That Is Why I Am So Confident in Concluding That My Thesis Is Correct

There’s a story I’ve had on my mind a lot this week, for reasons Bubblegum and otherwise: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Maybe you’ve read it before, maybe you haven’t; it’s quite short, so if you want to, it won’t take you much time. It’s pretty famous. It’s also nauseatingly sad, so, y’know, have some chocolate or a lazy dog or something on hand to help you get back up afterward.

The parallels to our situation in this country are, I hope, obvious, and that’s not what I want to (…can bear to) write about right now anyway. What I want to write about right now is that beautiful pair of letters to Belt from his mom—including some truly startling flashes of my own life on those pages (don’t worry for me, they weren’t about mental illness or suicide). Or what the hell Fondajane is doing in this book at all, because I’ll tell you, Triple-J’s essay on her is, I think, an effective set piece in a bunch of ways, and there are definitely novels I’d enjoy seeing it in as one star in the constellation—but for now, I’ve got no idea how to answer the question why is she here?, and that’s the kind of burr under my saddle that always keeps me bouncing.

But what I’m going to write about is Triple-J’s other essay.

In the first place, it’s funny. Triple-J is, as Paul notes, an intermittently formal writer. Cued perhaps by Hal Incandenza, I was expecting that these papers of Triple-J’s would be evidence of his genius. I would say I am…unconvinced. There’s an affability to the intellect he shows in them—I might like him!, although then again the kidney stomping weighs the other way—so I don’t think Bubblegum is making fun of him, but I do think we’re supposed to see both standard development-in-progress-type immaturity and a level of critical obliviousness. But in an affectionate way.

We learn quite a lot that we need to know from reading this essay, or at least the two versions of the Graham&Swords manual that it juxtaposes. None of that is what Triple-J is analyzing. His thesis—”that some people will say anything to sell you what they’re trying to sell you, especially if those people are corporations, and it’s shady”—rings of callow disillusionment, that feeling of conviction and righteousness (maybe even superiority) that I imagine we all experience when we’re 14ish and make some of our early critical judgments of the world around us. It’s not out of place for the character or anything, and I wouldn’t even say it’s incorrect, it just has very little to do with the material he’s using. (No, you’re remembering that paper you thought was awesome but your freshman-English TA thought deserved a D because it didn’t make any actual argument.)

Apart from the…what could we call it, data? bread crumbs?…about cures as material objects in the world of the novel, here’s the part that I think is essential. And it’s a little long, but that’s because Triple-J has already intuitively mastered linguistic recursion, so blame him for the size of this box you’re about to see:

There’s no way [people stop buying cures and using them and seeing them as robots] because by the time the “Cures are people! They’re people!” people start getting attention, not only is the whole Cute Economy happening and making everyone in the USA richer, but everyone in the USA and most of the rest of the world has already overloaded a bunch of times and enjoyed doing it, and has learned to want to keep doing it, and, like I said, if it turned out that cures/Botimals weren’t machines made of flesh but real animals or animal-humans or whatever and that it therefore wasn’t okay to do what we all do to them, not only would the economy get messed up, but we’d all hate ourselves and commit suicide because we’d see that we’d been monsters all along. We’re not monsters, though. And that’s how we know cures are robots.

I take Triple-J in good faith: I think his prior here is a naïve and honest certitude that “we’re not monsters.” And from that, it follows that cures must not be alive.

But of course we’re not kids reading this, and Levin’s a sophisticated technician. We can see self-serving rationalization when it begs us to tell it how innocent it is. And this is where I come back to the Le Guin story, especially because we learn here that cures aren’t just bread and circuses, they’re meat and drink. The national economy is built on the disposability of cures. It’s good at least that Triple-J lets us know there are in fact groups that protest their on-a-whim destruction. I wasn’t sure there was anybody but Belt (and at least some of us readers, including me) who had a problem with it. Because we’re not monsters, right?

12 thoughts on “That Is Why I Am So Confident in Concluding That My Thesis Is Correct

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston June 5, 2020 / 8:37 am

    Really nicely done here, Jeff. Thanks!

    I’m right with you regarding Triple-J’s maturity of thought and writing. I agree too that there’s affability here and affection, but I also feel a sense of unease about him. There was that cure taped to the slide, after all, and he had been (if I recall correctly) throwing things at the slide. Having concluded that cures are robots and that he’s not a monster, I suppose that from his sort of moral center, that behavior maybe isn’t so bad, but to me it rubs up against this earnest mentee vibe we’ve gotten here of late — a bit of a burr under my saddle.

    • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:01 pm

      The whole “we’re not monsters” seems very “wrong side of history.” Not trying to read too much into this yet, but is there any sense of race in this story? Has there been anyone of color in this story (aside from the one Indian (I think) girl in the next video section). This topic is clearly on my mind right now, but it does seem like “we’re not monsters” can be seen like the dehumanization attitudes to peoples. Again, this topic is very alive at the moment and I doubt Levin is going that deep with this idea (it feels far more like a cruelty to animals idea than race), but I am very curious to see how this attitude plays out.

  2. Rob June 6, 2020 / 1:57 am

    Some boring remarks on copyediting that are not in response to this post, which is good. Some of them may involve an earlier week’s reading (ebook user here), and some in Triple-J’s essays from this week.

    I believe for the first time the author refers to Blank as a “who” instead of an “it” in the following passage: “And furthermore, she couldn’t, she said, help but to believe–and with equal force–that Blank, WHO would turn to us while makings ITS laugh sounds, was, via making those laugh sounds…”

    I noticed the “WHO” because, as I might have mentioned in an earlier comment, I think of all living-adjacent things as “who”s and “he”s and “she”s, so referring to Blank as an “IT” always stood out to me. I’m assuming this is a copyediting oversight (inconsistency) because there’s an “ITS” in the same sentence, although not wanting to gender Blank would leave no choice with that word even in the case that “WHO” was intentional.

    Bored yet? The only thing to look out for here is a possible progressive change in Blank’s pronouns, which would then appear intentional.

    —-

    In my ebook, there are words missing from Triple-J’s essay. *looks at highlights* OK, one of them I misread–so many long, nested sentences! The remaining one is “But what is deeper and more important to think about, I think, is that the *truth will out*, and being shady, in the end, will always be exposed as a way that is inferior to the way of being truthful.” [Location: very end of curio-manual essay.] Unless “truth will out” is some idiom I don’t know, this is an editing error, and maybe we can say it is TJ’s editing error (if it’s in the print book also)!

    Bored yet?

    —-

    DFW’s “and but so” makes an appearance, its only one, in TJ’s description of a video segment, untitled, beginning “[Mid-to-late 1990s.”

    “Our film student over there … is too afraid … to communicate her stance on the existence of involuntary overload, though I’m sure she has one. A stance. And but so your answer to the question of whether one can overload without having elected to do so … can’t help but speak … to where you … are positioned on any number of worldview-defining continua.”

    Told myself I’d highlight these.

    • Rob June 6, 2020 / 2:16 am

      Should have searched first. It seems “the truth will out” is a phrase I truly haven’t heard before. I only expect e.g. “the truth will come out”. My boring comment gets weaker and weaker… 😉

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 7, 2020 / 10:39 pm

      Whoa, nice find on the “who.” I hadn’t noticed.

      The “and but so” jumped right out at me, as did a few other things in that bit that clearly said Wallace to me. The post I’ve scheduled for Monday will touch on that a bit.

    • Jeff Anderson June 7, 2020 / 11:09 pm

      Your note on “who” butted up for me against another “thats” toward the end of the current reading, which makes it Triple-J this time, not Belt, using “thats.” And I realized—I think “thats” was introduced, whether by Graham&Swords specifically or a guilty society more broadly, to give people a way to talk about cures and then by extension all kinds of objects that explicitly avoids using any form of “who” and its implications of personhood.

      I feel like our group line on “thats” has been that it’s Belt’s coinage that somehow recognizes the dignity or whatever of inans. But what if it’s the opposite?

      • Rob June 8, 2020 / 2:47 am

        Interesting. It’s weird that I don’t notice the “thats” at all. Thanks for pointing it out; I’ll go back and search on it. I am kind of a deep-grammar-processing person, so I’m not sure why I don’t notice “thats”.

        Wiktionary, the dictionary sister of Wikipedia, has an entry for “thats” – https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/thats (“the plural of that”). m-w.com does not. I wonder what the premiere dictionary has to say?

        Grammar digression: I live in a world that now says “amount of [countable things]” (and “less” etc) *all the bloody time* and my language-brain goes crazy when I hear that. According to the dictionary there are defensible uses of that form (to my dismay), but I am finding that “number of [countable things]”, the correct “default” if you will, is practically disappearing, and it drives me bonkers!!!! I can’t help it. But perhaps this is another idiosyncrasy of mine, as was not having heard “the truth will out”. I would never, even in informal speech or writing, say “amount of people at the concert” or “amount of books on my shelf”. Possibly the shift happened because “amount” is just a little easier phonetically than “number”.

      • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:11 pm

        This points more to Rob’s comment about amount. I have to assume that the usage of less than ten and fewer than ten drives you insane every time you go to the grocery store?

        My wife works in a school and she has a whole fingernails on the chalkboard reaction to the sudden explosion of the phrase “share out” as opposed to just “share” which is perfectly serviceable. Also, “search up” when kids use google. Grammar nerds die hard.

    • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:08 pm

      Hadn’t noticed the *WHO* It is truly frustrating not knowing what is a copy editing problem and what is intentional. I can recall being a kid, reading a Stephen King book and finding a copy editing mistake. I showed my mom who told me to write the publisher and maybe they’d [whatever moms think a company might do for a smart ass kid]. As an adult I have now seen many many more copy editing mistakes and have learned that most major publishers don’t do a very careful job of copy editing (it doesn’t pay). Sigh. How is one supposed to be an anal retentive reader?

      I am familiar with “the truth will out” It seems to often be used as an emphatic Q.E.D. kind of conclusion. Evidently it comes from Shakespeare (but what doesn’t).

      I was tickled to see the “and but so.” In my post I speculated that the teacher might even be DFW. Which made me smile.

  3. Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 2:56 pm

    Reading this after the Foucault section, I’m delighted at your phrase”standard development-in-progress-type immaturity and a level of critical obliviousness” which really seems apt.

    I very much appreciate your teacher-angle on Trip’s paper. I really enjoyed reading the two manuals, but yes, the conclusion he draws does not exactly seem supported by the evidence (no matter how much I think his callow fourteen year old self is correct about corporations).

    I’m also fascinated about his critical take on Graham&Swords since he is related to them in some way.

    I don’t have an answer to what Fondajane is doing in the book at this time because I have now read a lot more about/from her. But yes, the whole essay on her that early (fascinatinga nd enjoyable as it was) was pretty much out of left field. Of course much of this book seems to reside in left field so…

    • Jeff Anderson June 19, 2020 / 4:34 pm

      I can’t tell you how tickled I’ve been about you characterizing it as my “teacher-angle on Trip’s paper.” I’ve adopted a defensive-crouch kind of agnosticism as to whether it’ll ever happen, but for a number of years there my dream was to become a professor. I love doing this shit. 🙂

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