MythCon 45 Day 3: Postmodernity at MythCon

hogwarts

Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.

Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.

The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we  willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.

Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault's insights.
Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault’s insights.

The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).

Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.

Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.
Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.

The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.

Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges

John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s  Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.

Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.

Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.

.

Photo Credits:

Hogwarts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter

Panopticon: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon_Jeremy_Bentham.jpg

Jorge Luis Borges: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451It was a pleasure to burn.

The letters, the opening of Ray Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel, glimmered flatly on my Kobo screen as I realized the irony of what I was doing. I realized swiftly that the battle of digital media versus print is a central point that burns down in Fahranheit 451. I will present to you my reflections on this question: Do Kobo readers create a real dystopia similar to the one in Fahrenheit 451?

Guy Montag, the protagonist, is a fireman. In Bradbury’s future in which all houses and buildings have been fireproofed, that means he sets fires, instead of putting them out. In effect, the firemen are the ideological police of their world, burning books in great bonfires of literature. Only fragments of the past survive–and Montag’s inner journey will lead him to discover more about that past world than his fellow firemen will dare allow.

Written during the turbulent McCarthy era in which supposed communists were hunted like witches and artists censored for their views, Fahrenheit 451 invokes myriad other historical instances of heresy and censorship. Whether it’s the Inquisition burning books placed on the Vatican’s infamous Index or the Nazis’ burning of tomes written by Jews, socialists, and other voices of opposition, burnings have been notorious throughout history. Though those who burn defend themselves by saying they are protecting “culture,” it is plain to others that burning books is antithetical to the fostering of culture.

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

I believe it was Neil Gaiman who said, “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.” An apt point when taken in the context of Ray Bradbury. (To read Gaiman’s tribute to Ray Bradbury, which he wrote upon his death in 2012, click here. For the Guardian article, click here.)

But burning is only one example of society’s dystopianism in Bradbury’s novel: there are also Seashells—basically a 1950s conception of what would eventually become earbuds for your iPod/MP3 player—and full-wall television screens. Bradbury never imagined in his novel the numerous computers currently in existence, and certainly not the distracting potential of social media websites, or the Internet in general, but he did get the sense that Western society was being bombarded by visual/auditory stimulation that would only get more intense and distracting. Whether the book burnings or media bombardment are more effective at creating Bradbury’s dystopia is a debatable point. I say the two go hand in hand.

Bradbury saw the transition from print media to the dominance of visual and digital media. In essence, Fahrenheit 451 is about that fundamental change in culture taken to an extreme. So I suppose it must be an ironic book to read on a Kobo, a digital platform. Am I a traitor to Bradbury’s ideals if I read his novel on a Kobo? I certainly hope not. But reading it on a Kobo did influence my experience of this novel in a way that underlines its theme, revealing some subtle effects in my reading experience that may, perhaps, be troubling.

For starters, I read the novel a whole lot faster, I suspect, than if I had had a physical copy on hand. Flipping the pages was easy; I just had to touch the right-hand side of the screen with my thumb. Furthermore, I could change the font and margins to enable faster reading and page turning. Reading it on the bus and metro also made it necessary to read faster in order to finish at a good spot to leave off whenever I would make a transfer. While reading the novel on a bus may appear to be a factor external to the digital experience, it was also the situation in which I feel most natural reading a Kobo.

Secondly, it was harder to browse through Fahrenheit 451 on my Kobo. While with physical book, you can open it randomly in the middle of the book and flip through the pages, you cannot do that on a digital book–at least not until an appropriate “page flipping” interface is designed and put into future models. Though the search function enables a certain amount of ease in finding passages, navigation forces you on a more linear path while flipping through the book beginning-to-end. This makes Kobo great for airport novels that you read through once and don’t bother with again, but less good for nonfiction and novels that you want to examine closely. As a literature student and book reviewer, I have a beef with this limitation.

Lastly, you cannot make comments on a Kobo easily, or write in the margins. Yes, you can make bookmarks. But to label the bookmarks effectively, you must leave the ebook and do a lot of back-and-forthing. If you have installed Calibre on your computer, you can make comments on your computer, but I was not able do this on my Kobo, even though the highlighting function says you can supposedly do this.

While these three points can potentially be fixed by developers, at present my Kobo makes a certain type of reading of Fahrenheit 451 easier rather than other types. And that type of reading says a lot about our society and the society in Fahrenheit 451.

Kobo is good for straight-through reading, for example, while on a bus: a way to quickly read a book that does not take up too much physical space. It is a portable library—a personal “bastion of civilization” that you can bring around with you. However, Kobo makes it difficult to read a book that you dearly love with the attention it deserves. Due to this limitation, “Kobo reading” is a kind of reading that is complicit to an extent with the hasty, media-overwhelmed, lower-attention span world that Bradbury warns us about.

Kobo rushes us along a highway (often when actually travelling on a highway), rather than allowing us to stroll, to stop, and to think.

In a way, this makes Kobo reading analogous the fast cars so prevalent in Bradbury’s utopia. Traditional readers are like pedestrians—people like Clarisse, the strange teenager Montag meets who walks on sidewalks asking “why?” and “how?” about things she sees. But Clarisse is later killed by a fast car, which bear no regard to pedestrians. Whereas Kobos have you rush through a book, traditional reading can be like a stroll through the suburbs—it involves a lot of stopping, smelling of roses, observation, and above all, opinion-forming.

Fahrenheit 451 is all about how media saturation, passive consumption, and a fast-paced society makes it harder to become a dissident of society and its ideology—not just about burning literature, but by ensuring new books are never written. Since we are all kept happy by comsumption and reassured that the world will take care of itself, we find less and less reason to challenge that order. But the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of human existence: sometimes it is necessary to become disturbed, in order to make social change.

Outlawing literature and pedestrianism are two ways in which Bradbury’s society silences dissidence; it destroys opinions formed in the past and makes it difficult to develop opinions in the present. It is therefore not always necessary to burn in order to silence a heretic; an Inquisition founded on pleasure instead of torture is far more effective at domination.

And reading about such a dystopia on a Kobo forces you to become aware of the fact that how you read depends on where you read it, and in what format. Our consummerist society has made it harder to read books critically by developing ebook interfaces that do not promote critical and nonlinear reading styles. Physical books represent a freer way of reading. If all books end up going digital, our society will become closer than ever before to Bradbury’s dystopia.

burning book

.

Photo Credits:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Bradbury

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit_451