Archive | November, 2007

Making New Friends

Good news for Joss Whedon fans: he’s finally coming back to television, with a show titled Dollhouse, about

a young woman who is literally everybody’s fantasy. She is one of a group of men and women who can be imprinted with personality packages, including memories, skills, language – even muscle memory – for different assignments. The assignments can be romantic, adventurous, outlandish, uplifting, sexual and/or very illegal. When not imprinted with a personality package, Echo and the others are basically mind-wiped, living like children in a futuristic dorm/lab dubbed the Dollhouse, with no memory of their assignments – or of much else. The show revolves around the childlike Echo’s burgeoning self-awareness ….

(More info here. Conical hat tip to William Gillis.)

Hmm, this plot sounds a lot like the “Lila” story in the first issue of Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps:


Now that’s a disturbing image.

Lila was a robot – one of a series – who was sold purportedly as a sex toy but who was actually programmed to assassinate the buyer. She seemed to be developing the beginnings of an independent personality when OMAC, who had been romantically interested in her, found out she was a robot, freaked out, and destroyed her along with all the other robots. At least that’s how I remember it – haven’t read that comic in years.

Earrings, Abortions, and A Fortiori Arguments

Tonight on the news I heard this same old argument again: “If minors need parental permission to have their ears pierced, shouldn’t they have to get parental permission in order to have an abortion?”

foetus earrings? The assumption underlying this argument is clearly that if it’s okay to require parental permission in the case of something as relatively insignificant as ear piercing, it must be even more justified to require such permission in the case of abortion – as though the case for requiring parental consent were stronger for abortion than for ear piercing.

But surely the asymmetry goes precisely the other way. I don’t know what I think about requiring parental consent for ear-piercing – I haven’t given it much thought – but clearly no great harm is done to a child when parents refuse to allow ear-piercing, and so requiring parental consent in that instance, whether justified or not, is not especially burdensome to the child. But to force an underage girl to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term can ruin her life – to say nothing of the “merely” physical pain and danger involved. In brief: preventing one’s daughter from having an abortion counts as child abuse; preventing her from getting her ears pierced does not. Hence even if requiring paternal permission in the case of ear-piercing is legitimate, requiring parental permission in the case of abortion is not.

(Of course there’s the further nasty fact that in all too many instances the father of the pregnant girl is also the father, by incestuous rape, of her foetus, in which case requiring her to get her father’s consent is especially obscene. Anti-abortion websites dismiss this argument, trumpeting the statistic that incest results in pregnancy in only about one percent of cases. Some pro-choice websites list a much higher statistic, but suppose the lower figure is correct; it seems to show an astonishing callousness to dismiss that “one percent” as a small number. If one percent of all anti-abortion activists were being thrown off Beachy Head into the English Channel and then buried, I reckon it would seem like a large enough percentage then.)

Death in Venice

On a trip this summer I picked up one of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti murder mysteries in an airport bookstore and quickly became a fan; I’ve now read the entire series (sixteen so far, with a seventeenth due out in April). Not only are they quite good generally, but I also think they’d be of particular interest to left-libertarians. Not that the author, an American expatriate living in Venice, is by any means a libertarian; I would guess that her political sympathies are broadly social-democratic. But because Leon combines traditionally leftist concerns (environmentalism, feminism, secularism, gay rights, antiracism, antimilitarism, anti-nationalism, opposition to class exploitation) with a deep skepticism about political solutions, the overall vision that emerges from her novels is relentlessly left-libertarian.

Through A Glass Darkly Venetian police commissioner Guido Brunetti is not an eccentric detective on the model of Holmes or Poirot or Columbo; he is simply a fundamentally decent man struggling to do the right thing in a corrupt world. His wife sometimes accuses him of caring more for the law than for justice, but the charge is clearly false; Brunetti cares little for the letter of the law and is indeed quite willing to bend or break it. By contrast with fictional police heroes of the Dirty Harry stripe, these bendings and breakings of the law are more often to help someone evade the clutches of what Brunetti wryly calls the “forces of order” than to broaden those forces’ grasp. When in the course of his investigations Brunetti comes across evidence of tax evasion or violation of various petty regulations, he always ignores it, identifying less with the state apparatus than with the vast informal fraternity of ordinary people trying to get on with their peaceful lives.

The grain of truth in the charge is that Brunetti has abandoned all hope of achieving justice in the large; he has seen that the system is too hopelessly corrupt for that, and so can only hope to use the tool of the law to achieve little bits of justice here and there. And even this more modest ambition is not necessarily successful. While Brunetti always solves the crime, he doesn’t always manage to apprehend the criminal, who frequently proves to be too highly placed in government, business, church, military, nobility, or Mafia to be touched. Brunetti’s chief obstacle is generally his fatuous kiss-up-kick-down supervisor, Giuseppe Patta, who tries to make sure that Brunetti’s inquiries cause no discomfort too far up the hierarchy.

In Book 13 Leon describes Brunetti’s political evolution:

In his youth Brunetti had considered himself an intensely political man. He had joined and supported a party, rejoiced in its triumphs, convinced that its accession to power would bring his country closer to social justice. His disillusionment had not been swift …. He had denied, both in word and in belief, the first accusations of dishonesty and endemic corruption against the men he had been sure would lead their nation to a bright and just future. But then he had looked at the evidence against them, not as a true believer, but as a policeman, and his certainty of their guilt had been immediate.

Since then, he had stayed clear of politics entirely, bothering to vote only because to do so set an example for his children, not because he now believed it could make any difference.

Brunetti’s quaint supposition that voting, despite being useless, sets his children a good example (of what? for what purpose?) aptly illustrates the fact that no coherent set of new political ideas has filled the place vacated by the old. As Brunetti puts it: “I don’t have any big answers, only small ideas.” Brunetti – like, one suspects, his author – is a leftist who has lost faith in the state without having acquired any faith in the market (probably, I would guess, because Leon identifies the market with the corporatist capitalism she rightly despises). Hence Leon’s novels share the left-libertarian vision of the problems, albeit not of the solutions. Leon sees no solution, and the Brunetti mysteries are consequently a model of how to live upright lives under conditions of political despair. Brunetti strives to achieve what small fragments of justice he can in his police work, while placing the core of his emotional concerns elsewhere – in his family (his wife Paola, an indignantly radical literature professor clearly modeled on Leon herself; his teenage children Chiara and Raffi, who never age despite the series’ having run for nearly two decades), and in his reading (his tastes run to Greek and Roman history; his wife prefers Henry James and Patrick O’Brian).

Incidents in Brunetti’s family life relieve the bleakness of the political landscape, as do loving explorations of Italian food and the geography – physical and cultural – of Venice. (I challenge anyone to read these books without longing to pay a visit to the Serene Republic. Given Leon’s antipathy – expressed both in the books and in interviews – toward the hordes of tourists that invade Venice annually, it’s ironic that she is nevertheless doing her part to inspire more of the same.) These digressions rarely contribute to advancing the plot, but as I’ve explained recently, I’m not a fanatical devotee of plot advancement; what matters is that the digressions contribute to the success of the story as a whole, not by pushing forward the plot of criminal investigation but by reminding us of what is really important, what deserves to be cherished amid the failures of the political.

Donna Leon While Leon uses Brunetti’s adventures as ways of vicariously expressing her rage and hopelessness concerning the Italian – and more broadly the global – political scene, there is plenty of humour in her books also. The aforementioned Giuseppe Patta, Brunetti’s pretentious asshole of a boss, provides Leon with some of her best opportunities to satirise the bureaucratic mindset; during interminable committee meetings, Brunetti and his colleagues relieve their boredom by playing surreptitious bingo, betting on which bit of bureaucratese jargon Patta will use next.

Not all the humour is political satire. Here are a couple more examples of Leon’s humour, this one from Book 11:

[H]e was even happier to see that she was reading a magazine. ‘What is it today, Signorina?’ he asked. ‘Famiglia Cristiana?’

She looked up but she did not smile. ‘No, sir, I always give that to my aunt.’

‘Is she religious?’ Brunetti inquired.

‘No, sir. She has a parakeet.’

And this one, doubtless autobiographical in inspiration, from Book 14:

The bookseller suggested they buy a heavy cardboard tube for the poster, which turned out to be a good idea, so thick was the press of people on the streets. Three or four times, bodies bumped into Brunetti with such force that an unprotected print would surely have been crushed. After the third time, Brunetti toyed with the idea of holding the cylinder at one end and using it as a club to beat their way through the crowds, but his awareness of how much at variance this would be with the Christmas spirit, to make no mention of his position as an officer of the law, prevented him from acting on that thought.

There are also passages of gratifying psychological and ethical subtlety, like this one from Book 8 relating the resolution of a conflict between Brunetti and his wife:

‘I’m sorry, Guido. I’m sorry for all the mess I’ve caused you. I do that to you and you can bring me flowers.’ She began to sob, face pressed into the soft petals of the irises …. He took them from her …. and put his arms around her. She sobbed against his chest ….He held her and rocked a bit from side to side, saying her name time and again. He had never loved her as much as at this moment. He felt a flash of vindication, then as quickly felt his face suffuse with a shame stronger than he had ever known. By force of will he pushed back all sense of right, all sense of victory, and found himself in a clean space where there was nothing but pain that his wife, the other half of his spirit, could be in such agony.

I suspect most readers don’t read the books in order – since some of the books are in print only in the U.S. and others only in Britain (though that is beginning to change, as the series gains in popularity). But it pays to read them in chronological order, because, e.g., sometimes a supporting character who is a murder suspect in one book will show up as a trusted ally in a later book, and if you read them in the wrong order you’ll know that suspect can’t be guilty and so you’ll lose some of the suspense.

Again, Dangerous Visions

1. This is supposed to be another new trailer for The Golden Compass. I don’t know whether this is the same one I linked to recently or something even newer (I’m at home with a slow connection and won’t be able to check it till tomorrow), but it should at least be bigger than that version.

The Golden Compass 2. Peter Hitchens has called Phillip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials series on which the upcoming film trilogy is based) “the most dangerous author in Britain” and charges him with having “set out to destroy Narnia” – which shows, I guess, that a tendency toward fatuously abusive, hysterical paranoia is a trait that runs in families. Both brothers seem to have a taste for issuing simplistic fatwas – just against different targets. (Plus, you’d never guess from Hitchens’ account that the novels’ chief anti-religious character, the leader of the rebellion against God, is … well, I don’t want to give too much away, but the character in question is not the shining paragon of liberal humanism that Hitchens’ distorted review would lead one to expect Pullman to offer us.)

In fact Pullman’s trilogy has as much for Christians to enjoy as C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series has for atheists to enjoy. Hitchens’ ranting is the equivalent of Christians waxing hysterical because Aquinas praised the pagan Aristotle, or atheists waxing hysterical because Rand praised the Christian Aquinas. Admittedly Pullman’s own comments on Lewis have been intemperate and unfair also. Come on, guys; if you look for value only in those with whom you agree, you’ll subsist on a pretty meager diet.

3. The director of The Golden Compass has announced a slight change from the book; to spare the SPOILER-averse I’ll discuss it in the comments section.

Marx Atomic

Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation wasn’t on economics or history or political philosophy; it was on the Greek atomists. Specifically, it was a systematic comparison of the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus.

Marx-Atomic Perhaps ironically, given his later reputation as arch-determinist and arch-materialist, Marx takes the side of Epicurus, the anti-reductionist and proponent of spontaneously swerving atoms, over the necessitarian reductionist Democritus; Epicurus makes nature active, Marx tells us, while Democritus leaves nature passive and inert. (As Marx points out, this criticism of Democritus was first made by Aristotle, and Epicurus may have formulated the doctrine of the swerve in order to rescue atomism from this Aristotelean charge.) Many of the ideas that Marx would eventually become famous for in the sphere of social philosophy he tries out here for the first time in the field of natural philosophy; hence the dissertation is an important document for the study of Marx’s intellectual development, just as Nietzsche’s early writings on the Presocratics (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks and The Pre-Platonic Philosophers) are important for understanding Nietzsche’s own thought.

But the illumination isn’t directed solely authorward. Like Nietzsche’s study of the Presocratics – and if anything even more so – Marx’s study of the atomists views the early Greek thinkers through the lens of 19th-century German philosophy, and anachronistically reads modern concerns back into the ancients. Yet, again like Nietzsche’s Marx’s discussion nevertheless sheds insightful light on the ancients and raises fascinating questions about them. Thus even if the Hegelian categories that Marx labours to impose on Epicurus won’t quite take, much of what he has to say about him is, I think, genuinely useful for classical scholars. (For example, I was intrigued by Marx’s suggestion that the atomic swerve is reproduced structurally throughout the Epicurean system, in the sage swerving away from public life, the gods swerving away from the kosmoi etc.; and I was forcefully struck by Marx’s enumeration of the respects in which the celestial bodies that Epicurus scorned mirror the properties of his beloved atoms.)

First Writings of Karl Marx So I’m pleased that the “first complete single-volume edition of Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation to appear in English” has been published. (Previously one had to dig through the 800-page first volume of Marx’s Collected Works.)

Logically this book should appeal both to readers with an interest in Marx and to readers with an interest in Greek philosophy. But the publishers seem to be marketing it solely to the first group – for the title they’ve given it is not Marx’s own title Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, nor yet the perhaps sexier Karl Marx on the Greek Atomists, but instead the topically opaque First Writings of Karl Marx – perhaps as a bait-and-switch for consumers who will buy a book on atomism only if they think it’s a book on politics. Unfortunately, this probably means that the book will fail to attract the notice of some readers who might otherwise be interested in it. (The author of the Introduction also seems to be interested in the book solely for the light it sheds on Marx and not at all for the light it might shed on the Greek atomists.)

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