothic--shuttered factories, menacing turrets on decrepit mansions, etc. It is no particular wonder why Baltimore is often the preferred mise-en-scene for mystery novels.

But it's harder to envision a futuristic Baltimore. The usual urban boosters (e.g., Live Baltimore, The Urbanite) do their best, but I don't know of any sf novel set in the city--even cyberpunk dystopias of the near future seem to have passed us by. Still, I would like to try to evoke stochastic, interesting futures for my city.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Margaret Mead often theorized about the ingredients of the creative city—the institutions that she thought might stimulate what she called “emergent clusters”. But the point to her analysis—and to what I think today—is that neither what elements might be important nor the resulting “clusters” can be known in advance. What we can do is to multiply opportunities for creative crossings of all kinds—not just forms that we’ve determined in advance (festivals, galleries, literary salons)—but the ones that will emerge just beyond the borders of our predictions. The point is to open connections between peoples and parts of life in our city that have been historically separated—by race, religion, language, location, orthodoxy and heterodoxy. In Baltimore, this would first involve identifying the configurations with the most potent potentialities for emergence, and then assist in the creation of the space for those connections to grow, a catalog of potentials, rather like Doni’s 15th century catalog of books that had not yet been written. When we imagine the best that Baltimore can be, aren’t we excluding what we can’t yet imagine? This is the difference, I think, between urban areas that emerge as poster children for the creative class and ones that continuously run to catch up.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

robots and agents

The robot-gone-awry has been a theme in literature and popular culture from at least Goethe. The 20th century variant generally revolves around advances in robotic technologies that lead to robots displacing humans altogether--basically the Braverman thesis (after Harry Braverman) followed to its natural asymptote. But can the same thing be said of other kinds of non-human agents? I mean--not the anthropomorphic robots produced by various research groups to simulate human feelings, speech, perceptions or cognition, but those agents that swarm in and out of our lives as vaguely intelligent, vaguely autonomous search engines, routers, global positionings, spyware, etc. What about these? The difference between these and more anthropomorphic agents is in a way similar to what Andy Clark (in Natural Born Cyborgs) terms "transparent" versus "opaque" technologies:

A transparent technology is a technology that is so well fitted to, and integrated with, our own lives, biological capacities, and projects as to become (as Mark Weiser and Donald Norman have both stressed) almost invisible in use. An opaque technology, by contrast, is one that keeps tripping the user up, requires skills and capacities that do not come naturally to the biological organisim, and thus remains the focus of attenion even during routine problem-solving activity. (37)

I think I would re-work Clark to include in the list of "opaque" technology agents that emulate human behavior, and thus make human-like demands upon our attenion and concentration, a politics of recognition for robots, as it were, that doesn't exist with more transparent technologies that simply reflect back upon the self to the ultimate amplification of ego.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

M. John Harrison

I just finished M. John Harrison's Light (2002)--that novel, as well as those of Gaiman, Egan, and other contemporary, SF authors, seems to revolve around the question of postmodernity in the quantum universe. That is to say, it combines contemporary cosmology with the vertiginous technologies that are ultimately construed as transformative of the human. And yet, like so much in sf, this isn't so much of a prediction as an ironic gloss on information technologies that, far from emancipating us from both corporeality and parochial indentity, seem to immobilize us both physically (with whole generations of Americans captive to the television) as well as mentally (the strong resurgence of knee-jerk ethnocentrism and know-nothing jingoism). If only our products could allow us to escape from our Newtonian world into a quantum universe! But--shopping's not going to lead us to the revolution, right?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Manufacturing the Alien

I've been thinking on and off about aliens these days. One of the reasons must be because I'm on the CONTACT! listserve, which is fairly choc-a-block with speculations on Earth-like planets in other solar systems. The other has to with my research on other "aliens," those non-human agents that are more and more part of our everyday life.

Of course, it's odd to think about these "agents" (software or hardware) as "aliens" at all, but this is exactly what Morton Klass did in a 1983 essay of his I just re-read, "The Artificial Agent: Transformations of the Robot in Science Fiction" (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 470 (171-179)). Klass spent much of his career as Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College (Columbia University). But his early career was one saturated in science fiction. As the brother of William Tenn (aka Phillip Klass), Morton Klass contributed several sf stories in the 1950s and early 1960s--several which subsequently were re-printed in anthropological science fiction collections like Leon Stover's Apeman, Spaceman.

In this essay, he tries to conjoin those two, otherwise distinct careers in a bit of speculative , cultural analysis on why we feel more comfortable with the alien we've manufactured (the alien we know?) than with the one we don't:

The robot in science fiction was portrayed at first as an alien and as a threat, but the danger was perceived as primarily an economic one--apart, that is, from the theological danger. The robot may drive us from our jobs and otherwise destroy our economic well being, it was felt; it may even threaten to destroy the world as we know it; it may endanger our collective soul. But we have never believed it would dishonour or corrupt us, something we have always assumed that our aliens wanted most of all to do. Perhaps not surprisingly then we seem to be able to live with whatever threat, economic or theological, the robots represent; we do not exhibit horror or revulsion, or even very much trepidation.

What strikes me about this passage is the fate of the robot today. Is it considered alien at all? Perhaps this is one of the reasons I found the movie version of I, Robot so unsatisfying: the robot today is hardly a figure of fear (at least to those people not being bombed by drones). I would even go further and say that the robot isn't really figured as a robot at all, if by that we mean some anthropomorphic, Capek-inspired robot. Instead, we have a wide variety of hardware and software agents that have seamlessly(?) extended our cognition, perception and sociality without actually demanding that we consciously recognize their alien autonomy from us. Of course, robotics labs manufacture extremely life-like robots, but these are not the ones that we encounter in our everyday practice. Our robots have faded into the (human) woodwork--as tools we use. Or, perhaps it's the case that we have become more alien, multiply supplemented by the artificial and hence no longer distinct from some intelligent 'Other".

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"Circle" and the Spirit of Capitalism

There's a really interesting (or at least suggestive) story in May's issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction: "Circle," by George Tucker. Oh, it's got plenty of standard SF devices: Billy Black is a Seminole shaman who never seems to get hurt at the cursed construction site he's working on in Miami (a la the "Miami circle"). Eventually, he's hired on to "exorcise" the spirits from the site and, after a couple of complications, everyone profits: the condo complex goes up, complete with the cultural "value-added" of a seminole shaman and Billy can finally buy the plot to his grandfather's grave in order to stop developers from dis-interring his body . . .Kind of a Heinlein-esque-free-market-conquers-all story.

But, there's other things afoot here as well . . .The resolution of the story rests on Billy's realization that the "spirit of place" must be given recognition in order to be palliated. But what kind of recognition? Commodified recognition, occupying advertising and gallery space in the commodified topologiies of the new condo complex. This is certainly a prominent theme in contemporary anthropology: tracing the encroachment of commodities into ritual spaces, such as Laurel Kendall's 2008 article in american ethnologist examining the influx of global commodities in a Korean shaman's "kut".

But the question I had reading the story was: which spirit is being mollified? The spirit of space (genius loci) or the spirit of capitalism? In other words, the spirits that demand recognition are ultimately subsumed within another spirit: the spirit of perpetual, autochthonous growth, the ability of monster-developers like George Perez to develop Miami into a perpetual growth machine. Not the spirit of place, but the spirit of money.

But this is not just a case of commodification, wherein all forms of pre-capitalist culture become commodities to be bought and sold. Instead, the story gestures to more ghostly dialectics . . .one spirit in concert with another spirit. In the process, Tucker alludes to the what we can construe (not ironically) as the mystical trappings of the real estate boom, the sense that these commodities, animated by the spirits of capitalism, can generate endless, logarithmic growth. In another words, Tucker takes us to into the animism of the West.

Friday, May 2, 2008

CONTACT lives!

The word last year was that this wonderful, annual convocation of anthropologists, astronomers, artists, science fiction writers, visionaries and the occasionally wacky was on indefinite hiatus. But--they've met again at NASA-Ames, and the world is, I think, much better for it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Savage science fiction

It doesn't bear trying the number of science fiction stories juxtaposing hyper-trophied, Gernsback-ian technologies with highly stereotypical visions of gathering-hunting or pastoralist societies. And there's little evidence that this is a new trend--Wells's Time Machine, after all, devolved around the two, favorite Western tropes of the "primitive": the noble savage, basking about in a Dionysian prodigality (Eloi) and the rude savage (Morlocks), where, in the words of Hobbes, life is "nasty, brutish and short." One could say (and several have) that the "future" is only imaginable through this juxtaposition with the imagined savage. This, indeed, is what Christopher Bracken (in Magical Criticism) has suggested recently of Western discourse in general. And in a world where Western hegemony is tottering, there's been a renewed surfeit of these science fiction stories--shoring up the cracked foundations of modernity, as it were, with tales of genetically modified interplantary pastoralists quoting the Qur'an. But there are some bright spots as well.

For example, I very much liked (or, perhaps, liked to think about?) David Moles' short story, "Planet of the Amazon Women," starts off typically enough, with lots of allusion to Suzy Charnas (and to feminist utopia in general), with women on horseback, spontaneous conception, etc. Years after a temporally-induced "disease" has killed off all males on the planet Hippolyta, a male, scientist-mathematician makes his way to the planet and to the center of the temporal distortion that, we learn, didn't so much spawn a disease as replace one evolutionary timeline (sexual dimorphism) with another where it never developed. Our hero's goal: "to establish a metastable equilibrium that allows convex regions with real and virtual; histories to co-exist in four-dimensional space-time"--in other words, to "stabilize" these what-if kinds of gedanken into real-time possibility.

Of course, he succumbs to the disease in the end as well, but this ends up being the best thing about the story. As Moles' narrator concludes:

I was wrong to define my own history as real, Hippolyta's as unreal--to define mind as Self and Hippolyta's as Other. That is what the inference engines were trying to tell me.
There is no past that is not in some sense a lie. We see the past through the distortion of memory and imagination. We collaborate in its conscious distortion through history and propaganda. We see the laws of cause and effect violated not only each time a starship bends space-time but also each time we view the incomplete records of the past with our teleological modern eyes, imbuing them with presentiments of the future that is our own present. [ . . .]
The women of Hippolyta have a story they tell about themselves, and it does not include men.

There's a lesson here for both science fiction and representations of the West's many Others in general. When we tender these kinds of "savage" portraits of others, we introduce temporal distortions in the West . . .a kind of fragmentation of chronotypes as a by-product of attempting to (temporally) conquer the cultural Other.

Friday, April 18, 2008

All Tomorrow's Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future by Samuel Gerald Collins
List Price:
Product DescriptionHow will we live in the future? Are we moving towards global homogeneity? Will the world succumb to the global spread of fast food and Hollywood movies? Or are there other possibilities? In this book, Samuel Collins argues not only for the importance of the future of culture, but also stresses its centrality in anthropological thought over the last century. Beginning with the often times racist assumptions of 19th-century anthropology and continuing today in the work of anthropologies of emergent science, anthropologists have not only used their knowledge of present cultural configurations to speculate on future culture but have also used their assumptions about the future of culture to understand the present. About the AuthorSamuel Collins is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Cultural Studies at Towson University. He researches globalization and information society in the United States and South Korea and has recently begun ethnographic research on multiagent systems composed of humans and robots.

Product Details
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Berghahn Books (February 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1845454081
ISBN-13: 978-1845454081
Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches