EXCITING IDEAS VS PROFITABLE STORIES: some notes on a text by Lester Del Rey

The recent boom of science fiction and fantasy franchises has led to a rise of spectacular effects to the detriment of intellectual content. The eyes are solicited more than the brain, and the excitement of speculative content is increasingly subordinated to the feel-good sentiments of the family romance. Violence is excusable if it is shown to be a step on a feel-good character arc, otherwise it must be punished. All criticism should be kept at a minimum, as critics are haters and hinder our enjoyment.

Jesse Willis of SFFAUDIO shared an interesting editorial by Lester Del Rey entitled IDEAS vs. STORIES (see below) which was published in Space Science Fiction, September 1953. The complete issue in which Del Rey’s editorial appears can be found here:

https://archive.org/details/Space_Science_Fiction_v02n02_1953-09_UnkSc-cape1736

In his editorial Del Rey speaks about the difference between the good old days of science fiction, when the fun of inventing ideas and the good time of sharing them were the most important values, and the new post-boom writers for whom ideas are to be hoarded. In the first case the more ideas in a story the better, in the second the goal is to get as many stories as possible out of the same simple set of ideas.  Unfortunately, some authors do not seem to be able to distinguish between ideas and plot points.

Sharing the ideas of a good story doesn’t spoil it but makes you want to read it. Revealing the plot points of an idea-impoverished story does often spoil it. I do not think that DUNE or ANATHEM, to take two ideas-heavy novels, can be spoiled (in a tweet Jesse Willis cites Olaf Stapledon’s novels as unspoilable). Not to mention books that need to be read twice or more, such as Gene Wolfe’s THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN.

Also the idea that one has to « hoard » plot twists and gimmicks goes well with the current anti-spoiler obsession. If a story is full of ideas and permutations and twists it cannot be easily spoiled. If it is just a compilation of gimmicks then it is born spoiled, and the only interest at this level is curiosity about which one of a small number of possibilities will in fact be chosen, and how will it be treated.

I think this analysis by Lester Del Rey applies even more today to films like AVENGERS ENDGAME and to tv series like GAME OF THRONES. The number of ideas compared with the comics or the novels is quite low, and the experience of watching them is memorable for quite other reasons.

Another interesting aspect of Del Rey’s espousal of idea-centered fiction is his call at the end of his text for fans to criticise stories so as to improve writers’ stories. Anything goes as long as it moves in the direction of intellectual excitement and abundance. This is the opposite of the condescending attitude to fans that high-budget films and series evince today.

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AVENGERS ENDCRY CAMEOGAME: the dis-infinity saga

1) STRUCTURE: BLOAT AND MAWK

AVENGERS ENDGAME is a disappointing film due to a certain number of structural flaws. Most notably, we may cite its length (the film is too long for the story it tells), its pacing (the story is told too slowly, with some moments drawn out for no obvious reason), its over-sized cast. and its mawkish ending.

2) RE-FINITISING INFINITY

AVENGERS INFINITY WAR was a fitting culmination of the preceding 20 films, organising a progressive crescendo of power levels, starting from god-like strength and rising to the infinity snap. ENDGAME took us back down to finitude and the importance of the mortal characters and of their family romance.

3) FEEL-GOODING vs WORLD-BUILDING

In written science fiction and fantasy the world-building is often at least as important as the plot and the characters. In the films of the MCU, especially in ENDGAME, the world-building is at a minimum, establishing just enough of the different action-sites to create stereotypes that can be recycled endlessly as needed for dramatic purposes. This use of world-lets reduces the settings themselves to set piece cameos. All these stereotypes can then be mobilised in a machine to turn potentially disruptive affects into toned down sentiments.

4) FIFTY SHADES OF WORTHY

Thor beheads a subdued Thanos in a fit of rage, but remains worthy. Hawkeye is worthy of surviving (despite having become a revenge-filled murderer), as unlike Black Widow he has a family. Another road to worthiness is self-sacrifice. Black Widow and Iron Man are worthy of our tears, although only Iron Man is worthy of the big funeral. Captain America sacrifices himself to the Cause of Freedom and so is worthy not only of a second chance at love and happiness but of closing the film on a kiss.

5) TIME TRAVEL vs ANAMNESIS

Mourning is another potentially disruptive affect and so needs to be replaced with regret as a preliminary to « moving on ». Sometimes the emotional blockage is so great that some form of therapy is needed. Psychoanalysis is a long, time-consuming technique for saying goodbye to one’s parents and love-objects. Time travel is far more effective, allowing the patient a heart-rending, but also heart-mending, adieu to the significant other.

6) FILM MAKER AS THANOS

If we imagine the two Russo brothers as wielding the film-makers’ version of the Infinity Gauntlet, we may ask which particular stones do they favour and how they make use of them. Evidently, like all directors,they use the space and the time stones, but in rather unimaginative ways. Even if they are at pains to distinguish their use of time travel from « Back to the Future » scenarios, the time-travel-creates-branching-time-lines is a familiar SF trope. Strictly this plot device also involves a rudimentary use of their reality stone.

An interesting feature of their ENDGAME gauntlet is that the resort to power to resolve the problems of the world is downplayed. The use of even more power, with the addition of Captain Marvel to the team, to defeat of Thanos solves nothing, and from manic high everyone is plunged into depression. The Russo’s soul stone was seen to be the answer. As we have seen, with self-sacrifice as its fuel source much standardised emotion could be generated. It provides the necessary supplement of soul.

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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (18): LEARN SPIRITS (Deleuze and Derrida II)

Deleuze and Guattari are not writing their book WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? out of old age as an empirical reality, but in relation to the spectre of old age, which can sometimes and in certain cases accord a « moment of grace between life and death ». Such moments of grace, whenever they occur, are in a complex relation with time, death, and the multiplicity of spirits which haunt us.

Derrida, supposedly a thinker that does not assert anything clearly and unambiguously, is quite affirmative on this point:

It can only happen, if it – learning how to live – remains to be done, between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between two, and between all the  » two ‘s » one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only converse with or about some ghost. So it would be necessary to learn spirits (SPECTRES OF MARX, translation modified).

Deleuze and Guattari speak more concretely here. Learn spirits (what Deleuze and Guattari call « spiritual entities »), means also learn their concepts, personae, landscapes, diagrams and planes.

But how can we « learn spirits »? One answer is to learn philosophy. Philosophy is one long conversation with spirits, with and by means of our own spirit.

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Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (17): Spectres and Personae (Deleuze and Derrida)

We are attempting to read Deleuze and Guattari’s WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? as it asks to be read, concretely, as a text about philosophy as mode of existence. Concretely, that is to say: in dramatised untimely terms of place, time, characters, landscapes, movements and affects. (The tension between concrete as actual and as untimely runs through the book).

However, abstraction has crept in to their highly selective definition of philosophy as the creation of concepts, in that they exclude « discussion », communication and debate. This demarcation between concepts and opinion (doxa) is essential, but it excludes too much. In particular the concrete context becomes simplified, and we are left to our own devices to construct the larger mega-text of discussion and intercession between their work and that of their contemporaries.

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? was published in French in 1991. Deleuze was 66 years old and Guattari was 61. Derrida published SPECTRES OF MARX in 1993, at the age of 63. As we have argued, the incipit to WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? has often been misread. This is not a work of « old age », nor does it claim to be. Nor is Derrida’s SPECTRES OF MARX. They are, rather, books of maturity, of becoming mature.

It is very interesting to see how the incipit to SPECTRES OF MARX is traversed by similar concerns to to those of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, to the point of seeming to be written in response to, or in dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari’s book. For example, SOM seems to extend to life, living, and to live what WIP? expounds in relation to the concept. Perhaps it is the inverse, and WIP?’s concepts extend and deepen the shared problematic of a pedagogy of life. Each book spectralises the other, just as it is spectralised.

For Derrida this pedagogy is construed as « learning/teaching to live », while for Deleuze and Guattari it is a « pedagogy of the concept ». In both cases the transmission is not direct, but mediated by other, absent-present, spirits called « conceptual personae » (Deleuze and Guattari) or « spectres » (Derrida). Deconstructing the classical unitary subject, they share a subjective pluralism and a heightened awareness of what we may call the paradoxes of noesis.

Another paradox of noesis can be found in what Derrida calls a « strange » obligation, both « impossible » and « necessary »:

This is, therefore, a strange commitment, both impossible and necessary, for a living being supposed to be alive: « I would like to learn to live » (SPECTRES OF MARX, xvii).

In WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? old age is cited as a case of an « impossible value » that gives us a « pure necessity ». The paradoxical modality of impossible-and-necessary belongs to a common care for a demanding style.

In a later text, « LEARNING TO LIVE FINALLY The Last Interview », Derrida returns to and situates SPECTRES OF MARX in terms of the geopolitical context in which he was calling for resistance to the globalisation that was extending the State-form to the whole of the planet and in favour of a « New International » (this is an anticipatory notion, and has close ties to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of « the people to come »). He recalls that the subtitle of the book is

« The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International »

On the virtual (spectral) commonality between the two bodies of work, Derrida is quite clear, considering himself to be

the guardian of a differentiated and yet common heritage…to adhere, sometimes in opposition to everyone and everything, to certain shared exigencies, from Lacan to Althusser, and including Levinas, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, Blanchot, Lyotard, Sarah Kofman, and so on (LEARNING TO LIVE FINALLY).

This commonality is metonymised by these proper nouns, but it can be stated in more abstract terms:

I am referring here, by metonymy, to an ethos of writing and of thinking, an intransigent or indeed incorruptible ethos with no concession even to
philosophy, an
ethos that does not let itself be scared by what public opinion, the media, or the phantasm of an intimidating readership might oblige us to simplify or repress. Whence the austere taste for refinement, paradox, and aporia. This predilection also remains an obligation. It unites not only those I just mentioned a bit arbitrarily, which is to say, unjustly, but the entire milieu that supported them (translation modified by me).

Intransigent, incorruptible, uncompromising, unafraid, un-intimidated. A complex and unrepressed style. (Deleuze and Guattari speak of a « sovereign liberty »). An austere taste for refinement, paradox, and aporia. This is the spectral ethos of a preceding generation, to which Derrida wishes remain faithful in his very difference:

even if this fidelity still sometimes takes the form of infidelity and a parting of ways, one must be faithful to these differences, that is, one must keep the discussion going.

Derrida finds in this differentiated commonality a « discussion » that it is urgent to pursue. I think that in his work he did try to « keep the discussion going », just as Badiou, Laruelle, Latour, and Stiegler do so today. Deleuze too had an austere ethos of discussion, even if he reserved the word « discussion » for the doxic self-indulgent travesty of the free dialogue he sought.

Perhaps Deleuze was led astray by his own abstractions and neglected to engage in some of the discussions that would have been possible for him, if he had been more open. This was Badiou’s critique of Deleuze, that he engaged only in « convergent » dialogue and fled from more divergent discussions.

No one is entirely free from the illusions that the fall back into abstractions can provoke, and no one has done more to help us keep the discussion going.

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FROM CRITICAL DEBATE TO POSTCRITICAL EXCHANGE: the encounter between Zizek and Peterson

Are we in an era of postcritique?

If so, what does this mean for discussion between different points of view and for the political imagination of another future? Are we condemned to a democratic relativism where everyone is right and where we must practice universal tolerance?

Or can we give a strong meaning to the concept of postcritical, to distinguish it from the post-truth regime where everyone has the right to construct their « reality » apart from any confrontation with a real independent of our wills ?

To try to answer this question, one should speak concretely, from a real case. One can take the example of the « debate » between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek:

In the first part of this meeting Jordan Peterson chose to adopt the critical posture, even if he is capable of other language games. His initial statement was close to the critical rationalism of Karl Popper. Despite his insistence on his status as a clinician , Peterson spoke, albeit clumsily, from within the discourse of the university by trying to refute the Communist Manifesto.

Disappointing expectations, Slavoj Zizek in his response adopted a postcritical posture, speaking the discourse of the hysteric , that is to say, a subjectivated speech, despite his academic legitimacy. Thus, he foiled the expectations of a « critical » debate, pre-coded and unsurprising.

The result of this non sequitur , and of the open-mindedness which Peterson exemplified, is that the critical « debate » turned into a free exchange. The points of agreement were able to come to the fore. The points of disagreement were not avoided, but they did not dominate the discussion.

Thus the clear and distinct lines of demarcation of the critical era have today become more ambiguous, more confused, and more permeable.

The two thinkers agreed on one preoccupying ideological symptom: politically correct multi-culturalism. And they shared the same diagnosis: this symptom makes use of democratic relativism and dogmatic egalitarianism as ideological masks to hide the emergence of a new authoritarianism.

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DU DEBAT CRITIQUE A L’ECHANGE POSTCRITIQUE: Zizek et Peterson se rencontrent

Sommes-nous dans une ère de la postcritique?

Si oui, qu’est-ce que cela veut dire pour la discussion entre points de vue différents et pour l’imagination politique d’un futur autre? Sommes-nous condamnés au relativisme démocratique où tout le monde a raison et où il faut pratiquer la tolérance universelle?

Ou est-ce qu’on peut donner un sens fort au concept de postcritique, pour le distinguer du régime de la post-vérité où chacun a le droit de construire sa « réalité » en dehors de toute confrontation avec un réel indépendant de nos volontés?

Pour tenter de répondre à cette question il faudrait parler concrètement, à partir d’un cas réel. On peut prendre l’exemple du « débat » entre Jordan Peterson et Slavoj Zizek:

Dans la première partie de cette rencontre Jordan Peterson a choisi d’adopter la posture critique, même si il est capable d’autres jeux de langage. Sa position initiale était proche du rationalisme critique de Karl Popper. Malgré son insistance sur son statut de clinicien, Peterson parlait, de façon maladroite, le discours de l’université en s’essayant à une réfutation du Manifeste Communiste.

Déjouant les attentes, Zizek dans sa réponse adoptait une posture postcritique, parlant le discours de l’hystérique, c’est-à-dire subjectivé, malgré sa légitimité universitaire. Ainsi, il a déjoué les attentes d’un débat « critique », pré-codé et sans surprise.

Le résultat de ce non sequitur, et de l’ouverture d’esprit dont Peterson a témoigné, c’est que le « débat » critique est devenu un échange libre. Les points d’accord ont pu passer au premier plan. Les points de désaccord n’étaient pas escamotés, mais ils ne dominaient pas la discussion.

Donc les lignes de démarcation claires et distinctes de l’ère critique sont aujourd’hui plus ambiguës, plus embrouillées, et plus perméables.

Les deux penseurs étaient d’accord sur un symptôme idéologique préoccupant: le multi-culturalisme politiquement correct. Et ils partageaient le même diagnostic: ce symptôme fait usage du relativisme démocratique et de l’égalitarisme dogmatique comme masques idéologiques pour cacher l’émergence d’un nouvel autoritarisme.

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UN PLURALISTE NIÇOIS: Patrice Maniglier et l’héritage du structuralisme

Patrice Maniglier.

À la librairie Les Parleuses à Nice

Patrice Maniglier a échangé autour de son nouveau livre « La philosophie qui se fait« . Il a parlé des inspirations du livre: le structuralisme, le réalisme spéculatif, et le retour de la métaphysique après la régression humaniste, ou plutôt le retour DES métaphysiqueS au pluriel. Ses deux philosophes phare sont Spinoza, dont « la liberté de pensée est absolue », et Bruno Latour, « le plus grand philosophe vivant ».

Il a souligné sa fidélité à la fois au structuralisme et à un « pluralisme intégral ». Selon lui nous sommes pris dans des réseaux multiples, qui nous constituent. Ces réseaux sont tissés de différences, qui elles-même sont composées de différences. Donc pour lui les réseaux de différences sont antérieurs au, et déterminants du, sujet.

Nous ne pouvons pas imposer notre volonté ou nos intentions au réseau des structures, mais nous pouvons infléchir nos trajets. bifurquer. Ainsi il tente de réconcilier son parti pris en faveur de l’immanence et son refus du déterminisme.

Selon Maniglier, en dehors de ces orientations très générales (structuralisme, pluralisme, immanence), on ne peut pas dire grand-chose dans l’abstrait. Le philosophe aujourd’hui doit cesser de chercher un principe transcendent capable de tout expliquer. Il doit plutôt essayer d’analyser et d’explorer des cas concrets, par exemple le nouveau statut de la Terre, en tant qu’acteur à part entière dans le nouveau régime bio-géo-climatique.

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