Dune as a measure of our discontent
November 22, 2020 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Daniel Immerwahr at the Los Angeles Review of Books writes about the renewed popularity of Dune, the influence of Native American cultures on Frank Herbert’s novels, his libertarianism and how his politics fit in the 21st century.
For [George] Lucas, the lords-and-ladies theme gave his space saga a romantic air — Camelot with spaceships. Dune’s medievalism was darker, with loveless political marriages, blood feuds, oppressive tax farming, and a “rigidly guarded” class system. Rather than polishing off the rough edges as Lucas did, Herbert appeared to delight in the abrasive qualities of this stratified society. “Planetary feudalism,” one of the Dune series’s heroes explains, is the “best social form” for an interstellar civilization. Its success stems, another continues, from the “ancient human demand” for hierarchy, for a world “where every person knows his place.”

[...]

Herbert read widely about desert cultures and worked deep-cut references to Islamic history into his portrait of the Fremen. Yet, beneath the Arabic facade, you can also glimpse the Indians of Washington, whom Herbert knew much better. The Fremen, living in the dangerous desert and harpooning enormous sandworms there, are not so far off from the Quileute and Hoh people who thrived in the forests of Western Washington and harpooned whales off the Pacific Coast.
Also from the LARB: Race Consciousness: Fascism and Frank Herbert’s “Dune”
posted by maskd (79 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
What a fascinatingly off base interpretation. Despite acknowledging that Herbert spoke of using Arab culture as the basis of the Fremen, Immerwahr insists that his interpretation that they are based on Native American culture is the right one. Also, criticizing the book because it was not widely read ignores the fact that SF was still not widely read outside of fans of the genre. And, lastly, trying to position "Dune" as heralding the "trippy" SF of the 60s ignores Phillip K Dick, Brian Aldiss, and Harlan Ellison, to name just three.
posted by Larry Duke at 7:43 AM on November 22 [17 favorites]


(We had a long discussion about Dune recently, occasioned by the release of the trailer for the upcoming new film adaption.)
posted by gwint at 7:59 AM on November 22 [2 favorites]


Bizarre that nearly every person mentioned in this review is a white man and yet that goes completely unacknowledged or examined.
posted by saladin at 8:09 AM on November 22 [14 favorites]


I didn't know that "Herbert’s book is such a key text for the alt-right" (from the second link). The podcast where the Nazi punchee Richard Spencer compares Dune to an obscure novella that imagined an "ethnically cleansed Eurosiberian Federation" ....

I guess, having never read the sequels, I missed the pro-eugenics shift. In the first link,
At first, Paul Atreides, who is the culmination of one of them, rejects genetic meddling. Yet in the later novels, various heroes take up a long-term eugenics program to refine the Atreides bloodline. “I now know,” wrote Herbert, that “all humans are not created equal” and that any attempt to equalize them “rebounds.”
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:11 AM on November 22


Larry Duke, Immerwahr didn't "criticize" Dune for not being widely read when first published. He merely stated that was the case. He also didn't "insist" that the Fremen were based on Quilete and Hoh people instead of Arabic cultures, but suggested these as an additional influence, and presented some reasoning for that analysis that one could probably get into discussing the details of if one found it sufficiently fascinating.

His description of US historical epochs seems a bit idiosyncratic, agreed. Though I don't recall psychedelic drug use being quite as integral to the plots of works of any of the other authors you mention, but I haven't read their complete works, so could be mistaken. In any case, Immerwahr kind of implies influence, not just co-incidental anticipation. It sounds like an argument could be made that Herbert was sufficiently tied in to West Coast counterculture at the time that he included relevant details in his plot before they would have been more widely known or recognized (which says something about Herbert and his relation to that counterculture, independent of any other authors). But he can't really be simultaneously influential yet not widely read, even within a particular cultural milieu.
posted by eviemath at 8:24 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]


The bene gesserit are like a thousand percent pro eugenics. Sure, they're just trying to engineer one perfect human, but it's still what it is.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:28 AM on November 22 [7 favorites]


Immerwahr's article doesn't seem too connected to science fiction. Larry Duke caught the consciousness-expanding aspect of the American New Wave.

Elsewhere, Immerwahr focuses on Star Wars (1977): George Lucas’s infamous text scroll announces his franchise’s most counterintuitive move: setting a science fiction epic not the gleaming future but in a medieval past, where knights still rescued princesses. Dune, however, got there first. Its outer-space setting lacks robots, but it is stuffed with counts, dukes, lords, and princesses.

Nah, science fiction had been doing various medievalisms for decades before Dune.
posted by doctornemo at 8:43 AM on November 22 [7 favorites]


One more problem: I think it's a mistake to say that the Dune universe is one Herbert preferred humanity to live in.
posted by doctornemo at 8:43 AM on November 22 [19 favorites]


As someone who found the Lynch Dune film visually interesting, but didn't find the plot or world-building sufficiently compelling to follow up with reading the original books or seek out other related media, the back story about Herbert himself from the first review linked, and the context of how Dune has been received across the political spectrum in the US from the second review linked, are new details to me and are what I, personally, find interesting here. The part where Herbert turned from his socialist upbringing toward capital-L Libertarianism and thus conservative politics is, I think, a particularly relevant detail to investigate in relation to current politics. How did Herbert end up focusing on anti-government and individual liberties as opposed to collective care and mutual aid? It sounds like there was somewhat of an eco-fascist element to his environmentalism - did that come from his mentor(s), or was that an element that he added himself? Can we draw any lessons to help prevent stuff like the inroads that q-anon conspiracies have been making in new age, holistic health, yoga, wellness type circles?

There also seems to be overlap between Herbert's path from his upbringing to his adult politics, and Glenn Greenwald's path from mostly Leftist to apologist for some pretty ugly alt-right related stuff. I think it comes from not recognizing the role of communal care in supporting or enabling individual choice and expression. There are of course some notable exceptions, but by and large those of us who have the courage and emotional strength to stand up for our beliefs against popular opinion or take similar social risks have been enabled in that by having grown up in loving, supportive homes that helped instill confidence in ourselves. Just like people who take significant entrepreneurial or artistic risks are, by and large, those who have some sort of economic safety net (often in the form of family resources, here in North America) in case of failure (because failure does happen regularly when you take risks, of any sort; education researchers recognize failure as a key step in learning, without which one would never have the "genius" entrepreneurial idea or artistic inspiration).
posted by eviemath at 8:46 AM on November 22 [7 favorites]


One more problem: I think it's a mistake to say that the Dune universe is one Herbert preferred humanity to live in.

That would certainly be a mistaken reading of Immerwahr's thesis, yeah. He seems to be arguing that Herbert wrote Dune as a cautionary tale against big government.
posted by eviemath at 8:47 AM on November 22


eviemath, I have issues with that thesis, too. But to the comment you replied to, I'm thinking of passages like this:
Herbert reserved a few cheers for eugenics, too. The Dune saga is full of planned breeding schemes.
Depicting something in art does not necessarily mean one cheers it on.

Carroll's article (the second one linked above) tends to avoid this by focusing not on the text(s) so much as how alt-righters make use of it. (One quibble: the "God-Emperor" meme also appears in the Dune series; it's the fourth book's title.)

Back to Immerwahr's thesis, "Herbert wrote Dune as a cautionary tale against big government": this seems aimed at the series, or at least the fourth book in particular. The first book isn't really an anti-big government treatise at all. After all, its hero is the head of an aristocratic family that rules planets. The book's central tragedy is about losing that family and its rule; the final romance is about the survivors becoming even more powerful. Herbert has said the first book is a warning against charismatic leaders, which does make sense, given the text. The second book (very underrated) really finishes the first one's job, in that case.
posted by doctornemo at 9:12 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]


"Arabic facade"? No. Straight-up recognition of Muslim identity and practice, evolved and necessarily bent by time.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:25 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]


But to the comment you replied to, I'm thinking of passages like this:
Herbert reserved a few cheers for eugenics, too. The Dune saga is full of planned breeding schemes.
Depicting something in art does not necessarily mean one cheers it on.


Ah, I see what you mean. And the two reviews combined serve to drive home that point, as well (the first one does talk about the entire series, not just the first book, yeah - it was my own lack of clarity in refering to the entire ouvre treated in Immerwahr's review simply as "Dune" in paraphrasing my reading of Immerwahr's thesis). Although on the specific topic of eugenics, Immerwahr also includes the detail of what Herbert said outside of his novels about his own personal beliefs about eugenics, that spamandkimchi's comment noted.
posted by eviemath at 9:35 AM on November 22 [2 favorites]


The Bene Gesserit practice eugenics through carefully planned breeding of an aristocracy guided by their political influence over the course of thousands of years.

The Bene Tleilax practice eugenics through purely scientific means: genetic manipulation, breeding vats, cloning, the works. They (and the Tech Bros of Ix) are the “move fast and break things” organization in the universe.

The Fremen practice eugenics through constant trials and discarding the weak: thousands of years spent overcoming the impossibly harsh conditions of Arrakis until it has fundamentally altered their biology (eg instantaneous blood clotting to prevent moisture loss, latent prescience). Prior to that, thousands of years of pogroms, holocausts and interstellar refugee status are implied to have produced similar effects albeit more as a survival-obsessed cultural conditioning. Eg, “Does a man not know whether he is worth saving?” as a point of genuine confusion when dealing with other cultures’ attitudes towards the disabled.

The Spacing Guild’s existence is entirely dependent on eugenics (maintaining a pool of prescience-capable individuals) + performance enhancing drugs.

The Empire as a whole doesn’t explicitly practice eugenics except insofar as it is guided behind the scenes by the Bene Gesserit. I’d like to attempt a line of argument here that their particular implementation of feudal dynastic conflict is de facto eugenicist, but it’s a bit of a reach and this is a Metafilter comment not an essay or formal critique. That said, House Corrino, the traditional leading dynasty of the Empire does practice an explicitly eugenicist conditioning program for its elite soldiers, and
SPOILERSimmediately cuts down any House caught doing the same.

Point is: if you’re looking for the major power in the universe not practicing eugenics, you pretty much won’t find it. I’d agree that Herbert wrote Dune as a cautionary tale against...well, a lot of things, messianic figures chief among them. About the only thing he seems unreservedly in support of is a more holistic approach to ecology, and it’s worth reiterating that the initial text reflects an admiration for Islamic culture that - while not elegantly expressed by modern standards - was quite unique in the genre at the time.

[Disclaimer: the notion that the novels steadily deteriorate the further into the series you go absolutely holds up IMO, and I tapped out after God Emperor, the fourth, which is profoundly eugenicist: I always recommend reading the first and stopping there. I gather there’s been a lot of retconning in the post-Frank Herbert novels so I apologize if any of the above doesn’t hold up for readers of the entire series.]
posted by Ryvar at 9:50 AM on November 22 [20 favorites]


God-Emperor of Dune makes it clear that Leto II's breeding program is designed to promote genetic chaos, to introduce lost strands from planets outside the reach of "civilized" humanity and to hope that one day all of the intermingling would produce humans who could overthrow the tyranny created by his father and carried on by himself.

The first two books are about the dangers of Great Men, and end with humanity being set on a future trajectory due to deterministic prophecy. The second two books involve Paul's children breaking that cycle the only way they know how - sacrificing their freedom and (ultimately) humanity in order to free humanity from Paul's choices.

There is explicitly eugenics programs going on, but for the most part it is Hapsburg nonsense scaled up to a galactic empire. The Fremen are not the result of a breeding program, but rather evolving in the face of harsh and lethal environments. The Emperor's program is far nastier, but is not incorporated into society as whole but rather is the source of his version of brownshirts.

The real nasties are the Bene Gesserit and Bene Tleilaxu and the Ixians, but they are outside the reins of power and serve as the merchant class to the noble families, untrusted but needed to maintain power.

I feel like the alt-right using Dune as inspiration feels like redpillers taking the wrong message from The Matrix and the alt-right embrace of Fight Club.
posted by gwydapllew at 10:07 AM on November 22 [20 favorites]


Herbert said Dune was also influenced by psilocybin mushrooms according to Paul Stamets. Which I think explains some of the deeply psychedelic descriptions of the spice etc.
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:25 AM on November 22


I always recommend reading the first and stopping there.

thank you.

Also this, from a previous Dune thread. Not the one linked above.

Frank Herbert on the origins of Dune (1965)

Note the date. 1965 was the year Dune was first published. Frank Herbert was still pretty much a complete unknown.
posted by philip-random at 11:05 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]


And, lastly, trying to position "Dune" as heralding the "trippy" SF of the 60s ignores Phillip K Dick, Brian Aldiss, and Harlan Ellison, to name just three.

When I started university in 1978, it seemed like everyone was carrying around a copy of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961!!! WTAF?). My recollection is that people got into Dune sometime later. Alberta really is another place.
posted by sneebler at 11:42 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]


Lawrence of Arabia, the movie, was 1962.
posted by clew at 12:02 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]


As someone who very recently just finished the first book for the first time (and may stop there), I am here for this thread.

I enjoyed the book but I found it difficult at times to tell how much Herbert intended this society to be horrific. It is horrific - every aspect of society and culture are bent around the fact that eugenics works in this universe, one's station in life is determined at birth, women seem to have no real rights anywhere, slavery is so commonplace it's hardly commented on, the entire social structure is upheld by a military built on a foundation of death camps and torture both physical and psychological. It's a terrifying universe! A future where social progress seems dead, forever, and humanity is doomed to ossify into our worst aspects for tens of thousands of years until shaken up by a messianic figure who through pure evolutionary accident can almost but not quite perceive the world five-dimensionally. Paul's struggle with that - his every move made to stop his own destined jihad, tragically hastening it the more he tries to place blockades against it - was great, and one facet that made me feel that, yeah, all of this is intended to be a Bad End, isn't it? But then the final line both underlines and undercuts that by showing simultaneously how capable but restricted any of the women in this world are. The whole book has a sense of colliding hope and dread - change is possible and inevitable, but it isn't necessarily good. Not knowing much about Herbert as an author or the series in general, I wasn't quite sure what to make of that. It was an interesting read with unique worldbuilding but it's such a disquieting world. I can easily see fascists glomming onto it. It is in many ways what a lot of them want, especially the techno-utopian, neo-feudalist stripe.

I'll shush and go back to reading the links and lurking. I had a lot of thoughts on finishing the book and nowhere to put them. Thanks, maskd.
posted by Lonnrot at 12:05 PM on November 22 [23 favorites]


As someone who very recently just finished the first book for the first time (and may stop there), I am here for this thread.

I just reread it last week, after reading it once in college. And yeah, I had forgotten that maybe the main driving force of the plot is that Paul really, really wants to stop the jihad he can see coming, but every step he thinks he's taking away from it actually just brings it closer. I haven't read any of the other books, but the way the first book ended - and particularly the way Paul reacts when he learns his son is dead - seems to imply a classical tragedy, where the moment of his overwhelming victory is also the moment of his ultimate failure, because it's the first moment when he thinks of the jihad and his immediate emotional reaction is not "I must prevent this" but "maybe the universe fucking deserves it." By the end of the book, he perhaps hasn't lost his humanity yet, but he's largely stopped worrying that he will, and that's as good as the same thing.

From what I understand, that message gets muddled and maybe lost in the following books, but I found it really striking.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:26 PM on November 22 [8 favorites]


Paul really, really wants to stop the jihad he can see coming, but every step he thinks he's taking away from it actually just brings it closer. I haven't read any of the other books, but the way the first book ended - and particularly the way Paul reacts when he learns his son is dead - seems to imply a classical tragedy

The second book is a tragedy. The third book tries to redeem it, but Messiah really resonates. A very thin book, too.
posted by doctornemo at 12:31 PM on November 22 [7 favorites]


I think it's a mistake to say that the Dune universe is one Herbert preferred humanity to live in.

What Frank Herbert personally believed in is irrelevant. What Frank Herbert glorified was eugenics. Arguments from the complexity of characters and storyline and what happens in the sixteenth sequel etc. are moot, dead before we even get started, because the writer made definite choices to highlight what he highlighted, and I am not the least bit surprised that this book is a rallying point for the alt right. Artists are responsible for what they actually end up doing, not what they eventually manage to cover their asses with in the later sequels.

This is the same so-called paradox (not really a paradox) we encounter with works like Fight Club or South Park:

- No matter how many times the author protests that his point was the opposite of "Tyler Durden is so cool!" that is exactly the message most people took away from it, because that is what he was (more so in the movie but also in the book).

- Even though Matt and Trey Parker spend episode after episode saying what an asshole Cartman is, the very fact that this character starts every episode anew with a clean slate in a show that is centered around him makes him not just the protagonist but the hero of the show, whose ethos many fans seek to emulate (ironically, but emulate nonetheless).

Frank Herbert spent a great deal of time showing us the Bene Gesserit. Tons of screen time. Pivotal driving force of the whole plot. Detailed histories of the organization and its nuns and its evolution. Complex and kickass characters. They get the best scenes and THE most iconic lines of the whole series. They have literally created the protagonist - nay, the hero (protestations to the contrary are moot; see discussion of Tyler Durden and Cartman) - and so they are "allies". Face it: this is textbook glorification of eugenics.
posted by MiraK at 1:06 PM on November 22 [3 favorites]


(more so in the movie but also in the book)

Spoiler alert: The book literally ends with the protagonist killing themselves to finally get away from the evil monster they created, just to find that it has followed them into heaven/hell. Not sure what else Palahniuk could have written to show that was an extremely bad thing besides sticking "...and this was an extremely bad thing." right before "THE END".
posted by sideshow at 1:14 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


Stray thought/semi-response to above comments: the work Dune reminded me the most of was an older videogame series, Xenogears/Xenosaga (confusingly unrelated to the Xenoblade series by the same developer), which was set in a similarly bleak eugenics-happy future. I was thinking about the contrasts between them, because with Dune I felt uncertain whether Herbert's intent was to critique eugenics or promote it, but with the Xeno games I knew without needing to read it in an interview that Soraya Saga thinks eugenics is batshit fascist nonsense. There aren't many scenes I can recall where any character outright condemns or even seems to perceive the entirety of the awful social structure they live in, but the way things are framed is different than in Dune in interesting ways.

We get introduced to the victims of eugenics first, meeting and sympathizing with people who have been hurt, killed or twisted by this society before we are introduced to the actual eugenicists and their ideology. This is a neat trick that allows the latter to still be sometimes sympathetic, complex people in themselves while still condemning their ideology. It also allows for sneaking in formerly fascist characters who have recovered from that ideology. Ideology is a thing that permeates this society, but it is porous: people can fall into it or climb out of it. We aren't really ever allowed to think in Xenogearsaga that eugenics is natural or unlinked to eugenics - it is always in some way directly connected to fascism or slavery. We see a society that blithely accepts it as just the way things are - or a moderately heated political topic at worst - as much or more often than we see anyone taking a hard moral stance (which almost always gets crushed horrifically right away), but it is presented to us the audience as an utter ruin of horror. The bright and boundless fascist future as a sparkling mausoleum for humanity. Everything beautiful in this universe must work its way through and shatter this terminal society like flowers bursting from concrete. There's a clear moral stance without getting too didactic about it.

Dune is... much more ambiguous about this. The Bene Gesserit are not presented very positively in the first book, but they're... right. They're correct. Eugenics works. There is a real live ubermensch. Only... it was the melange, really, that made him, wasn't it? A pure cosmic accident - just a coincidental chemical reaction. But the book never really comments on either of these perspectives, just presents things in style closer to omniscient encyclopedia. I can't quite tell if it's saying what I think it is - that this is a nightmare future tragically made worse by one person recognizing the horror of the situation and willing it otherwise - or if I'm projecting that. It presents itself more as pure worldbuilding - as an artifact without authorial intent. But also as a ecologic polemic. Argh. Make up your mind, Herbert.
posted by Lonnrot at 1:46 PM on November 22 [6 favorites]


Artists are responsible for what they actually end up doing

I don’t think you can just absolve the reader of any sort of responsibility for actually reading what’s there. Sure, you can point to Tyler Durden fanboys, but they have missed the point, just as clearly as people who talk about Red Pills and how the matrix is all about Men’s Rights. As far as the Bene Gesserit being the badass characters, huh. I never read it that way. In fact, the novel is essentially how their grand plan of eugenics was essentially thwarted by human choice, by Jessica choosing to have (through magic womb power) a son instead of a daughter. Her daughter was supposed to end up married to Feyd Harkonnen (Sting, if you want to keep using cinematic language to describe the book), and that child was supposed to be the messiah.

Honestly, I never got any sense that the Bene Gessiret, the Tleixau (I know I’m spelling that wrong), the Spacers Guild, or especially the Emperor and his goon squad, all of them actually practitioners of eugenics were ever portrayed as anything more than antagonists. In the end, the army that carries the day is the army of Fremen who have adapted and evolved to the worlds they’ve been forced into, they’ve lived and become rather than having been invented.

Even all the other books after, the very real point of Children, then God Emperor is that, without this all seeing all knowing child taking on the mantle of godhood and ruling humanity, shit will be thousands of times worse (which is a solid galactic dc trope, see also Asimov and the basis of Foundation). But even then, the entire goal of Worm Boy’s plan is to end with a human revolt against his system, and the reintegration of chance and freedom.

They aren’t perfect, and yes, authors bear responsibility, but damn, so do readers. I shouldn’t be able to waltz in and proclaim the Lorax is a disgusting advertisement for leisure wear.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:57 PM on November 22 [20 favorites]


What's really interesting is if you read Frank Herbet's short stories that he wrote before Dune. It's been a long time but I remember they had a lot of the same ideas he would later put into Dune, but not as well written. If you simplify the ideas they become ugly, but I think Dune is fun to read because of how complex the worldbuilding is. Because it's complex, you can read it as pro-eugenics but you can also read it the opposite way. I think multiple interpretations are possible.
posted by subdee at 3:14 PM on November 22


Every time I read Dune I am astonished by Herbert's writing technique. He conjures up a tremendously concrete impression of cultures, history, politics, conflict, economics, and science with what, to me, amounts to a lot of smoke and mirrors. I watch him pulling off the same sleight of hand over and over and I am still fooled by it every time.

I don't know how he gets away with it but it's fun to watch. It's kind of like a Rembrandt: from 10 or 15 feet it looks like a living, breathing person, up close it's a mess and you can't really figure out how those random white splotches could have looked like perfect lace cuffs.
posted by cron at 3:15 PM on November 22 [17 favorites]


there’s always two sides to eugenics: the polite bourgeois version involving careful mate-selection and designer babies, and the fascist version which involves sterilizing the undesirables. Dune mostly invokes the former without addressing that it is nearly always accompanied by the latter in real life.
posted by um at 3:47 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


(incidentally, there's a part of the LABR article where failed early attempts at Dune are about how they would need to be ten hours long... Which is, by happenstance, the length of a pretty average netflix season.)
posted by kaibutsu at 4:08 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


One of the things that I find interesting about this discussion WRT Herbert and eugenics is that he wrote a book titled Hellstrom's Hive which posits a human society that's organized along the lines of a beehive; their reproductive practices were pretty eugenics-esque IIRC (I read the novel as a tween, which sure was an interesting experience).
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:12 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


Artists are responsible for what they actually end up doing.... Frank Herbert spent a great deal of time showing us the Bene Gesserit. Tons of screen time. Pivotal driving force of the whole plot. Detailed histories of the organization and its nuns and its evolution. Complex and kickass characters. They get the best scenes and THE most iconic lines of the whole series. They have literally created the protagonist ....

Besides completely disagreeing with your impression of how the BG are presented in Dune or any of the sequels (to the extent where I feel like you read a completely different book), what is the "solution" (for lack of a better word) -- that all stories should be starkly moralistic with clear-cut, unambiguously heroic heroes and evil villains?

I'm not saying that Dune isn't deserving of critique, but if the objection is that problematic (or even straight-up immoral) characters are also presented as appealing, then I'm not sure if anything beyond Grimms' Tales would be safe from the slagheap. And as far guilt-by-association with the alt-right, we're talking about a group of people so actively and consciously devoted to perverting whatever they touch into proof of their twisted worldview that the phrase "bad faith" doesn't even begin to describe them. The alt-right could turn The Autobiography of Malcom X into support for white supremacy, it's just what those slimy frakkers do.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:16 PM on November 22 [19 favorites]


so since we’re talking about the fremen, i’d like to bring up this lovely series of articles by the military historian who runs a collection of unmitigated pedantry. i think he’s probably best known around these parts for his very long analysis of the battle of helm’s deep.

although the fremen provide their name to the series, rather than being focused on them it’s a wide-ranging analysis of both the outcomes when nomadic civilization from hard conditions meet more sedentary groups, and also the portrayal of those nomads from hard conditions among their settled neighbors. this is done in service of examining /the right wing
meme complex built up around the idea that “hard times produce strong men, strong men produce good times, good times produce weak men, weak men produce hard times.” he compares how that trope plays out in dune. where the two most feared military forces are the fremen, raised on dune, and the imperial saudaukar, raised on a prison world nearly as inhospitable to life as dune to how it plays out in actual history, where fearsome military might is much, much more often derived from good times, and where the hard-times societies pushed out to marginalized lands end up good and well fucked over by their richer, better trained, better supplied neighbors.

basically, the ideas at the core of the dune novels — that hard conditions grant those suffering them a certain moral purity that the comfortable lack, and that likewise hard conditions make one a supersoldier when stacked up against the soft city folk — are... false? and the politics that lead someone into centering that idea are not to be trusted?

to me i feel like this is probably something that meshes nicely with the previous discussion of eugenics — there is a clear connection between the belief that engineering “better” humans is effective and the belief that a society that’s fucked over by others becomes good and pure and strong, since the assumption is that getting fucked over and dropped off in impossible living conditions is functionally equivalent to going through a really rigorous eugenics program.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:18 PM on November 22 [15 favorites]


if you found the fremen mirage fun, i strongly recommend his analysis of the military performance of the actual city-state of sparta. the tl;dr: version of that series is that whereas popular conceptions treat them as a hard and cruel society that breeds excellent and pure men and women who great at war, really they were a randomly and arbitrarily cruel society that bred continual misery to no end as power was progressively moved into the hands of smaller and smaller groups of aristocrats, who everyone else would have gladly eaten alive except for the highly effective spartan police state.

oh, and that moreover, spartans sucked at war. all the vaunted (and deeply sadistic) spartan military training won them was the ability to field phalanxes that were slightly better at turning during combat than were the phalanxes of other city-states, and that this slight tactical advantage was more than offset by their consistent failure to devise effective strategies and (especially) by their total inability to manage logistics. he concludes by arguing that the modern society most comparable to sparta is north korea — a country that sucks at everything, including warfare.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:27 PM on November 22 [14 favorites]


The alt-right could turn The Autobiography of Malcom X into support for white supremacy, it's just what those slimy frakkers do.

Exactly. No one should give a shit about whether the alt-right likes something or not. It's irrelevant to the art itself.
posted by Liquidwolf at 5:35 PM on November 22 [5 favorites]


The comparisons of Dune to South Park and Fight Club are exactly why I am on MF.

Herbert is dead, but Palahunik has explicitly condemned the Tyler durden fan boys. Parker/Stone have consisestenly doubled down on their nihilistic libertarianism.

In terms of the alt right being able to turn anything to shit, see Taylor Swift, Arayan Princess, until she took some very specific public stances.
posted by CostcoCultist at 6:47 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: moreover, spartans sucked at war.
posted by sammyo at 7:01 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


What Frank Herbert glorified was eugenics. Arguments from the complexity of characters and storyline and what happens in the sixteenth sequel etc. are moot, dead before we even get started, because the writer made definite choices to highlight what he highlighted, and I am not the least bit surprised that this book is a rallying point for the alt right.

The complexity of characters and storyline don't matter? That's an... interesting take.

that is exactly the message most people took away from it...
Then you might be surprised to learn that in the decades since the book appeared, many readers have taken away many different messages from Dune. Which might have something to do with, ah, "the complexity of characters and storyline."

Frank Herbert spent a great deal of time showing us the Bene Gesserit. Tons of screen time. Pivotal driving force of the whole plot.
Except that they are checkmated at the novel's conclusion. And are just one of a series of forces driving the plot and the world.

Face it
No, thank you.

this is textbook glorification of eugenics.
Then I wish more textbooks were like Dune. Wouldn't that be fun?
(And the book is neither a textbook nor a glorification of eugenics.)
posted by doctornemo at 7:27 PM on November 22 [11 favorites]


what is the "solution" (for lack of a better word) -- that all stories should be starkly moralistic with clear-cut, unambiguously heroic heroes and evil villains? ... if the objection is that problematic (or even straight-up immoral) characters are also presented as appealing, then I'm not sure if anything beyond Grimms' Tales would be safe from the slagheap.

I think you've hit the nail on the head: immoral characters being presented as appealing - immoral characters who are cool, funny, badass, or otherwise satisfying to identify with - THAT is, in my opinion, inherently problematic. I don't necessarily mean villains, and, like, there are certain types of immorality (e.g. individual murders) that can be presented as the actions of cool characters without being problematic because murderers in the real world aren't the subjects of apologia or moral defense. But there's tons of evils and immoralities that are.

A really cool and badass eugenicist with a ton of complexity and screen-time who, at the end of the book, suffers some perfunctory defeat unconnected with the consequences of eugenics is analogous to one of those cigarette ad billboards with John Wayne or whoever plus a statutory warning in fine print. It's rather clear what they're trying to sell and what's on there to cover their ass.

Obviously you're being facetious when you say only Grimm's fairy tales would pass muster under this rubric. One series I've always admired for its rock solid moral compass while still putting the worst of human behavior front and center is Always Sunny In Philadelphia. I think the reason they succeed under the above rubric is none of the gang is cool - so they are never appealing. Seinfeld is another show that achieves almost the same level of rodck-solid-moral-compass-ness (though its moral compass isn't quite one I agree with), and its success, too, is predicated on never allowing its awful characters to be cool i.e. appealing.

Needless to say, there are plenty of other complex, nuanced, entertaining, funny, and thoughtfully constructed stories and movies and books and shows that do succeed under the rubric of "don't make evil appealing". Silly to suggest otherwise.

The REAL question, imo, is whether we can learn something, or surmise something, by looking at which types of evil are often depicted as appealing? Which demographics of characters remain appealing in spite of their evil, and which demographic does their evil affect? Which evils go unacknowledged in the texts, which are presented as "good actually", which are showcased as "kinda evil but hey it works" (a la Bene Gesserit eugenics)? And perhaps we can even ask: which demographic keeps writing evil in appealing ways? Which demographic does it benefit?
posted by MiraK at 7:30 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


I think you've hit the nail on the head: immoral characters being presented as appealing - immoral characters who are cool, funny, badass, or otherwise satisfying to identify with - THAT is, in my opinion, inherently problematic.

What you are describing is a vision of art as simply programmatic and propagandistic. In so doing you commit two cruelties: emptying art of its richness, and obliterating the ability of humans to perceive and respond to it. You are welcome to that view, but I can't share it.

It's late here and much work looms in the morning, so I'll leave with a bit from one creator, writing and drawing about another artist, to think over:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
posted by doctornemo at 7:48 PM on November 22 [15 favorites]


> What you are describing is a vision of art as simply programmatic and propagandistic. In so doing you commit two cruelties: emptying art of its richness, and obliterating the ability of humans to perceive and respond to it. You are welcome to that view, but I can't share it.

i'm sufficiently into old-school cybernetics i see stafford beer's maxim that "the purpose of a system is what it does" seems like a really thoughtful, useful frame of analysis.

so let's put on this frame, and say that the purpose of a work of art is what it does. actually, let's go farther: a work of art is its effect.

an effective work of art can (and, heck, why not, let's pick up some of herbert's own concepts and run with them) do some bene gesserit shit to the person experiencing it. wait, wait, let me be clear: i'm not saying that a good work of art could launch a multi-millennium breeding project1, more that a work of art can crawl all the way up inside your brain and compel you to do things through a certain soft suasion.

if your art is propaganda that's simply programmatic, you're simply going through the motions of rewriting someone's brain and thereby bending them in a direction that they would not have gone otherwise. and you're simply going through the motions of rewriting a society and bending it toward a direction that it would not have gone otherwise.

so whereas my interlocutor is arguing for a richness and depth of art based in its purported ability to transcend the merely programmatic and propagandistic, i think instead that one should see art as something whose richness and depth is precisely realized when it becomes not just propaganda but the most profoundly affective-and-effective type of propaganda available. rather than just relying on straightforwardly recognizable propaganda, one can through art set up the conditions in the human mind such that they will have the ideas you want them to have, and moreover to think that they came up with those ideas themselves.

there are many things that art shares in common with philosophy. just as the purpose of philosophy is not to understand the world but instead to change it, likewise the purpose of art is not to understand the world but instead to change it.

1: though i guess i'm not not saying that? eh, it's beside the point anyway
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:11 PM on November 22 [3 favorites]


If we were to rank the products of mid-20th-century whitedudeliness by how well they have aged, I would personally put Dune somewhere in the top half but not any higher than, e.g., Edward Abbey, and for many of the same reasons. But trying to give it the kind of epochal standing that would justify the level of attention it continues to receive seems like falling into Herbert's trap in at least two different ways -- first, by mistaking his artful simulacrum of intellectual depth for the real thing (if such a thing can be real to begin with), and second, by turning Herbert into a sort of desert-world prophet himself.

I think Herbert did his best to grapple with some hard problems of collective survival -- and I think any consideration of the Duniverse in that respect should also bring in The Santaroga Barrier and The Dosadi Experiment as well as at least Hellstrom's Hive and The Green Brain. But in doing so, he was building on a foundation of received, pre-digested Truths About Human History And The Natural World that at best have not stood up well to the ensuing decades (and like most Truths, probably say more about the contemporary audience's prejudices than anything else).

Pulled out of that conversation and into ours, IMO Herbert's work flops like a fish out of water (or a sandtrout in it). Herbert looked at science fiction as a way of making his intellectual arguments palatable, but ironically it seems like the pageantry and the hero narrative are the only parts that have really lasted.
posted by Not A Thing at 8:18 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]


(Given Herbert's fascination with social insects, there's probably an interesting parallel to be drawn with E.O. Wilson.)
posted by Not A Thing at 8:31 PM on November 22


The thing about the Bene Gesserit breeding program, which, remember, the Reverend Mothers have to absorb the memories of all the previous generations just to keep the thing on track, is that it is so fragile that it’s derailed in the eleventh hour by a single act of LOVE. Jessica chose to act against the Program because whoops! she fell in love with the guy she was assigned to, and threw the whole Program into a cocked hat. Her son became the Magicman a whole generation earlier than the centuries-long Program was planned for, and the Sisterhood produced the Magicman but, like, not one they could control and use to wield supreme power over everybody. Instead the universe gets a Magicman who’s not controllable by anybody, ultimately including himself.
And the product of this workable but kinda rickety eugenics Program is keenly aware of what a shitshow the Program is, in a universe that’s also kind of a shitshow in a lot of other ways, and thinks that if he’s really the Magicman he can un-shitshow the entire universe. Sadly for him, and for the universe, it doesn’t really work out that way.
So for me, the if-eugenics-worked (and boy, would that suck!) plot is mostly a framework for the Power of Love! plot device. Which is fine, really. I’m a sucker for “the will and might of whole institutions can be undone by one simple act of kindness,” even if it is kinda naïve and simplistic. I prefer hope to cynicism, I guess.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 8:34 PM on November 22 [12 favorites]


Perhaps the first book is compelling because it came from the mind of a political oddball, one that embraced several conflicting ideas at once? And perhaps the sequels are less interesting because, as Herbert aged, his ideas calcified into a viewpoint we’re all thoroughly bored with and disgusted by?
posted by panama joe at 5:36 AM on November 23 [7 favorites]


Oh and also, because having one character fly in the face of their entire institution for love isn’t enough, Wellington Yueh also went against his supposedly unbreakable Imperial Conditioning because of his love for his captive wife Wanna. Granted, it’s a little less pure, because his situation is coerced, but I wonder if old Frank wasn’t a “Love Conquers All” guy at heart.

Also also, the only character to appear in all six canon novels, Duncan Idaho, is the only guy that the Bene Tleilax are ever able to awaken memories of in over 4000 years in their corpse clone gholas, because of his loyalty (arguably a form of love) to Paul Atreides, and to House Atreides in general in the later books.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 5:57 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]


I think you've hit the nail on the head: immoral characters being presented as appealing - immoral characters who are cool, funny, badass, or otherwise satisfying to identify with - THAT is, in my opinion, inherently problematic.

So your plan to fight Nazis is... banning degenerate art? That's a hot take.
posted by oulipian at 6:07 AM on November 23 [12 favorites]


one can through art set up the conditions in the human mind such that they will have the ideas you want them to have, and moreover to think that they came up with those ideas themselves.

An insidious model indeed! But doesn't this depend on the viewer/reader/player/listener to have experienced other films/books/games/radio with similar ideas, or at least the stuff needed to make these effects happen in one's mind? In other words, this doesn't sound like a communications act model (sender->message->medium->decoding->recipient) but an ecosystem one.
posted by doctornemo at 6:46 AM on November 23


> In other words, this doesn't sound like a communications act model (sender->message->medium->decoding->recipient) but an ecosystem one.

correct. the english-department way to say this is to talk about how all works of art are historically situated, the communication department way of saying this involves namechecking bernays and then working forward from there.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 7:30 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]


just as the purpose of philosophy is not to understand the world but instead to change it,

that was just Marx's opinion, man
posted by thelonius at 7:40 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]


me? quote marx? never!
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:06 AM on November 23 [2 favorites]


A really cool and badass eugenicist with a ton of complexity and screen-time

Of which there are none in Dune -- apart from Jessica, the only other BG to get a significant amount of time (as far as I remember) is Mohaim, who is fairly two-dimensional as a character. Also, she's at odds with Paul and ultimately humiliated by him.

Wellington Yueh also went against his supposedly unbreakable Imperial Conditioning because of his love for his captive wife Wanna

I always thought this was kind of a lame plot device, just because it's such an obvious idea. Baron Harkonnen's brilliant plan (or was it Pieter de Vries who came up with it?) to break the unbreakable conditioning is... kidnapping and blackmail? Really, NO ONE thought of that before? I would think that would be the first thing someone would try.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:40 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]


Has anyone seen the argument that a major influence on Dune was : "Lesley Blanch's brilliant, half-forgotten Sabres of Paradise, about the warlords of the Caucasus, where Europe and Asia meet.?"

https://boingboing.net/2017/09/21/the-brilliant-book-that-inspir.html

https://medium.com/the-innovation/how-the-sabre-of-paradise-inspired-dune-f2b892c4869e
posted by cron at 3:56 PM on November 23 [1 favorite]


Yes! Seems pretty cut and dried, and way more brazen than Lucas' cribbing of fairly generic plot points from Herbert.
posted by Not A Thing at 5:46 PM on November 23


As Theodore Sturgeon said, "90% of everything is crud."

Which is clearly untrue. At most, seventy percent of everything is crud - science fiction's acceptance of the higher figure is science fiction's problem.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:53 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]


> one can through art set up the conditions in the human mind such that they will have the ideas you want them to have

> just as the purpose of philosophy is not to understand the world but instead to change it


I feel like this is about as reductive as saying the purpose of trees is to convert CO2 to O2.

Certainly, they do that. On aggregate, planet-wide, this even adds up to an important part of a larger ecosystem. Something that's without a doubt a Good Thing for humanity.

But if I wanted to impress on someone how important and meaningful trees were to me, I'd take them on a walk through the woods, in summer or fall, on a day with a gentle breeze, and show them the sound of the wind through the leaves.

I haven't studied art. I didn't know which important old dead guy said that (to me, scandalous comment) about philosophy.

But to me, saying the purpose of art or philosophy is the change it has the world seems to me a uniquely sterile and anthropologic view. Changing the world is just a second- or third-order effect at best.

Both of these terms are more than systems, they're also verbs. They're humble acts of living. Something that gets practiced on a personal and individual level. Often (I'll refrain from saying "essentially") they actively eschew such purpose-filled side effects. In my opinion the best and most essential art is exactly that which has no Grand Purpose, even a subconscious one.

Though I will say your ideas are new to me and, in a certain light, not wrong, I must say I vehemently and fundamentally disagree.

My apologies if your comment was more tongue-in-cheek than I've realized. But if you've meant to upset my delicate opinions about art and philosophy, you've succeeded.

Good day, and with much respect,
posted by Flaffigan at 6:53 PM on November 23 [3 favorites]


In terms of the alt right being able to turn anything to shit, see Taylor Swift, Arayan Princess, until she took some very specific public stances.

Not just the alt right. Does anyone else remember how the Good Leftists of Metafilter celebrated Kanye West and minimized his harassment of Taylor Swift? ” Oh, his putting a nude model of her in a video was just a joke, man." Consider how his targeting a pretty blonde pop star (accused of being right wing) provided a convenient outlet for "justifiable" misogyny.

Humans seize on stories and rework them into their own metanarratives. Thus Herbert's combination of Lawrence of Arabia, "What These People Need is a Honky" and the Spartan myth, mixed in with nacient paranoia about Muslim jihads, got seized on by the Right, and to a lesser degree fans on the Left.

Personally, outside of a metanarrative, I think there's enough problematic elements with Dune to warrent giving it a skeptical eye, even leaving out the far-right interpretation. The role of women, the position of non-Europeans, the homophobia, the fucking jihad...fans have their work city or for them in this day and age making a care to read it.
posted by happyroach at 11:34 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]


the reason to read Dune is because it's a good fucking story, not because it measures up to some list of requirements. Speaking of which ...

the position of non-Europeans

Last I looked, Arrakis was a very long way from Europe.



I do agree that the homophobia is palpable
posted by philip-random at 11:43 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]


Duke, baron, bible, miscellanious Western coding for the Atredes and Harkonnens, etc.. I mean come on, this is Literary Analysis 101.
posted by happyroach at 12:08 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


As Theodore Sturgeon said, "90% of everything is crud."

Which is clearly untrue. At most, seventy percent of everything is crud


I refute it thus! /gestures broadly at everything
posted by The Tensor at 12:24 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


just as the purpose of philosophy is not to understand the world but instead to change it, likewise the purpose of art is not to understand the world but instead to change it

I feel like this is about as reductive as saying the purpose of trees is to convert CO2 to O2


not to mention the perils inherent in trying to change something that you don't understand (i would go on but my weekly quota for revolutionary vs. incrementalist arguments has been stakhanoved)

immoral characters being presented as appealing - immoral characters who are cool, funny, badass, or otherwise satisfying to identify with - THAT is, in my opinion, inherently problematic

super excited to see mefi leftists taking inspiration from that bible of anti-authoritarianism and artistic tolerance, plato's republic:

"is it, then, only poets we have to supervise, compelling them to make an image of a good character in their poems or else not to compose them among us? or are we also to give orders to other craftsmen, forbidding them to represent - whether in pictures, buildings, or any other works - a character that is vicious, unrestrained, slavish, and graceless? are we to allow someone who cannot follow these instructions to work among us, so that our guardians will be brought up on images of evil, as if in a meadow of bad grass, where they crop and graze in many different places every day until, little by little, they unwittingly accumulate a large evil in their souls?"

(for the glaucons among us, plato's answers are yes, yes and no)
posted by inire at 7:33 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


miscellanious Western coding for the Atredes and Harkonnens, etc.. I mean come on, this is Literary Analysis 101.

and science fiction is never really about the future, it's about the now. How could it be anything but? JG Ballard went so far as to declare all realist fiction beyond defense as he felt the modern world (1960s-70s at the time) to be sufficiently complicated/convoluted to be beyond rational, realistic understanding ... so the only viable fiction for him had to be a genre (science fiction) that already admitted it wasn't actually of the unknowable "real world". Or something like that.

So yeah, Dune, a novel published in 1965, written by an American of European background (ie: white) is informed by Western coding. How could it not be? But I'd argue that's more starting point than anything. The story doesn't even kick in really until its protagonists are forced to "go native". Which, for its time, Dune handled very well. It certainly shook up my perceptions when I first read it (late 1970s) -- its ecological insights, the decidedly non-Euro Fremen, everything to do with the spice and its applied psychedelicization, the idea that there might be something to gods and the super-natural beyond mere make believe.
posted by philip-random at 8:26 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


saying the purpose of art or philosophy is the change it has the world seems to me a uniquely sterile and anthropologic view

Well, those are, as far as we can tell, exclusively human pursuits, performed by humans, not autonomous living beings (like trees) that happen to interact with humans. One wouldn't object that "saying the purpose of a mechanic is to fix your car seems to me a uniquely sterile and anthropologic view."

Art and philosophy can have many different purposes, by which I mean whatever conscious or unconscious or semi-conscious "intent" or "goal" the creators may have had in mind. They can also have many different effects or consequences, which can and often do have nothing to do with any sort of "purpose," and thus unfold in many different ways. The latter is more comparable to the example of trees.

I believe that the statement about philosophy was a paraphrase of Marx. As a philosopher -- a "professional" engaged in a directed activity -- Marx stated that his goal was to make the world philosophical, and to change philosophy from an abstract pursuit largely divorced from the "real world" -- which was basically Kant's understanding of Enlightenment: the absolute freedom of the individual thinker to challenge dogma with reason, but only as a private citizen, but not insofar as one is a "public" citizen, where your duty is to more-or-less conform to the law and social doctrine. Marx wanted to use philosophy to inform political action and unite intellectuals and workers -- thus, The Communist Manifesto, among other things. He wanted to free the subject from the Kantian trap of intellectual enlightenment within political impotence.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:17 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


W/R/T the moral obligations of art/artists and propaganda vs. art...

A fully effective art of propaganda is probably impossible, just for the simple reason that in the interaction between text and reader, the transfer of the text from it's inscription to the subject, there's always some "noise" introduced in the message, and it's never perfectly reproduced. Each subject re-inscribes the message within their own discursive context, producing a unique meaning. (trying to haphazardly mix some english/communication dept. lingo in there)
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:24 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


Having a real l'esprit de l'escalier moment as I realize the obvious contrast with Dune is The Incal. I am not as familiar with Herbert, but I still feel confident in saying Jodorowsky is probably a more problematic artist - as far as I know, he is still proud of not even considering female actors for Holy Mountain unless they had sex with him first, and if you told me he's since turned to ranting about "cancel culture" and "SJWs" I wouldn't be entirely shocked. Nonetheless, Incal (itself essentially Dune fanfic following up on Jodorowsky's over-ambitious failure to adapt Dune to film) is a lot clearer in its intention as a social satire than Dune. It is itself potentially a more problematic work and does have issues with some readers coming away thinking the Techno-Barons are cool badasses and not fanatical fascists, but there weren't really any moments where I had to consider e.g., "Is this satirizing our society's misogyny? Is it unconscious misogyny on the writer's part? Is it a cautionary tale or something to aspire to?" because the work itself is usually clear about which is which. And it does include a bit of each, as does Dune - but the latter feels more opaque, making sorting through them more difficult.

Obviously, hamfisted communication between author and reader using characters as vehicles to simply declare These Are Bad Things doesn't make for a great reading experience, but there are a lot of subtler ways that can be communication. And a lot of people will not pick up on them or will take away the opposite message, which is not necessarily an author's fault. But it is worth thinking about how things are presented in art and fiction - and whether something will be read as condemnation or praise.

I have further thoughts but must murder them now before I waste too much time on this. I enjoyed reading the links and discussion here, though.
posted by Lonnrot at 12:02 PM on November 24


he's since turned to ranting about "cancel culture" and "SJWs" I wouldn't be entirely shocked

I don't think Jodorowsky is even aware of such things -- the guy is pretty absorbed in what he does and pays very little attention to the mainstream -- and while there's a lot of problematic misogyny in his work, the guy hates fascists and is pretty much an anarchist in most respects, so I'd be MORE than shocked if he turned conservative.

he is still proud of not even considering female actors for Holy Mountain unless they had sex with him first

I've never heard that, and I can't find reference to it (not saying it's not true, just that I haven't found it); the closest to anything on that subject is this:

In the 1972 book El Topo: A Book of the Film Jodorowsky said: “I really raped her. And she screamed.” .... On Thursday, Jodorowsky came forward to explain his decades-old statements .... he said: “These words: ‘I’ve raped my actress,’ .... were words, not facts, Surrealist publicity in order to enter the world of cinema from a position of obscurity. I do not condone the act of rape, but exploited the shock value of the statement at the time .... I acknowledge that this statement is problematic in that it presents fictional violence against a woman as a tool for exposure, and now, fifty years later, I regret that this is being read as truth."

Not a great apology, but also not an entirely implausible explanation (which is not to say a justification).
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:33 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


There's at least some bullshitting on his part, because he has used images of violence against women more than a few times in his work -- so while he may not condone it or perform it (or may, I'm not ruling that out), he's clearly excited by the idea.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:28 PM on November 24


Saxon Kane,

Thank you for the interesting context.

It seems to me, having not studied it, that Marx is bringing an agenda to philosophy. Using it as a tool for his own pre-determined and unrelated goal.

My unenlightened opinion is that as soon as you bring an *agenda* into either art or philosophy (that is, approach the practice of either with a specific 3rd-party goal in mind), you fundamentally corrupt their pursuit.

It seems to me a little like a scientist making their data fit a pre-determined conclusion, rather than letting the data lead to what follows naturally.

It's corrupting the integrity of the whole process. Is philosophy not a study? Is it not an exploration? It seems to me like art and philosophy are both fundamentally (essentially!) exploratory pursuits. I'll admit my understanding of them might be a bit insular and not reflect the greater collective understanding. But using either as a tool for something else is... (affecting a country bumpkin) well it's down right underhanded is what it is.

Maybe he believed thoughts alone were worthless unless they brought about action? I suppose I would disagree with him.

Maybe what I'm learning is I just don't like Marx. Is that a hot take? I am probably more of a Kant person. Was he a romantic? I am probably more of a romantic. What great philosophers came after and refuted Marx? There must be some. (I'll look into it, not fair for you to do my homework.)

I apologize if we have completely derailed the discussion away from Dune. However, I do find it somewhat related with all the talk of Grand Purposes.

Thanks again,
posted by Flaffigan at 7:43 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]


One note for Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon et al: I've always thought of Herbert's Fremen in terms of Toynbee's challenge and response theory. Toynbee was pretty huge in the mid-20th-century.

Now to read that Fremen mirage series.
posted by doctornemo at 9:40 AM on November 25


Flaffigan,

I understand your perspective, although I still think you're mistaken about the nature of philosophy and what it means to have a "purpose" as a philosopher (or artist). But, the complicated nature of that discussion is probably not well-served via metafilter posts :)

Re: Kant -- Although I'm not an expert on Kant, I would say he's not a Romantic insofar as he was devoted to the project of the Enlightenment and the Romantics were in large part a reaction against aspects of the Enlightenment. And I'd say he DEFINITELY had an agenda in mind for his work: to secure the foundations of human knowledge against radical skepticism.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:23 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


okay but what if instead of reifying the work of art as a thing-in-itself we see it as the center of the set of social relations built up around it, with those social relations being more important than the art/media object at the center. if we have to justify that decision, we could say something like “relationships between people and people are always primary to relationships between people and things”

oh snap let’s do actor network theory now. let’s ant this sand worm book.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 3:40 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


> okay but what if instead of reifying the work of art as a thing-in-itself we see it as the center of the set of social relations built up around it, with those social relations being more important than the art/media object at the center.

Ok, you've won me over. I think this could be a very interesting analysis.

I think now, a few days later, I have the words to better describe my initial speechless shock and horror at such radical new ideas to my sheltered brain.

I was thinking about things from a very individualistic (and in some ways small-minded) perspective: from the view of an individual practicing art or philosophy, perhaps in their own specific and well-formed personal way. I didn't bother to step out of myself and look at things from a larger perspective.

I think I've always felt art in its most noble form was an attempt at human connection and communicating the inexpressible (since, if it were something that could be simply explained, it would obviate the need for it in the first place). And decidedly not an attempt at influence. Which is what just about every other form of communication amounts to in our modern world. I think I just built this little fantasy in my head where art was immune from that. But of course it isn't, and its use in history has very many notable counter-examples.

Philosophy I know even less about but I always saw it as something deeply personal. An attempt to look inward and examine your own life. But, like art, that is only a very small part of both it's modern meaning as a word, and its long tradition through history.

Thank you all for the interesting discussion. I'll leave the actor network theory to you and (starts waving hands mysteriously while slowly backing away) return to my silent background observation.

Cheers,
posted by Flaffigan at 4:25 PM on November 25


art in its most noble form was an attempt at human connection and communicating the inexpressible (since, if it were something that could be simply explained, it would obviate the need for it in the first place)

This is something I try to stress to my students when I teach literature: that there is no "message" into which a work can be translated, because otherwise the artist would have just written that message instead of a 500 page novel (or whatever). This isn't to say that it's meaningless or that you can't talk about authorial intention (which has its own limitations and problems, but I digress), but rather that "meaning" exceeds straightforward propositions and is something dynamic.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:32 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


(The message is what you read in it, and usually has a lot more to do with the reader than the text. So. I'll just be over here enjoying my book about the boy who learned to ride giant sand dicks through the desert.)
posted by kaibutsu at 6:20 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


So yeah, Dune, a novel published in 1965, written by an American of European background (ie: white) is informed by Western coding. How could it not be? But I'd argue that's more starting point than anything. The story doesn't even kick in really until its protagonists are forced to "go native". Which, for its time, Dune handled very well. It certainly shook up my perceptions when I first read it (late 1970s)

Which, I will point out, was 42-43 years ago. There's been a lot of SFinal water under they bridge since then. And "Europeans go native and become even better at being a native than the natives", and "White people visiting and improving on traditional society" is part of a long chain of works both before and since. Take Tarzan for example. Not to mention Tintin in Africa, Tscai Planet of Adventure, Dances With Wolves, Avatar, half of the output of Poul Anderson, and so on. To talk about ”Paul goes native" without recognizing that this is part of the colonist narrative is at best careless, at worst disingenuous. Do you seriously want to argue it isn't a fundamentally colonial narrative? And if so, how do you deal with Pardot Hynes, the Imperial who knew more about how to manage the ecology of the planet than the natives?

Honestly, I may be the wrong person to deal with this. Try toddling up to N.K. Jemisin or Nalo Hopkinson and say "But Paul Atredes went native". I'll wait here.

I mean so you read it back in the late 70s and were wowed. That's great. That's also nearly a half century ago. I'm sure people were wowed by "Galactic Patrol" in there 40s. But that's no reason to simply accept it uncritically, and not to look at it with a modern eye. Consider that the entire public dialogue about Western colonization was different back then. If SF is about the now, then it's unfair to expect classics of the genre to not be examined from a contemporary lens.

Even from a contemporary point of view, well, Dune is somewhat better in it's depiction of race than many contemporary Golden Age writers, but not even as much as even say, Clarke. His depiction of women is right up there with Niven or worse. isit possible to describe the role of women in Dune without it sounding like something that would make incels and MRAs stand up and cheer?

Seriously, "So women have been using their sexual magic to marry powerful men, all part of a millennia long plan to bread the Messiah". Can't you just see that being posted in all sincerity in r/incel?

But that's only part of a proper breakdown of Dune. Which really needs a good hard look, free of adulation.Of course there are people who like to have their classic SF unexamined. They also tend to complain that modern SF just isn't as fun as the SF of their youth, and they tend to get REALLY pissy when things like a black woman winning the Hugos happens. The question is, do we want to be part of that crowd?
posted by happyroach at 10:07 PM on November 25 [2 favorites]


all part of a millennia long plan to bread the Messiah

Mmmm... Breaded Messiah.... *drools*
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:31 PM on November 26


I can't get over how funny the idea of "a plan to bread the Messiah" is. What kind of planning goes into that -- figuring out how to trick him into a giant oven? Trying to find a rolling pin large enough to knead the dough?
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:34 PM on November 26


And does that mean that the Bene Gesserit are Catholics?

Ok I'll stop now
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:37 PM on November 26


using their sexual magic ... [in] a millennia long plan to bread the Messiah

That's one hell of a yeast infection!


get it? get it? ok that's it, i'll stop for real
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:40 PM on November 26


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