Bird Brained

My husband has gotten really into bird watching since he dropped out of his PhD program. In many ways once he dropped out he became again the man I fell in love with, the goofy ding dong singing and dancing in the kitchen, pulling pranks, identifying interests and pursuing them, all the things that, for whatever reason, working on the PhD had taken from him. (This is not to say I was not still in love with him while he was in grad school; just that he was very different at that time). Since bailing, he’s gotten back into sound recording and design, and bought a bunch of fancy microphones. He planned a camping trip in Vermont. He built a bench based on plans he found in this weird book about GARDEN IDEAS. He got really into this thing called “forest farming” which is when you farm in harmony with nature, meaning you don’t clearcut and plow. He keeps talking about planting paw paw trees under my office window and he says he’s going to encircle our home with hazelnut shrubs. All of this is A-OK by yours truly; as the old sexist saying goes, “happy wife / happy life,” or in this case “happy old man / good times enjoyed by all.”

So birding is one of the new things he’s gotten into since quitting academia brought an unimaginable amount of free time back into his life. He listens to birdcall records and looks at bird flashcards and reads about birds and donates to the Cornell Ornithology Lab and listens to a podcast called “Talkin’ Birds” and subscribes to a magazine called “Living Bird” that is full of advertisements for places you can go on vacation where there are lots of neat birds. He got a bird bath and put it in the yard and for months we would sit in the living room and watch birds taking baths and we would laugh and laugh, because birds are very funny when they bathe. They really kick up a ruckus! They wade right in and start throwing water all over and fluffing up their feathers! Then they fly up into the overhanging shrubbery and preen themselves and flap around. One time I looked outside and a giant bright red cardinal was just sitting in the very middle of the bath. Not washing or fluffing, just sitting. He looked like a guy taking a relaxing break in a hot tub. It was truly so funny and I’m not sure why. Big red blob in the bath.

One of the newer bird-related accoutrements in our yard is this elaborate bird feeder that is designed to ward off squirrels. For a long time we have had little stick-on window feeders that are basically just trays with suction cups; you put them on the window, fill them up with seeds, and presto, the birds come a’flockin’ and you can see them right up close. We mostly see: chickadee, tufted titmouse, finch, house sparrow, song sparrow, junco, nuthatch, and carolina wren. The nuthatch is my favorite because he is very fat and has a very long thin beak and you want to squeeze him, also he walks down tree branches upside-down looking for bugs. The nuthatch is cool as hell if you ask me. Anyway, it’s hard to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeder because it turns out squirrels are not only greedy fucking pigs but incredibly dexterous, agile, and unbelievably intelligent to boot. I literally would never have imagined how smart a squirrel could be until this whole bird feeder situation forced my to confront it. The squirrels first were using our garden hose to strategically leap up the wall of the house and into the feeder, and it didn’t matter how high up we put the feeder, they’d make it. So then you’d come out of the bedroom of a morning, yawning, ready to greet yet another bright fresh day bestowed by our benevolent lord, and instead of a dainty finch or chickadee you’d see a giant shitty squirrel, sitting IN the feeder, eating all the seeds with his hands like a person or raccoon, his fur all squished up against the window, his rat-feet gripping horribly upon the plastic of the feeder’s edge. No thank you!

So my old man went and got a truly badass bird feeder that you stick on a huge iron spike in the middle of the ground, and it hangs off a hook. The seeds are encased in a tube long enough that a squirrel can’t reach the openings at the bottom even if he hangs off the top of the feeder with his feet like a bat (which I can now assure you is something squirrels do constantly). Furthermore, the little ledge surrounding the bottom of the feeder is just sturdy enough to hold little birdies while they eat daintily; if a squirrel tries to sit on it it tumps him off into the snow. So far so good, right? WRONG

The first day it was up we sat and watched squirrels try and fail to get into it for hours and we laughed and laughed and yelled things like “fuck you” and “not today son” at the squirrels. The squirrels tried everything! They leapt, they climbed, they flung themselves into space with nary a thought for their own safety or the safety of others. One squirrel kept trying to shimmy up the pole, and then he’d slide all the way back down it, like a fireman’s pole! It was truly hilarious. “We have solved the problem with our human ingenuity,” we congratulated ourselves. Alas, we all know how the deadly sin of hubris is rewarded—-with an iceberg collision in the dead of night that turns you immediately into the world’s greatest metaphor for hubris! And our hubris was about to be punished in just such a tragic way…

I got up this morning and the first thing I saw when I went into the kitchen was a squirrel eating out of the bird feeder. How did he do this? I am about to tell you the truth: these damn squirrels actually retrofitted the bush next to the feeder! It took them several days but they figured out which branch of this bush would enable them to shimmy out to the end and then make it to the correct height—-as the branch bent down under their weight—-to reach out and grab the rim of the feeder, where the seeds are held. They literally stripped this one branch of all its auxiliary twigs (there’s a pile of twigs on the ground underneath) to make it smoother shimmying. They performed fairly complex physics calculations involving arc and weight and bend and honed the branch until it would meet their needs. As I watched, the squirrel in fact fine-tuned the branch, biting off the end of it as it was getting caught on the rim of the feeder. He took it out of his mouth using his paw, and tossed it negligently to the ground. Then he shimmied the rest of the way, waited for the branch to bend all the way down, realigned his position, then dropped upside-down, hanging by his feet, and calmly ate seeds while I screamed.

It was truly horrible

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Tl;dr: Passengers is bad

This movie has such a great concept, yet I think never have I seen a work of art so stunningly betray the promise of its premise. You’d have to work so incredibly hard to make sure that every single interesting aspect of your premise was carefully not explored in favor of all the most boring and insulting aspects; for this reason alone, the dumbass (presumably) men who cobbled together “Passengers” should be commended. They did the cinematic equivalent of shooting the moon in a game of hearts. LORD

The most obvious problem with this film is its reprehensible construction of heterosexual relationships OBVIOUSLY and I assume you have read other furious essays about this elsewhere. The plot is basically that of all romantic comedies, but pushed to its most extreme logical conclusion. Before watching “Passengers” in fact we had sat down on a lovely Christmas Eve in Maine to watch the VHS tape of “Frankie and Johnny” that we found in one of the drawers of the B&B where we were staying. Since it is a Garry Marshall film we of course knew it would be morally and aesthetically repugnant but I think we were both genuinely surprised by how bad it was. But I’m bringing this up because “Frankie and Johnny,” too, pushes a standard rom-com plot to an extreme: man decides he wants woman; woman hates man and tells him to leave her alone; man basically tricks woman or wears woman down until finally out of exhaustion and a sort of last-ditch means of emotional survival she succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome and decides she really loves him too and has loved him all along. “Frankie and Johnny” is like an hour of a woman crying and pleading with a man to please, please leave her alone, and the man just saying “no” over and over again and then demanding to see her tits. And then at the end she confesses that her last boyfriend beat the shit out of her to such an extent that she can never have children, and he’s like “awww poor baby” and then they are together and happy. I feel that the film is just a long depiction of what it means to be trapped in an abusive relationship—clearly Johnny is exactly like her previous boyfriend, he won’t take no for an answer, he demands what he wants without regard for her feelings or desires, he’s incapable of taking criticism or evaluating his own actions, he negs her constantly and tells her the reason she doesn’t love him is because she’s fucked up and needs him to fix her. But somehow the film presents it as a heart-warming tale of two quirky weirdos finally finding love. It’s bizarre and watching it made me feel alienated from my species.

We spent the next week talking shit about “Frankie and Johnny,” then decided to go see “Passengers,” unaware that it was structured on the exact same principle. Basically it’s about a guy (Chris Pratt) who is accidentally woken up 30 years into a 120 year interstellar journey to a colony planet (great premise). He can’t go back to sleep, and he’s just stuck all alone on this creepy automated ship filled with chipper robots and simulations who just tell him it’s impossible for a passenger to wake up too early. He tries everything–he tries to fix his pod, he tries to communicate with Earth, but ultimately he confronts the fact that he’s going to spend the rest of his life alone on this ship. Then he goes through a bunch of the stages of despair and madness in a quick montage mostly played for laughs, which was just insanely tone-deaf, but this movie is just getting started in terms of being tone deaf, let me tell you!!!! So, a year into being alone on the ship, he then “falls in love” with another comatose passenger (Jennifer Lawrence) because she’s really pretty and he accesses her passenger information and reads her blog and she’s really smart and funny. And then after some soul-searching he decides to wake her up. Knowing that the act will condemn her—a total stranger—to spending the rest of her life alone on this ship with him. He definitely knows it’s bad and he feels really, really bad about it. But he’s SO lonely, he has to do it. So he wakes her up and after she too goes through the horrifying realizations that he went through a year earlier, he starts wooing her. It’s so charming!! He’s so handsome and nice, really he did her a favor by waking her up, it turns out, because she really likes him. They have a lot of fun playing Dance Dance Revolution and talking to this robot named Arthur who is played by Michael Sheen.

Look, I’m not just wholesale against him waking her up as a plot device. It could have been really interesting, an exploration of serious questions of morality and atonement, loneliness, etc. His descent into madness, if examined sincerely and at length instead of for laughs and briefly, could have made his choice to wake her up more understandable–what if we saw him become so crazed and dehumanized that he no longer understood what he was doing? What if he did it in his sleep? e.g.–similarly, once he woke her up, many interesting concepts could have been explored. Maybe once he woke her up, he became so consumed with shame and regret that he killed himself, leaving HER all alone on the ship. Or, it could have become sort of a wry, Don Jon-like exploration of the folly of idealism, like maybe he wakes up his dream girl only to find she’s an asshole, then they’re just stuck together for 90 years on this ship, despising each other, like War of the Roses or something. Any number of things could have made the scenario interesting. But the film didn’t explore any of them–instead, it treated this character’s profound, irretrievably immoral act the same way your average rom-com treats, say, forgetting an anniversary or maybe cheating on someone. A lie, a conflict, that will provide a momentary bump in an otherwise starry and fated love affair. I find this disturbing.

So they fall in love. Then she finds out he woke her up and she’s really mad. Then they have to save the ship, though, and he heroically sacrifices himself so that she may live, and this makes her love him, and then everything is fine, and they get engaged (?). And then that’s just the end! The movie cuts to the actual crew waking up 90 years later and coming out into the grand concourse and being like “Whaaaaaa???” because there’s a tree and vines growing there, and there’s a little wooden house built there (?? where did the wood come from) and an ol’ chicken peckin’ at the ground. And presumably two withered skeletons somewhere on the premises. The film of course is only interested in the two young beautiful people falling in love, not in what is actually interesting about the set-up, which, to me, would be the rest of those 90 years, like, what do they DO and how does their relationship evolve and how do they hack various aspects of the ship to serve their needs and what kinds of philosophical revelations do they have and honestly why don’t they have kids, don’t you think you would, in that scenario? Then the kid would be middle-aged when the rest of the crew woke up and the kid would be like “OH MY GOD MY PERSONAL MYTHOLOGY IS COMING TRUE, I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS DAY.” And the kid would be some sort of John Savage character type who was inculturated in a totally bizarre and idiosyncratic way that the woken-up citizens of Old Earth would have no way of comprehending, and maybe he’d/she’d become some sort of messiah on the new planet and get everyone to revolt against their corporate overlords or marry robots or something.

But anyway none of that happens, actually it just cuts from them getting engaged to 90 years later and the crew coming out all haggard from being in hibernation and then seeing the tree and the chickens and realizing that some poor schmuck has been awake this whole time. And the captain—played by Andy Garcia even though he has no lines!—just makes a comical face like “HUH?” and then the movie ends with a super triumphant rock ballad about love over Hubble shots of galaxies.

I feel very misled by the trailer for this film, which made it look like they both are awoken from interstellar hibernation by supernatural means, due to having some sort of cosmic task to complete. But no. It’s just this sick rape apology of a film. There’s even a part where one of the crew members, who is Laurence Fishburne, briefly wakes up before immediately dying and discovers that Chris Pratt woke the girl up on purpose, and he’s like “Daaamn” (actual line) and then later when Jennifer Lawrence is demanding that he arrest Chris Pratt because, as she correctly notes, “IT’S MURDER,” Fishburne is like “look it’s really bad what he did. But he was really, really lonely.” I mean, this is the message we tell ourselves about rape. Rape is wrong, right? We know rape is wrong, it’s very bad, we’re so sorry someone raped you. BUT……there’s always a but. But boys will be boys! But you were very drunk! But your skirt was really short! But why were you there alone anyway? So yeah, this guy should certainly not have woken you up……BUT he just really, really wanted to, okay? And now you just have to deal with that. And, much like Frankie and Johnny, she falls in love with him, because, I mean, what choice does she have?? 90 years alone or do you just kind of get over it and try to have some sort of life with this rando you’re stuck with? It’s horrible. And the film presents it as inspiring–because we see in a video testimonial at one point that Jennifer Lawrence’s friends are afraid she’s never gonna find the right man who will give her what she needs, because she’s never satisfied. Thank god Chris Pratt decided to take her life from her! Finally SHE FOUND A GOOD MAN, the only viable goal for any woman’s life! Lord

I am just gettting started. The hateful portrayal of romantic consent is just the beginning! There are a number of other interlocking problems with this fucked up movie.

Early on, I sort of had the hope that the film would present a critique of corporate capitalism. The ship is owned by a corporation called Homestead, which is engaged in colonizing other planets in order to exploit their natural resources. We learn that the passengers on the ship are tiered (just like in contemporary airline travel!), with wealthy passengers having nicer staterooms and access to better breakfast and coffee options once they wake up, etc., and poorer passengers having these small cells with hard thin mattresses, no breakfast or coffee options, etc. Furthermore, we learn that poor passengers like Chris Pratt have only been able to afford their tickets on this colonizing ship by signing away 20% of their earnings for the rest of their life to Homestead. So they are indentured servants! Going to inhabit this planet as, basically, slaves for corporate gain. My god, that is a disturbing concept! Will that be how colonization of other worlds really happens?? That is so fucking dark. Does the film have anything else to say about it? Well, yes, but not what you’d expect. Really, the film tells us, this is all fine. We see Chris Pratt humorously longing for the more advanced breakfast and coffee options, and being told over and over again that he is not at a high enough passenger tier to qualify for them. Rather than drawing out the absurdity of this set-up—this guy having to spend the next 90 years surrounded by luxury and plenty but unable to access it because he isn’t from the right economic class—the movie just abandons it. After establishing the breakfast and coffee situation, his low-class status is never explored again, and indeed we see him eating at all the fancy restaurants, drinking the fancy whiskey, using all the cool entertainment, etc., as though he somehow has the credit to access luxury accommodations everywhere on the ship except the breakfast machine. When confronted with this seeming plot hole you are forced to realize that, far from critiquing the bogus notion that capitalism is a meritocracy, the film is actually legitimizing that notion. The breakfast scene is played for laughs—we’ve all been there, huh? Standing in the third class line watching all the first class assholes board the plan first and get their martini in a real glass? We wryly chuckle about it. Guess I should’ve worked harder/been smarter, then I could be in first class too!—it’s like the breakfast scene is there only to signal directly to the middle class audience: this is you, you are this schlub who only gets the shitty poor person breakfast, and now the rest of the film is your fantasy of being allowed to go into all the fancy shops and eat the fancy food and wake up the fancy girl and have sex with her. Middle class wish fulfillment.

Similarly, the movie’s portrayal of corporate logic made no sense. So this corporation sends these ships out to distant planets, and then presumably profits wildly off the resulting raw natural resources that are mined and harvested and shipped back to earth. And yet, as the movie tells us repeatedly, the outbound trip alone lasts 120 years. There is no Interstellar-esque hopping around in time here—they make it very clear (more on this later) that if you went all the way to the planet, then turned around and came all the way back, 250 years would have passed on Earth. So this means some fucking corporation is making this unfathomably enormous cash outlay as a gamble on profits that won’t begin to be realized until, at the earliest, 250 years in the future? I THINK NOT. Corporations aren’t capable of that kind of long-term thinking. As my evidence, I submit: GLOBAL WARMING. The idea of some corporate slob pouring eleventy billion dollars into this interstellar trip because many generations later there might be some benefit to the corporation if the corporation even still exists?? Nope. That kind of long-term thinking is how scientists, explorers, and fiction writers think, not corporations. But for this film, it had to be a corporate mission, or else all the hideous stuff about tiered passengers and all the gross sloganeering and self-propagandizing the ship did (which is necessary for all the fun humor it provides) wouldn’t make sense, because a scientific mission wouldn’t function in that way.

Jennifer Lawrence’s character is a “writer” (unclear of what) who has decided to go on this trip not as a colonizer but as an artist. Her plan is to take the trip out to the planet, live for a year on the planet taking notes, then travel back to earth and write about her experience. So, to reiterate, her plan is to show up back on earth 250 years after she left, and then write a blog post about what life on the other planet is like. She mouths some obnoxious entrepreneurial nonsense like “I’ll be the only person in the world who’s had that experience! EVERYONE WILL READ IT, I’LL BE SO FAMOUS” and Chris Pratt is awed by her superior vision and grasp of self-promotion, and now feels doubly guilty for waking her up because he deprived the future people of Earth their opportunity to read this amazing blog entry she was gonna write, which, judging from the samples of her writing that we hear in voiceover throughout the film, was basically going to be a Sex and the City-level diary entry documenting observations that the rest of us would have considered pretty pat by, I don’t know, eighth grade or so. (“Why are writers in movies always such bad writers?” “Because people who write movies are bad writers”)

Let me explain how culture works. The thing is, people don’t stay the same over time. Just because you have 5,000 subscribers to your blog in the year 2016 does not mean that if you essentially die and then return in the year 2266 all those subscribers are like AWESOME, FINALLY A NEW ENTRY!!!! It would be impossible to predict the specifics, but there is no doubt whatsover that if you returned after 250 years you would be returning to a place essentially unrecognizable as the one you left. This fact is exponentially multiplied when you are talking about late capitalism—presumably the kind of culture that spawned this space mission—which scholars literally define by the high turnover of all its components (fashion, products, entertainment, industries, neighborhoods, ways of life). Sure—I can easily believe that simply the fact that you are basically a person from the distant past, popping back up in the present, would be interesting to people, but I bet if anything people would just want to hear you talk about what EARTH was like 250 years ago, not this random other planet. And anyway you’d have no reason to be so confident that you’d come back to great literary acclaim. What people cared about, what they were interested in, what they found cool, how and why they communicated and about what, all these would be different, not to mention epic changes in media itself, not to mention in LANGUAGE itself. Maybe there are no more countries! Maybe we’ve achieved full communism! Or maybe we are all living in bunkers underneath the surface of the planet while robots fight nuclear wars in our names above. Maybe a new religion has taken root and flourished, in which writing of any kind is forbidden (Pythagoras belonged to a religious sect that believed this, e.g.). Maybe women have been exterminated and babies are made in labs. Maybe society has crumbled and is starting over at a much more primitive state and no one knows that space travel ever even happened, and they just think you are a god or something. Or a demon, and they kill you immediately. It’s a totally absurd premise and makes her character seem unbelievably shallow and quite frankly very stupid, not to mention the fact that this seemingly well-adjusted happy person who is worthy of love (we see tons of her crying friends’ video testimonials to how much they love her) is just casually hopping onto this ship knowing that when she returns, in what will feel like one year to her, everyone she knew on Earth will have been dead for centuries. YOU SEEM CHILL

As Chekov famously noted, “if you’re gonna show a gun in the first act of a play, that gun better shoot somebody by the final act, otherwise you are bad at writing plays.” Well guess what?? In act one of this movie Chris Pratt goes into this like corporate boardroom where you can use a fax machine and log on to the internet to google “POD MALFUNCTION WOKE UP EARLY SOLUTION?” or whatever. He tells the computer he needs to send a message to Homestead Corp Inc and let them know he woke up too early and they need to figure out how to get him back to sleep. The computer is like “it will cost six zillion dollars to send this message” and he’s like PUT IT ON MY ACCOUNT or some other weird credit fantasy nonsense which is what this movie is really about (credit fantasies), and then he records his message, which is like “uh…I woke up, it’s only 30 years into this 120 year trip, I need help, thanks,” and he hits “send” and then the computer is like “message will be received on Earth in twelve years; you can expect a reply in fifty six years” and he’s like OH NO and the audience laughs and laughs because this scenario is indeed funny, I mean, technology am I right?? Can’t live with it, etc., Debbie Downer trombone noise. But then this message is never, never referred to again. Literally for the entire rest of this shitty movie I was thinking “I can’t wait to see it when they get the reply 56 years from now!” but then instead the movie just ended. WHAT THE FUCK. Most basic rule of storytelling, invented by a Russian guy 100 years ago???? YOU DARED TO BREAK IT? For this alone I scorn and shun thee, “Passengers!”

I am fully ready to suspend disbelief while watching weirdo sci-fi films. But like….if the ship is traveling at “half light speed,” as we are told many times, could you really just hop outside and go on a fun spacewalk, as the characters do constantly? And wouldn’t the vista outside the window look fucked up, somehow, wouldn’t you be passing stuff at light speed and they’d be going by all crazy and streaked looking, or something?? Look I’m not a space scientist, I’m just asking

There’s a hole in the ship and all the air is rushing out into the vast unknowable vaccum of outer space and Jennifer Lawrence plugs the hole WITH HER NAKED HUMAN HAND until such time as Chris Pratt is able to slap an iPad over the hole, which iPad immediately shatters and begins folding in on itself, but her previously-mentioned naked human hand is chill and fine

I really think that even a stupid corporation would program this ship to wake somebody up in an emergency and put them back to sleep again, I mean, hundreds of years are passing, surely you could envision a scenario in which a human crewmember would need to wake up and, say, patch a hole in the ship’s hull caused by an asteroid, and then go back to sleep

I want to know if the math checks out, vis-a-vis food and water rationing. So, the ship has enough food and water on it to last 5,000 passengers four months. If instead two passengers use the food and water for 90 years, will there still be enough for the remaining passengers to live for four months? My old man “did the math,” whatever that means, and said yes, so maybe this does check out. But wouldn’t it be rad if the rest of the passengers woke up four months from their destination only to starve to death because Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence ate all the food on the ship and then died??? Now that’s a movie I would watch the hell out of. Like the movie would become about these two selfish assholes who doomed humanity to extinction before its mission had yet begun, like basically it would be a neo-Adam and Eve story, only instead of attaining forbidden knowledge and dooming us to death and painful childbirth, they used all the resources in the world so that no one could ever live there again, lol

IN CONCLUSION (spoilers for the Le Guin story follow; please go read the actual story instead of this blog entry):
Ursula Le Guin has an amazing novella called “Paradises Lost” that explores a similar scenario as the one in this movie, but that is easily infinity times more interesting. Le Guin actually approaches a real thought experiment with a sincere desire to work out its implications. In the story, humanity has decided to send a colonizing ship to a distant planet, to spread the species throughout the universe. The journey will take many centuries, and there is no hibernation technology. People will get on board the ship knowing that they will live and grow old and die on it. They calculate that seven generations will be born and die on the ship before it reaches its destination. So, the protagonists are members of the fourth generation—one of the middle generations, consisting of people who were born on the ship and will die on the ship—and we watch them grow up, go to school, have hopes and dreams, and basically just go about their lives. We learn about the weird culture that has developed on this ship over the generations—Nobody knows how to cook, nobody wears shoes, procreation and kinship networks become really different. She explores language, all the weird dead metaphors that fill the language that no one understands anymore, metaphors evoking snow and rain, trees, animals, stuff from Earth that is meaningless to these people but that still colors the way they speak. Education is really interesting, because the educational system on the ship was designed by people back on Earth, with an eye toward this multi-generational journey. So the first few generations are educated only about Earth, their history, and the kinds of scientific stuff needed to keep the ship running, but they’re also indoctrinated with a sense of grand purpose, the belief that their lives have meaning and value even though they’re essentially transitional personnel. But then once the final couple of generations is born, the educational programming will switch to preparing them for life on this new planet, life outside the ship. How to build a fire and shit. Agriculture. Meanwhile this weird religion evolves, where some people basically can’t bear the reality of their transitional purposelessness, so they construct a new spiritual framework for understanding life that’s all about traveling without reaching a destination. They come to believe that there IS no other planet, no Earth, that this is all mystical nonsense, that really the ship is all there is, there’s nothing outside of it, no higher purpose. It’s like an opposite-religion! Instead of inventing unseen realms they take those realms away. This religion develops and becomes more and more powerful in the culture of the ship, and so this whole sub-culture of the ship’s humanity emerges that consists of people who truly don’t believe there ever was an Earth, and if someone mentions Earth, or the destination planet, these religious people just sort of smile pityingly and try to explain that you’re ignoring empirical reality, which is just this ship and the people on it–no mystical “destination planet,” no mythical origin story on “Earth.”

But then they realize that there’s been a miscalculation and actually they are going to reach the planet like three generations sooner than they thought. And it turns the ship’s culture totally upside down! The religious sect tries to sabotage the ship’s command center so that word of the miscalculation won’t get out, and then it turns out that over the past couple of generations this sect has also sabotaged the educational programming on the ship, so now all the programs that had been intended to prepare the Arrival generation for arrival are just gone. They have no way of knowing how to live or what to do once they land. So then it becomes this grim battle of theology—some people are like, I believe our purpose was to land on this planet and I’m sticking with it, and other people are like, you’re crazy, why would that be true, what are you even talking about, there’s no planet, there’s no landing!!!!

So then they DO LAND, and they make a deal—the religious people can off-load everybody else and a bunch of supplies, and then take off again, and continue their endless journey. So that’s what happens. And then the story just keeps being interesting! Because once all the people get off the lander and step into the outside world for the first time in their lives, for the first time in living memory, it’s crazy and awful. The sun is so bright! The wind is blowing, what is this???? The world is immense and I feel like I’m falling! The ground is jagged and sharp and there’s this gritty stuff covering it! They all cling to the sides of the ship, sobbing and barfing, it’s not beautiful at all, it doesn’t feel like a return home or anything. They all miss the ship so much. Some people can’t handle it, and get back on the ship before it continues on its journey. No one knows how to do anything. It gets “cold” and “hot” at different times, the sun “rises” and “sets,” it’s fucking bonkers, nothing makes sense or is rational. They find insects and are like WHAT THE FUCK?!??!! IS THIS A CREATURE??? Someone vaguely remembers learning in kindergarten that there were things called “beavers” on old Earth that were animals like humans but smaller and dumber so they decide these little green bugs must be beavers. They get everything wrong in weird ways. Like someone discovers in the ship’s cargo hold these things labeled “tents” that are clearly supposed to be set up as shelters once they’re on the planet. But everyone misunderstands that the word is plural, so they all start calling a single tent a “tents,” and it fucks with the grammar as you’re reading the story. On their first day at work on the new planet, one lady sets her baby on the ground so he can look at the bright sun. She comes back to him a few hours later and starts screaming HE’S BLIND!!!! And the baby is blind and his face is all burned to a crisp and he dies. And they’re like, holy shit, the sun can fucking KILL YOU, what the hell?? They break bones and get sunburned and experience hunger and thirst for the first time. They set up camp right by the river because it seems obvious that you don’t want to have to walk super far carrying water, but then a flood comes and washes the camp away, so then they’re like, aahhh right, we need to camp further away. You basically see these incredibly technologically advanced people re-learning the most basic prehistoric aspects of human life—literally encountering fire and figuring out that it destroys stuff and you shouldn’t touch it, but that it can also be marshalled and used to warm you at night, etc. They are SO EXCITED when they discover fire, they can’t believe it, they’re all like WHOA! This is amazing!! We are geniuses!!

Meanwhile throughout this whole story they’ve been dutifully sending their weekly reports back to Earth, and receiving reports from Earth!!!!!!!!! And over the generations, the reports from Earth have become more and more incomprehensible, full of words and grammar that they can’t follow, and describing mystifying events in terms that don’t make sense. And they send their discoveries on the new planet back to Earth, not knowing if they will be comprehensible or useful when received. Do the people back on Earth know about fire? They must, right? Lets tell them just to be safe. Do they know that if you are in the shade you don’t get sunburned? Do they want to know that we figured out how to shape a roof so that the rainwater runs down it and away from the living space, or is that an example of something they probably don’t care about hearing?? Like, what are we supposed to be doing, according to the Ancients who sent us on this mission? They don’t know, so they just do their best. And it’s like, what the hell is the point, what IS this??? It becomes this thought-provoking and beautiful meditation on purpose and life, because really aren’t we all on that spaceship, just trusting that it’s going somewhere, and making the best of it whether or not it ever does get somewhere?

Anyway why doesn’t somebody make THAT film instead of these garbage corporate patriarchy fantasies

oh wait

in conclusion, Chris Pratt is very handsome

Posted in Opinion | 5 Comments

Reading Group

I’ve gotten good feedback from some of you regarding the reading list I posted. Thank you!!!

Mary points out that most of the books I listed are published on academic presses, which means they are probably not going to turn up at your local bookstore (unless your local bookstore is a really good one in a college town!) and they won’t be in the public library. However, you can get them at your local public library using Interlibrary Loan. If you’ve never ILL’d before, ask a librarian! Librarians love helping people with research, in my experience.

But this leads to a bigger issue, raised by my friend Eileen in an email: how do you read academic texts if you don’t have any practice with doing it? It requires a different set of reading skills than those required to read other kinds of texts. It’s like a conversation that’s been going on for generations, and people are always referring obliquely back to stuff someone said ages ago as well as to different schools of thought that have cropped up in response to that thing, and if you don’t know any of that stuff it feels like walking into a conversation in the corner of a party where sweaty intense people have been talking for hours and then you try to immediately perceive what the topic is and what everyone’s stance on it is. And reading stuff that is “critical” and “analytical,” instead of stuff engaged in simply providing information, uses sort of a different part of your brain. I think struggling to understand high-level critical thinking is really good and necessary, but it does take a kind of focused time that most people these days lack. So I agree it’s important that we also be collecting and reading smart stuff written for a general audience, and please alert me to such stuff when you come across it.

To reiterate, I will say that the Federici, the book about the sharing economy, and even most of the essays in Mapping Multiculturalism, do not seem TO ME to be “too academic” in any of the above ways, so if you are stressed out by the Wendy Brown, I say start with those others. Also I don’t think the Harvey book is hard because it’s “academic,” I just think it’s a lot of economics that is hard to wrap your mind around. So many pages about interest rates!!

Additionally, here are some other cool resources along these lines:

This British leftist has written a lovely, coherent summary of the introduction to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the surprise best-seller from a few years ago in which he used data to prove that capitalism always generates inequality. The book is super long and FULL of math and graphs, the kind of thing that makes my heart quail. But the introduction is excellent, and you should totally read it if you want. But then also, here is a smart guy explaining that introduction to you! What could be better??

Similarly, I feel ZERO SHAME in utilizing Oxford’s wonderful “A Very Short Introduction” series. These are extremely short little paperbacks that summarize an entire field of thought or object of study for the non-specialist reader. They are written by expert scholars in the given field. I’m really interested in the psychology involved–the kind of scholarly mind that sees writing one of these as a fun challenge (boiling down the 30 years of knowledge and ideas you’ve accumulated on a subject into a pocket paperback any educated adult could read) and those who probably think of it as pointless labor. The ones I have read have been pretty great. I haven’t read either of these but I recommend them to you regardless (and you can usually get these cheap used). Sidenote: there are SO MANY OF THESE, it’s insane. There’s one on “Time,” one on “The Universe,” etc. I really think these are so cool and such a good resource for non-academics and also for academics trying to get a quick feel for an unfamiliar topic or field. Anyway there you have it:
Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction
Marx: A Very Short Introduction (this one’s by Peter Singer!!)

Coming up with non-academic reading material is also a good idea because we need to read stuff that is published more quickly–scholarship takes years to gestate and move through peer review etc., and it’s important to read good smart deep takes on current events as they are happening, especially now when we all need to be apprised of actions to take. I recommended Jacobin magazine, which so far I am finding pretty spot-on (and it’s aesthetically pleasing too, which has not always been the case with socialist publications LOL!!!). Eileen mentioned Dissent, but neither she nor I know that one well–can anyone comment?

I had also suggested reading feminist science fiction, which I stand by. Seriously, Le Guin’s collection The Birthday of the World!! GO READ IT. And Eileen also suggests: Alice Walker, Rachel Maddow, Chimamanda Adichie, Zadie Smith, Sophia Al-Maria, Angela Davis, Kiran Desai, Hannah Arendt, and Barbara Ehrenreich. A great list of smart women writing about the world. Really just dip in to their oeuvres wherever you want and it’ll probably be great–I haven’t read everyone on this list but I’ve read many of them and recommend them very highly. Read “Nickel and Dimed” and you will be well on your way to developing a healthful class rage!

What else should we be reading? The Elena Ferrante novels get pretty deep into class and the long-term multi-generational effects of capitalist inequality, starting mostly notably in book 2, if you’re looking for amazing novels that are also about capitalism. Book 3 has this harrowing plotline about trying to organize the exploited workers in a sausage factory, and all the ways the political ideals of the privileged intellectual class who is trying to do the organizing come into conflict with the lived reality of the actual workers, who are afraid not only for their livelihoods but their physical safety, and who resent the students who come in with their slogans and pamphlets. Brutal and sad and disheartening stuff.

I am also loving all the millennial commies I’ve been following on Twitter

Specifically w/r/t one of the topics on my reading list (multiculturalism), Erin also writes: “I too work at a large university (though not teaching) and there’s been a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion post-election. The quote you give above by Ahmed really struck a chord with me. Committees are being created across campus with good intentions (perhaps), but I also find myself wary of them for some of the same reasons she describes.” YES. Anyone working in academia right now is well familiar with this much-publicized push to get “diversity initiatives” in place, and such moves are also becoming familiar in other industries, like even Silicon Valley where the CEOs of Intel and Apple and whatever are bragging about their diversity initiatives. I am most familiar with what’s going on in higher ed: most of these initiatives are half-baked at best, but the real problem boils down to the problem I have with basically everything, which is that any “solution” that comes from the top down, instead of the bottom up, will always be flawed and will always serve power in some way. These solutions might honestly be well-intentioned! But whenever an initiative comes from on high–from the provost, the president, the CEO, the king, whoever–always poke into it and see if you can figure out how it is serving power, because it always will be, sometimes obviously and sometimes obliquely.

For example, if you actually listen to the CEO of Intel talk about diversity initiatives, as I unfortunately have, it is always about expanding the Intel brand worldwide. It is always about reaching more consumers in more and more far-flung places, by “having a workforce that represents the diversity of our consumer base.” It is never about justice, equality, dismantling racism for its own sake, as a SOCIAL good. It’s about canny brand positioning and the ability to infiltrate foreign cultures and indoctrinate them into loving Intel’s products. So then the “diversity” that you somehow embody, as a non-white person, becomes just another corporate asset. If we let corporations define the terms of what it means to care about racial justice/gender equality/whatever, it means allowing moral or ethical content to be totally evacuated from those concepts and replaced only with economic rationality–does this make or lose money?–which then means those concepts become flimsy and capricious (see Wendy Brown for much more on this). It means that if a time comes when “celebrating diversity” is no longer considered financially profitable, it will be jettisoned as a corporate value, and since we’ve let corporations define why that value is important we will be left with no way of defending it. Many smart people would call me old fashioned for saying so, but I think it is incumbent on us to understand and value things we believe are good in terms other than the merely economic. Good things can’t be good solely because they are financially profitable; I can not live in that world.

The Ahmed quote indicates another way we can see these initiatives serving power–they allow institutions to masquerade as socially conscious, egalitarian, even politically-activist, without disturbing the fundamental inequalities and biases such institutions are built upon. For example, everyone knows that lowering or abolishing tuition would have a dramatic and salutary effect on the “diversity” of a college campus, because our country’s long history of racialized inequality has meant that non-white people are more likely to be poor, and thus unable to afford college tuition, than white people, which means that the ability to attain a standardized education has itself become racialized. Meaning your ability to become officially educated is tied to your race, statistically speaking. This is simply a fact, backed up by pure cold data, and everyone knows it, and all but the biggest jackasses think it’s unjust and unAmerican and should be rectified. BUT, the most obvious solution–making education free–would not serve power, because while it might make college more just, more egalitarian, more racially diverse, and thus ultimately more valuable to the greater society, it would also make college a financially unprofitable industry. In theory, we all “know” that a college should not be a profit-driven business and that no decisions regarding the education of our nation’s youth should be made using the profit motive–that education is a social good that should be equally available to everyone!–but there is where you see the tension between theory and practice. In practice, colleges have to show ever-increasing profits, just like any other business, and that’s the only reason for their existence, in the eyes of the boards of trustees and high-level administrators who have increasingly come to run them since the 1960s. Thus, when confronted with pressure from students making accusations of racism, the university needs to publicly be seen as committed to listening to and responding to students, because that is, in theory, its only purpose as an institution. But it must do so in a way that does not jeopardize its bottom line, because in actuality the purpose of a college is to generate profits. So, colleges do not take the one obvious step that would actually go some distance toward concretely addressing the problem, and instead they hire a bunch of new people to form committees to “start a conversation” about “diversity” (“diversity,” never “racism”), which ultimately makes no concrete change to the unjust structure of the education system except to inure the administration from future criticisms of racism. How can they be racist? They implemented all these diversity initiatives!


I have so much to tell you about the bird feeder in our yard but I will save that for another time

Posted in Opinion | 4 Comments