“he [blanks] a goat in the nostrils”

When I was building #dwitd, I decided to build a companion piece based on the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom—because those are the two texts I’m juxtaposing in my (still unwritten) essay.¹ (There’s a link to this new thing below.)

The core of Sade’s work is a list of 600 “passions”—his term for transgressive sexual activity—four lists of 150 passions each, ranged under the headings “simple,” “complex,” “criminal,” and “murderous.” The first list is presented as a series of stories, but the circumstances of composition² prevented him from embedding the subsequent lists in a narrative—so they’re just lists, which makes them easy to browse (though the content sometimes makes them difficult to browse).

There’s a significant amount of narrative that sets up the relating of the 600 passions—settings set; characters introduced; rules, regulations, timetables, and punishments pronounced—but the bit that is significant to this project is the following explanation of ‘libertine refinement,’ which occurs almost immediately before the commencement of the main action:

“As for the diversity, it is authentic, you may be sure of it; study closely that passion which to your first consideration seems to perfectly resemble another, and you will see that a difference does exist and that, however slight it may be, it possesses precisely that refinement, that touch which distinguishes and characterizes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.”

So, tiny differences are the source of great pleasure—at least for more advanced libertines. This is, in my reading, the guiding principle of The 120 Days, the thing that dictates the logic of the lists. Maybe you already see why it doesn’t work, but for me, it took this entry, number 40 on the list of criminal passions:

“He fucks a goat in the nostrils which meanwhile is licking his balls; and during this exercise, he is alternately flogged and has his asshole licked.”

The first time I read this, I thought—well, which nostril? Does he pick one, or go back and forth? If he alternates, which nostril does he start with? What if the goat chews on his balls instead, or screams? Is the goat male or female? What color is it? What breed is it? And as far as the bit after the semicolon, well…

Let’s do a little math: there are four choices with regard to nostril, two with regard to the sex of the goat, and three actions (that I’ve listed) for the goat: 4 * 3 * 2 = 24 variations on this one entry. If we take into account the breed and coloration of the goat, other things the goat might be doing, and the dozens of possibilities for things happening to the man “during this exercise,” there are tens of thousands of variations.

Tens of thousands of variations on a single “passion,” and each one—according to the logic of the text—”possesses precisely that refinement” that produces pleasure for those advanced in libertinage. But Sade’s text collapses this profusion of passions into a single entry, and moves briskly on.

I built “he [blanks] a goat in the nostrils” (#hbgn) to illustrate the impossibility of Sade’s project—or, if not “impossibility,” at least the irresolvable tension between the text’s guiding principle and its rigid division and enumeration of libertine passions. I wanted to show both the huge amounts of variation possible within a particular format, and how boring those variations actually are—despite the appalling violence and unbelievable amounts of coprophagia, The 120 Days is relentlessly monotonous.

I wasn’t sure how to show that, though, until I found this macro for producing cycling links. The game (after a content warning) is just one screen, initially containing the text “he fucks a goat in the nostrils while it licks his balls while he is flogged” [noun, verb, noun, prepositional phrase, noun, conjunction, noun, verb, possessive pronoun, noun, conjunction, pronoun, verb phrase]. Thirteen moving parts, as it were—some with only a few choices, and some with many—out of which innumerable variations³ on a particular grammatical construction of a particular sex act can be constructed.

It is, I hope, both transgressive and boring, with occasional moments of genuine surprise:

My friend Ike found this one—didn't think something so innocent could come out of this mess.

My friend Ike found this one—shockingly tame, even innocent.


1. That’s not entirely accurate—I had an idea for a 120 Days twitter bot back in October 2013, but it never got built, because I don’t actually have the coding skills to build such a thing.

2. Sade wrote the 120 Days while imprisoned in the Bastille, over the course of about five weeks, in a tiny script on a twelve-meter scroll of paper. It was lost when the Bastille was stormed—Sade had been transferred out about ten days beforehand—and though it was later recovered unharmed, Sade never saw it again, and never attempted to reconstruct it.

3. Well, not really “innumerable”: if I’ve done the math right, there are just under 76 billion grammatically-correct combinations. That number grows to 303 (and a half) billion if we ignore pronoun agreement rules, and 26 (and a half) trillion (American trillions) combinations if we ignore grammatical correctness altogether. This last number is what #hbgn is actually capable of producing, which is astounding.

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Does Crusoe Shit in the Woods?

That’s the title of the paper I’m giving at SLSA ’13—and the paper is done, a full two months before the conference. That’s miraculous, for me. Usually I’m about 75% finished when I head to the airport, and still tweaking almost until the last minute. Not the best way to do it, I know.

As you might have guessed from the title, the paper is about where Robinson Crusoe shits. This is more important than you think it is: Crusoe is not just some castaway, he’s the “King and Lord” of his island, and he spends the entirety of his twenty-eight shipwrecked years turning his desert ( = uncultivated) island into a colony. He even leaves behind colonists! Two sets of them, who don’t get along, as recounted in the sequel!

Colonizing the island means imposing order on it: he fences in parcels of land, he grows grain, he husbands goats, he tends the wild grapevines, he builds houses (three of them, plus a converted cave). And he tells the reader about all this stuff, and everything else besides——except about where he shits. And why is that? Because he never shits, that’s why. And why doesn’t he shit? Because he’s the King, that’s why, and the King can’t shit. Shitting is for savages, not kings!

So that’s the teaser, and if it sounds intriguing, you can read the whole thing. Keep in mind that it was written to be read aloud: there are lots of dashes, and several premeditated digressions in square brackets (time and audience interest permitting). Feedback is most welcome, especially pointed questions (so that I’ll have answers for them prepared).

And the next time you shit into a flushing toilet, say a word of thanks.


“I now began to consider, that I might yet get a great many Things out of the Ship, which would be useful to me…”

One of the recurrent themes of Robinson Crusoe—one of Crusoe’s oft-repeated complaints—is how many things he lacked, and how much work everything took: because he either totally lacked the necessary tools, or had only crude, self-made approximations, which themselves took much time and labor to make (four days to make a shovel and hod!). About making his (first) fence, Crusoe says that “it is scarce credible what inexpressible labour everything was done with”——and the word “labour” is often so modified: not only “inexpressible,” but also “hard,” “much,” “very great,” “prodigious,” “infinite.”

On the other hand, Crusoe boasts of the things that he accomplishes by his constant labor, despite all the things he lacks—and he goes so far as to boast that he could have brewed beer, despite lacking barrels, kettles, hops, and yeast:

…and yet all these Things [lacking], notwithstanding, I verily believe, had not these Things interven’d, I mean the Frights and Terrors I was in about the Savages, I had undertaken it, and perhaps brought it to pass too; for I seldom gave any Thing over without accomplishing it, when once I had it in my Head to begin it.

The thing is, for all his complaining, Crusoe has a shitload of stuff. The ship he was on when became a castaway was barely two weeks into a trans-Atlantic voyage (from Brazil to Guinea) when it ran aground and all aboard—except Crusoe—perished. The ship itself survived the storms with minimal (well, moderate) damage, and was lodged in the sand about a quarter-mile from the shore, at low tide—that is, within swimming distance. Crusoe spends a full two weeks salvaging material from the ship before it finally sinks in another storm.

And what does he salvage? Everything:

[on the first day:] Bread, Rice, three Dutch Cheeses, five Pieces of dry’d Goat’s Flesh, …and a little Remainder of European Corn …… several Cases of Bottles…, in which were some Cordial Waters, and in all about five or six Gallons of Rack …… the Carpenter’s Chest …… Ammunition and Arms … two very good Fowling-pieces … two Pistols … some Powder-horns, and a small Bag of Shot, and two old rusty Swords; … three barrels of Powder [one of which has taken water, and is left behind]…

[on the second day:] …two or three Bags full of Nails and Spikes, a great Skrew-Jack, a Dozen or two of Hatchets, and above all, that most useful Thing call’d a Grindstone; …two or three Iron Crows, and two Barrels of Musquet Balls, seven Musquets, and another fowling Piece, with some small Quantity of Powder more; a large Bag full of small Shot …… Besides these Things, I took all the Mens Cloaths that I could find, and a spare Fore-top-sail, a Hammock, and some Bedding…

…the third Time I went, I brought away as much of the Rigging as I could, as also all the small Ropes and Rope-twine I could get, … [and] the Barrel of wet Gun-powder: In a Word, I brought away all the Sails first and last, only that I was fain to cut them in Pieces…

…after I had made five or six Voyages such as these, and thought that I had nothing more to expect from the Ship that was worth my meddling with, I say, after all this, I found a great Hogshead of Bread and three large Runlets of Rum or Spirits, and a box of Sugar, and a Barrel of fine Flower…

[these things are enumerated later, but are salvaged on one of those “five or six voyages”:] Pens, Ink, Paper, …three or four Compasses, some Mathematical Instruments, Dials, Perspectives, Charts, and Books of Navigation … also I found three very good Bibles … some Portuguese Books also, and among them two or three Popish Prayer-Books, and several other Books …… a Dog and two Cats…

…I got two Cables and a Hawser on Shore, with all the Iron Work I could get… [this raft capsizes, and it is only with “infinite Labour” that Crusoe fishes the cables and “some of the Iron” out of his little cove]

[on the final trip:] …two or three large Razors, and one Pair of large Sizzers, with some ten or a Dozen of good Knives and Forks …… about Thirty six Pounds value in Money, some European Coin, some Brasil, some Pieces of Eight, some Gold, some Silver.

Then the ship sinks—but, six months later, it’s cast up by an earthquake, and Crusoe spends a month dismantling the fucking thing: “Timber, and Plank, and Iron-Work enough, to have builded a good Boat, if I had known how; and also, I got at several Times and in several Pieces, near 100 Weight of the Sheet-Lead.”

I don’t have a point, at all—it’s just that I finally (finally) got around to typing up that inventory in my notes on the novel, and thought I should share. Being stranded on a fertile, goat-filled, tropical island might not be so bad, if you had all that stuff, right?


ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead

I finally read Zone One last week—that is, during my first week with a broken collarbone, while I was regularly ingesting hydrocodone and chasing it with effect-enhancing bourbon. So that may have affected my reading experience a bit (ditto the writing of this post).

[Spoilers follow.]

It’s a bit of a slow burn, Zone One—it opens with the protagonist, Mark Spitz, reminiscing (or the narrator reminiscing for him): “He always wanted to live in New York. His Uncle Lloyd lived downtown on Lafayette, and in the long stretches between visits he daydreamed about living in his apartment.” And Uncle Lloyd’s (always “Uncle Lloyd,” just like it’s always “Mark Spitz”—a nickname, and the only name we’re given)—Uncle Lloyd’s apartment is a recurring motif, an anchor or beacon of sorts for Mark Spitz, though it never quite worked for me (maybe because I have no desire to live in NYC).

The apartment is outside Zone One, the section of lower Manhattan that’s been walled off and cleared of “skels”—the active zombies of the novel. Mark Spitz is part of a three-person civilian sweeper team, tasked with clearing the buildings inside the zone of “stragglers”—zombies who don’t move and don’t respond to external stimuli (until, at the novel’s climax, one does, and the sudden surge in skels suggests that the stragglers have all stopped straggling). It’s a boring job, as there aren’t that many stragglers, and they don’t present a threat—and the rapidity with which the return of “normal civilization” produces monotony and complacency (which prove to be disastrously fatal) is one of the novel’s primary themes.

And so the novel itself is, occasionally, boring—or so I found it.

The action, such as it is, covers three days, but the mostly mundane events of the weekend in question are interwoven with, or supplemented by, or the occasion for, forays into Mark Spitz’s memories, his past (there’s a bit-too-clever recurrent pun on “past”—the survivors all suffer from “post-apocalyptic stress disorder,” PASD, “past”). Whitehead does this well: bits of Mark Spitz’s past surface according to the logic of trauma, which is compelling but inscrutable.

It’s also disorienting: shifts in time are not always clearly marked, and there are several times when returns to the present involve the reader (and sometimes Mark Spitz) missing something important—the narrative equivalent of a pronoun with no antecedent, or an antecedent that’s supplied a dozen pages later. The Lieutenant’s suicide is the most egregious example (although, again, the effect is a good one) (also, again: some of this might have been the chemicals in my system).

Whitehead writes some wonderful sentences—if I’d had the use of both hands, I would’ve tweeted a dozen of them—but there are moments when the narrative as a whole seems less important than the individual sentences that it’s composed of, moments when Whitehead seems to be self-consciously drawing attention to the artistry/artifice of a particular turn of phrase (something I’m also guilty of, of course). These moments of rococo prose are, thankfully, few, and it is of course a matter of taste.

I really enjoyed the novel—it was both fun (mostly) and thought-provoking. It’s one of the very few zombie narratives that I’d call “realistic” (well, as realistic as zombies can be); 28 Days Later is the only other I can think of at the moment, and their realisms are of different sorts. Part of what makes Zone One realistic are the mechanics of the “plague”—the dead don’t rise, one only becomes a skel when bitten, and skels seem to wither (“winnow” is a word Whitehead frequently uses) and even ‘die’ with prolonged lack of food (although they still have unnaturally powerful hands and jaws, though we only see them in action a few times).

Most of the novel’s realism, though, comes from the aforementioned “monotony and complacency” which are concomitant with the return of bureaucracy (a wartime government established in Buffalo) and that bureaucracy’s attempts to restore “normalcy”—an attempt which, at the novel’s end, fails spectacularly, because the world is a fundamentally different place after Last Night:

Why they’d tried to fix this island in the first place he did not see now. Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller and smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but new places for things. This was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.

The survivors—or all of them except Mark Spitz—have deluded themselves into thinking that “things can go back to how the used to be” (as they do in World War Z), and therefore they all die—or they might as well all die, because Mark Spitz is alone at the novel’s end. The (un)dead have reclaimed Zone One, they’ve overrun the various outposts of the new civilization, Buffalo itself has probably fallen—and Mark Spitz, alone in a fortune-teller’s shop on Gold Street, not only recognizes the new world, but is perfectly adapted to it.

The ending is of the sort that used to irk me—to really piss me off—but that I have come to appreciate more and more: an ending that stops, but does not resolve:

“Fuck it, he thought. You have to learn how to swim sometime. He opened the door and walked into the sea of the dead.”


Crusoe-craft

There are a lot of things about Robinson Crusoe that bother me—which is why I keep coming back to it, like a dog to its vomit—and one of those things is Crusoe’s lackadaisical attitude toward making a survey of his island. And he does consider it his island, declaring himself “King and Lord” after a mere ten months—incidentally, on his first survey of the island, which doesn’t get him very far. It’s another year before he walks to the other side of the island, and it’s not until his sixth year that he attempts to sail around the island—and even then, he only makes it about halfway. By the time he leaves the island—twenty-eight years after being shipwrecked!—he still hasn’t seen it all. And it’s not that big an island.

[Digression: there’s no way of telling how big the island actually is, at least to the best of my memory. When he walks across it, he goes about two miles a day, but not in anything like a straight line, and he doesn’t indicate how long it takes him to get to the other side, or the shape of the island, or how he’s bisected it, &c. Even if we call it 20 square miles (roughly the size of Manhattan), that’s half the size of the town I live in, and it wouldn’t take me 28 years to cover it all on foot.]

More to the point: Crusoe is worried, from day one, that he’s going to be attacked and eaten by either wild beasts or cannibals. So sure, it makes sense that his first priority is establishing a fortification of some sort—and raiding the ship he was on (which conveniently survives intact) for anything and everything he can carry. Fine. But, that done, it seems like it would be prudent to do a moderately thorough survey of the island to ascertain if beasts and/or cannibals are actually, you know, an imminent threat.

Because cannibals do visit the island periodically, to kill, cook, and eat their captives, and Crusoe does eventually find their feasting grounds—a “Shore spread with Skulls, Hands, Feet, and other Bones of humane Bodies”—but he doesn’t make this discovery until he’s been on the island for twenty years.

What the fuck.

Maybe it doesn’t bother you; it’s always bothered me. The shore where the cannibals land is on the west side of the island, an “End of the Island, where indeed,” Crusoe says, “I had never been before.” A whole side of the island, and he’s never been there! Crusoe is both king and colonist, and both of those roles would seem to demand a more-than-cursory—not to say intimate—knowledge of the land one’s claimed. And, in fairness, Crusoe’s knowledge of (parts of) the island is indeed intimate—the growing seasons, the goats, the (useful) flora—but the wide blank swaths on his (metaphorical/mental) map of the island are a glaring omission.

I am writing about this because of Minecraft.

the view from my front porch

Minecraft first appeared on my radar late in 2011 (via a Geekdad post on LEGO Minecraft—now a real thing), but I didn’t start playing it until about six nine or ten weeks ago, when my daughter convinced me to buy the Pocket Edition for the family iPad. It wasn’t long before I was hooked.

Minecraft, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a sandbox game: there are no objectives, no goals, no levels—just a chunk of world, rocks and trees and dirt and water, &c, which one ‘mines’ and then ‘crafts’ into tools and building materials. There are animals—chickens, sheep, cows, pigs—and, if one wants antagonists, zombies of various sorts and giant spiders, which come out at night. It’s awesome.

In the full version (which I haven’t played), the world is infinite; but in the Pocket Edition, there are limits: it’s 256 x 256 blocks (according to the Minecraft wiki—I haven’t actually counted, and I would’ve guessed a bit higher than that—and there is also a limit to its depth). The player-avatar is two blocks tall, and since I’m roughly six feet tall, let’s say that each block is a 3′ cube. A Minecraft PE world, then, is 768 feet x 768 feet (not much more than an 1/8th of a mile)—which makes the surface area 589,824 square feet (the average Super-Walmart is about 197,000 square feet)——589,824 square feet, which is roughly 13.5 acres. (If the worlds are 512 blocks to a side, the surface area would be 54 acres—still far short of the 640 that are in a square mile.)

Thirteen and a half acres. Three Walmarts. And, of the half-dozen or so worlds I’ve generated and spent at least a few game-days (well, game-weeks) in, I have done a full and careful survey of none of them. Like Crusoe, I know some parts quite well, but I’ve also ignored whole sections—probably the very shores where the cannibals are landing.

So, like Crusoe, I’ve prioritized a full and careful—even a full and half-assed—survey of my island below a continual improvement of the habitation I pitched in the first semi-decent spot I came upon and a concomitant accumulation of material goods. (I also have a tendency to get bored with one world and start a new one before I ever get around to doing such a survey.) I would justify myself with “because that’s how the game is played,” but that isn’t a thing—it’s just how I play the game. Sure, the monsters start coming out once it’s night, which is about ten minutes after one starts playing—but there are responses to that occurrence beyond deciding on one’s place of permanent habitation in that first ten minutes.

So I understand Crusoe’s initial course of action, at least to the extent that I recognize that I have the same reaction in a similar (artificial, non-life-threatening) situation. I’m still baffled by his failure to ever get around to surveying his island, but I’m also less confident than I used to be that I, in Crusoe’s place—because that’s a thing I think about sometimes—wouldn’t do exactly the same thing.

kate beaton's crusoe!

Well, so what? Why is surveying one’s island kingdom so damn important?

There is the non-trivial matter of material resources: almost every time Crusoe sets out exploring, he finds something cool—a fertile vale, an abundance of turtles to eat, a cave that becomes a storeroom/fortress of last resort, even a stocked-but-abandoned Spanish vessel aground on a sandbar. (I finally did a full survey of my current Minecraft world in the middle of writing this, and found a shit-ton of clay, which I can use to make bricks, which are fucking classy.) Careful exploration, then, leads to (or can lead to) an improvement in quality of life—something Crusoe is quite invested in, trying as he is to replicate an English way of life on an island off the coast of Brazil.

Beyond that, though, Crusoe’s failure to survey his island strikes me as a failure of curiosity, a lack of desire to discover things merely for the sake of knowing them. I really shouldn’t expect Crusoe to display intellectual curiosity, of course, even if I let his lack of it annoy me anyway. What’s more troubling is that Robinson Crusoe is, in a variety of ways, the urtext of contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives—and when was the last time you saw someone reading Moby Dick while on the run from zombies, or trying to survive an outbreak of crazy swine flu, or trudging across a postnuclear hellscape? Exactly.

I’m not exactly sure what my end-game is—I thought I wanted to make some sort of point about survivalism in popular culture (also seasteading) and a related lack of intellectual curiosity, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe the point is this: preppers don’t stockpile books; zombie fortresses don’t include libraries. And while the percentage of Americans actively prepping for the collapse of society and/or constructing hypothetical zombie fortresses (there’s probably some significant overlap) might be small, shows like Doomsday Preppers and The Walking Dead draw substantial audiences (but at least the new Red Dawn tanked at the box office). That is: thinking about the collapse of civilization is something that lots of us do at least some of the time, and, in every survival narrative I can think of, life becomes—is reduced to—a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, and any semblance of civilization that persists does so only because a strong-willed leader forces it to. So this is what we expect, or what we’re being prepared to accept: when the shit hits the fan, might will make right—and maybe it already does.


ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER

I just finished Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder—published sporadically between 2005 and 2008, on indefinite hiatus after 10 issues, incomplete in several senses of the word.

I’m conflicted.

No, I’m not: I didn’t enjoy reading it. It was offensively sexist, even (or especially) when it was pretending not to be. The dialogue was often ludicrous. The plot was disjointed and uncompelling—though part of this is probably a function that in ends in medias res (more on this in a bit). The villain, the person responsible for the murder of Dick Grayson’s parents in the first pages of the first issue—the Joker, who else?—doesn’t appear until the final page of issue seven (and then only as a full-page joker card), and then is only given a brief and fucking boring scene which opens the eighth issue. Also: the goddamned Batman is a goddamned sadist, laughing gleefully while breaking bones and setting people on fire.

Not fun at all. And yet, perversely, I think it would be a lot of fun to teach—for all the reasons I just said it was no fun to read.

I revisited Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead back in February, and I realized that while it’s bad, it’s bad in interesting and instructive ways. So is All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (also it has a stupid title). I’m teaching Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the fall, and I’m tempted to add ASBAR to the syllabus—Miller has stated that both take place in the same universe (along with The Dark Knight Strikes Again and Batman: Year One)—but there’s not any room left, or I’d be tempted to add Are You My Mother? as well. And, really, teaching a class that was just Miller’s Batman (with his not-Batman thrown in for good measure) would be awesome. Sometime. Maybe after Miller and Lee finish ASBAR, which is never going to happen.

Anyway—why would ASBAR be so fun to teach?

One example: the Joker appears so late—and is such a shallow, uninteresting, carelessly written—because he’s superfluous: this Batman takes up all the room for senseless violence. This is Batman as the villain who thinks he’s the hero, or who just doesn’t give a fuck about the distinction. He’s his own enemy, and he’s really hard to like. He’s an anti-hero, or something. He’s a character ripe for armchair psychoanalysis.

A second example: this series clearly illustrates how ridiculous it is for Batman to exist in a world populated with “real” superheroes—like Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern, who all make appearances, and all look like idiots. And, interestingly, the incipient Justice League is vehemently anti-Batman: Superman wants to hand him over to the “authorities,” and Wonder Woman (“Diana”) wants to put him down, like a rabid dog (and that’s a direct quote). (It doesn’t help that he kidnaps Dick Grayson—the first Robin—moments after the boy’s parents are murdered.)

A last example: the series stopped after ten issues, with basically every plot arc unresolved. (Why did the Joker want Dick’s parents murdered? What’s going on with the unnamed Black Canary? What will happen to Batgirl? What about Catwoman? And, seriously, what does Barbara Gordon’s alcoholism add to the story?) The first nine issues were collected into a single volume: All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Volume One—a collection that ends with Batman and Robin crying together at Robin’s parents’ graves. It’s not an ending, exactly, but it does provide some sense of resolution. Issue ten fucks that up completely—and saving that issue (withholding even the fact of that issue’s existence) until after the students had read and discussed Volume One could be a really interesting exercise.

I have no idea when, or if, I’ll get to teach this class—but it’s totally going in my file.


The Three Laws of Politics

I had a revelation during my commute this morning—and, lucky you, I’m going to share it with you. But first, I’m going to give you a brief and reductive history of my personal politics.

I grew up with liberal Democrats for parents—which meant that, as a rebellious teenager, I decided to become a conservative Republican, which lasted until the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 made being a conservative Republican distasteful to me. Which meant, of course, that I had to be an adult and decide on my own politics.

In my early-to-mid twenties, things like social democracy and distributism and Utah Phillips appealed to me, I suppose primarily for their idealism, which appeals to people in their early twenties, I guess. For a while I flirted with libertarianism, but eventually decided (or realized) that it was based on a fantasy about the Founding Fathers, who were slave-owning oligarchs, and maybe not the best guys. I realized at roughly the same time that I was too much of a radical leftist to be libertarian, and so started flirting with anarchism (though there was probably a long period where I was both a libertarian and an anarchist—what kept me attracted to libertarianism was its (conservative) anarchism).

The problem with anarchism, though, is that it doesn’t really work on a massive scale—because, you know, the state of nature, the world before/without government, it’s not a nice place, whatever Rousseau may have said——and, also, in my later twenties, idealism seemed both naïve and impractical. I got around (or tried to get around) this by calling myself an “anarcho-pragmatist”—working toward the goal of a stateless, non-coercive society, but aware that it was an unreachable goal. I still use that label to identify myself politically when such a label is necessary, although I’m not sure how useful (or applicable) it is.

So, the revelation: What I want is a government constrained by Asimov’s Three (Four) Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot [government] may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot [government] must obey the orders given to it by human beings [constituents], except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot [government] must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. [Maybe this one is less necessary.]

Also, the zeroth law: A robot [government] may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

I have no idea how workable this is as a politics: it only just occurred to me this morning. Certainly there are ambiguities waiting to become serious problems in the definitions of, say, “injure” and “harm”—and, as Asimov himself notes (or has R. Daneel Olivaw note in Foundation and Earth), how do you decide what is “harmful” to “humanity”? Also, a robot is a singular entity—an individual, a “person”—and a government is a system, an organization, a structure: is it meaningful or possible to apply the three laws to such a thing?

Maybe it’s just idealism masquerading as science fiction masquerading as political theory, or something—another way of saying “do unto others as you would have done unto you” or “be excellent to each other,” except with the government as one of the others. Maybe it’s just another way of writing/defining democracy: government for, of, and by the people (which is maybe itself an idealistic fantasy).

Maybe I just read the Foundation series too many times as a kid.