PhD Exams, 2 Down, 1 to Go

I completed my second PhD exam today, which was on postmodern theory and poststructuralism. I have a good feeling about it, and I’m ready to tackle the final exam on Philip K. Dick’s works on Monday.

My wrists are doing much better than they were on Tuesday, because I sat up with better posture and kept my wrists from resting on the desk. However, my back now hurts from using good posture. I better do some crunches over the weekend and improve my core strength!

Yufang kept me supplied with coffee and lemon cake: that and love went an awfully long way toward getting me through the exam. I received the postcard pictured above in the mail yesterday from a certain someone . . .

Reading List for PhD Minor Exam in Postmodern Theory

In June 2010, I will take my three PhD exams in the Kent State University English Literature PhD program.  For these exams, I convened a committee of trusted professors, each administering one exam. I choose to take my exams in these areas: 20th Century American Literature (administered by Kevin Floyd), Postmodern Theory (administered by Tammy Clewell), and the Philip K. Dick Canon (administered by Donald “Mack” Hassler). Below, I have included my Postmodern Theory reading list. Go here to read my 20th century American literature exam list, and here to read my Philip K. Dick exam list.

PhD Minor Exam Area:  Postmodern Theory

Director:  Tammy Clewell

Texts:

  1. Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation.
  2. Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.
  3. Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern:  A History.
  4. Broderick, Damien. Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction.
  5. Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity:  The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction.
  6. Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter.
  7. de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life.
  8. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus:  Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
  9. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology.
  10. Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism.
  11. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1:  An Introduction.
  12. Habermas, Jürgen.  “Modernity: An Incomplete Project.”
  13. Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience.
  14. —. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
  15. Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity.
  16. Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn.
  17. Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.
  18. Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide.
  19. Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction.
  20. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism:  Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
  21. —. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.
  22. Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern.
  23. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge.
  24. McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction.
  25. Norris, Christopher. What’s Wrong with Postmodernism?
  26. Perryman, Mark ed. Altered States: Postmodernism, Politics, Culture.
  27. Poster, Mark. The Information Subject.
  28. Vattimo, Gianni. The Transparent Society.
  29. Wilde, Alan. Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination

Nay to the Naysayers: Avatar, Credit, and Intertextuality

Even now, months after its premier and its loss for Best Picture at the Oscars, there are still folks online who won’t stop nitpicking Avatar’s ‘sources.’ This in and of itself isn’t that big of a deal. It is important work to uncover the intertextual sources of works of art, including Avatar. It is a necessary and significant contribution to map out the network within which Avatar and other works are situated as well as consider the influences exerted by and on the work within the ever shifting lines of connection. However, what I take issue with is that so many folk frame Cameron’s work in terms of stealing and plagiarism. I have read it on listservs and Facebook, and Google helpfully suggested “Avatar steals plot.” Cameron has a gift, like many other gifted science fiction authors, to synthesize and pull together disparate ideas from culture and merge them into a cohesive work that has a wide audience appeal. Avatar is his latest foray into the science fiction field, and it is by far his most successful attempt at doing so.

Avatar includes themes of cultural imperialism, white man’s burden, and economic exploitation. It brings in ideas from other science fiction including waldo bodies, or remotely controlled organic bodies. He attempts to rationalize the Gaia hypothesis. The alien protagonists have accents, they seem stereotypically Native American-like (they wear feathers with an unknown origin–there was one point in the film I believe I saw a flock of birds escaping from a tree, but I do not know if they had what appear to be feathers), and they have a world consciousness/awareness. And yes, they are blue, as are many other fictional depictions of extraterrestrial life.

Simply put, Cameron knows how to dip into what Damien Broderick calls the mega-text of science fiction. The mega-text, an idea Broderick himself borrows from Christine Brooke-Rose, is a corpus of ideas, terms, and usages that authors within a particular genre evoke, use, repurpose, and disseminate through their works. The cool thing about the mega-text is that for those people who read widely within a given genre, they will eventually learn the mega-text and better understand its employment in a given text without the necessity of too much further explanation. Samuel R. Delany has also written on this subject. For example, my earlier use of the word waldo would, for many, tell them that this is some kind of remotely controlled technology that mirrors the body or its functions in some way. The word, originally used in this context by Heinlein, was appropriated by others to convey the same idea, because readers of science fiction already knew what the word meant from Heinlein’s usage. Furthermore, the popularity of Heinlein’s work and the linguistic concision of the word probably also played a part in its adoption into the shared science fiction mega-text.

Cameron’s Avatar shared in and gives back to this mega-text. Harlan Ellison aside, many authors and readers accept this circulation of ideas within science fiction. The mega-text could be said to be an ancillary or reductive idea from the bigger idea of intertextuality. This is the connections between works and history that has a long history, but has reached a high level of discussion in discussions of postmodernism.

As Linda Hutcheon points out in her book The Poetics of Postmodernism, intertextuality is something that has always been with us. I believe it is something tied to language and writing alike, because communication necessitates a common understanding, and one aspect of that understanding is the conveyance, repetition, and memory of stories and concepts that go beyond the singular signified/signifier relationship. Language is intertextual, and our stories carry forth this intertextuality, too. But what makes postmodern intertextuality different from earlier forms of intertextuality? Postmodern intertextuality is the ironic twist, the challenging of the earlier citation, the questioning of the carried-over idea.

Avatar is, I believe, a postmodern science fiction film in that it appropriates ideas and stories from other texts and situates them with an ironic turn. First, there is the irony of the needed element for space travel–Unobtainium. Interestingly, this is something that falls on deaf ears for many non-science fiction reading or watching friends of mine. However, I believe it is the subtle way in which Cameron introduces this to the audience that it works for the audience as a believable macguffin despite the name. So, the Unobtainium creates the framing irony for the entire film–the thing humanity wants, but ultimately cannot have.

A second irony is Jake’s Na’vi avatar body. As a paraplegic, he cannot use his legs, and the only way he can once again enjoy the sensation of walking is by the amazing technological intervention of the avatar technology. Despite the high cost of getting his legs working again in what he describes as a dire economy, he is lucky in a sense to get to take his twin brother’s place on the avatar project.

And a third irony, which I will conclude this post with, considers Poul Anderson’s formulation of avatar technology in “Call Me Joe.” The first hit in Google for “Avatar steals plot” is a reference to this story, which is about a crabby disabled man who explores the surface of Jupiter with an organically created and remotely controlled body. Over time, the human man’s brain atrophies while his ‘mind’ transfers into his body that is capable of living in the unfriendly for human environment of Jove. This does bear striking similarities with Jake Sully in Avatar, but there are ironic twists to this ‘going native’ story. The first is motivation. Anderson’s waldo driving character is fed-up with humanity and his disability. Jake Sully in Avatar has no ties to others, but he isn’t escapist like Anderson’s character. Instead, he, from the very beginning on Pandora, demonstrates an awareness and wonder at the things he sees and the sensations that he feels both in his human body and while inhabiting his Na’vi body. Jake seeks personal and spiritual fulfillment, something that Pandora and the Na’vi offer him and he fights to retain from his human masters. Jake doesn’t wish to escape his bounds, instead he seeks a meaning to his life through responsibility to a people undeserving of humanity’s exploitation of their planet. The irony for the audience is that Jake, of Clan Jarhead, is more than the stereotypical grunt (something explored in Cameron’s Aliens). Jake’s enjoyment of the process of becoming one of the people and his attraction to Neytiri causes him to loose sight of his original mission and the impending danger to the Na’vi and his life among them. He becomes part not only of an alien being in an alien environment (as Anderson’s character does), but also of a social network, a family, a people, an interconnected system of life that spans Pandora. This is the challenge that Cameron brings to what may be an inspirational story by Anderson–the difference between the lone warrior from the pulps into a contemporary growing awareness (or re-awareness) of the interconnectedness of all life and our social structures.

Cameron didn’t rip off Anderson or anyone else in developing his script for Avatar. There were important transformations to his mega-text derived ideas, and he challenged some of their earlier uses. He took good ideas that have been in circulation for awhile and turned them in significant ways and he did it in such a way that a lot of people were able to connect to his story in ways that people didn’t connect or even know about Anderson’s mid-century story.

So please, let’s move along to more important matters such as the cultural implications of Avatar. What does Avatar add to the mega-text, and what are its cultural implications? What are people walking away from the theaters with? Is it changing their attitudes to imperialism and exploitation, or is it instilling in them a desire to leave Earth for Pandora via Poul Anderson’s escapism?

Read more about Avatar on the official website here, wikipedia article on the film here, and the post-zero about Anderson’s possible influence on the film here.

Hans Bertens’ The Idea of the Postmodern: A History

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“Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say, ‘yes!'”–Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters

“Jason, when someone asks you if you know pomo, you say, ‘yes!'”-Not Hans Bertens

Well, nothing really funny happened while I was reading postmodern theory, but I did have a small epiphany when I finished reading Hans Bertens’ superb history of postmodern theory. I realized that I should have read this book at the beginning of the Summer when I was reading other postmodern theory. Bertens lays out the major arguments, he charts the connections and conversations, and he comes down pragmatically on who is important and whose time has past in regard to the major debates. I feel very foolish for not starting with a broad overview of the field, and it is probably due to my attempt at working through the conversation beginning with Ihab Hassan that I decided to turn to a history of the discourse rather than continuing the way that I was.

So, the bottom line is that you should begin with Bertens if you’re easing your way into postmodern theory. It will save you some time and help you be more strategic with your reading.

NASA and the Postmodern

Yesterday, I picked up my Grandpa Gerald’s wedding ring from Kent Jeweler’s after it was resized. In preparation for wearing a ring all the time, which I am not accustomed to, I am wearing my high school class ring.

Why am I doing this? It’s something that I’ve learned from NASA and their preparation for human space exploration. NASA scientists and engineers realize that humans may react in unexpected or unanticipated ways when presented by unexpected experiences. In order to prepare astronauts for space travel, NASA subject astronauts to the sensations of rocket launches, operating equipment under duress, and atmospheric reentry. These simulations were originally copies without an original. They were extrapolations, approximations. So the first Americans in space already had an idea of what it would be like. Likewise, the first astronauts to visit the Moon, said it was just like what they saw in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The real was preceded by the copy, the representation. Thus, NASA, and manned space exploration in general via science fictional representations, are buttressed on the postmodern. Is it possible for someone to experience outer space without the taint of these simulations? I don’t believe that it is necessary for this to happen, but I do contend that we should be aware of these influences on our experience and the way it influences our subjective experience.

Does all of this also mean that our wedding will be postmodern? No. In a mundane way, I am merely acclimating myself to having a ring on my hand, because in the past, wearing a ring distracted me while typing (as it is now, but not to as great an extent as it did when I first began wearing it again).

ICFA 2009, Science Fiction, Space/Time, and Postmodernity Panel

Surprisingly, I woke up in time this morning to visit Starbucks for coffee and a piece of lemon loaf, return to my room for a shower, and arrive just in time for the 8:30am panel on SF, Space/Time, and Postmodernity.  David M. Higgins moderated the panel, which included Veronica Hollinger, DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, Megan Bygness, Neil Easterbrook, and Patricia Melzer.

Veronica, who I last spoke with last year as I was preparing for my fourteen hour drive back from the Science Fiction Research Association meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, devoted her opening statement to the growing crisis of representation in SF signaled by the unknowability of the future following the technologically transformative singularity or what some call the “spike” or the “rapture of the nerds.”  If, as some writers, critics, technologists, engineers, and scientists imply, the singularity takes place, then the world following the asymptotic leap will result in a radical change to human history that makes logical extrapolation (the hallmark of many SF definitions) impossible.  We will encounter what Vernor Vinge calls “the unknowable soon,” and any imaginative thought about what that future might be like is devoid of an understanding of how complete the change the singularity will constitute.  It is this point that I think may be the only knowable element of the singularity event.  

Dewitt, who made this his first ICFA visit, discussed the political potential of postmodern decenteredness, and how that decenteredness may be more desirable than modern positivist assumptions about progressive metanarratives.  He pointed toward political hope in a lack of center, because an unbounded world with no privileged center means that we need not be apprehensive of the past or future in constructing a better world.  Additionally, he said that we are bounded by space/time in the sense of our movements within the world and by the fact of our birth and death.  Furthermore, we believe that we know the end of the universe with mathematics and cosmological theory.  However, the real interesting and complicated bit was when he brought in Fred Hoyle’s steady state theory of the universe to discuss postmodernity.  During the q&a, he noted that the relationship between physical theory (i.e., relativity and total decentering) and the social world is problematic for talking about the social and political.  

Neil, who recently won SFRA’s Clareson Award (check), shared some thoughts on Mark Curie’s About Time, which concerns the concept of time embedded in narrative (something that might be useful for A.P.’s paper on time in fantasyland).  The three key concepts that he mentioned were David Harvey’s idea of space/time compression in the postmodern world, postmodern style and “accelerated recontextualization,” and “archive fever,” or the frenzied archiving of contemporary social life–the anticipating the future and storing it in the past.  It is the last concept that Neil found most interesting, because it is something that we see all around us with the way people (myself included) continually document the present for preservation in the past, or as Derrida wrote about it Archive Fever (which is actually about Freud), “domesticating topologies of the future.” 

Patricia, who I joined along with a bunch of other great folks for lunch the other day, talked about the queering of time and mentioned works including Edelman’s No Future and Halberstam’s A Queer Time and Place.  The important question here is how can we resist heteronormativity’s structuring of the future?  She asked, “can SF offer anything to queer time, or should we all go to the bathhouse?”  No one in the audience could come up with an example of SF that properly engaged queer time.  The closest that I could imagine while sitting there was Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” because the male pilot chooses to kill the young girl (the image of the child in Edelman’s work).  However, the pilot does this to save the lives of colonists (I don’t have a copy of the story with me now–were these miners or colonists?  Are the genders of the people on the planet mentioned?  An all male group would skew how this is interpreted).  The consensus was that we should all go to the bathhouse.

Megan wanted to engage the audience with a discussion of time in contemporary television–namely, Lost.  Unfortunately, very few audience members regularly watch that program.  She did mention the double narrative streams (on the island vs. flashback), and the time consumed in ancillary texts (logs, puzzles with hidden maps, etc.) meant to allow one to better understand the show on television.

Toward the end of the panel, I asked Veronica about her thoughts on Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University (SU), which provoked some comments from the entire panel regarding the relationship between capital, technological innovation, and the singularity.  I’ve been interested in the impetus for SU, because I noticed in the online pre-application and follow-up application there is an emphasis on “leadership.”  I wonder if their idea of the singularity is one that can be controlled by capital and the market–leaders of industry or innovation, perhaps.  Or, it may be their belief that leaders may take us to the threshold and then what–take us through, push us over, or throw us off?  If the singularity is a profound and incomprehensible shift in the world and humanity’s place in the world, I’m not necessarily sure that I want the kinds of “leaders” that may be enlisted for SU.  Time, of course, will tell.

Carter Kaplan’s Tally-Ho, Cornelius!

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to read Carter Kaplan’s new novel, Tally-Ho, Cornelius!  However, I intend to do so as soon as the semester wraps-up, because it sounds like an interesting postmodern tale with characters and names borrowed–with permission–from Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius Quartet.  Also, it should be noted that Kaplan is a rara avis–an academic and SF author.  Here’s the blurb about his novel:

Jerry Cornelius comes back to life as a most improbable Anglican theologian in this lively tale of love, God’s will and the New World Order. Set against the pulsing background of New York City rebuilding at the dawn of our young and uncertain century, this happy and charming novel bubbles over with the myths and ambitions that feed the hallucinating classes as they compete with each other and make love, very often to vague purposes and with only figurative ends in sight. Jerry Cornelius is our affliction and our respite. Michael Moorcock writes, “Rev. Dr. Jerry Cornelius remains an enigmatic and at the same time wholly transparent figure amongst modern media brands, at once instantly recognizable and invisible.”

Visit the author’s blog here, or buy the book on Amazon here.