Monday, May 09, 2011

Flatland and Social Commentary

I've recently finished The Annotated Flatland. Flatland was written in 1884 by Edwin Abbott, and tells the story of "A. Square", an inhabitant of a two-dimensional world called Flatland, who is visited by a three-dimensional sphere. I'd heard of the book before, but hadn't read it. It's fairly famous as a mathematical work which describes ideas about how two-dimensional creatures would perceive three-dimensional objects, and by analogy, how we might perceive the fourth dimension. This semester, one of our better students watched a recent movie made from the book and was fairly excited by it. It led to a conversation with another faculty member who said she'd attempted to read the book, but had found it so sexist she couldn't stomach it. It turns out that the book's treatment of women is a point of contention for a number of people.

The book describes a two-dimensional universe with a strict class structure. All males are polygons of various sorts, ranging from the lowest ranked isosceles triangles with one very small angle, followed by triangles, then squares, then so on up higher and higher order regular polygons. (Irregular polygons are considered immoral, and are shunned, imprisoned, or executed.) At the top of the social order are high degree polygons called "circles", who are the elite priest class of the society. Women are only line segments, and are considered incapable of thought and essentially worthless.

So the story does describe a fundamentally sexist (and horribly class structured) world. (It's worth noting that the strict class distinctions have a strong affect on the male inhabitants, too. The isosceles triangles with very small angles are considered mentally deficient and are caged in schools for the young to practice "feeling" angles on. Isosceles triangles with larger angles are only allowed low-ranked jobs, and equilateral polygons are ranked on the social hierarchy by the number sides they have, with the most honored jobs reserved for those with a large number of sides and large angles.)

So was Abbott a wretched sexist and classist? As it turns out, no; Abbott was in fact fairly progressive for his time, and in fact argued for the education of women at a time when many believed (as the Flatlanders did) that women were incapable of education or of rational thought. What he wrote was in fact a critique of common attitudes toward women, the disabled, and the class structure. At the time, it would have been a thinly veiled satire of Victorian social norms, although apparently there is some evidence that even at the time, some people did not get that he was making fun of, rather than encouraging, those attitudes. (Which means that Flatland may in fact be a 19th century example of Poe's Law.) Of course, by the 20th and 21st century we are far removed from Victorian social mores, and it makes it hard to recognize this as a satire when the social context has been removed. Instead, it ends up looking horrifically retrograde. Once read with the idea of a satire in mind, however, it becomes remarkably clear. In fact, there are occasional clues in the text that the line segments are more intelligent than A. Square (or the rest of Flatland) credits them with being.

Interestingly, the movie altered the story to remove the sexist elements. The protagonist's grandson (a hexagon) is recast as a hexagonal granddaughter, Hex; women are no longer represented as line segments or considered unworthy of education. However, the class structure of the original is preserved. Perhaps we are more able to recognize the critique of class than of gender. The movie is also given a happier ending; through the intervention of the three dimensional visitor, the Flatlanders come to understand the reality of the third dimension (and the fourth is hinted at), and it is implied that the class structure dominated by the circles is being overthrown at the end.

So what about this movie alternative? The social critique has been altered. The critiques of class and orthodoxy remain. The idea of truth--as revealed by reason and observation--taking priority over authority, is a familiar (and needed) social criticism for our culture, but isn't far from Abbott's original text. The removal of the gender dimension (ahem) might be wise, since a careful recasting of the story to satirize our own prejudices might be more difficult, and require more time than the movie allowed. Our contemporary approaches to sexism have become more refined and less crudely stated, and exposing these may require different tools than Abbott used. So perhaps the movie is a good "translation" into modern language of some of what Abbott intended, without being literal.

Plus, the graphics are pretty cool.

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