52 Novels (13): Slaughterhouse-Five

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 13.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

This book reeks of death. So it goes. And goes again and again.

It gives you vertigo. It broods over you as you read it. You lay on your back and hold the book over your face like a dark cloud. It’s like the Eye of Sauron staring at you, and you can’t stop staring back. It makes your mood like fog, dark fog, with a tinge of light that you’re not sure is light at all.

When you’re finished reading it perhaps you want to repeat the famous epitaph, ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt;’ but you know you can’t say that. And that’s the whole point. And so you just give yourself over to its quiddity.

It’s a beautiful book in its own way.

Aside from aliens and time travel, it’s about Dresden. If you don’t know about Dresden, you should. It’s a book about the ugliness of war. Something that we cannot eradicate. A fight we can’t win. And yet it seems that we should try.

 

 

52 Novels (12): Survivor

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 12.

-Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

Look in my eyes. What do you see? The cult of personality.

From a suicide cult, to the cult of celebrity, to the cult of personality. An ironic and fitting book for someone whose unofficial website is called The Cult.

This book will remain special to me for at least one reason. My wife got an autographed first-edition for me as a birthday present.

For me, it’s a book that will take time to appreciate. I didn’t enjoy it so much in the process of reading it. But, as I take time to reflect, I realize that it’s a very clever story with some interesting pictures of the world we live in.

The plot surrounds one of, if not the only, remaining member of a religious cult that committed mass suicide. We follow him on his journey from cult member, to housekeeper for the stars, to suicide hotline proprietor (who encourages people to commit suicide), to unwitting follower of a young woman with some sort of prophetic gift, to plane hijacker.

Some of the more interesting scenes, for me, involved the main Character (Tender Branson) receiving psychological counseling. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). I studied the DSM a bit in college (I took 15 hours of psychology), which made it easy to giggle a bit while reading the book. Tender figures out that he can just study the manual and pretend to have the disorders it describes. As long as he does this his therapist will never actually ask him any really significant questions (since she’s obsessed with DSM diagnoses). I suppose that’s the big ‘emotional scam’ of the book – Tender acts like everything in the world is wrong with him so that he won’t have to deal with what’s actually wrong with him. In the end it bites him. He’s escaped the life of the suicide cult, but he can’t escape the cult of personality.

He becomes one himself. As the last surviving member of the suicide cult, he becomes a spiritual celebrity and guru – even though he has nothing to teach, or even say. What really happens is that he becomes the puppet of a big corporation who is in the business of making celebrities. He just reads the script and plays the part. (Playing the part, by the way, includes taking steroids, amphetamines, and all sorts of other things).

Finally, as his celebrity is waning, he falls victim to a prophetic crush. The girl he desires turns out to be a dreamer of prophetic dreams. One of those dreams spells his doom, though he doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. Cue Living Colour.

Beta

I came across something last week that piqued my interest and got me to thinking. If you ask me where I saw it, I’ll tell you. I don’t like linking to other blogs because it tends to bring extra traffic I don’t necessarily want at this blog. I’m still amazed I have any subscribers for that reason. Anyhow…

*Note* that, yes, I can use Google. And yes, this term has been used before (though not extensively to my knowledge). I’ve never had an original thought in my life that I am aware of.

I read an article that said something to the effect that Millennials don’t want to get married and have kids because they can’t have a Beta version first.

But, actually, marriage-Beta is a pretty big thing these days I would say.  Co-habitation, yes?

I read a while back about a celebrity who made his girlfriend sign a ‘co-habitation agreement’ before he allowed her to move into his house. It pretty much said that if either of them decided to terminate the relationship, she couldn’t take any of his stuff and she had to vacate the premises, and all rights to anything therein, within so many hours. So Beta. Pre-nup practice.

I thought it was a sign of the time; even more so in some ways than other controversial issues surrounding marriage in our culture. We don’t like the fact that some people (not going there in this post) are fighting to get married while we’re ignoring the fact that others are refusing to get married. By we I mean so-called culturally conservative Christians. Of course I’ve been accused of being somewhat liberal before. I listen to NPR! Hiss. But I digress. I got married at 21. Best decision of my life (because I have a good wife). But I digress again.

I’m still fresh off reading Douglas Coupland’s Generation A (I highly recommend it!). It was, I think, his attempt to give the Millennials a name that was more promising than his ‘Generation X’ for the previous generation and perhaps more symbolic than the bland term ‘Millennial’.

I wonder if Generation Beta wouldn’t be a better name in some ways (?). Perhaps the up-and-coming ‘Generation Like‘ will fit the bill of Generation Beta to a greater degree. I don’t know.

But the idea of Beta seems fitting for modern folks who are always testing, experimenting, and browsing without any type of finality or definitiveness. It goes along pretty well with Chesterton’s term I like so much: the Muddle Ages. It’s just a thought. Now I need one of my writing readers to come up with some appealing fiction.

I should also add that technically I am a Millennial (and Amillennial! – but that’s another post altogether), if that makes any difference.

Five More Questions to Ask of Technologies

I’ll warn you ahead of time that this post is pretty much for me. I’m such a selfish blogger.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about four questions we should ask of our technologies. Andy Crouch provides five more:

(1) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
(2) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
(3) What does this cultural artifact make possible [that wasn’t before]?
(4) What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?
(5) What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

-Culture Making, pp. 29-30ff

You could remember these with MAR:

  • Make possible/impossible
  • Assume is/should be
  • Result

Now let’s be reminded of the four basic questions of Marshall McLuhan (as summarized by Mark Federman):

We used RODE to remember those questions:

Revive, Opposite, Displace, Extend:

  • What does the technology revive?
  • What is is the opposite that it may revert to? (I’m particularly fond of this one)
  • What does it displace?
  • What does it extend?

I like asking questions; and these are all good ones to ask.

Worldly Asceticism: Ruthlessly Repressive and Nihilistic

Broadly considered, the fact that bulks biggest in the modern industrial world is this: that its moral movements are much more utterly and ruthlessly repressive than the past forms of mysticism or fanaticism that commonly affected only the few. Medieval men endured frightful fasts; but none of them would have dreamed of seriously proposing that nobody anywhere should ever have wine any more. And Prohibition, which was accepted by a huge modern industrial civilisation, did seriously propose that nobody should ever have wine any more. Cranks who dislike tobacco would utterly destroy all tobacco; I doubt whether they would even allow it medically as a sedative. Some Pagan sages and some Christian saints have been vegetarians, but nobody in the ancient world would ever have prophesied that flocks and herds would utterly vanish from the earth. But in the Utopia of the true vegetarian, I suppose they would utterly vanish from the earth. The more pedantic Pacifist has the same view of fighting, even for justice, and disarmament is as universal as conscription. For both conscription and disarmament are very modern notions. And modern notions of the sort are not only negative but nihilist; they always demand the absolute annihilation or “total prohibition” of something.

G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

I get funny looks from time to time when I talk about what I call ‘worldly asceticism.’ Chesterton nails it down (in some of its forms) pretty well here.

The idea of the ‘ascetic’ is one who is rigorously disciplined. At some point this idea became tied together with monks and hermits – someone who cuts himself off from the world for a life of solitude and spiritual discipline. Chesterton’s point is that the modern non-religious (worldly) ascetic wouldn’t just cut himself off from the world, but would cut the world off from itself. Physical things become bad. Of course, this would never apply to sex. It would apply to things like meat or gluten or fat or carbs, tobacco or alcohol or soda. I’ve read someone mention that our culture’s oddness is typified supremely in the fact that we are okay with abortion but want to lock up a pregnant woman who smokes.

The cloister of worldly asceticism these days is the modern living room, in which we can live with other people and remained isolated through technology, following our own devotional routines. The monastery of worldly asceticism is the teenager in front of his screen cut off from all physical contact. Red Bull is the blood of this covenant.

It takes a thousand forms and they’re not necessarily all bad. But it’s a term that gets people’s attention and is worth using (for that reason alone).

This is not to say that everyone has to eat meat or gluten. It’s not to say that everyone has to smoke or drink alcohol. It’s not to say that no one should play video games. I hope that’s obvious. It’s to say that we should at least consider whether we are asking others to cut themselves off from the world in unhealthy ways.

52 Novels (11): Generation A

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 11.

– Douglas Coupland, Generation A

One of Douglas Coupland’s many claims to fame is that he likely coined the term ‘Generation X.’ 20 years later, he finally decided to do a little play on that title with Generation A. He says that he got the term from a quote by Kurt Vonnegut given at a commencement address in 1994:

Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all such tremendous favors when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago.

I believe this is essentially Coupland’s term for the group that has become known as the Millenials, but I could be wrong. It certainly refers to a group that has grown up in the midst of full blown post-modernity.

Anyhow, I have to confess that I have become an all out fanboy of Douglas Coupland (due in part to a common interest in Media Ecology). This is the second Coupland novel I have read this year and I’ve already purchased two more to read in the near future. I thought this particular novel was spectacular on a number of levels.

The story takes place in the not-so-distant future in a world in which bees have become extinct. This makes is quite astonishing when suddenly, within months of each other, five random people find themselves stung. Each of the five then find themselves in sterile rooms having gallons of blood drawn from their bodies in the name of science. What attracted the last remaining bees in the world to these five? Do they have anything in common? Is there a physiological answer?

It turns out there is an answer, and it is directly related to the hottest pharmaceutical product on the planet. It’s reminiscent of Huxley’s ‘Soma’ from A Brave New World in some ways. Ultimately, these five people find themselves drawn together, and then forced together, to find that they have a common narrative. They all, they find, have the same questions about the world. They all long, in the midst of the connectedness of an internet world to find the solitude in the midst of conversation that comes from reading a good story. They are longing to know if their lives are a story.

Is there a meta-narrative? Do our lives make sense? Is there a sense of story? Is there an arc to our lives? Those are the types of questions they are asking. And as they find that, indeed, there is some sense to be made, they end up alone on an island together.

The novel is told in a rotating fashion in which each character shares his or her own perspective on the events. At first, as you’re getting to know the characters, this can be a little difficult; but, after a while it makes the book more compelling in some ways. You find yourself needing to keep reading in order to get through the next series of chapters to get back to the character you were interested in. There is also a lot of humor along the way. Plus, you get the overarching idea that ‘Generation A’ is, above all, a generation looking for significance; looking to be part of a greater narrative.

Brilliant stuff. Great book.

Ignoring What You Notice, Noticing What You Ignore

The challenge is a tricky one: We must create an anti-environment so that we can ignore what we notice and notice what we ignore.

-Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

So, yesterday I mentioned the idea of purposeful ignore-ance: cultivating a life that intentionally ignores some things so that it can focus its attention on others. This is where the idea leads. We do not want to ignore things to the point that we become completely oblivious to them. Rather, we want to notice what we ignore while being able to ignore what we notice.

Federman makes the point that this demands the creation of an ‘anti-environment.’ If you are submerged in an environment, you will either not ignore what you notice or not notice what you are ignoring. That entails complete assimilation on the one hand or blind acceptance on the other. The one means that you buy in completely to the environment. The other means that the environment smuggles in its trappings right under your nose.

Ignore-ance

…Everyone is vying for the most precious and valuable commodity to be sought – our attention. Think about it: Every advertiser, every potential vendor and company desperately wants your attention, and will go to great, and sometimes outrageous, lengths to obtain it. If attention is the most valuable commodity, our most valued asset, it may be said that the most valuable personal skill to be effective these days is ignorance, literally ignore-ance – the ability to selectively and appropriately ignore that which is irrelevant or merely distracting.

Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

Is your attention like a tax automatically deducted? Is it something you spend without thinking? Or do you consciously choose where and how you will spend it?

Are you able to ignore? That’s a great question, and it is certainly a discipline to be cultivated. I’ve never seen ignorance on a list of spiritual disciplines, but…

Does this mean that we will ignore everything? Of course not. But it means that we will be selective in how we distribute it. Everyone is selective with their attention in some ways to be sure. The issue is making a conscious decision about where we will focus it.

More to come in the next post…

52 Novels (10): Breakfast at Tiffany’s

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 10.

-Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

I don’t really have much to say on this one, other than the fact that I enjoyed the book. I haven’t seen the movie.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is similar to The Great Gatsby in the sense that it is what Chuck Palahniuk calls ‘apostolic fiction.’ That is, it tells the story of a lost hero (heroine in this case). She’s not completely lost. She lives on. Perhaps she is lurking around any given street corner waiting to be bumped into.

Holly Golightly is like so many memories: elusive, likely better in memory than actuality, and always intangibly lurking, waiting to be rediscovered. The question is, Would that Memory be better left as just that – a memory? And will the narrator allow that memory to haunt him to his own detriment? She is sort of anti-hero, yet with a mysterious positive allure. You must love her, even though you shouldn’t. If you don’t quite love her, you must at least be intrigued.