Thursday, December 28, 2017

Vampire Diaries versus True Blood

I have long been fond of vampire stories, particularly films and TV shows. This is something of a cliche among same-sex attracted folk -- intimate sharing of bodily fluids in intense, often apparently orgasmic, experiences manifesting desire incorporating folk of the same-sex by powerful beings who get others to conform to those desires: what's not to like?

I very much enjoyed all 7 seasons of Buffy and all 5 seasons of Angel. The musical episode of Buffy is according to IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) ratings, close to perfect television. And who can forget the puppet episode of Angel? I also very much enjoyed the vampire noir of Ultraviolet which, across its episodes, never used the "V-word".

When True Blood came along, billed as "vampires for adults", I was initially quite engaged. I had read and enjoyed many of the books in the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris that inspired the TV series. Yet I gave up on True Blood in the 4th season.

Conversely, I had ignored The Vampire Diaries as just teen angst vampire romance. Having eventually given it a go, I am now watching the 8th (and final) season. I enjoy even more its spinoff series The Originals (now in its 5th season, though I have only seen the first two).

Which made me wonder, why did The Vampire Diaries hold my attention much more than True Blood did?

I find the IMDB ratings, if enough people rate a show, to be pretty good wisdom-of-crowds indicators of quality. The IMDB ratings (out of 10) of the aforementioned shows, are, in downward order:
The Originals, 8.3
Buffy, 8.2
Ultraviolet, 8.1
Angel, 8.0
True Blood, 7.9
The Vampire Diaries, 7.8
So, not a lot of variance; though The Vampire Diaries-Originals franchise is the most successful (producing the highest IMDB rated show of the group, though slightly lower combined rating, and more total seasons than the Buffy-Angel franchise).

True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are a mere 0.1 apart in IMDB ratings and why one engaged me more successfully than the other is not because of any clear difference in acting performances, eye candy or dialogue. Indeed, my stand-out favourite performance in either series is the (sadly) late Nelsan Ellis's performance of Lafayette in True Blood.

Nor is it a matter of moral seriousness. The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre whatsoever. (Nor, for that matter, does The Originals, which operates rather as a supernatural gangster show.)

True Blood has a much stronger queer element, starting with Lafayette, than The Vampire Diaries but that hardly seems a drawback for moi.  Nor am I one of those sad queer folk who demands queer content to enjoy something, though I devour male-male romance e-books.

The fabulousness that is
The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre, but it does have an emotional one. I have found it genuinely moving at times. Which gets to why it held my attention much more than True Blood.

First is place. Mystic Falls, the town at the centre of The Vampire Diaries, is more successfully and engagingly evoked as a place than Bon Temps in True Blood. The Originals has New Orleans, which almost counts as an unfair advantage, but has meant that The Originals continues and improves the evocation of place that worked for The Vampire Diaries.

Second, and related, is family. True Blood does not really take family seriously. It appears to, but families tend to be dysfunctional adjuncts to characters rather than engaged structural elements of the story. Vampire Diaries takes family more seriously, starting with the two central characters, the Salvatore brothers Stefan and Damon. Characters are very much placed in family contexts, with family histories which operate more than backstory props, with family being treated as a serious factor in people's emotional lives for good and ill. Which, in turn, helps Mystic Falls be a more successfully evoked place than Bon Temps.

Again, this strength applies even more to The Originals, which is centred around the original Vampire family, the Mikkaelsons. Particularly the brothers Klaus and Elijah, but extending to their father, mother, and siblings. But families as living and shaping legacies applies also to other The Originals characters, human, witch or werewolf.

True Blood, particularly in its opening credits, is more self-consciously culture-political than Vampire Diaries, which is a mixed feature, as it can get in the way of the story telling. True Blood is a bit too inclined to see the South in terms of its flaws, which weakens the show's use of family and invocation of place.

The Vampire Diaries also ends up creating a richer metaphysics than True Blood. In True Blood, supernatural creatures just are, and flit across the story more as mystery-marvels than things with a place. The Vampire Diaries, by contrast, is very much concerned to provide origin stories.

Which rather summaries why The Vampire Diaries held my interest more successfully than True Blood. It was more committed to story. Families as having stories, a specific town shaping stories, supernatural beings and structures as having stories. I stopped caring about what happened to characters in True Blood because it was too much one damned thing after another and too little people in connecting webs of people and place. For people who are inside stories have more capacity to engage than people who are story-props. The Vampire Diaries even managed to make a character who was off-screen for the last two seasons a continuing part of the story, both because of the way that was a continuing touchstone for the other central characters and because it enabled the show to return to the "diary" device by having various characters write entries to a journal of "what happened while you were away".

The character of Klaus Mikkaelson, played beautifully by Joseph Morgan, a recurring character in a couple of seasons of The Vampire Diaries and one of the central characters of The Originals, is an excellent example of character both in and driving story. He is clearly both embedded in his family and shaped by it. His life becomes focused around his (miraculous but explained) daughter. He is both highly intelligent and deeply emotionally flawed (for entirely understandable reasons: when you meet his parents, so much is explained--including why his brother Elijah is so keen to emotionally redeem Klaus). Indeed, being so smart, so cunning, yet so emotionally unbalanced, is central to Klaus's character dynamic -- he is smart/cunning enough to cope with his emotional flaws but too shaped by them to overcome them. Which generates plenty of dramatic tension, of course. But also makes him a deeply engaging, if at times horrifying, character. (Remember, no moral centre.)

The Vampire Diaries was more committed to story, which meant more committed to connections and place, than True Blood, which is why the former kept my interest in a way that the latter failed to do.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Islam as Philosophical Dead End

Classical (622 to c.940) and early medieval Islam was a civilisation and period with a rich philosophical tradition. Yet Islam became a philosophical dead end, an example of how societies, indeed, an entire civilisation, can stop supporting philosophy as a significant autonomous realm of enquiry. Islam is a civilisation where religion swallowed philosophy, with consequences we are still living with.

That Islam as a civilisation developed a rich philosophical tradition is obvious and well-documented. Thinkers writing in Arabic were particularly important in reconciling Aristotelianism with monotheism. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198) in particular was very influential in Latin Christendom. So much so that St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in his writings, would refer to Aristotle (384-322 BC) as The Philosopher and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as The Commentator.

Yet that rich philosophical tradition dwindled away to vanishing point. It did so as the result of interaction between ideas and social change.

The social dwindling

The social change was the dwindling away of any basis for supporting scholarship and learning outside explicitly Islamic religious schools. The movement to a fief-based military administration reduced administrative bureaucracies, by far the most significant basis for non-religious intellectual life within Islamic societies, while dominance by Turkish-speaking warlords, from the time of the Seljuqs (1037-1153) onwards, led to a surge in ostentatious support for religion by rulers making up for their non-Arabness via ostentatious religious adherence and patronage.

The shock and devastation of the Mongol invasion (much larger and far more traumatic than Crusader seizure of narrow coastal strips), including the sack of Baghdad (1258), the only time the capital of a living Caliph had fallen to non-Muslims, aggravated these trends. The Mongol invasion and conquests, particularly the violent ending of the Abbasid Caliphate, apart from a sad shadow-line in Cairo, both disrupted what non-religious scholarly networks remained and encouraged a retreat into an intensified Islamic identity. These processes are well set out in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr.

The religious trumping
The two philosophy-swallowing ideas developed from the Ash'ari Islamic school, being given their civilisation-winning form by al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111). The moral claim was that revelation was the only ground for ethical judgement. This effectively eliminates moral arguments as the West understands them (indeed, as all the origin civilisations for philosophy—the Hellenic world, northern India and China — understood them). It is why Islamic states are the only ones who have seen fit to issue an adjusted form of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, because all ethical arguments and claims have to be grounded in revelation.

The metaphysical claim is that Allah is the source of all non-human causation. Not merely the ground of causation in the Aristotelian sense, but literally the immediate cause of everything that happens. Allah remakes the world at every moment; what we see as causal patterns are merely the habits of Allah, which Allah can change at any moment.

Unsurprisingly, the dwindling away of philosophy also saw the dwindling away of science within Islam, as intellectual effort was directed back into religion. Especially as law was part of religion and religious scholarship, apart from elements (qanun) allowed to operate in the silences of Sharia.

In this way, Islam pre-eliminates competition to itself from within Islamic society. It does so by eliminating the category of moral arguments beyond itself and allocating all non-human causation to Allah. So the levers to replace religious grounding of social and physical understanding which led to the Western Enlightenment are absent within mainstream Islam, as they have no resting points. Especially as the Quran is held to be the literal word of God, a manifested miracle, written in a single language and, according to mainstream Sunni thought, outside time, so far more insulated from critical scholarship than the Christian scriptures.

Adoption aborted
The expansion of the non-religious intelligentsia from the early C19th onwards that the (much delayed) spread of the printing press and efforts of modernising rulers created in the Middle East appeared to give the basis for Islam as a civilisation to “catch up” with the West. A modernising intelligentsia did develop, but largely as a by-product and support for modernising regimes and states.

This centrally-organised, copycat modernisation largely failed to put down deep roots in Islamic societies. Worse, it became tied to success of those states and regimes. (In some ways, a repeat of what happened to the original wave of reason-based modernisers, the Mu'tazila of Classical Islam: Islam is a civilisation of strong recurring patterns.)

Islamic Enlightenment: the Struggle between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue provides a history of this modern abortive Enlightenment: an informative and perceptive review is here.

The Islamic world became dominated by fascist-analogue regimes. But defeat in the Dictators’ War (1939-1945) had rather discredited Fascism and the Soviet bloc was willing to supply arms and support to friendly regimes, so socialism became the dominant rhetorical flavour of non-monarchical regimes in the Islamic world. (Note that I mean socialism in its command economy sense rather than its “free-floating good intentions insulated from any failures” sense.)

But Arab socialism fared no better than its alternatives elsewhere; though, being less actually socialist, rather less catastrophically so. In the West, the failure of socialism led to postmodernism and its close associates, such as Critical Theory. In Islam, the failure of socialism led to political Islam (Islamiyya) and to a search for a purified Islam (notably the Salafi and Deobandi movements).

This was somewhat less of a difference than it might appear, as al-Ghazali’s causal analysis was grounded in essentially the same epistemologically sceptical argument about what we can know from observation later developed by Hume (1711-1776), which so influenced Kant (1724-1804) and from there led to postmodernism.

Moreover, Critical Theory permits no moral argument beyond itself, as the purpose of all “proper” intellectual endeavour is to support the struggle against oppression and any critique of that goal is, by definition, illegitimate defence of exploitation and oppression. An attitude which has seeped into the wider society (particularly the "cultural commanding height" industries of media, education, entertainment and IT) to the extent that start-up entrepreneur Sam Altman can report that it is easier to discuss heretical ideas in China (under a Leninist regime) than in Silicon Valley in California.

Monarchy, mosque and military
So both mainstream Islam and PoMo progressivism pre-eliminate competition. In Islam, outside the monarchical societies, the weakness of civil society leaves politics suspended between mosque and military. (The monarchies tend to have richer civil societies precisely because the monarchies both incorporate and balance between mosque and military and failed to wage quite the war on traditional society that the modernising military regimes did.)

The revival of the headscarf both speaks to the power of Islam and the revival of political Islam. (Trying to spin it as some sort of manifestation of female power is pathetic, even given that reveiling has largely been driven by [pdf] expanded education and employment opportunities for women, as it is a response responding to the power of Islamic belief.) That the Islamic world still has significant patches of relatively low literacy rates (especially for women), and (in the case of the Arab world) a strikingly low rate of translation of non-Arabic books, does not help the develop of non-religious thinking and ideas within Islamic civilisation.

What intellectual life there is within Islam remains trapped within the concerns of the early Western Enlightenment—how to replace and overcome religious grounding of social and physical understandings versus how to insulate religion from the pressures of modernity—and remains without the levers that the Western Enlightenment relied on. While there is some dim possibility of a moderate modernising approach developing, Islam is not likely to stop being mostly a philosophical dead-end civilisation any time soon.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, December 18, 2017

Origins of philosophy

This very short post by philosopher Stephen Hicks states that:
*Metaphysically*, philosophy was born with Thales and the Milesians. *Epistemologically*, it was born with Parmenides and the Eleatics.
The Milesian school began around 600 BCE on the coast of Asia minor. The Eleatic school began around 500 BCE about 1100 kilometers west in the southern Italian peninsula.
He also has a nice post on what distinguishes philosophy from pre-philosophic thought.

There are three original cultures with serious philosophical traditions -- Greece, northern India and China. Their philosophical traditions all started in periods of small, competing polities sharing a common language and culture: the Archaic Period in Greece (776-480 BC), the Srmana Period in northern India (700s-332BC ) and the Spring and Autumn Period in China (771-456BC).

The contiguous time periods are very noticeable. One can see why German philosopher Karl Jaspers came up with the notion of an Axial Age. As for what they have in common, one is that they all had contact with the militarised pastoralist societies which developed as a result of the invention of the composite recurve bow and effective deployment of mounted archers. They were periods of increased urbanisation (particularly noticeable in India but also in the Hellenic world.) They were all places that developed coinage but that was after philosophy and is a natural response by urbanised trading polities to intense inter-polity competition.

In the case of China, the focus was on competing autocracies developing out of a vassalage-and-honour ("feudal") system. So Chinese philosophy focused on how to live and what to serve (Confucianism), how to rule (Legalism) and how to navigate serenely a world of flux (Taoism).

India had a range of types of polities, including deliberative assembly republics. The Vedic order was collapsing and being challenged by new ideas, notably Buddhism and Jainism, followed by the Brahmin response, which led to what is known as Hinduism or better understood as the Hindu synthesis. This clash of ideas, ways of thought, ways of being governed, led to the very rich Indian philosophical tradition, ranging from mathematics to ethics to metaphysics but with a strong tendency to an otherworldly focus.

The Hellenic world (which ranged from Spain to Crimea) also had a wide range of types of polities, but much less religious flux, resulting in a very rich philosophical tradition ranging from mathematics, to ethics to metaphysics but with a stronger element of epistemology than elsewhere and a more this-world focus leading to proto-science and (if physicist and historian of science Lucio Russo is correct) a full-blown Scientific Revolution in the Hellenistic Period.

Philosophy starting in culturally linked competing jurisdictions makes sense because:
(1) thinkers could move from less friendly to more friendly locales;
(2) diversity of polities led to more chances of "positive mutations" (i.e. mixtures of circumstances and institutions provoking, or friendly to, more intense and broader reasoning);
(3) common language facilitated far more connections between thinkers and ideas.

India and the Hellenic world had a far richer range of polities than China, leading to a much broader range of experience and examples for reasoning about social and political matters. The effect was much stronger in the Hellenic world, which had few significant monarchies and which was in contact with a much broader range of societies and geographies than northern India and far more so than China. In particular, the sheer number of polities with deliberative assemblies made the politics of persuasion a much stronger factor. This encourages thinking about rhetoric but also public reasoning in general.

So, it is not surprising that the Hellenic world had a somewhat broader ambit of philosophy than India and that both had much broader than China. Nor is it surprising that philosophy, as with other forms of human creativity, tends to operate more strongly in periods of polity diversity and competition.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]