Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 22:10 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
I think that the notions of good and evil in the sense of there being a right/Godly/pious way to live and a wrong/Ungodly/sinful way to live is quite a major part of Christianity as I understand it, although what explicitly counts as right or wrong varies massively depending on the individual Christian.

One might argue, that any system of religious or philosophical thought, does carry with it some moral implications and assignments of what is valuable and what is not. Terms like permitted and prohibited and on the other hand discouraged and encouraged are not necessarily the same as christian good and bad and of course the terms good and bad themselves can be defined in different ways. Like roman virtue is considered a good, but it is not a christian good as commonly thought and the same could be said about classical greek arete or aristos. To restrain myself from rambling, there is a christian good, I think, although even this might change depending on the period of history, but the difference between different culture's view of the term good is not necessarily the usage of the term and not necessarily even the way it is conceptualized, but rather the contents, that is what exactly is considered good and bad and in relation to what is this justified. The will or nature of god, an idea of goodness or something else. But the core concepts, or grammar is still there. But I guess this depends on whether one is a moral relativist or a moral universalist.
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at 21:35 on 11-11-2013, Dan H
Leaving aside the discussion of ancient religion, I'm not sure what to think of that implication. On the one hand, I am glad for the reminder that science fiction and fantasy both tend to follow a strongly Christian outline (I am a fairly religious person, so 'Space Jesus' is a particular bugbear of mine); on the other I feel it's probably being too reductive when it comes to what Christianity is.


When you say "a fairly religious person" (and if this is a personal question, do feel free not to answer it) do you mean "a fairly religious Christian" (and therefore Space Jesus bothers you because it appropriates something you consider to be an important part of your religion) or do you mean "a fairly religious [member of any other non-Christian religion]" (and therefore Space Jesus bothers you because it treats a central feature of somebody else's religion as a central feature of all religions)? Just curious since it could be read either way.

I agree that "good vs evil" is not actually a central theme of Christianity per se, at least not good vs evil as a literal external conflict, but I think that the notions of good and evil in the sense of there being a right/Godly/pious way to live and a wrong/Ungodly/sinful way to live is quite a major part of Christianity as I understand it, although what explicitly counts as right or wrong varies massively depending on the individual Christian.

I think also that one can identify something as being characteristically Christian without it necessarily being a defining feature of Christianity. A good example (and I hope not too flippant a one) here might be the Cleric's Turn Undead ability in D&D. Now obviously making vampires run away is hardly a defining feature of the Christian Faith in any of its denominations, but the idea that it is possible to overcome evil supernatural enemies explicitly by faith in a higher power seems to me to be very strongly grounded in Christian assumptions about how supernatural stuff works (indeed one of the many strange things about D&D is that it has a polytheistic setting in which virtually all religions have the trappings of Abrahamic monotheism). So although it isn't a strongly Christian concept in the sense of being a concept that is very important in Christianity, it is a strongly Christian concept in the sense of being a concept that seems derived from Christian cosmological assumptions rather than the cosmological assumptions of any other religion.

Of course this all gets very murky very quickly, because one has to walk a like between acknowledging that not all religions are the same and inadvertently claiming some kind of unique and special status for Christianity. It gets very messy because a lot of religions contain concepts which, as far as I can tell, were translated into English by Christian missionaries who used heavily Christianised language. I was reading a thread on some RPG forums only a couple of weeks ago in which somebody tried to insist that "every religion has a concept of Heaven and Hell" when I suspect that a more accurate statement would be "many religions include the concept of afterlives or otherworlds, which have often been translated as 'Heaven' or 'Hell' in English for want of a better term."

Gosh, who would have thought religion would be so complex.
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at 21:22 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Surely that's just fantasy's general habit of externalising inner conflict?

Well, not just fantasy, unless we count as fantasy things that go quite a while back, all the way to Milton, or Dante and all the works of fiction inspired by those. Late medieval morality plays had that thing where everyone has a small devil and an angel to discuss actions. Marlowe's Faustus I remember have had that trope as an influence. Milton has no doubt inspired many superficial imitations.

Interestingly, Manicheanism is apparently considered a gnostic religion, whereas what I think of when I hear gnostic, is not a polarity of values rather than the sort of neo-platonist theology of god as the centre of perfection and other aspects of the universe as more imperfect the further you get from the centre. I don't think that sense of gnosticism allows for the devil really or has good and evil as a dichotomy at all, since evil is insufficient, or the furthest from perfection and therefore really a result of ignorance and mistake, rather than a valid opposite value. In that case the saviour is the source of knowledge, rather than a literal, active saviour. Of course it does get tricky with theology, so I don't know how near I've missed with this.
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at 20:47 on 11-11-2013, Daniel F
Dan:
I suspect that "Manichean" here is being used in roughly the same way that "fascist" is used to describe anything vaguely authoritarian/right-wing/aggressive - that is, not literally associated with the Manichean religion but displaying qualities that are loosely associated with it.


In context, isn't it fairly obvious that it's using 'Manichaean' as a synonym for 'good versus evil'? The phrase both depend on Manichaean, good-versus-evil plots seems difficult to misinterpret.

Leaving aside the discussion of ancient religion, I'm not sure what to think of that implication. On the one hand, I am glad for the reminder that science fiction and fantasy both tend to follow a strongly Christian outline (I am a fairly religious person, so 'Space Jesus' is a particular bugbear of mine); on the other I feel it's probably being too reductive when it comes to what Christianity is.

That is, I can agree that SF/fantasy does have a preoccupation with 'good versus evil', but I'm not sure I'd say that Christianity depends on that pattern. Certainly Christianity depends on the recognition that bad stuff happens, as do most religions on some level, but that doesn't necessarily lead you to a dualist, 'good versus evil' view of the universe. Surely it would make just as much sense to assert that Christianity is resolutely anti-Manichaean, not just for historical reasons, but since it holds that there can be no meaningful cosmic conflict with God, evil is radically insufficient (if it exists at all), and so on?

You might be able to draw 'good versus evil' themes out of Christianity, but it hardly seems essential to me.

Janne:
But perhaps seeing the thing more subtly, rather than seeing judeo-christian influence as a whole as some sort of war between good and evil only, is more interesting. The anthropomorphization of evil makes for a better action oriented story,


Surely that's just fantasy's general habit of externalising inner conflict?
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at 18:33 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Damn those thetans are holding me back. I seem to find even 50 hours exhausting. Well, when I have money...
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at 18:25 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
Nonsense, clearly it pummels the reactive mind into submission! If you find slave labour doesn't pump you up the tone scale you're doing it wrong and need to report the downstat, audit your overts and withholds, accept and follow your ethics condition and get back in-ethics and on lines.
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at 18:03 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
I would imagine slaving away 130 hours a week on a ship without pay dampens the creative spirit a bit.
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at 17:58 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
A related question: why aren't there more Scientologists writing SF? L. Ron did set up a writing contest after all (whilst on the run from the law, no less!) so he presumably approved of people making their own, inferior contributions to the medium (provided they didn't include Xenu because ORIGINAL CHARACTER DO NOT STEAL).
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at 17:34 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Since 2/3 of medieval literature consists of elaborate fart jokes, I'm not sure the author of the article would consider it "serious."


A not insignificant part of Joyce seems to dwell on masturbation, so one should hope fart jokes are not out of the literary realm. If all else fails, keep repeating: Bakhtin, Rabelais, Aristophanes and carnivalization.
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at 17:29 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Hmm... it seems Mani did get his own religion going, while still being a self-admitted adherent of Jesus. Interesting guy, trying to tie together several different things. But synergy and assimilation is usually a virtue in the religious marketplace.

there *are* a number of assumptions that wind up being carried over from broadly Judeo-Christian cultural contexts into all sorts of things, fiction included.

Hard to disagree with that. But perhaps seeing the thing more subtly, rather than seeing judeo-christian influence as a whole as some sort of war between good and evil only, is more interesting. The anthropomorphization of evil makes for a better action oriented story, but is hardly the only thing or even the most pervading thing in our culture that comes from that particular source.
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at 17:27 on 11-11-2013, Michal
I think you could make an argument that being part of an organisation which could wreck your family and social life...if you say the wrong thing can restrict your creativity in such a way that making decent artistic work much more difficult.

I suppose it's possible to make a comparison to the flourishing of science fiction in communist Poland because that was a genre the censors completely dismissed. It doesn't really work when you think about it, beyond approaching it in a vague "this is the only place where you can explore issues kept silent in the church without getting kicked out for it, and even then you have to be careful" kind of way.

On the other hand, if that were true, where does that leave more or less all the literature of medieval Europe?

Since 2/3 of medieval literature consists of elaborate fart jokes, I'm not sure the author of the article would consider it "serious."
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at 16:55 on 11-11-2013, Dan H
Not to mention that mainline Christianity expressly denounces Manicheanism.


I suspect that "Manichean" here is being used in roughly the same way that "fascist" is used to describe anything vaguely authoritarian/right-wing/aggressive - that is, not literally associated with the Manichean religion but displaying qualities that are loosely associated with it. Christianity might explicitly denounce Manicheanism, but it is still arguably a "Manichean" religion in the loose, non-technical (and borderline useless) sense of "believes in the concepts of good and evil."

And I agree that it isn't exactly helpful to treat "Christian" like it's a monolith (and it's a bit off to treat the LDS as not being part of Christianity) but at the same time there *are* a number of assumptions that wind up being carried over from broadly Judeo-Christian cultural contexts into all sorts of things, fiction included.
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at 16:52 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
Manichaeanism is complicated but so far as I can tell Mani popped up in the 3rd Century AD and was all like "Yo, don't mind me, I'm a follower of Jesus just like the rest of you" and the Christians took one look at his wacky cosmology and said "Er, actually you seem to be just kind of weird, kindly cease taking our boss's name in vain kthx".
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at 16:13 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Wasn't Manicheanism one of those other similar religions from roughly the same area as Christianity that just didn't succeed to the same degree? But yeah, apparently the author assumes that because superficially religious(meaning Christian) films and media often have satan as a character, it must mean that that is pretty much the main thing about Christianity and since Tolkien is catholic + Sauron(or Morgoth for experts), this holds true of genre literature as well. And Star Wars of course.
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at 16:01 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
I'm not a terribly religious person, but the writer seems to depend on some heavy generalizations here regarding both theology and genre fiction.

Not to mention that mainline Christianity expressly denounces Manicheanism. The Manicheans were, like, some of the first dudes to get kicked out of the club back in the day.

Next up: "Why do Zoroastrians write so much glam rock?", an article based on the author not being aware of any Zoroastrian musicians aside from Freddie Mercury.
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at 15:54 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
From the article:

Christianity and genre fiction both depend on Manichaean, good-versus-evil plots, and the savior motif, in which an anointed one saves the kingdom or the world, is important to sci-fi and fantasy and central to the Christian Gospel.

These sorts of blanket statements are very annoying as well. Not only because it is easy to come up with counter-examples from speculative fiction, it also claims that there is some sort of one Christian Gospel that is just so simple and reductive. I'm not a terribly religious person, but the writer seems to depend on some heavy generalizations here regarding both theology and genre fiction. But think how insignificant this article would be if one removed all the weird stuff. Like why bring up Shakespeare or Milton? Why make so many blanket statements? Then it would be just: mormon writers make popular young adult and genre fiction, which might or might not have something to do with the religion; we do not really know, but we will make assumptions.

Robinson:
All those are symptoms, but I would argue the problems go much deeper. It's analogous to asking how, say, patriarchy or racism are perpetuated within a "democratic" system - does that make sense?

I think so. But perhaps a defense might be that the system of government will always be work in progress and while the situation is dire, it's still an improvement on the way things were 100 hundred years ago. Although that might just be moderate hand-waving. It is just that in my mind, an utopic society would not come about by sudden upheaval, but by baby steps. Of course a few revolutions might be needed on the way... Parecon seems interesting. I've read some Kropotkin and Bakunin, but if you have any other reading suggestions, I would be grateful.

On the subject of anarchic communities, I know it's not the same, but the sort of christian communitarian communities which sprang up in connection with the reformation, the mennonites, the amish or the hutterites seem an interesting example of a stable and long living community. Of course they arefar from perfect and at least the amish practice on exiling non-conforming members. Which is probably the most ancient form of social punishment imaginable, in addition to social moral judgement, which would probably be present in any community. Of course they depend on people leaving them be as well as protecting them(quite like the capitalist extremes of Monaco, or Dubai or tax havens in general depend on protection to exist). But in general, if a society shares a story or an ideal of how things should be, it can achieve longevity and progress. Pretty much how Nordic welfare states depended on co-operation between moderate left and right to build a relatively inclusive society to block radical wings from succeeding. The stories which seem to be gaining in popularity nowadays seem so lacking in many respects.
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at 00:10 on 10-11-2013, Arthur B
But "why is there no Mormon Shakespeare" is a much more loaded question, and the whole article does essentially wind up coming across as dismissive of both Mormonism *and* genre fiction (these people have a *silly* religion so they write *silly* books).

Yeah, the article pretty much boils down to "why do these people whose worldviews and ethics are incompatible with mine write stuff which I don't especially like?"

To be fair to the article, it does raise a glancingly useful point in that the official Latter Day Saints church is an organisation which does make particular demands of its members and will kick your ass out if you're openly breaking from the hierarchy. On the other hand, there's a distinction between "being a Mormon" and "being a member of the official LDS" - there are people outside the LDS who practice Mormonism both as splinter sects and on their ownsome. I think you could make an argument that being part of an organisation which could wreck your family and social life (by kicking you out and asking people to shun you) and, if you actually believe in its doctrine, consign you to hell if you say the wrong thing can restrict your creativity in such a way that making decent artistic work much more difficult. On the other hand, if that were true, where does that leave more or less all the literature of medieval Europe?
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at 23:59 on 09-11-2013, Arthur B
Or perhaps to put it another way, unsuccessful attempts to resist the Nazis were not as uniformly nonviolent as they are presented as being.

It's also worth noting that small concessions and local victories don't necessarily change the large-scale picture. Yes, some German mothers were able to get the Gestapo to release their sons arrested for subversive activities through non-violent protest. Yes, large amount of Jews escaped in a range of non-violent actions like the evacuation from Denmark. That doesn't change the fact that the Jews who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising weren't exactly going to have a happy ending had they refrained from violent resistance (granted, the uprising precipitated the total liquidation of the ghetto, but that was kind of on the agenda anyway), or that there's a big difference between "obstructing someone's planned violence" and stopping them from pursuing a violent course of action in the first place. If someone is determined to kick you in the teeth no amount of persuasion is actually going to stop them making the attempt.
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at 23:52 on 09-11-2013, Dan H
The New York Times tells us why Mormons can't write serious fiction.

Because there wasn't any possible way this would come across as facile or offensive. And I say this as someone who despises Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson's work.


It's tricky, because it's *almost* an interesting piece, and if it was phrased as a question of why Mormons might be more inclined to write genre fiction (which, as somebody who likes genre fiction, I don't see as being a bad thing) it would have been quite interesting. But "why is there no Mormon Shakespeare" is a much more loaded question, and the whole article does essentially wind up coming across as dismissive of both Mormonism *and* genre fiction (these people have a *silly* religion so they write *silly* books).
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at 23:39 on 09-11-2013, Dan H
@Arthur: Fair enough. I've seen plenty of arguments that no, civil disobedience/nonviolent resistance doesn't actually require your opponents to empathize with you, and no, the Nazis weren't nearly as immune to nonviolent resistance as commonly portrayed.


Or perhaps to put it another way, unsuccessful attempts to resist the Nazis were not as uniformly nonviolent as they are presented as being.

I remember a while ago somebody (Alisdair?) mentioned a book called Selling the Holocaust and I was sufficiently interested to read large chunks of it on Google books. One of the things that jumped out at me was the way that armed resistance against he Nazis by Jews is consistently downplayed in European and American accounts of the war, because we're more interested in a narrative in which we swooped in and saved everybody with our spitfires and flying fortresses, while it's apparently strongly played up in Israeli accounts.

I think in general there's a tendency for most conflicts of this sort to get labelled as either violent or non-violent depending on who we are supposed to think the good guys are, and what we are supposed to think is good about them. So for example we ignore acts of violence committed in opposition to British rule in India, or Apartheid in South Africa, because we want a narrative about dignity in suffering. We strongly emphasise acts of violence committed in opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland because we either want to present (as many Americans do) a narrative of heroic struggle or (as many Brits do) a narrative of vicious terrorism. We sometimes even treat violent and non-violent forms of protest as equivalent, if the protesters are people we really don't like - a Muslim cleric who preaches against the West is seen by many people as no different to a terrorist who bombs a police station.
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at 23:19 on 09-11-2013, Michal
The New York Times tells us why Mormons can't write serious fiction.

Because there wasn't any possible way this would come across as facile or offensive. And I say this as someone who despises Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson's work.
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at 18:30 on 09-11-2013, Robinson L
Arthur: even if nobody actually turns to banditry, how do you guarantee that at least a subset of the population won't turn around and organise themselves into a state because they genuinely believe it would yield better results?

Good question. Another issue I have with Parecon, actually, is that it's pretty homogenous, and I can't see a free/non-coercive society working without massive heterogeneity which might (or might not) include communities where people genuinely want to live by decidedly non-anarchic principles. I tend to assume that if humanity has the creativity to get itself that far, it'll have the creativity to accommodate people who want to live within a state structure while preventing them from exercising coercive force over anyone who doesn't want to (without the need for Dick's anarchist police, though that still sounds like an interesting story).

Good points about Madagascar, both.
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at 18:20 on 09-11-2013, Arthur B
It's also worth noting that there's a distinction between "the recognised government of this particular state doesn't actually exert much authority in this region" and "nobody exerts any authority in this region". Coercive power as a concept doesn't go away just because the tax man doesn't visit.
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at 18:13 on 09-11-2013, Shim
Anthropologist David Graeber has also written about present-day Madagascar, where in many parts of the country the state maintains only a token presence.

I don't pretend to be any kind of authority on Madagascar, but my brother did live in remote areas there for several years. I can say that Madagascar has its own set of problems that you probably can't divorce from state/nonstate issues, not least that subsistence farming is still widespread (which means low tax revenues for anything) and basic infrastructure is often appalling. When (I hope) these things improve, it will probably also mean a closer relationship to the state with things like taxes and infrastructure maintenance coming into the picture. As I understand it there are also tribal issues which may (or may not) become more prominent as travel and trade increase.
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