Two Kinds of Identity

It’s started to dawn on me that the way I talk about identity may be confusing to some of my readers — that, when I say “this thing is very important,” people don’t actually have a good sense of what kind of thing it is that’s being discussed.  I can’t really blame anyone for being confused.  Identity, as in “identity politics,” is one of the cornerstone concepts of the contemporary cultural/political discourse.  The thing I usually mean is…not very much like that thing.  Not totally unrelated, to be sure, but pretty distinct in almost every important way.

So it may be worth taking a moment to unpack the terminology.

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Two Kinds of Identity

Fractal Diversity

The short version is:

There are many different axes along which people can differ from each other.  If your goal is to maximize the variability and diversity of your population along a given axis, you will probably end up with a batch of people who cluster really tightly along other axes.  This is not an artifact of statistics, it’s an artifact of human nature. 

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Fractal Diversity

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

So, up front:

1. This is a very funny and charming movie, in a broad-brush banter-driven general-audience kind of way.  I had a lot of fun; I laughed much more than I cringed.  If you’re willing to put up with Hollywood-style jokes as a general matter, you’ll probably enjoy yourself.

2. In addition to being a funny and charming movie, this could have been a genuinely deep and interesting movie, with something worthwhile to say.  It wouldn’t even have had to be very different in order to accomplish that.  But it botched certain key narratives enough that the chance for serious quality was completely lost. 

I’ve felt this way about a few other comedies, notably Simon Pegg’s The World’s End.  It always bothers me tremendously, more than it probably should.  I understand that the writers are trying first and foremost to elicit the yuk-yuks, that no one really expects Guardians of the Galaxy to function as Literature, but — you had all the pieces in place, people!  Why wouldn’t you make good art, real art, when the opportunity is right there lying in front of you? 

I’m going to need to spoil major plot points in order to go into this further.  If you care about Marvel movie spoilers, read on at your own risk.

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

This is a discussion of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, which are the first two novels in a sci-fi series called Terra Ignota.

I’ve put “book review” in quotation marks because I cannot pretend that my essay is meant to provide useful information to people who are considering reading these books.  It’s not even really meant to discuss the books’ artistic qualities at all, although in fact it does that thing, in the process of getting where it needs to go.  It is a philosophical complaint that happens to have their text as its substrate. 

I am writing this for an imagined audience that has already read Terra Ignota.  Not even because of spoilers — although there are some spoilers, at least in a plot-structural sense — but just because I’m trying to grapple with the implications of a complicated thing, too complicated for me to be able to reproduce it in summary at the level of fidelity that would be needed. 

If you’re interested in getting a more normal sort of book review from me, all I can provide is the following:

1. For various complicated reasons, there is no way in hell that I can be remotely objective about Terra Ignota as a piece of literature, and you should probably turn to someone else if you want sound analysis of its artistic merit. 

2. That being said: the critics all seem to be describing it as a beautiful jewel of a series, and as far as I’m concerned, in this case the critics are completely right.  The prose is clever, and intricate, and manages to remain fun despite its incredible density; the best of the characters are refreshingly individual, original, and bizarre; the author’s chops as an intellectual historian shine through, and she takes a contagious delight in treating serious ideas with the seriousness they deserve; and yet, in the end, all of these are garnishes beside the real feast.  Given the values her own writing espouses, I can pay Dr. Palmer no higher compliment than to say that she channels the sensawunda of Golden Age sci-fi, in a pure way that we haven’t much seen since the Golden Age.  She dreams up weirdness after weirdness that can be dropped upon the world, and asks “what if?,” and then takes the time to explore all the answers to that question.  I want to call it “great worldbuilding,” but in so doing I would mislead.  In this fallen age, “worldbuilding” is a term that has come to mean something less remarkable than the thing these novels are doing.   This is not RPG-sourcebook material — this is not “check out the clever rules of my magic system!,” or “look at all the heraldry and politics I made up for my feuding noble houses!,” or anything so common — this is imagining substantively different ways that reality could be.  It is good.  You should read it.

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“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

A Brief Lexical Interlude

Someone on Tumblr challenged me to provide a concise, usable definition of this “identity” term that I keep throwing around.  Which is really a very reasonable sort of challenge.

Someone else pointed out that it might prove useful, later on, if my answer to that question were not buried in the trackless depths of Tumblr.

So.  As best as I can define it, at the moment, identity is:

1. An abstracted mental image (or narrative) of the self, which is

2. Defined by a constellation of archetypical traits and tropes, and which

3. Allows its possessor to find both personal validation and aesthetic satisfaction in contemplating it, because

4. To some extent it simultaneously conforms to reality and to personal ideals. 

A Brief Lexical Interlude