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Class 9: Walking away…?

November 29, 2018

Ursula K Le Guin, author of The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, 1973. Photograph by Benjamin Reed in 2008 from the obituary by Margaret Atwood in the Guardian 24 January 2018.

 

Glenn Loughran, lecturer in Fine Art and Programme Chair of the BA in Visual Art on Sherkin Island joined us this week. He took us through Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas in a way that gradually revealed the rich ideas contained in the story. Glenn suggested that there are many questions to work through in the text but began by asking for  reflections on the first part of the story and the sense of the world presented by Le Guin. What is the atmosphere, the underlying theory presented? It was agreed that it is a happy and peaceful world; it feels like a fairytale and has an old-fashioned quality. The community lives a simple life but could have technology if it wanted to – it seems to have consciously rejected that option. Did anything in the description give a sense that it is too good to be true? What is the philosophy of the community? Glenn suggested that it could be seen as an expression of Utilitarianism described by 18th Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and developed in the 19th Century by John Stuart Mill.

The relationship between the narrator and the text in the story is not fixed, with the narrator seeming to slip in and out of the story. This literary technique keeps the timeframe ambiguous: it could be past, present or future while also not revealing who the narrator is. It even sets up an ambiguity about who the reader might be. Why does the narrator say that the people are happy but also sophisticated? They are not banal but complex human beings living in a highly-developed society. Some of you felt that Omelas is a fake perfect world because it is one-dimensional but it was agreed that it is a society that has determined its own way of being.

Then Glenn asked what the turning point of the story is, suggesting that the community is conditioned by something. It took a while to arrive at the conclusion that the introduction of The Child turned the utopia into a dystopia. The child is kept in a degraded way and its situation never changes. Most importantly, everyone in Omelas is aware of the child’s existence. This is the condition on which the perfect society is founded. While everyone is shocked initially they eventually come to accept the condition. Why do they accept it? The Deal.

The moral dilemma at the heart of the text is how the community resolves the condition of the child on which its comfort is based. If we review this element of the story as an analogy to the world in which we live today the child becomes, for example, the slave labour that produces the commodities we use daily. They are frequently manufactured in conditions of oppression and dejection by what Marx described as alienated labour.

Are we aware of this? Do we know? Should we know?

On another level the analogy may be read as the dominance of one country over another or one continent over another – the Western World over Africa, for instance.

In conclusion, is it wrong to walk away? Many of you felt it is wrong and suggested it is refusing to take responsibility. The story makes you ask yourself if you would stay or walk away. It is not an easy decision. Nor is is easy to consider the consequences of either action.

Returning to the opening question of the text – can we escape technology? Again, many of you felt we are too used to it and would be reluctant to give it up. But, you did go on the demonstrate an awareness the impact of digital technology and, indeed, are taking action to limit your engagement. You talked of taking deliberate breaks from your phones, closing down computers so that you can read undisturbed and free from distraction, and you spoke of being aware of the influence of technology over your emotional state.

Glenn explained that many digital devices have inattentiveness built in. They are designed for a certain kind of hyper-attention which is why they can be difficult to turn them off. He referred to Stiegler (who we met in class 4) and his proposition that technology is both a poison and a cure, describing it as a pharmakon. The point is that technology is inherently neither positive or negative: we negotiate this position on an ongoing basis through our choices on when to engage and disengage.

After thanking Glenn for leading a very stimulating discussion and complimenting you all for engaging so thoroughly John suggested that it would help inform your preparation for the project. There were some questions about how the project might be presented. It is entirely your own choice. You may have your avatars present verbally, as we do in class; or through a written text; you may take us all to any other location in SL or use the classroom; you can direct us to a slideshare webpage or even produce a YouTube video. It is also possible to bring images into SL to support your presentation. It was agreed that we will devote next week’s class to discussing your options and describing how to achieve some of the effects you might want to try out.

THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS:

  1. Read: the summary of last year’s class discussion on this story and some insightful analysis by Mook Wheeler.
  2. Work: on the presentation for your Group Project.
  3. Write the eighth post: to your blog describing your final plans and preparations.

ADDITIONAL READING:

  1. For some context on Karl Marx’s theory of alienated labour read Anatomy of an AI System, by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler. Their essay uses the Amazon Echo to describe an anatomical map of human labour, data and planetary resources [accessed on 29/11/18].
  2. To read more on the effect on attention by digital devices see Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes by N. Catherine Hayles in 2007 [accessed on 29/11/18].
  3. Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon, 2012, by Bernard Stiegler is a good introduction to the author’s ideas.

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