fish vs shorebird, sort of: Use and abuse of narrative, part 4

The sheepish look on a particular shorebird at, with this post, disturbing the tranquillity of those who thought this particular brouhaha had subsided a month ago caused one of our editors to suggest filing it under “fish vs ovine”, but said editor was, to easily imaginable effect, threatened with being locked in the room with the ombudscrew.

Perhaps this post will function as a kind of outreach to the zombie community.

Either that or when the cart heralded by “Bring out your dead!” arrives, it will simply be bundled on to it, protestations that it is, in point of fact, not well characterized as “dead” notwithstanding — though whether that is because those protestations are ignored, or are, as it turns out, never made, is probably not within my purview.

Prior installments: part 1, part 2, Part 3.



2.0) I have made a few attempts to write a response to your most recent comment, but haven’t been able to convince myself that any of them continue this conversation in a way I would want. As far as I can tell, each of us conceives what is being disputed here somewhat differently, and without some agreement on that, detailed arguments may easily be mistargeted and long descriptions run the risk of introducing further confusion. And my suspicion is that this version, too, does not resolve that problem. You have been more patient with this process than I probably have any right to expect.

I appreciate that you are graciously conceding certain points in your comment. And I also wish this exchange had not been one to put you in the position of feeling, as you have indicated, that my arguments more serve to cut down your position rather than supply what I think is some necessary context. For, whatever the substantive disagreement is that we have, it is supplying that context that has motivated what I’ve written. That it does not come across that way seems a failure on my part — my approach has been (to my own puzzlement at times) probably more adversarial than necessary. (And, unfortunately, this is another problem I suspect this post may do little to ameliorate.)

On the other hand, I am left with the plight that, where your most recent comment reiterates your original argument, it largely restates just those aspects that triggered my response in the first place. While you attempt to establish a restricted domain to which to apply your arguments, it is the premises of those arguments which bother me, for I feel they do not accurately describe the positions you intend to critique — and I think this is the case with respect to SEK’s position as well as my own.

In earlier postings, I have put a fair amount of effort into distancing myself from SEK’s position, and emphatically proclaimed that I am not defending his arguments. And while my statements to this effect, strictly interpreted, have been accurate, I have come to think they are probably also misleading. For I am defending one thing that I do apparently share with him, which is, in Jo Walton’s terms, a set of reading protocols. Just as one way of conceiving of the common denominator in the SF community is a shared set of reading protocols, there is a distinct community that is formed of those with the set of tools for making sense of post-modern style arguments, or recent French social theory, or whatever the appropriate rubric would be.

In one of my comments, I wrote “What I reacted to in your post had nothing to do with SEK, that is, it is entirely independent of whether I thought SEK right or wrong.” The intended drift here is that, while I do not think your argument against SEK works — a central point, but one I have generally failed to make explicit — the reason it doesn’t work is a lack of familiarity with SEK’s premises, not because of the logic of either your argument or his. I disagree with a fair amount of what SEK argues from his premises, but I do share a fair number of those premises (or, at the least, tools for fashioning premises). Thus, when you say SEK is “doing it wrong”, I agree; when you assert that an argument from Cameron’s intentions functions as a counter to his particular wrongosities, I facepalm.

2.0.1) The critique I would make (putting aside my doubts that I’m reading you correctly) focuses on your use of the phrase “the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans”. In outline, this critique includes two main segments: A) that under the reading that seems most plausible, the phrase is not a good description of what those you are responding to have said: the relationship is not metaphor, it does not refer to Native Americans in the sense implied, and the use of the connective “are” suggests a different kind of claim than the one being made; and B) that even if the phrase were descriptively accurate, the claim it refers to is made in a context where authorial intent is not relevant.

I need to note a couple of things about this critique. First, it is not a critique of the logic of your argument. I think there are other contexts where what you are saying could be the right approach. And second, it is not a critique of the principle you are employing. I am not in any way suggesting that the epistemological caution you are promoting is unimportant, nor even that this is an inappropriate context for it. If anything, I am saying that you are not being cautious enough, that you are making assumptions about SEK that are, from the point of view of someone more familiar with the type of argument he is making, unlikely to hold up.

Further, nothing I am saying is intended to question the value of modes of interpretation that are not directed to the analysis of sociopolitical effects of narrative. I have been arguing that you can not counter an argument about effect with one based on concerns other than how a film (or other artwork) circulates as a material object in culture. And it is that argument you appear to acknowledge when you say “I think you are arguing that there is a colonialist narrative going on in Avatar that is problematic…. Effect. And that my post does not adequately negate that argument.” However, your next paragraph contains caveats that seem to be hedges against interpretations aimed at analyzing sociopolitical effect displacing interpretations which try to construe an artwork in more personalized aesthetic terms (including the author’s statements of intent). However, I do not see these modes of interpretation as being in competition, they accomplish different purposes and are suitable for different contexts.

In other words, and with the perspective reversed, when you say “I can’t control effect, but I can argue that there are better ways to read and watch SciFi,” you risk implying, given the rest of the context in your comment, that you want your form of analysis to hold some privileged status, that an analysis based on authorial intent is a “better way” — in some more universal sense than “better for some particular purpose” — than the analysis of sociopolitical effect.

One of the assumptions of just about any analysis that falls into the loose category of “post-modernism” is that artworks (the usual jargon term here is “texts”, as the type of analysis is not restricted to art) do not reduce to some unified, static, determinate “meaning” that can be uncovered and remains valid regardless of context. I’ll get back to this idea later, but for now, I hope it illustrates three things: first, why an argument framed like “I can argue X only until the author says Y” sets me off (i.e. the implication is that there is some determinate interpretation for which any authorial statement must be a part of the evidence), second, the idea of one form of analysis displacing another which achieves a different end is foreign to my way of thinking, and third, why I expect that any argument against SEK which implies he is making a definitive interpretation will be ineffective.

(How much of this is obvious? I have no clear sense of what is or isn’t necessary to explain at this point.)

2.0.2) In theory, from here, I would fill in the details of the two segment argument outlined above in some systematic fashion, and perhaps, if this conversation continues, that is what I will do. However, being uncertain where all this is headed after so long a gap, I am just going to scavenge some bits from other drafts that seem to stand on their own, and which I hope illuminate some part of the discussion so far. The first one is an example of the kind of argument I think one can be based on the concerns in Walton’s post, the second suggests why I think the argument you are making occurs at different layer of the interpretive process, the third is my attempt to anatomize your argument and show where some of its assumptions differ from my own.

My speculation, in that last section, as to how your argument holds together may, of course, not be correct, but I hope it at least serves as a better indicator of how I’m reading you than I’ve hitherto provided.

The first and third sections are from a different draft than the second one, which is why the latter contains some redundancy.

2.1) As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I don’t think either SEK or Bady do right by some of the specifically science fictional aspects of Avatar. The thing I was most particularly referring to is that each, at times, seem to identify the Pandora planetary neural network too directly with an Earthly Gaia concept. In Walton’s phrasing:

They (apparently) treat the neural network as a metaphor. It’s not. It’s an actual neural network/planetwide brain thing. It may also be a Gaia-type metaphor, but its metaphorical function is secondary to the fact that it’s an actual network with enough of the properties of an organic brain to effect how life works on Pandora.

This again has nothing to do with Cameron’s intentions. Even if Cameron can’t think of anything better to do with his Pandora-brain than to give it the properties of a New Age misinterpretation of a hunter/gatherer’s view of nature, it still needs to be read first as a planetary neural network and not as a metaphor for some pre-existing notion of what a “planetary consciousness” might mean. In the end, I think the Pandora-brain ends up serving as little better than a Gaia concept, with all the baggage of problems that hauls behind it. However, this is not because of anything inherent in the Pandora-brain idea, but is, rather, a function of the clichéd use made of it by Cameron.

Beyond the Pandora-brain proper, SEK makes an even bigger hash of things when it comes to the UFB cables, especially when he writes: “the Na’vi don’t think for themselves, as even animal husbandry is beyond them. They require a direct neural connection in order to domesticate an animal” (emphasis in original). Leaving aside the difference between domesticating and taming animals — especially that not all animals that can be tamed can be domesticated (see the chapter on this in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel) — and leaving aside all the mythic and fantasy tropes about wild beasts that can not be tamed but grant their co-operation to people who earn or deserve it somehow (Shadowfax anyone?), there is no recognition in that quote that technologies take different forms, and that life on a world with actual UFB cables might be organized differently from our own, and thus that the UFB cables need to be read first as science fictional elements of the story and (this is the key point) a functional part of the material culture of the Na’vi, not as a metaphor for lack of agency. If you can still make the argument that the UFB cables are a metaphor for lack of agency after you’ve read them science fictionally, then fine. (I don’t think that works though: for one, how did the Na’vi discover that walking up to large dangerous critters and plugging into them might be a good idea? If one doesn’t treat that concretely, doesn’t that basicly buy into the Gaia metaphor?)

The preceding is an example of the kind of argument I think you want to make, and, as I hope is clear, it is one of the types of argument I’ve been making all along.

(While it’s outside the scope of this particular discussion, if I wanted to write a real response to SEK, I would need to indicate which arguments for lack of agency I think do work.)

2.2) I was trying to argue for a “toolkit” for reading (and watching) SciFi that is so well said in Walton’s paragraph […] I can’t control effect, but I can argue that there are better ways to read and watch SciFi.

A number of my difficulties with SEK arise from my sense that he is disregarding the peculiarities of SF narrative. And I, too, think an appropriate “toolkit” is necessary to read SF sensibly. However, I also think that an appropriate “toolkit” is necessary to read an argument like SEK’s sensibly.

Walton’s discussion concerns a fairly low level process of using the accumulation of practices peculiar to SF to turn sequences of words (and/or visuals) into characters, objects, and events in a realized world. However, you focus your complaint on the posited connection between the Na’vi and Native Americans, and this connection occurs at a different layer of interpretation.

In order for one to compare the narrative in the film to other narratives in the culture, one must have — realized or implicit — a construction of the narrative in the film. This is effectively so even though interpretation is not necessarily a linear process and there can be concurrent feedback effects in various directions between the different layers. Even if you wanted to argue that someone was disingenuously constructing a version of the film’s narrative in order to make it match an external narrative, the problem at the level that Walton discusses would still not be the posited connection between the Na’vi and Native Americans (at least not for arguments along the lines of SEK’s). That is, the problems that occur at juncture where a narrative is compared to other narratives are independent of the problems that occur in the organization of the materials of the narrative itself — independent in the sense that one can not assume that one sort of problem implies the other, not in the sense of never being bound in a causal relation.

Note that Walton does not deny that SF can be “literalization of metaphor” and “open to metaphorical, symbolic and even allegorical readings”; she is warning against taking short cuts to get to those readings. In the case of Avatar, this would mean something like talking about how the Pandora-brain serves as a form of Gaia metaphor without any acknowledgment that, in the context of the story, Pandora’s neural network is a concrete phenomenon and not a muzzy metaphorical or supernatural concept. One can’t presume that a planetary neural network is necessarily going to be a metaphor for some pre-existing idea of nature. However, this does not mean that, after taking account of this, one can not observe that, in Avatar, the guise this SF concept assumes never transcends a rather clichéd Gaia metaphor.

I agree you can’t control effect, and I am entirely behind the notion that SF ought to be read correctly, but my contention is that A) SEK’s argument is primarily about effect, and B) that the point where you have most consistently aimed your attack has little to do with SF reading protocols.

My impression is that your use of the phrase “metaphors for Native Americans” is intended invoke those circumstances when it would make sense to read the Na’vi as in some meaningful sense an Earthly tribal culture before they should be read as possessing a conceptual autonomy as an alien race — in short, as allegory. In such a case, the elements of the narrative which can be seen as problematic become those that fail in some concrete way to explicitly match the lives and fates of cultures in related colonial circumstances on Earth. Any offense, under such a reading, would be direct. However, that is not the comparison that is being made. SEK’s complaint (and mine) is not direct in that sense. Our complaint is not that the narrative of Avatar fails to conform to reality, but, rather, that it does conform to other colonialist/racist narratives. Now, one of the main reasons those narratives contribute to a context of injustice, is because they fail to conform to reality. However, in the context of fiction, the solution is not necessarily fidelity to some ideal realism, but to disrupt the patterns in the narrative that reiterate the context of injustice.

And (here speaking only for myself) often the best (though not necessarily the easiest) way to do this is simply to avoid cliché — something one hopes imaginative storytellers are motivated to do anyway. Hence cases like Lolita (or, in a different way, Henry James’s The Bostonians), which, while no one would construe them as explicitly feminist, portray the effects of patriarchy without accepting its logic. I suspect Nabokov would treat such a description as, at best, irrelevant, but that would only illustrate that the concerns I’m discussing here are not a call for some sort of artistic conformity.

2.3) [Note: in the context of where the following passage occurs in the draft it is taken from, the phrase “metaphors for Native Americans” has not yet been examined, and so is still being treated naively, the implicit assumption being, for the sake of argument, that some uncontested meaning might be available.]

Following your warning not to “assume that the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans, just because they have some supposed similarities,” you continue: “I can make the ‘Na’vi are not metaphors for Native Americans, they are actual Na’vi’ argument until Cameron directly says ‘the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans’.” As I see it, you can make the argument “the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans” both before and after Cameron says anything either way — that’s just participation in the cultural conversation, a record of your observations about a particular film. If you have a good argument, why should it not be taken seriously? The problem with those reactions to Lolita you cited is not that those making them did not reference Nabokov’s intentions, it’s that they were bad arguments — bad in the sense that it’s not difficult to find readings that illuminate more of what’s going in the text of the novel. One way to provide a more illuminating reading might be to reference Nabokov’s intentions, but there’s no reason to believe all the interesting readings require such a reference. My judgment of what is a “bad” argument is, of course, assuming that illuminating what is going on in the text of the novel is a valuable task. If my chief concern were policing the boundaries of acceptable art and cultural discourse, no doubt my assessment would differ.

Now, the preceding discussion hinges on a particular interpretation of what “the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans” might mean. It assumes that a novel or film, especially once it has been published or released (but really at any time), is a material object circulating in society, and thus is open to whatever interpretation can be made of it. Shakespeare was not familiar with 20th century fascism, but this does not make it illegitimate to film Richard III as (in part) a commentary on fascism. The key point here is that, as a material object, there are no necessary little ethereal threads of connection tracing back from the meanings evoked by an artwork to it’s author (or auteur) and some set of neural states in that person’s head — which they may or may not be aware of or understand very well — called their intentions. Hence, my intimation, in a previous post, that your position could seem like an abandonment of materialism — that is, if you do, indeed, insist that those threads are absolutely necessary and always relevant. Keep in mind that none of the preceding is arguing that “the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans”, but is, rather, a defense of the legitimacy of making such an argument.

In sum, under the assumptions of the previous two paragraphs — the assumptions (more or less) on which my position is based — the interpretation of “the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans” that results is along the lines of: “the Na’vi function as metaphors for Native Americans under certain interpretations”. However, I think it is likely that the meaning you are concerned with is something more like the Na’vi either “are intended as” or “must be interpreted as” metaphors for Native Americans (that is, it depends on what the meanings of “are” are). In other words, I am inferring your claim to be that, by saying the Na’vi “are” metaphors for Native Americans, the person doing so is asserting a privileged context of interpretation, is laying claim to the most definitive reading. If this is the case, then, when you assert a need for epistemological caution, you seem to imply that the need for caution arises from this assertion of a definitive interpretation: if, as in many scientific contexts, the properties of some determinate object are being examined, and the goal is the best description of those properties, then it is necessary that all available evidence be taken into account and all relevant sources of error be considered. Under such a rubric, one fairly obvious line of argument is that any and all data on the author’s intentions must be taken into account, and any and all holes or vagaries in such data must be treated as meaningful sources of error. This, at least, is my current guess as to why your epistemological caution takes the form it does, and why it so heavily draws on authorial intent.

Now, in order for you to be making the preceding argument, it is not necessarily the case that you, yourself, think there is a definitive interpretation (or class of interpretations), only for you to believe that other people are asserting one. Also, even if you do accept the idea of a definitive interpretation, it is not necessarily an abandonment of materialism, as long as you believe there is a material argument as to why artworks are the kind of determinate object for which definitive interpretations exist. (I, it should be clear, do not think such an argument can be sustained.) However, I do not think that anyone that you have been critical of, or differed with, here, not me, not Bady, and yes, not SEK, is asserting the kind of definitive interpretation you seem concerned with. I agree with you that SEK has not demonstrated appropriate epistemological caution, but I think the form of the caution you are calling for (though not the principle itself) to be inappropriate to the situation, because it assumes things that are virtually certain not to be true. No one within shouting distance of “post-modern” types of literary criticism conceives the project of interpretation to be a search for definitive answers. Indeed, one of the chief things that unifies the modes of discourse that get called “post-modern” is precisely to question (hence the charges — some true, some false — of relativism) the idea of definitive interpretations.

28 Responses to “fish vs shorebird, sort of: Use and abuse of narrative, part 4”

  • Those who wish this post was funnier should probably read this.

  • I linked to that Jo Walton post on my blog!!

  • I just got back from reading that link plover. hilarious.

  • Crap, I know I beat K to reading that long link, and was going to comment the same, having not even seen Avatar, but I wanted to slide in first because even though that link was super long, it was 1/100 as dense as the above and therefore much easier to digest.

    But I got distracted.

  • Just think how long this post would be if wasn’t dense…

  • El thinks you got some Zardoz in your post.

  • zombie rotten mcdonald

    if it was less dense, it would spread easier.

  • This post is like Saturn. It might float on water, but maybe is also super massive.

  • perhaps a neutron star?

  • Bravely bold Sir fishie rode forth from Camelot his diner.
    He was not afraid to die, O brave Sir fishie!
    He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways,
    Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir fishie!

  • narrative voiceover

    In anticipation of a terrible winter, Ye Fishe’s Mynstrels Recipe Exchainginge Grouppe verily became established upon Facebooke.

  • Kathleen: I take it you find the matter at hand degenerate?

  • plover,

    I will admit to still being frustrated by the limitations of this form of argument, following the logic threads and the specific objections is difficult if not impossible for me. I think some of you descriptions of my arguments fit quite well. Other arguments I am baffled as to how you can make them.

    I can try to make a few specific points based on reactions to certain comments and will add a more global statement at the end that may make you walk away shaking your head in despair.

    1) You said “first, why an argument framed like “I can argue X only until the author says Y” sets me off (i.e. the implication is that there is some determinate interpretation for which any authorial statement must be a part of the evidence)” and “you continue: “I can make the ‘Na’vi are not metaphors for Native Americans, they are actual Na’vi’ argument until Cameron directly says ‘the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans’.” As I see it, you can make the argument “the Na’vi are metaphors for Native Americans” both before and after Cameron says anything either way — that’s just participation in the cultural conversation, a record of your observations about a particular film.

    I frankly can’t wrap my head around this one. Sure you can make the argument that Navi=Native Americans with or without Cameron’s comments, but I don’t see how you can make the Navi?Native Americans if Cameron states Navi=Native Americans. Yes, this does give privileged status to the artist in terms of intention. I don’t see how you cannot give that privileged status. The art doesn’t exist, in fact can’t exist, without the artist’s intentions. Once it is set free in the world, other contexts emerge, but the act of creation is rooted in intention. I don’t see how that can be avoided. This does not place any value on the quality of those intentions, but the artist is the one and only person that can make a “privileged” comment on intention embedded in the art (I am avoiding the term “texts” because I don’t want to generalize beyond art or more broadly tackle aspects of post-modern critique, I am in way over my head as it is). That does not mean there are other things in the artwork that the artist did not intend, but any theoretical analysis that allows one to consider irrelevant a stated intention of the artist on a piece that wouldn’t exist without that intention, is fundamentally flawed in my mind. I am not arguing that it is a two-way street, s/he can’t say something is not true about a work of art, because s/he doesn’t believe it to be true.
    Many artists have internalized the attitude that art stands separate from the artist and do not comment on their intentions concerning the work they create. That admittedly makes the analysis more interesting and more fun, but it is just a clever parlor trick that allows more “freedom” for their art in society. I will add that I think that is a good thing.

    2) You said this: “However, I do not think that anyone that you have been critical of, or differed with, here, not me, not Bady, and yes, not SEK, is asserting the kind of definitive interpretation you seem concerned with.
    While I believe that you are that careful, I do not extend such credit to SEK based on a history of reading him. His words: “Annalee Newitz writes that “[w]hether Avatar is racist is a matter of debate,” but it isn’t: the film is racist. Its fundamental narrative logic is racist: it transposes the cultural politics of Westerns (in which the Native Americans are animists who belong to a more primitive race) onto an interplanetary conflict and then assuages the white guilt that accompanies acts of racial and cultural genocide by having a white man save the noble savages (who are also racists).
    There is nothing cautious about that statement. Now I have conceded the point that my arguments were not an effective counter, but I don’t see how this statement is read as anything like the kind of arguments you are making. He is saying X=3, Y=4, and Z=7. He goes so far as to deny the possibility that anything else is true (RE: Annalee Newitz). This just comes across as policing acceptable modes of thought. This prompted my comments about propaganda (somewhere). An achilles heel of cultural critique is that if one is not careful, one risks only accepting art that fulfills some approved set of social criteria (or acceptable narratives). I believe that SEK falls prey to this attitude.

    So here comes the part where I drop the bomb and probably end up partying with Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh:

    I am very much suspect of analyzing art in the broader societal context. In the previous comment you link to, I was trying to back off of the effect art was having on society and focusing on only my personal reactions and interpretations of Avatar (and of art in general). Perhaps you were picking up on that in commenting that I viewed one form of critique as displacing another. It is simply that I value one more than the other. I prefer arguments that focus on the quality of art (both dynamic and static to bugger a concept proposed by Robert Pirsig) rather than the ramifications of society’s reaction to it (this relates to your comment about avoiding cliche). I think this is a matter of opinion or personal preference, not something that can be formally justified, but it may ultimately be a root cause of our continued argumentation.

  • what I would like to comment about (1) is that sometimes artists are stupid or liars or assholes, and just b/c he says X after the fact about the work of art doesn’t make it the case.

    further, sometimes when an artist, after the fact, says or does something to F* up the original art, we as a society have the right, nay the obligation, to ignore that F* up. This is called The Midichlorian Rule and it shall be honored far and wide across the land.

  • what I would like to comment about (1) is that sometimes artists are stupid or liars or assholes, and just b/c he says X after the fact about the work of art doesn’t make it the case.

    That is a fair point. I do assume honest comments from the artist and that can be a weak assumption.

  • fish vs. plover has officially reached the mass necessary to qualify as an intertron meme, on the order of Mac vs. PC flamewar

    Congratulation!! Hope this helps with your college assignment!!

  • We feel that the zombudsgloob has overstepped with this display of enthusiasm.

    While he/she/it/zombuddy has not taken a side (which is admirable), the undertones of sarcasm are unmistakeable.

    We doubt that zombudsgloob really hopes that a college assignment was helped.

  • fish vs. plover versus Eks vs. Sever

  • vs. zombeez.

    I would rent that movie.

  • genius. you are evil.

  • fish vader vs plover shorewalker.

  • I feel like I’ve seen Eks vs. Sever, and I KNOW I’ve seen fish vs. shorebird.

  • That ought to get a rise out of someone.

  • I thought that sort of trolling was not tolerated around here.

  • zombie rotten mcdonald

    what sort is?

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