(Actually) Living Walden Two

A utopia is, by definition, nowhere. But that has not stopped people from trying to make it somewhere.

Most attempts throughout history to create such communities separately from society were done so for religious or political reasons. More recently, such communities were created as scientific utopias. Many of them were inspired by a single book called Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner.

Skinner was one of the most prominent behavioral psychologists of the 20th century. Turns out he originally wanted to be a novelist, but went into behavioral psych instead.

Its thrust is that human society is grossly inefficient, and that all of us working against each other makes a society where nobody is happy. By living communally and using behavioral psychology to shape human expectation and behavior, a planned society can make life better for everyone. It presents a completely different way of living than we experience now. Continue reading

Why Stop Asking?

Walden Two is a novel about an intentional society, or what we’d call a commune, based on scientific principles.

Its writer, B.F. Skinner, supposed that people could thrive while living communally. He wrote this book in an attempt to rewrite all our current social rules about work, love, and play.

I was at the dinner table last night discussing it with my folks and my fiancee. It was a good discussion.

What surprised me was that my folks knew about Walden Two. Though the book was written in the fifties, it really found its footing in the late sixties and early seventies, when they were growing up. There was a lot of talk about experimental ways of living during that time. People knew there was something wrong with society and sought new ways of living. They experimented. They asked the question “How is it that we should live?”

Something stuck in my craw during that conversation.

Continue reading

Story of Our Stories: Part IV

(Continued from Part II)

Science As Meta-Narrative

If we cannot depend on ourselves alone, we often think that we can depend on science.  

Usually, when you see a criticism of a scientific study or fact, it’s coming from a political position. We can laugh or rage at people who think that climate change isn’t real, or that the world is only thousands of years old. But science itself is a meta-narrative. It is the idea that if we think empirically, we can discover universal truths. These truths can tell us the ideal way to do everything. They can tell us how to live.

Central to it, in Lyotard’s mind, is what you and I might think of as clarification, he presents as a death of ambiguity. Continue reading

https://pixabay.com/en/king-artus-metal-sculpture-bronze-1507392/

The Story of Our Stories: Part III

Continued from Part II

Meta-narrative and the Individual

“You are the Hero of your own story.”

– Joseph Campbell

Thinking of ourselves as heroes is an intoxicating idea. What better way to imagine the arc of our lives than slaying dragons and the rescuing princesses? We imagine that we are lionized the way we lionize politicians, business leaders, artists. We value people that make their lives their own, that carve out their own destinies.

This is the idea that a person can, and should, be an individual, that they should forge their own path through the darkness of existence. The rights of the individual, and the liberty of the individual, should come before the needs of the state. It is the story of human dignity, in whatever form that might take.

We believe that a person should be able to chose the path for themselves. That we should be free to work, free to build lives, free to speak, and free to worship as we please. It is the cornerstone of our civic religion. It is a good and noble thing.

But there are problems with the way we venerate the individual. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part II

Continued from Part I

The Meta-Narratives and Their Destruction

The term was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He described meta-narratives as the ‘big’ stories that we tell ourselves that help us understand the world: things like Religion, Nationalism, Racism, Capitalism, Democracy, etc.

Meta-narratives are the stories used to understand and legitimize other, smaller stories, and they are the ways by which we understand the world. In a very real sense, they’re what we use to create order and meaning out of existence. They are what gave the modern world its character. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part I

1969.

A Cleveland train running over the Cuyahoga River throws off sparks from its fly-wheels. The sparks land white hot in the river below.

The river, however, doesn’t swallow these sparks. They don’t land harmlessly on the water. Instead, the river ignites:

Cuyahoga River

Rivers used to burn in this country. It’s odd and scary, but true.

But the 1969 fire did more than throw smoke on downtown Cleveland. It helped create a national impetus for environmental control. It was in that era that the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were passed, and environmental protection agencies at both the federal and the state levels were created.

We, of course, are still having the conversation about conservation, especially with climate change so high in the national consciousness. But Progress was made. We are better than we were before

Progress is the idea that life will be better for our children than it is for us. It is the idea that the inevitable march of technology, of social justice, of economic power, will lead to better, more free lives than were available for our ancestors.

This also rests on the bedrock idea that life was terrible before society. That things began, as Thomas Hobbes put it, with:

no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.That’s weird, though, when you think about it.

Small children understand sharing before anyone tells them about it. They understand fairness. They want to help each other.

The archaeological record that we have of early humans showed that they took care of the sick and aged. They gave proper funerals for their brothers and sisters that died. They made art.

But what about agriculture? Surely that was Progress. There’s no way food could be more abundant and predictable in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which predominated before agriculture. Hunting and gathering would be a lifestyle exposed to famine and want.

While it is difficult to understand ancient societies, which left no written records, there are a few ways we can determine which type of society afforded a better life. First, we can look at societies that are still hunting and gathering, and we can look at the remains of those ancient hunter-gatherers.

On both counts, the evidence for Progress is shaky.

To the first point, hunter-gatherers didn’t work nearly as many hours as we do. The ones still around only work between 20-40 hours a week; sometimes they work as little as 12. Work itself was different as well. Because hunter-gatherer work is so varied and requires knowledge and creativity, it seemed less like work and more like play. Work was not toil to them. Most living hunter-gatherers don’t even have a word for it, and even when they do, they use it to describe interactions with outsiders, not their own labor.

These societies that still exist are also much more egalitarian and less stratified than their agricultural counterparts. It is only with the excess that agriculture produces that we see the rise of classes:

Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.

Jared Diamond, the author of the above quote, uses the fact that the remains of the ancient elite indicate their superior health, in terms of bone lesions caused by disease, superior height, and fewer cavities than the common people. He uses the same tactic to speak of the difference between hunter-gatherers and early farmers, relaying that modern Greeks and Turks still have yet to recover their former pre-agricultural height.

Continue reading

Same Dream, Different Collar

Chevy in the Hole was one of the largest auto production facilities in the world. At its peak, 8,000 people worked there, in eight different assembly and production plants in Flint, Michigan.

Possibly the greatest voice to come out of those plants was a guy named Ben Hamper, author of the book Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line. In it, he describes life as an assembly line worker during the dying days of the Flint plants.

The books characters had different ways of dealing with the life of a shoprat. All of them turned to alcohol in some way or another. One man in particular, one that Hamper was making a hero in his columns, was so drunk on the job that he shit his pants.

But Hamper had a different means of making the clock run a bit faster: he started to write. Working the rivet line, he would finish his work and have one or two minutes before the next car crawled down the line. In that pit of time, he started to scribble. And he got damn good at it, too.

Read any of his work, and you can plainly see this Rivethead guy is smart. He’s talented.

This begs the question: why did we have him working on an assembly line? You have a guy with that kind of intelligence, that kind of talent for writing, and the best thing we as a society can find for this guy to do is rivet rocker plates to cars? Continue reading

Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes: Part IV

(Continued from Part III)

In Which a Librarian Tells Movie Executives How to do Their Jobs, Is Handsome  

So this begs the question: why can’t they seem to pull off on the big screen what they did in cartoons? Why does it seem like their movies seem to get worse instead of better?

They have the people that can conceive, write, and execute awesome Batman, Superman, and Justice League stories. It’s clear they can build a universe. It’s clear they can make the weirdest, dumbest DC characters into awesome stories too (One of the best Justice League shows was one about Booster Gold. and I can bet all the money I make off this Traditionalistic that only a few of you know who that is.)

Well, the problem really comes into play when you look at how Warner Brothers understands how their movies succeed, because, after all, DC is owned wholly by Warner Brothers. If the execs believe something, it goes.

But I don’t blame them. Honest, I don’t.

Say you’re a studio executive at Warner. Think about the success over the past decade. You just made three Batman movies that were, by the account of the critics and fans, excellent movies. The Dark Knight even had people talking about comic book movies on the same level as classics. Even their newest Superman movies, Man of Steel and Superman Returns, did all right.

These movies, what they all had in common, was that they were a darker, grittier version of the superhero movies we know and love. They were ‘realistic.’ It’s only natural that, given that run of success, that making dark, gritty movies would be a sure-fire way to the next mega-hit at the box office. You keep the director of the Batman movies on as a producer. You give the director gig to Zack Snyder. You’re set.

After all, Disney is printing money with this crap.

The crazy thing about this is that the studio learned the wrong lesson, like they so often do. They think Superhero + Grit = Money (just like Deadpool is teaching people Superhero + R Rating = Money). Only catch is this grit works really, really well in a Batman stand-alone movie, because you basically make Batman an insanely rich film noir detective with colorful villains. Perfect.

It falls flat, really really flat, when you have a shared universe with Superman or any other heroes with superpowers (i.e. they turn into Scary Assholes).

Still they keep trying, because the cost of these movies. Because they cost so much, it’s only natural that studio executives want to maintain control over them and stick with what works. People give studios grief over this, but their paycheck, and the paychecks of thousands of people, depend on these movies being huge successes. They can’t be flippant about it.

The Timmverse, by contrast, didn’t need the kind of oversight the films do because they don’t need to make billions of dollars to be worth it. Thus, people were able to experiment, people who knew and cared about the characters. And they were able to do that over decades, starting with Batman, going into Superman, then into Justice League in a natural progression.

By the time these guys got to a Justice League series, they had been working with these characters for almost a decade. They were able to explore all sorts of cool stories, I suspect, because they didn’t have this monumental pressure. They were able to develop as a team.

Warner is not going to give up DC, like a recent Cracked article thinks they can. And their execs are not going away. The best thing they can do is to focus on making cheap comic book movies. This will allow teams to focus on stories, and giving creative teams time to actually understand and believe in the characters.

If they’re cheaper, you wouldn’t need every one to be a billion-dollar success. Then you could build the combined cinematic universe while giving the people working on these stories time to grow up within that universe, just like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini did. When those smash hits come, that’s the team you want to helm a Justice League movie. Think of it as letting writers and directors work through the minors before they graduate into the big leagues.

Deadpool is a perfect example of what most studios that make superhero movies can’t do. It was a movie made on the cheap, at 58 million. It grossed 782 million worldwide because it was an interesting, new sort of superhero movie, not that it spent a ton of money. It’s not enough that we get to see Batman and Superman, or really any guy in tights. You have to give us something new, something interesting, something we can sink our teeth into.

To do that, you have to develop a stable of people that can churn out really good, cheap comic book movies.

This, actually, could give them a one-up over Marvel, because if they were to do this, they would be able to give their movies unique voices. As much fun as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, the movies all look and feel the same (which is why I’m so excited to see Doctor Strange this November; it really does look like something new).

Warner could go way, way beyond that, making all sorts of movies with all sorts of different tones and styles, while still adding to a larger narrative. But you need to allow your talent to develop.

With the DC Animated Universe, they did that. They gave these iconic characters to an awesome team, and gave them years to work through new and exciting stories.

There’s no reason, even with all the stuff they have going now, that Warner couldn’t do this again.

If anything, just don’t let Zack Snyder near anything, ever again.

Wait.**

He’s directing Justice League?

Shit.

Well, at least we have Ben Affleck.

Because Conclusions Why Not? 

You look at our favorite movies, the reason that they’re great isn’t because of how they look. It isn’t because of the proverbial, and actual, punching. It’s because we connected with the people in these stories. We understood them, rooted for them, wanted to see them succeed against great odds. It was true for normal people and the ones that can leap tall buildings in a single bound (or kick through a brick wall with a magic knee braces.)

Hell, I hope I’m wrong. Maybe they will pull off a Justice League movie. But they won’t until they focus, not on the punching or the grit or the washed out colors, but the characters. That’s what makes a story.

That is the hardest way to make a movie. But when you get down to it, it’s the only way that works.

* There’s going to be a lot of hyperbole in this series. Mike always warns me against hyperbole, but we’re Kenny Loggins’ing this shit.

** Not actually pizza.

Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes: Part II

(Part II of a series. See Part I here)

Believing in Superman 

With the success of Batman: The Animated Series, the same creative team was given the reins of a new hero in 1995: Superman.

Superman is the superhero game on ‘hard.’ It’s hard to write a good Superman story. But the guy’s compelling. We wouldn’t have had decades of Superman stories if he wasn’t. But in order to write a good Superman story, it should start with this basis if you want your audience to care: he’s a strong, good guy trying to do the right thing. He tries to live up to his code: truth, justice, and the American way. (American way, oddly enough, was only added later, because Communism. It was a weird time for everybody…) Striving to live up to his code, his strength becomes a liability. He tempers himself, because he knows there’s a right and wrong way to do things.

The problem with recent Superman movies, especially Batman v. Superman, is that the people making the movie don’t believe this can be taken seriously. They don’t believe in Superman as a character. They try to make the films ‘gritty,’ and make Superman a gritty anti-hero.

The problem with this is that Superman can’t be a gritty, film noir narrative. His story is primarily a hopeful one, that a powerful person can use their power for good, and be a hero. If Superman, someone with his kind of power, acts like a gritty anti-hero, he’s not a gritty anti-hero; he is a scary asshole, and a scary asshole to whom we can’t relate.

Perfect example: in Batman v. Superman, when Luthor threatens to kill his mom, he screams “WHERE IS SHE?!” like a crazy person, and fires up his heat vision like he’s going to blast Lex into oblivion. Very un-Superman.

Lex, too, is diminished by this lack of belief. He needs to be everything Superman is not: supremely intelligent, suave, cunning, ruthless. He needs to be Superman’s foil, just like the Joker is to Batman. But the foil of a powerful asshole is a good guy, or at least an underdog. When Superman is a gritty anti-hero, Lex can’t be Lex, which is why the character goes haywire.

Now, knowing this, let’s compare introductions in movie and cartoon.

Compare this:

To this:

The first one, the animated one, is pitch perfect. From body language, you get the sense that Superman is actually afraid here. Even though he’s taller than Lex, Lex is all up in his face. He’s unafraid. After all, he knows Superman is strong, but he also knows Superman’s weakness: Superman is at heart a good guy, and wouldn’t kill Lex right there for threatening him. His power comes from who Lex is as a character: always smart, always cool, always in control.

As for Jessie Eisenberg’s Lex, our introduction to him is completely off the wall. Having him mention his father, and the whole East German thing, totally undermines him. He’s not in a power-suit, ruling the city from a modern throne. He’s a startup rich kid, and one that says ‘Ahoy, Ahoy’ when he meets people. Snyder shoehorns in all these complicated plot points – i.e. who the hell needs an import license??? YOU’RE LEX LUTHOR. SHIP THE ROCK ON A PRIVATE PLANE. NOW THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS YOU HAVE IT! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?! AND STOP BABBLING! JESUS! – and you still don’t have clear tension. All this stuff, like Zodd, the Kryptonian ship, the East German father, hell, even him playing basketball – all of this muddles up the character to the point where we really don’t know why we should fear him, or even care about a story he’s in.

Jessie Eisenberg is a good actor, and it’s clear that he really did consider the role and what it meant. But lot of the confusion and weirdness comes from the fact that they really didn’t know what to make of Lex, because they didn’t believe that Superman could just be a good guy with all that power.

It’s going to be even weirder when they start to introduce characters most people don’t even know about…

Continued in Part III