Friday, May 10, 2013

Excess & Accessibility

"Dame Jesus Pro—wait, who?"

Rather excitingly, Adam Roberts is re-reading the Culture novels.

Roberts teases out a similarity between Banks's Minds and a certain kind of person, the kind that compensates for social and emotional illiteracy with a flamboyant "hail fellow well met!" A bit further on:

"The Novel, that mode of art of which Excession is an example, trades in empathy. This is where it comes from: in the eighteenth-century they called it ‘sensibility’ (Austen elegantly satirises the debilitating consequences of too much of this on an impressionable reader in Sense and Sensibility). That thing people criticise nineteenth-century writers like Dickens for—sentimentality—is actually just the same thing. And that’s my problem with this. This mode of (literally) torturous empathy is, precisely, sentimental—an inverted 21st-century sentimentality, but as emotionally manipulative, disingenuous and distorting as thing as plucking the reader's heart strings at Little Nell’s death. Because what’s obvious in terms of the way Excession interpellates us as readers is that we’re obviously not the genocidal ex-camp commandant. We'd never do anything so ghastly as that. Nor are we the barbarian-horrid Affront. We’re a Mind, obviously. Which is fine, and entertaining, and not a wholly ineffective way of dramatizing moral dilemmas (‘genocide is profoundly wrong’ can hardly be said too many times). But it tends to inculcate a mode of self-satisfaction."

We are all capable of atrocities. But perhaps it's berks -- with their neediness, their disproportionate relief at finding an ingroup, their fetishization of a certain kind of reductive formal logic, and their really bad eye contact -- who are actually your real risk category? Roberts then sidles towards an apologia with help from Browning and Coleridge.

Two related thoughts blob up:

(1) It feels important that such self-satisfaction is lampshaded in a lot of Culture books. When Banks complicates and blurs the Culture's ethical perfection, that has something to do with sustaining impractical ideals, even if only as mascots or foci imaginarii. But when he qualifies the Culture's heroism with smugness, I think that's a bit different: a bit more directly linked into contemporary local political discourse, and the way in which charges of hypocrisy work to contain activism and dissent. Against one of Middle England's top sneers -- the sneer that the Good Guys don't really care about the people they help, that they are much more interested in themselves -- Banks very prettily passes over the "How can you say that?" comeback, and instead goes with: "Yeah, and?"

(2) If it's sort of a novel of sentiment, Excession -- with its many chat transcripts of its up-themselves do-gooder demigods -- is also sort of quasi-epistolary. In Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa you get a fantasy of private correspondence as a sort of for womyn's falsness, an authoritative place where society can go and look up a victim's precise virtue-to-complicity ratio. It is a fantasy which collapses in interesting ways as the epistolary novel evolves and declines -- especially through its interactions with the coded messages and secret identities of spy narratives -- and by the time we get to Banks' espionage epistolary space opera, okay, there is certainly that recognition that even "the most" private texts are constitutively public, and therefore constitutively unreliable guides to anybody's inner life . . . but I think Banks goes further, registering how consciousness itself is a lot like reading your own supremely untrustworthy secret diary, and how self-knowledge is always falling short of the sort of status and capabilities we are somehow forced to pretend it possesses.

Of course this isn't some quintessentially Banksian achievement. But just because it's an operational cliché in innumerable fields doesn't mean it's not maddeningly elusive, or that Banks's efforts to make it concrete are redundant. The trick in Transitions of (spoiler!) the Torturer unwittingly slowly murdering his future self seems allegorically invested in this territory. In Excession, a ship Mind succumbs to a cyber-attack and is made to tear itself apart. The masterstroke is that the compromised security isn't really spelled out: we know that such hacks are possible, but we see it from the hacked Mind's point of view, as an "internal" monologue of remorse, despair, and suicide. This sequence is all confabulation, an epiphenomenon of the hacker's agency . . . but it is simultaneously and paradoxically the (for want of a better term) true subjectivity of the Mind, its true reflection, emotion, desire and decision.

This is a version of self-ignorance which seems rooted in post-cyberpunk, and perhaps to some extent the Anglo-American philosophy of mind with which it slightly overlaps (compare something like Greg Egan's short story "Learning to be Me") rather than in anti-Cartesian continental philosophy or literary theory. But wherever it comes from, I wonder: what does it mean for empathy? How does it problematise putting yourself in someone else's shoes, when you can't even find your own?

For instance: could it suggest a slightly different angle on empathy and berkishness in Banks's Culture books? Perhaps an awful lot of their ethics is reducible to empathy, but perhaps that empathy itself is actually quite a tricksy and multifarious and broad concept -- at least inasmuch as it accommodates berk empathy (or bathetic empathy). That is: empathy which doesn't involve much replication of affect, much harmony of hearts, but an empathy which operates through a bureaucratic crankishness sometimes mistaken for evil's prerogative exclusively. The banality of righteousness.

PS: Compare Lara Buckerton, in a review of Roberts's New Model Army (PDF), on the frequent ingrown ghoulishness of war experts.

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