Why is There No Liberal “Canon” of Literature?

The Sierpinski Triangle is an example of a nested fractal.

Beverly Gage over at Slate asks a great question, and answers it without actually saying so.  In “Why is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” she lays out the fact that conservative candidates always return to the same philosophical, literary roots.

But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock. There are some older thinkers too—Edmund Burke, for instance—but for the most part the favored thinkers come out of the movement’s mid-20th century origins in opposition to Soviet communism and the New Deal.

But then she makes  a leap in the very next sentence.

Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools.

I think in this instance she’s absolutely wrong.  Primarily because of what she says shortly thereafter.

Here’s the key point right here.

The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.

This is where I feel she loses perspective.  Contemporary liberalism differs so markedly from contemporary conservatism, because of the former’s focus on the value of of the individual.  Liberalism has redefined itself as a politics that recognizes the complexity of society, the complexity of life, and thus cannot, and should not, pit one group against the other.  Your cause is our cause, your rights are universal rights, and the plight of the smallest is the plight of the whole.  It is utterly inclusive, often to the point of being somewhat ridiculous.

A complaint I have levied against liberal politics is that we can barely articulate a stance at a rally to give a unified voice.  If you’ve been to a political protest in the last ten years you’d know that it’s not just about ending war, it’s about the plight of minorities, about Palestine, about Hurricane Katrina victims, about rape culture, about pot legalization.  It’s a crazy quilt of issues, and everyone wanting their voice to be heard.  But we liberals believe that our voices, no matter how small, should be heard, because all voices have value.

XKCD Comic

This is the reality of liberal politics.

So, how can we ever begin to develop a corpus of literature, to develop a “consistent message?”  We can’t.  It’s impossible.  As Randall Munroe, very effectively, said yesterday “Human subcultures are nested fractally.  There is no bottom.”  There are further minority politics embedded deeper into every group.  There are fringes on the fringe of the fringe.  We just continue to dig deeper, excavate new layers of complexity, and say, “yes, you too are a part of us.”  Once we’ve read through a vast body of feminist literature, we then look at different waves of feminism, and how that’s changed over time, and then look at challenges to each subsequent iteration, and then and then and then.  The same is true of black studies, queer theory, any other ethnic, religious, and minority group that has ever, or may ever cross through here, and then the deal with the incredible new layers of reality that people are adding to their identities on a daily basis, otherkin, furries, polyamorists, cyberpeople, transhumanists, virtual people, who knows what else may come…

The homogeneity of thought that comes from a canon of literature is great for people who don’t want to have to think about the harsh, and complex realities associated with anyone’s lives other than their own.  It allows them to develop a rigid sense of morality, a definite set of what is in and what is out, and allows for the crafting of legislative agendas that move through like clockwork, because they’re not bound up in the morass of having to explore how their ideology impacts anyone, and if it does, well, the fact that they “don’t get it” is reason enough to just let them go.

There is no liberal canon, because we can’t stop saying “Yes, we care.  Your life is valid, and I want to understand you better.”   The liberal canon is the library, and studying it is the work of a lifetime.

Video Game Narratives

Pac Man stock photo from lumix2004 at sxc.hu

We have moved beyond this. Way beyond.

I’ve been a fan of video games since my parents got us an Atari in the 1980’s.  Then we got a Super Nintendo, and my cousin got a Sega Genesis after that.  I’ve played dozens of games on the Wii, and the PS3.  Personally my tastes run toward playing the cute games (like De Blob) or the puzzle games (like Tetris or Legend of Zelda), or god help me a cute puzzle game (like Little Big Planet or Katamari Damacy).  I’ve never personally been a fan of playing the RPGs or the first person shooter games.

But god help me I love watching other people play them.

Our roommates last year had a PS3 and I must have clocked 100 hours watching my husband and my roommates play through the endless variations of Dragon Age: Origins.  I didn’t care that they were replaying it for the sixth time as a different race or a different gender or a different player class.   The story was absolutely fascinating every time, and I lost my mind when I saw these choose-your-own-adventure choices led to deadly and sometimes utterly evil consequences.

So this article about BioWare’s Mass Effect being the most important science fictional universe of our generation just reiterated what I already knew: that video games have some of the most complex and amazing narratives of any form of literature that exists today.

At last year’s TEDxLibrariansTO conference I had the pleasure to hear games researcher Sara Grimes talk about her personal experience with video games, and about how video games function as a new and exciting form of narrative storytelling.  Here’s her presentation.

To me the BioWare games represent a new level of achievement for video games as narrative. The story lines are sprawling and epic in scope, there are thousands of choices, and there are dozens of alternate endings.  There are just so many variables, and so many amazing moments that it was easy for an armchair video game spectator to just sit back with the popcorn and watch the roommates play through the story.  Dragon Age was so inspirational that uber-geek girl Felicia Day made a fan-vid series, Dragon Age: Redemption, and BioWare created some downloadable content with that character.

So, when Kyle Munkittrick says that Mass Effect, another BioWare game series, is the most important science fiction universe today, I completely believe it.  I have personally never seen anyone play Mass Effect, but from the descriptions he gives in his narrative I can totally understand where he’s coming from.

And that’s why I love these games.  The writing is unbelievably good.  They hire some incredible voice actors.  The visuals are absolutely stunning.  It’s as if you’ve been given the keys to an animation studio and a loose script to work with and you just make your own film.  The swordplay and the magic is almost secondary to the narrative stream.  Sure it’s important that you don’t button mash yourself into oblivion, but these games aren’t about how many things you kill or racking up points for the sake of gaining points.  It’s about where you’re going, and how you get there.

Recently one of the BioWare writers was harassed to no end on Reddit because she said that she wants a fast-forward button through combat.  This brought out tons of vitriol and hatred, because for many gamers the combat is the point.  But clearly it’s not the point for everyone.  And thankfully one of the head honchos at BioWare gave a major public statement of support for their writer.  Good for them.  Because honestly, that’s what makes these games special.  The writing is unbelievably good, and it hooks the player as well as everyone else who happens to be in the room into the story line.  If they were to abandon that for disconnected gameplay they would lose the soul of their brand.

Sara Grimes in her wrap up suggests that if Libraries are serious about sharing the body of the world’s great literary works that we should not overlook the fact that video games are just as valid a form of literature as a novel.  I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, I would wager to say that sometimes they’re even better.

Literary Tattoos

Over at Publisher’s Weekly they have a great little post about the top five books that inspire the most tattoos.  I was a little surprised to see Slaughterhouse Five on the list, but not so much The Little Prince or Where the Wild Things Are. I am a big tattoo fan, and my first tattoo was also a literary one.

When I was in grad school studying for my Masters in Library and Information Science, one of my projects was to create book reviews for a pile of books from different genres.  One of the novels I was given was “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  MoA is a retelling of the Arthurian legends through the eyes of the women in the stories, primarily Morgaine (Morgan le Fae).  Rather than focusing on the political issues of Camelot, Bradley looks at the religious issues, and explores the popular notion of an early British Goddess cult that existed prior to the introduction of Christianity.  So the fall of Camelot is also a story about the fall of early Pagan Britain and the rise of Christianity.

Early in the book you see the rites of passage for boys.  Arthur is led out to the forest and he has to take down the king stag.  Then he receives a woad tattoo on his wrists from the Druids.  There is a great description of the serpent tattoos when Lady Igraine, wife of Uther, mother of Arthur sees Uther’s hands:

“It is truly his ring, Lady Igraine,” said a voice she knew, and Igraine, bending her eyes to see the ring in the torchlight, saw familiar hands, big, broad, and callused; and above them, what she had seen only in vision. Around Uther’s hairy arms, tattooed there in blue woad, writhed two serpents, one on either wrist.

In one of the culminating chapters, Morgaine, a priestess of the old religion, has discovered that a trusted male Druid has stolen some of the sacred ritual tools from the island of Avalon (the cult center) and has given them to a Christian priest “Patricius.”  Patrick, of Ireland, is then going to lead a Christian mass with these sacred objects, including among them a chalice that will be used for a communion ceremony.  Morgaine, learning of this treachery has decided to go to this public mass and stop it at all costs.  While standing in the crowd she overhears the conversations of two peasant women, talking about the priest:

“Look at the priest in his gold robes! That’s the bishop Patricius, they say he drove all the snakes out of his own country…think of that!  Do you think he fought them with sticks?”

“It’s a way of saying he drove out all the Druids…they are called serpents of wisdom,” Morgaine said.

This book really sang to me.  I fell absolutely in love with it.  I had long known that I wanted to get a tattoo, and it had taken me an incredibly long time to decide what I wanted to get.  So, when I read this, it just clicked.  I would get the twin serpents on my wrist.  I’m Pagan. My mother’s family is from England.  My dad’s family is from Ireland. I had my brother design it from an Irish funerary monument.  There are just so many deep connections that it made all the sense in the world.  I’ve had it about 12 years on now.  But the picture shown here was pretty much fresh from the shop.

The Serpents of Wisdom

Is the Robot Uprising a “New Myth?”

I ran across this article on NPR today, as people are pondering what it means to have a robot contestant on Jeopardy! and how that taps into what appears to be a “new myth” of the Robot Uprising.  I sat there thinking, this isn’t a new myth?  It’s composite pieces of several mythologies woven together in a way that taps into our modern sensibilities and fears.  Let’s take a look at some of the pieces and see what happens.


Crafted Objects Awakening

If you think about it, all of mythology is about things that were crafted gaining a life of their own.  The story of Genesis is that all of humanity was formed out of clay and God breathed life into us.  Hesiod tells the same in the story of Deucalion throwing stones over his shoulder and humans springing up.  But the most direct correlation to a human crafted object awakening is the myth of the Golem.  The Golem builds directly onto the Genesis myth, and takes it a step further where a human creator fashions new life from clay.  The creature is activated, and moves around, and may even look like a human being.  But he is nothing but dust in the end, as are we all.  There is really very little difference between a Golem, Pinocchio, and a Terminator.  They are all crafted beings who awaken and have plans of their own.

Machines Lead Us To Our Demise

The father of invention, Daedalus, is the prime example of how machines can both save and destroy us.  We only have to look to the tragic death of Icarus to realize that. But let’s start with an invention that started the tragedy in the first place: The Bull Suit.  Queen Pasiphae was enamoured of a particular bull in her husband’s stable.  Being the kind of woman she was she asked Daedalus to craft a mechanism by which the Bull would be able to mate with her. He did, she did, and blam she got pregnant with the Minotaur.  So King Minos, shamed and abhorred asked Daedalus to craft an unbeatable maze to put the creature in so that no one would ever see the shame that his wife had brought on them.  So Daedalus crafted the labyrinth.  And Minos, for good measure, decided that, since Daedalus and his son Icarus were both in the know about the horror that was the Minotaur, the best course of action would be to throw them into the labyrinth first and block the only escape.  Daedalus, being crafty, gathered up all of the feathers from the birds that the Minotaur had been eating and some wax, from who knows where and made some kickass wings.  So Daedalus and Icarus flew out of the Labyrinth, but Icarus, taken with the experience of flying just kept going higher and higher until the sun began to melt his wings and he fell, unable to control his descent, and crashed into the Icarian Sea.

Each machine in the story of Daedalus leads to further and further problems. However, it was the humans though who put them to use, and used them in twisted ways that brought about their misfortunes.  HAL is the perfect example of this.  HAL was meant to run the space station in 2001, but because it had a conflicting piece of programming it destroyed everyone aboard the ship except Dave.  The programmer thought that this was the right course of action, but he never unstood the consequences of what this might have done to the people aboard the ship.

Sarah Connor and Cassandra

Often times there are those who know that the robot uprising is coming.  The doomsayers and prophets, mad women who try in vain to tell people that they know disaster is around the corner, only to be dismissed by those who seem to know better.  The prime mythic example of this character is Cassandra.  Daughter of Priam and Hecuba, King and Queen of Troy, was beloved by Apollo.  Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, as he did with many women through his temple at Delphi.  However, she did not return his love and became cursed.  She would always speak the truth, and no one would believe her.  Cassandra saw the coming destruction of Troy.  She knew that the Greeks would raze the city to the ground, and she tried to tell everyone.  Her own mother and father dismissed her thinking she was overcome with emotion and sent her away.  Even on the fateful evening when they brought the Horse into the gates of the city she wailed and cried and tried to stop them.  But all to know avail.  The Greeks poured through the city, murdering and pillaging the city to bring Helen back to Menelaus.  In the Robot Uprising myth Sarah Connor is our Cassandra.  In T2, we see that she has been committed to an asylum for trying to espouse these ridiculous fantasies about the killing machines from the future.  No one in their right mind would believe such a thing.  But the robots, like the Greeks, do come.  The psychiatrist who has been monitoring Sarah all these many years, who separated her from her son (the chosen one), comes face to face with a Terminator in his very hospital.

The Attack of the Other

This one is almost too easy.  Mythology is built on succession, often times from invasions of outsiders.  The Irish myths and legends talk of the Fir Bolg being invaded by the Tuatha de Danaan, then the Danaan being invaded by the Milesians.  Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane looked at how tribal societies develop mythologies of monsters outside the realm of the village.  The entire rest of the world becomes an unknown.  In contemporary society we see this othering in xenophobia toward foreign cultures, but the reality is that most of the rest of the world is basically a known quantity.  There are really only two areas where human minds can’t make sense: the far reaches of space, and the minds of artificial life forms.  Stories of alien invasions like War of the Worlds are tapping into the same vein as The Terminator.  This is a mind that we cannot understand.  All that we know is that it seeks to destroy us and our way of living.  Part of the insidiousness of the new Battlestar Galactica series was that the Cylons were nearly indistinguishable from humans.  In a world where you cannot distinguish The Other from your own people the threat is all the more dangerous (mythically speaking).

Robot Uprising as Class Warfare

The fear of the robot uprising is that a creature we have made decides that we must be destroyed.  More than anything this sounds to me like fear of a class struggle.  Robots, built to be servants to humans and do the work we have since decided no longer needs to be done with human hands, decide to rise up against their masters.  This is really the story of the slave revolt.  SkyNet is Spartacus, leading a long and bloody war against those who sought to oppress him or to casually end his life.  Spartacus, a trained gladiator, was an actual person, not a myth.  He led a slave revolt across the Roman Empire to quash the rule of the decadent Roman elite who would use people as property and sport.  These types of turnovers in society were extremely common.  The modern vestiges of slave revolts now are probably union strikes.

Though the story of the uprising also speaks to another mythic tendency, the overthrow of the Gods.  In the Theogony we learn about the different generations of the gods, from the primal forces, to the Titans, to the Olympians.  The children of each generation, rising up against the former generation and putting an end to barbaric practices.  When we create robots, in a sense we become Gods ourselves.  Our creations are stronger, smarter, more powerful than we could ever be.  We fear that we will be cut down like the Titans, and a new Olympus will rise in our place.

Utter Destruction

With the robot uprising comes the complete collapse of civilization.  Humanity is destroyed or hunted down to near extinction and the world becomes a desolate wasteland of metal and debris.  Annihilation myths are certainly nothing new.  The flood in Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ragnarok, the ravage of war in the Revelation of John, the list goes on and on.  Humans have survived eons on this world, and as evolutionary being we have been working our way through all sorts of environmental and social hells.  But our biggest fear, the fear of death, is always there.  We know that we are mortal and we fear for ourselves being erased from existence.  Sometimes the myth is an asteroid creating a toxic cloud, somtimes it’s an ice age or a flood, and sometimes it is a hell of our own making.

Wherein I Explain “Blood Libel” with a Song

While I know the expiration date on talking about Sarah Palin’s abhorrent comment after the Tucson Shooting has long since passed, I ran across what is probably the best didactic resource on the topic the other day and just had to share.

Quck recap for those living under a rock: Sarah Palin used the phrase “Blood Libel” a) in a context where it made no sense (go figure) and b) betrayed her ignorance of the topic entirely (again, big surprise).

So, what is “Blood Libel” anyway?  Let’s break it down.  Libel is when you start a malicious lie about someone, in the context of this phrase it was about the Jewish people.  The Blood part specifically refers to the blood of gentiles, and specifically gentile children.  Blood Libel refers to a medieval urban legend where it was believed that Jews would kidnap gentile children and sacrifice them to their bloodthirsty God. Never mind the fact that the God of the Christians and the God of the Jews is one and the same.  This legend persisted and spawned all kinds of pogroms against Jews repeatedly over the course of the middle ages and early modern period.

And as all things medieval and early modern is was also captured in song.

While I was researching the Child Ballads, a set of historical English balladry, and listening to Pandora stations of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span I ran across this song Little Sir Hugh.  At first I thought it was just another murder ballad about some horrible woman who kills a child, but no, this was explicitly a song about Blood Libel.  So, let me share the salient story line points and verses with some explanations so that we can all have a perfectly clear picture of what is entailed when someone uses this phrase.  The lyrics I will use here are the whitewashed version by Steeleye Span. Though the horrifying racist versions are all available on Wikisource.

The song opens up on a scene of boys playing kickball.  This is a common image of childhood innocence.  Little Sir Hugh joins in the fray and starts kicking the ball.

He kicked the ball very high
He kicked the ball so long
He kicked it over a castle wall
Where no one dared to go

The “castle wall” here is probably the common Shtetl wall you would find in medieval cities that separated the Jewish district from the rest of the city. Though that’s speculation on my part.

Out came a lady gay
She was dressed in green
“Come in, Come in Little Sir Hugh
Fetch your ball again.”

“I can’t come in, I won’t come in
Without my playmates all.
For if I should, I know you would
Cause my blood to flow.”

Again, because this is the publicly safe version to sing no mention is made of her ethnicity though in the Child Ballads she is sometimes explicitly referred to as the “Jew’s Daughter.”  More importantly here’s where we have to explain that “little sir Hugh” was one of those miraculous Christian children who supposedly had some kind of precognition. That or he’d heard the urban legend and was repeating it child-like back to her face.  But let’s get to the killing already.

She took him by the milk white hand
Led him through the hall
‘Til they came to a stone table
Where no one could hear him call

She sat him on a golden chair
She gave him sugar sweet
She laid him on a dressing board
And stabbed him like a sheep

He called it.  But again, there was something saintly about him.  He was stabbed like a sheep, the lamb of God.  Part of the thing about blood libel is that it has a sort of fucked up biblical origin.  Certain Christians have never gotten over the crucifixion.  Hell, look at Mel Gibson’s Passon of the Christ and you can see just how much he hates the Jews for killing Jesus.  Again, nevermind the fact that there’s supposedly a reason for the sacrifice of Christ, and that it was God’s plan all along.  The simple fact that the Jews turned  him over to be crucified and that they “screamed for his blood” means that Jews are supposedly this bloodthirsty vengeful people.  On a slight tangent I would also like to point out that there’s something in this line that reminds me of the White Witch of Narnia giving young Edward Turkish Delights, and the witch in the woods with her Gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel.  Onto the rest.

Out came the thick thick blood
Out came the thin
Out came the bonny heart’s blood
‘Til there was none within

She took him by the yellow hair
And also by the feet
She threw him in at the old North Well
Fifty fathoms deep

So she drained the child dry.  No explanation as to why, she just did.  Then she throws him in a well.  This is another one of those common medieval urban legends: the well poisoner.  Because well water was commonly shared among multiple households in medieval villages the threat of someone poisoning the water supply was very serious.  Any outbreak of sickness or plague often resulted in accusations of well poisoning and the brunt of those accusations fell on people who didn’t fit into the common village society, i.e., Jews, foreigners, “witches,” etc. Xenophobia leads to accusations and hate crimes.

Finally the chorus.

Mother, Mother, Make my bed
Make for me a winding sheet
Wrap me up in a cloak of gold
To see if I can sleep

Part of the rest of the story is that the spirit of Sir Hugh appears to his mother.  His ghost is in a little cherubic form (as cherubs are the spirits of dead children), and he explains to her that he is dead.  The cloak of gold is a burial shroud.  In some of the variant texts the ghost child actually leads the mother to the well and the body of the boy is retrieved.

It’s never really said what happened to the Jews in the song.  All we see are the actions.  I think it would be safe to assume that if this song was sung in a Christian town that it could lead to inciting anger and violence against Jewish people.  The fact that the Jews were driven out of England in about the same time as this song was originally written and that they weren’t allowed back into the country until the 17th century says something.

For more on blood libel check out The Prioresses Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.