Call for Academic Papers: Technology and (un)employment from the Italian perspective

CSIS Annual Conference in Ottawa (May 11-13, 2018)

 Italian Studies: Technology and (Un)employment 

Organizers: Antonio Marturano (Università Tor Vergata, Roma) and Jana Vizmuller-Zocco (York University, Toronto).

This session aims to investigate the cultural implications of technology and (un)employment from the perspective of Italian Studies. Expressions of the impact that technological advancements have on work are part and parcel of Italian culture (in films, such as Io e Caterina; in novels, for ex., of Paolo Volponi, or Francesco Verso;  in visual art: Futurismo, etc.).

Technology has come to replace human workers not only in repetitive tasks but also in more complex occupations. Technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence keep developing rapidly; the trend indicates  that no occupation or profession will be immune to technological progress. The proponents of technology extol its beneficial aspects for humanity (medical, lifestyle, etc.), and the critics propose various doomsday scenarios (general unemployment, economic divide, hopelessness, etc.). But the consensus from both sides appears to lay in increased education and re-training both to keep working, as well as keep oneself otherwise occupied.

Contributions which take account of the writings of philosophers, political thinkers, literary critics, such as Antonio Gramsci, Giorgio Agamben, Gianni Vattimo, Alberto Abbruzzese are welcome.

Topics to be explored include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Italian approaches  to technological (un)employment: educational, philosophical, social, political, economic, literary, etc.
  • Italian popular culture and technological (un)employment: film, science fiction, i gialli, music,  etc.
  • Italian Weltanschauung with regards to technological (un)employment
  • Pedagogical strategies and curricula contents vis-à-vis technological (un)employment
  • Role of Italian studies in view of reduced workload or jobless future
  • Italian (im)/(e)migration, technological change, and work
  • Italian language and technological (un)employment

 

Please submit an abstract in English or Italian and a short bio to a.marturano@gmail.com and jvzocco@yorku.ca,  by February 15, 2018.

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** CSIS Annual Conference in Ottawa (May 11-13, 2018)  http://canadiansocietyforitalianstudies.camp7.org/Conference-2018

For information on CSIS News or to post a message, please contact the List Manager, Dr Maria Laura Mosco, at csisnewslist@gmail.com

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Millennials and beyond: born to satisfy the “needs of the market economy”

dream

Youth (un)employment can be analyzed from various perspectives. Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison chose the university and college systems as their focus in Dream Factories. Why Universities Won’t Solve the Youth Job Crisis (Toronto: TAP Books, 2016,  231 pages). The book is a collaborative effort of two university professors who together have been in higher education for almost 100 years, and they have researched colleges and universities for almost that long, so their academic credentials seem to stand on a solid ground.

The book is a well-developed indictment against the inability of today’s degree-granting institutions of higher learning to provide support, instruction, and preparation for young people to find and land a job. Although concentrating on the Canadian and US higher learning systems, the book makes it clear that world-wide, the situation is woefully similar (examples are given from the universities in China, Brazil, and various European and North African countries).  According to the authors, there are three reasons for the existing enthusiasm for higher education, which, however, are not reflected in the realities of the world of work: 1) sustained evidence that a university degree produces highly beneficial results, if not for everyone, at least on average, 2) major shifts in the industrial workforce, 3) changing attitudes towards work/physical labor (pp. 41-42). Not every graduate, however, enjoys the realization of the dream: specifically, arts majors earn less than unionized heavy-duty mechanics, graduates from lesser-known or non-elite universities struggle to find jobs even if their field is finance, law, or economics, or the tech sector. Many graduates work part-time without benefits. The following reasons underpin the tragic ineffectiveness of universities and colleges:

  1. they are reticent to change their mission, which, expressed in various ways, usually means to expand the mind, improve public discourse, celebrate the world of ideas (p. 16), i.e. they are not job factories,
  2. they are very expensive businesses which rely on government funding per student, so they are forced to accept candidates irrespective of their preparation, stamina, competitiveness, and willingness to study,
  3. their status is vastly overrated by the parents’ and society’s  interpretation of the no-longer valid equation Education = Employment (or learning = earning),
  4. they were seen as the only way to riches during the post-WW2 era, especially the 1960s, but this dream no longer holds true, since “knowledge economy” replaced natural resources and industry as the foundation for national and personal prosperity (pp. 20-21),
  5. they mass-produce graduates in a way that is disconnected from the needs of the modern economy (21), so they are not responsive to the job market,
  6. they (often for-profit universities) employ unscrupulous recruitment procedures and do not inform the prospective students truthfully,
  7. they have to follow the governmental push for accessibility, so they make the point that admission is not a guarantee of graduation (admit everyone and then cull the number to a manageable level in the first year),
  8. they accept foreign students (whose tuition fees are double or more than the regular ones) who may or may not stay in the country they studied in and therefore may not contribute to that country’s prosperity,
  9. they allow credentialism to be rampant,
  10. they do not appear to correct “the serious problems with the students’ basic skills, limited curiosity, lack of commitment to studies, and disengagement from learning as a whole” (64),
  11. they pave the way for those faculty members who engage in research and publish; university administrators emphasize political correctness and sensitivity to issues of gender, class, etc.: “The struggle to reassert the primacy of college teaching is shaping up as one of the epic professional battles of the twenty-first century” (64),
  12. the “dream factories” make parents save relentlessly, force students to get into horrible amounts of debt, without any specific, concrete return on this “investment”. “This is gambling of the highest order.” (p. 79).

There are numerous other reasons for the inefficiencies and out-of-synch status of higher education, including the demise of the American Dream, the rampant inequalities, the obvious lack of drive and interest on the part of students to learn for learning’s sake, the change in the job market, off-shoring, globalization, excessive naiveté of parents, shirking of responsibilities of governments, nonexistence of the desire of excellence, and many others. Of course, a number of caveats are discussed. Firstly, there is the fact that most “elite” universities do choose the caliber of the student (for ex., Harvard accepts fewer than 7% of applicants; p. 50), and these institutions attempt to go with the market flow and support studies in technology. Secondly, the statement that graduates do eventually find jobs is misleading, since this may involve driving taxis or serve hamburgers, so statistics are not a reliable measure to support the old adage learning=earning. Thirdly, data about those who drop out with debt burdens do not appear in the glossy universities brochures.

What suggestions do Coates and Morrison offer in order to bridge the gap between the universities and job market?

The situation, though grim in general, certainly is not without hope for the individuals. Thus, as a response to the realities of twenty-first century education and work, we offer the following ideas. First, parental and youth expectations need to be reined in – not everyone is going to be a rich professional. Second, the fixation on colleges and universities as the focus for youth aspirations must be drastically reduced. Third, these institutions must be reformed to make them more responsive to public needs. And fourth, the debate about the future of youth must be reoriented away from colleges and universities toward a more realistic view of twenty-first century job creation. (p. 138)

“Responding to the needs of the economy” and “relying on market forces to reshape programs” (pp. 146-147), needing “to be responsive to job market conditions” (149) are suggestions which dramatically underscore the seemingly desired  pragmatic purpose of higher education, according to the authors. Technical education (polytechnics) is likely the one to embark on, as well as education which provides highly skilled workers.

Moreover, there are routes to avoid university education, such as applying to companies which offer ad hoc skill training, i.e. firm-specific job training, on-line accredited short courses, open to everyone irrespective of their educational level, thus by-passing university education altogether: “companies do not need colleges and universities to identify, hire, and train top-flight employees.” (160) From this perspective,then,  it behooves the modern universities to focus on the career-readiness of their graduates. The authors suggest that “it is vital that families, with young people fully engaged, pay more attention … to the evolving North American and global economy” (180). They give the example of the fact that five years ago, a career in petroleum engineering was the best way to prepare for the future; however, the prices and demand for oil collapsed, the good jobs disappeared, so that career path is not the right one for today. The same path was followed by the financial sector. “Given all this, parents and young adults have to do the best that they can to prepare themselves for future uncertainty” (182). Possible creation of job openings from today’s perspective is in the care of the elderly, blue-collar work including the trades, technology, digitalization. However,  the future is uncertain, and “the promises of degrees seemingly perfectly aligned with the modern economy often prove illusory” (186).  Words for parents:  “Prepare your children for uncertainty. … Prepare them to be future makers, not future takers” (214).

The book is of course much more comprehensive as to the woes of the higher education system and to the possibilities of making it right than can be detailed here. What follows is my critique of some of the content as well as certain assumptions which I found problematic. The whole book is built on the premise that overall, things will go on as they have been for the past 10-15 years  now: there will be governments which will function as they have been, there will be the job market which will dictate the fate of billions of people, and there will be amazing entrepreneurs who will model their behavior for young people. It is therefore understandable that Coates and Morrison can state openly that higher education institutions should provide young adults with the means to satisfy the needs of the economy. This is a troubling statement for two reasons: it assumes that humans are born to fill the needs of the market economy (!) and it does not take into account that whatever job one may hold, that job is surely to be filled sooner or later by an AI, since it is cheaper for companies to employ robots rather than humans. If the only mission of universities and colleges is to  successfully  prepare young people for a job in the market economy, this process will certainly be taken over by a smart AI which will produce robots who can fill those jobs cheaper and faster. This is, after all, at the heart of the question of the universities’ existence: what do they have to provide, to whom, and at what cost? The answers offered in the book are deceptively simple: provide a set of skills (that the market requires), provide this not to everyone, and have governments and employers pay for it. Unfortunately, the authors do not  delve into the nitty-gritty details of the manner in which this is to be achieved.

In many instances, reliable data is not quoted in order to make certain claims: it is disturbing that some notions expressed in the book lack a clear source of information. Specifically, these notions revolve around 1) the arts programs, 2)  i. children and language as well as  ii. children and averages, 3) students from wealthy backgrounds, 4) students accepted to the university but not suitable for it.

As for 1), it  is disconcerting that arts programs are seen as offering a lower quality of instruction: “Smart applicants realize that they can often apply for a low-demand program, sadly, in the arts at most institutions, and wrangle a transfer later into a high-demand offering, like business”  (51). Anyone working in the faculty of arts can vouch for the fact that certain arts disciplines are not only rigorous but also provide a measuring stick by which excellence is easily demonstrated: it’s enough to mention foreign languages, literatures and cultures in this instance.

2) i. The authors state that children of professionals “hear thirty-two million more  words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare” (70), but they never cite the source of this information. 2) ii.  It may be true that we live in an age of egregiously spoiled children (54), but to claim that “By definition, half of all children are below average ; not all of them achieve great things” (173) without citing the source of the number does not add to our understanding of the meaning of the term “average”.

3) The authors claim that “Students from wealthy backgrounds end up wealthy themselves” (70); again there is no indication of the meaning of “wealthy” or in fact how  this bears on the woes of the university.

4)  I personally have said on many occasions that 3/4 of my students should not have been accepted to the university, and my fraction is just an impressionistic figure due to my experience, so I was struck that  the authors state that  75% of enrolled students do not belong to the university. I would have loved to see who came up with this statistics and what criteria they used to come up with it. In any case, the number can simply show that not everyone is or can be made a university candidate.

The volume does not clearly state the responsibilities of the government, parents, job market for the education and future employment of young people.  Governments (partially) fund universities, but they “have surrendered educational decisions to the collective choices of high school graduates and their parents” (194), allowing these choices to be costly,  and haphazard. Parents tend to cling to the traditional idea that universities will provide a great paying job. Job markets work in unison with some elite universities but that touches only a small fraction of university students.

In conclusion, this book will surely make all readers think seriously not only about the role and value of the modern university, but also about the significance and purpose of the job market. There is no definition of “public needs” in this volume, so it is hoped that this will spark a serious and substantial discussion about whether, in fact, universities should exist. If institutions are to prepare young people for jobs, these institutions exist already, and they are the trade schools, 2-year colleges, ad hoc training schools for specific companies, various on-line degree granting courses, etc. As it is now – and this is my strong belief – students do not need to attend university to become pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, or AI researchers – they could learn all these things in less time, cheaper, and in a more focused manner. Workers in all of these jobs, however, can be and will be replaced by robots. The university should exist, but its study length should be two years, and the academic work should be devoted to those activities which humans, to keep being humans, ought to find pleasure in: access to and thinking deeply about ideas, and a fertile ground for unbridled imagination about numerous subjects and for no particular purpose. In case  the students have a job,  no job market will offer these to them, and in case they will be out of a job, they will have these to fall back onto.

 

Representations of 1. abuse of power and 2. superficiality in two recent films

The European Union Film Festival 2017 in Toronto included two films noteworthy for their effort: The Teacher and The wolf from the Royal Vineyard Street. In the first case, the effort is worthwhile; the second effort is questionable.

 

 

The Teacher (Ucitelka; Slovak Republic-Czech Republic co-production 2016; directed by Jan Hřebejk)

Setting: Middle school in Bratislava (1983-84 and 1991-92 school years): classroom events and a principal-parents meeting. Also scenes in the teacher’s and some parents’ apartments.

Plot: A teacher (widow, local chair of the Communist Party, played with naturalness and ease by Zuzana Mauréry) demands, by various means, the services of her pupils’ parents: styling her hair, fixing her fridge, baking and cooking food for her, cleaning her apartment, etc.). In return, the parents who comply with her request are told to pass on to their child the exercise he or she will be tested on so they can study and receive good grades. Students whose parents do not bow to the teacher’s requests receive failing marks no matter how hard they study. The lack of academic success of their children makes for the parents’ frustrations and abuse. Things would have evolved this way forever had it not been for the fact that one female student tried to commit suicide because her father did not agree to be the go-between the teacher and her sister living in Moscow. The girl’s parents attempt to sign a petition to have the teacher removed, and the principal calls for a general meeting with all the parents to ascertain the level of corruption and abuse of power. The meeting’s discussion (as well as the silences) demonstrate three reactions to the teacher’s behaviour: 1. fearfulness for possible repercussion if the petition is signed (social/economic: demotion from work, political: on the black list of the Communist Party, academic (children not allowed to continue their studies).  Therefore, these parents do not sign the petition. 2. support for the teacher who is deemed of high moral standing – and these parents are vehemently against signing the petition. 3. animosity against the teacher and decisiveness to sign the petition in order to set things right. Most parents fall into the first category, but after the meeting closes, they too sign the petition which successfully removes the teacher from her position, to the great sigh of relief of all the pupils. The final scene – the academic year 1991-92 after the change from socialism to “freedom” – gives us the same classroom, different students, but the same teacher, undemoted, but using the same strategy to extract help and continue her abuse of power.

Comment: A number of themes run through the film, but clearly, the most obvious is abuse of power from a teacher, who should be a paragon of virtues. Corruption runs rampant regardless of the political system one lives under, and it touches, in this case, the most vulnerable: the children who are helpless to fight against this injustice. One should never assume that teachers act morally. It must be added that those who lived under Czechoslovak socialism see in the film almost a well-made documentary of the panic fear and distress brought about by abuses in the name of political power. The feeling powerlessness against moral abuse, exploitation, corruption, as well as the mental state of loneliness since no one else wants to help, are portrayed masterfully in the film. It is true that others simply see a black satire, but a worthwhile satire nonetheless. See also https://smolka.blog.sme.sk/c/468990/ucitelka.html?ref=tit.

Noteworthy lines: at the beginning, the teacher, by way of introduction, says: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, the Russian language, and history”. And at the end, she repeats with due modifications: “I will be teaching you the Slovak language, English, religion, and ethics.”

The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street  (Vlk z Královských Vinohrad; Czech Republic 2016; directed by Jan Němec)

Settings: 1968 Cannes Film Festival, Prague 1968 Soviet Invasion, California and Long Island 1970s and 1980s, 2000s Prague

Plot: A Czech film director, nicknamed John Jan, “supported” by the socialist government, is up for the 1968 Cannes film prize, which he does not win since the festival closes early. Exhibiting the well-known cliched desires of all movie makers (fame, flashy cars, company of female escorts, champagne, rebelliousness),  he achieves some semblance of fame by documenting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and sending the film abroad (some archival footage is used). His attempts to shoot a film based on Kafka’s Metamorphoses is thwarted by the Czech military. He ends up in California shooting wedding videos, mostly views of the seascapes and couples and guests getting drunk. He asks Ivana Trump to put in a good word to her husband, not yet President; his request is denied as Mr Trump does not support movie making; but he sends John Jan a copy of his book. He has a heart attack which is “cured” by a sex session. He is taken advantage of by a young woman on Long Island. He returns to Prague by getting a special permit to “see the death of communism”. The final scenes, round images of nature in Vinohrady (now a trendy residential neighbourhood), get him back home untouched by all the experiences he lived.

Comment: What can one say about self-reflecting and autobiographical film about a director? That despite the effort by the now recognized Czech artist Jan Němec (called also “diamond in the rough”), or maybe because he passed away just before finishing the shooting, the film falls short of expectations. It is true that obtaining fame and respect is not easy. It is true that film directors love what they do. So these things do not need an autobiographical filmic representation. What is not true is that movie audiences want to see rebels everywhere and at all costs. And then, being a “rebel” nowadays, in the postmodern era, does not add much to our understanding of the world, and, above all, it does not contain the seeds of transformation of those values which, in fact, are wrong.

One tidbit I did not know: Jean-Luc Godard  was not against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

 

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/).

Memory loss, memory overdrive, and other concerns of ‘popular’ fiction

 

 

rosieproject

beforeigo

 

It would seem that, at first sight, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (HarperCollins, 2011) and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (HarperCollins, 2013) do not have any threads in common. The first novel describes a woman’s tragic and mysterious consequences of a traumatic memory loss and the second novel is a lighthearted look at an Asperger syndrome sufferer’s attempt to attain a love life. On closer inspection, however, here are some of the elements which allow for an interesting literary comparison:

  1. First person unreliable narrative. Both novels are written from the perspective of the protagonists; Christine Lucas (Before I go to Sleep) and Don Tillman (The Rosie Project). In both cases, they are unreliable narrators: Christine because she suffers from various forms of amnesia so she can narrate only those memories which she writes in her journal every day as she forgets everything while she sleeps and Don because he has Asperger syndrome and therefore his compulsiveness and obsessive logic leave out many normally significant facts. This unreliability, however, creates what could loosely be called a psychological thriller in the first case and  a lighthearted romance in the second case. Both protagonists rely on others to validate what they feel and understand of their own life. Christine has her lover and self-appointed husband as well as Dr. Nash  who supply her with descriptions or photos of past facts and actions which she then attempts to make her own. Towards the end of the novel, Christine’s best friend Claire is instrumental in saving her life.  Don has his two best friends who help him maneuver in social circumstances and who are the bouncing bags for his ideas on how to find a satisfactory partner. The unreliability of Christine’s memory means that the reader does not have steady consistent and trustworthy clues as to who it was that was responsible for her amnesia, but also who it is that is the keeper of her memories: the suspense then leads to continuous reading. The unreliability of Don’s narrative significantly adds to the unpredictable and funny resolutions of his search for a potential partner who is to “provide intellectual stimulation, share activities with, perhaps to breed with”.
  2. The role of memory. Both novels question the extent, utility, and role of memory, but the protagonists find themselves enmeshed with different definitions of what exactly memory does for them. Christine relies on her fragmented, sketchy, constantly recreated memory for the definition of her identity. Don, on the other hand, having exceptional memory, depends on his ability to recall minute details to further his search of or hold on to a possible life partner. Scientific research shows that our memories are never written in stone, but are re-elaborated, re-worked, and transforming continuously. This leaves the question open regarding whose memories are fabricated when an amnesiac is given created memories every single day. As there are almost countless novels whose plot relies on a character’s memory loss (see the list for specific examples in  https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/10996.Amnesia_and_Memory_Loss_Fiction), Christine’s plight has numerous literary precedents. In Don’s case,  his memory is nowhere near as prodigious as that of Funes in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Funes el memorioso, and therefore his situation is not tragic.
  3. Characters’ unethical behaviour. In both narrations, characters behave unethically: in Before I go to sleep, Christine’s lover and self-proclaimed husband  is not only deceitful and dishonest, but also pathologically violent. Although his love for her keeps him busy with taking care of her, this love is possessive and unnatural, as she is shielded from realities of her family life. His character, however, has not received a full treatment, so the motivation behind his violence and unethical behaviour is unexplained. In The Rosie Project, Don not only collects DNA surreptitiously but also has the samples tested without the subjects’ approval, a situation which no self-respecting institute for higher learning would ever allow. This unethical behaviour, however, is needed for the story to proceed in a certain direction.
  4. The Nature of love. Love takes on various forms and definitions in both novels. Christine’s situation is intriguing, since she does not know who she slept with when she wakes up every morning: perhaps sleeping around was her customary activity before her trauma, but that means she kept yearning for love and not being able to get it. That calls into question her marriage and her having a son: clearly, these do not need to be based on love. Her lover and self-appointed husband’s situation is every different: his love is overpowering to the point where he obsesses over her and in fact turns extremely violent against her. It is not clear what Don imagines love to be, and, being very methodical, his search for a partner involves a research project. Ironically, the woman whom he chooses does not make it on the list of prospective partners (for ex., she smokes, and he is against smokers!), indicating not only that opposites attract each other but especially that one cannot simply treat human encounters as academic projects.
  5. Pitfalls in writing the first novel. Both novelists are first-time authors, and as much as their good intentions result in readable stories, there are some stumbling blocks which detract from a thorough enjoyment of reading their creations. Firstly, Before I go to sleep is written from a woman’s perspective (an always contentious choice on the part of a male author),  but the character’s past before her trauma is not fully explained. This lack of  content makes the trauma almost unbearably judgmental: she was punished to the extreme for her marital infidelity. The feminine traits that the author proposes are petty. Even though she wrote a novel, she is an uninteresting, gray character without redeeming features, one who lets herself be controlled like a puppet even by her best friend. Her trauma only underlines these traits.*   The Rosie Project‘s protagonist is a university professor: not an original choice, but writing about academia without being stereotypical seems to be impossible.  Secondly, and more importantly, both authors (as well as countless others who write ‘popular’ novels) set their work in a vacuum: there is no sense of the general social, political, and economic environment to their stories: the protagonists’ issues are of a navel-gazing sort. Giving the characters a middle-class, pretty comfortable life lessens the impact which the narrations could have had. Fiction is not about accuracy, however, but if after having read the novel there is no answer to the question “So what?”, something really profound is missing.

*One member of our book club took it further: Christine is a perfect sex doll, as well as victim of violence. Instead of focusing on the violent man, the book focuses on the victimized woman.  Furthermore, the notoriety/popularity (?!) of the novel and the subsequent film illustrate the perpetuation of the disconnect between the act of violence/abuse and its result (so obviously put to the forefront in the news these days  on account of the abusive Hollywood bully).

Another side to Hawaii

molokai

The tension between history and fiction is realized in different ways by different authors resulting in all kinds of permutations where it is either historical facts that prevail or it is fictional narrative that overpowers history (and all the possible accounts in between). In Moloka’i (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2003),  Alan Brennert takes a tightrope walk which starts in 1892 in Honolulu and ends in 1970 in the Kalaupapa settlement on Moloka’i. The human protagonist is Rachel Aouli Kalama Utagawa, the non-human protagonist is leprosy. Rachel contracts leprosy at the age of 7; at the end of the 19th century, it is customary to separate children from parents and send the afflicted children to a leprosarium already in existence on another island, Moloka’i. The novel traces Rachel’s life story, concentrating on the manner in which her affliction develops, and also touching upon those historical facts which bring Hawaii into the political, economic, but perhaps not cultural spheres of the United States. Brennert’s desire to treat everyone fairly results in a very readable, heartfelt account of the fictional characters’ vicissitudes, but also brings with it some didactic aspects that detract from the human story.

Clearly, there is no more tragic turn to parents’ life than a severe illness of their child. The special relationship between Rachel and her father (mariner) keeps alive Rachel’s dreams of seeing the world even in the most secluded and separated leprosarium. What the daughter does not know is that her mother loves her as much but does not come and see her as she shelters another of her afflicted children whom she does not want to give up to the government’s care. Rachel needs her family support, but other than her uncle Pono who is with her at Kalaupapa (and who cannot have her live with him on account of specific regulations relating to her young age), she is left in the care of the nuns and doctors. Her situation does not make her totally hopeless: as much as the illness is scary, she participates in the life of the settlement, makes friends, marries, has a child (Ruth) whom she gives up for adoption, and opens a store with her husband, Kenji. The settlement is not a paradise (there are incidents of beatings, drunkenness, lack of good food, lack of special medicines, and there is the senseless murder of Kenji). But there are also examples of complete selflessness on the part of the doctors, nuns and priests who take care of the patients, who are also prone to human weaknesses and questioning their faith.

Rachel’s illness proceeds slowly; she is one of those patients who do not exhibit facial disfigurement although her extremities are affected. Once she is declared eligible for temporary release, she embarks on a difficult journey to locate her family and, above all, her daughter Ruth. Having lived in a secluded island, she does many things for the first time: she takes the plane, checks in a posh hotel, looks for accommodations, looks for a job. She succeeds in finding her sister and also her 32-years old daughter. The reunions illustrate the changing attitudes toward those afflicted with leprosy, since both her sister and her daughter keep in touch with Ruth after she returns to Kalaupapa because she is unable to obtain a job. Both her sister and her daughter attend Ruth’s funeral.

Ruth’s stay at Kalaupapa coincides with two momentous historical events for Hawaii: at the end of the 19th century, the peaceful but dastardly deceitful overthrow of Queen Liliu’okalani by the US Governor leading to the 1898 islands’ annexation to form a strategic asset in the war against Spain. The second is the Japanese bombing of the islands during the second world war. The US hegemonic presence of course is a two-edged sword, since it brings construction of more housing, recreational facilities, medical care, as the US health service takes over the leprosarium; but it also destroys the native way of life, the family culture, Americanizing every step of a Hawaiian’s life (from wearing shoes to using Cristian names, from abandoning native funeral rites and surfing, replaced by American ways and baseball). The author delicately weaves the US hegemonic stance and native victimization, never celebrating one over the other.

Leprosy, as the other protagonist, is a great vehicle for the exploration of human attitudes toward this affliction (ulcerous pus, maggots in dead flesh, ravaged faces, nauseating smell of sores, fingers and bones disappearing, gangrene, infections, muscle and bone pains, etc.), cultural and medical explanations of its course, psychological reactions and coping mechanisms which either make the patient stronger of make him or her more despairing. At the end, human ingenuity and steadfast desire to conquer this scourge prevail and in fact it is now a curable affliction named Hansen’s disease.

Alan Brennert succeeded in shining a strong and humane light on an aspect of Hawaiian history that few are aware of. His characters are credible and depict both human strengths and weaknesses. On the whole, human strength triumphs against all the possible adversities. Ruth comes through not as a hero, but as a person who can cope with adversity in her own way, given some help from well-meaning people. It is a great read, although some parts dwell more on the informational aspect of history than crafting the fictional account. It is clear that the author’s love of the islands and their culture shines through; it is not clear, though, whether he supports the unconditional revival of traditional native culture of the “pagan past” in the form of healing practices, retelling of myths, adopting traditional naming practices.

 

 

Captain Fantastic

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This is a great movie: from the gut reaction of shedding some tears to laughing out loud, it has us also wonder about some basic questions of parenting. Above all, this little jewel underscores the generally well-observed fact which almost no one adheres to: do not make value judgements about people and their actions, since you don’t know the whole truth. In the case of Ben, the truth is that he  made his 6 children live in the forests of the US Pacific Northwest because he wanted his wife to get better by attempting to make her lose the chains of mental illness, not because he was some type of freaky hippie.

Here are three questions-considerations stemming from some scenes in the film which made an impact on me:

  1. Is knowledge acquired from books such a bad thing?  Ben’s oldest son (Bo)  claims that he does not know anything that has not been written in a book:                                     I know nothing! I know nothing! I am a freak because of you! You made us            freaks!  And mom knew that! She understood! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!                                                                                  This is interesting, since nowadays, teachers often say  that students don’t know anything because they do not read and therefore are not appropriately familiar with any topic.  Furthermore, Ben’s 4-year old daughter knows not only what the Bill of Rights is, but she can also quote the individual amendments. Ben’s sister’s children (boys over 10) do not know what the Bill is. One could ask what the utility of knowing the Bill of Rights is while living in the wilderness. Either everything written has a value no matter where one lives (and therefore one can actually think about many, many topics and put arguments together, making one’s own mind  naturally), or nothing has a value and therefore making one’s own mind does not come easily (and one is easily persuaded). The film clearly leans on the side of usefulness of books for the cognitive growth of children, especially as the father asks the children to talk about the ideas that the book evoke (not to describe the plot).
  2. When will a “controlling” parent stop being such a parent? In the film, Leslie’s  father controls the way her body is to be disposed of,  even though it is contrary to her last wishes. What does it exactly mean when a parent/caregiver says to his/her child: “I am doing this for your own good”? Different parents have differing opinions of what this “good” means. The film attempts to give children the right to express their own “good”. In this meaning, the title of the film may be misleading.
  3. Is spirituality always connected to giving/receiving gifts? Noam Chomsky is the spiritual godhead in the film and celebrating his “birthday” means Ben’s children get gifts. Gifts which are bought in the store; therefore, the film seems to be saying that even a “wild” education falls prey to  consumerism.                                                                                                                                                                                                          One of the most entertaining  lines of the film mentions Marxists, Trotskyit, Trotskyist, and Maoist almost all in one breath, the other reflects the mother’s desire to have her body cremated according to the Buddhist tradition and then flush the ashes down the toilet.  A number of American cultural traditions and problems are either made fun of or questioned (giving some wine to children, obesity, consumerism, hypocrisy, ostentation of wealth, etc.). It would be most instructive to hear what children and young adults think of the film.  All in all, since the idea to live in wilderness as a family was not really the initial push toward this type of unconventional education, it is difficult to make judgements about it. Suffice it to say that good parenting is never just parenting: it is also (maybe above all) the relationship between the parents. The dynamics may be unpredictable (one child or more? one parent or more? religious background or atheistic or agnostic? right-leaning or left-leaning politically? etc. etc.) but in conclusion, parenting is always unwitting experimentation.