A few thoughts regarding the tempests surrounding Scott Bakker’s writing and blog posts

April 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

A warmth climbs through her as she speaks, an unaccountable assurance, as if out of all her crazed burdens, confession is the only real encumbrance.  Secrecy mars the nature of every former slave, and she is no different.  They hoard knowledge, not for the actual power it affords, but for the taste of that power.  All this time, even before Achamian’s captivity, she has been accumulating facts and suspicions.  All this time she has fooled herself the way all men fool themselves, thinking that she alone possessed the highest vantage and that she alone commanded the field.

All this time she has been a fool.

The White Luck Warrior, p. 431-432, Canadian edition

For the past several months, there have been a series of arguments, starting first with a revival of old complaints on Bakker’s Three Pound Brain blog regarding comments made on the Requires Only That You Hate blog, before a recent diffusion of these issues and comments to several blogs, including those operated by authors such as John Scalzi and Catherynne Valente, as well as several threads over on Westeros.  Outside of a few comments months ago on Bakker’s blog (I want to say it was something like the third out of what appears to be nearly a dozen or so long essays referencing his detractors) and bemusement on Twitter, I have largely stayed out of the main points of contention:  the issue of Bakker’s texts being misogynistic, the author’s claims to be battling for feminism (among other such claims; I believe these were made on another blog or LiveJournal), questions of evolutionary psychology, whether or not there is a “rape module” to be discovered inside of humans, and most recently, gang-raping dolphins.  It is enough to make the mind hurt trying to process the various iterations of these arguments.

I held off writing anything substantive on this because I had more important (NB:  “selfish”) matters to deal with recently:  health and exam preparations.  Now that I’m nearing the end game of waiting to set up job interviews for ESL/English/Social Studies, I have a spare hour or so to devote to noting briefly some of the issues that I have with Bakker’s text and his approach to introducing/discussing controversial ideas/research.  Having met the man personally nearly eight years ago, I am not able to place my opinions in reductionist terms; people are, as Whitman notes, are “large” and “contain multitudes” within themselves.

The issue of female agency and the reduction of female roles in his fictions to largely variations on the crone/whore/victim triad has dominated most of the discussions.  It certainly is an issue that has been problematic for me for years, although I have been willing enough to give the author just enough of a shadow of a doubt to see if his hinted plans to deconstruct both ancient/biblical and modern (and presumably “postmodern”?) conceptualizations of gender/gender roles will come to fruition.  I certainly can see where the text itself supports an interpretation that women are sexualized beings that are either passive recipients of male lust/violence or are the wanton harlots that trigger those reactions in males.  I wish I could lie and say I am puzzled as to why Bakker cannot commit to just a simple “yes, the text is problematic as it stands now, but future developments will hopefully show that there is much more going on under the surface,” but I cannot.

What has dragged this out for months largely (but not exclusively) deals with Bakker’s truer intent in his fiction, that of exploding conceptualizations of how things are.  He seems to be challenging the assumptions that underlie the reactions.  If anything, one could make the argument that he and his texts are not as much misogynistic as they are misanthropic; humans are fallible creatures whose base motives are rooted in violence and desire to dominate/control power.  This is not precisely “nihilistic,” as there are meanings to be found to these actions, but it certainly is a very dark and potentially disturbing world-view.

I say “potentially disturbing” because there likely are going to be many who challenge these presumptions.  In making his larger case, Bakker often resorts to the language found in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology research.  In particular, he has frequently cited Jonathan Haidt’s work in discussing how humans organize themselves into particular group structures.  While I cannot say that I am familiar enough with Haidt’s theories to give expert opinion, what I have noticed based on Bakker’s references to them that they seem to be simplistic reductions of a myriad of complex impulses and rationales that appear to be too heavily rooted in Anglo-American political culture to be of much use in discussing more “global” matters.  Leaving aside the inevitable uncertainties of evaluations made on incomplete information, it appears that Bakker is being too uncritical in using arguments such as Haidt’s that appear to be based on faulty or non-testable methodologies.

That in and of itself is relatively minor.  But when such terminologies are being applied as retorts to those who question (sometimes vociferously and occasionally in a very acerbic fashion) his motives and rationale for his statements regarding gender roles and potential latent and/or active sexism and/or misogyny in his fiction, the terms of the debate are shifted too much toward the semantics of the debated terms and too much away from anything really substantive when it comes to the issues at hand.  After reflecting upon this for some time, something occurred to me that perhaps some will see as ancillary to the long-running arguments, but for myself it may be key toward understanding my own growing ambivalence toward the storytelling mechanisms around which the debates have been centered.

Above is a passage from late in his latest novel, the epic fantasy The White-Luck Warrior.  The character providing these thoughts, Mimara, is reflecting back upon her past while trying to negotiate the rapids of her present travel through a dead and ancient land.  There are descriptions of her experiences after the degradations of her past as a brothel-slave (her mother sold her into sex slavery in a moment of desperation).  This passage, I suspect, is meant to be a foreshadowing of something greater revolving around the setting and how the characters within it have their world perspectives stripped away.  Yet a close reading of that quoted passage reveals a structural issue that plagues much of Bakker’s writing.  Note the distant reflective voice present within this quote.  Does it feel like something that a human being, particularly one who is still relatively young and who has experienced repeated traumas over at least ten years, would actually think?

Too often, Bakker does not trust the narrative and the characters within it.  There are moments where instead of presenting a more “naturalistic” character perspective on the world and surrounding events, there is this separation, as if the point found in the chapter epigraphs must be reinforced and referenced repeatedly by the characters.  Nuances and subtleties are often removed or obscured by this narrative intrusion.  Instead of reacting and processing with the characters, readers often have notions that they, like the characters, are self-deluded fools who will go automatically for the easy and pleasurable while ignoring the hard truths around them.  It is little surprise that many take umbrage at this, sensing (even when they may not be able to articulate it fully) that these challenging asides may be flawed, that there is something else besides what Bakker, through the narrative structure, is attempting to hammer down into them.

Yes, there are times when reader reactions are going to fall in line with Bakker’s expectations.  But I cannot help but sense there is much not being covered.  Even when granting times in which cultural training and possible behavioral tendencies guide us subconsciously toward reactions that we little understand ourselves, it rarely is simply a simple issue of “being hardwired,” as Bakker often puts it.  The “software,” our acculturation processes and our own unique reactions to environment and societies, is not a significant part of his story.  That makes me suspicious of the underlying intent and how effective it truly is.

This suspicion does not deny that when considered, Bakker is making some intriguing arguments regarding human volition.  The issue, however, becomes that of efficacy.  His relative lack of nuance and engagement with societal (as opposed to strict biological) conditioning weakens the story in crucial places for me.  Take for instance the so-called “rape aliens,” the Inchoroi.  Their lasciviousness, their seduction and coercion of human wills to perform obscene sex acts, this is meant to be the awful counter to the absolute moral strictures of this setting (one in which damnation is a physically real and present occurance).  They are meant to be horrifying, but Bakker largely reduces them to being mere grotesques.  Their actions are revolting, but there is little true horror behind them because of the narrative emphasis on revelation and (self-)deception.  Some of the themes tied into the Inchoroi and their Sranc creations resemble in some aspects those covered in some of Thomas Ligotti’s works.  Where Ligotti utilizes the narrative structure to accentuate the alienation and anguish present in human deceit, Bakker’s narrative intrudes too much into the processing realm, interrupting the reader’s ongoing interpretation of the textual themes.  While this does not destroy the power of certain key narrative developments, it does weaken them, making some interpretations, such as that of human sexuality and the treatment of women in a world whose intentional misogyny (itself “confirmed” by the local metaphysics, at least through the fifth volume) muddled.  This gives validity to those who argue that the writer either implicitly (or explicitly) endorses these problematic views or he really has no understanding at all when it comes to describing human characters and their motivations.

This latter accusation certainly has some evidence to support it.  Having read twice his neuro-thriller, Neuropath (2006 and 2008), during my second reading I found myself becoming disengaged from the text (perhaps because I knew of the manipulations to come) because the characters were so implausible.  Having a hypersexualized woman who had been “altered” at first seemed to be a critique of standard thriller use of sex (and sexual violence) to further the plot.  Yet that character’s scene was so stilted and contrived upon a re-read that it felt devoid of any real impact because that character had become “other” in the sense of her not really being a human being.  The same held true when I read Bakker’s The Disciple of the Dog:  the “voices” were being forced too much into a pre-designated role, to the detriment of any real characterization.  When these poor character constructs are placed in settings where they are meant to be ciphers for controversial explorations of human sexual domination and violence, it is little surprise that those who have experienced sexism, if not outright misogyny, in their lives will frequently turn against the text, viewing it as an endorsement of what they cannot stand, all due to its poor structure and implementation.

Spending time trying to force others into considering “second order” questions regarding truth and the underlying structures behind one’s world-views is a strategy doomed to failure, especially when there is the belief that the issue at hand is the narrative and what appears to be its underlying belief foundation.  While I personally think the author has not intentionally set out to reinforce misogynistic world-views, his stated intent of targeting predominantly male readers while arguing with women of various feminist ideologies that he is fighting that battle better than they are is leading to a debacle.  Borrowing half-processed neuroscience and evolutionary psychological terms uncritically, when there appears to be evidence that mitigates or even challenges those assumptions regarding just how important biological imperatives are in human interactions, only leads to accusations of trying to remove the terms of the debate from the immediate realm of function and practical application to the semantic level, in which the disagreement over terminological interpretation seems to lead only to a derailing of the larger argument. 

Things are at an ideological impasse, or so it seems to me.  Bakker doesn’t seem to be engaging with his critics as much as he is attempting to force them to argue their points through his own chosen schematics.  While there is obviously some value to considering things through another’s perspective, when it is not readily being reciprocated (or being perceived as not being reciprocated), why bother?  All it seems to lead to is just dozens of posts on an issue that seems to be too easily reduced to the caricature of an actual substantive debate.

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