An Engineer Has No Use for Relativism, Research Time, 23/11/2017

Back in my academy days, I’d sometimes get into insufferable conversations about the truth. “What is true?” “What does it mean to be true?” “Truth is all important.” “The purpose of philosophy is to find out the truth.”

By the time I started my doctorate, I had about settled into my approach to philosophy – as conceptual engineering, the creation and exploration of frameworks to understand the world. When I’d talk about this approach with people, I’d often – not that often, but often enough – get questions from other scholars about what that had to do with the search for truth.

Well, it has nothing to do with the search for truth. Truth doesn’t really play an essential role in this activity. If you were learning about a philosophical concept – René Descartes’ cogito, for example – accuracy is important.

Accuracy is a kind of truth – you have to make sure that you weren’t making errors, that your interpretation of the relevant words doesn't run roughshod over the page. But if you were to ask me if I thought the cogito was true? Back in 2009, I’d tell you that I didn’t think it mattered.

I’ve met some philosophy scholars who believe that the ideas of their focal primary material are true. I’ve known people who think Descartes was right. Straight-up philosophically correct about the nature of the mind, world, and existence. Same goes for Spinoza, Kant, Hegel – I’ve met people who genuinely believe that these writers were right. Full stop.

I find that attitude tends to get in the way of understanding other thinkers. You always judge them inferior to the object of your faith. And it is faith. Ultimately, we’re not investigating the real world when we study great works of philosophy. We’re reading books.

So that was 2009. These days, I’m even more radical about this. Ask me now about whether the cogito or any other particular philosophical concept is true – in 2017, I’ll tell you that the question isn’t even proper to ask. Like asking a geologist about the diet and exercise habits of sedimentary rock formations.

I've been in some cramped seminar rooms before, but this is ridiculous.
Does this make my way of thinking philosophy relativist? No, because I’m indifferent to truth in philosophical thinking. You don’t ask if a concept is true in the same sense that you don’t ask if a computer program, or a lamp, or an engine, or a shoe is true. You ask what it does and how it works.

Logic – should I say logics? – still applies to concepts. But that’s because logic isn’t about the truth of any of its propositions, only about how to infer among propositions.

Concepts can contradict each other – you can’t include some concepts together in the same big apparatus of understanding. Deleuze gives a beautiful example, the kind of simple yet comprehensive statement about the field that a long-practicing expert can make.

He says that you can’t build a philosophical system that combines a Descartes-style cogito with a Plato-style ontology of Ideas. For the Platonic Form or Idea to exist, being must be primary – but the cogito’s purpose is to provide a foundation for being and exists in each subject.

Ideas – thought comes to be because Ideas exist. Cogito – thought provides the guarantee of existence. They contradict, so they can’t both be part of the same philosophical framework, the same thought machine.

The logic of conceptual engineering is that of conditions and creations. Such logic maps compossibility.

What to Do With a Real Problem, Research Time, 22/11/2017

So yesterday, I was riffing on the nature of the concept. Concept – an expression in thought of a transformative collision of forces and processes. If you think a concept is just another word for a general idea, Gilles Deleuze is very particular to describe the concept in mathematical terms – vectors and relations.

A mathematical formula expresses a relation in thought – we’ve developed a very good notation for writing mathematical formulas, so we can put a very complicated relation in a single line of writing that way.

Concepts have the same precision, but they don’t function mathematically – Concepts are frameworks for everyday human thought, the schema of our how we understand our nature, everyday life, values, and place in the universe. Philosophy is the practice of developing new concepts – new frameworks for understanding experience.

That’s about where we are now. You know, this is why you could plausibly call me a Deleuzian. Because when he explains the nature of concepts and the purpose of philosophy like this, to me, this is incredibly obvious and makes perfect sense.

Storytime. A few years ago, I was at a philosophy conference in Oregon
and many of the attendees were pragmatist thinkers and scholars. In an
off-handed, but very sincere, comment to the conference organizer, I
said that many of the philosophical problems that the pragmatists were
stuck on found their solutions – or at least their next steps – in the
work of Deleuze and Guattari. It's those solutions – about the nature
and purpose of philosophical thinking – that I'm talking about in my
posts about What Is Philosophy?
It’s the only mission statement for “What philosophy is” that doesn’t sound empty, dissatisfying, and ultimately leave you shrugging your shoulders.* It’s the only one that actually can be a mission statement for the discipline going forward.

* The question that I find most insufferably annoying in all the philosophical traditions I've studied has to be, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" My response – Fuck! Who cares?! If there wasn't anything, it wouldn't matter, so neither does the question. There clearly is, so start there.

Given the absurd pressure that exists on humanities and social science departments today, the disciplines should at least fight back instead of retreating inward. Take on an active role in public life – bring your knowledge skills to the problems of our time.

That itself – what research disciplines that have been stuck in ivory towers so long that the disciplines themselves are under attack – is a philosophical problem.

Problem – a situation, whether in thought or practice or more often both, that constitutes obstacles, dangers, puzzles, mysteries to us. A concept is a framework for our understanding that lets us act such that the obstacles aren’t really in our way. Like someone who moves to a cold, wintery region and has to learn to walk well on snowshoes.

Eric Weber is a philosopher I know in the United States, who co-hosts a podcast called Philosophy Bakes Bread. One of the questions he always asks guests is whether philosophy can bake bread – whether and how it has a practical dimension.

As for me, I think it’s only worth calling philosophy if it has a practical dimension. Philosophy creates conceptual tools for solving problems in action with thought. Components of those concepts can include versions of all the traditional topics of philosophy – God, cosmos, being, the good, truth. But those tools are always there.

Conceptual engineers – designers and testers of guides for thinking.

Thought: An Uncanny Precision, Research Time, 21/11/2017

Gilles Deleuze has an awful reputation as an impenetrable writer. And I mean fucking impenetrable. Not like it isn’t his fault. Some of Deleuze’s sentences – especially in his super-dense late 1960s works – are the kind of language you grind your teeth on.

Working with Félix Guattari made his words more poetic, more like a teacher than a researcher. But the flow of this jazz was sometimes a little too out-there. Deleuze’s language was looser in his solo works during his last decade alive, though he never met the fever pitches of those collaborative works again.

I do sometimes think of their collaborative style like jazz musicians
riffing on each other's improvisations, or rappers freestyling in tandem.
Deleuze and Guattari's collaborations do have a very musical feeling
to their language.
But he doesn’t have a reputation for precision. Mostly stereotypes about being either immensely difficult or bizarrely weird. Which is too bad, because he’s actually a very precise writer.

When you read What Is Philosophy?, it isn’t just a book of philosophy – it’s also a look at Deleuze’s own method of philosophical thought.* Start by describing what it is he makes. Concepts.

* Why not Guattari too, even though his name is on the cover? A reference to the history. Their collaboration was pretty light on this one, nowhere near the intensity of their work in the 1970s. They were old by then, Guattari deep in a years-long depression. He’d die of a heart attack at 62 the year after it was published. Félix didn’t do too much.

A philosophical concept is an account – in thought and as best you can in words – of the full range of possible variations when several different processes collide and interact. It’s like a mathematical description, but without variables or constants, using only the ranges of all the relevant vectors.

A concept has no X, Y, and Z; no e or π. A concept has maximum and minimum ranges of development from a decisive, transformative point. There’s a collision of forces, a moment of change constitutes from its complex dynamics and turbulence a new system of those forces. The range of possibilities that event sets in motion is its concept.

Let's be honest with ourselves, however. They'd never be as cool as
actual jazz musicians.
A concept is an expression of this knowledge of the ranges of potentials, but in thought. When you ask what these thoughts make possible, you’re doing practical philosophy. Exploring what a particular way of thinking – a framework for understanding the world – enables you to do.

What does such a framework – the ability to understand the world using these ranges – open our minds toward? Practical philosophy – philosophical thinking and analysis going to work in the world.

But in this book, Deleuze is thinking only of the nature of concepts. He’d written enough about their development and use. What Is Philosophy? is Deleuze doing meta-philosophy. Trying to describe what philosophical thinking actually is, and what philosophers do when they’re actually doing philosophy and not just writing about it.**

** The occupation of way too many people who call themselves philosophers.

Studying a concept means examining how that concept is expressed, how it’s written, other explorations of it in different philosophical (or philosophically-inclined) literature.

Once you understand the writing, you can mull over its mechanics – its processes, the activities it suits, what it makes visible and invisible, the relationships and dynamics of all its components, how its structure can affect how someone would think through it.

You survey it, like a drone flight over a mountain range. It has to be a very careful survey, because of its complexity. Incredibly precise knowledge, but only after careful, attentive study. A survey to map thoughts themselves.

Case Studies in Open and Closed Minds, Advocate, 20/11/2017

I was originally going to talk some more about Gilles Deleuze’s conceptual engineering today. But a fairly viral article in my social network of Newfoundlanders inspired a few new insights about the culture of my home province and the mess it faces.


The wreck of the Charcot in Conception Harbour, Newfoundland.
Certainly not a metaphor for the island's current economic position.
I swear.
James McLeod – who for the last eight years has been a stalwart reporter for The Telegram, the major newspaper for St John’s – probably doesn’t remember meeting me. We shared a few beers in Toronto when I first moved to Ontario, and I was visiting an old friend.

McLeod was just about to move to Newfoundland, a Torontonian going to work in St John’s. He did fantastic work at The Telegram and loved living in St John’s, but he couldn’t stay in the city following its economic downturn.

Newfoundland’s entire economy depended on high oil prices – government revenues depended on stupidly low offshore petroleum well royalty rates, and much of the rural workforce commuted to the Alberta tar sands. As the island has traditionally done, its leaders put all their economic eggs in one volatile, risky basket.

Right now, Newfoundland and Labrador is on the threshold of an even bigger economic crisis than the cod moratorium and the end of much of the inshore fishing industry. And those crises – the oil crash, the massive government debt burden of Muskrat Falls, the massively aging population – will drive a huge migration from NL to the rest of Canada.

What I find most illuminating were the different reactions to McLeod’s article in my social networks. It’s anecdotal evidence of wide social trends, but it displays a depressingly common cross-section of the attitudes about the future of my birthplace.

Solid headshot. The bow tie is pretty cool too.
One friend, when he posted the article, agreed with McLeod that the province was heading for an economic disaster – he was depressed that there seemed to be no way out, but resigned to another outflux of population. He has plenty of experience working around Canada and the rest of the globe, an open, progressive point of view.

Another friend was resigned to the disaster as well, but also expressed an incredible bitterness that any of Newfoundland’s leaders could ever handle it. This friend is a very perceptive man – I remember through the Williams years of the mid-2000s, he was very skeptical of his leadership.

He showed very little of the sad worship of Danny that swept Newfoundland’s culture in those years. There’s a kind of disgust at the province’s leadership – a combination of bitterness, resentfulness, and hopelessness. A loss of faith in any hope or optimism at all. I worry about that.

And another friend – a Facebook connection from having shared some friends and some conferences in the New Democratic Party back in the early 2010s – who expressed what I find to be a very sad and all-too-common attitude.

Go on back to the mainland. No matter all the time you spent here, no matter how much you came to love Newfoundland, no matter how much the island shaped you – if you’re leaving, then good riddance. You were never our friend.

It’s an inward turning. When resentment boils into contempt. When it’s in triumph, it’s the attitude of the Williams partisan – “How does it feel now, mainlander?” When it’s under a weight, it’s the spite of disgust – “Fuck off back to the mainland!”

The rocks will outlast the people.
Turning away, no matter what’s on offer. Whether it’s multiculturalism, true economic diversity, business and trade links, or even just inter-community friendship. Turn away. They’re not one of us. They don’t count – and they never did.

No matter how much McLeod contributed to my home province over the last decade, it’s the feeling that the province owes him nothing. No mainlander is worth respect.

I’m not a mainlander. I live in Toronto, and my spouse is Torontonian. I grew up in Newfoundland. But being Italian, I never really fit in – my name and the fact that I had a large extended family in Quebec made me a foreigner. Even though I was born at the old Grace Hospital in St John’s and lived there until I was 25.

The irony is that I’ve actually written for Cleary’s paper about the political and cultural insularity of Newfoundland’s culture. It wasn't the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador that drove me to build a life elsewhere. It was the insularity of so many popular attitudes that made my more open perspective feel unwelcome.

There was also the feeling that, despite having been born and grown up in St John's, that I never truly belonged, that my Italian heritage and my connections to Quebec kept me from being a real Newfoundlander. Well, if you don't want me, I won't come . . . .

Where We Can Stare the Madness in the Face, Jamming, 17/11/2017

So the horror film project is coming together way faster than I thought. The Ghost actually wants to get this all done before the end of the year. He’d shot about half the footage already, but I’m now part of the project writing the scenes that deliver the context.

It’s a five minutes into the future scenario, but I still think of its themes primarily as a horror film. As I assemble the ideas, I’m thinking philosophically too. Not in a pretentious way – just about the broad themes that are holding the piece together.

Orson Welles directs Anthony Perkins in his adaptation of The Trial.
In the philosophical discussions I've had about absurdity, few ever
touch on how useful absurdity is to depict truth in societies where
no one is allowed to speak.
I was talking about existentialism the other day. That’s definitely a big part of my ideas here. But I always found one important limitation in the traditional existentialist writing. The best ones are deep, satirical attacks on the real danger of a hostile world and hostile institutions.

Ever since I first came across the storyline and read it, I found it clear that a book like Kafka’s The Trial is a depiction of how ridiculous the law, police, and justice institutions truly are – the arbitrariness of the application of the law, and of the law itself. This was all clear to me as soon as I read it.

But I’ve long been a bit of an anarchist at heart. So the idea that the law’s content is pretty damn arbitrary and the police have a horrifying tendency to let the power go to their heads, growing abusive and corrupt?

I've known this to some degree since I first watched Serpico as a kid. So Kafka’s point was clear to me from the start.

But the popular reception of Kafka’s stories is that they’re pure absurdities. Their depiction of our world is so strange that we disconnect them from reality. The Trial’s K goes through an obviously absurd justice system. Yet it was just an intensified, comically cartoonish version of real institutions.

At the end of the day, K’s story is of a man who’s arbitrarily detained on charges whose content he never knows, his arguments to defend himself are utterly disregarded on the flimsiest of contexts, authorities order him around arbitrarily. Then he’s just taken out to an alley and summarily shot.

Who stole the soul from black folk?
Same man that stole the land from Chief Black Smoke
And made the whip crackle on our back slow
And made us go through the back door
And raffle black bodies on the slave blocks
The new plantation, mass incarceration
It unfolds like a cartoon, but that’s daily life for anyone who grew up under the authoritarian states of Europe – like Kafka’s Austria, or Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Assad’s Syria. But in those countries themselves, you couldn’t say so directly.

That’s why Kafka’s books were received so weirdly in the West – with our democratic institutions, we didn’t know to recognize the reality they depicted. Westerners saw the cartoons only as absurdities. Not the absurdity as the only way to depict the truth.

We’re in the middle of something very different now. You can make a pretty strong case – and many do – that the police, military, and justice systems of the United States and many other democratic countries are not focussed on true justice.

Mass incarceration is the absurd system of modern criminal justice in the democratic West. The United States is at the leading edge of developing this system, and it’s most intense there, but most Western democracies have developed terrible incarceration rates, and even more terrible racial disparities in prison populations.

My country Canada has a mass incarceration problem of its own, mostly focussed on Indigenous people. It’s the latest phase of the Indigenous genocide that the Canadian state was designed to facilitate and complete.

Here’s the difference between what we can say and what Kafka – or whatever Kafka will emerge from the haunted dust of Syria’s revolution – could say. We can call it what it is.

Democratic states of the West currently live out a terrible conflict of conscience – we have free speech and free press rights and laws built into our constitutions. It’s immensely difficult to prevent a journalistic outlet or a social media forum from talking about whatever embarrassing fact of state violence they want to discuss.

More than that, we all generally stand by their right to talk about it. A 1910s Czech living under Austrian dictatorship or a 2010s Syrian living under Assad’s dictatorship could never say in public the horrible things their government did. Everyone knew, but no one could say so where they could be heard – the public square was happy, patriotic, living as if nothing at all was wrong.

We can still defend our rights to call a genocide a genocide, and accuse the icons of our nation of mass murder. No one comes to arrest us for it.

In a way, it’s even more absurd. We can keep calling attention to it, and show how ridiculous the defenders of genocide are whenever they speak. We can mock them in public. Yet the genocides and enslavement continue. It’s like they aren’t afraid of us.

In Syria, at least the government was scared enough of people who spoke the truth to put them in prison. Here, they just laugh at the SJW libtard.

Wondering About Books That Don’t Exist, Jamming, 16/11/2017

So I’ve been reading an old book by a kind of obscure author these days. A totally serendipitous find. I grabbed The Fall of a Titan when McMaster’s Philosophy Department library was clearing out a lot of old books.

I’m not going to get into the storyline or the themes of it today. I want to talk about a curious little feeling that you get as a reader when a book surprises you – a sensible decision for the story that still shocks you.

So, no serious spoilers. I won’t be too specific. But there’s a character who’s been acting as a petty bully all the way through the first half of the book. He’s a teenaged jackass – Biff Tannen, but in 1930s Russia instead of 1950s California.

Whether or not the photo is real, Stalin could laugh.
But he's 19 years old, a student at the local university. He’s coasted by his whole life on just pushing people around. Now, he tries to do the same thing to the protagonist, rough him up and intimidate him into doing what he wants. On top of that, he has stupid, short-sighted, damned idiotic reasons for wanting to push the main character around.

This history professor is a veteran of the Russian civil war – when he was 19, he was sneaking up on Menshevik soldiers in the woods and slicing their throats open. Of course, you know what’s going to happen as soon as the kid starts a fight with this guy.

Yet the narrative has set this character up as a major foil to the novel’s female lead. So we expect him to follow her through the entire narrative, tormenting her. The sudden end to that relationship is a shock, given the expectations we had through watching their story.

Perfectly logical, yet utterly shocking. It’s a beautiful moment.

The Fall of a Titan is definitely not a perfect book. Some of his descriptions are a little too straightforward. Sometimes, Gouzenko strains to find the best image. But the careful logic of how his characters build his narrative is beautifully assembled.

Igor Gouzenko only wrote one book of fiction, this one. Other than that, he lived a quiet life in Mississauga, in a modest apartment. He had the remarkable distinction of being the first Soviet defector to the West. Three days after the final surrender of the Second World War, he marched from the Soviet embassy to RCMP headquarters with a pile of evidence of Russian espionage.

Yet The Fall of a Titan was his only book of fiction. I would have liked to see him pen more stories of the Stalinist era, or develop some dramatic novel about life in an immigrant community in the grey years of mid-20th century Ontario. Those don’t exist.

But what beautiful, fine-tuned books they’d be. Maybe I’ll imagine them.

Visceral Horror Is Good for You, Composing, 15/11/2017

I spent today talking with my collaborator The Ghost about this horror / sci-fi film project we’re starting work on. I don’t really want to talk about specific story or plot ideas today.

We’re still assembling the details of the script, and until we have the order of events and all the relationships among the five characters straight, I’m not going to talk about any  details.*

* Not entirely true – I’m probably going to describe this in more detail to my Patreon sponsors this week.

I want to talk a little about the themes this film is going to explore. Call it materialist existentialist, if you want to sound pretentious. What does that actually mean?

Look at some of the major works of classic existentialist literature. Books by Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and of course Franz Kafka.

When we are reduced to the shriek alone.
For Sartre and Beckett, I’m particularly thinking of Nausea and Molloy. They tell stories of men who grow isolated from their surroundings, turning inward in their alienation until they collapse into pure affect – usually rage and depression.

But Roquintin and Molloy become alienated from society thanks to some very general problems. Sartre’s protagonist becomes depressed, enraged, feeling powerless as his intellect and wit is inadequate to all the problems he experiences. Molloy is a man whose existence as an itinerant grows increasingly incoherent that he eventually disappears from sense itself.

We can very easily take these characters as existentialist stereotypes – existence itself, the burden of life alone, brings them to collapse. Life itself is so absurd! But that’s not quite the case. Hell, even in the stereotypical book of these stereotypes, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the existentialist stereotype is inadequate to what’s really going on.

I’ve come to think lately that the concept of ‘the absurd’ is a method of willful blindness from how existence really does become an empty terror.

Roquintin, for one, is clearly a parody of the empty existence – his existence really is empty, as he doesn’t really have to struggle for anything. He becomes disgusted with his life out of boredom, the emptiness of a life where everything comes easily.

Existentialist readings of Molloy, to me, miss the most important point about Molloy the character – he’s a desperately poor homeless man whose elderly body is breaking down. He sleeps in ditches, scrounges for food, shivers in a downpour with no shelter. Of course his life is absurd – it’s the absurdity of extreme poverty.

Where does the absurdity of my story come from? It’s a five-minutes-into-the-future premise – all the paranoia and state police crackdowns against immigrants and migrants have become universal.

Images of ICE prison camps, Guantanamo and terrorism paranoia, the vile hatred of migrants and refugees, the proud resurgence of ethnic violence and nationalist racism, the bureaucratic slavery of mass incarceration.

Trapped in so many chains. The chains of border police against migrants. The chains of an authoritarian police and court system. The chains of dehumanizing scientific experiment. These are the chains that make his life absurd.