Friday, May 28, 2010

The Queen's Speech

"My government will invest in new high-speed broadband internet connection," spoken by an 84-year old woman wearing an actual ginormous crown in imperial purple sitting on an actual throne.

I'm sure that to Commonwealthers the theater (theatre) of the Queen's Speech (or its viceregal equivalents) is old hat, but this is the first one I've ever actually watched. It strikes me as wonderfully odd. It seems undignified for the Queen to have to read a first-person speech written by some newly-elected politico and simultaneously undignified for the elected leader of a great power not to be able to deliver his own agenda to Parliament, and just wildly incongruous to have the longest-serving head of state in the world (is that right?) wading through a detailed list of bills to be introduced ("alcohol-related violence!") and through boringly jargony catchphrases. And yet it all works-- I enjoyed it more than I've enjoyed a State of the Union, like, ever.

I especially liked that the official statement of the government's agenda doubles as the Queen's Christmas card/ annual letter ("The Duke of Edinburgh and I look forward to our visit to Canada in June").

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Two political theory doctoral students win major fellowships

Two pieces of good news for theory students I've noticed recently from very competitive fellowship competitions:

Kiran Banerjee Wins Canada’s Most Prestigious PhD Award

[University of Toronto] PhD student, Kiran Banerjee, has won the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, Canada’s most prestigious scholarship for doctoral students. The award recognizes students in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and health sciences who have demonstrated leadership skills and high standards of scholarly achievement in their graduate studies. The award is worth $50,000 annually for up to three years. Kiran, one of 174 students to receive the award this year, is writing a doctoral dissertation on `Statelessness and the limits of contemporary citizenship: a theory of transnational political inclusion and open membership’.

James Ethan Bourke awarded ACLS fellowship

James Ethan Bourke
Doctoral Candidate
Duke University
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/ACLS Early Career Fellowship Program Dissertation Completion Fellowships 2010

The Politics of Incommensurability: A Value Pluralist Approach to Liberalism and Democracy

This dissertation explores the meaning and political implications of Isaiah Berlin’s theory of value pluralism. Value pluralism is the idea that goods or values are often conflicting and incommensurable to one another; that is, they cannot be measured by a common rubric or systematically ranked against one another. The argument has four main parts: 1) an analysis of what Berlin and others have meant by “value pluralism;” 2) a critique of current attempts to link value pluralism to one or another political view; 3) a new interpretation of the core claim of incommensurability and an analysis of how it affects practical reasoning; and 4) a constructive argument about the liberal-democratic institutions and practices that value pluralism supports.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

And they all died happily ever after

First draft thoughts on the Lost finale, to be updated as time permits:

I'm pleased to see that the critics are nearly unanimous in their correct view that the finale was terrible-- though one of the highest-profile Lostologists, EW's Doc Jensen, inexplicably sticks to the incorrect view that it was not terrible.

"Lost, arguably the most important genre show of the past decade, ended with a fizzle. People will tell you it was fine until the last 15 minutes, but they're wrong."

"Desmond and Jack walked into a cave for the final showdown with evil, and Desmond said, “This doesn’t matter, him destroying the island, you destroying him.” Jack, serious to the end, replied, “All of this matters.” It was the sort of thesis-antithesis, drama-of-ideas moment that the show had always specialized in. The problem was that several hours later, after the show’s mystical, walk-into-the-white-light ending, it was Desmond who would be proved more right."
"I can only hope that some pissed-off, enterprising Lost fan will do for the final season what other irate fanboys have done for the Star Wars prequels: re-edit the whole sloppy mess into something better."
"Well, shit."
"That spooky island that so much blood and treasure were spilled over—the one that holds the key to life and transfixed 20 million viewers each week at its peak? Oh, it's still out there. Don't trouble yourself about it. Just join us in this cheesily nondenominational church and let the good times roll. In lieu of a truly clever conclusion, please enjoy watching a minute of slow-motion hugging between the characters."
"After six seasons, you call a prom of the dead in a chapel of love where everybody is farting rainbows, where all the primary Oceanic 815 survivors are redeemed, where a loving "Dad" opens a Spielbergian door of light to the greater beyond ("Where are we going?" "Let's go find out.")—a finale?"
"A series like "Lost" doesn't need to solve all of its riddles, but it does need to address the right ones. (The first season of "Twin Peaks" is an object lesson in how to provide enough resolution while preserving the delicious mysteries of a fictional universe.) From statements the producers of "Lost" have made over the past five years, they developed a dynamic with die-hard fans (and disillusioned fans and skeptical non-fans) that was infinitely more complex than any of the personal relationships among the series' characters. Could it be that in resisting the geekiest, nitpickingest, most Aspergerian demands of their audience they swung too far in the opposite direction, dismissing as trivial everything but the cosmic (the tedious and largely unnecessary Jacob-Smokey background) and the sentimental (making sure that every character receives his or her designated soul mate or therapeutic closure of the most banal Dr. Phil variety)?"
"Once upon a time, there was a television show about a bunch of people on an island. For six years it was one of the most fascinating things on TV. And then it ended, in the worst way possible. Lost ended tonight, and with it the hopes and dreams of millions of people who thought it might finally get good again. SPOILER ALERT: It didn't. "

I'll begin positive. Absolutely loved the Jack-Fake Locke conversation about the real Locke, and the final exchange between Ben and Locke (although I can't entirely disagree with this critique of that moment, either). Got a kick out of the Star Trek II visual reference. Happily endorse Hugo's ascension and mostly endorse Ben's resolution-- though the latter desperately needed for him to do something, when instead he was utterly passive at just the wrong moment, neither Gollum at the Crack of Doom nor Vader helping to strike down the Emperor. Yay, Frank's alive and awesome. Yay, Miles and duct tape. Yay, Enos jokes. Yay, Juliet-Sawyer. (A lot of the episode consisted of trying to get the audience to just say 'yay'-- 'Yay, it's Vincent/ Rose & Bernard/ Juliet/ Frank/ Penny/ pianist Daniel/ Charlotte!' That's OK, in this kind of thing, and they got a few 'yay's out of me. But a 'yay' moment is narrative popcorn, not protein.) The cliffside fight was pretty great.

And after that... I'm kind of out of positive things to say.

The idea is emerging that the finale emphasized Character over Plot or Mythology, and therefore that we who disliked it failed to appreciate that Lost was a character-driven show. This idea is also incorrect.

No episode in which Christ symbolism was slathered on like cake frosting can be accused of being light on myth. And the finale laid it on even thicker than the season premiere. The island plotline was all about the Rules and the glowy soul-magic electromagnetism. The widely-reviled final Jack-Christian scene and church scene were mythology. But a) they were new mythology, unconnected with anything we've seen before, and b) they were bad mythology. We'll return to why.

And conversely: 'shipper fanfic is not the same as characterization. The only moments of real character resolution were on the island. Jack accepted both that he can be wrong and that he can be right, accepted that his responsibility to help others is compatible with a limit on his ability to do so and that he needs to be willing to pass responsibility to others. Kate ran to instead of running away, and in so doing saved the day; and came to terms with her connection to Jack. And Hurley grew up-- understanding that he can help others without being subordinate to them.

But nothing in the Sideways-verse offered any character resolution-- and indeed it undermined the resolutions those three characters reached on the island. The Jack-Christian touchy-feely was entirely unearned, and untrue to Jack's complicated relationship to his father. Sayid's One True Love being declared to be fricking Shannon was wildly untrue to his character as it's developed through the show. Sun and Jin's beatific bliss at discovering that they were already dead (which means, for Jin, that he has never seen and will never see his daughter) doesn't make a lick of sense. And the same problem repeats. Indeed, much of the problem is the sameness. The lovey flashbacks could have substituted any couple for any other couple. Everyone had precisely the same reaction to their remembrance of the island and of their death-- regardless of what they'd lost in either the real world or in their Sideways hallucination. Those of you who think you're "character" fans-- do you approve of Jack showing not an instant of a flicker of regret at discovering that he didn't really have a son, and never would?

And what about Locke, who in an instant goes from a world in which he's with the woman he loves, has come to terms with his father's accident, and in which he's just regained his legs, to a world in which he has just a moment ago died a lonely and pathetic failure, murdered after an abandoned suicide attempt, having re-lost his legs and been exiled from the Island where he'd found purpose, meaning, respect, and faith? Shouldn't there be some slightly complex emotion registering on Terry O'Quinn's talented face, instead of that dude-do-you-want-a-hit-of-this? nirvana?

And the fact that everyone ends up dying happily ever after in a big group hug really seems to cheapen the arcs that the characters did have. It turns out not to matter who lived and who died, who faced what struggles or-- crucially-- what issues with non-Oceanic-815 people. The characterization of these characters, such as it was, always involved the interaction of their off-island and on-island lives. The failure to give Locke in particular any real resolution bothers me.

The awakenings were neither moments of emotional resolution in Sidewaysland-- it's not as though Sideways-Sayid or Sideways-Sawyer had emotional issues that centered on the absence of a hot blonde from their lives-- nor moments of resolution of issues from the real world. They were just magical moments, overwriting any given character's story with the blissed-out realization of having found twue wuv and being dead.

The only awakening that tugged at my heartstrings at the time was Sawyer-Juliet. But even that's a little creepy in retrospect, once you know that Juliet has just found out her son was a hallucination. (Even in retrospect that bothers me less than Jack's lack of reaction-- because father-son issues were central to Jack's whole story, and because his son was central to his Sideways arc.)

All of that said about the characterization issue, I'm still a mytharc kind of geek. And I'm as dissatisfied with the answers we got as with those we didn't.

It turns out that every mystery about the island comes down to three things:

1) The glowy soul-magic electromagnetism has various funky effects.

2) Jacob made up lots of (as far as we know) entirely arbitrary rules for his arbitrary game with Smokey, a game that had the aims of protecting the glowy soul-magic electromagnetism, protecting the world from Smokey, and (Trading Places-like) winning an argument with his brother about human nature by experimenting on people.

3) The various peoples brought to the Island each left stuff behind.

Category 1 never got any further explanation. In the final few episodes we saw the glowiness of the source of the soul-magic-electromagnetism, but we already knew that there was magical life-and-health-connected electromagnetism. What we didn't know was why or what it meant. We still don't.

And categories 2 and 3 are boring. Polar bear? Just a Dharma leftover. The Numbers? Just the arbitrary stipulative system Jacob used to list out the candidates to replace himself. The complexities of coming to and leaving the island? Jacob's made-up rules. The need for the Oceanic Six to return (without apparently needing Aaron or Walt to return)? Well, Jacob wanted some of them to show up for a job interview.

But much remains unexplained-- and in need of explanation. In particular, the history between 1977 and 2004 of Ben, Widmore, Eloise, Richard, and Jacob that led to the Purge, Widmore's exile, the Others becoming sociopathic by the time of Oceanic 815, and Widmore's, Ben's, and Eloise's off-island activities-- in other words, the plot of seasons 3-5-- doesn't make sense.

Allegedly Jacob was talking to Richard, and not to Ben, throughout these years. What was Richard saying to Ben? Did Jacob approve of the Others' new moral code? How did Widmore, Eloise, and Ben gain the mysterious knowledge that they lorded over the survivors, especially off-island in Seasons 4-5? Did Jacob tell them?

For an example of what this kind of thing looks like done right, look at the Locke-Richard-Smokey interactions as Locke timejumps. Eventually we understand who knew what when, and how they knew it, and why they said what they said, and how neatly it all fits together. I suspect that there's no such coherent storyline for the Ben-Eloise-Widmore plots; if there is, we certainly haven't been told about it.

"But those are secondary characters!" you say. Well, maybe, expect for Ben. But their conflicts and agendas were primary-- they were central for more than half of the show's length. And they were left a chaotic and unresolved mess. I'm not looking for an in-depth character study of Widmore's psychology. I just want to know that the basic moving parts of the plot were.

It's tempting to try a variant on the following:

"Smokey was manipulating Ben, either directly or indirectly through Richard, by pretending to be Jacob. Ben got corrupted by Smokey early on, leading him to think he was connected to the island's fundamental purpose when really he was working for its destruction. He was led into some conflict with Widmore and Eloise in which he was wrong and they were right, but he won. Eloise and Widmore, knowing that Jacob's will was being thwarted, spent all the intervening years trying to get back and fight for good, albeit becoming corrupted by their ruthless dedication to that cause. In the meantime, Ben led the Others into paranoia and malice, under Smokey's direction. By the time Ben met Smokey Locke, Smokey already knew Ben from years of manipulation and only had a little more work to do to finish the job." That could get us a lot of the way there.


Except that Ben never talked to anyone who he thought was Jacob before the Season 5 finale; Richard knows what Jacob looks like; and Smokey couldn't appear to Richard using Jacob's face, because Jacob wasn't dead. So we're left with the thought that Ben acted autonomously. That's a lot more interesting in terms of Ben's character; but it leaves us without a solution as to what the heck was going on.

To be continued...