Time travel plots: With particular reference to Star Trek

Time-travel plots seem to fall into two broad categories. The first is a variation on Greek tragedy, where the very attempt to change past events actually itself causes what it was meant to prevent. (I like to tell my students that Oedipus Rex is actually the first time-travel plot.) The second is not so fatalistic — it turns out that you really can change the past, but normally the way the plot works out is that everyone decides that the best thing is to try to change things back the way they were. (The movie Primer is a bit of an outlier, but I think that it basically falls into the second category, insofar as it’s a cautionary tale about unintended consequences and hence implies that simply leaving well enough alone would have been preferable.)

In the latter kind of plot, the writers have to face a metaphysical decision, namely, whether the time-travellers retain a kind of “pointer” back to their original timeline. If they do, you can see phenomenon like the character starting to “fade out” as the odds of their ultimate existence decrease (perhaps most famously in Back to the Future). If they don’t, then they simply exist in their new time-position alongside everything else, and so there is less room for paradoxes like changing the timeline so that you never actually went back in time in the first place, etc.

This brings us to Star Trek. Generally speaking, it seems that the approach to time travel across the franchise has been in the second category on both counts — you really can change the timeline (though you shouldn’t), and you simply exist in your new time-position without any kind of “pointer” to where you came from. They also take a kind of Hegelian approach to the issue, focusing solely on world-historical events. There is no “butterfly effect” problem to deal with — as long as the broad outlines of past history go the right way, history turns out like it should. You can see this on several Deep Space Nine episodes, such as the one where Sisko stands in for the peaceful protestor who changed everyone’s perceptions of the internment camps for the unemployed and the one where they go back to the Tribble episode of the original series.

And yet sometimes they break these implicit rules, as in the episode where the DS9 crew encounter a human colony made up of their own descendants and face the choice of whether to duplicate the accident that sent them 200 years into the past — or else their descendants wouldn’t exist! As far as I can tell, this isn’t how it should have worked. The versions of themselves who travelled back in time simply existed in that timeline, and they don’t “need” their later counterparts to travel back again.

Of course, I may be attributing too much coherence to their approach to time travel given how massively nonsensical the Next Generation series finale was.

What about you, readers? What do you think about time-travel plots?

How I spent my summer vacation

My summer came to an abrupt end on Monday, when Shimer College held its annual all-staff meeting — which was followed by two days of faculty meetings. In this brief window before classes start up next week, it seemed appropriate to reflect on this past summer, which was one of the most intellectually fruitful of my life. The main feature was a faculty seminar at the University of Chicago, hosted by Eric Santner under the auspices of DAAD. I spent the weeks leading up to it reading a huge amount of Marx and Freud in German, and the Freud reading continued, to the point where it took on nearly addictive qualities.

The seminar was very fruitful in a lot of ways — getting to see how a senior scholar thinks through his next writing project, seeing what my peers were working on, getting to present my work to a diverse interdisciplinary audience — but for me the biggest benefit by far was being induced to carry out a sustained, intensive study of Freud. This in turn proved surprisingly helpful for formulating my devil project, as well as the final volume of my pop culture trilogy, Creepiness. In the weeks after the seminar, I wrote a draft introduction for both projects. Both will require significant revision, but it felt amazing to get a concrete start on both after talking about them for such a long time. I hope to be able to finish Creepiness over the course of the school year and write at least one further chapter of the devil book to set myself up for next summer.

Two other notable achievements: I rewatched all of Mad Men (including the most recent season) and I finally bought a much-needed bookshelf and imposed some kind of order on my books for the first time in over three years. We also took a trip to St. Louis, where we thoroughly explored the City Museum with all the gusto of young children — and all the muscle soreness of old people.

Now I’m finishing up on my preparations for my long-planned elective on Heidegger’s Being and Time (PDF syllabus) and for Humanities 1: Art and Music (PDF syllabus). I plan to put my newly refurbished German skills to use reading Sein und Zeit alongsideside my course and to use Hum 1 as a pretext to make more visits to the Art Institute, the symphony, and the opera.

What about you, dear readers? How did you spend your summer vacations?

My ridiculous project

For the last five years or so, I have had an ongoing project of trying to visit as many stops on the Chicago “L” system as possible. I have developed a series of rules for myself in this regard:

  • Sincere usage: I cannot go to the stop simply for the sake of checking it off my list — there must be a good-faith destination for my trip.
  • Transfers count: As long as it’s part of a good-faith trip, getting on or off at a certain stop always “counts” (whether the stop is my final desination or I’m transfering from a bus or a train).
  • Stations, not lines: There is no need to attempt to arrive at each station via all the lines that serve that station (a requirement would make completion on the Loop Elevated all but impossible).

This evening, I reached a major milestone: completion of the Purple Line. I had despaired of ever getting “sincere usage” of the South Blvd. stop, which serves a primarily residential area — but then it turned out that the Dean of Shimer College, who had a get-together for faculty this evening, lives two blocks from the stop. Here is a map documenting my progress as of tonight (black dots indicate stations I’ve visited):
My greatest achievement in this project thus far, which is unlikely ever to be equaled, came in connection with the recently-opened Morgan stop on the Green and Pink Lines, serving the West Loop. The Girlfriend texted me one day asking if I wanted to meet at a restaurant in the West Loop, and I agreed — and when I checked to see if the Morgan stop would be available, it turned out to be the very day it opened. “Sincere usage” on day one!

If anyone has suggestions for plausible destinations at stops I have not yet used, I’m all ears. I’m particularly curious about Racine and Addison on the Blue Line, which seem to be my most notable gaps within the regions I’ve achieved good coverage in.

My grading lexicon

Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of personal jargon for grading papers. They are little metaphors or turns of phrase that I use in an attempt to get at common failings of student writing in an economical and somewhat humorous way — not to make fun of them, but hopefully to get their attention more effectively. Here are three of the main ones:

  • Paper in search of a thesis — this describes a paper that starts with a vague or tautologous thesis (e.g., “the authors are similar in some ways, but there are also important differences”) and only comes to a more concrete position in the conclusion, after working through the material. While an inductive approach has its virtues, it seems to me that this type of paper is a second-to-last draft handed in as a final draft — once they’ve found their thesis, they need to put it at the beginning and then focus their exposition on it.
  • The silo effect — this is a typical feature of a “paper in search of a thesis.” It describes a tendency in comparison-contrast papers for students to summarize one topic, then summarize the other, without any immediately apparent connection between the two (e.g., each exposition has a parallel structure, each refers to the other).
  • The “and another thing!” style of organization — papers suffering from this affliction have no real flow or overall organizational scheme, abruptly moving from one topic to the next. Often the word “another” will literally be present in most or all of their transitions. While it can’t always be avoided, a transition that can do no better than “another” in order to make a connection is basically an open seam.

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any similar shorthand phrases for common pitfalls?

The time that remains

I realized early this summer that the end of this calendar year would represent a major clearing of the decks in terms of my academic obligations. Some of the finishing touches of my translations may filter into early January, but those are basically done, and I also had to work a couple articles and a conference paper into the mix. At this point, I only really have two near-term writing obligations left for this year, and I thought you, my readers, might be amused by them:

  • An article for Speculations on Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology (the topic was open, and I am planning on focusing on the effects of the movements’ blog-based natures on their reception — arguably marking my first foray into “digital humanities”)
  • An entry on Milbank for the forthcoming Zizek Dictionary

I can think of no better way to round out the year.

Posted in academia, The lighter side of AUFS. Comments Off

Always the low price. Always.

In the midst of one of my Twitter rants, it occurred to me that the Walmart slogan is actually really menacing, and I proposed that someone should find disturbing images and label them, “Always the low price. Always.” Since I’m procrastinating on revising an article today, I thought that someone should be me, at least at first. I encourage all of you to make your own and share them!

Read the rest of this entry »

All I want for Christmas is books

There’s more to us than joyless cynicism here at AUFS — we also want stuff, we want things. In the last couple years, for instance, I’ve started to want a lot of clothes. I suspect that this is a desire that can be satiated, since I experienced a similar lust for shoes for a while there, which calmed down once I obtained my rather minimal idea of a “full set” (one casual and one dressy in black and brown; one set of tennis shows).

My clothing drives would have to reach truly pathological levels, though, to reach the intensity of my desire for books. Every time I’m at Anna Kornbluh’s house, for instance, I long for her full sets of Lacan and Freud in the original. And this leads me to my proposed open thread today: what gift of books would be your wish come true? (Assume money is no object.)

For me (sorry, Lacan!), I think it would be the Corpus Christianorum edition of Augustine’s De Trinitate, along with a gift card good for ten volumes in the Sources Chrétiennes series.

A Very AUFS Thanksgiving

Yesterday Brad sent me this Thanksgiving prayer by William S. Burroughs, and I thought it fitting to share it with you, our readers, on this day of Thanksgiving:

Posted in The lighter side of AUFS. Comments Off

Early creative outlets

Brad and I were just chatting about our early creative outlets, and I thought it might be interesting to hear what some of our readers did while generating the “juvenalia” volume of their complete works. As for me, I’ve been publishing more or less continuously since age twelve. I began drawing comic books in sixth grade, starting with “The Adventures of Mr. West,” based on one of my teachers. As I recall, I originally started it because I felt that he had unfairly denigrated a timeline that I was working on, so he was something of an “anti-hero.” Other stars included Mr. Wilcox, who was quickly reduced to a head in a jar. It was a more innocent time — I’m sure if I were in school today and drew such things, I’d be institutionalized.

Eventually it somehow evolved into a sci-fi series starring the crew of the S.S. Swift: Swifty (the incompetent captain), Ensign (the second-in-command who was always covering for him), Drago (who looked like a dragon and was often treated as their pet or child), and Paddy (an Irish character who was frequently killed off and resurrected). Read the rest of this entry »

It’s a jungle out there: The precarious labor of Monk

MacGyver isn’t the only questionable show The Girlfriend and I watch — we’re also getting close to the end of Monk, a Sherlock Holmes variant starring Tony Shalhoub as a detective with OCD. Those who aren’t familiar with the premise can read the exhaustive Wikipedia page, but in this post, I’d just like to highlight a few salient features.

The more we watch, the more bizarre the show becomes. Read the rest of this entry »


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