Monday, December 19, 2011

Like a Trash Can Fire in a Prison Cell: Twilight Continued

Finished Twilight? Good. Now, get on with your life.

If you insist on continuing to read, I suggest you put on your theory glasses. Because Twilightas series is a much darker and funnier story. Not for the writing, or the plot, but because of the ideas of a woman named Andrea Dworkin, who made it all clear to me.

Dworkin is not a popular name in feminist circles these days. Truthfully, she wasn't a terribly popular name even during the wave for which she's often cited as an icon. Which is the first thing to notice about Dworkin these days: she's hugely popular with people trying to discredit things. Right-wing authors cite her to discredit feminism, third-wave-or-better feminists cite her to discredit second-wavers/white women/the 80s. I, personally, have once cited her to discredit the writing on True Blood. Dworkin is versatile that way.

But the defining moment in my travels with Dworkin came in the post-script to Woman-Hating, in which she railed against the tyranny of punctuation, and claimed that punctuation was the difference between an essay read in a book, and a conversation had between people. I so rarely get to use my media studies cred to pull rank, but this was one such opportunity: paper and ink is the difference between an essay read in a book and a conversation. And if it's not good enough for you, I've got bad news for you, because Andrea Dworkin is fucking dead and not conversing with anybody.

But, like mt feelings on Twilight, this should not be read as a condemnation of Dworkin. I'm a fan. I just feel she needs to be approached as something of a mad hierophant. Living writers can do a fine job writing about what patriarchy is, how it works, and even how it feels. Dworkin writes the way patriarchy smells, the way it tastes. Because our present is only an ongoing escape from our past, and our past is darker, sicker, and scarier than most of us can imagine. We can never be so far from it that its horror won't leak through when we aren't watching.

Lunatics, like Fools, are useful to have around now and then.

In Woman-Hating, Dworkin looks at fairy tales and pornography, two rather disparate ends of the media spectrum, and essentially comes to the same conclusion about them. For the patriarchy's purposes, man exists, and is good, in a pleasantly Augustinian sort of way. Woman is the opposite of that. So, since it is good for man to be active, it is good for a woman to be passive; since it is good for a man to be bold, it is good for a woman to be timid; since it is good for a man to be awake, it is good for a woman to be unconscious. And, of course, since it's good for a man to be alive, it's good for a woman to be dead.

There are, of course, active women, who seek to gain and wield power, and go about their value-defining way. The evil queens, the evil stepmothers, witches and paganae galore. Their counterparts, to be heralded as right and true and noble, are the sleeping ones, the poisoned ones, and the dead. Men exist to fuck, kill, and eat; women exist to be raped, killed, and eaten.

Which brings us to Bella Swann.

Aside from being a whiny little shit, as is to be expected from an early-21st-century American teen, Bella seems to have quite a bit going for her when we meet her. We are told that she is, diegetically, quite smart. She is well-read, although it doesn't seem to affect her conversations very much, and we never see much of her writing. Her parents appear to be semi-literate morons, and her success is even more impressive in that light.

At school, she is presented with an established clique of people dying to be her friend. She plays it down, preferring to complain to us about her physical awkwardness. In fact, the only thing that interrupts her internal monologue of complaint is that there's a boy who doesn't seem to like her. She obsesses about this for weeks.

And we've covered that one, and it's past, and past is prologue. So let's jump ahead to the payoff: he dumps her, and she goes into a depression of horrifying mopiness, too bleak even for an emo montage. Out on the town, in an attempt to look normal again, she encounters a shady group of men she believes to be the ones who assaulted her the previous year, and, operating on instinct, walks toward them. It isn't clear why, at first; she's not trying to reclaim her violated sense of autonomy, she's not daring them to offer a repeat performance in front of witnesses. What stops her--and what inspires her to continue--is discovering that, as she intentionally walks forward into the vital prospect of pain, humiliation, and possibly death, Edward's voice pops into her head.

Clearer than in her memories.

Because the feeling of imminent destruction, especially self-destruction, reminds her of her ex-boyfriend more than all the My Morning Jacket songs in the world. She follows up this performance by buying a motorbike, which are diegetically considered to be dangerous even for people with nominal control of their arms and legs, a group that excludes Bella. Finally, Bella inaugurates New Moon's third act by throwing herself off a goddamn cliff. Alice, our friendly neighborhood psychic with pretty hair, thinks it's a suicide attempt, and is in all likelihood half-right.

New Moon opens with a discussion of Romeo and Juliet, so it's appropriate that the interaction between Bella and Edward consists of a kind of competitive suicidal ideation. Following Meyer's tradition of having about one chapter of better-than-mediocre material, there's an iteresting mediation about settling for Paris, and what that means for love, death, and superficial readings of canonical literature. Jacob, whose abs are certainly not described with the breathtaking narrative force Taylor Lautner would later give them, is basically just a trailer for Eclipse, in terms of Bella's world, but it's nice to acknowledge that it wouldn't have been impossible for him to have been a meaningful player in the present.

We move on. Edward and the Cullens are, predictably, horrified that Bella has been hanging out with werewolves. The Quileuttes are predictably horrified that Bella has been hanging out with vampires. It's too dangerous, they remind her in unison.

And the hell of it is, they're right. Even in this friendly diegetic world, vampires and werewolves are both incredibly dangerous. When Bella cuts herself at her birthday party, Jasper loses control and tries to eat her. Sam, Jacob's pack leader, is married to a woman who is missing half of her face, because he lost his temper with her once. One of Jacob's bros accidentally transforms in her presence, and only Jacob following suit seems to keep her safe.

I think all of us, at some time or another, have done things we aren't proud of in the heat of the moment. All of us have found ourselves staying a little too late at that party, having a bit too many rum-and-cokes, and saying things we don't really mean, like "I love you," or "I never want to see you again," or "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." But I don't know anyone who has ever torn anyone's face off in a fit of pique. Everyone I know who's torn someone's face off has done so with careful, sober deliberation.

Even with all the self-control that only twue wuv can bring, Bella stays physically intact--literature majors, please hold your comments until the end of the post--only be ensuring that the barely controlled supernatural forces around her are consistently in even numbers.

Bella just isn't interested unless she's got a reasonable chance of dying. And it seems she has standards as to what constitutes a good death. She's not going for some weak-ass chick-suicide like an overdose, and she's not going to butch up and borrow her father's handgun, either. No, the kind of death Bella wants, the kind of death she draws hearts around in her diary, is one in which she is beaten and broken, her soft, soft will spent against an unstoppable, relentless force of power and will and hardness. One that's both brutally fast and agonizingly slow. Bent limbs akimbo, her innermost fluids flowing out into the open air, under the watchful eyes of an impenetrable, invulnerable predator.

Conclusion to follow, in which, over a thousand pages into the series, something wet finally happens. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I think I need a cigarette.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Weak Last Gasp of the Evening's Dying Light: the fucking Twilight Post Begins

As I have probably written here before, I like bad things. So it should probably surprise nobody that I've read the entire Twilight series, and enjoyed it very much. The most difficult part, in fact, was the terror that somebody would see me reading it. To that end, I prepared a short speech explaining that, after having spent the past month immersed in Andrea Dworkin, Ayn Rand, and Graham Greene, I was entitled to read whatever silly thing I wanted, to celebrate the fact that I hadn't yet blinded myself from the sheer horror of it all.

I shall acknowledge and move past what all Twipologists claim: they're light, they're fun, they're guilty pleasures. "Guilty pleasure" is a particularly useful phrase, because at times our beloved narrators manage to evoke authentic feelings of guilt and shame. Usually these are phantom travellers carried by nostalgia. I shall 'splain.

Think, for a moment, about your adolescence. Think about the very dumbest thing you ever did. The thing you are most embarrassed about, that you can laugh at when it comes up in conversation, but that you know better than to spend a lot of time thinking about. Remember how sensible you thought you were being? Remember how noble, how strong, how brave you were? Remember how utterly apocalyptic every (saner) alternative seemed to be? Think about that frame of mind, your brain pan filling up with water, an odd yellow-filter placed over your third-person memories. Think about what a stupid, self-indulgent little shit you were.

The people in Twilight live in that place all the time.

(I assume that anyone reading this is an alien researching human civilization. If that is, in fact, the, did you ever go to the wrong place. Seriously. Go ask your thesis advisor if there's still time to pick a new topic. If you are a human who doesn't have this kind of memory of their adolescence, I wish you congratulations, and ask to subscribe to your newsletter. Finally, if you are currently an adolescent...shit, just try not to commit and violent crimes or die, ok? Good fucking luck.)

I didn't go to high school, so the dominant narratives presented to me by American popular culture are enacted by actors in their late 20s pretending to be teenagers having an experience I missed. Nonetheless, these high school narratives reliably provide some of that guilty nostalgia. Twilight is a concentrated form. If Buffy is weed and My So-Called Life is alcohol, Twilight is black tar heroin.

So, the shittier it is, the more embarrassed you are to be reading it as a more-or-less literate adult, the more fun it becomes. I don't think this qualifies as reading it ironically. I had a blast reading these books. It's just that it's the kind of blast I had watching James MacAvoy pushing a gun barrel through a man's face in Wanted.

And most of the time, the writing is sufficient to take you where you need to go. Generally, it ranges from competent to slightly-less-than, with one notable exception: the authentically interesting chase scenario that comprises the first book's third act. The trouble is, well, it's a chase. And you know what medium does chases really, really well? Film. A 2-hour film of the last third of Twilight would be one of the more interesting and ambitious vampire stories we've seen in a while. But in prose, it blurs in with the rest of the story, saddled as it is by a narrator who can't see most of the action and spends the climax unconscious. And in the film--yes, I have seen the first three, and in my defense I cite the existence of Rifftrax--it's completely wasted.

That said, Twilight could have been a lovely sprite of a novel had it ended with Edward losing control and tearing apart his one true love in a shower of blood, bone, and sinew. There's some humor in that ending, and some justice, and a sick kind of romance. Because vampires can certainly be effective stand-ins for superheroes, but their defining characteristic is that they will fucking kill you.

So ends the first post, because I'm pretty sure I should make some dinner. Stay tuned, imaginary readers, because if you share my disappointment that Edward jerked his story off its moral rails, the sequels will make your eyes bleed.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not a game you can win.

When you write almost nothing, knowing what to write about can be a tricky biscuit. Most of my daily, procrastination-assisting reading these days arrives via political blogs by liberals, feminists, and the odd liberal feminist. Media and ethics come up frequently on these blogs, because it turns out that liberals and feminists have a thing about media and ethics. Who knew?

Yet, very often, I have little of substance to say about any of these posts, beyond the occasional comment. Occasionally, the blogosphere will go into a tizzy over an issue which, on paper, seems to be exactly my area of interest, and in these cases it's usually something rather dull and obvious that inspires me to write out of a kind of spiritual vindictiveness. I generally don't get far on those topics, and try not to make the attempt.

I have worked hard, very hard, to avoid blogging about Penny Arcade. For serious.

So now I'm feeling compelled to write about the Pick-Up Artist...thing? What is it, anyway? Motivational lecture series? LARP scenario? The ads I see on filesharing sites suggest it's a practical, monetized application of CIA's MKULTRA project, but I assume this to be bullshit. Not only because, to paraphrase Morbo, HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY, but because if it were true, I'd be reading about guys raising zombie armies of girlfriend-samurai.

For some reason--by which I mean apparently offensive and poorly thought-out comments on Penny Arcade--whenever videogames come up on my daily blog roundup, PUAs usually follow; certainly, whenever PUAs come up, videogames make a quick appearance. It's part of the bouquet of the New Male thing we're working out, somewhere on the spectrum alongside Asperger's and Nice Guys. (I am too lazy to post the appropriate trademark symbol. If you want it there, get a permanent marker and apply it directly to your screen. If you're using a screen-reader, you can save time by just marking up your fingers.) Nice Guys, affable ensigns of the rape apology Federation, are a topic dear to my heart, in a "there but for the grace of God go I" sort of way, and deserve a prose exploration significantly longer than I intend this one to be. Suffice to say there a lot of young dudes out there who don't seem to be very good at dealing with people, and since mandatory military conscription is no longer in vogue, they find themselves ignoring the problem until it interferes with what we are collectively told is a God-given right to get laid.

Yes, flirting is tricky. I, personally, am utterly insensate to it: even in my seven annual minutes of being friendly and communicative, if a woman attempts to flirt or flirt back, the romantic intentions bend around me, like light around the Predator, and quietly raise the self-esteem of the guy standing behind me.

What pricks my academic ears up--my academic ears, incidentally, are smaller, more muscular appendages located near the base of my neck--is the persistent use of "game."

We have lots of games. We have the spy game, the fame game, the political game. Anything in which multiple parties with differing, potentially mutually exclusive interests has likely been likened to a game in some dusty corner of the common parlance.

(Note to self: write book of poetry, title it "some dusty corner of the common parlance.")

And let's take a look at that. As any self-respecting American knows, the CIA doesn't train spies, per se, but rather trains operatives to recruit spies on the ground. What an operative primarily does is convince people to help them. Money, patriotism, ideology, blackmail, and good old-fashioned cash payoffs: the tools of the trade when you want to convince someone to do something that is certainly in your interest, but probably a disastrous, life-ending mistake for them.

Politics, by definition, means making strategic alliances with people you don't like, because people you like even less are making strategic alliances with people they like only slightly more than you.

Fame...fuck it, I dunno. Lady Gaga seems to have a good handle on it, ask her.

So games are tricky. Games might involve compromise or deception. But the most salient thing about the pick-up game, to my reading, is Bernard Suits' claim that the defining characteristic of a game, often as opposed to "free" play, is a layer of unnecessary complication or difficulty.

To wit, a game requires an opponent of sorts. And what is the difficulty involved in...whatever the hell the PUAs are selling cheat codes for?

You want to have sex with women, right? So why all the training? Why the hilarious Soviet mind control techniques? Why the carefully employed scripts? Because they want to have sex with you, right?

Oh, wait. They don't?

Well, shit. You do have a problem then. Because, as we've currently configured the sexy sex-language landscape, if they don't want you, it's not sex. It's a sin, and a crime, and (if you're a conservative) a persistent metaphor for everything bad that happens to you ever.

And the thing is, at no point in human history is it as easy as it is now to find people who want to have sex with you. We have the internet, we have craigslist, we have (out of pocket) birth control and (sort of) legal abortion. We have fetish forums and online dating and Chat Roulette. We have speed dating and Facebook and, well, dormitories. In the Western world, young adult men and women are allowed to hang out together, in a wide variety of ways, with the most minimal outside supervision.

Working these various social affordances can be complex, of course, not the least for their sheer variety. If you want to have sex--and, being male, you're more than allowed to be open about it--finding someone who wants to have sex with you can, in fact, be rather gamelike. There's not really a problem with that. Trying to alter or conceal your personality or intentions to gain sex from someone who'd run screaming the other way if you presented yourself honestly, well, that's sort of a game too. It's just that the win condition is a valorization of the skill it took to get there, not a thing freely joined, to be appreciated in and of itself. The story of this kind of hook-up is one of triumph over adversity, and reduces the hunted to a disposable, replaceable entity.

Which is why we refer to this sort of thing as rape culture.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Surviving the Winter

Hey, kids. It's winter in the Greater Boston Area, and if you're depressed and taking care of a chronically ill person, that means you're stuck in a time loop, revisiting the narratively compelling artifacts of your more rockin' years, and, appropriately, watching a lot of Doctor Who.

(We will not, in this previously-on-Undisciplined entry, deal with Torchwood. Because, come fucking on, Davies. Scrap it, try again with Crowd Hoot or Hot Rod Cow.)

The piece de resistance, or "piece of resistance," of my current domicile is my first-run PlayStation 3. The wood-burning model. It weighs seventy pounds, gives off 5,000 BTUs, it can theoretically run Linux, and it's completely fucking irreplaceable, since Sony has apparently blinded or executed everyone who worked on it. This means that I have hardware emulation of previous PS games, in the sense of having a PS2 emulator that contains a PS1 emulator. This represents the holy grail of gaming, because now I can play games that are a decade and a half old. Because I am an idiot. (For further research, check every other entry.)

When life is stressful and the sun itself has abandoned you, the logical thing to do is to hunker down and do a Silent Hill marathon. The first game weathers the ravages of time quite competently; the resolution drop is jarring at first, especially on an HDTV, but not seeing shit is kind of the sine qua non of Silent Hill's visuals, so you get used to it pretty quickly. What does stand out is the ear-splitting, high-pitched squeal the game will occasionally emit when you use the handgun too often. Since the handgun is the only firearm with which the player is provided adequate ammo, this does change the gameplay experience significantly. Apparently this flaw is also in the PSone classic download from PSN, because Sony hates us and wants us to suffer.

The internet is less than specific about the pervasiveness of the glitch; I don't much remember it, but some people seem to have reported it while playing in PS2 emulation. It's possible the only way to play Silent Hill correctly is with an out-of-production console, in the dark, while high on mescaline.

Which raises a curious problem for games studies. Obviously, access to earlier texts is something you're going to need in any serious (or comical!) study of a medium. Literature students have libraries, the bastards, and an adorable print industry that pretends to keep the medium relevant. Film schools tend to have extensive archives, and film archiving in general is an ongoing and respected cultural project. And I hear now and then about university libraries stockpiling videogames for the apocalypse.

A problem occurs. One, are we really going to need to keep all this fucking hardware on hand forever? Does the future need GameCubes? PC emulation solves some of this, I suppose, but leaves the purists grumbling. More to the point, not everyone has the opportunity to see Othello performed between two of their English classes. We developed a workaround, providing students with the "text" of the text, and asking them to "read" the play. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I intend to be entirely unreasonable about it for the remainder of my life. The screenplay for Casablanca is not fucking Casablanca.

But what if it were? It's good enough for a citation. Similarly, if you just need to swipe some plot elements from Metal Gear Solid 2, a transcript will do nicely. But if you need mechanics, architecture, need the original game, on the original platform. In the dark. High on mescaline.

Except you don't. If we're to drop our narrative infatuations, it seems appropriate to ask where we draw the line between the text and a given performance of the text. If dialogue isn't key, spice it up or lose it. If graphics don't matter, spruce 'em up or trim 'em down. Does Silent Hill actually need low-res redraw to be Silent Hill? Can we get a better translation of the Japanese text? Can Konami hire people to write better Japanese dialogue? (The answer to this last question, as evidenced by MGS Twin Snakes, is: no.)

Preservation is obviously going to be a concern down the line, and every medium struggles with it at some level. I don't really know whether it's important to see The Great Dictator on film, or whether a digital copy is sufficient. But I also don't know where the line between "remake" and "restoration" lies for videogames.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nonary for the People

Whenever Roger Ebert pops up into the news, my little corner of the social imaginary grumbles anew about his failure to acknowledge videogames as an art form, which is apparently an important thing. In the midst of the grousing, examples are inevitably put forth, and the irritating people--in the past, we'd have called them "ludologists"--point out that the examples don't count, because they're notable for plot elements that rely on narrative (i.e. non-ludic) conventions. In short, movies are art, whereas videogames may not be, because the examples of arty videogames are actually short films. Which are art. Or they're not. I dunno.

Anyway, it's refreshing to see games that openly embrace the syncretic, and 9/9/9 identifies itself quite openly as being a mystery novel with graphic adventure "escape" scenes. It takes some getting used to, and I certainly ground my teeth a bit during the stretch between the opening escape and the four/five dilemma, but in time, and with the help of several extra-literary devices, it works very well.

Initially, the seeming sluggishness induces an odd sense of displacement, which is actually pretty appropriate, all things considered. As a player, I never seemed to see what I expected to see when I was reading about it, and the displacement faded only when I accepted that 9/9/9 really wasn't going for film as its fallback medium, but the novel. Just like it said in the damn manual.

So, it's mostly reading. The visuals are haunting, but more a series of illustrations than anything else, more for style and mood than action. As for said action, the prose is competent, and at times loving: never before have I read such a thorough description of what would happen to a human body should an explosive be detonated in his or her small intestine.

Which brings us to the plot, which is, well, spoilery, really. The genre kind of demands a lack of info. For our current purposes, it's worth mentioning the end structure. 9/9/9 has six categories of endings, if the save screen is to be believed, and when the game is completed, the player may restart with the (heaven-sent) option to speed-scroll through text already read, and with the choices already made highlighted for easy reference. The result is a system that encourages players to rapidly replay similar events, an area in which games happen to excel.

One of the few entirely unique affordances of the videogame medium is the ability to conceal rules from the player: the first goal of the game is to figure out the second goal, etc. The repetition of plot elements fits into the game's narrative very well (think Eternal Darkness), and it's genuinely unnerving when a character you find sympathetic and vulnerable kills you with an ax. It casts a strange light on your next time through the game, with the future ax-memory breeding with the previous one. And while any non-linear text of this type allows for differing futures, I'm personally unclear on whether even the past is stable: if something is true in the 5-7-1 path, can we be certain it's similarly true in 4-8-6? Even if it happened before any of us showed up on this damn boat?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Objectivist Ethics III

By now, Rand has established her categorical imperative--"survive, goddammit!"--and toward its maintenance, suggested a first principle of government:
The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence--to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.

One is here tempted to wonder where property comes from, if it is to be synonymous with human life in our political values. Elsewhere, Rand's answer is similar to Locke's: "property," the concept by which materials cannot permissibly be taken from an individual to whom it "belongs," is created when said individual mixes his labor with it. Work, mentally and bodily, creates property from gross earth.

The trouble with this conceit is that it reeks of the mysticism she so defiantly claims to reject. Nothing in the laws of nature, to which Objectivism claims to owe its origins, corresponds to property. Life and death, troublesome concepts that they are, seem to exist objectively. The empirical evidence toward this conclusion is overwhelming. We can examine plants and animals in any number of ways and determine, physically, whether or not they are alive.

We cannot do this with property. No force field surrounds my car, protecting it from thieves. A physicist examining the car would not be able to determine any essential change in the car were I to sell it while she were examining it: she would not suddenly look up, a puzzled expression on her face, and mutter,"I sense a disturbance in the force...a document changing rates getting higher..." (In this example, the physicist in question is a Star Wars fan, and the car has been sold to a 17-year-old boy in another state.)

What protects the car from thieves--so far--is not a metaphysical fact but a social agreement to establish documentation of "ownership," and to maintain a persistent threat of violence toward those who would seek to challenge the authority of said document. The car ceases to be property when the community ceases to treat it as such. Under feudalism, we are entirely comfortable saying that property is created by soldiers, and you own what you are willing to expend resources to defend. Rand seems to believe that, faced with solidifying borders, technological improvements, mass production and international trade, humans suddenly discovered an a priori law of property that had always been there, written in the very eros of our being, and that it had no relation whatsoever to that earlier, fake "property" concept that had been developing and adapting to changing conditions since prehistory.

Rand treats property as a deontological law, as brutal and uncompromising as the God of Abraham. It must be followed because it must be followed. And because it must be followed, violence that preserves the law must be morally legitimate, whereas violence that threatens the law is forbidden. Rand prefers to express this concept in the form of a mugging--"A holdup man seeks to gain a value, wealth, by killing his victim; the victim does not grow richer by killing a holdup man."

In the interest of being needlessly pedantic and snarky, I would suggest that a "holdup man" is probably hoping to avoid killing his victim, which is why he goes to the trouble of the "holdup" instead of flat-out murdering a stranger and looting their corpse. I am also unclear on whether or not it is strictly correct to call the person who kills the holdup man a "victim," given that only one of them is still breathing. Rand does herself a rhetorical favor by putting this parable in a readily recognized situation, and one that takes place in a society several orders of magnitude more complex, and interdependent, than the noble savage groove she's been rocking so far. It also conceals any essential difference between a wallet held by clothing affixed to the body and a patch of land in another country, or the right to translateFinal Fantasy V into English at some point in the future. It also makes property-defending violence perpetually secondary, despite the fact that the laws of physics give equal claim on any object to anyone. "Objectively," the mugger's seizing of the wallet is no less moral than the "owner's" decision to carry it around in the first place. The distributed threat of violence to protect the social construct, in addition to providing the mugger with an incentive to leave his victim alive in the first place, is primary. The decision that any action is forbidden, and must be deterred with violence, precedes any violence the decision might forbid.

This distinction matters because elsewhere, Rand is keen to note that slavery is not a properly "human" state, and mere survival is not sufficient to rational living. On the contrary, nearly suicidal behaviors can be considered rational if the "life" one risks is one of servitude, terror, and uncertainty. It is difficult to argue with this point, and every moral system acknowledges that there are different kinds of life, and different kinds of death, and one need not act on akrasia to choose the final death of the rebel over the living death of the slave. Rand is in agreement with nearly everyone here. She just happens to have added the caveat that this does not apply to countries with strong property laws, in which case those unable to procure "rational," "independent," "human" survival by their own ingenuity and labor are morally obligated to suffer and die, intentionally remaining in lives of danger and want, even if they could improve their long-term chances of survival by seizing the property of another. They must die, so private property can live.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Objectivist Ethics II

Previously on "The Objectivist Ethics": "an organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil."

Righto. So, surviving? Good! And here we have the first common mischaracterization of evolutionary theory we so commonly see in pop culture: that of brutal, unending competition, for survival is a goal that can afford no compromises. Which, I suppose, makes for a fine moral philosophy. The only thing that could really threaten it--and I'm going way outside the box here, so bear with me--would be the repeating failure of certain cells to reproduce perfectly, leading to an utterly unavoidable ceasing of all life functions that nobody could escape, under any circumstances, ever.

So unless the highest moral state of man is that of an invalid sucking oxygen through a mask in a state of shrieking terror as his brain function becomes ever more tenuous, there has to be more to value than the life of the individual.

Moving on, Rand pays homage to Bentham's twin sovereigns, pleasure and pain. She tells us that such sensations begin the process of developing consciousness:

Consciousness--for those living organisms which possess it--is the basic means of survival. [...] The simpler organisms, such as plants, can survive by means of their automatic physical functions. The higher organisms, such as animals and man, cannot: their needs are more complex and the range of their actions is wider. The physical functions of their bodies can perform automatically only the task of using fuel, but cannot obtain that fuel. To obtain it, the higher organisms need the faculty of consciousness. A plant can obtain its food from the soil in which it grows. An animal has to hunt for it. Man has to produce it.

But Man, it turns out, is a tricky biscuit. Because it turns out that bipedal primates can, in fact, get by quite well by hunting, assuming by "hunting" we mean "gathering and scavenging." We did so for a good long time. In fact, "hunting" itself wasn't something we were particularly good at until speech enabled us to enlarge our social circles and transmit knowledge more effectively, alongside such wonderful developments as traps, throwing weapons, and the porting of the popular "wolf" into a more consumer-friendly format. By going oddly Platonic in her tripartite "plant/animal/Man" hierarchy, Rand seems to hope we don't raise our hands and ask exactly what this Man thing is.

Homo sapiens clearly isn't sufficient, and it's unclear where exactly "producing" picks up from previous fuel-acquisition technologies. Man, the productive being, might begin with subsistence farming, or he might begin with Adam Smith's pin factory. But any sub-masculine homo sapiens is certainly capable of grabbing what he finds in his environment, even if he did not produce it. Why wouldn't he, if it helped fuel his survival? Rand and I, surprisingly, have different answers, which shall be covered in the next post, in which Rand tries to sneak a heaping pile of deontology into her theory without her audience noticing the glaring contradiction it creates.