Posts Tagged ‘Omelas’

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Class 8: Walking Away…?

March 26, 2020

The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas generated a fascinating discussion.

John sent an email to all students during the week with a survey about your ability to connect to Brightspace and Second Life. All but three replied that you have access although it might be less reliable or slower than usual. Of the three that didn’t reply two turned up in class. So, it seems that we can continue with our meetings as normal, although I will keep an eye on things to ensure everyone remains able to engage.

Glenn Loughran (aka feilimy) joined us this week to lead the discussion on the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin. It soon transpired that Glenn’s voice connection was not working well so we reverted to text chat for the class. Although somewhat slower than voice it was possible to have a lively and engaging debate. At least everyone had read the story in preparation for the class!

Glenn started by talking about the ways in which a text can be read and suggested that a methodology he is trying with difficult texts at present is to read first for the overall sense and then read again with this knowledge in place for a deeper understanding and to make more sense of the content. He then asked for some reaction to the set text on the surface level. What is your impression of the text? It was written in 1974. What kinds of event or images does that era raise for you? After getting through the inevitable Austin Powers replies (!) and the fact that the 1970s was ancient history, for everyone except Sitearm and me, some connections emerged: the Vietnam war; peace protests; aftermath of the bombs; hippies; the freedom movement; draftees; and Watergate.

Dr Glenn Loughran (aka feilimy) adjusted to the lack of voice with admirable agility.

Glenn noted that this is a science-fiction story but it is important to know when it was written to be able to draw out the associations between the story and the reality of the time, including the politics and ideas around utopia. He then asked: What kind of society is described in the first half of the story? Responses included: happy society; something too perfect, a picturesque holiday city; a very happy community; city by the sea, like San Francisco; kids playing and people dancing; hippies. Glenn suggested there is another name for this in Greek literature and wondered did anyone know what it is? You replied, the sense of community; the Garden of Eden. And Spooky said Utopia.

Glenn explained that in 1516 Thomas More wrote the first Utopia. He coined the word utopia from the Greek ou-topos meaning no place or nowhere. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek work eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised? Sitearm referenced Erewhon by Samuel Butler, a nineteenth century English novel that also addresses the question of Utopia.

Glenn asked if the short-story presented a utopian ideal? You replied that it didn’t to which Glenn asked why not? The answers you gave included: humans aren’t perfect; everyone’s ideas of perfection are different; because of the child; the kid in the basement; just because only one person is suffering doesn’t make it better. Then Glenn asked if everyone else in Omelas was happy? and when you all said no he asked why not? People who see the child leave the city because they are so horrified; they are horrified by the illusion of a perfect world; the other kids feel bad for the kid; they don’t know about the kid until they are older.

Glenn wondered who the child is and why it is there? You suggested he is suffering for all their happiness; he or she is someone who did not have a chance. At that Glenn asked if the child is a he? You ansered: no; it is not clear; we don’t know; rachel said it’s not known; and when glenn asked why you think that is? the response was that the child is symbolic. Of what? The society; the child is a reminder to society that even a supposed utopia isn’t perfect, it’s not what it seems; third world countries; they suffer for first world countries.

Glenn suggested that it is an allegorical story – a story that stands in for the geo-politics of the world, at a time when the Vietnam war and the hippy movement dominated popular culture. It also represents a set of moral dilemmas, can you describe some? What is the dilemma here? You suggested that even if people tried to help the child it won’t make much of a difference, similar to the way we give aid to third world countries which does not amount to much at the end of the day due to corruption.

Glenn asked if it might be possible that like Omelas our freedoms and technologies are dependent on the oppressed nations and peoples? Are we facing a similar dilemma to the people of Omelas if we buy and use technologies made under oppressive conditions? If we know they are made under such conditions what do we do, how do we react? You replied that we wait; we don’t buy; we try to support groups that are against oppression; we are conscious of what big brands are doing behind the scenes.

Again Glenn asks… Should we accept it like the citizens of Omelas do? Did the ones who walked away do the right thing? Where do you think they went?

zach said they did the right thing in leaving because it’s wrong for one person to suffer for other people’s happiness. Auaki suggested that if the story is continuing maybe we are the citizens of Omelas. Crimson argued that it is not right to stand for oppression.

Glenn: But what does walking away do to help the situation?

You are not supporting the people who are doing this. It removes you from the situation, all it takes is one person to walk away for others to follow. Auaki suggested that it makes it worse and Glenn asked how does it make it worse? and what did the author say? Crimson replied that she said they go to a darker place. And Glenn added:

‘The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.’ And taking a risk is always about jumping into the unknown. It is scary but… it’s necessary.

How does this relate to our situation? he asked.

And with that final question Glenn informed us that his battery was dying and he would leave us with that to ponder!

John thanked you all for bearing with the class tonight. I appreciate everyone’s patience. Broadband speeds have been slowing because of the heavy usage as most of the population watches Netflix! but, when this module began there was no voice in SL and we conducted all classes in chat text. This does make things a little slower but, we can still have a good discussion – as evidenced by our class this evening. Well done for adapting so readily! Particular thanks to Glenn for adapting to the shortcomings of technology with style!
John also apologised for not having posted the summary of last week’s class yet but, explained that it has been overwhelming trying to deal with the closing of the University. The summary is almost ready and will be posted tomorrow.

Next week is the last class before the two week Easter break. We will look the Team Project so make sure to come along in good time.

Addendum (added on 2nd April 2020)

As we gathered for Class 9 the following week John asked for your takeaway from the discussion about The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas. After some consideration it was proposed that the theme of the discussion was responsibility. As we become full citizens of our society we need to think about our personal responsibility, our responsibility to our community and our professional responsibility. There are no absolutes here. We each have to give consideration to this aspect of life and, much like the citizens of Omelas who are aware of the suffering of the child, we are aware of the realities of our world, whether we like to acknowledge it or not. The question is, do we choose to ignore these realities or accept our role in creating and sustaining them. Becoming aware of our personal and professional responsibilities, and the importance of contributing to the betterment of society is an essential requirement of each and every citizen.

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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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