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January 2005

A Chilling Bit from Rosemary Kennedy's Obituary

Further to the subject of ethics and parenting, the NYT obituary of Rosemary Kennedy:

In 1941, Joseph Kennedy was worried that Rosemary's mild mental retardation would lead her into situations that could damage the family's reputation, and he arranged for her to have a lobotomy. She was 23.

"Rosemary was a woman, and there was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace," Laurence Leamer wrote in his book "The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family" (Villard Books, 1994).

A Good Line

Here is good line I encountered this morning in James P. Blaylock's story Hulla Ville concerning a guy who goes to a roadside museum to buy a mummified angel. The narrator reconts a converation with the museum's proprietor:

UFOs were like ghosts, he said—one of the things people believe in and always have, even though there's no evidence of them and never has been. Which goes to show you, he said, that evidence is overrated.

Another Recommendation: How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ

And while I'm recommending things, I think I'll also push you in the direction of Joanna Russ's brilliant 1983 book How to Suppress Women's Writing which I've been thinking a lot about over the past few days. At the time of its publication, I was a student of Joanna's. Most of her students were scared of her, so I could go to her office during her office hours and spend several uninterrupted hours listening to her talk. (This was a form of paradise.)

Amazon's editorial review exerpts the essay on the book from 500 Great Books by Women:

"She didn't write it. She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. She wrote it but she had help. She wrote it but she's an anomaly. She wrote it BUT..." How to Suppress Women's Writing is a meticulously researched and humorously written "guidebook" to the many ways women and other "minorities" have been barred from producing written art. In chapters entitled "Prohibitions," "Bad Faith," "Denial of Agency," Pollution of Agency," "The Double Standard of Content," "False Categorization," "Isolation," "Anomalousness," "Lack of Models," Responses," and "Aesthetics" Joanna Russ names, defines, and illustrates those barriers to art-making we may have felt but which tend to remain unnamed and thus insolvable. With the apparent proliferation of women writers in the last decade, is this book still relevant? Ask yourself how many women you know who are trying to make art? And how many find the time, resources, and support to succeed? So long as poverty, lack of leisure, and sexism - those "powerful, informal prohibitions against committing art" - exist, How to Suppress Women's Writing remains timely.

Jessica Park

Before we leave the subject of autism, I did want to take the opportunity to plug Jessica Park's web site. Jesse is the sister of sf writer Paul Park and she is a marvellous architectural painter. You can buy her prints and paintings from the web site through her gallery, Pure Vision Arts, 114 West 17th St., New York, NY 10011.

A Helicopter & a Plane

The Equatorial Guinea coup scandal is heating up again. I was a bit disappointed with the outcome of the EQ trial because so little new information resulted. And also, even if those guys are as guilty as I think they are, I take no pleasure in watching them be sentenced to a very likely death by disease and poor prison conditions; in less than a year in jail there has already been some attrition.

But back to the fun stuff! From News 24:

'Thatcher tested helicopter'

Sir Mark Thatcher, son of Lady Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister, who is suspected of having been involved in the failed coup d'etat in Equatorial Guinea, apparently undertook a test flight himself with a helicopter that the participants in the coup had hoped to use in the planned coup.

The British daily, The Guardian, reported on Monday that Thatcher had later also deposited $275 000 in the bank account of Crause Steyl, the South African pilot who was found guilty last month on charges of contravening the South African legislation regarding mercenaries by being involved in the failed coup.

Steyl who, according to the newspaper's information, had offered to testify against Thatcher in an effort to escape a long jail sentence, allegedly told investigating officials that the former prime minister's son had been instrumental in selecting and financing the hire helicopter.

Thanks Adrian!

MEANWHILE, the Yorkshire Ranter notes that wildcat armsdealer Victor Bout has found an area with rich natural resources in which to do disaster relief:

Viktor Bout's Ilyushin 76 UN-76002, photographed loading tsunami relief supplies in Cologne on the 2nd January....

Alex has got a nice clear photo.

A Response to My Behaviorism & Autism Post

MB at Wampum responds to my post on behaviorism and autism. I did not approve MB's inital comment which she reprints in her post because of its trolling tone. The extended post is more substantive and therefore I direct your attention to it.

My question to MB is what possible relevence whether Dawson is truly autistic could have to what Dawson wrote.

UPDATE: The answer seems to be that I should f*ck off. Right busy catching flies with vinegar, those folks at Wampum are!

The universe is antagonist enough.

After a six-year debate of Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" in our magazine, The New York Review of Science Fiction, I use great caution when mentioning the story. Nonetheless, one "Dejah Thoris" writing for the Agonist invokes the story to comment on the hard-sf aspect of the tsunami disaster . I resisted the temptation to write about the wave forms as seen from satellites; my own tendency is to astheticize disaster, and I have been keeping it tightly in check. But I think she does a good job, in her short essay, of invoking that without sensationalizing.

Reading her piece reminds me of a comment by the late Hal Clement, one of the icons of hard science fiction, on why his stories had no villains. He said, "The universe is antagonist enough." In the long run, we are all dead. It is only a matter of time. That was the context of the remark, as I recall. John Clute and others have accused hard sf of a certain coldness and lack of affect. Having grown up in physics culture, I have tended to read the affect differently than Clute as a kind of compressed encoded emotional expression.

What I discovered from the years of debate over "The Cold Equations" is that the themes raised by the story produce very complex reactions and passionate argument, argument highly reminiscent of arguments raised by disasters themselves. "Thoris" does an interesting job of balancing these aspects in her examination of the relevance to the current catastrophe.

Among the various post-tsunami outbursts, there have been a certain number of right-wingers wondering how environmentalists could possibly like nature in the face of a disaster such as this. I think, here, also, hard sf has something to contribute. I think of Arthur C. Clarke's story "Transit of Earth" in which a stranded astronaut who is running out of air decides to go explore to see the wonders of the place he has sacrificed his life to reach; or Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon" in which the sun going nova is observed by the protagonists as intense light reflected by the moon; it will shortly be dawn and so presumably the protagonists will soon die. An appreciation of nature should involve an appreciation and acceptance of the laws of nature. While is some respects, hard sf is a very can-do literature, it also accepts that there are limits to what we can do.

There Are No Words

I used to be a bit of a disaster junkie -- spending days glued to CNN, reading books about disasters, etc. -- and so in grad school I once wrote a paper on responses to disasters. David and I reworked it and published it as the intruduction to the special 9/11 supplement to issue 159 of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Though there are few things about it I would change, I'm very proud of this piece. And it seems highly relevant now. I think it might help people cut each other a little more slack about their responses to the tsunami disasters. (This is not to say that we shouldn't fault Mr. My Pet Goat for being silent for three days.) So here it is. I hope you find it useful. I certainly find it useful to have written this:

Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell
There Is No Word: An Introduction

This is an independent supplement to The New York Review of Science Fiction devoted to writing primarily from the New York City and Washington, DC, areas by members of the extended sf community on or about the events of September 11, 2001.

Real life horror came so suddenly that facts overwhelmed the factive power of the media—the power to make a "true story" out of a jumble of presumed facts. Even though narratives grow up over the facts, sometimes concealing them, they are also our way of taking in what we know about historical events, especially catastrophes. We want to preserve and record what people in our community saw, did, and felt. Our intention is generally to avoid analysis, the imposition of any master narrative, and attempt to preserve a record. Because when the consensus narratives are finally in place, some of the facts will be concealed, or forgotten. We are trying to preserve the suddenness, the revelation that somebody tried to kill us, not much caring which of us, and is still trying.

To a calamity, a disaster, a catastrophe, an apocalypse, a range of responses are possible. The old-fashioned religious response is cast in the terms of moral allegory, deriving its form from the Biblical account of God’s destruction of the cities of the plain:
San Francisco was a wicked city in 1906, and there were those who said after the disaster that it had only got what it deserved. The news was greeted in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for example, with a celebration that included a brass band. They’d known it was coming, those Flying Rollers of the House of David announced. Not only had they known it, they were responsible for it. They’d sent their missionary Mary McDermitt, out there to convert the heathens of San Francisco, and while she preached in the streets, San Franciscans had gone about their merry way, ignoring her. That was too much for Mary, and using powers possessed by any prophet of the Flying Roller sect, she had called down an earthquake upon them. It had better be a lesson to San Francisco, Prince Benjamin, the patriarch of the sect, thundered. There wouldn’t be much time because the world was going to end in 1916." (The Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1906, page 3).

There is also the aesthetic response, cast in terms of romantic melodrama in which the event is raised to a level of sublimity, equally composed of horror, wonder, and intense emotional involvement; and the psychological, blaming the victims of the misfortune for having the poor judgement to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the rationalist, subsuming the event in a universal scientific system of causes and effects.

The terms "calamity," "disaster," "catastrophe," and "apocalypse" have distinct connotations. "Calamity" places emphasis on one’s emotional response to a misfortune. "Disaster" is astrological in origin and means, literally, ill-starred. It pertains to sudden and extraordinary misfortune. Thus disaster entails the notion of fate and cosmic causality. "Catastrophe" pertains to the denouement in drama, an "overturning of the order or system of things," and to the geological—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and such. "Apocalypse," frequently used to pertain to the end of the world actually has a broader meaning. Certainly it can refer to the Revelation of St. John the Divine, but it also has another, more abstract, meaning that will prove particularly useful here: anything viewed as a revelation, a disclosure.

These terms form a hierarchy. Calamity relates only to the feelings of its victims, neither giving nor implying explanation. Disaster allows for cause and effect, but the causes are divine, in the stars, not subject to human intervention. In the word catastrophe, we find the invention of the story of an event and the event itself inextricably intertwined. There is a battle for authorship between the story teller and God. Apocalypse is the prediction of or the revealing of the event, not the event itself. We have increasing amounts of predictive data which, one expects, will far outstrip our ability to prevent. The more information we have, the less like calamity and the more apocalyptic the true tales of extreme misfortune will become.

The contemporary discourse of disaster takes a variety of forms, removed by varying degree from the event itself: direct experience; word of mouth—both eyewitness reports and those which are second, third, fourth hand; newspapers; web sites; radio; television; film; photography; science; popular songs and ballads; fiction; poetry; law; and insurance.

The emotional state of eyewitnesses as they recount their experiences may range from extreme excitement to clinical detachment, or combine both. In the discourse of disaster, clinical detachment is not a reliable indicator of objectivity of information and observation. While today we tend to put greater faith in information conveyed with the flat affect of clinical detachment, even in its most literal origins—the clinic—clinical detachment has a rather problematic psychological history. Clinical detachment is a state beyond the range of ordinary emotions. Clinical detachment is acceptable to us for its usefulness in eliminating extremes of subjectivity, not because of its superior moral status; the detached authoritative observer approaches the subject at hand with meditative objectivity that cancels out the moral as well as the sublime responses to disaster. Emotion in subtly buried. But in disaster narratives, especially eyewitness accounts, a usually authoritative and objective observer is as much at the mercy of large forces as any other victim, and loses both authority and the distance necessary for objectivity to the disaster no matter how it distorts the actual disaster. The point we make is that no individual account is privileged.

Cheerful affect cannot conceal the effect of horrific wonder generated by so many visual images of destruction. Nor can flattened affect. The devastation, the cityscape becomes a landscape that speaks for itself. We were saturated with it, immediately after it occurs, from any part of the world. What we know is a concatenation of facts and details which can be assembled in many ways, given the force of narrative. Emotionally, this publication is an attempt to raise the reader’s consciousness through a sincere sensationalism and by giving the reader characters to identify with.

Unlike pre-World War I disasters in which all events for bad or good were seen as part of God’s design, events since the two World Wars, and especially since television became the average citizen’s pre-eminent source of information, have become fragmented, without causality, and take on, through repetition of viewing a flat aspect in which the destruction of the three skyscrapers in the World Trade Center and the portion of the Pentagon, with the sound turned down, becomes indistinguishable from a Hollywood disaster film. Disaster becomes commodification and at the same time, with increasing amounts of information about the event both beforehand and revealed through the events, it becomes more like an apocalypse: what seemed paranoid nonsense becomes sense. And if this is possible, then anything, the denied, the repressed, becomes possible. This forces something like what people mean when they say the September 11th calamities are the death of irony, or the death of postmodernism. Meaning must be constructed, sometimes prematurely; everyone’s great issues are raised, sometimes ridiculously. We use what tools we have.

There are no words yet for what happened here. As a term, terrorism, the use of terror to intimidate or subjugate, coined to describe the acts that caused that part of the French Revolution called The Terror, barely scratches the surface: That we are terrified seems insignificant in the face of the larger goals of these people. Search the dictionary in vain for a verb that means, "(1) to kill indiscriminately with the intention to inspire genocidal rage against oneself and one’s countrymen; (2) to die in the attempt to cause the use of weapons of mass destruction against one’s own people and home for the purposes of attaining salvation and heavenly rewards." And where can we find terms for large-scale, purely man-made misfortunes, deliberate acts, partaking not at all of either the forces of nature or divine will? There are no words. Adequate words are needed, but will come only from confronting raw facts.

So we present not the whole story but a variety of personal experiences of the day and the places and the events. Bear with the first reactions, which are almost uniformly flattened in affect, and read on to find out what it was like. Lest we forget.

Irritable People

This morning I'm finding that some of the more interesting tsunami-related blog readings are the posts of irritable people, people losing their cool over how others are reacting to the tsunami. Here are a couple of examples.

This young lady is having a hard time with small talk because everything seems so insignificant in the face of disaster. She gets a bit lost in a selfabsorbed hall of mirrors thinking about this and then wonders if she might be a shallow person. I think she's too hard on herself. Her first post on the tsunami, about being in a boat in the South China Sea at the time of the earthquake, is also worth reading.

A guy named George at Exile seems to have been watching too much CNN which is simultaneously making him feel helpless and upset. He's decided that this kind of TV is a form of pornography: tsunami porn. Interestingly the theme of voyeurism also emerged from an eye-witness account:

She lies there, brown and faceless, flies all over her. Am I a voyeur because I notice the swell of a breast on this pitiful form and know she was a woman? The earth mover lifts her gently but she slides off at the last moment because the nets she is tangled in pull her back. Happens twice then she slides into her grave.

The most gossipy of the bunch is The Diplomad, a group blog by Republican career Foreign Service Officers who seem to be trying to make the case (anonymously and giving few specifics about their own work) that the US is doing all the distaster relief while the UN sits on its hands. An interesting read, best served with a grain of salt. What I find most interesting is the emotional tone. Also, note that these collectively Foreign Service guys didn't think the disaster was worth mentioning until December 30th.

And finally there is the completely insane response that Josh Marshall notes from the The Ayn Rand Institute's David Holcberg who claims the US government shouldn't give any money for disaster relief.

UPDATE: Speaking of irritable people, since I don't usually read these blogs, I had completely missed the controversy over disaster tourism at Reason and Instapundit.