Superficial wounds that run deep

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (Random House, 2008) is a fast-moving, smooth-reading, deceptively happy-ending narration. Taking cues from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, medieval Italian, Japanese, and Icelandic  tales of love, Davidson spins a post-modern tale set in unspecified contemporary North American city, interweaving episodes of gothic and romance literature with present-day scientific knowledge about the effects of burns, schizophrenia, as well as background histories of the major characters.

The novel offers numerous thematic elements whose prominence clearly emerges from the narration: everlasting true love even beyond the unexpected and bitter end, search for encyclopedic knowledge, life with cocaine and morphine dependency (the “snake”), artistic raptures, questions about actions and their earthly and after-life consequences, metempsychosis, need for continuity of human affairs through talismans and special objects. All of these add something particular to the plot.  Having grown up with drug-addicted foster parents, taking advantage of the library to quench his thirst for knowledge, and, later, on account of his good looks and lack of other skills, becoming a porn actor and director: all of these suddenly turn inconsequential thanks to one fateful Good Friday when he is about thirty years old (obvious echoes of Dante). He has a near-fatal car accident in which he is horribly burned (the gory details are spelled out in full) and deprived of his work tool, so to speak. Ending up in a hospital, he contemplates committing suicide as soon as he is released: his disfigurement, his lack of sexual organ, the loss of his livelihood and his film company mean that there is nothing left for him to do but end it all. The narration follows him in his hospital bed; he is taken care of conscientious doctors and nurses, and one uninvited character, Marianne Engel, the anchor which steadies the path of the narration.  She claims to have met the protagonist before (about 700 years before) and to have loved him then. At that time she worked in the Engelthal monastery as a scribe; he was a condottiero brought to the sisters since he was horribly burned. Marianne cures him now as she did then, and she keeps being in love with him through the centuries and now. At the hospital, Marianne’s tales of medieval romantic love, her artistic energy, kind disposition, nutritious food, make him abandon his desire to die. Once he is discharged, she takes him into her gothic-looking house, keeps taking care of him, and secures his future. She sculpts for a living: her grotesque stone sculptures resemble the strange medieval decorations on churches: gargoyles. She also starts to sculpt the protagonist.  Her artistic pursuit is spurred on by three special characters from her medieval life who assure her that she only has 27 more “hearts” to sculpt and then her last heart is to be given to her true love and let free. Having finished these “hearts”, she walks off into the sea never to be found again. Our protagonist passes his life writing his story.

The word “inferno” conjures images of raging fire burning the damned who deserve to be punished, because, in the Catholic tradition, they transgressed specific interdictions and rules.  Our nameless protagonist is not a believer and therefore he does not explain his predicament as a just retribution for his previous drug-filled debauched life.  In the novel, the role of Dante’s voyage through hell is only superficial: the protagonist has entered a hellish type of life, and he tries to understand it.  He too has a Virgil: it is Marianne who leads him – through narration of love stories –  to forget about his disfigured existence. There is no Beatrice, though, to lead him to God. Our protagonist lives his new post-burned life simply as a spectator:  unlike Dante who cries and is moved by the fate of the damned, he is not stirred by what happens around him, he does not seem to feel any gratitude to Marianne, or in fact even love. He is simply with her.              His pre-accident life was full of sex but devoid of love, full of drugs and alcohol but no moral signposts, no ethical concerns, no real friends, no real parents. He did not have healthy feelings of self-love or self-worth, but he demonstrated lots of vanity. The novel is a loud yearning cry for something to hold on to, something that would explain the consequences of one’s actions much like the deserved punishments of the damned in Dante’s Inferno. Alighieri’s epic poem, for a non-believer like the protagonist, is simply an imaginative tale, full of gory details; the connection between the literary work and the society that created it and the human stories underpinned by biblical teachings, philosophical works, scientific observations is totally lost. This is perhaps the significance of The Gargoyle: the protagonist’s cynical attitude of detached observer allows him the only activity that has a semblance of pleasure, that of reading anything and everything. However, this does not make him a wise man.

Every author inevitably toys with his/her readers. It is disconcerting, however, when the protagonist/author is cynically flippant about his readers, as is the case in The Gargoyle. This talking down to the reader happens also at special moments in the story, and it completely destroys the rich imagery that the reader was about to construct. Here are two examples:

“I have no idea whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I’ve never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story.  You’re still reading, so it seems to have worked”. (p. 5)

In the middle of a long list of food items, he says “…guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading)” (p. 167.)

This meta-narrative ploy is not new, moreover, it too accentuates the novel’s postmodern construction.

In conclusion, the muddle created by juxtaposing  the past and the present, religious and secular images, imaginative tales and scientific descriptions of medical conditions perfectly illustrates the post-modern emptiness which underlies the result of the attitude “anything goes”. However, the nihilistic condition seems to drain out the protagonist  completely, and he stands out as a disfigured empty shell whose only real companion is a dog and whose only activity is writing. The sole effigies with a “heart” remain the heavy stone gargoyles, creations of an exalted artist.

*The top-right illustration comes from the 1487 edition of the  Commedia; printer: Boninus de Boninis (https://www.frizzifrizzi.it/2017/11/10/tesori-darchivio-alcune-le-prime-edizioni-illustrate-della-divina-commedia-state-digitalizzate/).

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McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality

mcdon

For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?

 

 

Food and (Italian) science fiction, or where are the transhumanist sources of energy?

Some years back, in Toronto, during one scrumptious supper, while the banqueters (mostly Italians and Italian Canadians)  were enjoying their tasty food, they all joined the discussion about what menu they would like to imagine for the next day’s meal. The Italian cultural attaché, one of the diners, exclaimed: “Italians are the only people who, while eating, think of the next meal!”. Whether this is true or not, food is a universal concern, although Italians, given their historical, regional, cultural, and character traits, seem to be overly obsessed with what, how, when, where, why they eat. So it is no surprise that food and science meet in Italian speculative fiction, although not as often as could perhaps be anticipated. This is why a lot of my expectations surfaced as soon as the publication of the volume Ma gli androidi mangiano spaghetti elettrici?  was made public.  The book is edited by Francesco Grasso, Marco Minicangeli, Massimo Mongai, and published as a companion to activities planned for the World Expo held in Milano in 2015. It contains 18 short stories by sci-fi known and less-known writers (among whom 4 women), and an afterword which attempts to tackle the question “Why do women not read and not write science fiction?”. The contents of this collection receive a more academic review in a forthcoming specialized publication, so the following muse on two considerations (out of many) which arose from having thought about food, science fiction, and transhumanism.

 

ma gli andr

 

Cyborgs and electric spaghetti?       

Although the title is a catchy transparent spoof on Philip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (this ploy was also used in an academic article entitled “Do androids eat electric sheep?” by Josh Toth), the stories do not involve androids and the protagonists do not eat or prepare electric spaghetti. (Caveat emptor.) Every contribution has to do with food: either in the form of seeds, insects, reclaimed produce after a cataclysmic disaster, humans as choice fodder for aliens, and many others. But it is still food for biological beings (human and otherwise).

If food provides energy (food apparently provides much more than that as the scientific literature on food informs us: see for ex., the Works Cited section below), it is legitimate to ask what would the sources of energy be for augmented humans? We need speculative fiction to give us imaginative answers to this. Energy provided to biological beings is surely different from that required by mechanical/nano-bio-cyborgian embodiments (the Borgs “regenerate”). Augmentation-prone transhumanists have so far avoided to deal with this topic, and it is highly surprising since the energy sources and the ways of their ingestion/ injection / imbibing/etc. are crucial for the augmented body. Senescence-abolishing transhumanists, though, will soon have a crowd-sourced cookbook (https://mariakonovalenko.wordpress.com/tag/longevity-cookbook/).

Transhumanists and gastronomy

Perhaps silence about food in transhumanist circles stems from the trouble with the visionary separation already anticipated by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Manifesto della cucina futurista (1930). Marinetti, a clever self-promoting artist, bon-vivant and iconoclast of traditional ways of doing things, envisaged two types of food: 1) Pills to satisfy the working classes’ need for energy during their couple of working hours a day and 2) Special banquets  with newly invented courses. It’s a pity that every commentator concentrated on the second suggestion, rather than elaborating on the first. Suffice it to say then that according to the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, food is either to be swallowed without regard for any sensory input, or enjoyed with almost a sensory overload. There are no half-measures, no in-between compromises. This may be the reason for the transhumanist gastronomic and ironic quandary: in the augmented beings, every feeling, sense, cognitive capabilities are ameliorated, so how can they accept eating pills/getting their energy from electric pulses, which presumably do not give any sensory pleasure at all?  Or will they, and how will this be accomplished?

In conclusion, it is hoped that future sci-fi and/or real nourishment will not be devoid of sensory pleasure, unless augmented beings lose that part of humanity which craves and is able to enjoy the energy consumption, whatever form it will take.

 

Works Cited

Belasco, Warren. Food. The Key concepts. Berg, 2008.

Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton, 2014.

Marinetti, Tommaso Filippo. The Futurist cookbook. Translated by Suzanne Brill. Edited with an introduction by Lesley Chamberlain.  Bedford Arts Publishers, 1989.

Pautasso, Guido Andrea. Cucina futurista. Manifesti, menu, documenti. Carte d’artisti 158.Milano, Abscondita, 2015

Poulain, Jean-Pierre. Alimentazione, cultura e società. Il Mulino, 2008, trad. Aldo Pasquali.

Riva, Franco. Filosofia del cibo. Castelvecchi, 2015.

Not the usual critique of transhumanist thought

The Huffington Post of Jan 14, 2015 publishes Zoltan Istvan’s thoughts on his candidacy for Presidency in 2016 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoltan-istvan/should-a-transhumanist-be_b_5949688.html ), obviously taking strictly transhumanist stance. What follows is my take on some of the unstated logical inconsistencies of transhumanist thought as expressed in that publication, and not the usual criticism leveled at transhumanists. First, Istvan’s statements are copied, and then my reactions to them follow.
He intends to

1. “…attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years” . Although overcoming senescence is one of the rooted ideas of transhumanism, this idea, positive in itself, does not deal in any way with i., the question of who would benefit from it ii., the repercussions of the burden to feed everyone iii., the repercussions on the manner in which every facet of social life is conducted. In other words, the connections between living indefinitely and carrying out one’s usual activities are so complex that “fixing” the death and aging problem does not really fix anything. More importantly than this, however, transhumanism does not explain the manner in which overcoming death would lead to life without pain.
2. “…create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.” It is interesting that even though transhumanists normally take the view that transhumanism abolishes differences in gender, race, and all the sociological categories, this statement brings forth nationalism, a category which is problematic if married to a specific intellectual movement. Furthermore, it is rather questionable that “the best interest of our…species” be placed in the hands of the president of the United States, any one person or group of people for that matter. The inclusivity and openness that transhumanism seems to represent are destroyed here.
3. “…create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.” Although this is a worthy goal, the manner in which this is to be achieved is not all all apparent. Moreover, the precautions and safety measures assume that globally, everyone is sold on the idea of transhumanism, which obviously is not the case.

Istvan continues:
4. “Artificial hearts will become better than the best human hearts. Bionic arms will become superior to human arms. Smart phones will become the size of a fingernail and will likely be implanted into your body. Speaking out loud will disappear as the modern world uses mindreading headsets to communicate, which already exist. Where will you stand? How far will you take technology in your life?” The comparison between what is (not very good) and what will be (better than today’s best) is a rhetorical device to postpone to some moment in the future all that is better, as if minute improvements in people’s lives now do not really matter.
5. “Transhumanism is not a political end, but a life-affirming commitment to becoming one’s best self using the help of reason, science, and technology.” The inconsistency here is the fact that the point of comparison is still a human being: one’s self. Until now, humans had ideal, albeit general views of what could constitute the best human being. This view was based on millennia of experience with religious beliefs, philosophical musings, observation of nature, and later, on education (especially humanistic education). Clearly, postmodernism did away with all this and therefore, on the surface, left the burden on the individual, to find out what s/he believes is to be the “best self”. Now logically speaking, it is impossible to do this on one’s own today, when mass media and social media bombard everyone with all kinds of things that can “better” our life. Transhumanism does not define “one’s best self”, and therefore leaves that definition without scrutiny.
6. “The transhumanist era is literally upon us. Those paralyzed and bound to wheelchairs can walk via exoskeletons. Those who have never heard sound can now hear via implants. Gun shot victims who are dead are brought back to life via suspended animation. The poverty rate is the lowest it’s ever been around the world. Science and technology are responsible for these joys and successes.” The inconsistency here is the fact that all of these technological and scientific successes and joys are born within the military applications and are driven by military needs. In other words, until the uses and applications are for the most part military, there can be no joys and successes for the general population.
7. “Yet, we spend so little of our resources on the brilliance that science can bring all of us. America still spends almost 10 times its resources on defense than on science and medical research. It spends approximately four times its resources on the prison system than on education for our kids. It spends at least 100 times its wealth on bureaucratic-inspired legal fees than on critical life extension science to keep its citizens alive.” It would seem foolish to keep citizens alive in a system which is really bent on profit, unless these citizens, living longer, can produce more profit.
8. “The Transhumanist Party will not win this election. But it can change the questions the real elected leaders will ask. That is something significant, indeed.” This statement assumes that “real elected leaders” will actually take note of transhumanism, forgetting that in 2009 the ethical questions of human enhancement were made public (http://ethics.calpoly.edu/NSF_report.pdf).

What can be concluded from Istvan’s piece? Until transhumanism gives more concrete answers to questions of education, human relations, and enhancement, especially committing to social justice, it will not gain ground with the general population. One thing is clear, though: now is the time to decide how and whether humanity can/should/must overcome its natural biological boundaries, but not in the naïve sense of “healing” (i.e. getting an artificial heart), but in the sense of going beyond the human (acquiring night vision, a set of gills, uploading one’s mind). The trouble is that no one individual has complete knowledge and the know-how of how this can be achieved: the social still wins over the individual, despite the postmodern burden on the “self” to embark on its own quest.