When You Know You’re Just a Comic Book Character: Deadpool

September 27, 2021

The next essay in “X-Men and Philosophy” is “When You Know You’re Just a Comic Book Character: Deadpool” by Joseph J. Darowski.  The essay examines Deadpool as a postmodern character challenging the reader to question what it means to be inside or outside of a narrative through his knowledge of being a character in a comic book and the humour and situations that he generates doing so.

While I’m not an expert in the classifications of literature or, indeed, art forms in general, this strikes me as having the same sort of problem that I had with some postmodern philosophy, where it insisted that what postmodern philosophy brings to the table is the ability to question dichotomies, which the opposing schools purportedly weren’t able to do.  However, as an adherent of analytic philosophy, it was immediately aware to me that not only could analytic philosophy challenge and question dichotomies, it was actually crucial to it, as that was part and parcel of coming up with the “right” classifications of things.  Later, I came to the conclusion that the defining difference between the two schools was that analytic philosophy tried to put things in boxes while postmodern philosophy tried to take things out of boxes.  So while that did make challenging dichotomies easier and while postmodern philosophies would do it more often, both of them could do that on a regular basis.  And postmodernist philosophy’s importance on doing that raised the question of whether they could ever recognize or accept true dichotomies.

The same thing, I think, is happening here.  Breaking the fourth wall may be something that postmodern art and literature might do more often, but it hardly seems like such a defining trait so that anything that does that ever is postmodern.  After all, “Mad About You” breaks the fourth wall frequently, but other than that it’s a pretty standard sitcom.  It certainly doesn’t seem to be using that to try to get across any real point about the narratives or the reality or lack of reality of them.  It’s just using them to make people laugh by doing things that you wouldn’t normally do in a sitcom (which is acknowledge that it’s a sitcom and let the audience in on that joke).  Thus, if the primary purpose of that is to make people laugh, it seems to me that it doesn’t really count as postmodern.  It has to be doing something with that breaking of the fourth wall, not just doing it.  After all, breaking the fourth wall has been around long before there was any notion of postmodernism, so it hardly seems like doing that itself is enough to make a work postmodern.

So where Deadpool uses his ability to know that he’s in a comic book primarily as a means to tell jokes, it doesn’t seem obviously to be postmodern.  However, while the primary use of that mechanism is humour, it is also used to add drama or at times to indeed prime the audience to consider the line between the work and reality itself.  But is that enough to make a work postmodern?  “The Truman Show” does the same thing by making the main character someone who is unaware that they are actually in a TV show, but again it seems like simply questioning the line between fact and fiction shouldn’t be enough to make something definitively postmodern.  After all, science fiction with its idea of reality simulators has been doing that for a long, long time.  Exploring the idea, then, seems to be something that even non-postmodern works can do.  So it seems like to really be postmodern it must be trying to bring the audience into the work in a way that most other works don’t.  Perhaps it really is as Darowski, that what makes the postmodern the postmodern is that it tries to bring the audience into the work, while other works still maintain the separation, in general, between the audience and the work itself.  But then it isn’t clear that Deadpool really does do that, as it uses his concept primarily for humour and drama.

This is reflected in Darowski’s own examples, which often seemed a bit odd.  He singles out comics for forcing the reader to fill in the details between panels, but transitions in any medium do that, so while it’s more common in comic books it is not unique to them.  Also, he points to an example where Deadpool notes after eating salty instead of sugary cereal that he brushed his teeth three times and changed his outfit as if that is something that comics don’t do, except that comics do indeed do that fairly frequently and often for the same purpose (light humour).  He also talks about the time when Deadpool’s captions weren’t working and so he was talking out loud instead, but the issue with that is that it breaks the conceit that a real postmodern work would need there.  Deadpool could be someone who knows that they are in a comic and are indeed actually in one, or he could be someone who thinks that he’s actually in a comic and he just happens to be one.  So he could be more knowledgeable about ultimate reality, or he could be insane.  If his captions aren’t working and he’s talking to himself, that suggests that even though he is in a comic, he’s really just someone who thinks rather than knows that he’s in a comic, and so even if he does happen to be correct about that in his universe he really just is someone who is insane.  So that example weakens any potential postmodern aspects because it risks putting Deadpool back into his universe and sealing the portal off behind the audience, not bringing us into his universe and blurring that line.

Perhaps you could argue that raising questions like that is exactly what makes Deadpool postmodern.  And that might even be correct.  But because even that sort of scene has the primary purpose of making us laugh that seems debatable.  Breaking the fourth wall to make us laugh does not seem to be distinctively postmodern, and Deadpool, most of the time, is attempting to do just that.

A Quickie on Rights in General Starting From the American Right to Bear Arms

September 24, 2021

I did want to take up the second part of that post by Richard Carrier that I talked about a couple of weeks ago, but things have been really busy lately so I wanted something that wouldn’t take quite so much time, so I want to take up this post by Jonathan M.S. Pearce where he expresses his frustration with some of his posters who insist on challenging his views despite the fact that he constantly outlines his philosophical views that should show that they’re wrong.  Now, his philosophical views are a bit controversial and I would like to have the time to engage them in detail, but suffice it to say that I don’t think that he’s really managed to establish his underlying ontology sufficiently to be able to simply dismiss challenges to his view using it.  Trying to do that is one of the things that annoyed me about the books of his I read — and have yet to comment on — where he would quite often do things like dismiss the free will argument because he doesn’t think free will exists, and then demand that those who wanted to use it had to establish that free will really exists first, which is an unreasonable demand since it amounts to demanding that they settle one of the longest running philosophical debates before he’ll even consider their argument.  That’s a tough task for philosophers, let alone those who might be replying to his posts or reading his books.

So this expression of his frustration really bugs me:

It’s really frustrating, because I have debunked their position until they can show me I haven’t.

I have to say that philosophy doesn’t work that way, and Pearce should know that.  If he outlines what he considers to be a “debunking” of their position, that doesn’t mean that he can then dismiss them entirely unless they can refute that debunking, presumably to his satisfaction.  If they never accepted his position in the first place, then from their perspective there’s nothing to debunk.  While the best philosophers will want to refute any reasonable challenges to their position, the people he’s dealing with aren’t even philosophers, and so likely won’t be able to and won’t see the need to refute what they consider to be odd and unreasonable positions.  And even philosophers will ignore purported debunkings that they don’t consider worth addressing.  So while I can understand his frustration at seeing the same points raised over and over again, I and others who don’t find his foundation as solid as he thinks it is will also be frustrated at how much he relies on that foundation to dismiss counter-arguments to even his more controversial opinions.

Like the right to bear arms, which is the topic of the post in question.  A commenter who constantly defends that right posted with what is indeed a fairly standard defense with a few twists — relating it to what society can do — and Pearce responds with this:

Yawn. What is a right? Where is it located? How it is causally efficacious? How does it interact with the material world?

Okay, so I won’t rerun my arguments. He should have read them by now. About twenty times given the frequency of me banging on about them and the fact that his comments are directly below the articles in question.

The problem is that both philosophically and specifically people have challenged his insistence that if we don’t accept his view of conceptual nominalism then we have to be taking a strong realist stance.  I in fact challenged this in a comment on one of his own posts.  I haven’t been able to engage him as directly as I’d like, but I’ve challenged that view of his a few times, and he even has another commenter — Luke — who has taken him on directly on that.  Since Pearce is pulling this comment out of the morass that is his comment section to deal with it directly, he is setting his own priorities, and that he didn’t pull mine out and hasn’t addressed Luke’s recently, that prioritization says something about the sort of arguments that he’s interesting.  In short, that he doesn’t seem to be that interested in dealing with actual objections to his foundation while insisting that his opponents need to do just that.

Anyway, let’s look at parts of his reply:

The first point is this: if I have a right to guns, then I have a right to a nuclear missile. This reductio shows how absurd or how arbitrary the claim is. “Oh, that’s ridiculous!” – Is it? Well, where do you draw the line? Because my line doesn’t accept people walking around with guns, but your line is where? RPGs? Machine gun outposts? Nuclear warheads?

What I am saying here is that his “right” has to somehow include a very prescriptive cut-off point within it to show that the right doesn’t include a Death Star but does include an AR-15.

The problem is that the original commenter and pretty much all of those who advocate for the right to bear arms on the basis of self defense have a clear way to settle that:  what is necessary for self defense.  It is pretty easy to argue that a nuclear warhead cannot be used for self-defense for an individual because activating in any situation where it would matter would kill the person using it for self-defense.  It’s also reasonable to argue that RPGs and machine gun outposts would cause way too much collateral damage to be justified by self-defense of the individual.  Moreover, the original commenter said this:

The answer is always asked the wrong way. The question isn’t what gives us the right to do things or have things. The question is what gives the people in government the right to tell us we cannot do that which isn’t harming anyone.

All of the options that Pearce talks about would almost certainly involve harming innocent people if they were actually used for their purported purpose.  We might not have to worry about the attacker, but we probably have to worry about bystanders and would need to show that the use of those weapons would not run an unacceptable risk to bystanders.  So the questions Pearce is asking sound good rhetorically, but aren’t all that strong of a refutation to the position.

But the worst part is that those questions don’t actually have a meaning if we start from Pearce’s foundation, so he’s actually starting from arguments that appeal to their foundation and not his.  The arguments here only work to show that the position can’t be clarified properly to actually be practiced, which is not actually a problem for Pearce’s view because for him the line can be drawn anywhere most people agree.  He could be trying to argue that any kind of objective line can’t be drawn, but since they think they could indeed do that he’s either underestimating their intelligence or arguing based on his view and importing it to them.  Either way, it’s not really supporting his position to start out that way.  He’d need to insist that his view is right but then they could indeed adopt his view and point out that the line doesn’t need to be objectively determined by his own view.  Thus, the starting argument only works if they are more interested in attacking his foundation than in justifying their view that they should be able to bear arms in the United States.  But then he demands that they must refute his foundation to make their specific claims, which a good philosopher will, of course, refuse to accept if they can contort his own foundations to provide for the specific thing that Pearce doesn’t want to see.

To say “I have a right to healthcare/water/education” or whatever you want to plug in there is very contextual. In the absence of the context, these are just another way of saying, “In the world I want to live in, everyone should have equal access to…”. When you start entertaining the context, such claims might be, “Given the legal framework set up in my nation-state, I am legally entitled to…”

The problem with this is the one that I also bring up to those who deny that objective morality exists: that’s not how we think of rights.  If a legal jurisdiction said that, say, no one had the right to be free from the threat of murder or the threat of being sold into slavery, we would never say — and I doubt that Pearce would say — that then in that jurisdiction people had no such rights.  We might say that they effectively didn’t have such rights because no one would protect it, but we wouldn’t conclude from that that they ought not have that right in that society.  No, we would instead insist that they ought to have that right, and that society has an invalid set of legal rights because they don’t enforce what we consider to be the objective human rights that we are owed for simply being human.  In short, we don’t need any notion of legal rights if they aren’t trying to map something beyond the laws of that jurisdiction since we could just have laws that describe all of that.  We might want “rights” as basic principles to interpret laws, but that would be a far cry from how we generally talk about rights.

I submit that Pearce can get away with his position here only because when he uses the “rights just reflect things we want to see” argument, he does so for rights that he doesn’t really care about or wants to dismiss, such as the right to bear arms, but when he does care about rights — like the right to choose for women — then he appeals to ones that he either thinks that people do all agree with or that he thinks that everyone should agree with.  This becomes problematic when someone challenges his views, as he has to scramble to come up with an argument that allows him to side-step the issue.  As he does for abortion in this very post:

I think that the reproductive “rights” of the mother are more important than those of a cluster of non-sentient cells.

But under his own view there can be no such objective arguments for that, and he arguably wouldn’t need any.  So coming up with that definition to even talk about rights works against his own view.  But to his credit, at least in this post, he realizes that:

People like Person223 disagree. So we argue in the marketplace of ideas and hope that our argument wins out in public discourse so that it is reflected in democratic elections and ensuing law changes (or lack thereof).

However, if all of that worked out against his position so that women could not get abortions, I don’t think he’d be that sanguine about it (and he hasn’t been in the past).  And there are a number of cases where pretty much no one would accept a definition of rights that came entirely from public discourse.  If society declared that black people were not deserving of any legal rights, I don’t think Pearce would accept that that was just the way that society worked.  If a society literally became “forced birth” and forced women to get pregnant and carry those children to term, I don’t think he’d just accept that either.  The whole point of using rights arguments is to show that the legal structure is wrong and invalid to allow those things because they aren’t reflecting what the real inherent human rights are, and those things are not supposed to be decided by vote.  So I don’t think that even Pearce will accept the consequences of his positions, even if they were adequately supported.

The other arguments there talk about the harms to society and so on and so forth, which are independent of his foundation, which makes this demand a bit awkward:

Here’s my request, though, please stop, stop, stop splurging the same old conclusions without first doing some legwork to establish a rational foundation upon which to build them. By all means, whinge about my own foundations, but do that on your own away from here unless you can show them to be in some way faulty; until then, kindly desist from endlessly conclusion-asserting.

If Pearce is going to ultimately use things that the commenter roughly agrees with like “harm to society” and the Social Contract to argue against their position, then he can’t make this request.  Someone who disagrees with his foundations could try to turn the discussion to something that they both roughly would or should agree with to try to have some sort of productive discussion on the issue even though they have radically different foundations for their views.  Because tackling foundations is a lot harder than finding some common ground, and the commenter does seem to have found some with the idea that the government cannot — or at least ought not — legislate against people taking actions that don’t harm anyone.  Pearce seems to roughly agree with that, but insists that allowing unrestricted gun ownership does cause harm.  If he sees and acknowledges that, then he should focus on that common ground instead of dismissing any such responses on the grounds that his somewhat shaky foundation must be assailed first.

Thoughts on “Son of Dracula (1943)”

September 23, 2021

“Son of Dracula” is the third movie in that pack of classic Universal movies.  However, it isn’t as good as the other two.

The scene moves to America, with the son of Dracula moving there at the instigation of a young woman who owns a plantation and is very afraid to die.  She wants to live forever, and he wants to move to America to tap into its youth and vitality after draining Transylvania.  She is engaged to a man, but after the son of Dracula arrives she breaks off the engagement, marries the son of Dracula, and is in the process of being turned by the son of Dracula when her beau bursts in and tries to kill the son of Dracula, but the bullets pass through him and kill his former fiance.  He is booked for murder, but as it turns out the process was completed with her, and she comes to him and offers to turn him into a vampire as well if he kills the son of Dracula.  He does so, but then comes to her in the day and burns her coffin as well.

The main plot is actually not all that bad.  The characterization of the woman and her fiance work and the interactions with the other characters really bring out their tragic love story, which is one that really works and while it’s not surprising that he’d kill her as well and not want to be turned into a vampire, it also wasn’t a foregone conclusion either.  The actors themselves have some decent chemistry and pull off the relationship and their roles.  So from that perspective the movie is pretty good.

The problem, however, is with the son of Dracula himself.  He’s played by Lon Cheney (EDIT:  actually, Lon Chaney Jr), and after the movie I was surprised that that relatively well-known horror actor did so poorly in the role, before remembering that he was best known for the Wolfman, while Bela Lugosi was famous for Dracula (and played the character in the first movie).  The problem with Cheney is that he has absolutely no charisma at all in the movie, and doesn’t even have an exotic accent to support the rather stilted way of talking he has.  Now, in watching the first couple of movies and then this one, it seems to me that you don’t need to have an incredibly attractive actor to play Dracula.  In fact, for that character I think it works better if the actor is attractive, but a bit more ordinary, because we should feel that the character isn’t really attractive enough to simply seduce the women to highlight that their appeal is supernatural, not natural.  I think that this doesn’t work as well for female vampires because we really need to feel from the start that they are ethereally beautiful to explain why the men find them so attractive and more attractive than the alternatives.  So I think that for men the supernatural attraction should be from overwhelming charisma rather than simple looks, while for women the supernatural attraction should — and can be — expressed with just how incredibly and exotically attractive they are.  While this may seem a bit sexist, I do think it reflects the way things at least used to be in my day:  on an initial attraction, men more notice a woman’s looks and overall style, while women more notice things that reflect that sort of charisma.  Thus, men are more likely to find the supernatural charisma in her looks and style, while women are more likely to find that in their manner and even manners.

But as noted above, Cheney doesn’t do any of this.  He looks a bit dumpy.  He doesn’t have any kind of exotic carriage or manner.  His words are formal and stilted without there being any real reason for that.  He’d have to literally be hypnotizing her to get her to be interested in him, and even though it turns out that she actually isn’t interested in him he’s supposed to be a reasonably successful vampire.  If the movie had played it up that he needed to find new areas and new ways because he didn’t have the charisma of his father, that might have explained it, but the plot wouldn’t work that way, so he just really seems to be miscast.  And since he’s a major part of the plot we just keep getting reminded of that in every scene he’s in.  So he’s a major impediment to enjoying the movie.

Still, the movie isn’t bad, and is better than some of the modern movies that I’ve watched.  As I said, the plot with the main characters works really well and is pretty interesting.  It’s just that it’s attached to a Dracula that doesn’t have the charisma for the role that really causes the problems here.  I might watch it again at some point.

Thoughts on “Hellboy II”

September 22, 2021

So I’m still pretty busy, and so it seems like a good week to turn back to that collection of science fiction movies and move on to the next one that I’ve seen but haven’t watched, which is “Hellboy II”.  Now, I had seen both “Hellboy” and Hellboy II” before, and had liked the first movie a lot better than the second one.  So I was only watching the movie for completeness, not because I was really interested in it or because it was a movie that I hadn’t seen before.  My opinion of it didn’t change on the re-watch, but I did get some insight into why I didn’t like it very much.

The main problem with it is that it marries light adventure with a very dark villain and even subplots.  Hellboy himself tends to be completely irreverent throughout his action scenes, making them light adventure like you’d see in, say, Indiana Jones.  There’s also a clearly humourous subplot between him and the head of his agency.  Moreover, the movie includes a lot of ridiculous situations, like the scientist/former villain who is put in charge at one point and a lot of the action scenes and situations.  So the movie and even the overall world isn’t all that serious and is a bit ridiculous, which works well for a light action-adventure based around a wisecracking demon.

However, what struck me this time is just how evil the villain is in this one.  The basic idea is that he was from a race of somewhat-elves that had created a Golden Army that could destroy everything, but it wasn’t used against the humans, and in the end the humans drove the elves to extinction.  The villain is one of the two surviving members of the Royal Family, and he has returned to exterminate humanity with the Golden Army.  If that goal wasn’t bad enough, he’s an absolutely brutal villain, constantly killing people in the most brutal way possible, in ways that seem excessively violent.  He doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities, which makes his scenes a sharp contrast to how Hellboy normally fights, and it isn’t even usually the case that Hellboy can annoy him by not taking him as seriously as he takes himself.  He shows up, is brutal, and then leaves.  Yet at the end, it seems like we’re supposed to feel sympathy for him, given his relation to his sister — who is the love interest of Abe, a main character — and the ending.  But he was never given any sympathetic qualities nor was presented as someone who was clearly in the wrong but driven mad by rage and revenge.  He never repented at the end and despaired that he had brought his sister to her end (she had to be killed in order to kill him, since their lives were linked).  So he’s just a brutal antagonist that clashes horribly with Hellboy’s irreverence and the fairy tale nature of Abe and the anatognist’s sister and their love.

The subplots also delve into the excessively serious.  As noted above, we have the tragic love story between Abe and the Elf Princess, which could indeed work in a movie like this.  There’s also a subplot with Hellboy and his girlfriend who has become pregnant and doesn’t want to tell him, spawning ruminations on his nature and their relationship in general.  As noted, those sorts of ones are a bit more serious, but they could work to add a bit of drama and even tragedy to a lighter work.  Those sorts of things can work really well to add a bit of gravitas to a light adventure to make it more entertaining.  The problem here is that we’re already drowning in gravitas from the main plot and the villain, and so the other things just seem like piling on, things added in to provide drama that the movie didn’t really need.

Ultimately, the clash between the two is the problem with the movie.  Because much of it is light adventure, there’s a real clash between those scenes and the more serious and brutal ones.  The movie doesn’t do anything to merge the two together into a coherent movie.  Because it wants to do a lot of light adventure and jokes, there isn’t time to really set up all the drama and dramatic scenes that it is trying to do.  But the darker elements take us out of the mindset of mostly mindless humour.  The two of them simply do not work together, which makes for a very annoying movie.

As you might have guessed, I don’t have any interest in watching this movie again … again.

Thoughts on “The Hobbit”

September 21, 2021

After finishing up “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, I was inspired to re-read “The Lord of the Rings”.  But in digging out my copies of the books I saw my copy of “The Hobbit”, and decided to try to read it as well.  The thing is, I had bought it quite some time ago  and had started reading it, but couldn’t get through it.  I didn’t care for it at all and didn’t get all that far (on the re-read, I think I got as far as the trolls before abandoning it).  That’s not all that far into a book that’s not all that long itself.  So when I set out to read it this time, I was curious to see if I’d find it more tolerable this time or if I’d still dislike it.

I liked it a lot more this time around than the first time I tried to read it.

The reason, I think, was mostly due to my mood.  “The Hobbit”, as a children’s book, is rather silly, well, most of the time.  But it isn’t primarily a comedic fantasy like the “Myth” books or “Jason Cosmo” or “A Bad Spell in Yurt”.  “The Hobbit” is light, but not a comedy, so it inhabits a bit of a weird space.  If you were looking for a solid fantasy in the vein of “Lord of the Rings”, it won’t provide that, but if you were looking for more of a pure comedy, it won’t provide that either.  So you have to at least be willing to read a light adventure with a bunch of history in it, and I think that at the time I wasn’t really interested in that.  This time, taking it on more as something that I was going to read and get through but having no other purpose than doing that, I was able to accept it for what it was instead of what it wasn’t, which I think is why I enjoyed it a lot more than I did the first time.  I was able to accept the silliness as is without thinking that it ruined the fantasy but without wishing it would just be more funny.

Still, it does have it flaws.  First, as a light adventure it really is just the dwarves and Bilbo bouncing from terrible misadventure to terrible misadventure with almost no let-up.  For such a light and often silly work, that actually makes it a bit depressing, especially since the ending is a lot more serious all around.  Second, the dwarves bugged me quite a bit where they would go from tanking Bilbo for saving them to complaining bitterly about the situation that rescue left them in.  They came across as more ungrateful than as people that Bilbo became fast friends with.  The sad thing is that by the narrative they actually had a better way to make that work, presenting it less as them being fickle and more as them moving from the heights of joy from their rescue to, over time, being worn down by circumstances into a depression over their hardships.  So their complaints to Bilbo were less complaints about him and more complaints in general that they sometimes directed at him.  To be fair, that is an undercurrent throughout the entire book, but the quick pace doesn’t leave time for us to really grasp that they’re now depressed because their adventure seems to be turning into a disaster … again.

Still, it remains as light fun and Bilbo, in general, is a sympathetic enough protagonist that we at least want to see him win through and get some sort of reward.  So I’ve gone from not be able to finish it to considering re-reading it at some point.

“The Rules of Acquistion Can’t Save You Now”: What Can the Ferengi Teach Us About Business Ethics?

September 20, 2021

The next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is ‘”The Rules of Acquistion Can’t Save You Now”: What Can the Ferengi Teach Us About Business Ethics?’ by Jacob M. Held.  Here, the main thrust is to discuss the idea that business and ethics are opposing forces, an idea that the Ferengi exemplify.  In general, the Ferengi eschew ethics in favour of pure profit, and are contrasted with the Federation who eschew profit in favour of pure ethics, which led to many conflicts between Quark and Ben Sisko on “Deep Space Nine” (although Picard would certainly have more issues with Quark than Sisko did).  But this perceived innate conflict between business and ethics makes doing business ethics very difficult to do, because ethics is seen as an intrusion into business, and so what we end up doing is trying to make business as ethical as we can without impeding the primary purpose of business overmuch.

Held traces through the current debates in business ethics looking for a way to bridge the gap between the two, a way of thinking about it so that they don’t seem so paradoxical.  Most of the attempts try to find a way to argue that what is considered properly ethical for a business is that which ends up providing benefits to the right people in the right sort of way, so defining whose interests a business is required to consider and then arguing that ethics will be the best way to serve those interests.  However, it seems to me that the perception — as Held does note — that the two conflict is that we see the main purpose of business as being to provide profit and wealth to the relevant people and we don’t think that is compatible with ethics.  In general, we think that ethics should be explicitly considering others and not just the interests of a specific in-group, and business is all about providing profit to a specific in-group.  Thus, I see the attempted compromises in business ethics as being less about business ethics and more reflecting a shift in attitudes towards ethics.  The Utilitarian arguments that Held offers to defend certain business practices — like thinking about stakeholders in addition to shareholders — are arguments that I have constantly seen people make in general about ethics.  Many modern arguments about ethics rely on an argument that we should act ethical because it works out better in general for most people if we do, but also that it works out better for us if we do.  So it’s not hard to see how that attitude could permeate discussions of business ethics as well, where we try to justify a business acting ethically on the grounds that ultimately, in the long-run, it will be better for the business as a business to do so.  It’s a reasoning that I reject, but it is common in ethical discussions in general, not just in business ethics.

Still, I do think that Held captures a key issue where he talks about business, wealth and profit as being seen as an end in itself instead of as a means to an end.  The Ferengi again embody this, as their entire society is based on profit for profit’s sake, and as Held notes most of the conflicts that Quark suffers are conflicts between his desire for profit and the fact that attaining profit will cost him other things that he seems to value more.  So we can see that the issues above come from not seeing ethics as something that has inherent value and instead trying to justify acting ethically by appealing to something that we actually value, which is our own benefit.  When it comes to wealth and profit, however, that doesn’t really work.  We know — or at least ought to know — that we only desire wealth and profit in order to get other things.  Even if we think at the level of the business, wealth and profit are means to other things, not the entire purpose of the business.  Yes, those means are at a minimum expanding the business and providing wealth to the owners, but a business that was producing profit but was costing the owners and everyone involved all the things in life that mattered wouldn’t be successful, and no one rational would want to keep that sort of business going.  So it’s only our distorted view of capitalism that says that profit, in and of itself, is an end and even the end that we should be striving for.

I think Held is right that we need to figure out what the real purpose of a business is and what we really should value, and that determining what should be the primary value is the first step is settling the perceived conflict.  However, as we’ve been trying to do this for thousands of years, it’s not going to be something that’s easy to do.

Puppies and Hugos Summary

September 17, 2021

So, over at “Whatever”, John Scalzi has made a post linking to a summary of the whole “Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies” thing around the Hugo Awards from 2015 and 2016 (and yes a bit before and a bit after that).  I was, of course, aware of all of that and rather ticked off by it, and it inspired a number of posts here around that time beyond the assessment of the 2016 awards that I linked to above, including assessing a number of older works of science fiction after that to see if I felt that the new and great ones that the advocates were crowing about were in fact better than the older ones that the Puppies purportedly wanted to bring back into Hugo contention.  But for me, personally, the biggest impact was to essentially say “A pox on both your houses!”, although when I assessed whether the historic win of N.K. Jemisin in 2018 was a win for the Puppies or for the Social Justice side I did think that the Puppies had a better claim to the win because it was unlikely, to say the least, that her winning three years in a row was primarily due to the quality of the works, even if I hadn’t read the first book and found it mediocre at best.  Which, then, means I’m a bit bemused by Scalzi’s assertion that it’s obvious that his side — which is not the Puppy side — won and that the Puppies completely lost.  Since one of their main goals was to show that the Hugos were political, speaking as someone relatively neutral I really do think they managed to do that, and I no longer trust the Hugo Awards as an assessment of what is worth consuming and, in fact, don’t trust anyone’s assessment of that, which means that instead of the controversy encouraging me to embrace modern science fiction I’ve pretty much retreated to re-reading the old stuff and am now actively ignoring these sorts of things instead of simply ignorantly ignoring them.

Then again, Scalzi’s perspective — and that of the long series he links to — are from the inside of the specific sci-fi fandom that they are a part of, and so it lacks the perspective of people like me.  So different perspectives might well have different ideas and opinions on what went on.  On top of that, Scalzi does seem to quite often not really realize the implications of what he says, so let me look at a couple of things from it to show that things might not be as clear as he thinks it is.

The first is over, well, whether they failed or not:

There are reasons for that, but I think the largest part has to do with the fact that the Pups, simply and bluntly, failed at every level that was important for their movement. The bifurcated goals of the Pups were to champion science fiction with a certain political/cultural point of view (i.e., largely white, largely conservative), and to destroy the Hugos by flooding the nominations with crap. They did neither very well. Toward the former, the material they slated was largely not very good, and with respect to the latter, the Hugos both still persist and remain a premier award in the field.

Uh, this is a bit of a mischaracterization of their goals.  They wanted to champion works that they considered good but that weren’t getting a fair shot, and as part of that prove that the Hugos were already implicitly politicized by trying to make the politicization obvious.  So the nomination of joke entries — which would be the only ones that they would have considered crap — was to show that utter crap could get nominated for non-quality reasons, and then also to provide a dividing line between reasonably respectable choices and ones that weren’t so that if their opponents decided to simply vote down everything they recommended they could show that they weren’t doing it on the basis of quality but on the basis of politics.  If the credibility of the award was going to be destroyed, then, it would be because their opponents refused to distinguish between quality works that deserved to be nominated even if they didn’t deserve to win and works that were legitimately crap.  And it is important to note here that what ticked me off about the whole thing was their refusal to make that distinction.  When you No-Award a Dresden Files book, that’s a pretty clear indication that it’s not quality of writing that’s making the decision.  Even if it was a weak entry, it would be at least reasonably good.

(And I can say that because when I did my assessment of the Best Novel category in 2016 I refused to No-Award anything, even “Seveneves” which I personally hated, although that one was close.  Of the three that the Puppies might dislike, I would never have No-Awarded them even though in terms of quality I found them lacking.  There were almost certainly — I have to hope — better works available in that year, but they were what ended up on the ballot and given that to me it always seemed invalid to declare that they didn’t deserve an award.  The nomination process guaranteed that pretty much everyone would find some work on the list that they thought didn’t deserve an award more than something that was left off of it, but the implicit agreement is that you sucked that up and voted for the best that was available, and No-Awarding breaks that implicit agreement).

I’m also curious if the Hugos really are “a premier award in the field”, or what that even means.  I know that I’m ignoring them, and I don’t know how many people outside of the regular group are paying attention to it.  It’s certainly the case that the Puppies don’t seem excessively concerned about it anymore (many of them had already moved on the Dragon Awards as per the very summary Scalzi links).  Given the mainstream attention paid to it — which is how I was reminded that the things existed and got drawn into this — you’d think they’d have picked up some new fans if at least their side was doing what was considered to be the right thing, and no one ever talks about that being the case.  Is it the case that the Hugos reflect fandom at all?  Note that Scalzi himself casts some doubt on that while trying to demonstrate that they are still relevant:

Meanwhile the Hugos have been doing perfectly well, with excellent finalists and winners in most categories, and a wider and more diverse range of authors and creators. Nor are these works or creators obscure, either to fans or the general public; of the six Best Novel finalists for the current year, four are New York Times bestsellers (and commensurately bestsellers on other lists as well), and the authors of the two that are not, have won Hugos and other awards before. The Best Series finalists add a couple more bestsellers and award winners to that stack as well. The Hugos reflect what they are assumed to reflect: What’s interesting, and to varying degrees popular, in the larger field of the genre.

Well, here’s the list for Best Novel:

  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery / Saga Press / Solaris)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Harrow The Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tor.com)
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books / Solaris)

I recognize two of the names.  I presume those are the ones who have one before, which might imply that Jemisin’s is not a bestseller.  But even that argument is odd, because he’s appealing to the sales figures, but during the big kerfuffle whenever the Puppies talked about sales people insisted that it wasn’t about sales, but about quality, which I noted at the time meant that using a vote mechanism didn’t make sense if that’s what you wanted.  But I’ll also note that the Dragon Awards — which, as noted above, many of the Puppies gravitated towards — doesn’t have a lot of overlap with that list.  Well, okay, it does, but it’s hard to see because the Dragon Awards splits that category out into far more categories and so a number of the novels appear on one of those lists instead of all together, but as far as I can tell even with that expansion only three of the six appear on their list.  This might mean that the “a premier award” is doing a lot of work, because it’s hard to see from the perspective of someone like me how the Dragon Awards aren’t a better resource for what’s interesting and popular in the field of science fiction, just looking at the format alone.

And Scalzi kinda shoots himself in the foot later talking about the impact of the controversy on the various players:

(The latter, incidentally, is important to note; the Pup nonsense really was inside pool and few people not deeply committed to the genre knew much about it. Almost no one in the larger world would (or does) know or care much about an internecine struggle involving the mechanics of a genre award. Bestselling writers are so because they can draw in readers outside of the relatively small base of established SF/F fandom. They weren’t going to be substantially hurt by the Pup antics.)

So, what happened there wasn’t going to matter much to the various players because, basically most readers of SF/F didn’t care about the awards.  Huh.  Really puts that “a premier award” line in perspective, doesn’t it?

But let me go back to the idea that the Puppies lost:

Their strategy was bad because it was addressing a problem that largely did not exist and was arrived at in a backward fashion, and their tactics were bad because they exploited loopholes and antagonized everyone who was not part of their clique, activating thousands of dormant Hugo voters against them. They were routed through a simple mechanism for which they had not accounted (“No Award”), and once their slating tactic was blunted by a nomination rule change, they flounced entirely.

I’ve read the entire summary up to this point, and it doesn’t seem like the flounce was due to the tactic being blunted — they’d had success at the nomination level with new tactics — but mostly as noted a switch to the Dragon Awards and a lack of interest by the person who had been nominated to take over at least Sad Puppies afterwards.  Also, after 2016 everyone on both sides had bigger fish to fry.  And the summary notes that they did anticipate the move and I personally noted that for me, at least, the “No Award” mechanism is what ticked me off about his side and led me to create a number of rants about the situation.  Even if Scalzi’s side “won”, that their own tactics ticked off at least some neutrals would mean that it wasn’t a route.  Only from Scalzi’s perspective can he see that as a clear win, and to be blunt they would have had at least as strong a victory if not a stronger one if all they had done was play fair, and then changed the rules to make slates harder to do.  But instead they didn’t play fair, broke the implicit agreement of the awards, and then changed the rules anyway.

 If the Pups have shown us anything, it’s that you can’t simply brigade questionable material to success. There has to be quality there.

This was in a section talking more about sales, but I have to note here that I read all of the best novel candidates from 2016 and noted that the Hugo Awards from that year — especially the ones touted by people on Scalzi’s side — proved the opposite, as they were explicitly brigaded and yet didn’t really have quality there.

Again, Scalzi kinda proves his opponents right talking about how the genre had moved past the Puppies:

What the Pups missed (or, if they did not miss, at least severely misunderstood) was who is acquiring genre work these days and who is buying it. Hint: it’s not all straight white dudes, and indeed, it may not even be majority straight white dudes anymore. The legions of associate-to-senior editors in publishing right now and in the last decade are more diverse than they’ve ever been, less white, less male, more queer… and with a hellaciously passionate work ethic and a damn fine eye for material. They didn’t necessarily come up through “traditional” science fiction. Lots of them came up through YA or from other genres, and developed their own personal canon of works that may or may not have included “classic” SF work. When they bought work, they didn’t just buy for the audience that SF/F books were assumed to address. They bought for the audience they wanted to bring into the field. They did it in book publishing, and in short fiction publishing as well.

Remember, one of their big complaints was about gatekeeping, with the traditional audiences and works being rejected in favour of these new ones.  Scalzi here explicitly says that, yes, that’s exactly what they are doing, and deliberately so.  They are ignoring works that would appeal to the old and existing audience in the hopes of attracting the audience that they want.  While I haven’t analyzed science fiction books on this score, I know that for comic books and TV shows and movies doing this has not been a clear success.  What has happened a lot of the time is that the existing audience gets alienated and the new audience doesn’t materialize, so overall sales and the like go down.  So I’d need some evidence before I agree with Scalzi’s take here:

The Pups liked to assert, without much in the way of evidence, that “New York Publishing” was and still is on its way out (which would not be great for them, as the major publisher in the Pup space, based in North Carolina as it is, nevertheless is distributed and put into stores through a New York publisher). Someone should have told that to New York publishing, particularly its science fiction and fantasy imprints; they’re doing just fine. And not only fine: they’re minting more bestsellers and bringing in more readers to the genre and being a larger part of the cultural conversation than they have done before. Likewise, short fiction publishing features more diverse material and storytelling than ever before. Genre literature is finally catching up to where the genre is in other media, in terms of popularity and influence — in large part, I would argue, because the doors are open wide to a larger base of readers and writers.

We have heard from lots of sources that traditional publishing has indeed been struggling and is facing great challenges.  So it isn’t clear that their prediction is all that wrong, especially since Scalzi gives no evidence that they have higher sales than before, as best sellers do not mean better numbers overall.  And the whole “larger part of the culture conversation” is a meaningless statement that is also unevidenced.  Scalzi wants to argue that not only did things not go badly for this new direction, but instead things are going really, really well, but he doesn’t give me any reason to think that’s true, and especially that it’s true for the things he thinks are really good and that the Hugos are capturing (with, again, three of the six not making the expanded list of the Dragon Awards, and at least one of those being one of their favourites).  So I am not really willing to grant him this without more evidence.  And certainly not willing to think that the works have actually gotten better since the time I wept for science fiction and fantasy.

Yes, yes, but what about the straight white man? Is there a place for him in the science fiction literary culture now? I mean, yes (waves), and even if you consider my straight white male credentials suspicious in some way, there are plenty of other examples — including the Pups themselves, who again are still publishing away, albeit in some cases not with the notability they felt they were entitled to. We straight white dudes show up in bestseller and award lists, still. We just share them more now.

Well, if the people choosing what gets published are, as Scalzi asserts, selecting against the traditional straight white male demographic and audience, then there is less of place for them in science fiction and it isn’t because that stuff is not quality or not wanted, because as Scalzi himself noted they are selecting based on perceived and preferred audience, not on sales.  So pointing to himself isn’t a good example, especially since I doubt he’d characterize his works as aiming at that straight white male audience.  And it doesn’t help his case to argue that people who felt they were and at times objectively were pushed out of traditional publishing are still publishing and being successful as they publish outside of the traditional mechanisms, for two reasons.  First, it shows that there is no place for them inside traditional publishing despite them being marketable.  Second, it shows that those works are marketable, which means that traditional publishing should probably be more open to them than Scalzi himself insists they are.  Again, Scalzi ends up arguing against his own point.

And finally:

Which is not to say that the Pups were (or are!) uniformly mediocre writers. Some of them had gotten on to finalist lists on their own steam with their stories and prose, and got decent-to-glowing reviews for their work, and of course sold from all right to very well indeed. But fundamentally the Pup movement was about resentment: Resentment about not winning awards. Resentment about sharing the genre with others. Resentment about having to compete, and being outcompeted. Resentment that had they started their careers 20 years earlier, they might have had more acclaim and baubles. Resentment that says that if you can’t have the success you want, exactly how you want it, then you are entitled to make sure no one else has it either; that you would rather burn something to the ground than to have someone else get it.

No, the big push was over having works that would have been good enough to win them awards but if anyone tried to nominate them or vote for them to win having others scream and yell about them due to their politics, but then deny that politics had any role in them not getting awards.  Essentially, they felt that the system was getting more and more unfair and that it would be better to turn it down than keep that unfair system in place.  And considering that they have had more success with Dragon Awards than with Hugos, that doesn’t seem like an incorrect claim.  And if it isn’t incorrect, then it’s not about entitlement.  No matter how much Scalzi insists that it is.

Thoughts on “Dracula’s Daughter (1936)”

September 16, 2021

This is the second movie in that six movie collection of the old Universal movies.  I’ve already talked about the differences between older movies and newer movies, and commented that while film making has improved over the years that doesn’t necessarily mean that the movies have gotten better.  Which is clearly the case here, because “Dracula’s Daughter” is, in fact, a really good movie.

The movie picks up, literally, right from the end of the previous movie.  After Van Helsing is arrested for killing Count Dracula, the daughter of Dracula — who shares his curse — steals the body and burns it in the hope that it will relieve her of the curse so she can live a normal life.  It fails, but at a party she meets the main character — a professor of psychology, I believe — who pitches her an idea that she could learn to control her desires through the power of her own mind, prompting her to pursue this with him, much to the annoyance of his secretary, who clearly has a crush on him despite the fact that they have a very rancorous relationship.  That professor is also a friend of Van Helsing’s, and Van Helsing calls on him to defend him against the murder charge.  After the professor’s methods fails, Dracula’s Daughter decides to make the professor into a vampire so that they can live together forever, and so abducts his secretary and runs off to Transylvania to draw the professor there.  This annoys her human companion, who expected to be the one that she’d make into a vampire.  And Van Helsing and the Commissioner of Scotland Yard run off to save him as well.  The companion ultimately tries to kill the professor with a bow, misses, and hits Dracula’s Daughter instead, and the wooden shaft of the arrow pierces her heart and kills her.  They then revive his secretary and they profess their love for each other, and the movie ends.

This plot is an addition to the Dracula mythos, which gives us some familiarity with the universe while still doing something different.  And the plot makes us sympathetic for Dracula’s Daughter while still being able to present her, in the end, as a villain that gets her comeuppance at the end.  She needed to die, and likely deserved to die, but we can still regret that there wasn’t another option.  The relationship between the main characters works really well and is made clear without being simply stated outright, so we can see how it progresses.  Yes, it is a bit contrived that the one person who can appeal to Dracula’s Daughter also happened to come to the city to defend Van Helsing to maintain the link to the first movie, but that sort of contrivance is something that we are willing to let slide if the story is good enough, which is it.  The performances are typical of the era but also work well, and the exposition again works well to establish what is happening and avoid confusing the audience.

Ultimately, this was just a really good movie.  I’ll definitely watch this one again.

Thoughts on “12 Monkeys”

September 15, 2021

I was quite busy over the weekend and since I’m on the last book of “Fate of the Jedi” I wanted to at least leave a little more time than I had to write that summary out, so instead I’m going to return to talking about some of the science fiction movies that I was watching.  Now, it’s been a few months since I’ve talked about science fiction movies, and as it turns out it’s also been a few months since I watch this movie, so a lot of the things that came up while I was watching it have slipped my mind, which means that this one will be a bit shorter than it might have been.

At any rate, this is the first movie in a collection of 10 sci-fi films that I picked up for a reasonable price … or, at least, a reasonable price per movie.  This one also features Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, so it has a lot of star power.  The overall premise of the movie is apropos, as it involves a group of people in the future who invent time travel and send a man — played by Willis — back in time to prevent the release of a deadly virus that devastates the world and results in a rather unhappy future.  However, the travails of time travel get him assigned to an insane asylum, where he meets a man who is associated with a company that researches such viruses and that was involved in creating the virus, and who also spouts conspiracy theories with an aim to commit an act or terrorism.  The man from the future also meets the psychiatrist, played by Madeleine Stowe, whom he kidnaps but who he eventually convinces that he is from the future and to help him prevent the attack.

I didn’t find the movie all that interesting, but it’s really hard to pin down why.  Obviously, the acting performances are good, but the only character that I really liked was Stowe’s psychiatrist.  Brad Pitt does a good job with his character, but the character is annoying and unsympathetic so we don’t care at all about him.  And the character of Willis’ character isn’t developed well-enough for us to really care about him.  We know that he is some sort of criminal — at least, I think that’s what’s implied — but we don’t really get the whole story, at least in a way that builds his character.  He is the hero that we’re supposed to be cheering for and works in that role, but we aren’t sure that he’s really all that heroic, but don’t really get insight into his background to develop that throughout the course of the movie.  Also, the people in the future are unsympathetic and so we aren’t all that sure that we should want them to win.  After all, they treat Willis’ character very, very badly at times, even when it becomes clear that he’s their best if not only hope for preventing the thing that they desperately want prevented.  So none of the characters are ones that we can hang an entire movie on.

That leaves the plot, but the time travel aspect of the plot is underdeveloped.  There’s an interesting link made to some sort of previous events — and possibly a real-life one — but that isn’t properly developed and for the most part the only real use of things like that is to reveal that they are hitting various points in time in order to find out what happened and stop it, which isn’t all that interesting.  We don’t get any real details of how their time travel works and what the real consequences of it are, so it’s more of a plot device than anything else, which makes it disappointing if you wanted a science fiction exploration of time travel and its consequences.

About the best thing about the plot — and this is a major spoiler here — is that it uses Pitt’s character as a red herring.  He does commit an act of terrorism, but it’s just to release some zoo animals, and the person who does steal the virus is a character that we only see once.  However, since that character is made prominent in that scene who then fade away, it was a bit obvious that he had to be there for some reason, and given his connection to the lab he probably was going to be the one who released the virus.  So the ending wasn’t as surprising as it might have been.

As noted, I didn’t enjoy the movie that much.  There were some decent action scenes — as one might expect — but the story and characters didn’t really grab me.  I don’t think I’ll watch this movie again.

Inadvertently Obvious

September 14, 2021

So, a comment ended up in my filter that said this:

Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
You obviously know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you could be giving us something
informative to read?

This one is just a bit too obviously spam, as no one who had ever read any of my posts would ever say that [grin].