Thursday, November 1, 2007

Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion is a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was awarded a Donald D. Harrington Fellowship for graduate study.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished a biography of Charles and Ray Eames, by Pat Kirkham. The best and most interesting chapters were on the Eameses' non-furniture projects, such as their multimedia presentations done for IBM, which were intended to introduce the concept of the computer to the uninitiated, and the presentation they did for the exposition in Moscow in 1959 to introduce Soviet citizens to American life. They come off as a couple of carefree creative types constructing their way through life, immune from questions of economic hardship or artistic compromise. I wish I could afford to buy some of the toys that they made at various points in their joint career - their house of cards set is really beautiful.

Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization is a cultural history of the concept of "civilization" in America at the turn of the twentieth century. She looks at Ida B. Wells (journalist and anti-lynching activist), G. Stanley Hall (proto-educational psychologist), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (feminist author), and Teddy Roosevelt (president, obviously), and how each of them used discourses of masculinity, civilization and progress to advocate for their particular causes. G. Stanley Hall, for example, believed that boy children in "civilized" societies (aka, white societies) went through each stage of race evolution -- that they start out as savages, move their way through the various stages of cave-person, up through the medieval era, through the Enlightenment (that's adolescence, when the fiery stress of rapid knowledge accumulation causes outbreaks of unmanageability), and finally arrive at the pinnacle of the evolved human. (That would be the white American, circa 1900.) This is fascinating stuff, all the more fascinating because respectable intellectuals believed in it.

My academic interests in science, technology, and the environment have led me to read a lot of science fiction in my "free" time lately. The Mars trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is a definite highlight, for the density of its interest in political and economic consequences of technological and environmental change. I find its depiction of the way that humans settle into patterns of society on an entirely new landscape to be a really good thought-tool for considering the ways technology and development have worked here on Terra. I've finished Red Mars and Green Mars, and have Blue Mars left to go.

I am reading a bunch of steampunk fiction and comic books for an upcoming project. (I am going to write a paper on the primacy of the mechanical object and obsessions with its transparent functionality, as opposed to the opacity of the contemporary computer.) I am basically working my way through the list of works included in the Wikipedia entry on the genre. I have come across a couple of books that don't really seem to fit, and am beginning to wonder whether they were just included on the list because their authors wanted to up sales. But The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which I think is considered to be the founding work in the genre, is worthwhile, with lots of sweet Victorian counterfactual speculation. However, I also have recently read The Time Machine, by HG Wells, which many of these authors would cite as an inspiration, and I have to say that Wells still puts most contemporary writers to shame -- he's so simple and terrifying. If anybody has any suggestions for steampunk books I shouldn't miss, let me know.

I also just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road. My question for those who've read it is, can I assign a book which includes a scene in which a human infant is roasted on a spit to an undergrad seminar on environmental disaster? Like all of McCarthy's books, it is, of course, totally brutal. I can't believe that Oprah made it an Oprah book. I am starting to think, however, that the apocalpyse is a cheap trick - if you introduce it into a fiction, it's very difficult to be wholly uninteresting.
Visit Rebecca Onion's website for clips of her writing and check out her MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue