June 20, 2004


Margaret Atwood's recent dystopian novel Oryx and Crake is based on the idea that biological science will soon lead to the extermination of the human species, but she takes a lick or two at other fields as well, including the subjects favored by "word people":

Problematics was for word people, so that was what Jimmy took. Spin and Grin was its nickname among the students. Like everything at Martha Graham it had utilitarian aims. Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills, ran the motto underneath the original Latin motto, which was Ars Longa Vita Brevis.

Jimmy had few illusions. He knew what sort of thing would be open to him when came out the other end of Problematics with his risible degree. Window-dressing was what he'd be doing, at best -- decorating the cold, hard, numerical real world in flossy 2-D verbiage. Depending on how well he did in his Problematics courses -- Applied Logic, Applied Rhetoric, Medical Ethics and Terminology, Applied Semantics, Relativistics and Advanced Mischaracterization, Comparative Cultural Psychology, and the rest -- he'd have a choice between well-paid window-dressing for a big Corp or flimsy cut-rate stuff for a borderline one. The prospect of his future life stretched before him like a sentence; not a prison sentence, but a long-winded sentence with a lot of unnecessary subordinate clauses, as he was soon in the habit of quipping during Happy Hour pickup time at the local campus bars and pubs.

I found this amusing. Imagine if future journalists, PR flacks and advertising folk really took college courses in logic, rhetoric and semantics, applied or otherwise!

I have two comments on the list of courses. First, "advanced mischaracterization" is implausible the name of an imaginary course in the imaginary field of Problematics, whose experts would surely do a better job of verbal window-dressing on their own product. And second, what happened to syntax? should we assume that "word people" don't need to know anything about the structure of sentences in order to "spin and grin"? How will they identify those "unnecessary subordinate clauses"? (And while we're at it, there's sociolinguistics, the phonetics of spoken performance, and other courses to fill the syllabus out with ...)

There's been some controversy about this novel's category. Atwood says that it's not sci-fi, it's "speculative fiction", because "[s]cience fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen".

"We have a big box, called The Brown Box... it's a brown cardboard box - in which all the research clippings are filed: so there's nothing I can't back up,"

Her research doesn't seem to have included reading much SF, which doesn't always have spaceships, and often has fewer monsters than Oryx and Crake does.

The reviews have been mixed. Michiko Kakutani called it "this lame piece of sci-fi humbug", while Thomas Disch compared it favorably to Brave New World and 1984. For me, it was mostly too silly to be engaging. I was grateful for this, because it would have been a depressing story if it had managed to draw me in.

Atwood is a effective writer, even in the service of a lame story line. And she has a special flair for depressing puns, like the one on "sentence" in the passage quoted above, or this example from one of her poems:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye

[Update 6/21/2004: David Elsworthy observed via email that most likely "Attwood was also poking fun at academics who use the word 'problematize' and (God help us) 'deproblematize'".

He suggested a couple of links ( here and here) for examples and discussion. At the second link, Alice Shirrell Kaswell explains the technique as follows:

Author Elizabeth Manus explains the concept thusly:

In academia, reading a text in a new way is generally known as "problematizing" a text.

This technique can be applied to anything.

It offers exciting possibilities for scientists. Problematicization can be applied to anything that is generally accepted as being understood. The result: the subject is no longer understood. This creates an instant infinity of publishing opportunities.

So: "Imagining a future academic discipline of Problematics, informally known as "Spin and Grin", Atwood problematizes postmodernism by equating it with public relations..." Am I using the word right?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 20, 2004 04:40 PM