Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"Why the Culture Wins" - Joseph Heath

A Culture Orbital
"Many years ago, a friend of mine who knows about these sorts of things handed me a book and said “Here, you have to read this.” It was a copy of Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons.

I glanced over the jacket copy. “What’s the Culture?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “it’s kind of hard to explain.” She settled in for what looked to be a long conversation."
Thus starts this appreciation of Iain M. Banks by Joseph Heath, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. It's a long and interesting essay which for me flags The Culture as the literary expression of the culmination of neoliberalism (hedonistic individualism), not of the utopian-communism which Banks claimed for it.

Heath writes:
"This is in fact why Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, dislikes the Culture. The book is set during the Idiran-Culture war, and is unusual among the Culture novels in that its protagonist is fighting on the side of the Idirans, and therefore provides an outsider’s perspective on the Culture. The Idirans are presented as the archetype of an old-fashioned functional culture – their political structure is that of a religiously integrated, hierarchical, authoritarian empire.

The war between the Idirans and the Culture is peculiarly asymmetrical, since the Culture is not an empire, or even a “polity” in any traditional sense of the term, it is simply a culture. It has no capital city, or even any “territory” in the conventional sense.

(“During the war’s first phase, the Culture spent most of its time falling back from the rapidly expanding Idiran sphere, completing its war-production change-over and building up its fleet of warships… The Culture was able to use almost the entire galaxy to hide in. Its whole existence was mobile in essence; even Orbitals could be shifted, or simply abandoned, populations moved. The Idirans were religiously committed to taking and holding all they could; to maintaining frontiers, to securing planets and moons; above all, to keeping Idir safe, at any price.”)

Horza is not an Idiran, but rather one of the last surviving members of a doppelganger species. The question throughout the novel – and the question put to him, rather forcefully, by the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda – is why he is fighting on the Idiran side, given that they are, rather self-evidently, religious fanatics, with an exclusive and zealous conviction in the superiority of their own species.

(“It was clear to [the Idirans] from the start that their jihad to ‘calm, integrate and instruct’ these other species and bring them under the direct eye of their God had to continue and expand, or be meaningless.”)

The Culture, by contrast, is all about peaceful coexistence, tolerance and equality. So why would a member of an otherwise uninvolved third species choose the Idiran side?

The difference, for Horza, is that the Idirans, for all their flaws, have a certain depth, or seriousness, that is conspicuously lacking in the Culture. Their actions have meaning. To put it in philosophical terms, their lives are structured by what Charles Taylor refers to as “strong evaluation.”

(Indeed, the inability of the Culture to take the war that it is fighting seriously serves as one of the most consistent sources of entertainment in all the Culture novels, as reflected in ship names, which are generally tongue-in-cheek such as: What are the Civilian Applications? or the Thug-class Value Judgement, the Torturer-class Xenophobe, the Abominator-class Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, etc.)

Consider Weber’s famous diagnosis of modernity, as producing “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” In the Culture, the role of the specialist has been taken over by the AIs, leaving for humanity nothing but the role of “sensualists without heart.”

Thus the chief attraction of the Culture is the promise of non-stop partying and unlimited sex and drugs. (Genetic and surgical modification provide Culture members with the ability to make almost unlimited changes to their bodies, which typically include enhanced genitalia that allow them to experience intense, extended, and repeated orgasms, as well as the installation of specialized glands that produce a range of psychoactive chemicals, to dull pain, to produce euphoria, to remain awake, or to produce almost any other feeling that might seem desirable.)

One can see then why Horza might dislike the Culture. On the surface, his complaint is that they surrendered their humanity to machines. But what he really wants is a culture that can serve as a source of deeper meaning, which is the one thing that the Culture conspicuously fails to provide – on the contrary, it turns everything into a joke.

The Culture may be irresistible, but for essentially stupid reasons. (“Horza tried not to appear as scornful as he felt. Here we go again, he thought. He tried to count the number of times he’d had to listen to people – usually from third- or low fourth-level societies, usually fairly human-basic, and more often than not male – talking in hushed, enviously admiring tones about how It’s More Fun in the Culture… I suppose we’ll hear about those wonderful drug glands next, Horza thought.”)."


"There are a variety of developments that are associated with modernity. One of them involves a move away from ascribed toward achieved sources of identity. The idea is rather simple: in traditional societies, people were defined largely by the circumstances that they were born into, or their ascribed characteristics – who your family was, what “station” in life you were born to, what gender you were, etc. There were a strict set of roles that prescribed how each person in each set of circumstances was to act, and life consisted largely of acting out the prescribed role.

A modern society, by contrast, favours “choice” over “circumstances,” and indeed, considers it the height of injustice that people should be constrained or limited by their circumstances. Thus there is a move toward achieved sources of identity – what school you went to, what career you have chosen, who you decided to marry, and the lifestyle you adopt. “Getting to know someone,” in our society, involves asking them about the choices they have made in life, not the circumstances they were born into.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both arrangements. The advantages of choice, for people living in an achievement-oriented society, are too obvious to be worth enumerating. But there are disadvantages. Under the old system of ascribed statuses, people did not suffer from “identity crises,” and they did not need to spend the better part of their 20’s “finding themselves.”

When everything is chosen, however, then the basis upon which one can make a choice becomes eroded. There are no more fixed points, from which different options can be evaluated. This generates the crisis of meaning that Taylor associates with the decline of strong evaluation.

Human beings have spent much of their lives lamenting “the curse of Adam,” and yet work provides most people with their primary sense of meaning and achievement in life. So what happens when work disappears, turning everything into a hobby?

A hobby is fun. Many people spend a great deal of time trying to escape work, so they can spend more time on their hobbies. But while they may be fun, hobbies are also at some level always frivolous. They cannot give meaning to a life, precisely because they are optional. You could just stop doing it, and nothing would change, it would make no difference, which is to say, it wouldn’t matter.

Now consider the choices that people have in the Culture. You can be male or female, or anything in between (indeed, many Culture citizens alternate, and it’s considered slightly outré to be strongly gender-identified). You can live as long as you like. You can acquire any appearance, or any set of skills. You can alter your physiology or brain chemistry at will, learn anything you like.

Given all these options, how do you choose? More fundamentally, who are you? What is it that creates your identity, or that makes you distinctive? If we reflect upon our own lives, the significant choices we have made were all in important ways informed by the constraints we are subject to, the hand that we were dealt: our natural talents, our gender, the country that we were born in. Once the constraints are gone, what basis is there for choosing one path over another?"
The life of a robin in the garden, or a cat in front of the fire, is not bereft of meaning just because neither will ever master calculus.

Humanity has spent millennia .. continues to spend the millennia .. in transforming its environment to remove the obligation to labour for survival. Yet all our instincts, our motivations, are to do with our abilities to deal with existential challenges, to survive, succeed, find a mate, reproduce and have grandchildren.

Absent such challenges such drives, emotions and goals flail on air: great achievements are no longer existentially-motivated but merely discretionary. All actions reduce to the playing of games.

Perhaps we become no more than pets of the Culture Minds. Perhaps we'll alter our genomes so we'll enjoy that. Perhaps our future technology-womb won't be brittle.

So many 'perhaps's.


We do actually know what happens, biologically-speaking, when you take a species and move it into an utterly benign environment: step forward the Dodo.

1 comment:

  1. I thought that the most interesting jobs in the Culture went to members of Special Circumstances. I have started, but need to finish "The Player of Games" sometime.


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