Tag Archives: psychology

Reading Progress: 2014 Nebula Nominees

[Spoilers–Enter at your own risk]

This is one of my favorite times of the year because the semester is winding down, allowing me more free time to read the Nebula nominees, too. If I have time, I usually pick up some of the Hugo nominees.  This year, however, I suspect I’ll be focusing mainly on the Nebulas due to the Sad Puppies takeover of the Hugo ballot.

The list of nominees for 2014 is here. Due to several friends’ recommendations, I started with Annihilation. It’s the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Here is a review at i09 covers more of the details. I tore through it faster than any novel I’d read in years and felt a need to hide under my bed with a blankie when I finished.  It left me with a sense of delicious disquiet. Although I usually write more about sociology, this book explored concepts of psychology in fascinating ways.

The protagonist and narrator, a biologist, is sent with three other women to explore Area X: an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist, the leader of the team. All the previous expeditions had failed, ending in the deaths of all of the team members.  Fascinating group dynamics were presented like trust and distrust, in-groups and out-groups, as well as leadership style. The plot is gripping and the unreliable narrator fascinating. It seems that she may have been psychologically unusual before going to area X, which may be an advantage for her. The mystery, as well as the disconcerting, slow building horror, have me ready to read the second and third book.  The book left me with many questions.

However, I’m currently reading The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a Chinese author. The book was translated into English by Ken Liu. I’m about a quarter into it and can’t wait to read more.  Yesterday, I spent about thirty minutes reading about black-body radiation online to better understand the book. I love how science fiction forces me to stretch my knowledge. My focus in school was on the social sciences so I love a good opportunity to learn more about science. For example, I’ve been listening to an introductory, astronomy podcast from the Ohio State by Professor Richard Pogge since last fall. I’m on the 28th lecture, and I’ve found the podcasts both informative and entertaining at points. The only challenge I’ve faced is that while I’m driving, I wish that I could see the examples that he’s showing his class.  I search for examples online later. Listening to these podcasts this year has led me to a deeper appreciation of The Three-Body Problem and will hopefully help me with writing my own fiction.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology

Craving and Alienation in Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”

[There are major spoilers in this cave. Beware.]

One of the impressive aspects of Neil Gaiman’s works is how he weaves magical stories that are relevant, cautionary tales for our own time.  Recently, I read The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds and noticed similar themes to The Ocean at the End of the Lane about the dangers of money and craving.  I discussed this theme briefly in my post from last year.

The plot of Gaiman’s story begins with the unnamed protagonist finding a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on Misty Isle.  People seek the cave because it contains gold, although gold is ultimately not what the protagonist wants.   Calum used the money from his previous trip in the cave as a bride-price and for his farm. The locals can find the cave, too, but they know better than to enter it. Calum states, “[b]ut they are too wise to come here, to take its gold.  They say that the cave makes you evil: that each time you visit it, each time you enter to take gold, it eats the good in your soul, so they do not enter (46). However, Calum doesn’t believe that the cave feeds on good and evil.  Rather, he feels that his experience afterwards was that “things are flat.  There is less beauty in a rainbow, less meaning in a sermon, less joy in a kiss…”(47). Calum notes that eventually nothing means anything, not even killing a man.

Gaiman drives the point home by revealing that Calum is the one whose lack of care and negligent actions lead to the death of the protagonist’s daughter.  He chose to leave her tied to a tree by her long, red hair, unable to reach her knife. She died there.  This was over the fact the Calum was stealing the cattle that the protagonist himself had stolen, and the young woman stood up to Calum.  When Calum returned in a year, he realized what he had done.  He says to the protagonist, “It was an evil thing I did, perhaps.” The protagonist, the dead girl’s father, says, “There is evil.” Calum’s love of wealth led to the death of a human being.

It is revealed later that money in the cave is not exactly money. The protagonist’s father was not a mortal, and his heritage allows him the ability to see the creature living the cave.  It explains to him: “I taste their pleasure and their joy.  I feed, a little, feed on what they do not need and do not value.  A taste of heart, a lick and a nibble of their fine consciences, a sliver of soul” (56). The creature provides the protagonist with a weapon and informs him of when Calum sleeps since Calum intends to ambush the protagonist when he emerges with the gold.

Calum and the protagonist fight, and they fall over a cliff onto a tree. The protagonist makes a promise to come back to help—in a year.  This parallels the year that Calum left the girl to tie through his negligence and thievery. In his narration, the protagonist states, “I take no joy in killing; no man should, and no woman.  Sometimes, death is necessary , but it is always an evil thing.  That is something I am in no doubt of, even after the events I speak of here” (38).

This tale reflected a great deal on money, property, alienation, and evil. In many societies, people are taught the ideology that money is both Real and Important, when it is really just a social construct.  It causes problems including alienation, or estrangement, from our lives, labor, and communities, similar to Calum’s experience after leaving the cave. In turn, this alienation from his community, in addition to his desire for riches led to the death of an innocent through negligence.  Money doesn’t have to be real for us to suffer from it.  In theory, our lust for money (or in the case of cows, property) destroys us, it makes us more likely to harm others.

A few other scenes illustrate these points about greed and property further.  In one scene during the men’s travels, they stay with a man and woman.  The woman is treated by her man as if she is property.  He beats her for making choices he disagrees with,  and then “he had his way with her” which agitates the protagonist, although he doesn’t interfere (20).  In another scene, the protagonist does not cheat the ferryman, though the ferryman would have charged him as a boy due to his small stature. This interaction illustrates the use of money for a transaction, rather than someone trying to maximize the money that he keeps.  If the protagonist had wanted to be wealthy, he would have allowed the ferryman’s misapprehension to continue. The issue with greed is that there is never enough to be satisfied.

At one point, Calum states: “‘Your King will want more gold, because Kings want more.  It is what they do.  Each time you come back, it will mean less. The rainbow means nothing. Killing a man means nothing’” (48).  While certainly this can be true of Kings as individual people, it can also be true of governments and corporations.  Organizations require more money.  Businesspersons desire more money.  Individual people in the United States (and other places) crave more money because they want to achieve the American Dream, or upwards social mobility.  Yet, the wealthier people become, their behaviors, on average, have been shown to become less generous.  This short PBS video documents studies by psychologists looking into the negative effects of being wealthy on behavior, as well as the effects of pretending that a person is wealthy.  (My favorite from this video is that drivers of luxury cars were less likely to follow the law and stop for pedestrians crossing.)

The more we strive for extrinsic, external rewards, the less we can experience the beauty of the world, the beauty of other people, or the fruits of rewarding labor.  Many work to gain wealth, rather than working for passion.  There are many cases of corporations choosing to maximize their profits over the wellbeing of people in their communities like the avoidable West Virginia water crisis earlier this year. In this blog post, Robert Reich discusses how corporations are blamed as entities, but individuals are still the one’s making decisions.  GM did nothing about a faulty ignition switch that led to 13 fatalities, and both executives and engineers knew about it, as discussed in this article.  Individuals and organizations can lose sight of the community as they attempt to gain wealth.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is a meditation in the nature of good and evil as it relates to money and property.  While I don’t necessarily think that Gaiman was stating that all money or property is inherently evil, I do think that he repeatedly warns of the dangers inherent of craving property instead of focusing on the well-being of others.  The final scene in his book is the protagonist turning his back on the cave and walking a path home to his wife, to his family.


Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

Review of “The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times” by Arlie Hochschild

In reference to consulting for online dating:  “So part of getting the ‘real you’ out there required the suppression of the too real you” (Hochschild 25).

“The very ease with which we reach for market services may also prevent us from noticing the remarkable degree to which the market has come to dominate our very ideas about what can or should be for sale or rent, and who should be included in the dramatic cast-buyers, branders, and sellers—that we imagine as a part of a personal life” (Hochschild 223).

Although I teach introductory sociology at a community college, I discovered sociology by accident as an elective during my junior year of college.  Psychology and sociology both intrigue me.  For more than a decade, I’ve been a fan of Dr. Arlie Hochschild’s research and writing style.  Her previous research on the emotional labor that we perform to do our jobs, as well as her research on the second shift work that (mainly) women perform when they arrive home from their jobs fascinates me.  When I saw that she was publishing a new book on “The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times,” I knew that it had to go on my bookshelf.

While Hochschild performs outstanding research, I like the fact that she tries to reach a larger audience than academics with her writing style.  This trend continued in “The Outsourced Self.”  It was an easy read in terms of the language, but emotionally, I found it to be both a challenging and rewarding read.  At times, the topics addressed in the book were heartbreaking as people tried to muddle through their lives in modern times.  Many of the interviewees outsourced some work to others while maintaining control over other aspects of their lives.  Hochschild’s use of her own family experiences in the past and present to illustrate the differences over time were helpful and interesting. She begins the book by talking about the village from a century ago, where there was a spirit of “just do.”  This is the idea that the entire community would pitch in to help others without even questioning.  Today, we are moving more and more towards employing strangers to complete the work we need done instead of family, or even friends.  However, while there are many examples of how this change may be harming people, there are also examples in the book of positive relationships between the people hiring work to be done and those completing it.

It struck me as important that people drew the “line in the sand” about outsourcing in different places.  The book covers outsourcing throughout the entire life course, from birth to death.  It actually begins with a look at at online dating.  While many people are likely familiar with online dating, I was surprised to learn just how much of the process people were willing to turn over to a consultant.  This section disturbed me because it seems that people are allowing themselves to be quantified and objectified by the market.  I wonder how this impacts how people view themselves and others.

In the second chapter of the book, I was already well aware of the wedding planner phenomena, as my family decided to hire one for the day of our wedding.  We did this due to the fact that family members were in different places, similar to the people discussed in the book.  Hochschild points out that “through outsourcing, they repersonalized their lives” (55).  The consultant talked to the couple about their relationship and helped them come up with a very personal display of their wedding.  The couple (and others) got to choose what they did want to be in control of versus what they were willing to hand over to the consultant.  After the marriage, couples therapists can help the couple through difficulties in their relationship.  It used to be the case for many families that you did not talk to strangers about your problems.  In one of the cases in the book, Rachel and Roger visited Sophie for counseling.  Sophie was involved in their lives, even being present when Roger was dying.  I was mildly surprised about the fact that online couples counseling is growing.

There are two chapters on surrogacy: the first from the point of view of the parents employing a woman to carry their child and the second from the point of view of the surrogates.  For me, these chapters were the most emotionally difficult to read.  On the one hand, I don’t want to be inherently afraid of new technologies.  However, there is a huge component of global inequality involved in this.  There is great stigma attached to the women who are willing to be surrogates in many places like India.  Often, they are doing this because they don’t seem to have many other choices.  It isn’t always the case, but sometimes, the infants are removed after a Caesarean section.  This causes the surrogates to feel more alienated compared to when they are able to hand the infant over willingly to the other parents.  Then, for some, it feels more like a gift than just a cold financial interaction.  Surrogates were also instructed to “think of their wombs as carriers, bags, suitcases, something external to themselves” (99).  Perhaps this allows the women to be surrogates, but I still wonder what is the cost.  Does this create alienation from one’s own body?  Like many other goods and services, Hochschild also brings up important questions as to different clinics in various countries trying to undercut one another.  There are many other great sections in this book like a discussion of outsourcing care of the elderly.  With the baby boomer generation aging, combined with the fact that average life expectancy is longer, there are important norms to be established regarding the care of older individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone, academic or not.  From an academic standpoint, it is an important work.  Yet, it also resonated with me personally.  Many people I know, myself included, have to decide about how much of our lives we want to outsource to others.  What is ethical?  What isn’t?

Questions for thought:

(1) What outsourcing are you comfortable with in your life?  What do you feel like you should do for yourself or your family?

(2) If you’ve done this type of labor, how do you feel that it impacts you?  Positively?  Negatively?

(3) How do we avoid objectifying people?

(4) What should the community be responsible for?  Are we better off now or not?


Filed under Book Reviews, Sociology

“Looking-Glass Self” in Skyfall: The Identity of James Bond”

[Spoiler heavy zone]

Two nights ago, I went to see the latest James Bond movie, “Skyfall.”  I’d just started my Thanksgiving break, and  I was hoping for a fast-paced action movie with good cinematography.  I felt even the introduction was worth the price of admission.  Although I enjoy watching Bond movies, I often feel uncomfortable with the overt (and covert) sexism.  Particularly, the aggrandizement of traditional masculine gender roles like violence to solve problems bothers me, as well as the objectification of women.  Despite all of this, I usually enjoy going to see Bond movies.  Today is not the day that I’m going to explore my hypocrisy on my blog.

“Skyfall” justifies the need for spies and the entire spy industry in today’s world, but the spy “industry” needs to adapt.  The parallel between Bond and the overall spy business is evident.  One of the major questions in the movie is despite psychological and physical limitations, can Bond continue to be efficient in a career field that needs to adapt to changes in globalization, technology, and warfare?  The “enemy” has drastically changed.  However, I like the fact that the villain of this movie was created by the British government itself, as opposed to an operative from another traditional, national enemy, or a terrorist, say, from the Middle East.  It makes sense people having to make monstrous decisions who are abandoned might eventually become villanous.

The movie had gorgeous psychological symbolism in it, which, as my spouse and I discussed may go back to “Casino Royale.”   When a character, Silva, asks Bond about his hobby, Bond quips, “resurrection.”  Yet, this is very accurate.  I can think of at least three cases of Bond being symbolically resurrected, and I’ll bet that there are more.  Bond gets shot by his partner and  falls into water.  He’s presumed dead, but I think that it is important that we never witness him emerge from the water.  However, he is alive and taking a break, reminding me of being in paradise or purgatory.  He returns to the UK when he sees the main plot of the movie shaping up on television.  After returning to the home he grew up in, Skyfall, he winds up destroying his home in flames and eventually falls through the ice.  (Before this, he runs through underground tunnels attached to his house.  This also seems very psychological in terms of the subconscious.)

Personally, when he emerges from the ice feels like his actual resurrection to me.  Another interesting symbolic motif in the film is the continual use of mirrors and reflections of Bond. This reminds me of Cooley’s idea of the looking-glass self.  Our self image comes from how we think that others see us (Conley).  This cute wikipedia image is an example of this.  This idea is important in this movie because Bond “dies”, and he has to determine who he is again.  He is “James Bond,” which apparently is truly his name.  It’s neat to see the interactions happen between Bond and the gamekeeper, Kincade, that knew him as a child.  This person would be one living person that shaped his identity before he was an agent. Kincade obviously had a relationship with young Bond, but he doesn’t fully know his adult identity.  M makes a comment about orphans making the best agents.  While one might assume this is due to their lack of social connections, I believe it’s because without parents and other caregivers, it’s easier to shape the identity of a person into an agent.  In this movie, it seems that the people helping Bond to solidify his identity are is “Mother”, M, his symbolic brother, Silva, and even other characters like the new “Q,” and his new partner.

MI-6 also goes through many of these same transformations.  It is blown up and damaged at the beginning so they change headquarters. (A similar chase seen occurs under the tunnels attached to the new location.)  Then, it is under assault from the government for being ineffective and useless due to globalization.  It is under the same threat and has to go through the same identity reconstruction process that Bond did.  At the end, there is a changing of the guard that make it evident that the institution is continuing, but their identity has been permanently changed.  I look forward to seeing where the franchise and the characters go from here.

What symbolism have I missed?  Do you think that I’m right about the imagery in the movie?



Filed under Movie Review, Sociology, Uncategorized

“Crime and Punishment”

[Spoilers alert.  But then, you probably already know the plot of this one.]

“‘Brother, what are you saying?’ Dunia cried out in despair, ‘You have shed human blood.’

‘Which they all shed,’ he interrupted, almost frantic.

‘Which cascades, and always has, down upon the earth like a waterfall, which they pour like champagne, and for which they are crowned on the Capitoline and called the benefactors of mankind…’” (499).

While I’ve mainly been reviewing science fiction and fantasy, I read many other types of books including “classic” literature.  For years, my spouse, who happens to be a Russophile, has recommended “Crime and Punishment” to me.  In all honesty, I barely knew anything going into the book, other than it’s about a murderer and the criminal justice system in Russia during the 1800s.  I happened to read the translation by Sidney Monas for no better reason than it was at the library.  Although this novel is from the 1800s, it remains relevant for analysis today.

The focus of this blog is the intersection of books, culture, and sociology.  “Crime and Punishment” was both a challenging and rewarding read for me, and I think that it’d be a good book for discussing many topics in an introduction to sociology class.  It’d be useful for comparing and contrasting the judicial system in the US today with that of Russia in the 1800s.  For example, what is true punishment?  Is rehabilitation possible?  It’d also be a useful book for discussing early field of psychology in terms of looking at obsession.  Does a psychological, sociological, or religious framework work better for discussing why people commit crimes?

It’d also be an excellent book for considering how the structure of the society around the characters leads to feelings of alienation from themselves, others, and society at large.  Since “Crime and Punishment” looks at the rapid social changes happening in the period, it be a great way of discussing the concept of anomie.  There is a sense of normlessness in the society that leads to many people attempting to commit suicide.  This book was published before Durkheim’s work on called “Suicide,” but it represents many of the ideas well.  It’d be possible to relate some of these ideas to our time period, too.  With rapid globalization, changing technologies, and many fluctuating social norms, people today may also be inclined to alienation.  If you are interested in reading more on this anomie and globalization, there are some interesting articles in this archive of The Global Sociology Blog.

Raskolnikov, the main character, and murderer, cites many reasons for his murder of a pawnbroker.  He murders her sister, too, when she returns too early while the murder is in progress.  The rest of the book is an exploration of what thoughts and theories led the character to commit these heinous acts.  Additionally, the novel is overtly religious.  It seems as if Dostoyevsky was making the argument that in a period of uncertainty and disorder that individuals need something to give their life meaning.  At the end of the novel, Raskolnikov starts to feel love for another character, Sonia, that also connects to Christianity.  After reading the book, I don’t feel that he was necessarily making the argument that religion is “real” but that it is important for people.  I’d love to hear what someone else thinks about this topic.

Finally, the novel would be great to illustrate social inequalities.  Social class is addressed extensively in the book, as well as gender.  Additionally, students might notice how there are threads of anti-semitism by some of the characters in the book.  Tensions between characters of different ethnicities is apparent, too.  “Crime and Punishment” is an emotionally challenging read, but it is a riveting book of both psychological and sociological importance.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Sociology