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Great Books Chicago 2018

May 18, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

Conversation: an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.

Discussion: consideration of a question in an open and usually informal debate; or a formal treatment of a topic in speech or writing.

When does conversation become a discussion? According to Merriam-Webster, conversation flows freely between observations, opinions and topic. In other words, conversation is a fluid exchange between people. Discussion, on the other hand, tends to be more focused. In discussions, participants examine a specific question. One of the things that makes Great Books Chicago so fun is that it excels in both areas. There are social events to fill the needs of conversation, which complement the discussion sessions focused on specific readings. The most recent Great Books Chicago focused on popular culture through the lens of television, film and music. Popular culture often gets a bad reputation as if analysis of contemporary art forms is somehow less respectable than analysis of “classical” art or “high” art. The new trilogy by the Great Books Foundation, however, demonstrate important intersections between art and culture.

Some of my favorite discussions at Great Books Chicago focused on the critic’s role. In a selection by A.O. Scott from Better Living Through Criticism, Scott defends the role of the critic as an essential element of art. In a sense, professional critics raise the awareness of an average viewer. He claims that all humans desire to critique, even if it only surfaces in the form of selection (choosing one movie over another, for example). Furthermore, if we find ourselves critiquing something, we should have a valid reason for doing so. Scott writes, “What I’m more interested in here is the general tendency – I would really say the universal capacity for our species – to find fault. And also to bestow praise. To judge. That’s the bedrock of criticism. How do we know, or think we know, what’s good or bad?” Scott believes that if we are willing to label a piece of art as “good” or “bad,” then we should also understand the foundations of that criticism. In fact, society depends upon it in order to keep us on “the path of truth and beauty” in Scott’s view. He also refutes the misconception that only “intellectual” art deserves criticism, but rather the forms which find mass popularity. These forms reflect something vital back to us.

Attempting to engage with all of popular culture is daunting. Modern technology makes it possible for humans to spend the entire day without a break in media. Furthermore, many people run multiple platforms simultaneously. Headphones allow us to create an independent atmosphere and a playlist of our own. This does not mean, however, that we cannot listen attentively. Nor does it mean that we are becoming immune to art’s effects. But whatever our current rate of consumption does mean is worth investigating. Scott continues, “We are far too inclined to regard art as an ornament and to perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which each one of us travels, alone or in select, like-minded company.” Instead, he continues, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.” (258) In other words, try to understand why you like what you like.

During Great Books Chicago, I met with many wonderful folks who had lots of ideas, some of them different from my own. Through discussion we find likeness and difference. I appreciate this format because of its freedom from personal judgment. Rather than being attacked for my ideas, some of which are decent and some of which are wrong, I better understand the difference. As a result of discussion, I make more well-rounded and better-informed decisions. Since art is a form which demands criticism, selecting something (even on my private iPod) can be viewed as a public act. As Scott says, “[T]here’s no such thing as a private or personal criticism. It has to be a public act.” I wonder if our personal “tastes” function the same way as a Facebook algorithm which feeds us only what we want to see? I do believe that it is worth looking at the reasons behind our choices, tastes, behaviors and critiques. Great Books Chicago is an ideal platform for thoughtful debate. (One other aspect of discussion that bears mentioning here is that there is no mandatory participation. Many people enjoy adding their opinions, but there is no mandate which asks us to participate. Some people simply enjoy hearing others debate. However you like to participate, these opportunities tend to elevate the dialogue.)

Discussion enlightens an astonishing amount of viewpoints generated from a single piece of art. Another selection from the trilogy by Neil Postman, “The Age of Show Business,” examines how television is primarily a medium for entertainment. Therefore, anything we view on television should first be understood as attempting to entice the viewer through visuals. He writes, “A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection, or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that ‘good television’ has little to do with what is ‘good’ about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial image looks like.” If we are to better understand ourselves (as individuals and as a part of any larger culture), it is worth our time to investigate where we spend our time and why. If something in our nature demands that we judge and critique, then doing so in group discussion benefits everyone.

For more about Great Books Chicago, visit the Great Books Foundation website. Join us next year for Great Books Chicago 2019!

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What Is Science Fiction

April 27, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a three-day conference hosted by the Great Books Council of San Francisco. The event, which took place at Asilomar, offers four discussions focused on one play, one work of non-fiction, one of fiction and a handful of poems. The wonderful selections were further enriched through discussion. The selected fiction was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Though this story is set on a distant planet and in a distant future, I connected with many of the issues raised in the text. Personally, I feel that Le Guin brilliantly demonstrated what it is like to meet a culture very different from your own. It included political frustrations, tensions between genders, misunderstandings of all kinds, economic interests, and an epic journey. To be honest, the setting could be nearly anywhere and at any time because she addressed so many universal societal issues. However, in moving the narrative outside of “earthly” restrictions, Le Guin allows for dynamic debate, divorced from possibly hurtful particulars. So, in part, science fiction allows for an emotional detachment in a way that actual events or specific names and places would not allow.

More than that, though, science fiction allows the reader to examine the consequences of what we often call “progress”. In last week’s blog, HMU Fellow in Ideas, Matt Phillips wrote about one of the benefits of writing in a noir style. He writes: “Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.” In a similar fashion, science fiction provides a palette for understanding unknowns. As science progresses at light speed, it moves far past the average citizen’s grasp. There is no way to keep track of each scientific study or each new technological platform. Science’s broad reach affects our daily lives in demonstrable ways, but more often than not, understanding a new device arrives as an after-effect. Regulators and lawyers struggle to keep abreast of changing technologies. We even struggle to name new technologies, which we often base off of natural phenomena such as “cloud computing” or “website”. The science fiction writer is tasked with thinking in terms of possibility. What if faster is not better? Or, what if faster is greatly better? What are the possible outcomes of gene-therapy? Or, who should have access to such potentially powerful tools?

Science fiction, however, does not predict futures. It simply explores them. In the preface to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin writes:


“This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only be the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

“The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed  Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted – but to describe the reality, the present world.”

In a recent report on genetic technology, NIH Director Francis Collins claims: “When something truly significant is discovered its consequences are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term." Simply put, it is difficult for the non-scientist to understand the scope of the continual scientific evolution. Therefore, the science fiction writer designs and creates a thought experiment meant to discover potential outcomes. The evolution of science fiction seems natural to me, as humans progressively depend upon and live with technology. Excited by new capabilities, we are also curious about implications. For example, what if anyone could alter their own genes; should they?

In another article, new types of data are being used to identify poverty and restructure impoverished areas. I found it particularly interesting to see the diverse groups necessary to discuss such implementations. The article mentions:  “a coalition of homeowners, renters, people with the experience of homelessness, nonprofit developers, community associations, religious institutions, policy experts, and university faculty” who will discuss human rights issues in such a difficult transition. I can see how science programs (such as STEM or STEAM) benefit society. I also firmly believe that ethics courses are as necessary as science. I believe that this is another benefit of science fiction: it is almost a category between the two, uniting science with fictitious outcomes in which we can ask ethical questions. It is authors like Le Guin who question our understanding of progress. I do not mean to imply that we should not embrace technology or change. In fact, rather the opposite. I embrace science, science fiction and ethics as all necessary parts of my education.

In addition to excellent discussions, the group at Asilomar listened to a keynote speech by Corie Ralston, current director of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology. Not only is she a scientist, but she also writes science fiction. She gave a wonderful presentation that included a short history of science fiction, but also a hopeful future for the genre. Her website describes a deep-rooted love of science, nature, creative thought and reading. She writes: “If writing is a way to emotionally understand our world, then science is a way to practically understand our world. And science is more than that to me: it is a way of exploring and creating and learning how to think. It uses the best of our human nature. It is a continual source of awe.” I could not agree more.

Thanks to the wonderful folks of the Great Books Council of San Francisco for welcoming me into their discussions!

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