Intellectual Laziness

Something that has existed since, well, probably forever (even though this paragraph originally started ‘Something that’s become more and more of a problem…’, it’s almost certainly been an forever), is the problem of intellectual laziness.

If you’ve only glanced at a complicated topic, something that people have doctorates in, have written long books about, have done extensive research in, etc. etc., you probably don’t understand it very well, and any criticism you’re going to make of it is going to be rather surface level and will merely question a few of the basic assumptions made by the field of study, as though said baseis have never been questioned before.

For example:

  • Why do people think God exists when something would have had to make God, and also Evil exists?
  • Math has no use in the real world, so why am I bothering to learn this?
  • We should get the government out of things, because all those regulations do it make it harder for people.
  • That’s not art, it’s just a bunch of crap thrown on a canvas. My kid could do that.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of gibberish.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of really simple ideas dressed up in fancy terminology.
  • Science has been wrong before, so why should I trust it now?

I could go on, but you get the idea. It seems to go in three stages:

  1. A negative gut reaction to whatever is being presented.
  2. A refusal to actually engage with the material, which might provide evidence counter to the gut reaction.
  3. Repetitions of the same tired criticisms that everyone else makes, especially dismissal of anyone who cares enough to really be invested in “that crap”.

Odds are, if your criticisms can be found in the first two links of a google search for Anti-[whatever], and those aren’t from .edu sites, or are being shouted on YouTube by a man with an ill-chosen pseudonym, you haven’t engaged deeply enough.

(A parable: a fellow was writing a story about a leprechaun, and doing some research into the origins of the mythical figure — what they represented, why they endured as symbols of Irish culture and heritage, how their depictions had changed over time, how the stories told about them gave differing moral lessons. While out drinking one night, a friend of his, one of those folks prone to outbursts and moods, yelled “Your work is shit. You believe in nothing. Leprechaun’s don’t exist. I don’t need a degree in leprehuanology to know that!” Obviously, thought the fellow, but didn’t bother saying anything out loud, because you know how those types can be once they’re in their cups.)

A better method, albeit one that requires effort and opens one up to actual criticism, is Dennett’s “Steelmanning”. Described in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the Steelman is the opposite of a Strawman. You attempt to present the other person’s argument in the strongest terms possible, giving them the most charitable interpretations, making an actual case for them being correct, and demonstrating that you understand them completely. Then, and only then, do you begin any criticism.

Now this, of course, requires more than skimming the Wikipedia article on a given subject, and then making up what you think someone (some idiot?) might think about this (stupid) topic. Books are involved. Knowledge of the different schools of thought within a discipline. Replying to actual assertions, rather than the simply the existence of what you assume the thing is.

An short example contrasting the two:

“John Searle is stupid. His stupid Chinese Room doesn’t prove anything about learning or AI, because a person isn’t a computer. Some guy with a bunch of books wouldn’t be able to translate Chinese as well as a super computer, and therefore the other person would notice, and the Turing test would fail. What an idiot.”


“Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, in which it is asserted that there is no difference between a computer interpreting commands and a person executing commands in a language they do not understand, is an interesting thought problem. The basic conclusion is that no artificial intelligence will be capable of contemplating itself, or understanding it’s own actions, just as the person manually executing the ‘program’ will not understand the language they are working in. There will be no ‘Strong AI’, to use Searle’s term. However, many objections have been raised to this analogy, and the one which I find the most compelling is that Searle’s conclusion (“Therefore there is no Strong AI”) does not follow from his premises. He assumes a dualism between Strong and Weak AI, and, because his experiment seems to demonstrate that there is not a Strong AI, he assumes it must be Weak. This does not follow. It merely proves that, in this particular instance, thought is not just computation. It does nothing to positively identify criteria for thought, nor to establish that computers are incapable of it. It does not prove that, simply because computational processes and their output can occur in the absence of a cognitive state, that thought is not occurring in this instance. Is there any way for Searle to prove to me that he himself is thinking, and not simply interpreting and executing external commands which his unconscious interior does not actually understand? Even more generally, is there a difference between the real thing and a perfect simulacrum? That is a question far too broad for discussion here. Needless to say, despite its numerous flaws, the Chinese Room is an interesting thought project that has entertained philosophers and AI researchers for years.”

As much as I might disagree with John Searle, and find many of his ideas based on incorrect premises, I would never call him a stupid person, or think that he should stop writing. It is chiefly because he is such an intelligent person that he is capable of producing such brilliant (if wrong) things as the Chinese Room. And I assume he’s writing in good faith, because he’s a doctor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Try it out next time you feel tempted to, say, claim that Islam is horrible because of the actions of a tiny minority of Wahhabists, or that Feminism is a cancerous political movement because of Andrea Dworkin rather than a multifaceted approach to cultural theory through which any number of subjects can be interpreted, or if you’re about to type “That’s Economics 101!” while not realizing that there is a 102, a 301, a 505, and other much more complicated classes that expand on and systematize the dumbed down and simplified explanations given in 101 classes so that students aren’t overwhelmed and can basic concepts (By analogy, they don’t cover friction when calculating motion in Physics 101. Does friction exist?).

Update: There will be further discussion of John Searle, rest assured.I have a lot more to say about Chinese Rooms, Limited INC., and, well… A lot. We’ll get there.

Apocalypse and Revelation: the Televisualization of Movies

X-Men: Apocalypse is a hot mess of a film, with some lovely action sequences, some well done CGI, fairly good acting, good make-up and costuming, and an overstuffed plot that has a few too many twists and characters to make its nearly 2 1/2 hour run time feel worth it. Compounding the strangeness is that I haven’t seen Days of Future Past, nor First Class, and the older X-Men films are memories from a decade ago. This isn’t the fault of the film, which is explicitly billed as the third entry in the franchise, but which also makes a number of concessions to newer viewers via flashbacks and expository dialogue; it’s entirely my own.

There are some needless sequences. The one that stands out most prominently is the kidnapping by Colonel Stryker and the bit in the Weapon X facility, a half-hour detour that is eventually just a transparent excuse to have a Hugh Jackman cameo. It’s a nice shout out to Barry Windsor-Smith’s iconic run, and a naked Jackman is rarely a bad thing to have in a film, but just as easy would have been to excise that entire part. Nicholas Hoult already showed off his fancy new plane to Jennifer Lawrence. They could get in that and go straight to Cairo.

In fact, it was difficult to get a bead on who was supposed to be the protagonist. The only people with character arcs are Oscar Isaac (who comes back to hate the modern world, tries to destroy it, and fails), Michael Fassbender (who comes back to the public world after the death of his family, tries to destroy it, and  has a change of heart), and Evan Peters (who comes out of hiding to look for his father, finds him, and then decides not to tell him the truth). Everyone else is either static, or only hits partway towards a change, without resolution. The movie itself is made with a sequel in mind.

And this is an interesting thing. It felt more like watching a few episodes of a television show, albeit one with a much much larger budget than usual, spliced together, than a feature film. Detours like the Weapon X one make sense if it were just an episode of a program. You wouldn’t need to keep cutting back to Oscar Isaac to remind you of why the characters need to hurry.

This makes perfect sense from a financial standpoint: movies are very expensive to make, and therefore if one can get a franchise going, the odds of getting another film made are even better. This leads to an automatic draw at the box office, easier branding, easier promotion, etc. etc. However, it comes at the expense of an actually satisfying film experience. The questions that are posed by the film have to be interesting ones, and far too often, they simply aren’t. There’s a limited number of twists and turns that an audience will accept, and because there are so many competing franchises, and due to the internet’s obsessive theorizing and analyzing of any given piece of media, the answers are inevitably unsatisfying.

Time was, you could leave things open ended, and that was alright. The Maltese Falcon, for example, doesn’t delve deeply into Spade and Archer’s relationship. The film famously doesn’t even get into the real mystery of the falcon itself; such a thing is beside the point of the story. These are left to the imagination of the viewer. And yet it could have easily been developed into a franchise — in fact there was an Adventures of Sam Spade radio serial that ran from 1946-1951. But constant call backs and references to the past were not the point.

Such things make sense for the finale of a TV season. The ongoing subplots can be resolved, everything can be wrapped up, the villain who has been directing things can be defeated, and so on. One goes in nowadays knowing that it is the culmination of a build up of 12 or 25 or whatever previous episodes. But when the call backs become the point, when the plot is an excuse to make references that the long term fans will pick up on, then you’ve insured that you will not be successful. You’ve turned your product into something insular and incestuous, doubly so if it is full of things that can only be found by becoming involved in the internet fandoms. Assuming that your viewers have seen the previous films in the franchise is acceptable. Assuming that they’ve seen them ten times is not.

Which winds us back to Apocalypse. I wasn’t lost at all, because I’ve read almost all the X-Men comics produced from 1963-1993. It was simple to say “Oh, that’s (so and so)” based on casual details or “Oh, they’re doing (that plot)” based on things I recognized. And unlike some, I don’t mind seeing details change; if I wanted to see the same story again, I’d just fish my comics out of the longbox and reread them. I want something mixed up and served differently. Make it unfamiliar enough that I can’t guess exactly what’s going to happen next. Tell new stories with the old characters — I don’t care if it contradicts issue 213 where Wolverine missed Shadowcat’s birthday because he was held up in traffic, not because the subway was stopped due to a track malfunction. There is joy in recognition, but it’s much sweeter to not predict where a story is going.

What some people want, judging from their reactions, is much closer to the original video animations (OVAs) released to tie in with popular manga in the 80s and 90s. The idea was that when a series reached a certain level, the company would commission two episodes of a cartoon, adapting two popular stories from the comic, and sell it direct to video at a terribly expensive mark-up, and Japanese fan culture being what it is, they would sell well enough to make it worthwhile. Nowadays they simply adapt their entire series into a half or full season, with perhaps an OVA to serve as a capstone, but then things are different from how they were thirty years ago. I can understand the appeal of seeing the book in color and motion, with voice acting and sound effects. People enjoy different things. But is it too much to ask that some effort be put in as well?

“I am Always Late to the Party” by Donna Greenhauser

I’m not one of those people who are glued to book reviews and clamoring to read the latest thing, despite my profession. I prefer to give books a bit of time to age, and to see if it’s just going to be a flash in the pan that no one will care about in a year or so (Water for ElephantsSarah’s Key) or will actually enter the modern canon as worthy of the time it takes to really read a novel.

Because I’m not, nor have I ever been, one of those folks who can speed through page after page, skimming through the boring bits, glancing over descriptions, jumping ahead to the action. For better or for worse, I read every word.

This isn’t a moral stand or a judgement on those who can read faster than I can. I’d find it rather useful if I could hustle through a novel in a weekend, or knock off six chapters in an evening. And I’m not going to make some preposterous claim, like that I enjoy slowly read novels on a deeper level or something. I just don’t read very fast. It’s something I’ve accepted.

It also means that, for me, while reading is a pleasurable and leisurely activity, it is also one that is undertaken with great care. Is whatever book I’m about to embark upon going to be more worth my time than Kant or Hegel? Woolf or Joyce? Pynchon or Wallace?

(It does seem to make reading certain philosophy easier, because I’m used to reading at a very slow pace, whereas, for example, a companion of mine once flew into a rage because she couldn’t deal with the long sentences, but also couldn’t turn her long ingrained speed-reading off. Another friend of mine used to fast-forward through parts of movies that she found boring, and then get angry at the films when she couldn’t understand what was happening (she was the quintessential person in the movie theatre “Why did they kill that guy? I thought he was with them? He was with the bad guys? When did they say that?”), but that’s a separate problem)

Which brings us around, the long way, to Greenhauser’s I am Always Late to the Party.

It’s a novel that came out a few years back, and one that I didn’t pay much attention to on its release, though a lot of folks seemed quite taken by it.

A quick plot summary: Esther, a woman in her late 20s, attempts to “rationalize” her life, by making everything she possibly can completely optimal. She counts her steps, she notes how many times she chews each different type of food, she measures how long she needs to sleep given what activities she has performed each day, etc. etc. She figures that by doing this, she will save herself enough time and effort that she’ll have time to be happy, that the main source of her unhappiness comes from how busy she is, and if she had the time to relax, she wouldn’t hate herself nor the world around her. She has encounters with various folks, there’s minor plot lines running throughout the book about her landlord trying to get with her sister, her boss dissolving the company because of mismanaged funds, her ex-boyfriend who lives down the street from her job trying to get back on his feet after their recent break-up, but the main thrust is Esther herself trying to solve the condition of her life by making more time.

She fails, as you might imagine.

But what struck me as brilliant about the book was not the set up, nor the rather predictable ending where her best friend lets her know The Secret that life isn’t just a series of tasks to be performed, but something to be relished and enjoyed, and that if you spend all your time trying to make yourself happy, rather than finding happiness, you’ll never succeed, and all that… No, it’s that this section comes while there’s still a good third of the book left, and Esther’s reply is “Yeah, no shit. But I don’t have any money. My job is falling apart. I can’t just fuck off to India for two months, Siobhan,” which, needless to say, isn’t the reaction she was expecting.

Now, they don’t have a big breakdown shouting match or anything, which is another point I liked, because far too often female friendships are depicted as fragile or petty, and this honestly felt like a realistic relationship. Siobhan takes it in stride, and lets Esther complain some more. She’s a good friend. They go out drinking, and through the strange vicissitudes of fate, end up crashing a very fancy party hosted by Simon, who is an amalgamation of a number of business person stereotypes. Esther looks like Simon’s ex-girlfriend from behind, and he ends up shouting a ton of nasty things at her, which Esther initially takes as criticism at her crashing the party. But then he gets more personal, going on about parts of their “relationship”, and finishes by calling her Grace. Only after he’s made a fool of himself does she turn around and say “I think you meant to say that to someone else.”

Esther and Siobhan get back to Esther’s apartment, and Siobhan passes out in Esther’s bed. Esther tries sleeping on the couch, but finds that this has fully thrown her attempts to control her life astray. It will take weeks for her to get back on track. But when she controlled everything, she wasn’t happy. What was she doing with all that spare time? Trying to figure out ways to arrange for more spare time? And when she let herself go and didn’t care, at the end of the night, regardless of how good a time she had, she was still back in the same place. What was the point? Why bother with any of it? She goes to the top of her building, intending to jump, but finds that the entire roof has been encircled with fencing and safety nets to prevent this very thing. She laughs, “A sad, private laugh, the sort you’d imagine coming from a clown’s tent as he takes off his make-up after the night is over”, and goes back downstairs.

There’s some plot wrapping up after that (Siobhan punches Judd, Esther’s ex-, when he shows up the next morning, her landlord and her sister finally go on a date, her boss sells the company and Esther doesn’t lose her job, she meets Grace and learns what an ass Simon was during their relationship, etc.), but this is really where the novel ends in terms of character development and significant action.

It isn’t that she chooses not to commit suicide, it is that suicide is made just inconvenient enough for her not to bother making the effort. Her life isn’t good, per se, but she is forbidden from stopping it easily. She must go on living, happy or not, unless she really doesn’t want to. And, which is why I’m glad the novel doesn’t end on the rooftop, the world doesn’t care whether or not she likes it or hates it. Life still moves on for other people.

One will hope that it will keep its place in the literary consciousness, but sadly, I’ve not seen a copy in bookstores since I bought mine.

So it goes, I guess.

Star Wars, Far Far Away, and a Long Time Ahead

There’s a wonderful and terrifying play by Anne Washburn entitled Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play, which envisions a world after the apocalypse. You know the one, The Apocalypse. The one that wipes out most, but not all of us, and allows for just enough of everything for the remainder of humanity to scrape on, somehow. A group of survivors huddle together in the cold, and, to starve off fear and cold and unhappiness, they retell an old Simpson‘s episode: Cape Feare. Without giving too much away (because, really, if you have the opportunity to see the show, you ought to), The Simpsons ends up a major force in the new world that emerges from the ashes, and by the end, the idea that it was once simply a cartoon for people to relax and laugh at the end of the week with would be blasphemous.

Lawrence Miles, author of numerous Doctor Who novels and creator of the Faction Paradox series, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t watching Who. One of his earliest memories was watching a Sontaran on screen, and his uncle making a joke, and thinking that he needed to correct his uncle, because that wasn’t Humpty Dumpty at all, it was a terrifying warrior going to kill the Doctor. It’s a memory he recognizes as ridiculous, because how could it have happened? And yet, it’s a formative one. I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen Star Wars, when I didn’t have a copy in the house, when I didn’t know all the characters and the story by heart. There must have been a first. My father, probably, showed it to me. He was a devotee of old Sci Fi, loved Star Trek and Doctor Who and all the others like them. We had a copy on Betamax, taped from television. I got a proper VHS set for my birthday one year. My “devotion” has waxed and waned, but I always come back to it, and I always find something new to appreciate.

The tale we call The Epic of Gilgamesh (or, He Who Saw The Darkness, or Surpassing All Kings; it has numerous titles), isn’t actually a single comprehensive story, in the mold of its most regular comparisons, The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s a compilation of numerous fragments composed over more than two thousand years, and pieced together painstakingly by Assyriologists and others over the past hundred or so years. And even then, the version that comes down to us non-specialists is incomplete, full of lacunae, missing lines, paraphrases where we’ve guessed at roughly what ought to have gone there given the context. And this was not an unpopular story — rare among the writings of Babylon, this is one of the few tales committed to tablet. It was translated into numerous languages, and told and retold again and again, until it was lost for about two thousand and then rediscovered again. We mostly use the “standard” version from c.1200 BCE, written and edited by Sin-liqe-unninni, found in the Library of Ashurbanipal. And even now, we have numerous translations, each of which takes a different tack, from the utterly exhaustive and authoritative Andrew George two volume set, to the colloquial, reordered, and rather modernized version by Stephen Mitchell.

Which actually tells the story? George’s, which opens:

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!

Or Mitchell’s, which opens:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood.

George’s is, without a doubt, the most accurate of any Gilgamesh available. It is impossible to understate the degree of scholarship he has done on the story. He has literally examined and translated every existent fragment that has ever been found, ever. Ever. There is no greater authority on the story than he. But Stephen’s version has a poetry of its own, even if it is not “accurate” in the sense of fidelity to the text, and conveys the story beautifully. (For reading pleasure, I personally prefer the translation by John Gardner and John Maier, but that didn’t provide as stark a contrast.)

In the otherwise forgettable post-apocalyptic dragonfest Reign of Fire, Christian Bale and Gerard Butler reenact a scene from The Empire Strikes Back for the amusement of a group of children.

The broad strokes of the story are all there, even if the details are missing, and the context is lost. How much of the rest of the story do they know? do they perform other scenes? other movies? have bits from other stories been mixed in? Perhaps at the end, the starship Enterprise is blown up by the White Knight after his duel with the evil Emperor Feyd Harkonen, and saved from dying himself by the Doctor? Is that bad fanfiction, or simply syncretism, like when Herakles rescued Theseus from the underworld, or Jason assembled all the greatest heroes of the land to fetch the Golden Fleece?

We now remake movies all the time. New versions, homages, updated editions. We retell stories in different setting, with different details, different costumes and different characters. But this, too, is nothing new. Opera has a strong tradition of using classical plots — it is the music which is important. Faerie tales, too, change their details as quick as their location and our social mores, though the story itself lives on (Does Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf after being ordered to strip off her clothes and toss them into the fire, regardless of the cat’s warnings? Does she recognize the Wolf for what he is and pray for deliverance? Does a heroic Woodsman save her, cut her Grandmother out of the Wolf’s belly, fill it with stones, and then drown the wolf? Does she instead shoot with Wolf with a gun hidden in her basket, because girls these days are wise to men like that? Or does she happily consent to lay with the Wolf, because, really, werewolves are her thing, and the two remain lovers happily ever after?)

What will our stories look like in a thousand years? Two thousand? Three? Which versions will make it through the wars, natural disasters, forgetfulness, censorship, religious confusion…? Which versions will be rediscovered, tucked away in some footlocket buried in a subbasement, or hidden in a library thought lost to time, or burned to a DVD that our descendants have only just now discovered how to decode?

And if they find it, what will Star Wars look like? How much will survive?

“Where questions of style and exposition are concerned I try to follow a simple maxim: if you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself.”

Chapter Four: Calypso

Leopold Bloom was eating breakfast at his house at 7 Eccles St., at about 8 am, in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday July 16th, 1904. He was eating meat. Kidney was his favorite. He liked the taste of urine that the kidney had. He gave some to his cat. The cat was very pretty, and meowed at him. He petted her. He gave her some milk, too.

Mr. Bloom was going to bring his wife breakfast in bed. He made sure to get the toast just right. But she was still asleep, and didn’t want any yet. He told her he was going to go to the shop around the corner. He put on his hat and went.

Dublin was a big city and lots of people bustled about! He passed a church, and a school, and even said hello to one of his friends as he walked down the street.

On the way to the shop, Mr. Bloom thought about all sorts of things: his wife’s father, his military service, Irish history. His wife had been born on the island of Gibraltar, which is one of the islands that Homer may have been thinking of when he was describing the island of Ogygia, where Calypso lives. Molly Bloom is very similar to Calypso, the nymph in Homer’s Odyssey who kept him trapped on her island for seven years, because Molly too is an alluring and sexual creature and Mr. Bloom, who is like Odysseus, has been held captive by her charms. This is why this chapter is called Calypso.

Mr. Bloom got to the shop, and bought threepence worth of pork kidney. This is significant because Mr. Bloom used to be Jewish before converting to Catholicism to marry his wife, and Jews are not supposed to eat pork. He put the package in his pocket, and paid the butcher. “Good morning!” he said as he left.

When Mr. Bloom got back to the house, he found that some mail had been delivered. One letter was for him, and the other for Molly, his wife.

Mr. Bloom made tea while Molly read her letter. He took the kidney out of his pocket and put it on the stove to cook, and then went in to the bedroom to eat breakfast with his wife. Ms. Bloom was still in bed, and was not wearing very much. She was very pretty. Her clothes were tossed about the room. It was a very messy room.

Mr. Bloom asked what Molly’s letter was about. “It’s from my manager, Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan,” she said. “He’s bringing over the songs I’m going to sing later. Are you going to Mr. Dignam’s funeral later?”

Patrick “Paddy” Dignam was one of Mr. Bloom’s friends, who had died recently. The circumstances of his death are very similar to Elpenor’s, from The Odyssey (which, again, this novel takes much inspiration from), the youngest of the crew, who gets drunk and decides to sleep on the roof of Circe’s palace, and falls off a ladder to his death the next morning. This death is similar to that of Tim Finnegan, from the traditional Irish ballad, who will be the inspiration for Joyce’s later novel Finnegans Wake.

While heading to the funeral, Mr. Bloom will meet Mr. Simon Dedalus, who was the father of Stephen, the man the first three chapters of this book were about. While Mr. Bloom is at the funeral, Molly is going to have sex with ‘Blazes’ Boylan. We will learn later that Molly thinks her menstrual cycle is connected with her increased sexual appetites, and thus her decision to cheat on Mr. Bloom regularly with Boylan. She wanted Mr. Bloom to leave the house for most of the day, and he will do so, which will cause most of the action in the story. Mr. Bloom knew about Molly’s affair, and didn’t like it, but didn’t feel strong enough to do anything about it. Molly and Mr. Bloom were having marital problems. Some of these were because of their son, Rudy, died shortly after birth, eleven years ago. Mr. Bloom regularly wonders how life would be different had Rudy survived, and this is what prompts him to be so protective of Stephen when he finally encounters him later on in the story.

“Yes,” said Mr. Bloom. “I think the funeral is at 11 o’clock.”

“I had a question about the book I was reading,” said Molly, changing the subject again. “Do you know what ‘metempsychosis’ means? I came upon it in the book which is over there, underneath that pile of clothing, and didn’t understand it.” Mr. Bloom found the book, and she used her hairpin to point at the word.

“It’s a Greek word meaning ‘transmigration of souls’,” Mr Bloom explained.

“That’s confusing,” Molly said. “Why not say it plainly? Anyways, this book wasn’t very good. There were no sexy parts at all.”

“I’ll buy you a different book while I’m out.”

“Thank you. I’d like one by Paul de Kock. His name is a sex joke.”

“Metempsychosis means,” said Mr. Bloom, returning to the previous topic, “that we go on living in a different body after we die. Our soul moves into a new body. That’s what the ancient Greeks believed.”

“What’s that burning smell?” said Molly. She wasn’t interested in what Mr. Bloom had to say.

“Oh no! My kidney!” said Mr. Bloom. The kidney he had put on the stove earlier was burning. Mr. Bloom rushed into the kitchen and turned the stove off. It turned out his kidney wasn’t too badly burned, and he could still eat it. He did so while reading his letter. It was from Milly, Molly and his daughter. Mr. Bloom is happy to hear this she is doing well. She is studying photography, and doesn’t live with them.

Mr. Bloom ate his kidney, and drank a cup of tea. He then went to use the toilet. They had an outhouse. While using the toilet, he read the newspaper. He wondered what it would be like if he and Molly were in the newspaper. He then remembered to check what time the funeral started. Back in 1904, people didn’t have toilet paper, so Mr. Bloom had to use a torn sheet from the newspaper. He wiped himself and stood up.

Star Wars — Super 8, B&W

The shortest of all the truncations, this version by Kenner Films was released shortly after the film was in theaters, in late 1977. Peter Cushing is credited, though he does not appear in the film, as is the music of John Williams, though this is a silent film.

It consists of two scenes: Ben and Luke discussing Anakin Skywalker, and the escape from the Death Star, where the Millennium Falcon battles the TIE Fighters.

Let us consider the story presented, as though we knew nothing about Star Wars, as if this were the only version of the tale we had: the mysterious old man, Ben, gives the young man, Luke, his father’s light saber, and tells him about his father, the Jedi Knight. The young man turns it on, and waves the magical blade about for a long time, marveling at the glow. Ben then explains the true story of Luke’s father’s death — he was betrayed and killed by another knight, Darth Vader. Ben’s expression is one of sadness and regret. Ben then explains the force, a mysterious energy field that binds the world together, as Luke looks on bewildered, trying to understand. There are robots present, even though nothing else about the setting suggests that this is a science fiction story, and Luke is fixing one that looks like a human. The cylindrical one, R2D2, produces the image of a woman, Princess Leia, who begs Ben for assistance in saving the rebellion from the evil Empire. Ben and Luke look at one another for a long beat, and then Ben tells Luke that he must go save the Princess. Luke is apprehensive, doubtful, as he paces about, not wanting to met Ben’s gaze. Luke has responsibilities here, at his home, but he also feels a need to join the rebellion. The choice is literally out of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

We cut to a triangular ship, flying through space, as the subtitles finish “…and fulfill his destiny.” It is clear what Luke’s choice has been. Is this his ship? One he has smuggled himself upon?

The ship flies towards a large, metallic planet, with a huge crater in the side, like a baleful eye. Cut to a large, hairy man running down a corridor, followed by a roguish fellow in a vest with a rifle. Fighters for the rebellion, perhaps? They observe a group of soldiers in white armor guarding a space ship. Luke and Leia arrive moments later. We are inside the Death Star, and Leia has been rescued. Han Solo and Chewbacca, the other two, had aided Luke in the quest Ben sent him on. The soldiers move on, perhaps because they are changing shift, and our heroes see their chance. R2D2 and the robot Luke was repairing make their way towards Han’s ship as well. But they have moved too quickly, and the soldiers turn to fire on them. A gun battle ensues, and, if we look closely, a helmeted figure in a dark cloak, wielding a sword similar to that which Ben gave Luke, is seen walking away in the background. Is this the Darth Vader that Ben spoke of? Is that why Luke fires in such anger and distress, staying far longer than his companions to kill the soldiers? But a metallic door slides shut, protecting the dark man from Luke’s shots, even though he kills two of the soldiers, and Luke retreats to the safety of Han’s ship.

Han and Chewbacca pilot their ship away from the Death Star, while Luke sits forlorn. Leia attempts to comfort him, as the robots look on helplessly. Was this the only chance Luke had to avenge his father’s death? But there is no time for such thing — Han’s ship is being pursued by Imperial ships, and they must man the turrets and defend themselves. An exciting space battle ensues, with the small Imperial Ships flying about as Luke and Han (or is it Chewbacca? Their names aren’t distinguished) fire away. R2D2 puts out a fire inside. Luke’s spirits rise as the fight goes on. Ship after ship is destroyed, until our heroes are safe… for now! The End.

I’m certain that most of you have noticed that there are many very important things absent from the story: the Death Star Plans, Obi-Wan’s Death, the Destruction of the Death Star, the Death of Luke’s aunt and uncle… And yet, for all that, it does tell a more or less complete story, with an emotional arc for Luke. It also brings up one of the important questions that we will be asking ourselves throughout this discussion:

Is Star Wars about rescuing a princess, or about delivering secret plans?

In this version, they obviously chose the former, which leads to some strange choices. The scene with Ben and Luke is one of the most dialogue heavy in the entire series, and thus is an odd one to pick for a silent adaptation. The rescue of the princess occurs off screen, as a lacunae to be filled in by the viewer. It demands questions and invites further stories to be written about it. And yet, for all that, cutting the story down to just those base elements is to be admired. It was surely no easy task to turn the entire film into a comprehensible story, rather than a sort of Tumblr-esque “greatest hits” gif repository. It is fascinating to see how much of a story can disappear without affecting the other parts. We already know about the subplot of Biggs Darklighter that was excised from the original film, leaving only some incongruous dialogue in the Death Star trench battle to suggest that Luke is fighting alongside his best friend and someone’s he never thought he’d see again. How much more of the movie could be removed? What is the point of Star Wars? How much can we lose without it becoming a different story?

This version was, of course, intended for those who had already seen the film in theaters, and knew the answers to these questions. The visual designs of Chewbacca and Death Vader, the choice to display as many of the starship models as they could, spending as long as they can with light sabres and 3d messages projected on tables — it is clear that despite the black and white silence, they still want to convey the spectacle and effects wizardly that made the movie so memorable. Were our ur-text lost, this version would be an odd one to try and recover the full version from. It could lead to conflicts over the nature of the Force, the identity of Darth Vader, what, precisely, the Death Star is… But the tantalizing hints provided are nonetheless appealing.

Would it endure? Who can say. Could it endure? Certainly. It begs for expansion. It demands filling in. Though it says The End, this is not an ending.

More to come.

Derrida, Robot vs Manual

Here is a paragraph from near the beginning of De la Grammatologie, translated by Google:

Whatever one thinks under this heading, the problem of language has probably never been a problem among others. But never as much as today has he invaded as such the world horizon of the most diverse researches and discourses the most heterogeneous in their intention, their method, their ideology. The very devaluation of the word “language,” all that, in the credit given to it, denounces the cowardice of the vocabulary, the temptation to seduce at little cost, passive abandonment in fashion, -guard, that is to say, ignorance, all this testifies. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by a face or a shadow of herself, she again beckons: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical period must finally determine as a language the totality of its problematic horizon. It owes it not only because everything that desire had sought to wrest from the play of language is taken up again, but also because, at the same time, language itself is threatened in its life, helpless, disoriented To have no limits, to return to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to be effaced, at the very moment when it ceases to be reassured upon itself, contained and bordered by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.

And here it is translated by scholar and philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology. The devaluation of the word “language” itself, and how, in the very hold it has upon us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words—ignorance—are evidences of this effect. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.

If it were simply nonsense, cooked up by a con man, signifying nothing, there ought to be no difference in the comprehensibility of these two paragraphs, shouldn’t there? I could, jokingly, pull together meaning from the machine translation, assemble some ideas from it’s bad translation, and perhaps wax poetic on some combination of words that would not have arose from an intentional mind… But why bother, unless I found it fun?