rivkat: Rivka as Wonder Woman (Default)
([personal profile] rivkat Aug. 19th, 2016 12:37 pm)
Rick Beyer & Elizabeth Sayles, The Ghost Army of World War II: There was a whole unit dedicated to impersonating other units, deceiving the Nazis about the forces they faced. They painted inflatable tanks, created sound recordings that mimicked a real deployment, and impersonated many other units in creating tracks in nearby towns. They may have helped win the war, though it’s hard to say. Bill Blass was one of the members; others went on to work in art and advertising.

Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality: Saler argues that elaborately worked out, internally consistent fantasy worlds are a hallmark of a particular response to modern Western culture, an attempt to unite rationality and “enchantment” or imagination in the face of disenchantment arising from the conditions of modernity. Earlier examples, like young Werther, were capable of exciting audiences over an extended period of time, but Saler argues that they didn’t involve the richly worked-out worlds that we saw by the end of the nineteenth century. The persistence of insistence that Sherlock Holmes was “real,” for example, is much lengthier and more extensive in its reach than Werther fandom. At their best, virtual worlds allow us to be delighted without being deluded. Fans in conversation with other fans can embrace contingency and difference (again, at their best)—it’s a lovely vision, and one I share, even though fandom is made of people.

The key examples here are Tolkein’s Middle Earth, Sherlock Holmesiana, and the Chthulhu mythos. And a central feature is public discourse about the worlds, attempts to work them out and figure out their implications—here generally discussed as self-conscious “nonfiction” writing about the worlds, though there are a couple of mentions of Holmes stories and Chthulhu stories not by Lovecraft. This discourse is self-consciously ironic: we talk “as if” these worlds actually existed, with “rational detachment” in support of “animistic reason” that is both knowing and passionate. This is the extended activation of imagination, not mere suspension of disbelief. It’s the public discourse that allows fans to create (imagine) a community that is coherent, if sometimes contentious, like the world itself, without lapsing into delusion. “If modernity lent itself to deterritorialization, there was a corresponding recourse to new homelands of the imagination…. [T]he turn to those worlds was often an act of fellowship, an involvement with and concern for others rather than mere escapism.” The ability to discuss worlds “as if” they existed, Saler argued, created more opportunity to imagine the real world being contingent and changeable as well, as compared to essentialist “just so” stories. Of course, these “public spheres of the imagination” were often exclusionary in practice, largely limited to white men. But they prided themselves on being able to imagine differently and being open to rational debate. The private ironic imagination, Saler contends, is less open to changing its user’s mind than one participating in public debates in letter columns.

Nonetheless, a significant chunk of the book is taken up with what Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Doyle believed, without too much of an attempt to connect that with what fans found appealing in the worlds. Saler connects Doyle’s Holmes with “art for art’s sake,” but also argues that the Holmesian aesthetic retained a nostalgic appeal because of the trappings of the nineteenth century that quickly fell away from current readers’ own life experiences. Lovecraft was a modernist in his ironic insistence that he wasn’t writing about anything real, but that he was doing so in order to tap into real feeling. (I didn’t know that his racism, or at least his anti-Semitism, receded in later life.) Tolkein attempted to rewrite myths into modernism by making them into credible narratives, grounded in something peculiarly English. That didn’t stop neo-Nazis and fascists from adopting Middle-earth: “in the 1970s, right-wing Italian extremists established summer ‘Hobbit Camps’ to indoctrinate youth, and in the 1980s the British National Front commended what they perceived as the racism of Tolkein’s works.” (They weren’t necessarily wrong, as Saler traces the evolution of Tolkein’s dwarves with his reaction to Jews.)

Tidbits: “Jess Nevins traced ‘the first truly modern crossover’ to Mary Cowden Clarke’s Kit Bam’s Adventures (1849), but examples don’t proliferate until the late nineteenth century.” [citing The Official Companion to The League of Extraordinary Gentleman] Fan political discourse has a history, with fans analyzing the Falklands War in terms of Middle-earth, and a Russian fan explaining the influence of LOTR on street protests defending Yeltsin against an attempted coup in 1991: “Western readers must understand that for us Tolkien was never any kind of ‘escape’… many people remembered Tolkien when they made barricades from trolley-buses (just like hobbits from country wains!) … chance and a willing fantasy can make miracles.”

Billy G. Smith, Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World: The Hankey carried British colonists in the late eighteenth century to the coast of Africa, where they intended to found a settlement that would prove antislavery principles by hiring African laborers rather than enslaving them, though they didn’t think of the land as already settled. That project didn’t go well, but it was on its return that the ship’s largest impact occurred, when it carried yellow fever wherever it went, including the French Carribean—assisting in Haiti’s rebellion—and Philadelphia—confirming Jefferson’s distrust of cities. A very sad story of imperial arrogance and individual persistence in misguided endeavors. Also, I appreciated the reminder that science has always been political: Hamilton resisted Benjamin Rush’s bleeding cure because it was “democratic,” which turned out to be lucky for Hamilton.

John H. McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language: McWhorter is out to dismantle the Whorfian idea that language shapes thought in any ways but the most subtle. I’m not particularly impressed by his arguments that most of the differences are matters of a few hundred milliseconds (e.g., in distinguishing colors or numbers of things), because a few hundred milliseconds can make lethal differences in some situations (e.g., deciding whether the object in a person’s hand is a gun or a wallet). However, he scores more points by noting that contrasts between languages are usually offered in a vacuum, without looking at whether other languages have similar features but not similar cultural cognition. McWhorter argues that differences such as “are there two or more words for plural ‘they’?” and “is there an identifiable future tense?” are basically accidental variations that get baked into languages for no other reason than that all languages develop frills. McWhorter acknowledges that languages differ—for one thing, languages that were imposed on lots of people by conquest tend to be simpler just because lots of people ended up learning it as adults. But in terms of shaping thought—well, Margaret Thatcher, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton are all native English speakers. It doesn’t seem to be the biggest of influences on significant thoughts.

Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: World history from the perspective of Persia and environs being, largely, the axis around which everything turns. Most of the time, Western Europe was a weird backwater as power shifted. Another lesson: all empires die; the US is doing about as much flailing as others following the same pattern. Because the story is so big, there are only broad strokes but that does give the impression of a wide stage for historical figures to play on.

John Temple, American Pain: The title is probably the most promising thing; the author leaves all the lessons for the reader to draw.  The story of one of Florida’s many, many pain clinics, handing out pain pills to anyone who asks and thus contributing to an epidemic of addiction. As with mortgage mills, most of the principals’ attention goes into making the paperwork look good, in case the feds come knocking.
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