Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, December 24, 2004
 
William Gibson Pops Up Twice And Gets Me Thinking About Influence

Has a blog. I'm just surprised at myself for not having thought to look for it before. Found via Mark Kleiman, that via Matthew Yglesias. Gibson links to this striking photoblog, which includes a Lego Gitmo*. For more reflections on on how else Gibson has popped up (and mostly a bunch of questions that I could use your help in answering), please click Permalink/Full Post.

Yglesias was excerpting yesterday's LA Times column on pockets of extreme urban violence and wringing his hands over the likeley uselessness of traditonal liberal solutions like universal pre-school. The resulting comments run the spectrum from a cold lack of sympathy for parents who would raise their children in such terrible environments to calls for the legalization of drugs. It's an erudite set of comments, but also a predictable one, and all of these policy debates revolve around twin questions of guessing: What could have changed this human dynamic? and What would happen if we did this?

Yglesias was merely razzing Kleiman for his new Gibson-fandom, but the apparently tangential Gibson connection goes deeper in my mind, especially in light of a few recent discussions in the Yglesias-Kleiman-Holbo sector of the blogosphere. The items discussed by Yglesias and Kleiman tend to be real and pressing issues of policy, matters that any responsible citizen has an interest in. Ideally they are analyzed with facts and evidence, and plans about the future are based on statistics and existing cases. This is particularly the proud tradition of the so-called "reality-based community," and when it comes to deploying troops and allocating the budget, I expect nothing less. You don't want bureaucrats on the public dole leaping into wild fits of action based on fanciful dreams.

What you might want is a wider citizenry actively engaged in producing fanciful dreams, and then carefully distilling them into a more solidly researched plan before handing it over to the bureacrats. Adressing what would happen if we did this? only in the dry tones of the public sector is liable to get you uncompelling answers. Andressing it in art, and especially in fiction, is more likely to provide answers that capture the imagination. But does all this capturing of the imagination actually make a difference?

Ultimately, Yglesias's doubt that a better school system would stem the tide of inner-city violence is really a doubt that capturing the imagination of children can be enough to fight all the negative dynamics of their life situations. I instinctively have a much greater faith in the ability of children to latch onto transformative inspirations. A better school-system would not solve these problems, but given the greal tradition of impoverished children growing up into accomplished adults, I think the burden of proof is on the proposition that more education wouldn't at least alleviate these problems.

Being currently powerless to do anything about these problems, I'd like to inspect another, related, question, one for which Gibson's work is more than tangentially relevant. Is there fiction that an have a significant impact on adults, one that quickly leads to wider social changes? John Holbo had a recent blogpost entitled "Plato's Quarrel with William Gibson," and it had a lot to do with "theory" and the kind of literary-philosophical thinking that I never got trained in because I was too busy learning quantum mechanics. But he quotes an Iris Murdoch summary of Plato's objection to art: Surely any serious man would rather produce real things, such as beds or political activity, than unreal things which are mere reflections of reality. Then Holbo follows it with a quote from a Gibson interview, wherein Gibson describes first buying a computer in the early 80s after he already wrote Neuromancer: That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.

This quote was striking to me because, populated as my social circle is by geeks, Gibson and, to a larger extent, Neal Stephenson, have been celebrated as highly knowledgable authors whose visions of the future have had a real impact on the technologists actually producing said future. Is this an imagined effect? Do these books really just provide mind-candy that keeps young technologists going while they go about doing things they would have gone about doing anyway?
I don't have a real stake in this question because I somehow managed not to read much Gibson or Stephenson, something I am in the process of remedying. But I'm remedying it because I like reading clever and entertaining books, especially when I know my friends like them. Is it reasonable for me to expect these books to actually do me any good? Is it reasonable to expect speculative authors to provide a vision of the future that is so compellilng, so carefully hewn together that it actually changes my actions leading into that future? I don't just mean a technological future. Holbo writes, "It's not SF, science fiction; Hesse writes CF, cultural fiction. Theory is CF. The theorist ends up being conceptualized as a kind of cultural figure who is, in the end, simply unbelievable. Like Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition, who is allergic to logos and brilliantly perceptive as a result. Theory is supposed to be like that. But in the real world attempts to 'do' philosophy like that simply decline into the looniness of the long distance coolhunter." It seems almost like gospel that good fiction writers don't worry too much about the impact their work will have on the audience, but if they wanted to, could they actually change things? Does cultural fiction have to be so unbelievable in the end?

Like I said, I can't really grasp Holbo's quarrel with "theory", but I can think about the more general question of literature that actually changes things. The examples that come to mind are Dickens & Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, perhaps To Kill A Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath. What are more recent novels that have directly made their mark on society? Moreover, are there any novels that have made their mark on society with a positive vision? All the examples I can think of pretty much work by showing society a mirror upon its uglier parts, forcing some kind of reform movement. This touches on another literary discussion brewed in this bit of the blogsophere: Kleiman started it with the question: Are there any modern (say post 1700) novels of high literary merit that can reasonably be characterized as pro-war? Or, at least as pro-war as the Iliad? Yglesias enlarged upon it, and Holbo added more. All the really good war novels seem to be negative, as you'd expect, and the "pro" ones, in the "Good War" mode, tend to be for children or rather old. (Rilla of Ingleside, The Three Musketeers.) The item that commentators keep trotting out is Starship Troopers, which Kleiman preemptively dismissed, but as artistically unified as ST is is, do we really want to hold it up as a good example of inspiring fiction? I'm willing to say that I don't want any novels of literary merit that are generically pro-war, but I'm also willing to accept that a time may come when we need one that's specifically inspiring, for the purpose of getting us through said hypothetical Good War. Would we be able to get a good one? In general--can you talk about a serious topic, for adults, imaginatively and inspirationally, without sinking into schlock and sap?

My suspicion is that an author doesn't need to accidentally stumble into providing intelligent inspiration when he meant only to create romantic metaphors. My suspicion is that it's possible to create an inspiring vision on purpose while still maintaining literary merit, honesty, and good craft. My even stronger suspicion is that the better established model of social-problem novel, in the Dickensian tradition, is still alive and kicking. But I would like to collect some real examples. We've all seen the collections of essays wherein writers (or directors or artists or musicians) ruminate on novels that have influenced them. But what about politicians and generals, doctors and scientists, computer programmers and accountants, economists and bankers, police detectives and union leaders, activists and nurses, diplomats and judges? When your day job is writing or other kinds of art-making or design, it's easy to see how you get up from your reading chair and take your favorite author's influence out into your daily work, out into society. But what about most people? How does all this cultural activity actually influence the society it's describing?

Off the top of my head, my guess is that our former president and vice president, Clinton & Gore, would have been good candidates for an interview on this topic, since, arguably, any influence on them could have been widely magnified onto the world, and they are both known as voracious readers. Gibson and Stephenson opened up the influence of a new niche, the technologists' niche, and I'd like to collect concrete examples of that influence. But I'd also like to collect examples of literature influential on more established socioeconomic niches like the ones I've listed above. Anytime you can recall or you see a person in an ostensibly non-creative field saying, "Well, actually, I was greatly influenced by Novel X," please pass it on.



*And for a more cheerful Lego creation, please see the delightful Lego Church, courtesy of Kevin G. Powell.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
Apartment Therapy
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Dave Barry
The Bellman
Mine's On The 45 (Brimful)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
ChennaiCentral
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Dark Days Ahead
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Brad DeLong
Atanu Dey on India's Development (Deeshaa)
Daniel Drezner
Ennis
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Finding My Voice
Forsv
Neil Gaiman
Ganesh Blog
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Geomblog
Green Ink!
Heliolith
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Indeterminacy
India Uncut
InSpiteOfEverything
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter et al
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Jesus Politics
John and Belle Have a Blog
Mark A. R. Kleiman
KnowProse (Taran Rampersad)
1Locana
Maenad (Nori Heikkinen)
Scott McCloud
Mind Without Borders
Electrolite: Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Corey Pein
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Kevin G. Powell
QuakeHelp (South Asian Quake)
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)
Reneebop
Rhinocrisy
Scott Rosenberg(Salon.com)
Rox Populi
Felix(&Rhian)Salmon
samVaad
Nick Schager
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Sepia Mutiny
Amardeep Singh
Snarkmarket (Robin Sloan & Matt Thompson)
South-East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog
SreeTips: New To Sree
Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
Subjunctive.net:klog
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
TiffinBox
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
TreeHugger
Unfogged
VatulBlog
Venk@
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Wonkette
WorldChanging
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Yglesias:Tpmcafe
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman
Zwichenzug



Some Categories

Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Eschaton(Atrios)
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Irregular Analyses
Jesus Politics
Mark A. R. Kleiman
Liberals Against Terrorism(Nadezhda & Praktike)
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
War and Piece
Wonkette
Yglesias:Tpmcafe

Photo Blogs
Daily Dose of Imagery
Ephemera
Alexandra Huddleston
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)
TiffinBox

Columbia Journalism Folks
Apartment Therapy
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Ranajit Dam
Cyrus Farivar
Alexandra Huddleston
InSpiteOfEverything
Corey Pein
Nick Schager
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham

Literature, Fiction and Entertainment
Dave Barry
Neil Gaiman
Electrolite: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Scott McCloud


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