There’s something to this take by Dan O’Sullivan, but I actually think part of the appeal of Marvel movies etc. is that they’re complex. In fact, I think one of the defining characteristics of popular 21st century film/TV is complexity.
Lost, Game of Thrones, the MCU, Star Wars, they’re all complicated world-building exercises, and that’s what people love about them. They revel in the web of plot and characters.
It reminds me of an observation that Chomsky made once about sports talk radio:
When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.
The people who call in to these shows are not necessarily highly educated, but they’re able to give very sophisticated and well-thought-out analysis of baseball or hockey, or whatever, but ask the average person, even a well-educated person about world affairs, and you’ll get some very shallow platitudes. People are smart. They like understanding complex things. And, more importantly, they like debating and engaging with complexity.
The governing principle of most “democracies,” though is that the political and business bosses do the thinking, and the rest of us should butt out.
Any attempt on our part to engage with, debate, or affect anything that matters is met with ridicule at best and tear-gas, truncheons, or bullets at worst.
So, the MCU didn’t make us dumb. It merely absorbed our natural impulse to engage with complexity, and, in doing so, distracted us from the complexity that really matters.
Coming back toO’Sullivan’s point: With complex works of fiction created by massive corporations, the choice of which aspects are simple and which are complex is up to their creators. So naturally, they’ll make those choices according to their own interests.
Conflict is between individual heroes and villains, and we can identify with or revile them, but certainly not the mass of people threatened by the villains or defended by the heroes.
Video essayist Evan Puschak, AKA The Nerdwriter, gives a similar analysis:
Of course, there’s another question lurking: Don’t the more artsy films serve the same function? Doesn’t SILENCE or THE LIGHTHOUSE just distract us from the real problems too? Maybe, but, if it’s done well, I think not.
I think the key ingredient of fiction that subverts that function is ambiguity. World-building fiction presents a complete closed system. nothing in or out. Ambiguity forces us to actively interpret, and to do so under uncertainty.
To resolve such ambiguity, we have to bring our experience (of the real world) into the fiction, and that necessarily means examining our own experience, to some extent.
It doesn’t give us the tools to understand geopolitics, it gives us the tools to be okay with the ambiguity.
This semester I’m teaching an intro semantics course for the first time and I decided to use Saeed’s Semantics as a textbook. Its seems like a good textbook; it gives a good survey of all the modern approaches to semantics—internalist, externalist, even so-called cognitive semantics—though the externalist bias is clear if you know what to look for. For instance, the text is quick to bring up the famous externalist thought experiments—Putnam’s robotic cats, Quine’s gavagai, etc—to undercut the internalist approaches, but doesn’t really seem to present the internalist critiques and counterarguments. So, I’ve been striving to correct that in my lectures.
While I was preparing my most recent lecture, something struck me. More precisely, I was suddenly able to put words to something that’s bothered me for a while about the whole debate: The externalist case is strongest for natural kinds, but the internalist case is strongest for human concepts. Putnam talks about cats and water, Kripke talks about tigers and gold, while Katz talks about bachelors and sometimes artifacts. This is not to say that the arguments on either side are unanswerable—Chomsky, I think has provided pretty good arguments that even, for natural kinds, our internal concepts are quite complicated, and there are many thorny issues for internalist approaches too—but they do have slightly different empirical bases, which no doubt inform their approach—if your theory can handle artifact concepts really well, you might be tempted to treat everything that way.
I don’t quite know what to make of this observation yet, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot about it.
There’s also a potential, but maybe half-baked, political implication to this observation. Natural kinds, are more or less constant in that, while they can be tamed and used by humans, we can’t really change them that much, and thinking that you can, say, turn lead into gold would mark you as a bit of a crackpot. Artifacts and social relations, on the other hand, are literally created by free human action. If you view the world with natural kinds at the center, you may be led to the view that the world has its own immutable laws that we can maybe harness, maybe adapt to, but never change.
If, on the other hand, your theory centers artifacts and social relations, then you might be led to the conclusion, as expressed by the late David Graeber, that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.”
This argument in this article (tweeted out by Shit Academics Say) is just designed to pit one group of workers (sessional lecturers) against another (tenured faculty). This is because it ignores the fact that the number of faculty positions at least in Canada is kept artificially low.
Notice that there is no mention whatsoever of class-sizes. Coming from UofT, I can tell you, class sizes have been out of control for years. My intro bio class so big that no lecture halls could house it. Lectures were in the 1730-seat Convocation Hall.
Convocation hall is a beautiful building but it is designed for ceremony, not pedagogy. There is no chalkboard or whiteboard, and if there were, the students in the upper balcony wouldn't be able to read them. What's more the seats have no writing surface for note-taking.
More recently, I taught a "general interest" linguistics course (a "bird course") so big that it also couldn't be housed in a proper lecture hall. Instead we had what was basically a movie theatre. The lights were perpetually dimmed, and again, no chalkboard.
These sorts of non-classrooms really only allow for one type of teaching style, possibly the worst type: A lecturer droning on about a slide deck.
Beyond just the lectures, it's quite impossible for all 1000+ students of such a class to have direct access to their professors in office hours. There aren't enough hours in the day.
(Of course, most students don't go to office hours. It might make a good action, though, for student unions to organize students to go to office hours en masse. Not to shout slogans at professors, but just to ask for help)
Clearly, UofT, the largest university in Canada, has reached its capacity of students.
Imagine, though, if we kept tenure and the researcher/teacher model of academia and put hard limits on class sizes. Say, 200 for 1st yr classes, 100 for 2nd yr and so on. How would that affect things?
The neoliberal response would probably be "well, you'd have to have fewer students, probably only well-off white students."
But there's another possibility: Expand the faculty size by creating new universities.
This could mean founding a brand new university, or it could mean splitting up oversized universities. UofT, for instance, has three campuses: Downtown, Scarborough, and Mississauga. Why not spin them off from each other?
There are definitely ways to do this that I haven't thought about, and none of them are perfect, and all of them require public funding. But that's true of any societal problem.
But we can't really expect to solve the problem without an adequate diagnosis of the problem's source.
There's no shortage of qualified educators, nor is there a shortage of people who want/need an education.The problem is infrastructure.
So, whenever someone makes an argument pitting workers against workers, it can only really serve to obscure the fact that the problem is elsewhere—with management, with bureaucracy, with politicians.
In my last post, I argued that being required to pay rent to a private entity for housing is an injustice. However, as I was thinking about it, I couldn’t help but think of examples were rent is justified, or perhaps just a bearable injustice. Consider, for instance, travel accommodations—hotels, hostels, B&Bs. A person travelling to another city to attend a conference, or a wedding, or to perform, will, in many cases have to rent a room for the duration of their stay. This, according to my reasoning, could be considered an injustice, but few people would agree that the hotelier-guest relationship is the same as the landlord-tenant relationship. Or consider a longer-term rental—a person who moves to a city and, rather than buying a new home sight-unseen, opts to rent an apartment while they house-hunt. Again, my reasoning says that this is an injustice, but definitely a bearable one. Or perhaps a young academic is hired for, say, a two-year position in a city far from their home. In all likelihood signing a two-year lease will be less of a burden than buying a home only to have to sell it in two years.
If rent is unjust, why is it bearable if it’s temporary? Or perhaps it’s only unjust when it’s a permanent situation.
Or consider a slightly more recognized injustice: wage labour. In his book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, historian Eric Foner writes about the early development of the Republican Party in the mid-19th century. Most people familiar with US history are aware that the early Republican Party was anti-slavery, few people know that it was also anti-wage-labour. In fact, many Americans, including Frederick Douglass, considered wage labour to be not that different from slavery. Wage labour existed prior to the mid-1800s, as did the opinion that it was not that different from slavery—the wikipedia article on “wage slavery” notes that Cicero expressed this opinion—but something had happened so that a political party could be successful by being against wage labour. What happened was the industrial revolution. Previously, wage labour was mostly confined to farm-hands or apprentices. This situation was acceptable because it was understood that a farm-hand or an apprentice would save their wages to buy their own plot of land or workshop, thus becoming their own boss. The industrial revolution changed this. It was completely unreasonable to expect a factory girl to save up her wages to buy her own mill. The industrial revolution made wage labour permanent. So, wage labour wasn’t unjust enough to mobilize people, but permanent wage labour was so odious that resistance to it propelled a new political party to the White House.
Again, we have an injustice that is bearable when temporary, and unbearable when permanent. Why?
I don’t have a good answer, so the rest of this post is mostly me just thinking out loud.
What do you think?
It’s not that it’s temporary, it’s a means to an end
When we consider the temporary situations above, we can see that they are also all, a means to an end. You stay in a hotel so that you can attend a friend’s wedding. Someone new to a city rents an apartment so that they can properly look for a house to buy. An apprentice submits to an artisan so that she can become an artisan herself. Perhaps these situations are bearable because we can view them as a means to an end and temporariness is just a by-product.
Consider the following as corroboration:
Suppose the government instituted a new program: Every citizen’s first home will have to be a rental. They pay market rent to a private landlord for 8 years. After the 8 years are up, they are granted ownership of a home.
The most obvious objection to this would be to question why you would have to pay rent for 8 years. If you’re going to be granted property anyway, why not just skip the 8 years and start with the property.
This policy would become slightly more palatable if a portion of your rent went towards the property. That is if it changed from an arbitrary requirement to a means to an end.
Conclusion: An arbitrary, but temporary injustice is less bearable than a means to an end.
The bearable temporary situations are sometimes more brutal than the unbearable permanent situations.
There are still some vestiges of the old apprenticeship system today. The two that spring to mind are the restaurant business and academia. At the top of these sectors are highly respected professionals—chefs and professors—who have a degree of independence not widely found in the rest of society. But at the bottom you find people working highly demanding jobs for low pay and little esteem. As a grad student, my work and studies had the tendency to occupy my entire life. If a regular waged job did the same, I wouldn’t have tolerated it.
Hotel guests surrender a amount of privacy that no tenant would willingly surrender. If I knew my landlord was entering my apartment when I was out, or monitoring my internet usage and TV watching habits, I’d be tempted to take legal action.
The contrast between temporary and permanent is not well understood.
As philosophers and poets like to stress everything in this world is temporary. Buildings collapse, empires fade, everyone dies. Despite this, we still seem to innately divide entities, situations, states, and eventualities into permanent and temporary. A camp is a temporary settlement, while a town is permanent. Visiting is temporary, residing is permanent. A US War in Afghanistan is temporary, US rule in Afghanistan is permanent. What does it even mean to be temporary or permanent?
Maybe even these temporary injustices shouldn’t be bearable
In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber writes about the apprenticeship system in the pre-industrial anglosphere. Under this system, a male child of a certain age would be sent by his parents to apprentice with a master. The child would become part of the master’s houshold, meaning he would be expelled from his childhood household. Eventually, the apprentice would become a journeyman, get married, start a household of his own, and be considered an adult. Graeber points out that such a system was peculiar to the northwestern Europe and that southern European observers were shocked with the barbarity with which, say, English parents treated their children. In Italy, by contrast, adulthood wasn’t achieved through such arduous means. Young men spent their youth socializing until they decided to start working for themselves. So, maybe even the temporary wage labour of pre-industrial times was bad.
Similar things can be said about temporary rent. In many of the cases I cited above, we could think of a way of meeting these needs without charging rent. In most cases this could be achieved by some system of reciprocal hospitality. We often hear that one of the great virtues of some of the poorest agrarian societies was hospitality. I always heard that in Ireland, it used to be the case that if a traveller showed up on your doorstep, you would take them in and share your meager food with them. Such hospitality is still the norm in some sectors of society. Hospitality is generally expected of friends and family. Grad students often offer “crash-space” to visiting grad students. Same goes for many musicians.
Note, these are all quite informal, but it’s not hard to imagine how they might be formalized. I, for instance, am a member of a labour union (CUPE 3902). Suppose my union created reciprocal agreements with similar unions in other areas, such that if I was travelling through those areas, my union’s partner union would provide me with lodging and if a member of a partner union travelled here, we would provide them with lodging. Or suppose hospitality was made a municipal service, paid for by residents of a town or city, so visitors or new residents would not need to rent a hotel or hostel room in a city that wasn’t their own. I don’t think these are utopian ideas. In fact, I’d wager that if you looked, you’d find many historical precedents for them.
As I mentioned previously, I’m not very comfortable with the presence of US Customs and Border Protection agents in Canadian airports. I recently found out that the situation just got much worse. In a piece for the CBC, H.M. Jocelyn, a Rutgers PhD candidate, reports on recent amendments to the Canada-United States Preclearance Agreement, the set of laws that govern the presence of USCBP at Canada-US border crossings. According to Jocelyn, the amendments effectively allow US border guards operating on Canadian soil to countermand Canadian authorities. For example:
This new authority also allows U.S. border guards to deny Canadians their right of withdrawal. Before the amendment to the law was enacted, if a person felt at all uncomfortable in the course of preclearance questioning she could simply leave, retracting her intention to cross the border with no penalty.
Now, as a result of amendments, the guard is entitled to detain her if he finds “reasonable grounds” to do so. And the request to leave in itself could be construed as reasonable grounds.