Kurt Vonnegut didn’t deliver the famous “Wear Sunscreen” graduation speech published in the Chicago Tribune that was often mistakenly attributed to the celebrated author. But he could have.
Over his lifetime, he gave dozens of quirky commencement addresses. In those speeches, he made some preposterous claims. But they made people laugh and made them think. They were speeches the graduates remembered.
Having studied and written about Vonnegut for years, I wish he had been my commencement speaker. I graduated from Austin College, a small school in North Texas. I don’t even remember who gave my class’s graduation speech, much less a single word the speaker said. I suspect many others have had – and will have – similar experiences.
Young people, college students especially, loved Vonnegut. During the early and mid-1960s, he commanded an avid and devoted following on campuses before he had produced any bestsellers. Why was a middle-aged writer born in 1922 adored by a counterculture told not to trust anyone over 30? Why did he continue to appeal to younger generations until his death?
Their parents’ generation
Vonnegut, who died just before commencement season in 2007, was nearly 50 years old when his groundbreaking anti-war novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was published in 1969.
A cultural touchstone, the novel changed the way Americans think and write about war. It helped usher in the postmodern style of literature with its playful, fragmented form, its insistence that reality is not objective and that history is not monolithic, and its self-reflection on its own status as art. Like Andy Warhol’s soup cans, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” with its jokes, drawings, risqué limericks and flying saucers, blurs the line between high and low culture.
Cited as one of the top novels of the 20th century, “Slaughterhouse-Five” has been transformed into film, theatrical plays, a graphic novel and visual art. It has inspired rock bands and musical interpretations. Vonnegut’s recurring refrain, “So it goes,” used 106 times in the novel, has entered the popular lexicon. The book has been banned, burned and censored.
In many ways, though, Vonnegut had more in common with the parents of the college students he addressed than with the students themselves. Father to six children – three of his own and three nephews who joined the family after his sister Alice and her husband died – Vonnegut had studied biochemistry at Cornell and had worked in corporate public relations. He continued to believe all his life in the civic virtues he learned as a student at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis.
He had the credibility of a World War II veteran, a member of what journalist Tom Brokaw would later call the “Greatest Generation.” Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to Dresden as a prisoner of war. There he was starved, beaten and put to work as a slave laborer. He survived the Allied firebombing of the city in February 1945 and was forced to help excavate hundreds of bodies of men, women and children who had been burned alive, suffocated and crushed to death.
Fool or philosopher?
If Vonnegut was, like the students’ fathers, a family man and a veteran, perhaps he also embodied the dad that students in 1969 dreamed their own fathers could be: funny, artistic, anti-establishment and anti-war.
Vonnegut had the look – sad, kind eyes under that mop of uncontrollable hair, the full droopy mustache. A photo taken just before he delivered a commencement address at Bennington College in 1970 shows him wearing a loud striped jacket, reading glasses tucked neatly in its pocket, with a cigarette dangling at his fingertips.
Looking like a cross between Albert Einstein and a carnival huckster, Vonnegut had his contradictions on full display.
Was he a clown or a wise man? A fool or a philosopher?
The literary establishment did not quite know what to make of Vonnegut, either. A writer frequently dismissed by critics for his flying saucers and space aliens, for the simplicity of his prose, for pandering to what one reviewer called the “minimally intelligent young,” he was also praised for his inventiveness, for his lively and playful language, for the depth of feeling behind the zaniness, and for advocating decency and kindness in a chaotic world.
A forceful defense of art
As the U.S. was fighting what most college students believed was an unjust and imperialist war in Vietnam, Vonnegut’s message struck home. He used his own experience in World War II to destroy any notion of a good war.
“For all the sublimity of the cause for which we fought, we surely created a Belsen of our own,” he lamented, referencing the Nazi concentration camp.
The military-industrial complex, he told the graduates at Bennington, treats people and their children and their cities like garbage. Instead, Americans should spend money on hospitals and housing and schools and Ferris wheels rather than on war machinery.
In the same speech, Vonnegut playfully urged young people to defy their professors and fancy educations by clinging to superstition and untruth, especially what he considered the most ridiculous lie of all – “that humanity is at the center of the universe, the fulfiller or the frustrater of the grandest dreams of God Almighty.”
Vonnegut conceded that the military was probably right about the “contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe.” Still, he denied that contemptibility and begged students to deny it as well by creating art. Art puts human beings at the center of the universe, whether they belong there or not, allowing people to imagine and create a saner, kinder, more just world than the one we really live in.
The generations, he told students at the State University of New York at Fredonia, are not that far apart and do not want that much from each other. Older people want credit for having survived so long – and often imaginatively – under difficult conditions. Younger people want to be acknowledged and respected. He urged each group not to be so “intolerably stingy” about giving the other credit.
A strain of sorrow and pessimism underlies all of Vonnegut’s fiction, as well as his graduation speeches. He witnessed the worst that human beings could do to one another, and he made no secret about his fears for the future of a planet suffering from environmental degradation and a widening divide between the rich and the poor.
If Vonnegut were alive and giving commencement speeches today, he would be speaking to college students whose parents and even grandparents he may have addressed in the past. Today’s graduates have lived through the COVID-19 pandemic and are drowning in social media. They face high housing costs and financial instability and are more depressed and anxious than previous generations.
I’m sure he would give these students the advice he gave so often over the years: to focus, in the midst of chaos, on what makes life worth living, to recognize the joyful moments – maybe by listening to music or drinking a glass of lemonade in the shade – and saying out loud, as his Uncle Alex taught him, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
There has been a lot of hype about Artificial Intelligence lately, perhaps too much. But if you want to understand the bigger picture in a non-technical political-economic framework, this is for you. It is part of a more extensive work from Daedalus whose theme from the Spring 2023 issue is “AI & Society“; this piece, however, The Turing Trap: The Promise & Peril of Human-Like Artificial Intelligence, by Erik Brynjolfsson is where to start. In my humble opinion most commentators on this subject start with an opinion which bleeds through their entire work, while this might be OK if they are writing an editorial, or at least acknowledge their agenda, all too often, opinions are related as fact. In contrast Dr. Brynjolfsson does a great job of objectively setting the stage for how AI *could* fit into our future without the usual angst and hand-waving that is so often seen in these pieces. I stress the word ‘could” because this is the value of his piece. “The future is not preordained” is his point; we have choices about how AI can work for us. One assumption he makes is that we can not put the genie back into the bottle, AI is here to stay, and it will only become more critical. However, we can decide who will benefit from it; will it be all of us or just a few? So if you have a few minutes, click through to read the article. After that, perhaps you could spend a few minutes thinking about how you want AI to fit into your life and how we as a society can get there.
The education of Ursula Le Guin
On Jan. 22, Ursula K. Le Guin died in Portland, Oregon. Since then, much has been written memorializing her genre-defying body of work, her contributions to feminism and science fiction, and her broad interest in human society and government.
But as a cultural anthropologist, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between Le Guin and her father, anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber.
Kroeber’s ideas – which had a profound influence on his daughter’s writing – stemmed from an important development in the discipline of anthropology, one that viewed human culture as something that wasn’t ingrained, and had to be taught and learned.
Culture isn’t genetic
Kroeber’s mentor was a Columbia University anthropologist named Franz Boas. Kroeber was especially drawn to Boas’ newly developed notion of culture and the broader theory of “cultural relativism.”
Cultural relativism emerged in the late 19th century as an alternative to theories like social Darwinism that linked culture to evolution. These theories – widely accepted at the time – tended to rank human societies on an evolutionary scale. Not surprisingly, Western European civilizations were seen as the pinnacle of culture.
But Boas proposed something radically different. He insisted, based on field-based research, that humans live in stunningly diverse cultural worlds shaped by language, which creates institutions, aesthetics, and ideas and notions of right and wrong. He further argued that each society needs to reproduce its culture through teaching and learning.
Kroeber described culture as “superorganic.” According to this idea, the “civilizational achievements” of any group of people weren’t passed down biologically and could only be taught. If we’re deprived of our access to human instruction – books, guides, teachers – we won’t know how to build buildings, write poetry and compose music. Humans, Kroeber knew, are hardwired to create, but there’s no such thing as a “hereditary memory” that allows a people to intuitively know how to recreate specific things.
He told the hypothetical story of a baby taken from France and brought to China. She would, he argued, grow up speaking perfect Chinese and would know no French. His point – as obvious as it might seem today – was that there was no hereditary quality to “Frenchness” that would carry over, genetically, to a child born of French parents.
The idea of culture as “superorganic” says that people are organic lifeforms, like ants or dogs or fish, but culture is “added” to them, which influences their behaviors. Ants and dogs don’t need culture to reproduce their behaviors: Raised in isolation from their own kind, they still do the things they were programmed to do.
Upending the status quo
Kroeber, along with many of his fellow anthropologists, were drawn to these ideas because they depicted culture as universally human, but not universally rankable, racially predetermined or inherently more or less sophisticated.
For example, it was common in the late 19th century for expansionists to justify their imperialist ambitions with “scientific” evidence that Native Americans were culturally inferior. They pointed to language: Native Americans, they claimed, didn’t have words for the passage of time. For this reason, they couldn’t grasp a complex concept like history.
But Kroeber and his colleagues pointed out the Hopi did have a complex way of reckoning time. They just didn’t count things, like days or hours, using the same terminology they might use to count men, or rocks or clouds, which are objects you can actually see. To the Hopi, a day is in no way like a rock. So it shouldn’t be treated as such.
Kroeber’s peers included African-American anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, Jewish linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir, and female scholars such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. All grappled with discrimination and cultural denigration.
In response, Kroeber was compelled to write that history, geography and the environment influenced cultural differences. No culture simply emerged naturally.
“Social agencies are so tremendously influential on every one of us,” he wrote, “that it is very difficult to find any test that, if distinctive racial faculties were inborn, would fairly reveal the degree to which they are inborn.”
The only reason, according to Kroeber, that someone would insist on innate differences between human population would be to preserve the status quo: societies built on racial discrimination and colonialism.
‘But does it make them think?’
Throughout her childhood in Berkeley, California, Ursula Le Guin was exposed to these ideas. They very likely formed the basis of her worldview.
Her writing was never simply about creating a magical or strange world. It was about crafting a laboratory to play with identities – race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or class – in a way that forced readers to think about how cultural prejudice colored their views of other people.
“Entertaining them is all well and good,” she told New York Times reporter John Wray, “but does it make them think?”
With Le Guin, it always struck me that the point of her imagined universes was precisely to show that nothing human was universal, and that what was “alien” was only a matter of perspective.
In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin tackled the idea of gender norms. Here, I think she was channeling Margaret Mead’s breakthrough study “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,” in which Mead was able to demonstrate that gender norms can significantly diverge across cultures.
In “The Word for World Is Forest,” Le Guin didn’t simply pen an environmentalist fable about the destruction of a forest and its people. She built off the insights of indigenous scholars like Vine Deloria Jr., who put native peoples’ voices and worldviews at the center of the indigenous rights movement. In “The Dispossessed,” she contrasts the different political systems of two neighboring worlds not to argue which one is best, per se, but to show that in order for these systems to exist, humans need to actively participate in and reproduce them.
In 2015 I planned an anthropology class that I hoped could use speculative fiction and fantasy as a way to understand basic concepts in cultural anthropology. The class was built around Kroeber and Le Guin.
A mutual friend gave my syllabus to Le Guin, and she wrote to me. She suggested some other works to include and seemed to appreciate the concept of the course.
“I think my pa would be tickled,” she wrote, “that he and I have ended up on the same [syallabus].”
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