Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Animal and plant labor, part III


Part III: Why does it matter?

Before I go on to plant labor – complete with quotes from Luke 12:27 and Buenaventura Durruti – there's the question of why any this matters. So you can describe animals as doing labor if you define your terms in a certain way: why should this matter to anyone?

It matters because the classic European leftist imaginary is all about work. It doesn't matter that newer (or older) imaginaries exist that aren't so focused on producerism: the left was dominated by Marxist ideas until the fall of the USSR, and the neoliberal era after that has suppressed any widespread adoption of anything else. For better or for worse, when many people on the left think of what defines the left, the answer has to do with the working class. Since Marxism is basically a 19th century ideology, it has no ecological understanding, and has a false model of value in which all value comes from human work. No socialist state informed by the Marxist tradition has ever done better than capitalist states have in ecological terms.

It's not necessary to argue against Marxist ideas directly: these have more or less died out as living technical ideas for most of the population. What's left is a kind of folk Marxism. Psychologists now say that Freud was wrong about many important things: this doesn't stop generally literate people from thinking about the conscious and unconscious, the superego, ego, and id, the Freudian slip, the father complex and so on, or the more pop culture versions of these ideas like “daddy issues”. In the same way, people who adhere to class forms of the left rather than identity forms will immediately come up with ideas about workers, solidarity, and class interest.

I'm one of these class-form people myself: as an anarchist, I've seen what happens when people claim leftism on the basis of identity but otherwise have a liberal politics. Neoliberalism runs on that kind of thing. So it seems to me to be imperative to re-use or recycle folk ideas about workers, solidarity, and class interest into a form that can address the most important problems that we have as a civilization: our ecological limits. To do that, it becomes necessary to see animals and maybe even plants as workers, to feel solidarity, to understand that there is a common interest between them and ourselves.

This is a long-standing part of the anarchist lineage. In the Eurocentric tradition it goes back to works like Kropotkin's Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, published in 1902. As such it is nothing new, but rather represents a kind of 20th century that should have occurred but did not, either in the capitalist west or the Marxist east. For real 21st century ideas we'd probably do better to turn towards Indigenous anarchists. But I myself am a product of the Euro tradition, and this is all I can write about.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Animal and Plant Labor, part II


Part II. Do animals work?

When people discuss this, they generally attribute work that an animal does that's supervised by a human as something that only counts as work because a human being is directing it. So, horses pull plows, provide transport, were used in war and so on but in this view they are generally understood as tools or adjuncts to human beings who are working – as capital, in other words. Dogs do what we might call emotional labor (and assist in the hunt) in the same way. Because I don't want to argue about this, I'm not going to address labor by domesticated animals.

For wild animals, our ideas of what labor is tend to match what we do in our civilization. So, for instance, models of animal labor from the last couple of centuries involve building things: beavers and dams, spiders and webs, birds and nests, bees and honeycombs. They don't involve packs of wolves doing the work of going out on the hunt and bringing down prey, because in our civilization we no longer often go out in hunting groups as a form of work occupation. So for now I'll only write about animals who build. The immediate objection is that animals are doing this instinctively, while we think about it, so our activity counts as work and theirs doesn't.

I suggest that this is not as large or as binary a difference as some people believe. To start with, Taylorized forms of human work have been developed that involve human beings doing simple, repetitive motions over and over on an assembly line: no one doubts that they are working, even though any opportunity for thought has been purposefully excluded. But this would be answered that human adaptability can be used to have people do repetitive motions that are not instinctual, but instead changeable and appropriate to the situation – of earning pay via wage labor, in this case. That leads me to my main argument, which is that both humans and other animals find their opportunities for routine work limited by their environment.

You can't define work as something that only geniuses or extraordinary individuals do. For most of us, it's limited by what is available: beavers build dams based on the wood that grows nearby, birds use leaves or human litter, bees build into the confines whatever hollow exists. Humans have extraordinary capability for language, culture, and the development of technology, and this creates a social environment that acts much like their physical environment. When beavers go into a new region, you'll see beaver dams appear: when humans do, you'll see characteristic human structures as defined by the physical resources available, their culture, and their technology.

I don't expect everyone to be convinced by this, although at least we are past the days in Europe when animals were considered to be a kind of machine. People these days at least consider that animals have emotions, feelings, and (in some cases) tool and language use, or a form of creativity. At any rate, I will consider labor to be strenuous, purposeful activity that a living thing does in order to live. By this measure, animals do work.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Animal and Plant Labor, part 1

"Air, virgin soil, and natural meadows are not static piles of things lying in bins. They are the result of ecological processes, which means that they are the result of unremitting labor. It's just animal and plant labor rather than human labor."

In what sense do animals and plants do labor? People have talked about the first but generally only as an adjunct to human labor, and very rarely conceive of the second. I'm interested in this as part of a questioning or re-centering of the fundamental ideas of leftist thought, which are still based on Marx's writing as folk ideas.

I wrote a number of Twitter threads about this during the years in which I was on Twitter: I'm going to see whether I can rewrite them as a somewhat more coherent set of blog / Mastodon posts. They never would have been written at all without the sense that someone was reading and replying to them.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

55 good SF / fantasy books

These are all of the science fiction and fantasy books out of the thousands that I've read that I 5 starred on Library Thing. As such the list is not intended as a comprehensive list of the best, and it certainly could be more diverse in various ways, but it is what it is -- SF/F books that I thought at some time in my life (possibly when I was 13) were among the best. They are in alphabetic order by last name of the author.

  • Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games, Use of Weapons
  • John Bellairs: The Face in the Frost
  • James Branch Cabell: The Silver Stallion, Figures of Earth, The High Place
  • G. K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday
  • John Crowley: Little, Big , Engine Summer
  • Avram Davidson: The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy
  • Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time Slip, Deus Irae (with Roger Zelazny), Ubik, The Penultimate Truth, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Galactic Pot-Healer
  • Lord Dunsany: At the Edge of the World, The King of Elfland's Daughter, The Complete Pegana
  • William Gibson: The Difference Engine (with Bruce Sterling), Neuromancer
  • Alasdair Gray: Lanark
  • M. John Harrison: The Course of the Heart
  • Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea
  • Stanislaw Lem: Solaris, Return From the Stars, The Futurological Congress, Memoirs Found In a Bathtub, The Cyberaid
  • H.P. Lovecraft: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
  • China Mieville: The Scar, Iron Council
  • Michael Moorcock: The Cornelius Chronicles Vol 1. (collects The Final Programme through The Condition of Muzak)
  • Ward Moore: Greener Than You Think
  • Jenna Katerin Moran: An Unclean Legacy
  • George Orwell: 1984
  • Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan, Gormenghast
  • Christopher Priest: The Islanders
  • Adam Roberts: New Model Army, The This
  • Michael Shea: Nifft the Lean
  • Norman Spinrad: The Iron Dream
  • Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, Star Maker
  • Bruce Sterling: Schismatrix Plus, Holy Fire, Islands in the Net
  • Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Steph Swainston: Above the Snowline
  • H.G. Wells: The Invisible Man
  • Roger Zelazny: Lord of Light

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Open Posts, Closed Works, Other Worlds: part 5

V. Other conclusions

Isekai has had a minor Satanic Panic in Russia in 2021 due to a belief that the genre depicts reincarnation as desirable and therefore may tempt people to hasten it. Judicial clowning aside, a more serious backlash has occurred throughout the last decade. It probably peaked in 2016-217 when a Shōsetsuka ni Narō short story contest banned isekai entries and the publisher Kadokowa followed suit in its own contest the next year. (1) As far as I can tell, there was a feeling that the genre was overpopulated and might have exhausted itself. Whatever the merits of this, the genre remained popular and the bans did not continue. (2)

So why has isekai, at least so far, kept coming back? It is not merely because it is an escapist genre about literally escaping to another world. The virtues of escapism are part of an ancient dispute within fantasy, with Tolkein supposedly saying to C.S. Lewis that the people most hostile to the idea of escape are jailers, and Michael Moorcock retorting much later that "Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape." Whichever side of this you prefer, the point in the present context is that there are many genres that provide escapism if that is what people want. Why isekai?

I suggest that part of the answer is isekai's wholehearted commitment to Eros. There are other escapist genres that are commited to Thanatos – science fiction, for instance, likes to call itself the literature of ideas but might more accurately be called the literature of genocide – but death drive abounds in our societies as we embrace ecological and other catastrophes, and perhaps that is what needs to be escaped from most of all.

Another possible answer is provided by Baudrillard, writing in 1983 just 4 years after Eco's _The Role of the Reader_. In these four years something uneasy has happened to that word "infantilism":

"The child resists on all levels, and to a contradictory demand he also responds with a double strategy. To the demand to be an object, he opposes all the practices of disobedience, revolt, emancipation; in short, a total claim to subjecthood. To the demand to be a subject, he opposes just as stubbornly and efficaciously with an object's resistance, that is to say, in exactly the opposite manner: infantilism, hyperconformism, a total dependence, passivity, idiocy. Neither of the two strategies has more objective value than the other. The resistance-as-subject is today unilaterally valorized and held as positive - just as in the political sphere only the practices of liberation, emancipation, expression, and constitution as a political subject are taken to be valuable and subversive. But this is to ignore the equal or perhaps even superior impact, of all the practices-as-object - the renunciation of the position of subject and of meaning - exactly the practices of the masses - which we bury and forget under the contemptuous terms of alienation and passivity."

[...] "the system's current argument is the maximization of the word and the maximal production of meaning. Thus the strategic resistance is that of a refusal of meaning and a refusal of the word - or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is a form of refusal and of non-reception."

Closed genres, with their multitude of slight variations around what the reader already expects, are a way of producing content without also producing meaning, and are therefore ideal for this strategy. I find this somewhat persuasive since the charge of infantilism never made any sense for what is essentially an adolescent pursuit.

In any case, Baudrillard's concept of the mass leads back to the religious beliefs in reincarnation and demiurgy – in this context, practices of the mass rather than the individual genius. The individually talented writer, like Tolkien, may well feel that they are practicing subcreation, a sort of divinely approved inpiration, and we refer to the judgment of the works of these writers as being up to history, as if they have gone to Heaven.

Reincarnation, on the other hand, is a practice that everyone does, taking roles in turn, with no single act or single life being definitive. Demiurgy in its classic Gnostic context was the individual act of a Demiurge, but in a more ordinary sense is the effort of any creator to make a fictional world that they know will be seriously flawed. As such it can be done by anyone, and is done, as the more than a million novels submitted to Shōsetsuka ni Narō show. It is the task of our time to find a way to value this work as itself, without taking the trouble – in any case impossible – of reading all of it. (3)


1. The Kadokowa ban was supposedly in favor of adult content, since teenage protagonists were also banned. The publisher specified that it had to be a male, adult protagonist, so it may have been a matter of them going for a very specific demographic.

2. American reception of isekai is largely based on anime, for which a common perception is that isekai displaces more varied works (anime is a medium that has works in many different genres) and replaces longer series with a succession of 12-episode ones that often only have a single season. Since isekai is not as closely identified with anime in Japan, I don't know whether this is as much of a cause for backlash there.

3. I have thought about a universally produced art for a much longer time in the context of poetry: in the US, the audience for live poetry events comes perilously close to a 1:1 ratio of writers to readers.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Open Posts, Closed Works, Other Worlds: part 4

IV. Open publishing

How are isekai works produced? My first experience with them was as anime (as I imagine is most common in America) and I vaguely imagined a staff of professionals, dissatisfied by having to work on them instead of some auteur project, set to writing, drawing, and directing them full time much as American TV is produced.

The truth is much stranger. A large majority of isekai (other than a few precursors) started out as amateur web series or "web novels" published on the Japanese site Shōsetsuka ni Narō ("Let's Become A Novelist"). (Of the well-known series I spot checked, one, _Sword Art Online_, started as a web series published on the writer's own site.) Shōsetsuka ni Narō started in 2004 and lets users post written works, read them for free, and upvote them if they like them. By the late 2000s, isekai became so popular on the site that they were called Narō novels: the term isekai itself was coined around 2012.

As a result, isekai is a genre of fanfic without a canonical fictional universe (at least, without one that is copyrighted). One of the early popular isekai on Shōsetsuka ni Narō was _The Familiar of Zero_, and it became popular to write other isekai on the site that were fanfic of that work. However, the new genre quickly took as its setting the generalized world of computer RPGs, a setting which can not be copyrighted. In every respect the writers and writing style are fanfic. Fanfic was once defined as being commercially unpublishable because of copyright: now it fuels an entire popular genre.

Studios and publishers go through the site and pick out the highest voted works, then buy rights to them and start them out in some other branch of mass media. Isekai usually starts as web novels, then become light novels (serial written text with occasional illustrations), then become manga and/or anime, gain other spinoffs like a gag manga, and then with even higher popularity may become a movie, live action film, or computer game. The result is that a publisher risks nothing in the way of initial advances or ongoing payments to keep professional writers writing, the writers are pleased to be published (many seem to write as a sideline to their "real job"), and the work produced is perfectly suited to its audience because that audience is generally the same as the people voting on the site. (1)

This seems to me to be the future of how these kinds of works are produced. One can see something similar with the popular (non-isekai) South Korean Webtoon platform, whose most popular series have started to be published as anime and live action TV series in their own right. It only takes one more historical accident or technology transfer to get science fiction, for example, writing thousands of vaguely Star Trek or Star Wars like (but not copywritable) fanfics on some site and that becoming a main source of English-language SF. In this respect isekai had a boost because its setting, the computer RPG, was familiar to an entire generation yet generic and closed.

This is not to say that a backlash has not already occured. In the last part of this series I'll get into the reception of isekai and try to tie some of these threads together.

next part of the series


1) I have no idea whether the voting on the site is fair. There may be the usual problems with using a botnet to mass upvote, payola, having insider connections etc. My sense is that the methods for getting works to medium popularity may be unfair but that the number of legitimate voting users is high enough so that it would be difficult to cheat from there to the top.

2) Images: Shōsetsuka ni Narō site logo, chibi versions of popular isekai characters, a scene from the popular early Webtoon _Noblesse_.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Open Posts, Closed Works, Other Worlds: part 3

III. closed Eco system

Umberto Eco was one of the primary 20th century literary critics writing about open vs closed works. His 1962 book _The Open Work_ described open works as having a large number of possible meanings, using ambiguity and sometimes a degree of formal input by a performer or reader (in terms of rearranging of adding to the text) to allow the reader to create meaning that was not necessarily intended by the author. (In order to keep this lowbrow, I've shown as an example below an early TTRPG module that had blank spaces for some encounters that the DM was supposed to fill in.) Closed works, by design or function, restrict interpretation as much as possible. (1)

This analysis becomes much more complicated by 1979's book _The Role of the Reader_, after Eco took up semiotics. Here it is taken for granted that some degree of reader interpretation is needed to create meaning for any text. The author foresees a model of the possible reader (which Eco calls the Model Reader), and can in some ways guide the creation of this Model Reader via the text, if only by making them look things up or by discouraging other types of readers from reading it. Readers, on the other hand, create as a kind of hypothesis guided by the text a Model Author, and so decide how to read the text. (2)

As examples of closed works, Eco turns to Superman comics and Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. "They apparently aim at pulling the reader along a predetermined path, carefully displaying their effects so as to arouse pity or fear, excitement or depression at the due place and at the right moment. [...] They seem to be structured according to an inflexible project. Unfortunately, the only one not to have been 'inflexibly' planned is the reader." (Introduction, pg 8). (3) So the next question: why do people read these texts? Why not just always read more open texts and enjoy the readerly creation of meaning via interpretation? (Adam Roberts asks the same kind of thing in his piece on the Wheel of Time books.) Eco offers one of the best if rather obvious answers to this that I've read.

Eco starts his chapter / essay "The Myth of Superman" in The Role of the Reader by giving a very good description of the disintegration of temporality in these comics, done so that Superman can not really accumulate a past that changes him as an archetypal character. Then he goes through "the repertoire of topoi, of recurrent stock situations" that animate popular mystery series. Then: "The attraction of the book, the sense of repose, of psychological extension which it is capable of conferring, lies in the fact that, plopped in an easy chair or in the seat of a train compartment, the reader continually recovers, point by point, what he already knows, what he wants to know again: that is why he has purchased the book." Later: "Is it not also natural that the cultured person who in moments of intellectual tension seeks a stimulus in an action painting or in a piece of serial music should in moments of relaxation and escape (healthy and indispensable) tend towards triumphant infantile laziness and turn to the consumer product for pacification in an orgy of redundance?" We should "show more indulgence towards escape entertainments [...] reproving ourselves for having exercised an acid moralism on what is innocuous and perhaps even beneficial" as long as this does not "[become] the norm of every imaginative activity."

Eco takes pains with "plopped in an easy chair", "infantile", etc. and his general stance of indulgence to signal that he is a respectable intellectual after all. Reading more of his essays, it becomes apparent that he really likes comics, mysteries, all of these closed forms. His extremely popular first book, _The Name of the Rose_, features a medieval monk who functions as a detective a la Sherlock Holmes, and let's check off the list of libidinal forms listed in the last part of this series for isekai and apply them to Sherlock Holmes. Overt sexuality is unsuitable for the period in which it was written, but power as super-competence, leavened by outsider status and therefore not presenting him as a policeman / bully? Yes. Popularity? Holmes becomes well known to the public over the course of the series, and his close friendship with Dr. Watson is legendary. Creativity? The violin, the experiments in scientific methods of detection. Eco wrote his book with expert worldbuilding, using what he had learned as a scholar of medieval writing, but at its core the same operations occur as in any other closed work of this type. Superhero comics more or less add the overt sexuality back to the other tropes.

In later essays, as I dimly remember, Eco was less defensive about closed works. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the particular essay that I remember reading. I remember that he credited someone else with the idea of the "tired mind", the mind that having exhausted itself with intellectual work now needed to read a genre of closed texts where each presented some kind of variation around a core set of expectations, and which therefore could not truly surprise the reader or offer a wholly new experience that would only further deplete the reader's mental energy. This, I believe, is what underlies most SF and fantasy, mysteries, superhero comics, and a host of other popular forms.

Why would Japan have developed such a pure genre of the tired-mind type when the genre is, after all, intended for adolescents? Various cultural factors are at play, but I think it's significant that Japanese middle-to-high school students are famously under stress at school, called on for a peak educational performance that may determine their social-economic possibilities for the rest of their lives. Of course they are, after school, tired minds.

next part of the series


1. Eco uses examples from all sorts of media – text, films, music, paintings – but I became interested in _The Open Work_ when I started writing poetry. The degree of ambiguity is critical to the success of a 20th century poem since it must have enough meaning to connect with the reader's own experience yet not so much that one might as well be writing prose. The core problem I've seen in new writers of poetry is that they have emotional connections to the phrases they've used that make them think that readers will have the same connections, but their writing isn't sufficient to suggest a similar response in someone else.

2. Sometime after 1979 it became commonplace to say that communities of readers create their own communal methods of interpretation. I wouldn't ascribe these kinds of preferred-interpretation-guidance powers to a single author in the vast majority of cases.

3. Eco here offers the kind of reversal that academics do when they return to a topic more than a decade later, after adopting a new disciplinary approach: closed works are now open to any interpretation because they assume only one kind of reader, open works are so complex that they guide all readers who engage with them to a single interpretation. Either this is a too-clever ridiculousness or I've misunderstood it or probably both. In any case what I'd call the Model Publisher of closed works really does not care whether someone reads Superman comics with a different interpretation decades later: their immediate sales are based on whether they are reaching their target readers.