Throwback Thursdays: Paranoia in Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

First published in Italian in 1988, Foucault’s Pendulum is an eerily prescient novel by the philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco, who passed away about a year ago. Despite its arcane exploration of ancient mystical societies, and academic protagonists, its analysis of conspiracies, conspiratorial thinking, and related phenomena feel uncannily familiar, as though he were anticipating the incomprehensible modern world of truthers, birthers, and Pizzagate.

The book focuses on a trio of underemployed scholars in modern Italy, who make ends meet by working at a small, vanity publisher focusing on esoterica and conspiracy theories. Mocking their authors (whom they refer to as “Diabolicals”), the protagonists amuse themselves by trying to weave every bit of nonsense together into a grand new theory of the history of the world.

Belbo, Causabon, and Diotallevi never quite let themselves believe their own tale, but remain dangerously entranced by the possibilities that they dream up. Their apparent knowledge brings them into increasing conflict with the Diabolicals themselves, who persistently believe that any denial of a conspiracy is only evidence of its potency.

The book is set in 1970s and 1980s Italy, a time of social upheaval known as the Years of Lead. The era saw significant terrorist activity from far-left groups such as the Red Brigades as well as far-right and neo-Nazi organizations like the National Vanguard. In a society torn apart not only by violence, but by fundamentally oppositional views of the world, Eco saw the potency of esoteric thinking: it not only offered truths that could not be doubted, but the promise that ultimately, someone, somewhere, was actually in charge. Even if it was all made up.

It is this aspect of the book which resonates so deeply in the 21st century, when the world again seems plunged into chaos, and truth itself recedes into the distance. The conspiracy theories that animate contemporary politics overlap with the many legends in Foucault’s Pendulum, but even more than such specifics, the temptation, power, and danger of these beliefs echo loudly.

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Smells Like Character Assassination: WTF Is Going On At Marvel?

I’ve been a Marvel fan over DC since I started reading comics – the first single issues I ever bought were the starts of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. Marvel continues to put out some amazing, progressive, and inclusive stories from its B-list characters, but at the same time it’s also putting out some of the most tone-deaf unpleasantness I’ve ever seen from a major media company in its flagship titles. What’s most frustrating in this whole complex fiasco is that, in making these terrible writing choices, Marvel is not just being problematic and offensive, but is actually dramatically undermining the entire history of the characters they’re messing with.

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Throwback Thursdays: Wicked

The first time I saw Wicked, it was 2005, and my high school musical’s cast, crew, and a passel of chaperones had come to New York to see the sights—including the still relatively new show. We sat in the very last row of the very last balcony, and I cried like a baby at the end. (I still do, even just listening to the soundtrack.)

Time passed, and a million fairy tale retellings, Ozian and otherwise, came and went, inundating movies, books, television, and comics. But no matter how these stories ebbed and flowed in popularity, Wicked has stayed strong and stayed open, belting out its loving but revisionist history of L. Frank Baum’s fairytale world eight times a week at the Gershwin Theatre in New York. However, I haven’t seen the show in years, and the last time I saw it was with the national tour, rather than the Broadway version. So when a good friend came to visit me in NYC a few weeks ago and asked if I wanted to go see the show, her treat, I was delighted to agree. I was surprised to find, however, that despite the show’s age, it seems more relevant now than ever.

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Newt Scamander, Animal Rights, and the Environment

newt-pickettWell, it looks like we here in America will soon be wreaking even more havoc on our environment. Trump’s recent attacks on the EPA and other scientific communities and his support of climate change denial are terrifying. Add to this his approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipeline, along with a wall that will potentially endanger over one hundred different species, and we certainly seem to be gearing up for not only a humanitarian crisis but also an environmental one. Now more than ever we need strong messages in support of the environment and animal rights. That’s why I am so glad that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out recently.

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The Man in the High Castle and the American Mindset

We live in tumultuous and uncertain times, and for many of the most vulnerable people in the United States, especially minorities, fear has been ramping up in their everyday lives. Comparisons between the newly elected President Trump and Adolf Hitler abound, and not without reason. Just before Trump’s inauguration, the second season of the Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle premiered. While the alternate history series had been fascinating and compelling ever since its premiere last January, in light of recent events, its poignancy has been downright spooky. It presents a picture of what life in the United States in the sixties might have looked like if the Axis powers had won the Second World War and divided up the U.S. between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, and follows Juliana Crain as she and the people close to her become caught up in resistance activities orchestrated by an unseen, eponymous mastermind. Besides being exceptionally well-written, one point that separates this from other alternate World War II histories (and there are an abundance) is that in The Man in the High Castle, a few characters have ways of glimpsing alternate paths of history and incomplete pictures of possible futures, which they desperately try to piece together to understand how to change the dystopian world they live in.

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Sexualized Saturdays: “Is Themyscira Even a UN Member Anymore?” A Retrospective Examination of Wonder Woman’s Ambassadorship

With Wonder Woman’s tenure as the United Nations Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls coming to a somewhat unceremonious end, I can’t help wanting to do a postmortem on her appointment and the controversy surrounding it. In addition to finding the whole affair oddly fascinating, I found it revealingnot only about global attitudes towards feminism but on how the most recognizable symbols of pop culture feminism are often inherently polarizing.

While I do not question that all parties involved genuinely had nothing but good intentions, there were some serious objections raised almost immediately (after the collective online shout of “cool!” dissipated, anyways) and they bear further examination, especially in light of the apparent success of said objections.

The three things that were most controversial about this “appointment” are all significant. The primary objections were that Wonder Woman is overtly sexualized, that a fictional rather than a real woman was unacceptable for such a role, and that giving “Wonder Woman” that voice for women was effectively just handing it to the DC Comics marketing department. While there were a few objections related to her history of violence and some that simply being a comic book character delegitimized her, the former was not really unique to this case in any particularly interesting way and the latter is something I won’t dignify with a response.

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No matter your thoughts on the politics of the campaign, this is an ad you’d probably want to stop and look at.

Before I jump into the fallout over all this, it’s probably a good idea to recap what exactly happened. While this was a big deal in geek and/or feminist circles, it was quick and a lot of us may have missed most of it. In October of 2016, the UN announced that Wonder Woman would be named an honorary ambassador. The press release mentioned that as part of a campaign with DC and Warner Bros, Wonder Woman would be connected to everything from fighting abuse to promoting examples of women making a difference. What would WW actually do though? Primarily, be featured in various social media campaigns to promote gender equality as part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

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Peace Through Bureaucracy: Star Trek’s Federation as Utopian Fascism

Without getting into depressing (and obvious) specifics, I’ve been thinking about fascism lately—specifically the concept of “utopian fascism”. As is often the case when grappling with such issues, I turned to science fiction for a guide. Fortunately, there is a fictional government perfectly suited to explore the question “can democracy and universal prosperity ever be successfully combined with fascism?”: Star Trek’s Federation.

The Federation’s exact political structure is sometimes difficult to pin down, but it seems to be a combination of a democratic interplanetary parliament, a massive military alliance, and a totalitarian bureaucracy.

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This isn’t what it looks like.

Now don’t panic! This isn’t going to be super depressing nor is it going to be about space Nazis (unless you count the above-pictured episode TOS episode “Patterns of Force). When I talk about fascism, I’m talking about the philosophical concept as it dates back to Rome, not the actual horrific reality of modern-day fascism. I am not about to ruin all of our moods by writing some anti-Starfleet propaganda… at least, not too much of it. What I will do is take a look at how the Federation is utopian, how it’s fascist, how (and if) the two can be combined, and what that all says about our vision of a perfect government.

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