Kill Your Idols IX: Starting an Argument With an Image, Composing, 21/08/2017

Perry Anderson’s essay “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” evokes a sad and beautiful image to me. If you meditate on this image a little – like a photograph, a painting, or a line from a poem – it can lead you to the basic idea of a complex and important concept for how philosophy develops across years.

An image like that can start an illuminating philosophical exploration. But Anderson’s essay already did that, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it.

Antonio Gramsci sits in Mussolini’s prison. In his desperation to hang on to any hope for his dream of a just society, he examines the minds of his defeated comrades to find out what they may have done wrong.

Can I objectify a man murdered by fascism? Is that okay for a minute?
Because when I look into steely eyes like that, I get the distinct feeling
that, hunch and height aside, Antonio Gramsci was a foxy man.
How do you examine the minds of dead people? You work through how they thought – their ideologies – their theories. Why they did what they did. Why you did it too, Antonio.

That’s another draw to the Prison Notebooks – how deadly personal it all was to Gramsci. Boethius had his meditation on fate, and Gramsci had his on revolution.

Gramsci examined the philosophical and psychological perspective of his own revolutionaries, but he did the same for anti-revolutionaries. Not the reactionaries and oligarchs who put him in prison, but the ordinary folks who couldn’t be bothered either way. Why did they desire their slavery as if it were their freedom?

The answer was in a cultural hegemony. People grew accustomed to thinking of particular ideas and moral principles being right, never asking a critical question. Of course, a business owner should pay workers whatever the market value for the job is – that’s more important than whether they have enough for food and shelter.

One example, of course. Weirdly perennial, just in different contexts.

So Gramsci identified how most people’s education, as well as continual messages from the state along different media – newspapers, pamphlets, radio – affected their beliefs. What philosophical ideas they found intuitively sensitive – how our intuitions were trained.

It's almost as though I desperately want to avoid talking about Noam
Chomsky. As if even recognizing his limited legitimacy will bite
into my own growing contempt of the man. I want to nurture that
contempt, caress it, learn to love it, as Chomsky ages into a
growing irrelevance, continuing to rail (deservedly) against the
hypocritical United States government and ruling class, while giving
a total pass to a nationalist dictator increasingly dedicated to
achieving the dream of a white supremacist Eurasian empire.
You could extrapolate the principles into their core concepts. Philosophy, in this application, is about retro-engineering the lesson plan of ideologies. If someone had actually sat down and made a plan for how a state would guide its people,* the philosopher’s analysis would write it.

* We’re talking about human politics and social endeavours. No one can ever plan any of this shit.

Gramsci only got so far with this work for many reasons, one of them being his death. But his work was remarkable. Gramsci had a wonderful analysis of the fundamental concepts of what ideologies are, how they work, and how state and society interacted to develop and express them.

Gramsci also explored how state organs can take control of this mechanism – how they can pressure the natural processes of conformity. How they can not only encourage consent, but manufacture it.

Now I’ve ended with the same joke I did on Friday. Talk about multiple takes.

Losing One of the Family, Advocate, 18/08/2017

I was originally going to write more about the psychology of political consent. But I’ll pick that up on Monday. Instead, I just want to write a short post about a tragedy I read about yesterday.

Gwynevere's Facebook profile is now a memorial.
One of the reasons news of their death stood out to me in the noise
of tragedy in our world lately, is their name. They chose the name
River Song. They was part of my community, of people who
love Doctor Who.
The news showed up on my Twitter feed. It was a link to an article by The Advocate. “Texan is the 17th Transgender American Murdered in 2017.” Transgender people suffer violence at a disproportionately high rate. They face discrimination, severe psychological torture in everyday life from the casual hostility of ordinary prejudice.

Trans people are the targets of discriminatory practices from the sidewalk to the halls of state legislatures. When I read about one who was murdered on Saturday night, it hit a little closer to my heart than a lot of the other sad news I hear about murder and violence.

Their name was Gwynevere River Song.

I’m something of a Doctor Who fan. I haven’t swum the murky depths of dankness that you find on the Gallifrey One forums in a really long time. I visit often enough to get depressed and leave again.

I’ve been involved with the fandom often enough to know the awful dreck of a lot of Doctor Who controversy about gender and sexism issues over the last few years. The Moffat Hate brigade is a prime example that I think is very important for the show (or any show), but is so intense that they drive people away from considering their points.

Yes, there are plenty of mistakes when it comes to gender and sexuality that Steven Moffat has made, in the show and in interviews. He puts his foot in his mouth all too frequently, sometimes so deep that it’s like his skull is dimensionally transcendental. But he’s not evil.

Most inspirational part of the Smith era if you ask me. I'm not the
only one either.
Doctor Who has made more progress in its feminist and liberatory perspective under Steven Moffat than ever before. Short form, his arcs for the female characters built a more complex life and a more powerful agency than a companion character had in the whole history of the show.

Despite all the justified and reaching criticism Moffat’s characters received, they all connected deeply with a female and feminist fandom.

You can see how deeply Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who connected with some of its fans when you hear about a trans person from the heart of Texas and see that they’d chosen to begin their new life by adopting the name of Moffat’s greatest character and Alex Kingston’s most epochal performance.

I wish we could have learned about Gwynevere for some other, non-horrible reason. That Song could have lasted longer.

Kill Your Idols VIII: The Best Raw Deal, Research Time, 17/08/2017

Here is the sort of political activism you need when you understand how complex the relationship between society, culture, and state is.

Your activism has to aim for hegemony. This is more than just control of the state. In fact, hegemony means a lot of different things. The term ‘hegemony’ whose meaning is continuous with present use, began in international relations theory in the 19th century.

Boys at war.
Essentially, the theory that sees all relations between nations and peoples as states at war. Whether by military or some other means. Conquest, dominance, hostility, suspicion, mistrust, fear, and hatred.

The language of what’s called realist IR theory is dispassionate, almost meditative. They talk in terms of interests, calculations of different risks and their mutual impacts, game theory. But I’ve long heard a whisper, an implication in a little too much of this talk, which sounds like little boys in a park playing at war.

Hegemony here is the dominant power – the state at the centre of military and economic power for an entire region or the world. The state to whom every other government pays loyalty if they know what’s good for them.

Antonio Gramsci’s innovation was to adapt the term to a domestic political context. He was thinking of states, cliques of oligarchs or aristocrats, and classes. Hegemony here means the power of a ruling class through the state to force obedience through violence, or else seduce them into it.

This is where those institutions come into play. Most of them – especially in Gramsci’s own time and place, early 20th century Europe – were organs of the state. The different military and police bureaus could force you to obey. One important reason (among many) why Gramsci’s revolution in Italy failed was because the Italian Communist Party thought those violent institutions were all that mattered.

Nothing phallic about this at all.
Consent of the governed is a much more powerful force. Many people who were desperately and inescapably poor under the current way of doing things in 1920s Italy – factory workers, farmers, labourers – simply weren’t up for revolution. They were okay with the way things were.

There are a lot of people who, in situations of terrible injustice, are still okay with things. They can see the real circumstances of wretchedness that the status quo results in, and they’ll just make excuses, or simply act as though it doesn’t matter.

You want an example? Introduce yourself to a middle-class white Canadian from a reasonably affluent suburban community. Ask him about the number of Indigenous rural communities don’t have access to a clean water source.

He’ll be filled with excuses, half of them blaming Indigenous people themselves for not having a basic government service we take for granted everywhere else in the country.

Now why would he believe that? These are ideas that proliferate culturally – in conversations and mass media, whether some media platform or channel is state-run or private. They’re the conversations that condition public morality.

Yeah, I'm going there. At least for a little while.
Powerful institutions, organizations, and sometimes even individuals can control channels and platforms. Effective political activism has to work on all these forces at once. Agitating against unjust government actions isn't enough.

Maybe it’s through direct ownership – the state runs the CBC, Facebook is a company that shapes our online life, several oligarchs become think tank funders or outright buy media companies. Maybe it’s through influence, building a profile in these media or influencing people in states and private organizations.

Together – say it with me now – all these forces manufacture our consent.

So is Noam Chomsky just warmed-over Antonio Gramsci? Pretty much, and not even as interesting. But I think I’ll go into more detail why tomorrow.

Kill Your Idols VII: States Can Be Idols Too, Research Time, 16/08/2017

When I wrote Monday’s post, I was still planning to follow it up with what I’m writing tonight. But I was going to start a new little series. Then I realized that I was still circling around the same problem. I’m jumping into it from different angles. Some work better than others for getting to the point.

That point is pretty simple. It's what I had in mind when I started. Political thinking tends to make an idol of the state, which is dangerous, destructive, and incomplete. What are some ways this idol-casting happens? How can we play Moses to this process and smash that idol before people get too attached to it?

Parliament Hill, one of the institutions that one brand of too-patriotic
Canadians worship. I'm glad we live in a democracy, but we shouldn't
make idols of our institutions and gods of our governments. That
worshipful attitude erodes democracy with scowling, preening
desires to supplicate and submit.
I mean, people are already attached to this idea. It’s the obsessive centre of almost every problem and concept in two separate millennia-old traditions of political philosophy – Western and Chinese. Imagine what would have happened to Jewish culture if God had kept Moses on Sinai for 3000 years.

It would have been a lot harder to break that idol worship than just knocking over a cow statue and yelling.

Antonio Gramsci’s work expresses a powerful tension of this attempt to break up those idols. He was part of a revolutionary political movement that tried to overthrow the Italian state in the turmoil after the First World War.

In prison, he examined how aspects of society that weren’t agents or products of direct state action played a role in their defeat. His major concern was to understand these forces so his successors could take some kind of action on them. Social and cultural aspects of society were the blind spots in marxist thinking until Gramsci realized that his revolution failed because of them.

But it was difficult to grow political philosophy beyond its myopic focus on the state. Here’s an example in Perry Anderson’s essay. One of Gramsci’s focusses in the Prison Notebooks was to examine the ideas of Italy’s leading philosopher, Benedetto Croce.

Benedetto Croce looks like the most
stereotypical early 20th century European
intellectual you've ever seen. Until you look
up photos of Henri Bergson. Oh, fuck.
Croce carried into Italy the mainstream tradition of Germany’s philosophy. His central influences were Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Friedrich Schelling. His politics followed Kant’s, his thinking on society, culture, and psychology followed Hegel, and his ontology followed (at least one of the several) Schelling.

He was the leading liberal intellectual of the newly-united Italy until his death in the mid-1950s. He'd been a resister of fascism since its early days arresting (like Gramsci) and assassinating left-wing opponents. The murder of socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 was Croce’s turning point against Mussolini.

This historical info is all just one level of sourcing away from Wikipedia. I started with Britannica, actually. I’m not all that familiar with Croce’s philosophy – I found Nietzsche much more productive for the directions that I wanted to pursue in my own research. And when I was a student, the courses I took on that tradition concentrated on Kant and Hegel themselves.

Gramsci’s essays in prison engaged with Croce’s philosophy as a political theorist. Croce articulated a tradition of thought that saw the state at the centre of politics, of society, of human existence itself as an ontological principle. In this, he was following a conservative perspective on the ideas in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

In Croce’s philosophy, the state – metaphysically speaking – pre-exists humanity itself. The state is an ontological principle universally necessary to harmonious and unified human life. A given society and culture is the expression of the state.

This is a bit much for Gramsci, as it is for us. But I am not surprised that totalitarian politics and philosophy grew in the Western tradition where those right-wing Hegelian ideas were so influential.

Gramsci was concerned to critique this idea that culture was an expression of the state. That presumption that a change in the nature of the state would change the culture was part of what led his own movement, philosophically speaking, to its failure.

So what would this more complex relationship of society, culture, and state be?

The Will to Destroy, Composing, 15/08/2017

I’ve been looking back through the old posts for my book of essays on Capaldi era Doctor Who, and I wanted to talk about “Into the Dalek.” I remember the general reaction to this story as being fairly muted.

A lot of my original review of "Into the Dalek" consisted of my own
quick takes on the successes and failures of Dalek stories throughout
the history of Doctor Who. Short form – Dalek stories work when
there's something more interesting than Daleks in them, when the
Daleks act as a catalyst for a more multidimensional narrative that
is the part of the story we can actually give a crap about.
The Daleks are creatures of hype, at least in popular culture. Every time they appear on contemporary Doctor Who, they seem also to get a Radio Times cover. If not that, they end up on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine. So the reception of a Doctor Who Dalek story always runs the risk of underwhelming.

DALEKS!!!! YEAH!!!!

Then it turns out that the storyline is kind of bollocks – a riff on Fantastic Voyage? Seriously? – Returning to The Invisible Enemy as a well worth drawing? Holy fuck. Plus, the characterization is utterly non-existent.

The letdowns can keep you from seeing what was good about the episode, because Dalek stories are connected with such hype.

It didn’t help that Daleks were portrayed at an operatic pitch for so many high-profile episodes of the Russell T Davies era. I feel like one of the reasons Steven Moffat began shifting Daleks away from the centre of Doctor Who adventures throughout his tenure was to make the ‘ordinary Dalek story’ a conceivable story choice again.

Mainly, however, this is a post about how I’ll update those original Doctor Who reviews from 2014 for the current version. There are two directions I could do with “Into the Dalek.” One is to follow along with the ideas of my first review, discussing different ways to make the Daleks actually interesting in a story.

Because it’s really easy to write boring Daleks. “Exterminate!” is all the characterization you need to do. Your entire episode’s plot consists of running away from Daleks and blowing them up. These stories haven’t been exciting to most people since the 1950s.

Another aspect of the Capaldi era that I want to explore in Essays
Critical and Temporal
 is the possible meanings of Peter Capaldi's
hair throughout his era. His rather conservative haircut of the first
series slowly grows into a wilder mess. It seems to parallel the
development of his character in a similarly relaxed direction. As I
remember from an insightful Gareth Roberts tweet, it was only by
his last year in 2017 that they finally wrote Capaldi's Doctor as the
Doctor instead of some angry old man.
But most of my initial review stuck to looking through examples from the show’s history, mining them for good and bad ways to approach Dalek stories. Useful, interesting, but I don’t think as interesting as it could be.

No, what I want for the book version of the “Into the Dalek” essay is to meditate a little longer on the core philosophical conflict of the story itself. Dalek nature is the totalizing will to destroy – so I’ll explore what it means to will destruction, whether Daleks are a death drive in the Freudian sense or something far more horrible.*

* Hint. It’s totally going to be more horrible.

I also want to explore what a profound transformation Rusty makes of his own nature in “Into the Dalek.” He understands the radical principle that there can be an exception to that totalizing will. The central confrontation of the story is the Doctor pushing him one step further in the argument – that an exception to the totality proves its falsity.

If there’s at least one thing not worth destroying, then nothing is worth destroying. At least not as a Dalek does, as an existential mission.

Some potentially deep philosophy going on here.
• • •
If you want to support some of that potentially deep philosophy in this book project, you can start giving to my Patreon. I’ll post a rough budget for the Capaldi Era book project – probably by September. It’ll lay out some basic costs: buying quality copies of the episodes with creator commentaries, printing and production costs. I’ll probably claim the cost of my InDesign subscription for the time I’ll be assembling the book.

Claim? What do I mean by that? You’re my (potential) Patreon supporters. Not my tax accountant.

Anyway, if you like the sound of my project – Essays Critical and Temporal: Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who** – you can subsidize it with regular donations to my Patreon. Perks, thanks, and gratitude galore.

** Working title. You like it? Let me know.

Kill Your Idols VI: Needing to Get It Right, Research Time, 14/08/2017

I find it sadly fitting that I’ve spent the last week talking about the complex connections between state violence and fascist militias, then we get hit with an actual fucking Nazi riot. The fascist revolution of America appears to be here.

See, all these thoughts in my all-over-the-place analysis of patriotism’s psychology all had a central point. I’m drifting around a really curious concept of hegemony that Antonio Gramsci develops.

This weekend makes me wonder if the United States of America has
reached a turning point, whether it's no longer possible for extremist
white nationalists and multicultural pluralist democrats to live in the
same country and live loyally to the same institutions. It could be
either the beginning of the end of the American experiment, or the
threshold of a new era of freedom and justice. Or it could end up
being just one more flare-up in a long and terrifying history of
American racist violence.
There’s been a ton written on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in the last several decades of academic political philosophy. So I don’t want to get into a discussion over whether it was really Gramsci’s, or whether Anderson’s books got it right. Because I’ve been thinking this while reading some of Perry Anderson’s books on Gramsci and the Western left-wing tradition.

He’s a brilliant historian of ideas. The only thing that frustrates me about his work is that he’s such an accurate historian that I have no clue what his own philosophical ideas are. At least not in that abstract sphere of pure concepts.

I read his book on the politics and philosophies of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule, and he had plenty of his own ideas. But those were about political stances – the Hindu-centric nationalism of the Congress Party caused disasters, ethnic cleansing, and immense suffering among Indian Muslims and Dalits.

Anderson is, as you’d expect, not cool with that. His ideas are in the insight of his moral stances in his writing. But when it comes to philosophical concepts, he’s a very meticulous mapper of others’ territory. He doesn’t build his own worlds.

So his map of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is very insightful. In his long essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, Anderson was very faithful to Gramsci’s ideas as they are in the text. He even describes them as paradoxical and contradictory because Gramsci developed a very slippery conception of hegemony.

Sometimes, he spoke of hegemony as if it were about state control and influence of other states through the military. Domestically, sometimes he thought of it as state violence. Sometimes, it was the soft power of the state through cultural institutions. Sometimes, hegemony was ideological. Sometimes, it was just a matter of sanctioned gun violence.

It was rather difficult for me to find a good picture of Perry
Anderson where he didn't look kind of depressed. These days, I can
understand where he's coming from.
If the meaning of a term seems to contradict itself, then it can’t be valid. Fine for a historian, but it’s a rule that makes for terrible philosophy. Oddly enough, Anderson's big history book on the Western Marxist tradition more generally tends to give Gramsci more slack on this hegemony concept. Maybe because his focus is on how the concept changed over time and place.

Look again at all those definitions of hegemony that occur across the Prison Notebooks. What do they have in common? The projection of power as the ability to control and influence. There’s always a hub to that projection, a centre of power.

That power centre is sometimes very blunt, and its projection simple and direct. Think about the Russian Revolution of 1917. It could succeed relatively easily (once it got super-lucky) because there was only one vector of power – from the Czar to the masses through the aristocracy and military elite.

Power centres can also be dispersed. Think about a country and society like the contemporary United States. Institutions and networks of influence all over the country spread a morality of patriotism, love of country and the institutions of the state.

Americans don’t believe in this simply as a matter of following orders – schools, television networks, cultural industries of all sorts spread the moralities of American patriotism, America as an ideology. That ideology itself can come in contradictory forms – racists and pluralists can exist in the same country. They have for centuries.

They’re loyal to the same institutions – American democracy, just as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison described in the Federalist Papers. Even though they believe in radically different moral visions of what those institutions should do.

But it’s always a network of control and influence with a hub, the state institutions themselves. That’s the most philosophically tantalizing take I can find, figure out, or think of for Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. It’s the one that I’ll use in my own work.

Hegemony as the dominant projection of loyalty to a state.

Kill Your Idols V: The People's Violence, Research Time, 11/08/2017

So what do you do with a few million people who unconditionally and uncritically love their country?

It’s a legitimate question to ask. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that straight-up patriotism and paranoid jingoism was once the most frightening political current surrounding the White House. Those were the days.

The September 11 attacks and George W Bush’s reaction to them was the cataclysmic engine of this whole messed up century. Millions are dead and the world has been radically transformed through the events that the attack and W’s war set into motion.

I thought we'd remember George W Bush as an epochal man, the 20th
century's first bumbling monster. Yet how quickly he's been forgotten,
overshadowed.
Back then, I saw this orgy of patriotism as an act of love for the American state, its military, and George W Bush. When I would see how patriotic, viciously pro-war American people acted on questions of politics, I did see some weirdly sublimated acts of love for those bombs.

I was disturbed and depressed at the knowledge of millions of dead Iraqis in a terrifying insurgency. I knew that, as far as the Middle East was concerned, this was the beginning of – minimum – two decades of conflict.* But I was sure that the effects on American culture at least were limited to aggressive country music criticism.

* Right now, I’m betting on four decades. So we’ve got about 25 years to go. Time to start getting ready for some serious refugee movements. I doubt we’ve seen the end yet.

Now, we’re dealing with a genuine authoritarian takeover of the American government to render it a one-party state, and a radical white nationalist political element (with unnerving shades of anti-Semitism) dominating the White House.

Donald Trump’s politics aren’t only about state-based authoritarianism through immigration crackdowns, unrestrained police violence, and a revived War on Drugs.

Independent militia groups on the far right are growing fast. Now, when I read Anderson’s book on Antonio Gramsci, there’s a discussion of the pro-fascist militias of 1920s Italy. Even though Anderson was writing this book long before Donald Trump was even on TV, his words engaged with the same problem of whether patriotism would inspire popular violence.

Because it's a penis, Donald. It's a giant penis.
Gramsci himself gave an account of the social power of patriotism to inspire violence. In Italy, these gangs of young and middle-aged men would attack socialists and other left-wingers.

Now these gangs got a few kickbacks from the fascist government and many graduated into the police and the military. So Anderson concludes that the gangs were effects of the state. It’s a kink that I see in his thinking – very twentieth century. As soon as the state’s action appears in any social situation, it dominates that situation.

But the militias weren’t like that. In a way, they co-opted the state. Those militia groups in Italy had existed since the end of the First World War. Mussolini’s coup was an independent radical nationalist militia group that overthrew the Italian government through an armed insurrection in the heart of Rome.

Radical white nationalist militia groups have existed in America pretty much since the Reconstruction and advent of Jim Crow laws. The Trump campaign for President was when the core media personalities and executives of American white nationalist media took over the executive branch through their faction of the Republican Party.

Nationalism is patriotism twisted into a screech of racializing bloodlust. Patriotism is a function of popular morality. The state inculcates it through education, but once it’s a popular morality, its development is beyond state control.

In Italy, the radical nationalists wear their best suits to overthrow the
government. Steve Bannon can't even put his shirts on straight.
Governance through legislation and policy means that intentionality is always an aspect of state systems. Its action can never be chaotic – its capacities are primarily in direct action. That’s a great vulnerability.

The possibility of revolution, in fact. People organizing themselves politically into a dynamic movement – a morality spreads, consciousness of that shared morality spreads, and people coordinate direct action for change in their society and institutions.

In 1920s Italy, all the communists knew, from their theories, that their revolution was coming. Then Mussolini marched on Rome.

I remember how happy I was when Barack Obama was elected. The deranged patriotism of the Bush years looked like it might be coming to an end. Then Donald Trump brought the Birther Movement to national television.