Notable Quotables

From a conference about ASEAN:
“We are sometimes asked ‘Well, what’s the difference between a Canadian and an American?’ A Canadian is an unarmed American with healthcare.” – Prof. Paul Evans

And a belated pair from a conference on early modern Japanese women:
“This is an interesting audience; we’ve got some people of sublime scholarly experience, and some people of, uh, less sublime scholarly experience. This lecture is aimed at the more experienced. So, if you’re less experienced, good luck, and we’ll give you some great sources later: all of my own books 🙂 ” – Prof. Mary Elizabeth Berry, who gave a great lecture that day.

“It’s the job of teachers to alienate kids from their parents.” – Prof. Joshua Mostow

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Aliens/Terminator/Avatar: the mash-up

I’ve already written about Avatar as a story about new modes of life, now I want to look at it as part of the works of James Cameron. I could (and should) write more than I will, but I wanted to get something out before my memories of Avatar fade away too much, so I didn’t take the time to review Cameron’s other films first.

Avatar has reminded me more and more over time of Cameron’s Aliens, another film starring Sigourney Weaver as a woman who, for whatever reason, ends up becoming closer to an alien species than most of the rest of humanity. Aliens is a sequel, so it doesn’t compare precisely, but one character popped out at me in both films: the Company. In Avatar, Aliens and also Cameron’s Terminator films, the great evil is not a person but a company. Moreover, representatives of that company are divorced from the actions of the company as a whole.

But wait, you’re thinking, Selfridge, the Company’s administrator for Pandora in Avatar, is a human representative of the Company and makes all of the decisions which lead to the war between the Na’vi and the Company. Yes and no. But first, let me talk a bit about the role of the company in Aliens and the Terminator films.

Aliens opens with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) explaining what happened in the previous movie to a disbelieving corporate task force. We are shown Ripley trying very hard to impress the danger of the alien menace on nameless executives who are simply unimpressed. Almost immediately after, we find that Ripley has been dumped in a tiny apartment doing menial labor – forgotten and held unimportant by those she was trying to convince. Until, of course, the colony near where Ripley encountered her alien is suddenly and inexplicably incommunicado. At that point, a company representative called Burke takes Ripley and a group of Company marines to find out what happened. So far, we have a company deciding what to do about a potential threat to all of humanity, a company that has its own marines. Both of those are usually thought of as government prerogatives. However, in contrast to elected government officials calling the shots, we have largely nameless Company employees.

Most of Burke’s team dies in the film, and we find out that Burke himself had prompted the attack on the colony by sending uninformed, unnamed Company employees out to the site of the first movie’s attack to look for aliens – without telling them that there might be dangerous aliens about. At first glance, this might seem to blame Burke for everything, but why did he do it? To cover himself in case Ripley was right. Burke didn’t think that there were aliens, he just needed to be sure so that the Company didn’t get in trouble.

Fastforward to the Terminator movies. In movie one we find that Cyberdyne Systems created an artificial intelligence called Skynet which then instituted nuclear destruction of the world. Note that Cyberdyne doesn’t do anything wrong, exactly, it was their invention that wrought evil on the Earth. In movie two we are introduced to Dyson, the scientist most responsible for Skynet. He isn’t depicted as believing that his work will be either particularly good or bad; he’s just doing his job. When convinced that his work will lead to nuclear holocaust, well, he changes his tune. Terminator II gives us Cameron’s version of “hope”: Dyson’s efforts – at the cost of his life – appear to stop the destruction of humanity.

I’ve covered a lot of ground quickly, but I wanted to present an overview of the role of companies in some of Cameron’s major films. As you can see from these three films, companies are treated almost as living organisms themselves. People can affect the Company, maybe, but not in any meaningful way. Burke’s actions were in service to the Company. If he had not prompted the initial attack on the colony, the growing colony would eventually have prompted an attack (on a much larger population) as it spread to the aliens’ area. Moreover, Burke was the only employee of the company who took Ripley seriously enough to even send someone out to check on her claims. In Terminator II, the company is unmoved by Sarah Connor’s attempts to halt its research. However, Connor, her son and the Terminator helping them are eventually able to convince Dyson, a member of the company, to try to change its path, and he appears to manage it at great cost.

Now we have Avatar. Selfridge is in charge, and does okay various actions by the employees, but he’s also shown as, well, wishy-washy. As the embodiment of the Company, Selfridge does not really decide anything. When the scientists argue forcefully, they get what they want; when the militarists argue forcefully, they get what they want. His actions are decided by who is talking to him at any point in time. Even at the end of the movie, as he is being escorted off the planet, Selfridge pauses and looks at the victors. Confused, searching for words, he eventually gives up and goes home, seemingly unsure of just what happened.

The character of Selfridge reaches a pinnacle in Cameron’s use of employees as a (body)part of the Company. If the Company of Aliens and Terminator is uncaring, hard to move, faceless, a monolith that appears to have no motives – not even profit, really – then Selfridge is caring (unless it goes against profit, which it does); easily moved in the short term, but too wishy-washy to effect permanent change; and so full of motives that he can’t choose just one and stick with it (profit? but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone; making nice with the natives? but he doesn’t really care about them).

And here is where Cameron’s companies become evil: not in the conscious pursuit of evil actions, but in the employees of all ranks who simply try to do what the Company wants, despite the fact that companies are not alive and cannot “want” anything. Instead, employees assume that the company wants something, usually profit, and then subsumes their own selves to that company. We don’t really know anything about Selfridge the man after seeing Avatar, only Selfridge as a part of the RDA corporation.

The evil lies in that no one is responsible for the corporation’s actions. If Selfridge is simply a part of the company, then the company is responsible for his actions. But a company is not a person, and therefor cannot be punished. A government ought to have the ability to at least attempt a punishment through fines (hitting the company in the profit motive it is often assumed to have), but we never hear much about governments.

This is an eerie parallel to what we’ve been seeing in the U.S. financial system. Companies are too big to fail, so they are given money instead of fines. Yet the traders that ruined the economy and caused untold damage have not broken any laws, and therefore are not punished for their actions. The government has little to no authority over the companies, which are not bound by anything to pursue good.

Cameron’s response to this is Jake Sully’s growth, which I have argued is like opening to a new way of life, but which is also comparable to growing into an adult (his body becomes bigger, hairier; he enters a marriage; he gains skills by which he can support himself). If we look at it as Sully finding a new way of life as an adult, then that suggests that Company life is childish. To subsume your identity in a company is the same as subsuming your identity in your parents: you live on their/its terms, you accept their/its values. I think Avatar is a wonderful argument for accepting responsibility, which we could use more of.

And in other search news…

The phrase “I’m in love with Tim Keating” brings up this blog on the first page of Google.

… I thought I would post about it because I posted about “Avatar Racefail”. It seems fair, symmetric. But… I’m in love with Tim Keating?!? And it doesn’t even link to the relevant post, it’s just a simple link to the blog.

Still, one takes what one can get.

Avatar Racefail: Now with spoilers

I finally saw Avatar, so I thought I ought to write about that, in addition to the commercial. A lot has been said about the film as an allegory of colonialism, particularly the Europeans-in-Africa variety. Perhaps because I already had that in the back of my mind, I saw another story unfold as I watched.

Avatar is about a disabled veteran, Jake Sully, who takes over his brother’s job after his unexpected death. That job? To inhabit an alien avatar on the planet of Pandora in order to learn about – and try to exploit – the Na’vi, the principal form of alien life on the planet. Over the course of the movie, Sully comes to feel that life in his human body is like a dream – with the unspoken corollary that life in his avatar body is real. Sully also falls in love with one of the Na’vi, and undergoes what is explicitly called out as a permanent mating with her. The movie ends with Sully risking his life in order to permanently inhabit his avatar, and the final shot is of avatar-Sully’s eyes opening and looking directly at the viewer.

You’re probably getting a feel for the story I saw: Jake Sully’s awakening to a new form of life. What really drove it home for me was that final shot. Sully’s eyes open, metaphorically, and what he sees is us. I’m not sure what to do with the fact that he’s looking at us. But the eyes opening? That’s not exactly subtle. There’s also the fact that the movie’s title flashes on the screen not at the beginning of the movie, as is standard, but at the end, after we see Sully’s eyes. So Sully sees life through new eyes, and then we see AVATAR. It’s very suggestive. What is real life? What is living through an avatar? Which is real? And, how can you tell? Sully does not change simply because he inhabits a new body. Instead, he changes because his new body allows him to learn new ways of life, grow and change as a person. At the end of the film, Sully has grasped a greater way of being.

The whole movie is about what constitutes a “self”. Aside from Sully’s journeys between bodies, there are also the soul trees. Throughout the film, the Na’vi connect to various other lifeforms via fibrous extensions that are normally hidden in their hair. When these fibers connect a Na’vi to another animal, the Na’vi is able to feel the animal’s body and order it as though it were part of the Na’vi herself. Eventually we find out that the Na’vi can also connect to special trees, called soul trees. However, where the Na’vi are able to order the animals around through their connections, they can only hear the voices of deceased Na’vi and ask for assistance – which may not be granted – when connected to the trees.

Here I need to get a bit technical. It is developed in the human-only scenes that these trees are connected to each other through fibers much like those the Na’vi and other alien animals have. Basically, the human scientists posit that the trees are a sort of biochemical computer/life form. So we’ve got some Gaia theory going on. It’s mentioned at one point that the humans who want to strip mine Pandora have already destroyed their own planet, so we have some symmetry there as well.

Ooookay then, we’ve got Sully learning about a new way of living as a Na’vi, and we’ve got an entire other life form – the planet Pandora – that is so far beyond the human characters’ reckoning most of them can’t believe it exists as anything more than native superstitions. This, to me, was the most interesting part of the story. What is life? What constitutes one’s self? Can one’s self continue after one’s life ends, as those Na’vi whose voices and memories are recorded in the soul trees’ databases continue to speak to the Na’vi and act to preserve their world? There are some other questions you could ask (When we look for other intelligent life in the universe, will we even be able to recognize it?), but those more post-structuralist questions are what popped out at me. Those final two shots – Sully’s eyes opening and the word Avatar flashing on the screen – seem designed to make you think not about colonialism, but about what constitutes you.

Turning Japanese

One of the biggest hurdles in learning Japanese is taking that step from learning basic/intermediate Japanese in class to reading actual Japanese literature, whether that’s newspapers or the latest Harry Potter. For me, the problem is rarely grammar, but frequently kanji and vocabulary. I’m always working on that in some form or other, but recently I was told that Japanese Ph.D. students need to know 1,000 kanji on entering the program. Ouch. To see how far I have to go, I printed out a list of the kyouiku kanji, the 1,006 characters Japanese kids learn in elementary school*, and tested myself on their readings and meanings. Good news: I could come up with a fair bit for most of them even with no context for the characters, and I was able to get at least something for almost all of them. Bad news: most isn’t all, and even if I remember the meanings and readings of characters A and B I may not know the reading and meaning of the word AB. Worse news: I was surprisingly bad at getting all of the information for the “easiest” characters. What’s happening is that I learned a lot of characters way back when and never saw them again. Remember the character for bamboo? You probably do (I did), but when’s the last time you read anything with the word bamboo in it? It’s one of the first characters they teach because it’s simple and a simplified version of it is part of other kanji. A lot of the ones I’m forgetting are like that: easy, but I haven’t seen them in years.

I’m now doing all sorts of stuff both to remember that which time has left in the dust and to learn new kanji. But this is a common problem, everyone who studies Japanese faces it at some point. So I thought I would post mini-reviews of some of the best resources I’ve found for pushing yourself from intermediate/advanced into advanced/fluent.

Japanese Cultural Episodes for Speed Reading is pretty much what it says it is. It’s not intended to teach grammar (or vocabulary, really). Instead, it has 74 roughly one page-long essays on simple cultural questions like “Do you greet people you don’t know in the apartment elevator?” featuring various fake characters. There are eight or twelve questions after each reading to ensure that you understood it, followed by a short vocab list.

I have to admit, I love this book. I’ve only just started using it, but it’s wonderful. The vocab list is nice, but it’s also clearly meant to be cumulative: どうりょう is defined (“colleague”) in episode one, but when it shows up again in episode four you’re expected to remember it. And they go out of their way to ensure that words like that pop up again, so you get to see useful words multiple times (repetition is key for remembering that stuff). They give you furigana in the readings for names (a sticking point for most Japanese-learners), but nothing else, so you don’t use it as a crutch. If I get to a word and look at its meaning only to find that it’s incredibly simple, I know immediately that I need to study. In works with tons of furigana, sometimes I catch the furigana out of the corner of my eye and read that before even noticing the actual kanji. That doesn’t help me practice.

Final verdict: This book rocks. It’s an easy read, but it incorporates a variety of words that you’re likely to hear (unlike those textbooks that teach you words you may hear once in a blue moon), and it supports both reviewing kanji you know and learning those you don’t. It’s a great way to keep your hand in, if you’re worried about forgetting what you’ve learned.

*Apparently they’re reviewing and expanding this list this spring. That kind of depresses me.

Syllabi

Inspired in part by talk at Dr. Crazy’s about syllabi (here and here), and challenged by a friend, I’ve been thinking about making a sample syllabus for a course for fun and practice recently. (Wild times at my house, my friends.) The challenge was for an intro contemporary Japanese literature course, but after giving it some thought I don’t feel ready to make a syllabus for that topic yet. Japanese literature isn’t my thing. I’m intending, should I ever make it into a Ph.D. program, to study it more, and I’ve been consciously reading much more of it (in both English and Japanese) recently, but I’m not at that level yet.

I actively avoided modern Japanese literature for a long time. I don’t like I-novels, and since I was such an immature scholar it wasn’t as though I lacked things to study. I’ve taken several courses now that either focused on or included decent chunks of premodern Japanese lit, so despite my contemporary pop culture interests I’m more comfortable with premodern than modern lit. After a lot of thought, I ended up deciding to try making a syllabus for an intro course on anime and manga.

I’m working on that now. I seem to think about syllabi a bit differently from my friend and Dr. Crazy. I can’t just come up with a list of things I want to cover, I have to organize them more. For example, I was thinking that if the class was longer (two or three hours) – which is the length of the pop culture courses I’ve taken in the past – a good way to deal with the first day would be to do all of the standard introductions, have them read the first chapter or two of Peach Girl and then show the first episode of the anime. If I were just making a list of stuff that I felt was important enough to cover, Peach Girl would never make it on there. But when I start thinking about what issues I want to cover, the relationship between anime and manga comes up. The first episode of Peach Girl stands out in my mind as a perfect example of taking each picture and word from the manga directly to the screen and animating the necessary bridging movements. Showing the students such a plain adaptation going in would, I hope, set them up to look for more complex adaptations in everything else we watch.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I’ve got some ideas for themes and concepts that I would want to cover, but I have to figure out how to best get it all together. I think this project might take awhile, but I’m excited about it. After I get a syllabus done for this course, I think I might make one for a course on Japanese film. If the beginning of the anime course came to me quickly, the end of the film course is just early; naturally, Millennium Actress would be perfect last-day viewing.