World without end

Cover to Volume 3 of Eden: It's an Endless World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eden: It’s an Endless World is one of the standout manga in my many years of experience with the medium. I’ve wanted to write about this series for years. It’s just taken me this long to digest its ideas, as you can see from the meandering summary I wrote a while back. The story is so big and its scope so grand that I’m daunted at the idea of ever reading the series again, but it’s also so compelling that I know I will revisit this manga someday.

Eden is a science fiction story about a world where the apocalypse didn’t happen, which is to say that it’s a science fiction story about our world.

In this cyberpunk future the Closure virus has ravaged humanity, killing two percent of the global population (which, let us be reminded, means the death of millions). The old order is dead, and the new order – the New World Order of the conspiracy theorists – has descended upon humanity in the form of the leviathan named Propater. Opposing Propater are an eclectic mix of drug lords, terrorists, and gangsters.  Mostly they fight not out of ideological zeal but because they also want their cut.

The near-apocalypse of the setting invites millenarianism in its fictional universe, which the story covers extensively. In fact, the series draws heavily on Gnosticism, though not gratuitously and not gratingly. It’s possible to enjoy the manga without having any idea of the theological significance of aions, for instance.

The creator, Hiroki Endo, is an unrepentant leftist, and his politics suffuses every page. This is the only manga I know of which invites readers to check out Noam Chomsky in the appendix. The story is better for being overtly political. Otherwise it would be the type of reactionary fantasy that makes vague calls to fight for great justice while being so naive and so divorced from the everyday that it invites the opposite action. It’s heavily cyberpunk in that it’s a science fiction story distrustful of the establishment, but it also avoids the provincialism of much of cyberpunk. Be it New York, Los Angeles, or Neo-Tokyo, the classic cyberpunk stories are rooted in particular and specific urban geographies.

By contrast, this manga spans the globe, from brothels in Peru to private schools in Australia, with the story being the most compelling when it deals with the dispossessed. The manga even touches upon what the Zapatistas call the Fourth World, or the indigenous peoples so far out of the orbit of the powerful that they don’t fit into the totalizing categories of First and Third World.

As well, Endo is fascinated by the interface between humanity and its technology, personified in the form of the cyborg. He’s fond of images like the one above, where the hard and mechanical is revealed underneath the feminine and organic.

As you may guess, the subject matter guarantees that this manga is full of violence, but of the more grounded type. This is an example of the seinen genre, which is targeted at men. I guess it might be characterized as a thriller in the vein of a more leftist Spartan or Ronin.

This is not a story for everyone, but at times it felt like it was made for me. Perhaps I misspoke when I said that I’ve taken years to digest the ideas in this story, for I’m still grappling with them. Too many action stories and too many manga retreat into fantasies of empowerment and away from actual political engagement. It’s refreshing to read one that faces the political head on.

The Story of High School

Imperial Stormtrooper with two high school girls

Photo by Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0

I just started watching an anime series titled Beyond the Boundary. Yes, another one. This particular series is about a high school boy teaming up with his classmate to hunt down monsters. The animation is good, though the story’s a bit clichéd on the relationship front. In the end, I like it well enough as something to decompress with after a long day.

What strikes me, though, is the realization that there are a hell of a lot of anime series set in high school. Thinking about it some more, though, I have to admit that there are actually a lot of stories – anime and otherwise – set in high school.

The Japanese high school story is distinct from the American high school story, but both versions largely elide what takes up the majority of an actual high school student’s life: academics. We are shown scenes from before class, after class, whispered conversations during class, and interruptions during homework and study after school, but simply going from what is depicted we could not appreciate that these scenes are tiny particles of a student’s personal life snatched from the all-devouring temporal maw of the modern educational system. The state desires citizens and it will keep children in a totalizing and regulated environment until something more compliant comes out. Or until something not quite fitting into the system jumps out, but that’s mostly okay too, since modern society also needs poor people to exploit.

But we move away from the central topic. Like Don Quixote’s romantic tales of chivalry, which never mention knights-errant packing clean shirts or budgeting their travelling expenses, the high school story takes it for granted that the audience understands that the dull banalities of everyday life are being handled by the characters offscreen while the interesting stuff happens front and centre.

Inherently, then, the high school story is a fantasy story, for what is modern life but a collection of dull banalities, and what is fiction but an escape from those banalities? Here is what matters, says the high school story. Here, romance blossoms and ends, friends come and tearfully go, rivals clash and compete, adventure strikes, life is lived. Here is something better than reality – here is truth.

But this truth can only be found in fiction. Who has time to investigate a mystery or sabotage a date or spy on a committee meeting or do any one of the thousand clichés found in fiction? Who has time when ever more minutes of ever more days are increasingly scheduled and regulated and penciled in? And when one has free time, one must be preparing for the period when one does not. Get enough sleep, study, wash your school and work clothes, prepare your lunch for the next day, shop for groceries to make lunch with, and so on everyday over and over.

This explains the prevalence of the high school story. High school is essentially the last period in a middle class person’s life where they’re old enough to have grown-up wishes but young enough to have free time. Not as much as in previous generations, but certainly more then they would as young adults. And unlike undergrads, should things get too bad for a high school student then they still have the psychological safety blanket of running to mom and dad for help.

We fantasize about what we do not have, and what we fantasize about is doing anything else besides what we’re supposed to. Our secret yearnings are for some rose-coloured and nonexistent past when there were enough rules to protect us but not enough to constrict us.

Most of us don’t want to do what we’re currently doing. Why else does procrastination take place, and why else should so many Youtube videos be watched in the middle of the work day? People who lived outside of the strictures and constraints of the state did not all live happy and fulfilling lives, but they certainly spent a lot less time doing things they loathed. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is a guiding principle for them, not an insult. If I’m hungry I eat, if I’m sleepy I go to bed, and if I’m unhappy doing something I find something else to do.

From the problem, we come to the solution. But what solution? What could a better world look like? I think it would involve less regulation, less constriction, less hierarchy. In other worlds, less of the state and more anarchism. But whatever this better world looks like, I think we can all agree that it won’t look like the one we have right now.

A closing thought to ponder on – if alien archaeologists were to find the remains of extinct humanity millions of years hence, they might erect this epitaph: “Here lies the human race. They spent most of their time grinning and bearing it.”

War of the Worlds’ Races

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mlpl-RzsCck

An observation: War of the Worlds is the prototypical alien invasion story.  It was meant to be an impassioned screed again colonialism and a metaphorical examination of the consequences of white imperialism.

Later tales from the genre took up the original story’s premise – aliens invading the Earth – while ignoring its message that oppressing the Other is bad. In fact, later alien invasion stories proclaimed the exact opposite message: oppressing the Other is good, because they’re out to destroy us with their Otherness.

The alien invasion genre became an expression of fear of immigration and racial others. More, it became a cri de coeur of imperialist terror at losing hegemonic dominance, fear of no longer being top dog. You never see alien invasion movies where the aliens invade Mombasa, it’s always London and New York and Washington.

So now the alien invasion genre has ended up in the opposite location it started from: alien invasion was a metaphor for white people conquering non-white countries, while nowadays it’s become a metaphor for non-white people immigrating to majority-white countries. What a funny old world we live in.

The Hudsucker Negro

I saw The Hudsucker Proxy over the weekend. It’s a pretty fun film and I rather liked how it was an homage to old time movies. What was jarring was the literal Magic Negro, which felt peculiarly of its time (that time being 1994). Portraying a sympathetic black character would have probably gotten the director arrested as a Bolshevik agitator in the era the film is paying an homage to, whereas crypto-racism is at least more subtle in the 21st century. Therefore this character could only have existed at a time when white people know they shouldn’t be racist but are ignorant enough that their attempts at equal representation still come across as condescending.

The 90’s: Politically Correct enough to be ashamed of racism yet ignorant enough to perpetuate it anyway.

Sodomy: pros and cons

Via Foreign Policy:

In his 1961 religious treatise A Clarification of Questions(Towzih al-Masael), [Ayatollah] Khomeini issued detailed pronouncements on issues ranging from sodomy ("If a man sodomizes the son, brother, or father of his wife after their marriage, the marriage remains valid") to bestiality ("If a person has intercourse with a cow, a sheep, or a camel, their urine and dung become impure and drinking their milk will be unlawful").

Let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, that sentence is goddamn hilarious. Of course, the question of whether or not a marriage remains valid if a man sodomizes his father-in-law’s sheep is left unanswered, but let us at least acknowledge that there are serious aims in such peculiarly specific pronouncements about the manifold permutations of the human sex act. Religion is a source of political authority, therefore playing the holier-than-thou game by setting out detailed rules about sex is all part of the political process in Iran.

Which, of course, doesn’t stop outsiders from finding the whole thing amusing. Tee hee.

Amerika

Over in the Alternate History Discussion Board, a message board where people go to discuss historical what-if scenarios, someone asked the question of whether a communist or fascist America was more likely to happen in the past. Obviously it would have to happen before the Second World War and quite possibly earlier – home-grown communism in particular would have needed to arrive before 1918, otherwise the panic over Bolshevism would have tainted communism with the whiff of essential foreignness. The general consensus was that fascism was more likely, given that the pre-existing capitalist state was and is already closer in form to fascism anyway (I paraphrase, of course). However, other posters have pointed out that a communist America was not quite a wild-eyed hallucination, and that there were already certain strains of American socialism that could have eased the transition into communism. Like many discussions of American politics about communism, many participants confused socialism and communism, but it was still enlightening to read about an America that could have been.

La lucha sigue

Stalin strikes down Hitler with his superpowers while declaring, 1

Somewhat interesting news from New York about the growing popularity of communism in the Big Apple:

“As the economic crisis has gotten steeper in the country, it is not surprising that people are opening their minds to other ideas. Words like socialism and communism have been so stigmatized by the educational system that many people are afraid of those words. However, many studies have shown Americans support the redistribution of wealth but if you mention the socialism word they won’t agree with it anymore.”

Continue reading “La lucha sigue”

On The Righteous and Harmonious Fists

The Economist recently published a fairly decent overview of modern Chinese attitudes towards the Boxer Rebellion (judgement on the historical accuracy of the article supplied by Frog in a Well). Overall, there’s nothing surprising about how the Chinese nationalists have lionized the Boxers and how the underground Chinese Catholics have their own counter-narratives about the Rebellion. However, the comments to the article are full of Sinophile apologists making idiotic excuses for the actions of the Chinese, especially that of the Communist government. One commenter looks to be a genuine Chinese nationalist. Eh, whatever, a pox on all their houses.

Surveillance doesn’t work if I don’t give a crap

The anthropology blogosphere has been quieter than usual lately, mostly because most English-language anthrobloggers are American and quite a few of them are attending the American Anthropological Association’s conference taking place right now in San Jose. But that just leaves more room for us non-Americans. I was saving this post for when I finally moved hosts, but seeing as how it might not be before Wednesday, when this issue of The Coast becomes out of date, I thought I should post this now instead while I’m waiting for my rice to cook (yes I cook rice at 3:30 in the morning, I want it ready for when I get up).

Anyway, I was reading The Coast, Halifax’s alternative newsweekly (Canadian home of Dan Savage’s column) when I came across an interesting claim made in the current editorial. Halifax right now is obsessed over crime, at least as far as the local news is concerned. I think it’s partly a case of a manufactured moral panic (is there any other kind?), though it seems to be true that violent crime has been increasing. Regardless of whether or not the statistics say what people claim (I suspect it’s not so black and white), it’s true that people experience the world anecdotally, not through a judicious weighing of the evidence at hand. Constructed truths (again, are there any other kind?) have a reality of their own for the people who experience them, regardless of what a mythical neutral observer might see.

Now then, in the editorial I mentioned, it’s claimed that visible and public video surveillance hasn’t been shown to decrease crime rates. I don’t know if the data bears out this assertion, I’ll have to check the sociological literature later. But instead of preventing crimes by their presence, video surveillance cameras just help to solve them after the fact.. That touches upon what I said before, when I theorized that constant surveillance might make the surveilled upon uncaring of who’s watching them. If someone could always be watching, does it matter if you stab someone on the street or in a dark alley? Certainly not very 1984-ish. In fact, it sounds rather more grim.

Of course, there are other things to consider. The idea of surveillance as deterrence I think rests on the assumption that humans are more rational than they really are. Who acts after a careful assessment of the costs and benefits of action? People, I think, use more emotion when making decisions than suggested by the criminal justice system’s orthodox view of human behaviour.

Or it might be that people are actually more rational than given credit for. Violence against others is an extraordinary act, and if one is moved to actually commit violence, then perhaps it wouldn’t matter if one is being watched by others. Once you’ve decided violence is called for, then it might be so necessary to you that even the abstract threat of punishment is worth it. Put simply, perhaps by the time one has decided that violence against others is worthwhile, then at the same time one has also decided that the risks from using violence are acceptable.

I know, weak. I need to develop that more. There’s another thing to consider as well. Video surveillance as it’s conceived of takes the camera to be a proxy for the human gaze. The hope is that a publicly visible surveillance camera be seen as a human being in absentia, that the surveilled upon might experience the same disciplining effect that the direct gaze of others can do. However, perhaps video cameras are too difficult to anthropomorphize into a human being. Perhaps they’re too different from a person to have the threat of the gaze of others be anything more than an abstraction. In that case, what is to be done? Perhaps surveillance cameras should be installed in mannequins so that the gaze of others be felt more directly. You could even put a police uniform on the mannequins to make things abundantly clear. Or, to make it interesting, perhaps surveillance cameras should be installed in gargoyle statues. What gaze can be more terrifying than that of a leering monster made of stone? Isn’t the essential purpose of surveillance the production of fear in the surveilled?

I think it would be an interesting experiment, and even if it’s a bust, then you have interesting urban art to attract tourists with. A win-win situation! Actually, probably the simplest thing to do is install better lighting on public streets since it’s been shown to have a significant impact on crime rates, but I think gargoyles are better anyway. If I ever become mayor of a city that demands concrete measures against crime, I may actually implement The Gargoyle Initiative. And just to bring the whole thing back to panopticon, what if on a random basis, police officers dressed in gargoyle costumes should take the place of the surveillance statues? Think about it, an entire city whose residents are terrified that the statues around them might be alive. It would be the world’s greatest performance art piece. After all, what’s the use of power when it’s not absolute?

I’m posting this as a message of warning to the world. Don’t ever let me get any power, because I’ll be sure to enjoy it too much. There you go, now you’ve all had fair notice. Don’t come crying to me when you’re all forced to listen to broadcasts of my karaoke renditions of sappy love songs a la Nero.

It’s
the way you love me,
It’s
a feeling like thi-is.
It’s
centrifugal motion,
It’s
perpetual bli-is.
It’s the way you love me, baybee!
This kiss, this bli-is!
Subliminal!

Clap or you’ll be shot.

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So I married a killer robot

I know I’m kind of late to this party, but danged if I’m a gonna quit. I’ve been reading a bit of what the reaction to the new season of Battlestar Galactica has been on some parts of the English blogosphere and I just had to offer my take.

Battlestar Galactica began as a clash of civilizations: the genocidal and merciless Cylons versus the battered yet defiant humans. The people of the Colonial fleet were shown as noble but flawed, peace-loving but driven to violence, grief-stricken but stalwart, courageous, craven, paranoid, and cooly rational — in short, they were shown as human. The humans were the flawed heroes while the Cylons were the perfect Others, the anti-humans: relentless where the humans faltered, inscrutable where human pain was displayed, and all-knowing where the humans groped around blindly in the dark.

That was where Galactica began, but it’s certainly not where it is now. Slowly, we began to see more of what Cylons were really like, and slowly, we began to sympathize with what had been an unknowable enemy. Finally, by the third season the tables had turned and “we” were supposed to feel conflicted as to which side root for: the violently incompetent Cylons, or the suicide-bombing humans?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of suicide bombing in the show has become so controversial. After all, suicide bombing has been relentlessly portrayed in the news media as a cowardly tactic used by the enemies of civilization, possibly in league with Satan, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort. Setting aside the issue that cowards cower, not willingly blow themselves to smithereens, it’s a bit odd that the characters’ use of suicide bombing should be so fraught with moral crisis. I’d always gotten the impression that the problem with suicide bombing was that it was inconsiderate of distinctions between civilians and soldiers, whereas the tactic on Galactica has been used only against military targets. I think that the discomfort with suicide bombing among the show’s viewers comes from two main reasons.

The first reason is that suicide bombing lays bare the fiction that soldiers are human beings. That is, suicide bombing acknowledges that soldiers are not and cannot be human as long as they are soldiers; rather, they are military assets, pawns to be moved back and forth in war, the true game of kings. If a cause is worth killing others for, then it’s also worth killing your own soldiers for (Dean Stockwell’s character voiced a similar sentiment on the show, though he was arguing for the war to become genocidal again). Soldiers are trained to be the tools of their leaders, and the more perfect they can be as machines, the more perfect they become as soldiers. Therefore, when you see Colonial rebels blowing up themselves and their enemies, you aren’t seeing humans killing Cylons. Instead, what you are witnessing is the spectacle of killer robots killing other killer robots.

The second reason I think that suicide bombing in the show is controversial to its viewers is that its viewers are mostly composed of those who conquer, instead of those who are conquered. That is, it is the privilege of the viewers to see suicide bombing as a horrendous crime instead of being forced to consider it as a viable tactic. Which is why I don’t relate at all to the controversy over suicide bombing, since I’m descended from people who might have considered suicide bombing had the option been available.

What I’m referring to is the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902 (the latter year being somewhat arbitrary since armed resistance was still taking place in many “pacified” territories). It’s an obscure war to most Americans, though its impact is still felt today. Many historians see it as the precursor to the Vietnam War and therefore the ancestor of the current war in Iraq, though I see the Indian Wars as the truly prototypical conflicts that lent their shape to later wars of American imperialism.

Briefly, the Philippine-American War grew out of the the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, having finished its land-based empire-building in the Indian Wars like the Russians in Siberia, wanted to get into the overseas possessions game. Spain was already in the process of imperial decline and it was the ruler of colonies immediately adjacent to the US (remember, the Monroe Doctrine had already established the Americas as the playground of the United States). With the Philippines in hand, the US hoped to use it as a springboard into China. US troops invaded the Philippines, arriving in the middle of an ongoing insurrection by Filipino rebels. Hoping to use the native insurgents against Spain, the US tacitly encouraged the cause of Philippine independence. By the time the Spanish-American War ended, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which claimed the colony for its own. Feeling betrayed, Filipino rebels went to war against a new colonial master. In the end, they lost and the Philippines became a US Commonwealth.

The conflict soon became a guerilla war for the Filipinos, who could not use conventional tactics against better-equipped and better-trained Americans. The US Army saw guerilla war as dishonourable and uncivilized. A US general, in an exchange with a leader of the revolution, remarked that war

[C]ould only be justified by a combatant where success was possible; as soon as defeat was certain, “civilization demands that the defeated side, in the name of humanity, should surrender and accept the result, although it may be painful to its feelings.” Combatants who strayed from this principle “place themselves in a separate classification” as “incompetent in the management of civil affairs to the extent of their ignorance of the demands of humanity.” In this specific case, the end of conventional war and the dispersal of the Philippine Army meant that continued Filipino resistance was not only “criminal” but was “also daily shoving the natives of the Archipelago headlong towards a deeper attitude of semicivilization in which they will become completely incapable of appreciating and understanding the responsibilities of civil government.” Civilization meant “pacification” and the acceptance of U.S. sovereignty: “The Filipino people can only show their fitness in this matter by laying down their arms…” (Kramer 2006)

However, the Filipino revolutionary countered that the statement

was simply the claim that might made right, that the U.S. war was “just and humanitarian” because its army was powerful, “which trend of reasoning not even the most ignorant Filipino will believe to be true.” If in real life, he noted, “the strong nations so easily make use of force to impose their claims on the weak ones,” it was because “even now civilization and humanitarian sentiments that are so often invoked, are, for some, more apparent than real” . . . [T]he Filipinos had been left no choice. The very laws of war that authorized strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones were those that “persuade[d]” the weak to engage in guerrilla war, “especially when it comes to defending their homes and their freedoms against an invasion.” (Kramer 2006)

Update the language a bit and they might have been talking about suicide bombing. I think that instead of asking how suicide bombing can exist, it is better to ask what kind of dire situation a person can live in that they would think blowing themselves up is a good idea. Make no mistake that suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, else they would be using cruise missiles and nuclear threats.

Therefore, I cannot really understand why just the very use of suicide bombing in a fictional context can be so fraught with debate. Personally, it seemed perfectly logical that people in the position of the Colonials on New Caprica would turn to suicide bombing in the face of the overwhelming power of their enemies. Why suicide bombing? Why not? To me, something less would have seemed more unrealistic.