What Does It Mean to Be an Anarchist? Research Time, 19/04/2018

When I started the research for Utopias a few years ago, one of the first traditions of political thinking I looked into was anarchism.

I wanted to explore a tradition that I thought was a clear alternative to many of the political systems and concepts we take for granted. You ask what it means to live without a state. You investigate what relationships can constitute a strong community.

Thinking about anarchism also encourages you to rethink how many institutions you need in your society to hold it together. It encourages you to analyze the real powers of brotherhood in a community. You wonder how much we really need coercive authority to keep a community from becoming violent.

Anarchist thinking often works better as a guide for resistance to an
unjust and violent state apparatus than as a concrete political
program. There's just so much work we have to do on ourselves
as people before anarchism can become a viable framework for
organizing our lives as communities.
You wonder if we really need the police? The army? Any institution of the state that we typically think we have a duty to obey. You come to doubt the truth of our entire heritage of political thinking that has an ancestor in Thomas Hobbes.

So you come to doubt pretty much every principle taken for granted in Western political philosophy – the social contract, the authority of the state, the obligations of citizens to police and military authority. That’s the value of looking into thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Emma Goldman.

Yet I have my doubts about the power of a straight-ahead anarchism to provide actionable values for human society. Frankly, anarchist values like mutual aid and intuitive social solidarity are too difficult for most humans to live by.

Paul Patton makes this point in one of his books about Gilles Deleuze. He writes about how people often take Deleuze and Guattari to have been anarchists. It’s true that their political thinking was very critical of state authority. And they were involved as thought leaders and activists with real anarchist and communist political movements in Europe during their lives.

But Patton makes one very insightful point in the early stages of that book – anarchism requires an optimism about humanity’s inherent goodness and kindness to each other that Deleuze and Guattari didn’t really share.

Humans are too terrible to each other. We resent each other. We make aliens of each other. We hate each other for no real reason, both as individuals and as groups. We need a long period of education and moral training to be as kind to each other as the mutual aid principles of an anarchist society would require.

And it would be even more difficult to prevent the xenophobia that can so easily arise when we let communitarian values drive our us vs them cultural imagery. Humans are, for the most part, simply not good or kind enough creatures to live according to a thoroughly anarchist political morality.

Anarchism’s most important contribution to practical political thinking in the 21st century, I think, is its spirit. Rebellion against taking coercive authority, the power of the state over society’s development, for granted. Critiquing the institutions that we’ve been taught almost all our lives are beyond reproach.

That spirit – maybe you could call it punk philosophy – should inspire any approach to political thinking that takes seriously the possibility of change. Demands for political, social, moral, and ethical change requires conceiving of the radically different. Maybe it’s achievable. Or maybe we’ll always fall short of our ideal.

What matters is the image of a different path.

The Whole Point of Politics, Composing, 16/04/2018

I’ve moved. It’s been a huge pain in the ass, but I’ve finally moved apartments. Close to everything I own is still in boxes, but that’s fine. I’ll unfold it all eventually. But I need to get back to writing, because I’ve been all over the place. And I’ll still be all over the place for the next few days.

Things are still being installed in my new place, I have to buy new furniture because this is the first time in ten years that I’ve lived in a place without a closet. It’s all getting to be a bit chaotic. Not in a bad way, because I actually feel more relaxed now than I have in a long while.

Spinoza articulated in the rationalist philosophy of his time
the foundational principle of Kabbalah that all existence is
an expression of God, and ontologically is God itself.
I just really want to be able to hang up my damn clothes.
• • •
Benedict Spinoza’s work had a very profound influence on my own thinking. I rediscovered him through reading Gilles Deleuze, and he supplied a way of reading Spinoza that cut through a lot of the austere worshipfulness that you see in more conventional Spinozists.

I think the most important element of this uptake of Spinoza is reading the Ethics as an ethical and political text. You wouldn’t think this would be difficult, if the title of the book is anything to go by. But because the book starts with a long argument about the existence and nature of God and material reality, the presumption is that it’s primarily about God and reality.

But the Ethics is, frankly, a book about ethics. More than that, it’s a book about the ethics of many bodies interacting together. The Ethics is a book about relationships, how we can manage our relationships with everything in the world around us to live better, more joyfully, without suffering, terror, or pain.

That principle – laid out in books four and five of the Ethics – is the foundation of the most radical Spinozist politics. I’m following Michael Hardt’s book on Deleuze’s early philosophical searching.

Here’s the principle that emerges from the Ethics when you emphasize the end instead of the beginning. The purpose of politics is to arrange our society so that all our encounters with each other and our institutions – or at least as many encounters as possible – are for the mutual benefit of everyone involved.

Universal harmony becomes the foundational principle of political science and practice. That should be the goal of our political work as people, neighbours, and members of communities that stretch across the Earth.
• • •
I’m also looking forward to getting back to work on my novel again, a version of You Were My Friend that I think will have the most legs. It’s interesting how the story is changing.

Madison’s character is, in just the first few sections that I’ve written so far, much more bubbly and energetic than I originally conceived of her. I think that’s going to give her arc – becoming overcome by cynicism – more of a kick than we saw of her in the theatre.

As I add more detail to the story, I think some of the good ideas that emerged when I was planning a You Were My Friend film project will get even more space to explore.

I haven’t gotten to the scenes with Madison's co-worker Jenna Chen, who inadvertently inspires her more mercenary sides. And I think there’s a lot more comedy potential to come out of Madison’s relationship with her on-off boyfriend Wesley the hipster with the stupid moustache.

I want to expand this story, this world, and these people. I think in my new place, I’m going to have more time and energy to do it.

To Act Means to Think, Jamming, 13/04/2018

Some more notes reflecting on Deleuze’s broad ideas. This time about politics, activism. Particularly the relationship between theory and practice.

Gilles Deleuze’s politics operated in a marxist tradition, or at least a tradition of social, political, and economic critique that began with the work of Marx. He was far from an orthodox marxist – anyone in the marxist tradition worth reading is never an orthodox marxist.

Economic, political, technological, and ecological circumstances are too different from Marx’s own time and place to be uncritical about his own theories and social science concepts. But the relationship between theory and practice – between philosophy and politics – is a recurring question in the tradition.

Above, an act of practice to change the world, impossible without the
theories and thinking that guides them.
Marx himself put the relationship of theory and practice at the forefront of his work. Philosophically speaking, it was one of the most reaction-inspired parts of his thinking – his need, as the saying goes, to stand Hegel on his feet instead of his head.

One of Marx’s most tweet-worthy sayings was about the theory-practice relationship. From the Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

So you’d think someone working in the marxist tradition would follow a strict separation of theory and practice. Interpreting and understanding the world is separate from changing the world.

But of course, it’s not that simple. Not in Marx’s own work and certainly not in Deleuze’s. Most of Deleuze’s energy was spent crafting philosophical concepts. He attended his fair share of protests and demonstrations, and regularly advocated for greater social justice in western Europe during his lifetime. But first and foremost, he was a writer and thinker.

Theory and practice exist in a feedback loop. You can’t have a sensible or even coherent theory if it isn’t developed through understanding the world, and doesn’t include a purpose of helping you understand the world. Theory is a guide for practical action, because the most wise practical action is driven by theory.

Theory without input from practice is intellectual masturbation. Practice without input from theory is flailing your arms like a crazy person. The problems of practice need theoretical work to come up with solutions. Theory has no order or direction without application in practice.

Don’t Expect the Writing to Be As Clean As the Written, Composing, 12/04/2018

In his book about Deleuze’s early development as a thinker, Michael Hardt discusses an insightful comment Gilles makes. It’s a notion that a lot of folks in academic university culture need to remember, especially in the humanities where rhetoric and argument is so much a part of our methods.

There's a distinction between inquiry and presentation. Inquiry is the process of conceiving, researching, and composing a project or some other piece of work. Presentation is the finished product.

Preparing a massive research and writing project is, oddly enough, a
difficult task that isn't perfectly conceived at the beginning. You'd
think that would make sense to people. Maybe it does, but they
don't actually care.
Presentation is a polished, detailed, clear expression of a complex research program and argument. The inferences have been ordered so that each step in the argument flows sensibly from what’s come previously. All the empirical studies supplement and ground the more conceptual parts in an elegant structure.

Inquiry is a great bloody chaotic mess. You redefine the scope, aims, and likely conclusions of the project several times over as you do research. Some angles and sources are thrown out entirely as irrelevant in the light of other discoveries. An argument that you think is going to flow in one direction ends up utterly rearranged. Inquiry is a state of flux.

It sounds so sensible. It sounds so obviously true. It makes perfect sense. So why do so many academics, in my experience and in the experience of many other people, ignore it?

I’m speaking to my experience mostly in philosophy circles, where a bit more emphasis is put on argument than in other disciplines. But I move in pretty interdisciplinary circles today, and what I’m about to describe is pretty common across the humanities and social sciences.

A younger student comes to a more experienced professor, or to a group of her peers, for advice about a project in progress. She lays out the skeleton of an argument, what some of her main sources are so far, what empirical content is coming into play. She asks for advice.

Throwing around thousands of ideas – about research, examples,
empirical evidence, inference, argument structure, order of
presentation, concepts themselves – is part of writing. So why don't
people criticize an ongoing project as if it were actually an ongoing
project? Why do people not see the mess?
But she gets hit with verbal axes. Her messy, still-uncertain project that still has plenty of loose ends get hit with ruthless criticism. None of it is helpful. It’s all phrased to make her project seem inadequate, like a waste of her time. Instead of helping her to understand a difficult landscape, her superiors and colleagues berate and belittle her for not understanding her project.

They’re treating an inquiry as if it was the presentation. A messy project in progress as if it was a polished final product. This even though she introduces her material with countless qualifiers – it’s a work in progress, she’s looking for advice, looking for any blind spots she may have, any research directions that may turn out to be blind alleys for her priorities.

Instead, her colleagues and superiors are more concerned with scoring points. Making themselves look good by making her look bad. Feeling better about themselves by cutting someone else down.

All too often, this is how academicians treat each other. I described it in self-consciously gendered terms because it does – on balance – happen to women much more often than to men. But it happens to men too. It happens to anyone who looks vulnerable in a research community where knowledge is seen as a battleground for prestige.

Do you do it for the letters after your name? For the professional designations to list after your email signature? We should be doing it for the progress of human knowledge. Typical humanity, we so often fall short of what we claim we’re doing because we aren’t really doing what we claim.

Being Is Primary Over Knowledge, Jamming, 10/04/2018

Being is primary over knowledge. That’s the fundamental principle of empiricism, that human knowledge and thinking always has something to learn from the world. The world can surprise a human thinker easily, ordinarily. Or maybe rarely. But it always can.

I’m keeping it short tonight. I’ve had a super-long day. I’m going to have a lot of super-long days moving apartments, and I’m only moving up the road.

Pictured: The logic of colonialism expressed in mass murder.
Knowledge doesn’t exist to determine being. Knowledge is a means of exploring existence. We contribute to building the world, but it’s a dynamic process of feedback – far from the determination of logic.

The refusal to be surprised is a refusal to take what’s different from you as something to learn from. It rejects the dignity of the different. The logic of colonialism is expressed ontologically.

This doesn’t reduce that complex ontology of high modernism – the kind Deleuze found in Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel – to a colonial ideology. One is the expression of the other. Neither is primary absolutely. Ontological vocab works to develop the idea in one context. Political vocab in another.

Michael Hardt’s book about Gilles Deleuze’s early years describes the older man as a young thinker. Not about his daily life, of course, which was unexciting – teaching secondary school, mostly in Lyon, raising his young family, bored out of his mind.

A man who’d lost his brother to a Gestapo prison cell might wish for an unexciting life, I suppose. Though he applied all the time for jobs back in Paris.

Deleuze saw the influence of that ontological chauvinism – that human reason determined the fundamental structure of reality – as something that desperately needed to be overcome. It had led to disaster politically, and increasingly insular navel-gazing among the philosophers of his country.

He sought to overcome it not by arguing against it, but my articulating a philosophical vision so alien to it that it didn’t even need to refer to the hubris and ego of ontological rationalism. In doing so, he set a model for the most thorough empiricism to come yet from the Western tradition.

And he argued for that empiricism by showing all the amazing things you could do with that approach to thinking that you simply couldn’t with hubristic rationalism.

That, to me, is the most interesting part of his career because it’s the most creative part, especially after he junked his Freudian influences through collaborating with Félix Guattari and wrote some explicitly political philosophy.

Having read Hardt’s book, I’m not sure that it really does Deleuze’s thinking justice to frame all of his creative later developments in this early, reactionary phase of his thinking. He’s still running away. Not yet able to stand on his own (and with his friends) to articulate a real philosophical alternative to the modernist model.

The Full Implications of Empiricism, Research Time, 08/04/2018

Follow the logic of a position through to its natural conclusion. This isn’t always done. Usually, when you’re talking to other philosophers, it never gets done because someone sidetracks the story with a question, interrupts, and swings things in a totally different direction.

Usually the direction of their own work. I’ve been there. I’ve done it before, unfortunately for my trying to avoid hypocrisy. But I don’t want to do it anymore.

What seems like ordinary beauty in art to us today, was a revolution
that enraged people with its provocative smashing of aesthetic rules
taught as universals. Could art be beautiful if it wasn't faithfully
realistic? We don't ask that question now.
Henri Matisse, Still Life With Lemons
So the other day, I wrote a few quick remarks about Gilles Deleuze’s critique of Hegel. Well, not Hegel per se. But the idea that was at the core of Hegel’s work, and which so profoundly influenced so many thinkers in the society where Deleuze lived – mid-20th century France.

The real is the rational. Reality has the same fundamental structure as human rationality. Begin by understanding the simple and arrive at the complex, until at last you’re able to comprehend all the complexity the world can possibly offer you.

There’s another aspect of this way of thinking as well – your attitude to universal knowledge. When I say universal knowledge, I mean questions, answers, and inquiries to questions like “What is beauty?”

Plato’s most famous dialogues are prime examples. I’ve met enough students and professors who see philosophy as a discipline to be about discovering the answers to the questions that Plato never could discover.

Let’s leave aside the most obvious critique of this idea – that aporia was the point of any inquiry into a universal question like “What is beauty?” and “What is justice?” Questions that aren’t supposed to have answers, that aren’t built to be answers, but to encourage thinking.

So that's aporia. You want to explore more of that, go read some Jacques Derrida. I’d recommend starting with a really short book he wrote called Aporias. Surprise surprise.

Deleuze explores a different aspect of these universal questions. Universal questions are fundamentally general – You search for a concept that holds across all cases. The problem with such a project is that it presumes the structure of human rationality as it is will extend legitimately over all of existence.

You want to buy Plato to wear on your chest?
If I can use some insider’s imagery to describe the attitude – you presume that a thinker doesn’t have to leave his armchair to figure out all the great truths of existence.

What does that presumption mean? That the powers of human rationality are already complete. And that’s a very presumptuous presumption.

Empiricism is a perspective of epistemic humility – we’re humble about the powers of human knowledge. Acknowledge that we’re contingent creatures whose power to think is pretty remarkable and kind of amazing, but that arose from conditions that resulted in some biases and blindnesses.

Humans aren’t perfect. Humans have a lot to learn about how our knowledge can develop, a lot of new powers that can help us live better in our world. What are those powers? I have a few ideas, and I’ve talked about them before. But you can only figure out what those powers are or can be if you investigate the world.

I’m going to go back to Plato for this illustration, because of the power Plato holds over philosophical thought for the Western tradition. I mean, Plato is the only person of whom the entire tradition has been described as a series of footnotes to his work. I love a lot of the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead, but I think his Oxbridge cultural conservatism was showing a little too much here.

A lot of Plato’s dialogues start with Socrates challenging the adequacy of everyday thinking about complex concepts – beauty, justice, piety, love, etc. Somebody frames their thinking in terms of asking, for example, what things are beautiful.

Socrates’ character is right to call these questions inadequate to the task. The question “What things are beautiful?” doesn’t explore why we think those things are beautiful in the first place. So you have to explore “What is beauty?” before you can figure out what things truly are beautiful. You have to understand the general categories before you can start building your taxonomy.

Marcel Duchamp was one of the most progressive
artists of the last century because of how he
purposely challenged the notion of what could
even count as art, let alone what counts as
beautiful. His work didn't even try to be beautiful,
and so ended up redefining whole new ways to
think about art and beauty.
This aspect of Plato’s influence has severely limited how empiricism could develop in the Western tradition, because it frames any investigation of the world as requiring complete general knowledge to get off the ground and guide itself.

But this critique doesn’t kill empiricism, as too many over the last 2500 years have thought. It forces empiricism to get serious. Let’s lay out how the model questions should go.

Uncritical Empiricism: “What things are beautiful?”
General Questions: “What is beauty?”
Contingent Empiricism: “What can this show me about beauty?”

The general question is how rationalism can inform empiricism. But having been so informed, an empiricism that follows this more nuanced logic to its endpoint will understand the contingency of its questions.

Ask what the world can show you about your concepts, your terms, your categories. A contingent approach to empiricism is how knowledge can progress. Our knowledge can become more complete, can approach completeness.

But total completeness isn’t an achievable goal – it’s an asymptote, an attractor. We improve by using progress toward completion as our guide, but understand that only God can ever be complete. We, in contrast, can be better.

Always Already Complex, Research Time, 06/04/2018

It’s been a rough few days, as you can tell when I can’t squeeze out even a short therapeutic blog post in the middle of the week. But I’m feeling better, though I’m still wrangling together all the details of moving apartments – I hope to one I'm working on just around the corner.

But I want to get back to some conceptual stuff. Once I move apartments and I’m better organized, I can give some more detailed updates on professional developments. I’ve had some, and they’re pretty alright. That’s as far as I’m going for now.

So earlier this week, I was talking a bit about Gilles Deleuze and Georg Hegel. Plenty of people have too, and one of them was Michael Hardt. He makes Deleuze’s conceptual wrestling match with Hegel the pivot of his book.

What's the problem Deleuze had with Hegel? It’s the same one I have with Hegel. And I admit that it was Deleuze’s criticisms that made me realize what a big problem this is for thinking. It’s over the nature of what kind of difference is the most fundamental, ontologically speaking.

Art by Everett Patterson
Put in really, really, really simple terms – Hegel prioritizes stark contradiction. A or not-A. Or as he lays it out in the Logic, Being or Nothingness. What makes this kind of contradiction so stark is its simplicity and its abstractness.

And yes, by the time you work through the Logic, you’ve reached a state of knowledge that can be adequate to all the material complexity of the world. But complexity is the end product of a long conceptual development.

It prioritizes simplicity from a fundamental ontological perspective. Human reason tends to work from simplicity to complexity. We’re at first only able to understand really simple concepts, and eventually figure out greater complexity, nuance, the world’s messiness, multiplicity, and chaos.

That last part is the big problem Deleuze had with the Hegel-influenced and Hegelian way of thinking. Humans have to learn complexity. But existence is already complex. We have to adjust ourselves to the world.

The real is not rational – well, I shouldn’t quite say that. More like, the real can generate many rationalities. Reality pretty frequently generates new orders of being, new kinds of existence. The profound chauvinism of Hegel’s thinking was to consider the structure of human reason* to be the structure of existence.

* And not just human reason either. After all, humanity has many models of rationality, all of which can communicate with each other, even if they might be mutually contrary or contradictory. Hegel’s was a particular kind of human reason that he and the imperialist culture of his time took to be the only one that counted as reason.

Hegel’s philosophy, in that way, was very much of its time and place. Industrial, imperialist Europe of the early 1800s, setting out to conquer the world and build autocratic state machines.

A democratic way of thinking couldn’t thrive in a Hegelian framework because pluralism was where you arrived – you started at a unified, simple universal. Democracy is about fostering the singular, the different, the unique. So a democratic mind starts there.