Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Colbert Alerts Nation to Threat of Slacker-Bots

Robots that can juggle, hackey-sack, and play the zither. As Colbert notes, what's left for humanity?

Not much.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Throne Over

People, it's time to talk about Game of Thrones. Again.

[I'm going to be discussing the first season of the tv show and all four books. Consider yourself alerted.]

Now that the first season of the HBO series is over and I've finished the first four books of Martin's saga (Book 5: A Dance with Dragons will be available on July 12), I can talk about the tv show and the books with some more knowledge. Or at least opinions that are a bit more fully formed.

So, while I dig the opening credit sequence to the show, I think it also points to one of the most serious flaws of Martin's saga, which has carried over to the tv show. There's all this great clockwork machinery that springs into action on the map of Westeros...but it's not in service of anything bigger. Each working piece or set of pieces represents the political machinations in Westeros, but nothing more, like what the stakes are of the story. This is a problem with the plot, not the credit design.

Martin thinks he's writing an epic saga that has aspects of political conspiracy, coming-of-age story, and redemption narrative, but he's actually writing a historical chronicle. In chronicles, the authors are interested only in the elite. Merchants, tinkers, and the great unwashed make few appearances. And Martin writes almost entirely about the elites. Knights, houses, bloodlines and bastardy, special swords, great lords and lesser bannermen are the main focus of A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet the most interesting characters are the ones who are close to these noble families and court culture, but not an accepted part of either (Tyrion, Arya, Daenerys, and Jon Snow, who are never fully part of their grand families, or Petyr, Varys, Bronn, and Davos, who are somewhat unwelcome at court). The characters who aren't well-born, like Yorick or Arya's motley crew, are supporting characters, but we don't really get to know them very well. (The biggest exception to this are the people who live north of the Wall, who are totally awesome and badass, but we don't get to know them well enough, either. Mance Rayder is, like Al Swearengen, someone I'd like to learn more about.)

Chronicles also detail what happens in chronological fashion (history is just one damn thing after another). Even chronicles that aren't annual reports (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the most famous) and were written to justify a particular political outcome or ideology start with extended, often laborious, backstories, starting with Biblical history and moving through ancient Troy and Rome. It's only in the third book, A Storm of Swords, that one gets an inkling of what the larger stakes are and who the main players are going to be. Compare this to another historical fantasy series, The Baroque Cycle, in which the different protagonists in each book are fully realized, and their dependency on one another is gradually revealed before the final, stunning conclusion. Or the two Dorothy Dunnett series, The House of Niccolo and The Lymond Chronicles, in which there are chases, escapes, great successes and crushing failures, love stories, conspiracies and betrayals, and major character growth in each book--even as Dunnett makes it clear to the reader that each book is part of a larger story (told over about 14,000 pages).

Martin's series is like a chronicle in other ways, too. Magic, portents, mythical beasts, preternatural occurrences, and stories of distant lands crop up all the time in chronicles. Violent deaths, often without explanation or obvious motivation, are also a feature of chronicles. In a novel, it's bold and exciting when one of the main characters dies unexpectedly (but seriously, was it that surprising? Ned was doomed from the moment that he decided to go to King's Landing). But it's quite another thing to invest hundreds of pages and a lot of time in story arcs and characters who disappear or are killed (Benjen Stark, Shae, Brienne, the Hound, Oberyn) and it's not clear, in terms of narrative structure, why.

The problems with the tv show that some have remarked on points to this problem with the source material. Ginia Bellafante* noted that the best HBO shows are about some larger issue or set of questions (The Sopranos: Organized crime and the middle-class family; Rome: What is the nature of the polity; Deadwood: Capitalism and US history; The Wire: The futility of the drug war and the decline of the American city). Martin's books contain lots of trees, but not enough forests.

I think that the tv show has done a pretty good job of mitigating this perspectival problem. Yes, there's the clunky sexposition, and loads of boring conversations in the first several episodes, but the writers have brought out the parallelism in each episode (Daenerys and Jon Snow, for example--and I think the writers have given us a nice hint there) and also the humor. Peter Dinklage is hilarious, bringing much-needed comic relief to the material. (Seriously, no one ever cracks a joke or takes a pratfall in Westeros?) The people behind the tv show (including, perhaps, GRRM) have simplified things enough, while also sticking to the slow build-up of the books (the payoff of the final two episodes was totally worth those first somewhat slow episodes).

So am I going to read A Dance with Dragons when it comes out? Probably. There are a lot of things I've enjoyed about the books: Daenerys suckling the dragons, Aemon Targaryen, Sansa's creepy relationship with Petyr, the cultures of the people across the Narrow Sea, and the different religious ideologies. But first I'm going to re-read Dunnett, or Stephenson, or even Rowling, to remember what a gripping series can offer.

*To be fair: Bellafante made that point after her completely lame, wrongheaded, and sexist assertion that fantasy, as a genre, is too dudely for gals. So I think that no one really got past that point.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Furta Sacra!

The LA Times reported yesterday that a stolen relic from St. Anthony's in Long Beach was found and returned to the church. The relic, a bone from St. Anthony, is over 750 years old and rests in an elaborate golden reliquary.

Relic theft has an illustrious history. In medieval Europe, relics--well, their reliquaries, really--were looted by Vikings in the 8-10th centuries. Catholic armies on the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople (the capital of a Christian empire) and returned home with a bunch of good relic loot, including the head of John the Baptist. Medieval clerics also participated enthusiastically in furta sacra. St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln*, had a trick ring that could conceal small relics. While on a visit to the monastery at Fécamp, he bit off a piece of a finger bone of St. Mary Magdalene after requesting a private audience with the saint. Ste. Foy was removed (excuse me, "translated") to the monastery at Conques by an enterprising monk. Shrines were, and are, big business. Conques was an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, and pilgrims to the shrine brought offerings, money, and trade to the monastery and its surroundings.

The Brother Cadfael episode "A Morbid Taste for Bones" deals with this issue nicely. It also has this guy in it.

What I like about the story of this more recent instance of relic theft is that St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. You just knew he wasn't going to stay lost for long. Also, instead of praying to the saint for a vision that would reveal his whereabouts, the police relied on surveillance footage from a nearby business. Of course, police have relied on St. Anthony's assistance for help with their own cases...

*St. Hugh is also the patron saint of the author's Oxford college.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ye Olde Replicants

A link to a recent podcast on the RadioLab blog recently came across my desk. It's a great piece about a 16th-century Spanish automaton--a praying monk--commissioned by King Phillip II after his son and heir, Charles, suffered a traumatic brain injury and had a miraculous recovery. The "robotic padre" was a copy of a miracle-working monk native to the area where Charles was staying, and who had visited Charles in a dream. 'Cept this holy monk had been dead for 100 years. According to sculptor and historian Elizabeth King, this monk was a perfect praying machine: it never tired, never got distracted, never needed to pee. And, as Latif Nasser points out, performance--especially the performance of devotion through prayer--was central to Catholicism at this time.

There are a couple of things about this automaton that I find particularly compelling. One, the fact that this clockwork cleric is a copy of an individual. I've come across mechanical copies of (living) people in medieval texts, where they often expose or comment on distinctions between living and dead. In this case, a dead miracle-working monk, who brought the heir to the Spanish Empire back to life, is then represented by a praying machine.

The second thing is the performative aspect of the automaton. It continually demonstrates the correct way to pray--a carefully choreographed sequence of steps, gestures, turns, and words--for sinful and weak humans. Many scholars have written about the proliferation of mechanical saints in the early modern period. In the medieval period, robots or automata were instead used to model, enforce, and demonstrate proper courtly behavior--etiquette about how to behave in public in a gentle and pleasing manner. A version of Trojan history remarks on, among the wonders of Troy, a room full of golden automata that enact perfect standards of courtly behavior. Here's a 14th century manuscript painting of the golden figures doing their business--juggling, playing music, using secret hand signals, whatevs. They helped the members of Trojan courtly society make sure that they didn't have spinach in their teeth, that their wigs were on straight, that they couldn't eavesdrop or overstay their welcome, and that they could feel fully confident about their etiquette and behavior. Awesome, amirite?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The College Try

I'm teaching a new course in the fall. It's a freshman seminar, geared to introduce students in their first semester of college how to write, how to read, and how to think like liberal arts college students.

My seminar is about the history of the liberal arts, and specifically about medieval education. The university is a medieval institution, and the liberal arts reach back even farther, to late antiquity. We'll be examining what medieval students learned (the liberal arts curriculum, and a bit of the theology, law, and medicine curricula), where they learned it (tutors, monasteries, cathedral schools, and universities), who they learned it from (monks, clerics, masters, and professors), and how they learned it (pedagogy and educational technology). But I'll be pairing the historical content with more contemporary content, as well. They'll be looking at mission statements of liberal arts colleges, examining curriculum requirements, and analyzing new educational technology (like the internet) as well as old (the codex). I want these new students to learn about the history of the liberal arts education, and to reflect on their own decisions to attend a liberal arts college.

So I was delighted to read
Louis Menand's essay in this week's New Yorker, which examines competing ideologies about the purpose of college. One view is that college is meritocratic--it allows society to sort human capital according to ability and aptitude. The other view is that college is democratic--it socializes people and empowers them with intellectual habits to become part of an informed citizenry.

When I was a student, I was a bit closer to the meritocratic idea of the purpose of college, but what I got (and what I want to impart to my students) reflects a more democratic idea of college. I wanted to spend time learning a lot of stuff about the subjects that I enjoyed. Basically, I wanted to be able to get all the jokes, or at least most of them. You know in "Shakespeare in Love" when that sadistic little kid who says that he wants to write really bloody plays about vengeance turns out to be John Webster? I got that joke. But I also got a whole set of practices and habits. While I thought I was mastering some information, it turns out that I was learning how to manage my time, how to read closely, how to form and articulate my ideas clearly, how to argue for and against my own views, how to evaluate others' arguments, and how to nurture my curiosity. Now, as a teacher, this is what I want my students to learn, even after they forget about the Edict of Milan or the Donation of Constantine.

I think that the original liberal arts curriculum (grammar, logic, and dialectic comprising the trivium, and music, geometry, mathematics, and astral science comprising the quadrivium) is an imperfect fusion of both ideologies. Liberal arts education allowed the elites of medieval Europe to train a group of people to do necessary work, from executing contracts to interpreting the Bible. And the liberal arts education required significant mastery of information (things had to be committed to memory, as books were so scarce). But it also provided an elite group--dispersed in time and space--to have a common language (literally and figuratively) and participate in an ongoing cultural conversation. Furthermore, mastery of the disciplines inculcated intellectual habits and practices--how to read and write, how to argue, how to measure, and how to interpret. And, although the European Middle Ages is often mistakenly described as an intellectual wasteland, intellectual curiosity spurred many (most?) of the new ideas, art, and inventions that flourished during the period.

What do you think college is for?