One thing the book club taught me (so far)

reading

Thanks to our book club (Literary Ladies), my reading selection has expanded dramatically, because I read books which I would have never come into contact otherwise. Our discussions also prompt many thoughts regarding reading which I have been interested in throughout my life. What follows presents the results of thinking about our two meetings and the conversations we had about the two books chosen.

As far as readers are concerned, there seem to be two main perspectives underlying the act of reading (fiction, but perhaps other genres can be included here too). These perspectives underpin the interpretation of themes, settings, actions, descriptions, and allow for very different types of enjoyment/disappointment/expectations of the book which all contribute to delightful discussions. The two perspectives are mutually exclusive but neither is “better” than the other. Each, however, lets us understand the world differently, although often without any possibility of rapprochement.

  1. Some readers identify themselves with a character. This is reading and thinking/feeling with one’s own mind: the reader looks for validation of her/his own ideas through a character’s language, race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, education, familial status, etc. (Pace Steven Pinker and other psychologists). Clearly, affection for a character of identical background reaffirms one’s situation and makes one exclaim: “I am not the only one that is experiencing these troubles/joys”. Women who went or are undergoing separation from a partner read The Love Warrior and find the “memoir” meaningful as they feel their life experience is reaffirmed since they can identify with Glennon. The book’s content, then, is part of the real world of suffering/joy. It is almost a given that this type of reading makes it much less probable that the readers would actually criticize the character with whom they identify. Conversely, if the readers do not identify (but would very much like to ) with a character (usually a protagonist), they are more likely to criticize the character’s  choices and lifestyle. Those readers who “could not” identify with Leo Gursky in The History of Love were more likely to find his quirks and life choices not understandable.
  2. Some readers suspend their way of thinking and stand back, so to speak, which makes them read and think/feel using the author’s mind. In other words, for them, “reading is thinking with someone else’s brain”, as Schopenhauer apparently claimed. This perspective does not seek to validate any aspect of the reader’s personality through an identification with a character. The characters are perceived purely on the strengths or weaknesses of the artistry of their description and on the intrinsic web of relationships they form with other characters. Readers who did not identify with Glennon of The Love Warrior and who read the “memoir” purely on the strengths of the description were more likely to detect the fact that the author was not entirely honest. This type of reading made it therefore possible to find faults, for example,  with Glennon’s abandoning her family and going off to expensive yoga sessions. As for The History of Love, those readers who found Leo Gursky’s life interesting or poetic, were more likely to find enjoyment and appreciation of the description of his quirks and life choices. This perspective interprets the book’s contents as an enrichment of one’s real life, rather than a confirmation of it; and therefore the farther the book’s content is from the reader’s experiences, the more chance it has to mold critical skills.

These two types of reading, however, leave various questions unanswered. For example, what are the criteria for constructing the countless book classifications, suggestions, lists? Do they measure the contents from the perspective of identity or from the perspective of detachment? Moreover, and, more significantly, the algorithms which are forced on us by the digital technology surely support our “preferred” type of reading and therefore the destruction of the boundaries (identity vs detachment) we as readers fall prey to becomes ever more impossible. Also, do the genres themselves force us to read from one perspective or another, as Edgar Alan Poe suggests? What do you think? You are welcome to leave your reactions by clicking on the “Comment” button below.

Social Media: Implications for the University

book

The purpose of this volume is to offer a balanced critical reflection on the role of social media in the workings of the engaged university. The 15 contributors analyze, critique, and explore the rich ideological and pragmatic relationships ensuing from the intersection between social media and academic life. This book is the sixth volume in the Social Theory: Communication and Media Studies published by Aracne Editrice (Rome). Its contents are definitely of interest to 1. those who work or have a stake in modern academia, as well as 2. those who observe the radical transformations of the manner in which knowledge is shred, elaborated, and used in contemporary life and 3. those who reflect on the unforeseen ramifications of technological advances. Moreover, many contributions have readers step outside of the classroom, presenting bridges especially to the arts communities: bridges that would have been impossible even 5 years ago. Oftentimes, edited volumes are criticized for “unevenness”, but the pleasure deriving from reading various ideological perspectives on, and multifaceted illustrations of the same general topic overrides any “unevenness”. The individual voice of each of the contributors is clear and purposeful.  It is hoped that the volume engages all the crucial players in today’s academic life and that the contributions may reach those who work as platform designers, making the most of (automated) connectivity and (human) connectedness (J. Van Dijck’s terms). In times such as these, when the end of many human occupations and professions are being placed in the hands of robots, questions should be asked also of what will become of the engaged and purposeful university – and it is without doubt that social media will have a significant role to play in the spread of knowledge. Decisions must be made regarding the balance between academic gatekeepers and technological gatekeepers: this volume provides a number of starting points in order to reach satisfactory answers.

The book is available from http://www.aracneeditrice.it/aracneweb/index.php/pubblicazione.html?item=9788854897427.

 

 

Quantum emanations and Byzantium

The other novel published together in the same volume with Francesco Verso’s Bloodbusters (see my post of December 14) is Sandro Battisti’s L’impero restaurato (Mondadori, November 2015). Both received the Urania Award in Italian Science fiction, and this decision to publish them together could not offer a better view of what Italian science fiction is today: the range, themes, scopes, languages, visions of future are widely different, distinct and thoughtfully enjoyable.  While Francesco Verso’s characters often enjoy a tongue-in-cheek, down to earth, palpable human (human/machine) interactions, Sandro Battisti’s world belongs to all-powerful aliens, capable of controlling quantum energies and use this power to achieve their ends. Thus, near human future  on one side of the literary continuum looks across to alien shenanigans at the other.

L’impero restaurato (The restored empire) is part of a cycle of novels dealing with various themes, but one of the leading concerns is the answer to the question “What could/would an all-powerful, alien, male being do to/with humans?”. To make the answer more concrete, Battisti endows the protagonist, Totka_II, emperor of the Connective Empire, with the ability to capture quantum emanations from earth of any historical period and allow them to be embodied. Totka_II is one of the most powerful of Nephilim  (in the novel, this race of biblical echoes is responsible for human ‘progress’). He is smitten with Byzantium’s power, opulence, military prowess, and therefore while he is looking to found another capital city for his empire, he is bent on establishing a new Constantinople. Using the ability to control quantum fluctuations he observes the court of Justinian and Theodora, the meeting between Justinian and a papal envoy, the triumphant entry to the city by general Belisarius. The most powerful pull on him, however, turns out to be Theodora, whose checkered past he knows.

theo

The novel proceeds as evil forces gather to attack  the positions of Totka_II’s empire, while the emperor is busy planning the new capital city. One of his envoys who was to report to him the augural liver reading does not return, and his vice, Sillax almost loses control while he is overwhelmed by the fluctuating energies which his technicians try to channel properly.    The augur whose observations of the sacrificed animal’s liver do not give a unequivocal answer to the emperor’s envoy turns out to be an enemy whose military ability almost destroys the Connective Empire. I will stop here not wanting to  spoil the pleasure for those who have not read the novel.

In an interview (with both Urania winners,  published together with their novels in the last pages of the book, pp 298-301), Sandro Battisti claims that “l’umano non mi ha mai affascinato: è l’inumano la grande frontiera da indagare, così immenso nelle sue potenzialità da sovrapporsi, nel mio pensiero di uomo, all’infinito.” (the human never fascinated me: the great frontier to be investigated  is the non-human, so immense in its potentialities that it superimposes itself as infinity, in my thoughts as human.) The novel clearly shows this interest: human beings exist as fluctuating energies, as posthuman entities bidding the will of the Nephilim and treated worse than slaves. But humans are also very attractive to Totka_II, especially Theodora, who in her desire to learn about the Connective Emperor’s real identity, abandons her earthly life. However, to imagine, let alone describe in verbal language, an alien world of vast complexity is impossible, and here is where the non-human empire meets its challenges. Battisti is careful not to be too technical, and leaves a lot to the imagination. But he also uses unexpected (almost deus-ex-machina) strategy to have Totka_II emerge victorious. One could quibble with Battisti’s mixing, on one hand, the  utterly out of this world aliens able to travel on quantum fluctuations, with, on the other, their need to hang on the words of an augur. Also, the human language in the alien world rears its head now and then, as in the case of the directional metaphor which uses the direction of the hands on the clock (!) (“passeggiando in rigoroso senso antiorario”: walking strictly counter-clockwise). Nevertheless, there is no better illustration of Giambattista Vico’s principle verum factum est  (we [humans] can only know what we made) as in the predictability of the fact that empires are created, have to be maintained,  and fall, whether they be human or alien. The lovers of empires will cherish this aspect of Battisti’s Connective Empire.

 

 

On “the Way to Bee”

vcela

One of the saddest sights I have ever been exposed to was the mound of dead bees in their hive once my brother opened it up for inspection after a cruel winter. To realize that more than 60 000 individual beings did not survive the freezing temperatures was astonishingly numbing. To appreciate the bees and their existence one must come close to them, observe their wings and pollen-laden hind legs, listen to their humming (happy as well as angry), share with them the fruits of their labor, and, yes, see them die by stinging you (unless you are allergic). Harsh winter die offs are not the only problem worker bees encounter during their short lives. As any beekeeper knows, honey is just the tip of the iceberg which is created when the bees and the keeper respect each other.

One such respectful relationship is the object of Mark Magill’s short book, the Way to Bee. Meditation and the Art of Beekeeping (Lyons Press, 2011).

bee

Magill describes the effects seasonal changes bring to the bees’ lives, their cycles of being, their purposeful existence, their focus on protecting their queen, feeding the brood, guarding the hive’s entrance. He mentions the research into bees behaviour and communication, especially that conducted by Frisch and Langsroth.

Magill also includes his take on the art of meditation. But his desire to somehow connect apiculture and meaningful meditation, to teach the steps to achieve one’s focus, seems too earnest and too rushed. It is as if he were searching for a focus in his own life. The book is lyrical and documentary; it leaves the reader with the desire to keep bees, and, as an aside, how to learn to meditate, presenting the necessary conditions and steps to meditation.

Some introspective books are written with the sole purpose of allowing the author to document an aspect of his or her life which still awaits a conclusive word. The danger in offering such a book to a wider public stems from the ephemerality of one’s experiences and feelings. Thus, documentary elements are mixed in with philosophising and, and, if the author is prone to pedagogize, all this is sprinkled with an earnest desire to teach. Perhaps giving the reader a nice package all wrapped up in colorful paper and topped up with a magnificent bow is not the intended aim. If nothing else, I hope that this book is read wisely so that it may instil different denotative and connotative meanings to the word “bee” to an English-speaking readership. Human culture and experiences are shaped by the language we speak, as Benjamin Lee Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis indicates. Although Whorf and Sapir were more interested in the grammatical/temporal categories of languages, the meanings of words are a prime example of this relativity, and there is no better example of this than in the denotation and connotation of the word “bee”. For English speakers, “bee” is a non-marked, general term that denotes any insect that hums, flies, and possibly stings: wasp, yellow jacket, hornet, bumble bee, etc. The connotation is that if a vicious stinging insect, instilling fear and hate in children and adults alike. Speakers of other languages do not share these connotations, nor the generic denotation. For Slovaks, for example, the word včela is not the unmarked, general category, or hyperordinate term, but it denotes the Apis (mellifera). The connotations assigned to this word include laboriousness, cleanliness, and the attitude it brings to the Slovak speaker’s Weltanschauung is that of respect, not fear. Children used to receive a stamp of a stylized bee on their work in their notebooks, and that was a sign of great pride. Rather than trying to get rid of a buzzing bee, kill it or zap it, children were led to admire its characteristics and be inquisitive about it.

Having a negative connotation about all types of bees makes it perfectly acceptable to kill them using all kinds of chemicals which, in the final analysis, harm all living things. This is the strongest connection between beekeeping and meditation: there is a relationship between humans and bees (of all types) which goes far beyond enjoying a spoonful of honey.

Reading fiction: brain or heart work?

It is said that Schopenhauer is the originator of the following dictum: “Reading is thinking with somebody else’s brain.” Assuming he was referring to reading fiction, he was only partly right.

There is a movement afoot nowadays to make reading fiction palatable to school officials, syllabus makers, etc. by insisting that reading fiction makes people more empathic (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study).
This, also, gives only a partial picture of what reading does for the careful reader.

So there are at least two positions regarding reading fiction: that of the brain (thinking) and that of the heart (feeling). Long lists belonging to either camp can be collected. However, the suggestion here is that both are true at the same time: books make us think and make us feel. Furthermore, the greatest books make us do both, and more: they make us also cry and laugh, being in an imagined environment of the special world created in a different language. Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda (Einaudi, 1997) is one such book.

grasso

It makes the reader think: the story of Sasa` Azzarello’s life, set between the 1920s and sometime before the 2000s in Sicily, overturns the usual stereotype of the daughter doing what the father wants: it is the son who has to live up to the father’s expectations. Studying philosophy completes one of the requirements: the son is brainy. The other requirement, that of being sexually endowed and doing what that expectation commands (il capitale), is, however, another matter. The son’s unhappy love affair with a Friulian young woman whom he met while he was studying in Padova, makes contemplating suicide a real option. Thus, much of the protagonist’s time is spent in attempting to find the right way of ending his life, the right time, the right location. But he also participates in the life of the town: he meets his friends, he cares for his wheelchair-bound cousin. Sasa` shows himself to be a master in reworking the Pirandellian motto “Così e` se vi pare” (It is so if it seems to you so), combining thinking about a matter or an event (happy or sad) and laughing at and with it.
The novel makes the reader feel: among other psychological vicissitudes, the desire for self-annihilation, lasting for more than 50 years, torments Sasa`: but this torment is accompanied by the need to be loved, a need which is never satisfied.

The book makes the reader cry: the description of the protagonist’s solitude and his scheming to commit suicide are heartbreaking, as is his decision to obey his father and marry Maddalenina, a type of Xantippe who does not understand him.

The novel makes the reader laugh: on many an occasion, the carefully premeditated suicide mission fails on account of really petty events. Describing the wife’s irruptions into the protagonist’s humdrum activities as Caporetto is one of the many funny nuggets that require outright laud laughter.

Regarding the language of the novel, it must be said that it is one of a kind: lexically, the use of many of the varieties of Italian available creates a dreamily elaborate atmosphere, but the author is also skillful in adding special, realistic touches when employing Sicilian dialect terms. These features seem mundane now, since another contemporary author uses many of these in books published after Silvana Grasso published her works. Andrea Camilleri’s fiction is so overwhelming and forcefully supported by all types of media that it is difficult for another author to emerge. Silvana Grasso’s style, however, is stronger and more interesting. Syntactically, too, she plays with novel possibilities to extend the syntactic groups and add to her linguistic tree a crown which is full and life-producing. The academia, as well, has not given Grasso her due, as there are few solid studies of her works (see, for ex., the essay “I romanzi di Silvana Grasso” by Sharon Wood, published in the collection Il romanzo contemporaneo, edited by Franca Pellegrini and Elisabetta Tarantino (Trubadour Publishing: 2006, 93-107) and “Tendenze linguistiche nella narrativa di fine secolo” by Valeria Della Valle, included in La narrativa italiana degli anni Novanta edited by Elisabetta Mondello (Meltemi: 2004, 39-68)

If you have a book which does all four (make you think, feel, cry and laugh), like Silvana Grasso’s L’albero di Giuda, please share it with us in the comment section below.

Livido/Nexhuman

Livido/Nexhuman

 

Francesco Verso’s SF novel Livido has recently been translated into English with the new title Nexhuman (Xoum 2015). What follows is a slightly reworked short Afterword* to the English version (with permission from Francesco Verso).

What follows is not intended to be a conclusive statement about this remarkable novel, but to serve as a springboard for discussion about the ever-elusive definition of what it means to be human, this time from transhumanist and literary perspectives.
Transhumanism is an international philosophical and cultural movement whose main tenet is the belief in the positive outcomes of enhancing and augmenting all human faculties. The improvements go beyond simply alleviating pain or bettering one’s eyesight. They involve using prostheses, implants, nanotechnology, exoskeletons, DNA editing, and much more to augment human abilities beyond their natural limitations (for example, adding gills, making night vision possible, etc.). Transhumanism values reason, progress and optimism through self-determined, self-directed evolution. According to this movement, death is not inevitable and senescence can be rendered negligible.
If science fiction can be defined as works of literature that are contingent upon some as yet unfulfilled scientific advancement, transhumanist science fiction refers to those works of literature that deal with self-directed evolution, not with cyborgs created by others, but with subjects whose enhancement is directly willed by themselves.
Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman can be considered a transhumanist trailblazer in the more and more verdant forest of Italian science fiction. Although the novel does not focus specifically on self-directed evolution, the narration proceeds towards one of the crucial aspects of transhumanism – that of mind uploading. Nexhuman paints a dystopian picture of the future, where the complexities of a consumerist, profit-driven, technology-obsessed, trash-filled world, populated by humans and nexhumans, seemingly obliterate those aspects of humanity which matter most: love, identity, family, friendship and aspirations, to name just a few. However, these themes and many others find a common thread in the question of the Self: not just the basic ‘Who am I?’ but other probing queries, such as ‘Who is the Other?’, ‘How do I exist with the Other?’, ‘Where do I fit in?’, or ‘What should I do with my life?’. And, above all, ‘Who will the Self be in a world where the external body can be of any shape and material?’.
Nexhuman offers a most noteworthy possibility regarding the relationship between the Self and the Other. For millennia, humans have acknowledged the fact that there exists a chasm between the Self and the Other: a binary, exclusionary relationship that separates the two fragments into clearly delineated compartments. It is true that anthropological triangulation, or double-consciousness, offers a tripartite view, but it still relies on the same components: self, other and other-self. The novel describes, in stark and nasty detail, the results of this antagonistic stance: quasi-fratricide, possible matricide, ‘nexhuman-cide’, exclusion (seen in the character of Ion) and separation (human vs. nexhuman; male vs. female). Peter Payne attempts to avoid falling into the trap of hate even when he is bent on vendetta. He falls in love with a being he does not know is a nexhuman, and he keeps loving her even after finding out that she is a copy of a sixty-year-old woman’s mind that has been uploaded. His search for Alba’s severed pieces symbolises his quest to find himself – but not at the cost of excluding others. And here is the point at which transhumanism’s mind-uploading technology shows yet another possibility, clearly illustrated in the novel: to live as Self within the Other(s). The Self can be uploaded into any form (human or not), of any age, and this can be done many times over – just as Alba’s example shows. The Self can live within other people’s memories: Peter Payne uploads his own memories into the program of his mother’s hologram, where she will live on. However, the most inclusive sense of the Self within the Other is Peter’s feeling that Alba lives within him. Of course, these serious aspects of the ‘payneful’ experience receive good doses of irony (specifically: love growing out of a trash-filled environment; trash-forming and recycling of garbage, but also of mind; Peter’s approval to upload his mind not because of his mutilated, bruised body, but on account of love; etc.).
Therefore, the Self and the Other(s) are categories that are not exclusive, but are subsumed within each other: the new consciousness of both Peter and Alba are not simply imagined but embodied, not dreamt but uploaded. There is no antagonism between the Self and the Other(s), nor are there blurred, indistinct outlines. They are enclosed, experienced, practiced, familiar and deeply felt. They are not fluid but embraced, and readily received.
Frederick Pohl, the American science fiction writer, claimed that, ‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.’ Nexhuman’s traffic jams include the usual problems encountered not only in science fiction – extreme environmental degradation, unscrupulous employers, failure to stop aggressive and violent behaviour – but also those created by new transhumanist technologies, such as self-constructed bodies, mind uploading, misuse of mind-transforming technologies, inability to educate the young, and wide gaps between humans and nexhumans. The novel does much more than this since it redefines the relationships between the Self and the Other(s), offering a new way of being human: that of embracing one Self within the Other(s).

 

*Some of the ideas elaborated on here were first presented at the Graduate Students’ Conference entitled ‘(Un)human relations/ Relazioni (dis)umane’, held at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, 6 May 2015.

Science fiction and capitalism

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short talk made me think about the following three things:

1. Without her publishers and readers she would not have been where she is today. Even though the thrust of her speech can be enjoyed and appreciated, it is undeniable that it easy for her to make certain claims, literally, from the pulpit. But this is the irony of capitalism: one can bite the hand capitalism feeds without the hurtful consequences. She surely cannot force publishers to charge public libraries less than the outrageous amounts they do; she can communicate it, but verba volant without consequences, especially until profit drives everything, as she says.

2. Fear, technology and capitalism seem to go hand in hand. Fear: fear of not being able to pay debts, fear of someone destroying your property, robbing you of it, and/or killing you,fear of falling ill, fear of death,  etc., etc., etc. Technology: that technology which seems to be running amok  without us being able to do anything about it. Capitalism: the bigger the better, etc., etc., etc. Fear, technology, capitalism make up the three cornerstones of any dystopian science fiction. As someone has claimed before, it is difficult to write a really inspiring, beautiful, important, attention-grabbing utopian science fiction narration.

3. She says: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” The parallelism is interesting, but it falls short of being useful for a more profound discussion (exactly like all short maxims on which social media thrive). Let’s see if scifi writers take up the challenge and offer us alternatives to capitalism which may become clear working models, not just words. This would make scifi proactive, rather than reactive: and this is the real challenge posed by her suggestion that writers help us envision alternative worlds. There are reasons behind the difficulty of this enterprise (pun intended): if science fiction illustrates the troubles of the present, contemporary society, or a future one which behaves just like this one, it is reactive and intimates that coping with what is now is already too outrageous. But a scifi novel cannot really give us anything that is completely outside of our capacity of perception and understanding, otherwise it would be gibberish.  The challenge therefore is not only to construct worlds which depict alternatives to capitalism, but to do so in a comprehensible and solid manner.