Against the Hegemony of Backstories

Batman_origin_1940_02
From Detective Comics #33

The twin stars of superhero comics and Freudianism have left a terrible pock mark on our culture: a fixation with backstories and origin stories. Superhero comics have, from the beginning, given not only their protagonist but the villains origin stories that establishes all of their crucial characteristics. And Freudianism has always had a larger presence in Hollywood writers’ rooms than in practiced psychiatry, and this influence has far outlived the discrediting of Freudian psychotherapy as a science.

Whatever one may say about Freud and the practitioners and theorists who followed him, in storytelling it has created a cage in which many writers ensnare themselves. In this cage, every little aspect of a character that is salient to the plot (and many that are not but might stir the audience in other ways) can be traced back to crucial events in their childhood. The way the characters construed those events comes to define who they are in adulthood.

In superhero comics, origin stories come to define heroes in villains to an extreme and essentialist degree. This is parodied, to great effect, in One Punch Man. One villain ate too much crab and thus becomes a crab monster. Another hero launches into a dramatic telling of his origin story unprompted.

There was one show I watched, which I will not bother to name, which had a particularly egregious example of this. The story was going along just fine, when the writers clearly decided it was time to add emotional depth (or something) by giving the main character a backstory. We learn that he was found, abandoned, by some family, who raised him. We then watch this family die off one by one, in a way that provides him the motivation for doing what he is doing in the present arc of the show.

Essentially, this poor family was created and killed all in the span of an episode, just to show that the main character takes his task really seriously….or something.

We have lost the distinction between being and becoming, and it has created a lot of confusion. We don’t even need to get into an argument about nature vs nurture, or whether people can choose to react to or construe the same events differently, in order to see that backstories are often superfluous at best.

Let us say you have a character who is a mob boss. He runs a human trafficking operation. He has innocent people killed in order to keep anyone from testifying against him or the people who work for him. Perhaps he also loves his wife, and is devoted to his children. Does seeing the path he took to get to that point change any of that?

The point is that you can see what kind of person someone is without tracing how he became that way. And in fact it is not always clear that learning about the latter will shed much light on the former.

What of Spiderman’s dead uncle Ben, or Batman’s dead parents? These are the classics, of course. Perhaps we must concede that these characters would not be who they are without these origin stories—but this, of course, is by construction. And it’s not clear that that’s the case at any rate.

Spiderman is characterized mostly by his powers, the fact that he’s a costumed vigilante, and his constant in-fight wise-cracking. Batman is a rich man who has learned martial arts and decided to use his resources to fund his vigilante activities. He’s dour and intimidating where Spiderman is lighthearted and friendly. Their struggles are much better characterized by who they are and the internal dynamics of their various story arcs than through reference to an all-encompassing origin event.

So repeat after me: who someone is must be distinguished from how they came to be. That doesn’t mean we ought to discard the latter; we simply ought not to confuse the two.

This is true of people, animals, objects; anything. Art and science can both be much improved if we keep this simple distinction in mind.

Batman_origin_1940_02 - Copy
From Detective Comics #33

The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill

Featured image’s source is NASA.

The struggle between enlightenment and spirit, detached reason and emotionally embedded life, is one of the characteristic conflicts of modernity. It has played out in arguments and in art, in politics and policy. Charles Taylor has traced the contours of this and related conflicts with remarkable skill and subtlety.

The 1954 science fiction story “The Cold Equations” is a useful example. A middling midcentury parable that is long on exposition and short on plot, it sets up a stark scenario in which fellow feeling and detached reason are at odds, but the latter must necessarily triumph.

Author Tom Godwin describes a future in which resource constraints on the frontier of space allow for almost no margin of error. They give ships just enough fuel for the exact amount of mass they are carrying. So any stowaway must be tossed out into the void immediately, or there won’t be enough fuel to decelerate, and everyone aboard will die.

Continue reading “The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill”

Frames

‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a WIND reef. The wind does that.’

‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’

‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally KNOW one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart’

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book— a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi (pp. 46-48).  Kindle Edition.Emphasis mine.

Black Crow Events

 

Featured image is the End of the World, by John Martin

Fellow sweet talker Sam has pointed out the surface similarity between the case for space exploration and the case for anti-globalisation.

That is, earth, being our only planet, is vulnerable to certain extinction level events, thermonuclear war, environmental degradation , super-AIDS and the always popular death from the skies, and given that it would be nice for the species to continue existing we should seek out an alternate planet to live on to double the chances of at least some humans surviving. Similarly, given that there is increasingly only one, global economy on which we all depend for meaning and sustenance, it might perhaps make sense to erect some barriers, so that, to give a hypothetical, dodgy securitisation practices in the United States doesn’t obliterate the seemingly unrelated economy of a small island nation. However these risks interact with the rest of the world in fundamentally different ways, and need to be managed differently.

While in school I did an internship at a local electrical utility. Most major urban networks at that time were radial, isolated, and manually redundant, that is power comes from a central distribution transformer and is distributed outwards like spokes on a wheel. Under normal operation there is no active connection between these different islands, however the infrastructure exists and is in place to connect them with the throw of a switch by the operator or command centre.

The advantage of linking the networks together is that when something goes wrong in one network, the other networks can pick up the slack. If a tree hits a major line, and causes a blackout the operator can flip a few switches and get power restored to many of the affected houses in a short period of time. Power to critical infrastructure, like telephones, will be connected to batteries so that if primary power is lost, the batteries will automatically kick in and the system as a whole still works. Telecoms even started installing battery packs at the customer locations, as fibre has overtaken copper as the technology of telecommunications and it was no longer possible to use the telephone wire to power the telephone if your house loses power. This is redundancy, and it is the primary tool we use to keep networks resilient to failures.

The increasing linkages that come with globalisation often operate in the same manner. If there a drought in Florida, oranges can be imported from a different area of the globe. If a major flood destroys the garment industry in Bangladesh other workshops in Africa and Indonesia can be found. Further, since expertise and equipment can be deployed globally, if a disaster destroys a major or sole supplier of a particular good the nexus can be reconstituted elsewhere. It also allows a greater variety of substitution goods, so that if a blight destroys most of a year’s cotton crop, even in all areas, we can substitute linen, or silk, or synthetics and still produce a workable garment.

So given the advantages of linking these networks together, why didn’t we make the links in our power network? There are two good reasons. The first is that when you want to take a particular area down you only need to throw one switch to do it, so that an operator wouldn’t throw a switch and assume that the network was down, only for power from another source to come back in without their knowledge, potentially fatally. The second is that it limits the damage done by any individual fault. If a crow lands on your transformer, only the transformer, and the things downstream of the transformer will be taken down, the rest of the network is oblivious. (The crow is also oblivious, as his internal organs are plasma. RIP crow, I didn’t want to save that report anyway).

It’s the second point that is most relevant here. Near the beginning of my term at the utility we had planned for one of the transformers to go down while we did maintenance on it. The linesmen closed the relevant switches, linking the two networks together, and then got in the truck to open the switches that isolated the transformer to be taken out of service. While they were driving, a tree hit a major line, blowing protective devices on both transformers and melting the wire. What would have been an isolated fault taking out about a third of the city now took out the entire city for the better part of a half a day.

The increasing interlinkage of the global economy leaves it vulnerable to these kinds of events. A problem that wipes out the banking sector will affect the global banking sector instead of being contained in a national banking sector. A pest that destroys a particular tree will spread across the globe, destroying trees all over the globe instead of just on one continent. So why not maintain the same barriers that other networks do for their safety?

First, the networks had certain barriers, but were never actually islands. The linkages between the networks were all in place, waiting for the right moment to be activated. But the global system is closer to a biological than a mechanical system. Linkages have to be grown, and having grown be used to be strengthened. There isn’t a standby export infrastructure waiting for the command centre to throw the switch, there are actual exporters and actual ports and actual longshoremen and truckers and roads that need to be maintained trained and built, and can only be built by being used. Movies need distribution channels and rightsholders working in concert which takes time and skill. The redundancy required for resilience needs to already be in place and operational.

Second, it is easier to cut a connection than to make a new one. The vast majority of systemic faults don’t begin as systemic faults. They begin as relatively minor, localised faults which, when not handled appropriately, escalate into larger faults and sometimes spread, what engineers would call failure cascades, but in finance is usually called contagions. Handling these problems properly means acting quickly to contain them to as small an area as possible while they are still small, or limiting their ability to grow. This doesn’t mean the creation of barriers, but retaining the ability to create barriers quickly. Figuring out how to detect small problems and handle them before they become big problems, and making sure the disease is worse than the cure, is the majority of modern engineering work, and an essential part of any regulatory apparatus. When done well it can be accomplished in a way that the remaining equipment doesn’t even notice, and with minimal downtime for the affected equipment.

Finally there are some kinds of problems that simply can’t be dealt with internally. A well designed, fully parallel battery back-up won’t save you when the operator comes in drunk and runs over it with a forklift, or when a rattle snake decides to make its home inside and the groundskeeper, being a good west Texas boy decides this is a problem that should be solved with a shotgun. (The snake was reportedly delicious).

Arc_Flash_3.gif
Or when nearby equipment explodes

The only way to deal with this is reduce, as far as possible, the number of systems that will act as single points of failure, by creating parallel systems as far away as practicable. It is these sorts of cases that earth 2 is designed to protect against, and in which the logic of anti-globalisation is strongest. There is one major difference. Earth 2, by its distance, can’t help you when something goes wrong. The species survives, you’re still screwed. By contrast access to rice grown in Thailand can help you, and cutting yourself off from it can decrease global systemic risk only by increasing the chances that a local survivable risk is turned into a local catastrophic one.

The Sting of Science

Some interesting things going on in the world of guilty, not guilty, and innocent, what with its consequences: the accused goes free, or the accused is imprisoned. As far as I understand it, prison, between Johnny Cash concerts, is a rather unpleasant existence, a place which not only punishes evildoers for the purposes of hindering evil being done in the midst of well-doers, but it also dehumanizes.

Convictions based on DNA evidence are being overturned. Another one bites the dust. Throw DNA evidence onto the pile of other courtroom incontrovertibles, along with fingerprints and lie detector tests. Perhaps the ancients were on to something when they said, “Do not establish a charge except by two or three witnesses.” Besides which, all the truly great courtroom dramas are based on the accounts of the witnesses and whose testimony might be trustworthy or how one might piece together the circumstances surrounding the crime: in other words, narrative. These forensic science TV shows, as cool as they might be in their first run, are intolerable in repeats. Columbo endures.

Ah, but science has determined that the science was insecure, susceptible to abuse! We are hereby one step closer to establishing the scientifically failsafe forensic method in criminal justice! A house divided, yada yada yada…

Jurisprudence took a turn, from this layman’s perspective, in those heady days when we were convinced that we could serve justice coldly, removing the fallible human element from murder trials. As public morality splintered (and now that it has disintegrated), triangulating became truly difficult for juries. How can a jury of peers even be established when we are all islands unto ourselves? Thus the task of weighing testimony was sublimated to the task of weighing the evidence.

Evidence is not unimportant, of course, but artifacts have been elevated in the public mind above hot-blooded accounting of hot blood. It’s all so icky, the tears, the blood-curdling descriptions, the hatred, rage, all there on display in a nice, sterile society. For a jury to pass moral judgment in the case of law is asking an awful lot. Juries, then, are witnesses themselves, offering testimony to the jury of editorials and the twitterverse concerning the wherewithal of a society to commit moral judgment. Who is the presiding judge?

More than that, perspective has been polarized, meaning, a witness is either telling the truth or is telling a lie, and only a chasm exists around those two pillars. The TV tells me that good lawyers know how to destroy witness accounts on this basis: if a reliable witness flutters in one detail, then the whole account is invalidated. Alas for measuring and sifting, for dividing and discerning, a lost art in the age of certainty!

Now that science has once again been disbarred from the courtroom, apprehended murderers might get away with murder! Indeed, they probably will for a short time, but we will establish a new evidentiary process to which to sublimate testimony. In the meantime, it will remain true that our prisoners, nearly all of whom are surely guilty, are stacked in cells reaching from beneath the earth up to the sky, and stretching in lines which converge around the compass on every horizon. Look, we say, our prisons are full, and crime is consequently minimized. See how we have hindered evildoing! We are approaching that day when we shall become a completely just society.

 

 

Theory and Practice, Episode One

9i4g8ggie

I need to make a point about something, but as it turns out, it’s impossible to make this point in a single blog post. So I’ll have to do this on an installment plan.

Adventures In Comparative Legal Systems

When I lived in Canada, I used to hang out with a lot of law students. During that time, the conversation would inevitably turn to Canadian law. By this, I mean that they were often doing their homework right in front of me, and I was helping them with it. So it was a bit more than just casual conversation.

And in case you’re wondering, the answer is: Yes, my experience tells me that most law school homework is done in a pub over multiple pitchers of beer.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me about the Canadian legal system is the way human rights are organized, legally speaking. Canada has what’s called the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is analogous to the American Bill of Rights. It spells out what rights are guaranteed to the people by the government. The Canadian government, according to Canadian law, is permitted to violate the Charter in certain cases, as long as the details of those cases conform to certain legal guidelines, which are spelled out in writing and in jurisprudence.

As a fiery young, philosophical man, this used to incense me. After all, the Bill of Rights is a document that outlines things that the U.S. federal government is not permitted to do. In other words, the presumption here in the United States is that human beings hold certain inalienable rights that supersede any additional legal power. In Canada, subject to legal conventions, it is the government that grants all rights to the people, so government powers supersede the rights of the people.

I say it used to make me incensed. It doesn’t anymore. Why not? Because while studying the law alongside my friends, I eventually learned that in practice the Canadian legal system reaches the same important conclusions regarding human rights as the American legal system.

The only material difference in these matters is the language used to justify the conclusion. In America, our courts tend to use language that refers to what the government cannot do, and what the intended meaning of legislation is. In Canada, their courts tend to use language that refers to what the government is permitted to do and whether the intended meaning of the legislation provides sufficient justification for doing it.

But, as I said, when it comes to everything that matters on human rights issues, the two countries’ legal systems tend to reach the same conclusions, even though their justifications are phrased differently.

What’s the Point, Ryan?

I bring this up because one of the least attractive things about philosophy is that it tends to raise objections that need not be raised.

We see a homeless man shivering outside a coffee shop with an outstretched arm holding a cup. Most people I know who have spare change will drop a few coins in the man’s cup. Of those who do, some of them do so for reasons of faith, some of them do so for reasons of utility maximization, some of them do it for reasons of virtue. And, yes, some of them do it for reasons of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or to help clear their conscience.

I know a few people who would choose not to help the man. They all refuse to do it for various reasons, but no matter what their moral philosophy happens to be, they all justify their decision on moral terms. Maybe they want to give the man incentive to get a job. Maybe they think someone else is more deserving. Maybe they think the man will spend the money contrary to his own best interests, i.e. on drugs or alcohol.

Philosophy tends to raise objections that need not be raised. If you and I both give the man our spare change, there is no point arguing over which one of us had the better moral reasoning: the outcome was the same, ergo our reasoning was equal. You can say this however you like: what matter are results; actions speak louder than words; practice is more relevant than theory.

What matters outside of that coffee shop is not the spotless philosophical reasoning used to justify a particular course of action, but rather what we choose to do. If I give the old man my spare change for totally incomprehensible and inconsistent reasons “which, if taken to their natural conclusion…” would destroy the world I don’t care. Neither does the old man. Because the outcome of my moral reasoning was the same as if I had used a superior moral framework (or an even more inferior one): the man got his money and the world is still intact.

Now, if a particular philosophy fails to produce the right results, or fails to produce them consistently, then we have a good reason to evaluate the coherence of that philosophy and address its shortcomings. (More on that in a forthcoming post.) But if I’m giving my change to deserving old men, my friends and family are happy with me, and I am generally impacting the world in a positive way, whatever crazy and internally inconsistent moral framework I’m working with is working for me/paying rent.

If we raise objections to “wrong” thinking that consistently yields “right” results, then maybe it’s time we checked our premises.

Fantasy, Myth, Ritual

The Roman world, when the early Christians exploded onto the scene, was a world awash in myth and ritual. When Christians came proclaiming that they had one additional god to which they prayed, it was natural for the Romans at the time to ask exactly which one they had in mind. Jupiter perhaps, or Apollo, or one of the mystery cults like Dionysus, or some other God, like the God of the Persians or of the Egyptians. The Romans were entirely used to new myths coming along, or new sub-cults seeking to elevate one of the deities above the rest. The pagans dealt with this tension, these competing cosmologies, by separating truth from religion, from rituals. The philosophers, lovers of truth, wanted to encounter the divine through reason, and therefore rejected the myths, even as they demanded duty to the God their reason identified.

The paradox of ancient philosophy is that intellectually it destroyed myth, but also tried to legitimize it as religion, as ritual. If you could pay homage to the cult of the emperor it didn’t really matter whether you actually believed that the emperor was divine, and fulfilling your duty to Neptune demanded sacrifices, not anything so prosaic as intellectual assent to his creation myth. This uneasy balance was destroyed by the early Church, who insisted that the God they worshiped was not a God of myth, but Being itself, the God that the philosophers had begun to apprehend. That their God demanded, not sacrifice but belief. That true religion was not empty ritual, not merely a useful custom that must be performed for the sake of edification, but was actually true. As Tertuallian formulated it, “Christ called himself Truth, not Custom”.

This reconciliation between truth and myth was always fraught, as a faith that professed itself as Truth needed to carefully ensure that reason was never entirely unbounded by myth, and once myth could no longer constrain truth, to change the myth to fit the new truth. But there is only so many times that the myth can change, and only so quickly, only so many parts that can be hived off before the whole myth is called into question, and the ritual stands empty once more. A culture that was not prepared to entirely sacrifice the idea that myth and Truth should be at cross purposes created a new myth, which subsumed the old and imbued the traditional rituals with new meaning. The old God of the philosophers was replaced with a new telos, Reason, Liberty, Equality, Progress. But the new gods were as austere, only slightly more atheistic than the pagans found the Christian god. One can provide their assent to mystical Equality, but that mystical union that accompanies the dissolution of self and submersion into a larger whole must come from rituals that involve other personalities, and the God of Equality is not personified. Ritual union, if it is to occur, must be union with a community, not union with an ideal.

The new gods require new myths, but as the new gods are social gods, the new myths no longer need to be true. The new myths are created rather self-consciously to serve as myth, intially by Christians seeking to preserve what wisdom they could by implanting some of the old myths into the new, what JRR Tolkien called Mythopoeia, but the myths that survive are ones that serve the appropriate social function of bringing together a community to engage the ritual and propagate the myth. This can be political, like the myth of class solidarity or natural rights, or the apotheosis of founding fathers into paragons of virtue, like George Washington and the cherry tree, but just as often is not explicitly so. The most popular myths and rituals are cribbed from Germanic pagans, Christmas trees, Easter Eggs, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus. Liberated from the need to be true, and from the need to appear true, the new myths are instead selected for their role in ritual, until the ritual and myth become entirely severed from any tether to any teleological end, a self-sustaining ritual cosmology, protected from collapse by the complete lack of any expectation of coherence.

One of the functions of ritual is to bridge the gap between the fact of continued inequality in an egalitarian age, and the yearning for unity, of the kind which can only be found amoung equals. It is in this context that the new myths thrive, by creating a world so alien to our experience, that they can be encountered without our baggage. The triumph of the new myths is to make the characters so archetypal, the story so uncomplicated, that a vast swath of people with widely varying backgrounds and experience can immediately identify and lose themselves inside the story unreflectively, providing a common experience that can be shared across lines of gender, class, occupation, generation or race otherwise unavailable. A world where lawyers, doctors and engineers cosplay cheek by jowl with installers and plumbers, retail workers and draughtswomen, lost together in a fantasy of power and triumph which transcends them.