Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Triad: Auschwitz, Robots, and Flagg

I've finished my third trio of literature, and I'm here to tell you all about it. 
For this set, we have:
Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive by Giorgio Agamben
The Stand by Stephen King
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Reviews follow after the break.

Remnants of Auschwitz.  Giorgio Agamben pursues a number of ethical and philosophical questions that arise when confronted by the testimony and records of Auschwitz survivors. Chief among them is what it means to be a witness to something so impossible to describe, and both what it means to be a subject that can bear shame and to be beyond subjecthood. The book is divided into four sections. First is The Witness, which is a discussion on what what a witness is, and how a Holocaust survivor can and cannot be a complete witness to the death camps. The second section is the Muselmann, which is a term that arose for those in the camps who were still alive, but had essentially stopped being subjects, incapable of doing anything other than surviving, calling into question the limits and thresholds of ethics and humanity. Section three enlarges on the notion of subject, considering shame, the subject, and the "I." And the final section brings these points together, as Agamben defines in the archive and the testimony in light of the potentiality and possibility of language. I'll quickly admit that a lot of the book went right over my head, especially towards the latter half; Agamben's finer points on language and poetry in relation to the threshold of subject kind of escaped me. He's also using a lot of rather heavy theorists, including but not limited to Kant, Foucault, Heidegger, and Bettelheim, and if you're not reasonably familiar with these figures, you're going to find the book hard going. In addition to the theorists, Agamben also relies heavily on the testimonies of survivors,such as Primo Levi, while at the same time questioning what a testimony can even mean. While it wasn't an easy read, Agamben does convey the significance of the problem, and the emotional void that lies at the heart of the issue. Part of what's at stake here is what it means to be human and ethical in a world where like Auschwitz exist, turning them to their limits and going beyond.

The Stand.   ** spoiler alert ** Do spoilers still count for a book that, even in its newer, uncut, form is over 20 years old? We'll assume they do. The plot: A superflu called Captain Trips is accidentally released, and the world loses about 99% of its population in the course of a few months. The American survivors soon band together, with one group forming around a kindly old woman, and another, centered in Las Vegas, forming around Randall Flagg, he of In the Eyes of the Dragon and the Dark Tower series, here making his debut. I suppose my biggest problem with this book is that once the communities coalesce, the main protagonists all seem rather identical and interchangeable, despite the superficial differences. It had me rooting for the villains for a while, just because they were the ones showing some personality. The ending wasn't particularly to my tastes either; I do appreciate the "evil is its own undoing" sort of theme, but the flip side to that is the ending is one of those endings where the protagonists win by showing up--and in this case, they might have been slightly better if they hadn't shown up at all. I think there's also something to be said about setting--Dark Tower and the Dragon story have an explicitly fantasy setting, where it's easier to accept figures like Flagg, as ultimate evil, existing. In a real world setting--even a post-apocalyptic one--there's only so much I'm willing to accept, and protagonists who are operating purely on faith is not one of them. It's not a bad book--the initial parts leading up to the virus and its aftermath are very compelling in the way they depict a society collapsing in on itself. And the later passages definitely have their moments. But at 1000+ pages, it's a bit of a slog.

Alone Together.  Sherry Turkle argues that we need to take a step back and think about how our networked technology and distance from fellow human beings are negatively affecting us. Her book is divided into two broad parts: section one looks at human relationships with robots, and section two looks at human use of communication technology. The methodology is basically the same throughout; Turkle bases her results on the analysis she performs on interviews and studies she performed of children, adults, and the elderly using digital technology. It's basically pop scholarship, but Turkle constantly references underlying structure of psychoanalytic and sociological theory behind it. While the divisions aren't absolute, different chapters tend to focus on slightly different technologies. Robots studied include the Tamagotchi, Furby, My Real Baby, the robot dog AIBO, the MIT robots Cog and Kismet, and Paro the sociable seal-like robot. And throughout, Turkle's concern is that the robots are being used as companions to replace companionship that human beings should provide. The networked section includes Second Life, texting, phone monitoring, the decline of actual phone calls, designing a Facebook persona, and so forth, with the concern here being that we're sacrificing meaningful interaction for something that leaves us less vulnerable, but less fulfilled. The book is a rather large reversal from Turkle's previous position, but whereas before she was a bit too utopian, this book strikes me as a bit too dystopian. There's also an unspoken human essentialism behind it, in that no robot can duplicate the human touch, or no text message equal the emotionality of the human voice. It's a little easier to take her side in the second half, where she argues against the current overuse of communication technology than in the first half, which is on the near future replacement of human companionship with robots. Ultimately, what's at stake here is the human relationship with technology. I think Turkle goes a bit far in the direction of technological determinism, but taking some time to reflect on our technological habits is rarely a bad idea.

 There's not a lot to say about how these three speak to each other, save to say that reading them back to back really drove home the point that Holocaust trumps... anything really.  In comparison to Auschwitz, the Stand's horror seems like really light fare.  And compared to the Muselmann, Turkle's whole book can be reduced to a "firstworldproblems" hashtag.  However much people may be treating other people as objects, at least we're not treating them as excess, inhuman waste.  My thoughts on the Stand haven't really changed much with time; I still don't have a lot of truck with a plot that essentially amounts to trusting in God's plan, especially when God's plan coincides with Author's Convenience.  King is a lot better at writing society falling apart than society coming together.  I actually sided with the villains in being disappointed that the heroes re-instituted the US constitution
without any discussion, especially when they complain at the end that the mistakes of the past may be repeated.  Want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past?  How about starting by not blindly accepting the rules of the past?  I've never understood the American reverence of the founding documents.  In my mind, a truly great constituting document evolves with the people who wrote it.  Finally, it seems to me that the key to Turkle's book is her relation with her daughter.  Honestly, I think it's watching her daughter react to modern technology and comparing it to her own relationship with her mother that influences her current stance, perhaps even more so than the entire sum of her case studies and interviews.  I could make more gross assumptions about people I don't know, but I think that's enough.  See you next time.

Later Days.

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