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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Raised Vulcan Eyebrows and Hopeless Human Hopes

Prologue: Vulcan Wannabe

Kol-Ut-Shan: "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" -- Vulcan Precept

I've been an sf geek for as long as I can remember. The planet Dune mattered far more to me as a kid than Jeffersonville, Indiana did (or, for your information, Middle Earth), and the identification I felt with Meg in Madeleine L'Engle's books was like a shard of glass in my chest for a decade (would I find my Calvin?), but few things spoke to me more deeply than Spock in ST re-runs Sunday mornings before I had to go to Mass. Later, in high school I read and loved Middlemarch, War and Peace, Leaves of Grass, To Kill a Mockingbird through a kind of weird Wannabe Vulcan lens.

The ongoing elaboration of Vulcan lifeways and philosophy in subsequent ST series and films has been a triumph in popular sf, proving that the gravity well of the lowest common denominator doesn't have to take everything that seems the least bit original, fine, interesting, or good and sentimentalize it and dumb it down over time into the same insipid vulgar falsified crap as everything else according to some inexplicable inextricable law.

I have heard some people declare that the Vulcans were in some sense inspired by the popularity of the Ayn Rand cult of Might and Magical Thinking Mistaken for Reason, but of course Randroidal market fundamentalism and sociopathy is the farthest imaginable thing from Vulcan good sense and generosity of spirit.

Anyway, I always thought Vulcans were seriously sexy, not to mention also model progressives (part of what makes them so sexy of course), and they certainly always seemed compelling both because they were so worthy of emulation and at once so palpably nonidealized.

Part One: The Vulcan Contradiction

LEO: Doesn't the eye of Heaven mean anything to you? GILDA: Only when it winks. --Noel Coward, Design for Living

Charlie Jane Anders posted a marvelous paean to Vulcan lifeways that really spoke to the Vulcan Wannabe I've nurtured in my breast since I was a kid. The article contains links to Vulcan proverbs and philosophy that can swallow an afternoon. Indeed, contemplating the richness of the literary figure of the Vulcan did more than send me down memory lane. I found myself thinking quite a bit about a particular observation in the Anders piece: "Vulcans have something most made-up races can only dream of: a central contradiction that's ultra-compelling. They're overflowing cauldrons of passion, who have mastered their emotions to such a high degree they appear almost robotic."

The first thing I guess I would want to say is that Vulcans have never appeared robotic to me in the least, indeed they have always spoken to me both in the irony of their dry humor and in the earnestness of their aspiration to radical empathy as exemplars of humanity and humaneness. After all, to be human is far more a quandary than a surety. Who could glimpse that raised eyebrow and doubt that Vulcans have both a head and a heart, and that both are in the right place? I can't do the eyebrow thing myself, but if I may be permitted some artistic license I suspect that my own soul is something like the Emersonian eyeball but with one permanently raised Vulcan eyebrow on top.

Einstein famously declared that "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." I always wished that Spock would have been more fond of that chestnut than Sherlock Holmes' "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" (that an error-prone being with a comparatively brief life-span could be counted upon to eliminate the impossible has always seemed to me a manic and narcissistic cocaine fantasy if ever I heard one). In part because Vulcan characters do say such things from time to time, it is easy to misread Vulcan logic as Leonard McCoy mistakenly tends to do, as an engine of endless delusive rationalizations and deranging repressions, but I agree with Anders' eventual point that Vulcan logic is actually directed to the service of an appreciation and facilitation of life and of diversity which suggests that something is afoot in the Vulcan spiritual practice of logic far more compelling than, say, simply the sublimation of anti-social impulses.

I want to propose three ways in which the Vulcan Contradiction is not compelling so much because it is a fascinating alien spectacle as because it connects us to our own. The first two are familiar and rather quotidian but the third will take me from sf's great gift to me in childhood -- my formative fascination with Vulcans -- to sf's great gift to me in adulthood, Octavia Butler.

The first of these that I would point out is that in my view the ethos of democratization and social justice (both definitively Vulcan notions) demand an ongoing renegotiation in the face of changing circumstances and stakeholder demands between the value of equity and the value of diversity: Lose sight of the democratic value of diversity and the pursuit of equity polices conformity, lose sight of the democratic value of equity and the celebration of diversity justifies and facilitates exploitation. Another way of putting the same point: Provide equity and you can be sure that a diversity of human lifeways and personal perfections will follow, just as problems for and challenges to the provision of equity will follow from the play of that diversity in the world. Many quandaries of Vulcan logic depicted in ST derive from (not to mention respond to) this contradiction, or as I would prefer to put it, this paradoxical dynamic at the heart of the democratic ethos, which makes the Vulcan Contradiction our own (or at any rate that of the best among us, or that of the best within us).

The second thing I would point out is that our personal and collective agency (a word that describes our ability to accomplish ends and make sense of events) demand an ongoing renegotiation in the face of failure, that success is tied to failure far more deeply than the will will ever admit of. Language speaks us quite as profoundly as we speak it, and certainly we did not individually choose to speak the language through which we become individuals who value choosing as we do. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," wrote John Lennon. We do not choose the circumstances that impinge upon our lives and force the decisions out of which our private perfections emerge: it is not so much that we are obligated by the cry of the drowning man to save his life as that we had no part in putting the drowning man in our path just as we have no power to elude becoming in response to his cry the person who saved him or the person who did not, with all that this decision entails for the one who made it. It is precisely because we respond to the world that we are responsible beings, not because we are signatories to a social contract that establishes terms in the abstract in which we will deal with the world.

Rationality demands that we grasp these ineradicable and enabling conditions, not that we indulge in fantasies of delusive control over a world in which we are thrown and hence can relate to through one another in rational ways. It is precisely because our moral identifications are partial, multiple, and changeable that we are compelled toward the provisional universality of ethics and culture out of the parochial and still indispensable moralizing of belonging and subculture. It is precisely because we are error prone that we undertake a scientific inquiry into the world, and our knowledge that every criterion on the basis of which scientific beliefs are warranted as reasonable is a criterion that has recommended as good in the way of belief a description of the world that has been superseded by another in time does not lead us to repudiate science but to test and to publish ever more widely and intensely. If our prose did not domesticate our fancies into sense we would lack the confident capacitations without which we cannot be free, and if our poetry did not derange our complacencies into suspense we would lack the connection to experience and difference without which we cannot be free either. Rabbi Hillel famously asked "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?"

We do not will that we will be willful, we do not choose the time or the circumstances in which we will choose and so become ourselves, the authors do not own the final meaning of the texts we release into the hearing of the world, the texts we incarnate as selves least of all, the autonomous are not independent from those among whom we rightly assert
ourselves, the capacitated are not invulnerable from the errors against which we rightly strive together, the free are not freed from the humiliation of misunderstanding by the poetry that frees us from the humiliation of meaningless automatism, indeed it is the exposure to the one humiliation that permits our hope of eluding the other. Grasping all this is not to advocate a course in resignation but to understand the conditions under which our glories are won, it is not to embrace irrationalism but to understand the foundations out of which rationality properly emerges.

If Vulcan logic were a facile repression of passion it would not drive its initiates to exploration of the cosmos, nor would it express itself as it does in elaborate rituals of meditation, if Vulcan logic were reductive and instrumental it would not aspire to apprehend "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," if Vulcan logic were lifeless and computational it would not wish others to "live long and prosper," if Vulcan logic rendered its practitioners robotic it would not leave them so regularly "fascinated" "intrigued" and raised-eyebrow bemused. Here, as before (the paradoxes of the Democratic Ethos I mentioned before actually seem to me to derive from these paradoxes of rationality), the Vulcan Contradiction -- or better, the Vulcan negotiation of the constitutive paradoxes of rationality -- provides less an alien spectacle than a glimpse into our own profoundest predicaments and inquiries.

Part Two: The Human Contradiction

Still I sent up my prayer, wondering where it had to go, with heaven full of astronauts and the Lord on death row.--Joni Mitchell, "Same Situation"

In the Star Trek mythos there are few encounters more profound than the first contact between humans and Vulcans, an encounter out of which the multicultural social democratic United Federation of Planets eventually emerged. Contact stories also recur throughout the works of the late Octavia Butler, my favorite science fiction author, most notably in her masterpiece the Xenogenesis Trilogy or Lilith's Brood.

In Xenogenesis the human protagonist Lilith ambivalently collaborates with an immensely powerful alien species that "saves" the human race from the aftermath of nuclear annihilation only to midwife the transformation of humanity into a species that is no longer legibly human but a blending of humanity with the aliens themselves. The spacefaring Oankali are driven to share genes with aliens in this way, a sharing in which both parties are radically transformed. They suggest that to refrain from such sharing is as impossible for them as it would be for a human to perish by holding their breath, an irresistible compulsion that presumably gets them off the hook when we realize that most human beings are far from happy with the sharing the Oankali impose on them and which they view as an effacement of humanity as conclusive as the one humans nearly managed themselves with their reckless exploitation of the environment and violent exploitation and warmaking on one another.

In part what justifies the Oankali's imposition of this transformation on humanity (which they call "trade" despite the fact that it is a trade under circumstances of extreme duress and unequal information -- come to think of it, this is true of most things that get described as trade now isn't it?) is that they see the nuclear suicide of humanity as the necessary and not accidental consequence of what they describe "The Human Contradiction," a basic flaw in human nature, a kind of genetic "original sin" that doesn't so much inescapably memorialize the Fall as inevitably presage the Apocalypse. The inevitably suicidal Human Contradiction is that we are a species at once both intelligent and hierarchical. The applications of our intelligence inevitably express our hierarchical evolutionary legacies rather than successfully providing for their overcoming (the substance of every Ethical project), and eventually intelligence placed in the service of hierarchy destroys the world.

One sometimes gets the impression that the Vulcan logical-pacifist philosophy arose in the "Time of Awakening" through the genius of Surak, struggling to rise above the misery and violence inhering generically in Vulcans' hitherto unmasterable passions, in which case he seems to be a figure meant to condense into a single Vulcan guru the long earthly development of human philosophies of nonviolence and forgiveness by the likes of the Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Addams, Einstein, Gandhi, Day, Muste, King, Arendt, Fromm, Merton, Sharpe and others. But the more specific account one finds at Memory Alpha tells a story of the Vulcan overcoming of their Contradiction that connects more closely with Butler's delineation of the Human Contradiction:
As their level of technology improved, the Vulcans eventually reached a point where their violent nature threatened species extinction. (ENT: "Awakening") In an effort to avoid this fate, a Vulcan named Surak developed a new philosophy thereby igniting the Time of Awakening.
"Awakening," then, arose directly as a response to the amplification of destructiveness arising out of technoscientific change. Star Trek's variation on this theme (and of course it is one with many variations in science fiction) is considerably more optimistic than Octavia Butler's: In Xenogenesis humanity needs the deus ex machina of alien invasion to remove the suicidal compulsion inhering in hierarchy amplified by intelligence. This becomes all the more clear if, as I do, one reads the Parable series Butler wrote after Xenogenesis as an effort precisely to afford a vision of an overcoming of the same Human Contradiction, but without a miraculous redemptive alien intervention. In Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents we are offered an account of the early life of Lauren Olamina, a kind of human Surak, the founder of a religious order called "Earthseed" that seeks to inspire the human race into a collective project to facilitate a vast diaspora into outer space as a way of diverting their intelligence from the destructive and self-destructive hierarchical mastery of one another into a constructive collective mastery of the rigors of space.

I find it enormously striking that the effort to tell the story of the first Earthseed colony in space, a novel Butler referred to in interviews as Parable of the Trickster was never written and in fact so stymied her that it essentially silenced her pen for most of the decade before her tragic death silenced her altogether. I say that this is striking, because it would be in this third novel that Butler likely provided some sense of the ways in which the hardships of space exploration provided the cultural and emotional resources out of which humans might overcome their Contradiction without recourse to miraculous intervention. That she couldn't manage this feat is all the more striking when we consider that the Xenogenesis books provide no account of the human colony on Mars created by humans who claimed they could overcome their hierarchical destructiveness through their collective efforts to render Mars habitable, a prelude to the hope fueling the Earthseed faith. It is also interesting that one of Butler's very last stories, "The Book of Martha" returns to the trope of divine intervention (with a uniquely Butlerian twist) to overcome The Human Contradiction. While not literally divine in the way "Martha" proposes to overcome the impasse of human self-destructiveness, it is intriguing to note how often alien encounters stand in for the divine in Butler's stories to do this work as they did on the grandest scale in Xenogenesis (the demanding topiary collectives of "Amnesty" in the human wasteland of neoliberal globalization, the under-fertile insectoid race struggling not to reduce humans merely to hosts in "Bloodchild" -- a story of mutuality in hierarchy that Butler insisted was too often misread as a raced-slavery allegory when it was instead a gendered-pregnancy allegory -- the disease, like the Clayark disease rendering humans aliens to themselves, that at once amplifies while reducing intelligence but also mutates humans into comfortable accommodation to their hierarchical nature in "The Evening, the Morning, and the Night," among others).

At the risk of getting too deep in my own Butler fandom here, I want to point out that these themes are also conspicuous in her earliest books of the Patternist series, in which the human species cleaves in three, one as hosts for an extraterrestrial disease organism that mutates them into alien morphology and intelligence, the second a super powerful race of telepaths brought into order -- and once again rendered comfortable in their hierarchy via a psychic "pattern" -- and the third conventional humans who have eluded infection by the alien disease and also enslavement by the telepaths who call them "mutes." Butler's hardest to find novel Survivor tells, yet again, the story of conventional humans seeking to elude by colonizing space the pathologies of violent hierarchy and amplified intelligence represented by the diseased and telepathic post-humans. This novel is the only work of Butler's that she disowned and refused to allow to be reprinted. It is interesting to note that the hope to overcome human tragedy through the collective struggle of making an alien planet habitable -- a precursor to the Mars colony about which she says so little in Xenogenesis as well as to the abortive effort to write Parable of the Trickster which paralyzed her for years -- is a hope that fails utterly in the book Survivor. It is also rather interesting, considering all the foregoing, that Butler often explained her dissatisfaction with the disowned book by dismissing it as her "Star Trek book."

For me the third way in which the Vulcan Contradiction is at once enormously compelling but far from alien, then, is that it proposes a practice of life-affirming peace-affirming diversity-affirming logic that would actually overcome the Human Contradiction Octavia Butler diagnosed so clearly in a species, our own, whose intelligence is too easily diverted by its hierarchical impulses into violence and self-destruction -- and overcome without recourse to the divine, the miraculous, the alien. While I find the many chapters and variants in Butler's life-long delineation of the human dilemma of hierarchy and intelligence in an epoch of amplified technoscientific capacitation absolutely compelling, I find compelling in a way she never seemed to manage herself the hopeless human hope of the "Star Trek" overcoming offered by the example of the Vulcan raised eyebrow.


Athena Andreadis said...

I plan an article on Vulcans myself, so I won't steal my own thunder by long comments. An important correction, though: the aliens in Bloodchild are not insectivorous. They are carnivores who require warm-blooded live hosts to host their larvae -- a more benign, more complex version of Ridley's Alien. They do so to the humans who come to their world, and the accommodation the two species eventually reach is still asymmetrical.

In many ways, Butler's work is a continuous exploration of the nuances of coercion, and the collaborations of the coerced.

Dale Carrico said...

Hey, Athena -- you're right on all counts here. I was calling to mind the insect-likeness of the Tlic, so I'm going to change "insectivorous" to "insectoid." But your last comment that "Butler's work is a continuous exploration of the nuances of coercion, and the collaborations of the coerced" is definitely especially right on.

For me what has always been so extraordinary about Butler's science fiction is that in it the conventional sfnal organization around the conceit of the Efficacious Man (so often, literally, a man, a kind of Macgyver figure, Scotty in Engineering, facing an external threat to be mastered through the application of his reason, reductively construed as instrumentality) is transformed instead into the effort to cope with unmasterable circumstances, usually incarnated and social, always involving costly transformations that bring the protagonist into a more flourishing mutuality, a more capacious understanding of efficacy which contains the first but includes more.

It is hard for a rhetorician by training like me not to be moved by Butler's preoccupations -- while persuasion is traditionally figured as "an outside" to coercion, or the violent adjudication of disputes, it is also true that in order for persuasion to do its work parties must already share or find their way to a shared framework the force of which forecloses what might otherwise be deemed possible or important in a violence of a different kind. I don't think this gives the lie to those who would substitute discourse for violence (that's just a facile relativism), but I do think it means that those devoted to nonviolence have to attend to a kind of traffic between modes of violence.

The reason rhetoric has seemed so attuned to the aspiration toward nonviolence -- which drew me to the study and teaching of it most of all -- is not that rhetoric concerns itself with persuasion (which can have its own subtle coercions, note the two senses of conviction), but that rhetoric concerns itself with the relation of literal and figurative language. The traffic between modes of violence to which those who would be nonviolent should properly attend seem to me subsumed within the traffic between the literal and figurative and it is the rhetorician's attunement to the latter that affords her the sensitivity to the former that makes rhetoric a space for a hope for nonviolence, not, say, the mastery of a rhetorical Method that masters violence (a rather absurd rather, violent conception of the nonviolent I've often thought).

The reason I have gone into this rather long detour is that it seems to me Butler is really grappling with the generic conventions and conceptual frames of the science fiction she has taken up to work through her preoccupations. I've actually taught many of her novels and stories in my rhetoric courses over the years.

I think that it is not only the figure of the Efficacious Man she takes on (in so many ways), but the underlying association of a project of reduction treated as indispensable to the instrumentality on which that Efficacious Man depends for sfnal agency, especially "Hard" sfnal agency -- the reduction yielding the cardboard qualities one ruefully discerns in so much sf but also yielding a productive aesthetic crisis for what is after all a literary genre dependent on the figural it would disdain for its valorization of literality.

Butler seems to me to write in the belly of this beast -- her novel Kindred seems the clearest place where the quandaries of coercion and agency are connected most conspicuously to an anxious navigation of the distinction of the literal/figurative.

I am definitely looking forward to your piece on Vulcans, Athena, but I hope you can write more about Butler too some time -- I keenly feel the lack of such good conversation!

jimf said...

> they have always spoken to me both in the irony of their dry humor. . .

KIRK: A boundary layer between what and what?

SPOCK: Between where we were, and where we are.

KIRK: Are you trying to be funny, Mr. Spock?

SPOCK: It would never occur to me, captain.

> and in the earnestness of their aspiration to radical empathy as
> exemplars of humanity and humaneness. . .

McCOY: Suffer the death of thy neighbor, eh Spock?
Now, you wouldn't wish that on us, would you?

SPOCK: It might have rendered your history a little
less bloody.

(both from "The Immunity Syndrome")

Athena Andreadis said...

I'll see what I can do, Dale -- on several of these fronts!

Martin said...

In the Joni Mitchell lyrics, is the Lord on death row referring to Charles Manson?

Martin said...

I suppose it could be interpreted more abstractly as the death of traditional religion in the late 60s / early 70s counterculture, but the reference to astronauts makes me think it's a more proximate cultural reference. Manson did claim to be God, and I believe he was originally given the death penalty, although the death penalty was abolished very soon after, so he ended up getting a life sentence and is still with us.

Dale Carrico said...

I suppose it could be interpreted more abstractly as the death of traditional religion in the late 60s / early 70s counterculture,

Definitely how I always heard it. And I think a slightly longer excerpt clarifies this impression:

Still I sent up my prayer -- Wondering where it had to go -- With heaven full of astronauts -- And the Lord on death row -- While the millions of his lost and lonely ones -- Call out and clamour to be found -- Caught in their struggle for higher positions -- And their search for love that sticks around

Few would attribute to Manson a following of "millions of... lost and lonely ones" (although maybe the Beatles momentarily managed that feat).

Are you a Joni fan? I enjoyed giving her a tangential nod, since this piece was so weirdly confessional for whatever reason and since Joni was almost as bone deep a formative influence on me as Spock!

jimf said...

> In the Joni Mitchell lyrics, is the Lord on death row
> referring to Charles Manson? . . .
> I suppose it could be interpreted more abstractly as the
> death of traditional religion. . .

With possibly a glance at Nietzsche -- our Roberta Joan is
certainly sophisticated enough to have heard of him.

Dale Carrico said...

Joni in 2005, in NYMagazine:

"Nietzsche was a hero, especially with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He gets a bad rap; he’s very misunderstood. He’s a maker of individuals, and he was a teacher of teachers."

jimf said...

Speaking of Nietzsche, I was hanging out in Barnes & Noble
a few weekends ago and I came across an odd book about the
relationship between Nietzsche and Richard Wagner:

One of the strangest episodes recounted in the book
is that when Nietzsche began seeing a doctor on account of
his worsening health (recommended by Wagner? I can't remember),
the composer **took it upon himself** to correspond with the doctor
about the possible causes of his philosopher friend's
health problems. And the doctor cooperated fully in this
violation of his patient's privacy. But the purpose of
Wagner's letters to the doctor was to convince him of
Wagner's theory that the source of Nietzsche's difficulties
was that the latter was a chronic masturbator. There
isn't much worse you could have been accused of at the
time, and Nietzsche never forgave Wagner the humiliation.

jimf said...

> There isn't much worse you could have been accused of at the
> time. . .

Today, of course, we're quite tolerant not only of the
masturbation of intellectuals, but of intellectual