The Logic of Comparison

Posted: January 22, 2013 by Adam Elkus in Uncategorized
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Some thoughts on Tarkin‘s foundational purpose: comparison and analysis of science fiction, fantasy, comics, and other speculative and/or world-building media. This is by no means intended to be a complete piece on the nature of comparative method but an opening to a larger discussion.

1. Comparison is everywhere, but not all comparison is useful.

During the interview Daniel Nexon conducted with me and Kelsey, we discussed the proliferation of “what ___ says about pet political issue ___” pieces about cultural products. The problem with these pieces (besides their superficial character) is their lack of reflection about the kind of comparisons they make. Teju Cole recently linked together the International Monetary Fund, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and White House-directed UAV warfare. Each apparently are ruled by people who care little about other people “down there.” Cole uses the television series Downtown Abbey as an illustration. Presuming Cole is correct in making such a sweeping accusation about large institutions that face difficult moral dilemmas, one might also question whether such an highly general abstraction is useful beyond polemic. Why do those whose decisions impact the fates of those “down there” care so little about them? Such an analysis might lead to a different question: could it be possible that they do care, but may have a different set of moral considerations than Cole? Could they care and simply be tragically wrong about the impact of their actions? This is without mentioning the highly diverse contexts of Downtown Abbey, the IMF, or the covert counterterrorism wars and how the “backgrounds” of those settings might complicate attempts to generalize in such a fashion. Surely the IMF’s operations during the 1997 Asian currency crisis cannot be compared to the intent and execution of the air strikes in Pakistan. Can anything but the most general and banal of comparisons link the fumbling response to the speculators’ attack on the Thai baht and the targeted killing regime?

Finally, it is hard to see what a show about a group of patricians in the twilight of their power has to do with the linked institutions beyond a highly suspect generalization of an psychological tendency. It may seem unfair to pick on a string of tweets, but in truth even some of the greats make the same errors. Sigmund Freud, in trying to create a “death drive,” sought to explain a large scale and heterogeneous process such as warfare with a baseline psychological motive. Tolstoy, as Eliot Cohen argued in Supreme Command, was a “strategic nihilist” that lectured his readers on the absurdity of war and the delusions behind any concept of strategy or strategic purpose. Despite the vivid individual experiences of Tolstoy’s characters, the political purpose (resist France) was a meaningful one and a combination of Russian strategy and French blundering destroyed the French Army. Freud and Tolstoy both sought very reductive explanations for complicated and multifaceted processes and did not come up with particularly useful answers.

There are many kinds of comparisons and analyses of cultural products we can make. Tarkin features pieces on everything from Jedi ground tactics to the political sociology of Batman. But not every type of comparison is useful or illuminating, an argument I will revisit later.

2. The demands of narrative can be distorting

Many fictional products are limited in their ability to plausibly realize a social world by their form. Films and television series, which Tarkin contributors often review, have to create visual spectacle and often compress complex and varied processes into a short period of time.  Since no fictional world is completely or even remotely like ours, “suspending disbelief” is an contractual obligation the viewer signs before stepping into the theater. In return, the filmmaker promises a world with internally consistent rules that do not seem to widely vary with what we understand about human behavior. If they do, there must be a plausible explanation. But in signing this “contract,” we often forget crucial mechanisms and processes that have to be assumed away in order to make the story work after we step out of the theater.

For example, the idea that al-Qaeda would develop UAVs that could plausibly threaten the President’s safety would make a nice “movie-plot threat.” But in science fiction products like the game Black Ops 2, we see a number of causal chains that at least provide some justification for the ravaging of America by terrorist robots. Black Ops 2 features future technology, critical personnel, and political organization that are not present today. Even in this setting many causal chains are largely unconvincing. A terrorist motivated entirely by revenge that has an vast army at his disposal, an army that the world’s most advanced military technology cannot track and target? Even the Rebel Alliance, a much more realistic depiction of rebellion than the one Black Ops 2 constructs, yields to what we understand about strategic history. An Empire as large and technologically advanced as the one depicted in The Empire Strikes Back can blanket the galaxy with sophisticated spy platforms, and a group as large and powerful as the Alliance is bound to leave some traces. That’s the setup to the invasion of Hoth.

The “movie-plot” threat of Al-Qaeda and UAVs isn’t even a good movie. It lacks any kind of causal chain that deals with problems of technology adoption, targeting, resource tradeoffs, and half a century’s worth of North American air defense and early warning preparation. Why would a group that has mostly eschewed exotic technologies (the passenger airline is not exactly a new thing, much less bombs and kidnapping) adopt a problematic weapon when it has many other useful tools readily available? Despite the fact that it would not even make a good film, it is an assessment informed by film logic.

3. The social world matters

Every work of speculative fiction is about portraying some kind of social world, filled with its own unique relations and structures. At Tarkin we don’t really enjoy nitpicking (well, sometimes we do!) about the technical details of the product’s world-building. Rather, we are interested in whether or not the relations depicted provide valuable lessons. Of course, this is inherently an subjective exercise. Someone can read or watch a given product and take what they want from it. You can appreciate Ghost in the Shell for its depiction of life in a time of massive technologically-mediated human interconnection or narrowly look at specific issues in law enforcement and interagency cooperation. But there are a few observations about what makes a social world useful in totality that I would like to submit to the rest of the Tarkin contributors.

First, a future’s relevance matters. All science fiction products are creatures of their time, and the intellectual, political, and scientific currents that predominated in the era of production have a significant influence. 1984‘s integrated totalitarian system of control is total, self-sustaining, and governs every aspect of human behavior. Why did Orwell believe such a society was a threat worth warning against?  Because those who observed such structures could not envision their fragility or the significant material demands and legitimation processes necessary to keep them running on a day-to-day basis. George Orwell lived in a time when the consequences of the industrial revolution, the growth of mass media, a rapidly advancing scientific apparatus, and massive governing bureaucracies had convinced many observers that planned authoritarian techno-states would win the future. His American contemporary James Burnham considered Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia the cutting-edge of modern political economy. Certainly managerial totalitarianism proved to be a powerful force in the 20th century, but it took another few decades for Alan Moore to diagnose the fragility of totalitarian systems in V for Vendetta. Orwell didn’t know what we do now, and neither did many of his contemporaries.

One may respond by saying that Orwell’s focus on media manipulation, government surveillance, and bureaucratic tyranny is still relevant to the modern era. But the integrated system that made such isolated processes genuinely totalitarian is missing. Even today’s tyrannies are mostly of a far more petty variety than Orwell’s land of Big Brother and the Thought Police. Perhaps more relevant to our times is a story of how a liberal society can overreach in its quest to extinguish social ills, as told by Philip K. Dick’s portrayal of the drug war and preventive action in A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report. Certainly we can try to alter Orwell’s social world to fit our own context, but have to abstract away the integrative whole of the work to do so. Given Orwell’s own fierce quest against the misuse of political language, it is a bit misleading to imply that illiberal excesses of the kind sometimes seen in the war on terror are forms of creeping totalitarianism. Besides, the historical consequences of illiberal steps to preserve a liberal society are devastating enough without hyperbole. Do we need to falsely claim that the America of the 1910s was a Orwellian dictatorship in order to denounce the suppression of political opposition to World War I? Likewise, you don’t need Orwell to denounce surveillance programs you dislike when Dick’s oeuvre may be more appropriate.

But how can we determine relevance? 1984 is an easy choice considering that it is a work of speculative fiction rooted in a real world structure (totalitarianism). When we get to space operas we discover that the nature of the social world structures the kind of lessons we can extract from its totality. Starcraft illuminates many interesting aspects of strategy. But the lessons to be extracted can only be utilized after dismissing most of the institutions, causal mechanisms, technologies, and tactics that make the military strategies possible and plausible. One cannot understand the nature of Confederate, UED, Dominion, and Zerg strategy in Starcraft and Brood War without a detailed analysis of the strategic implications of the ability to control large formations of Zerg with the Psy Emitter. There is no Psy Emitter or Zerg on today’s battlefield, frustrating the would-be general who seeks to learn from Starcraft. Once all of these contextual factors are removed, Starcraft‘s lessons become frustratingly general and abstract. Yes, successful players often use combined arms to balance the weaknesses of individual unit types. You can swarm with small and cheap units and overpower slower and more expensive enemies. But did you really need Starcraft to tell you about combined arms or cheap swarming when you could just as easily read a Robert Citino book or peruse a 90s Arquilla and Ronfeldt monograph? Sadly, the generality of Starcraft‘s lessons cannot be otherwise, unless you want to be the sad soul who tries to use your experience with dug-in Siege Tanks to win a artillery duel with Tarkin’s Brett Friedman. *

Good products that build on recurring mechanisms and themes in history can be usefully generalized. In contrast to 1984’s experience of life in a kind of state that controls every aspect of everyday life, Orwell’s Animal Farm is a story built around the all-too-common cycle of idealistic revolution, power struggle, and disappointment. That Animal Farm is intended to model the Russian Revolution does have some implications for what mechanisms we can use. But unless one is willing to argue that the 1917 was completely sui generis it has some relevance for a much wider swathe of history and geographic locales than 1984.

4. Above all else, have fun

This may seem to completely contradict the last few thousand words I’ve typed. But at the end of the day we’re all doing this because we love science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Even useless comparisons originate out of some fundamental love for a cultural product and a need to express why it has a deeper meaning. Many Tarkin contributors have honed their argumentative skills convincing skeptical spouses, significant others, friends, and family members to appreciate a favorite comic book, anime series, movie, novel, or television drama. However politically and sociologically informed your science fiction, fantasy, or comic comparison may be, you won’t write it unless there is some burning reason for the time you spend blogging about it!

All I’m trying to say is that there is inevitably a “so what?” question that separates fandom from thoughtful cultural analysis. Enthusiasm is a necessary but insufficient condition for answering that question. The right kinds of comparisons matter, and sometimes the lessons of a given work may offer nothing special to those seeking to understand a given strategic problem. I don’t presume I’ve even come close to answering the “so what” question here, but I hope this missive can be of value to the discussion about relating science fiction, fantasy, comics, and other alternative-world media to strategy and national security.

* Anyone interested in writing a Starcraft and strategy blog is welcome to try here, I would be happy to be proven wrong about this specific example of my general point.

  1. rodsjournal says:

    Thanks for this interesting piece and sharing your insights. I just want to comment on this:

    “…it is a bit misleading to imply that illiberal excesses of the kind sometimes seen in the war on terror are forms of creeping totalitarianism.”

    Well actually, the better films, documentaries, comics, TV shows, etc. across SF and fantasy genres will depict those as creeping forms of _authoritarianism_ rather than totalitarianism. The latter regime type are few now, but the former exist in spades, coming – and evolving – from both ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ traditions.

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