A Year to Remember Because We Shouldn’t Forget, 31/12/2015

This being New Year’s Eve, there are plenty of articles and thinkpieces floating around the internet summing up 2015. I originally didn’t want to clutter that already-packed space with my own thoughts, but I felt like I needed an exorcism. 

Because personally speaking, 2015 was pretty damn hellish for me. Up until the last couple of weeks, really, it was a cocktail of near-constant anxiety. It’s supremely difficult not know how long you’ll be able to keep paying your rent. 

Long periods of unemployment and working for free have become taken for granted, and they really shouldn’t. We’ve gotten so used to this state of affairs that underemployment and poverty have become normal. 

If they aren’t normal to you (whether from your own experiences or from your social circle), then you’ve become dangerously disconnected from your own world. But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. It doesn’t mean people don’t suffer from mental health problems or terrible stress in their relationships and friendships thanks to unemployment and poverty. 

January 2016 will be the first month where I’ll have actually made enough to cover all my basic expenses (food, utilities, rent, transit) since April 2014. Since 2013, I’ve either been unemployed, employed in jobs that didn’t pay enough, retraining in college without work to support me, or looking for work.

Yes, my best opportunities for next year came from my internship and volunteer activities over this year. And those opportunities as a communications consultant, in Toronto’s film community, as a labourer, and in political activism make me extremely hopeful for my future in this city.

But there have been a lot of crises and breakdowns along the way. And I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to support myself on savings and the support of my family for this long. If not for some very fortuitous luck, I wouldn’t even have had a home.

I don’t say this for pity. I say this because there are a lot of people out there like me, struggling simply to survive. Many of those people are losing that struggle and have already lost. 

And whenever I see an article or a meme mocking the Millennial generation for its laziness, self-absorption, or sense of entitlement, it enrages me because it encourages people to look away from poverty and suffering in their midst. This is especially true in Toronto, where fantastically wealthy and horrifyingly poor communities exist in easy walking distance of each other. 

What truly saddens me is how often people who suffer the mental health issues of the struggle to escape poverty and perennial underemployment are told to hide it.

“Why are you in those online groups for people who have panic attacks? No one will hire you if they think you’re unstable!”

“Why do you talk about mental health on your social media? People can google that! They’ll think you’re crazy.”

“No one wants to hire someone who’s unreliable and who’ll need to take time off for stress.”

“Look at all those job ads asking for someone who can handle fast paced work and stress. They won’t want someone who has to take time off for medical appointments. Especially if it’s for therapy.”

“You’ll never get a job if you admit you have anxiety. They’ll think you’re weak. What are you, stupid?”

Sometimes, that’s what I’d tell myself. Sometimes, it’s what people who loved me would tell me. Because it’s in my best interests never to admit that being underemployed and low-income for a long time causes stress and anxiety. 

I sometimes feel as though very few people understand that making someone constantly afraid to be honest about their health makes that person less healthy.

This was my 2015. This back-and-forth between the stress of having too much to do and the anxiety over never earning any money from it to support myself. Now it seems this will finally end, and I’ll be able to begin a real career instead of just hoping things will work out.

There are still plenty of people around us who are struggling. Many are worse off than me – they’ve lost their loved ones, their homes, as well as their jobs and careers. Some have even lost their countries. Though the determination of those people to regain what they lost can lead them to greater success than ever before, but not if we abandon or refuse them.

We’re people. We live in communities. We all begin to prosper, the more of us we help to prosper. We’re not each other’s competition. We’re stronger when we support each other. 

This is true at the personal, political, national, and global levels. 

We will win.

One and All Flow Together I: History Lessons, Research Time, 30/12/2015

Most of my life, I’ve learned about the history of our culture in a particular way. It seems that this way of learning history is pretty common, at least across the West. We learn about the modern world as if it one day just switched on.

The apple hits Newton’s head – the light bulb flicks on in the cartoon – and bam! There’s science and democracy.

There's much more to the medieval peasants than our
stereotypes suggest.
Not quite how it really went down, though. 

The people we think of as exclusively modern grew up in the world that today we call medieval. Popularly, this is the Dark Ages. A time of alchemy instead of chemistry, the Church instead of the state. An uncivilized time.

I sometimes think that our education system makes the medieval West into barbarians to encourage youth to accept uncritically dogmas about our institutions, knowledge traditions, and authorities. But you can’t just critique the mainstream you were spoon fed without a critical eye about where you’ll go. 

That way lies lizard people and the camp-style politics that made left wing democrats love Bashar Assad. So let’s not go there.

But let’s take seriously that medieval Europe is continuous with our own time. In fact, we can understand the real transitions of from medieval to modernity better when we take medieval European culture on its own terms. 

Antonio Negri does that, and finds remarkable things in medieval society, whose disappearance was one of the qualitative transitions that created modernity. 

Peter Kropotkin found such a remarkable thing in the cultures and governance styles of the free towns of Germany. These were crushed by national armies as kings unified territory into large, bureaucratically managed, centralized states.

Negri was probably the first – and only – writer who
showed me how concepts that looked like they had only
to do with abstract matters of the nature of existence had
deep political meanings. For that reason, Ecology,
Ethics, and the Future of Humanity
 is fundamentally
indebted to Negri, even if he doesn't even show up in
the references.
Negri finds something philosophical. An end of the reliance on a transcendent, eternal, absolute like God as a source of morality and meaning in existence. That’s a weird thing to say was part of the essence of the medieval period. We typically think of medieval Europe as dominated by the Catholic Church and Christianity.

Definitely, those institutions dominated the large-scale politics of the continent. You can make a solid case that the Crusades were the major political event of the medieval period.* But there was an undercurrent of critical thought inside the Church from the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages.

* And the plagues that decimated Europe’s populations were the major biopolitical events of the era. Too soon?

Negri points to the work of Duns Scotus. Scotus was a monk who lived in the 800s and wrote ridiculously complicated books. Well, they weren’t that bad. 

They were just in a professional environment that required a lot of complex technical language that made the ideas very inaccessible to someone who wasn’t already steeped in the culture and discourse of the institution.**

** This sounds familiar to me for some reason . . . 

And Scotus developed a very radical idea. He wrote that a being’s identity depends only on its own nature. For me to be a human didn’t rely on my own existence instantiating some universal that pre-exists and exists on a higher plane than my existence. 

I don’t need an idea of the human in the eternal or in the mind of God*** to be a human. I define what the human is by my own existence, contributing to the real material history of humanity.

*** Same thing. Well, maybe more . . . Same thing? Depends on your own allegiances.

My existence doesn’t just instantiate some universal. My existence really adds something to the world. Same with everything else. Everything adds to the totality of the universe’s actualities and possibilities and potentialities. 

It turned the traditional way of understanding the role of humanity and God in the universe on its head. And it’s a very democratic idea. To be continued. . . .

Police Dog Josephine Is Also a Junkie, Research Time, 29/12/2015

The title comes from a line of Monty Python, about the best drug-sniffing dog on the police force. But it also serves for a good title for a post about what Antonio Negri has to say about the police as an institution.

In our current political moment, there’s plenty of talk about the dangers of uncritical deference to the police. That’s a healthy conversation, one that a democracy needs to have.

This hashtag used to be a living young boy.
The night I wrote this blog post, the news went out that no one was to be indicted for the murder of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old was shot dead by Cleveland police officer Tim Loehmann, who fired seconds after seeing him playing in a park with a toy gun.

Throughout the protests surrounding Rice’s killing, Ohio state prosecutors and police officials frequently blamed the boy for his own killing. Public statements described Rice as “big for his age,” and said he would play at being a robber with his friends.

Earlier last night, someone briefly replaced Tamir’s photo on his Wikipedia page with that of a chimp.

A centrepiece of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is advocating for reform of police union contracts. Currently, many police officers’ collective agreements include clauses protecting them from prosecution or accountability for killing civilians on duty, among other protections from scrutiny or responsibility for violence.

So even though he talks about police norms in global and international political contexts, Negri has wisdom for understanding our current moment. 

That wisdom appears in how he distinguishes the global character of Empire and the imperial* from the old-school imperialism of naked slavery and conquest. It used to be that only states could control mass military movements. And they still do. But their monopoly is over.

* Globalized capitalism, essentially.

International organizations now have the power to bomb, invade, and sanction cities and countries. Although states supply the tanks, planes, bombs, and soldiers to the United Nations, it’s still an international organization whose constituency is basically the entire human race.

These militaries aren’t armies going to conquer. Their control by the UN makes them a global police force. Their purpose is to stop war crimes from happening, or which are in progress. 

These tanks don't belong to any one army, but to an
international force to keep law, order, and peace. There
are currently 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions
around the globe.
Although peacekeeping has a noble motivation, its ideal is to become a global police force. Other international police forces like INTERPOL have grown in prominence over the last few decades. International organizations and treaties control the trade and economic policies of signatory countries, and can issues sanctions for violating agreements.

In all these ways, police structures are becoming ubiquitous across the globe. And we shouldn’t accept this uncritically, because police organizations are ultimately about controlling populations. 

Those of us in populations who don’t regularly face direct police control, well, we don’t really see their danger. Police are, according to the public relations, public servants. Bodyguards for our society. They’re our protectors.

But police action is based on control – making sure people’s behaviour adheres to specific rules. That control should be subject to critique and public accountability if the police are really to be servants of the public. 

Whether at the global, international, state, or local contexts, we can’t accept uncritically increasing police presence, power, and violence. We mustn’t normalize the ubiquity of institutions of control. And we certainly mustn’t justify it.

As Deray McKesson said last night, justice is a world where Tamir Rice is still alive. It’s a world where no one knows who he is yet but his friends and family. Maybe in 20 years, he’ll build a successful business, become a community leader, fight for his country, or make a great film.

Yet he rots.

The Rankings: Peter Capaldi Year 2, Doctor Who Reviews, 28/12/2015

Now that we've seen all 13 episodes of this season, I can publish my own rankings post on Peter Capaldi’s second year of Doctor Who. In terms of overall quality episode to episode, and story to story, it’s consistent with his first year. About as many middling and bad as before. 

Watching his performance this year, I feel like Peter
Capaldi's performance as the Doctor, already excellent
last year, has improved massively. The material helps,
but he's delivered utterly virtuoso performances.
But I'd actually say that's an improvement because this season was much more experimental than the last one. Many of Steven Moffat's own authored stories were quite experimental as usual, but this was a rare season in that so many new writers were encouraged to push themselves creatively. 

I think it’s an aspect of his succession planning, identifying writers who aren't just good and have production experience, but who are also open to pushing Doctor Who to do new things. 

So I’d put the odds on Jamie Mathieson, Sarah Dollard, and Peter Harness. Less likely for Toby Whithouse. We’ll see what Patrick Ness pulls together with Class in Spring 2016. Mark Gatiss will probably stick around the writing stable.

How the episodes are grouped into stories might be a little unorthodox. Even though the final three episodes of the season proper share an arc (The Death and Resurrection of Clara Oswald), their narratives are so different that I couldn’t treat them as a single story.

1. Heaven Sent (Masterpiece, beyond the meaning of a grade)
2. The Zygon Inva/ersion (A+)
3. Face the Raven (A)
4. The Husbands of River Song (A-)
5. The Girl Who Died and the Woman Who Lived (A-)
6. Hell Bent (B)
7. Sleep No More (B-)
8. The Magician’s Apprentice & Witch’s Familiar (B-)
9. Under the Lake / Before the Flood (D+)

The ghosts' makeup and visual effects design was
frankly brilliant, though.
Under the Lake / Before the Flood makes me hope Toby Whithouse is never asked to return to Doctor Who. The plot adds up to an uninteresting base-under-siege. The black guy dies first. The reiteration of Paul Reiser from Aliens dies from being too stupid to put his helmet back on in the airlock. The villain's motives are nothing more complex than "invade, conquer, destroy.” Utterly generic.

The villain’s underlying concept was stealing people’s deaths by turning them into the world's creepiest signal amplifiers, and the primer for this literally was a magic word that repeated a set of directional coordinates on an infinite loop in their brains. This was the story’s only redeeming feature.

But the whole story so rapidly devolved into a generic base under siege that this genuinely horrifying concept was wasted. And Bennett's unspoken love for the dead O'Connell uncritically validated what in real life would be stalking behaviour. In a realist story style, that’s unforgivable. 

I could do better with just a day to have thought about itBut Whithouse’s was really the only clunker this season. Too bad it was two episodes, making it one-sixth of the main run.

The Magician's Apprentice and the Witch’s Familiar was a fascinating two-parter. Its plot was barely existent. It was a basic kitchen sink story of throwing as much stuff at the audience as possible, then all the stuff had philosophical conversations with each other. 

Let's have the Doctor and Davros talk about the nature of mercy and the necessity of violence. Verbal sparring between Clara and the Master about their differing takes on the time travelling mercenary for two episodes. Epic adventures between UNIT and the return of Skaro’s urban Daleks. The Lovecraftian horrors of living death that stalks Dalek-kind itself.

I know it's the convention to call Michelle Gomez's
character Missy, but she's the Master. Calling her Missy
distinguishes the female Master too much from the
Master as a whole, complex, multi-actor, multi-author,
multi-gender character and phenomenon. Gomez's
Master may like the name Missy, but she is still the
Master. And you are her slave.
All of that is awesome, and its collision creates a solid two hours of television as it is. Too bad none of these ideas and images had a real story to hang from.

Sleep No More was bold and daring in its experimentalism, and quite subversive of audience preconceptions and Doctor Who itself. Found footage storytelling was a tired gimmick by the mid-2000s, but Gatiss turned the concept on its head with a multi-layered meta-fictional approach.

We don’t have helmet cams.” And you realize that the entire story has been the construction of the villain himself. Rasmussen’s defeated the Doctor because his total control of the storytelling medium prevents the Doctor from taking over the story. It’s a jaw-droppingly brilliant concept. 

But the story Rasmussen tells is a pretty generic base-under-siege, barely sensible future culture and horribly uninteresting supporting cast included. 

As for Hell Bent, the return of Gallifrey sets the stage for a huge number of fascinating and brilliant adventures in the future. Unfortunately, none of those adventures appeared in Hell Bent, whose Gallifrey setting was all setup and no real elaboration. 

The conclusion of Clara’s character arc was quite touching, though. And the Doctor’s encounter with Ashildir/Me was a wonderful conversation as usual.

Yes, Ashildir. Both the Girl Who Died and the Woman Who Lived. The first episode of this disconnected two-parter was a brilliant adventure-comedy which turns to philosophical tragedy on a dime, a perfect script from Jamie Mathieson. I suspect that Moffat's co-writing credit means this was an education for a likely future (co-)showrunner. 

Ashildir makes great use of Maisie Williams, a brilliant
actor who I suspect will have some trouble finding
parts as good as Ashildir or Arya Stark down the road. I
hope she does, though.
The second episode contained a fascinating meditation on the nature and consequences of immortality, whether you can maintain an ethically meaningful connection with the world while outliving everyone in it. 

However, it also contained a silly plot involving a lion that shoots fire lasers from its eyes and a cheap comic relief highwayman with all the subtlety of a Restoration Comedy fart joke routine. Which is a shame. But it doesn’t overpower the force of the rest of this fascinating story.

This year's Xmas Special was largely flawless. It's a perfect execution of Moffat's best genre, farce. At the same time, it makes a moving conclusion to River Song’s character arc, having unfolded in chaos along the margins and implied off-screen spaces of Doctor Who. 

Its only problem was that you needed to have done so much archaeology of Doctor Who and River Song for The Husbands of River Song's emotional beats to land optimally. 

Those watching over the last six years without maximum attention would be a little lost. Those who’ve seen less than the last six years would be even more lost. But that’s a problem of River Song as a character and an experimental piece of Doctor Who, which I talked about in more detail in my post on The Husbands of River Song itself. 

The best part of Clara's death scene was her explicit
refusal of the Doctor to put her in a fridge, reducing
her entire story – that of the longest-running
companion in Doctor Who's history – to a trigger for
some tired, overly-masculine revenge plot.
Face the Raven needed no knowledge of previous continuity to land. It didn't depend on any details of Clara’s life from previous seasons. You didn't even need to know who Ashildir or Rigsy were. The story itself explained all you needed to know: Ashildir was the ruthless manager of this multi-species camp, and Rigsy was an old friend of the Doctor and Clara’s who had gotten into trouble. 

The pathos of Clara's end arose from her personality – her recklessness and aggression – and the beauty of her deep friendship with the Doctor. All of this was openly on display. Add to this, a tightly told story packed with beautiful imagery and fascinating ideas, and I'd say that Sarah Dollard created the single best script of this season. Among the contract writers, that is.

The Zygon Inva/ersion was the best action-horror Doctor Who story of the Capaldi era so far and the best UNIT story in history. On top of that, its political attitude, perspective, and weaving of philosophical exploration with suspense could not have been more smoothly assembled. 

It's all the more impressive for all the ways that even a moment of thinking on it could reveal all the ways it could have gone completely off the rails.

But then a story comes along that takes Doctor Who to a whole new level. If television sci-fi were taken as seriously as it should be in our culture, Heaven Sent would be studied as a successor to the great works of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Harlan Ellison. 

Not only is it a story perfectly told, it’s a puzzlebox whose solution is probably the most terrifying idea that's ever been developed in Doctor Who. It’s a horrifying confrontation with the fear of violent death, and a demonstration of the fullest extent of the Doctor’s ethical dedication to never giving in to cruelty or those who’d inflict it.

The horror. That's why I think it's a masterpiece. It is
perfect horror.
On top of all that, it’s soul-shattering in how viscerally it show us the perspective of someone who can literally think and plan at cosmological scales. All the usual ways of trying to get this across are inadequate. 

The Doctor’s social awkwardness, alienation from people, obliviousness to human details, occasional ruthlessness? Just human-like qualities anyway. The out-of-nowhere declarations of having travelled large numbers of years? Just words.

The Doctor dedicates himself to a plan that will move at the pace of one raindrop at a time wearing away the Rocky Mountains. And the unfolding of the Doctor's near-infinitely repeating story loop, Heaven Sent, lets the audience feel something more approaching the full duration of that cosmic time.

It’s a bloody masterpiece.

His Favourite Song, Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song, Reviews, 26/12/2015

Even when the execution stumbled a bit, I always loved the River Song story. This post isn't a recap or a catchup. Instead, I want to talk about what a wonderful idea it was, probably Steven Moffat's most original and innovative story that he brought to Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat talks about The Husbands of River Song
as if it were his last Doctor Who story. He probably
won't retire from the show until the end of next
season, but his major storylines are wrapped and he's
preparing new writers in the Capaldi era to take over.
That said, now that the story is truly over,* I’m really not sure where to put my Spoilers tag. Rather appropriate, given River’s nature and catchphrases.

* Not complete, of course, because there's still so much room for River Song adventures aside from what she did on screen. But the narrative of her relationship with the Doctor, its nature and their love, has finally played to its completion.

We live in an odd culture when it comes to our media consumption. Streaming media and catchup services makes airdates meaningless in consuming television. As people get busier having to work harder, or at least with stranger hours, they often can't see exciting new media for a long time after release. 

So you never know when you're discussing any kind of media whether you’re spoiling it for someone. When Doctor Who started, most British households ran on a schedule where everyone in the family was at home on a Saturday night watching television together. That's extremely not true anymore.

Also, I’ve encountered recurring questions over the last few years as people ask me how to get into Doctor Who. As you can imagine, quite a few of my friends know I’m a big fan.

The main recurring question is, “Where do I start?” Related to that is, “How much do I need to have seen to understand what’s going on?”

I always tell them that it's best simply to start with the start of the current Doctor’s era. But it's very unintuitive, given that we now live in a culture of streaming an entire show to catch up. 

The way this story intrudes on a typical River Song con
job, it's structured like an intrusion on her show.
This is what intimidates potential new fans from getting into Doctor Who. Much of our conversations, I spend more time than anything else just convincing them that you don't need to watch everything since 1963 to know what's happening. The nature of Doctor Who is that adhering to strict continuity constrains storytelling. It's an additive show.

And the thing is, I never mention River Song in any of these conversations. I mean, I don’t really have to. River is very much a creature of the Matt Smith era. But even when the Smith era was current, I rapidly skirted over River Song. 

Trying to explain the River Song story to a potential new fan is ridiculously counter-productive to convincing them that continuity isn't all that important. She's just too difficult to follow.

Now, that can be wonderful about River Song as a character and an unfolding story. In developing the concept behind River, and then spinning her story throughout the Smith era, Steven Moffat has done something that was always potentially possible within Doctor Who, but had never been done before.

So I guess I should say 


River was first conceived as a companion from the Doctor's future, in a story where he met her for the first time, but she met him for the last time, as she died at the end of the Silence in the Library two-parter, in the last full season of the David Tennant era.

River is in many ways a subversive character on Doctor
Who, as in the scene where she turns the Doctor into a
companion on his own show.
Originally, Moffat didn't know whether the show would ever return to River Song. And there’s still a touching purity to Silence in the Library, because her character carries so much possibility, potential, and mystery.

But when Alex Kingston was available for a recurring role through the Smith era, Moffat decided to develop the story arcs of Smith’s first and second years to unfold her full narrative. Yet even here, it wasn’t a normal unfolding.

River Song is the first character whose development takes seriously the full possibility of two characters being independent time travellers. Think back to the Doctor and the Master's relationship throughout the classic series, particularly Antony Ainley’s Master, the major recurring villain of John Nathan-Turner’s period as producer.

Even though the Doctor and the Master were both travelling around the universe independently, they always met in the proper order. Castrovalva, Time-Flight, The King’s Demons, The Five Doctors, Planet of Fire, Mark of the Rani, Trial of a Time Lord, Survival. That was the Doctor’s order of events, and the Master's too. 

Nathan-Turner's production was never a tight enough ship to plan mixed-order encounters, despite the obsessively anal continuity fetishism of advisor Ian Levine.**

** Levine was more about continuity of facts and trivia instead of narrative continuity. Or any narrative concerns at all, really.

So River’s story plays out of order. You have to piece her own narrative together after the fact. Phil Sandifer played with this idea very productively, with his out-of-order posts on River’s stories in TARDIS Eruditorum. Here’s my own list of what I think is the proper order for her perspective. There's wiggle room for interpretation.

The irony of River's plot in this story is that she's a
creature that requires a huge amount of continuity to
understand properly, but she herself doesn't know
enough Doctor Who continuity anymore to recognize
Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.
A Good Man Goes to War (as a baby)
The Impossible Astronaut (as a child)
Let’s Kill Hitler
The Wedding of River Song
A Good Man Goes to War (as an adult)
The Impossible Astronaut (main character)
The Pandorica Opens
The Time of Angels
Angels in Manhattan
The Husbands of River Song
Silence in the Library
Night of the Doctor

But more than playing out of order, River's story also had many important moments play out in the margins of what actually wound up on television. This isn't just about running jokes like Jim the Fish, but actual parts of her story.

Most of the DVD extras on the Season Six set and a couple in Season Seven show day-in-the-life moments of River and the Doctor travelling around the universe having adventures together. 

River Song as a story doesn't play explicitly before you. She’s meant to be pieced together out of fragmented bits of evidence, inferred from different slices of time, disconnected moments that you thread together as best you can with patchy evidence.

River Song isn’t a story, per se. She’s an invitation to do archaeology in Doctor Who itself. 

As far as being a story element that uses the full potential of time travel in Doctor Who itself, she's a rousing success. The greatest such success Doctor Who has ever had. 

But I don’t know if Doctor Who will ever be able to surpass this achievement. Or even if it should. I mean, not every River Song story was all that successful as a story. Let's Kill Hitler is the obvious example of a River Song story whose tone and coherence chokes on the immensity of the narrative goals it has to accomplish. 

King Hydroflax is also an intriguing parallel to the
Doctor himself, not only as one of River's husbands.
The head of Hydroflax is the public face of the King,
but he's replaceable. The android is the real agent,
substituting heads as needs require. He has his
continuity as an individual, but a constantly
changing face.
The Wedding of River Song was similarly overstuffed, but managed to hold itself together. Only just, though, since it only had to wrap the storylines and reveal the shaggy dog story of the Doctor’s arc that season. 

The Husbands of River Song jokes with that continuity while wrapping it all up. Its central conceit is that River herself doesn’t know enough continuity to realize that the Doctor is Peter Capaldi. In her timeline, Time of the Doctor hasn't happened yet. Hell, from Doctor Who’s perspective, she doesn't even live that long.

But here’s Doctor Who showing up in a late season of the River Song show. It’s a beautiful story that brings River's own narrative full circle, reaffirms the Doctor’s love and devotion to her, and offers the Doctor and the audience a happy ending to this narrative.

Even so, figuring out River's narrative is a complex task of detective work and archaeology. The Doctor jokes in Husbands of River Song that he needs a flowchart himself to figure out how their storylines fit together in any given adventure. 

Yet in every other aspect of Doctor Who, continuity is thrown to the winds because conforming to its consistency constrains what stories can be told. River as a character is an agent of even greater chaos than the Doctor: destructive, punkish, amoral. But her continuity constrains what stories Doctor Who can tell about her with every appearance.

River Song was a wonderful experiment in what a time travel show could do. Her story wasn't perfect, but it achieved so much that Doctor Who never had before. But it’s a kind of story that I’m not sure should return to Doctor who again.

Eternal Stories, A History Boy, 24/12/2015

One of my favourite childhood movies was Hook. I fell in love with that movie when I was eight years old, and around age 14 I never watched my copy again. I wasn’t going to watch a movie that silly. I was 14. I knew better than to watch stupid kids’ stories.

Then I watched it again last night because gf wanted to scroll through Netflix’s holiday film list and we both loved that movie when we were kids. So what the hell. Happy Festivus.

I felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. This wasn't a matter of nostalgia, some simple reawakening of the child in me as a very tough, stressful year ends in a more hopeful position. 

We understand how good a piece of art is because of what we see playing before us, which is a matter of our own vision as much as what's on the screen. 

When I was eight years old, I was enthralled by movies more than I understood them, but I was beginning to develop a sense of how to analyze them, learning about how films were made. To me as a kid, that was just as magical as the stories movies told themselves. 

But when I was a teenager, I wanted films to be serious. Explicitly so. My comedies would be ridiculous stories, but they’d still be about real people. My dramas would deal with heavy, powerful, weighty topics. My action movies would be violent spectacle. And my sci-fi films would be about austere, challenging intellectual ideas. 

Quite a self-serious little shit I was. When I think about how I acted and thought about art when I was 14, I realize that I sound a lot like Larry Correia asking for simple, straightforward stories that are explicitly what they say on the cover. 

I’m reading Phil Sandifer’s Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons, his essay collection about and inspired by the Hugo Awards fiasco of 2015 and the neo-fascists who led it. Reading again Correia’s and Brad Torgersen’s declare how much they love simple art with no complex ideas, I shudder at what might have been.

Because I didn't think exactly like Correia and Torgersen when I was 14, but I see how I could have gotten to a point of view like theirs, from how I thought then. I’m very glad I had better influences, and more ethical people around me. But if I hadn't . . . 

That’s part of what drew me to Beauty of Their Weapons as an unfolding essay project on Phil’s website, and now as a collection. That juvenile love of weaponry and violence for its sheer spectacle alone is a place my self-serious attitude could have taken me. Because it’s an attitude that permits only one way of seeing the world: my own.

Now that I’m more accustomed to understanding the world in terms of stories and styles of narrative, whole new dimensions of Steven Spielberg's beautiful work of whimsy open up.

Hook is the story of a man from a movie about Wall Street workaholism destroying his family discovering that he used to be from a neo-Victorian boy’s own adventure story. He has to remember the rules of his world if he's going to act properly in it.

But he isn't going to be as he was before he left, precisely because he left and spent so much time in a social realist drama. He’s going to take the idealism of the beautiful (if problematic*) world of his adventure stories and apply it to his own life in a realist world, and he’ll be a better, more ethical person for it. 

* All the usual terrifying tropes of Victorian children’s adventure literature appear. Peter’s leaving Neverland is explicitly linked with awakening sexuality, and he imprints on a girl who was raised as his sister, who actually becomes his wife and mother to his children. Tinkerbell is reduced to a literal manic pixie dream-girl in love with Peter Pan. 

That idealism will let him overcome the inevitable tragedy of his family falling apart through his own self-centred behaviour and stressed attitudes. It’ll let him deal with life, not as a problem, but as an adventure. You’re simply able to have fun in your life.

Yeah, it's an idealism that comes from a world where you can fend off sword-wielding bearded, smelly men with egg cannons and slapstick comedy. That's because Robin Williams is in a boy’s own adventure novel and not an actual 18th century pirate attack.

Robin Williams. He’s another one of those elements from childhood that have a special place in my thoughts. He was in so many fantastic, creative, and weird films during my childhood and teenage years that I have a visceral emotional attachment to many of his performances, and his character.

And in a movie so meticulously constructed as Hook,
Spielberg still couldn't use a take where Peter's son
actually looked in the right direction.
I used to read about how distraught people were when Rudolph Valentino died. They had become so attached to his persona through his charismatic cinema performances that some even killed themselves in grief. 

We don't respond to cinema with such obsessive investment anymore (at least not most of us). We’ve learned to distance ourselves from our cinematic experiences. For our own good. But cinema still has this power, even though it doesn’t swamp us anymore.

I wondered if I could enjoy Williams' performances without being haunted by the terrible circumstances of his death. Thankfully, that story held its own, and I could see Robin in the present of that wondrous film.

You can grow old, but the movies will preserve you in time. Neverland is a cinema screen.

War Will Set You Free, A History Boy, 23/12/2015

Here's another story that helps explain how influential Antonio Negri's thinking was for me. I had a prof at Memorial who was particularly wonderful to work with – a specialist in, among other things, theory of international law and organizations. 

N introduced me to the philosophical theory surrounding humanitarian intervention, justifying when it was necessary and when to use different means of intervention. Economic or personally targeted sanctions, asset seizure of political or military leaders, and outright invasion and regime change.

Yes, in 2006, I was introduced to a philosophy that justified military invasion and the total political regime change of a country. It feels weird to say this in the context of the modern left, where voices like Stop the War have become elder states-organizations growing past their prime.

The left united in opposition to Slobodan
Milosevic's war on Yugoslavia and Serbia's
Muslim population, and so did the great
powers of the modern West. Those were
the days, weren't they?
It’s a serious generational break in the popular left, the left of the masses, ordinary folks working on activism together. The left used to advocate for humanitarian intervention, that a military force would invade a country and act as peacemakers to defend civilians from massacres, ethnic cleansing, and total genocide.

There was a popular left-wing movement across Europe and North America in the 1990s advocating United Nations or NATO military action against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavian and Serbian government.

Then George W Bush led the public relations blitz to invade Iraq, ostensibly to liberate the Iraqi people from Stalinist authoritarianism and let them build a democracy, to dismantle Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and to punish his regime for cooperating with Al Qaeda in the Sept 11 attacks.

So, in reverse order: a hugely improbable lie, a mildly believable lie, and an insane ideology.

Yet humanitarian intervention and its core principle, the international accord on the responsibility to protect, were cornerstones of progressive politics in the international arena for a generation. The United Nations was supposed to be the arena to settle conflicts between states by peaceful means, and UN peacekeeping forces were supposed to protect vulnerable populations from slaughter.

Bush and the Iraq invasion changed all that. There would always be skepticism on the left of any Western country’s attempt to use military means to protect or defend people at risk of violence. 

“Colonialism! Imperialism! Secret agendas! It’s all about oil!” They sound ridiculous, but they’re what’s replaced advocacy for Western protection of the vulnerable. The attitude of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, two examples I've read while researching Utopias, that American military power was a force for liberation, is well and truly dead forever.

When I was learning the philosophy behind international law’s concept of responsibility to protect and the architecture of humanitarian intervention, it was 2006. My experiences watching the Iraq invasion, occupation, mass murders, civil war, and its fallout in the Western left made me suspicious of the idea. 

R2P mandates a massive military blitz to stop massacres
like the attempted genocide in Kosovo.
But I couldn’t fully articulate why until I read Antonio Negri. Humanitarian intervention and the philosophy of responsibility to protect is a very noble idea in its motivation. But it’s very dangerous in its execution.

It normalizes the level of violence required to invade a country and decimate a national army, which was needed to put down the Serbian massacres and ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Kosovo. It makes invading a country into an ordinary police action.

And it justifies such violence as a means of achieving peace. That’s what just war theory does, and I've never been able to contain my inability to take just war arguments seriously. 

It's as if splitting hairs about how many civilians are permissible collateral damage or the relative level of aggression among belligerents can justify when to bring a multi-billion dollar army to battle. It all seems Strangelovian to me. 

Negri helped me finally understand that the only rational response to violence is not more violence, but an end to violence. And he helped me understand that conventions about military humanitarian intervention normalize and justify wars that may not even really be justifiable, even on their own logic.

When Responsibility to Protect was first officially formulated, it was a beacon of hope. Its supporters never saw its dangers.

What Are These Wars Really All About? A History Boy, 22/12/2015

This post is going to begin what will probably be a pretty long series. I don't know if I’ll link them. I’m going to talk about Antonio Negri, and the ideas from his work that will inform the Utopias project.

Utopias basically has two major philosophical influences: Gilles Deleuze and Antonio Negri. The two are pretty closely linked already. Negri introduces Empire by explicitly citing Deleuze and Félix Guattari as forerunners. Essentially, Empire is picking up the approach to understanding globalization that A Thousand Plateaus developed and giving it a clear political mission.

I first read Empire in the summer of 2008. Personally speaking, that was a wonderful summer. I had been accepted into the doctoral program at McMaster University's Philosophy department, I was staying at my mom's house to save on expenses, working at The Rooms gift shop part time to put a little extra away, and hanging out with all my friends in St. John's before moving to Ontario that August.

And I was reading. Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze, Dostoyevsky, Gao Xingjian, and of course Antonio Negri. Empire helped me solidify a lot of what I hadn't previously understood about the politics of the 21st century.

I watched the Battle of Fallujah play out on news reports.
In my memory, I always associate it with a description of
the effects of a white phosphorus attack on living flesh.
I would hear very clinical descriptions in news reports on
rumours that American troops and mercenaries
used these weapons in Fallujah, and my imagination of
what these weapons would do to me is still horrifyingly
I’ve written many times before about the impact of the September 11 attacks on my own political sensibilities. My own life was perfectly and perversely timed, as they happened on my third day of university.

I was 18 years old, still figuring out what my place was going to be in the world, still figuring out who I was. And the politics of my world were defined by this horrifying act of terrorism and its aftermath.

That aftermath was the war in Iraq. It was a stupid war, even more stupid than most wars. One particularly stupid myth about this war (which I still hear repeated regarding other wars in Iraq, including the military incursions of my own country’s army today) is that it was all about oil.

This is the argument that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was about American imperialism. They were going to capture Iraq's oil supplies for themselves. 

Yet this made no sense. The United States is still a petroleum producing country, and its firm alliance with Saudi Arabia, cemented since the Second World War, means that its oil supplies are in no danger for decades, probably longer. 

The most disturbing possibility was true. George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and others in the W Administration affiliated with the now-defunct think tank Project for a new American Century, actually thought they could invade a country into democracy, and that its people having been freed, would be natural allies of the United States, beacon of liberation that it is.*

* One element of my Utopias manuscript will probably be a sad meditation on the irony of how many peace-minded, progressive intellectuals of the mid-20th century, like Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, wrote so sincerely about America as a beacon of liberation, because of their defeat of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and standing up to the Soviet Union. Hoo, boy.

A lot of the most vocal left-wing today decries America as an imperialist nation. They support Vladimir Putin's Russia and even Bashar Assad himself because they stand up to Western imperialism. 

I also remember those inspiring marches against going
to war in Iraq in 2003. But I remember a feeling of
hopelessness whenever I saw them. As though I
knew no public demonstration would make anyone
in the US or British governments reconsider invasion.
I don't have that bleak feeling when I see Occupy, Idle
No More, and Black Lives Matter protests.
Negri helped me understand that America’s modern military entanglements aren't actually imperialism. Even when they invaded Iraq, there was no desire among any American leadership to make Iraq the 51st state. 

Imperialism is about conquest, taking control of a foreign land and treating it as if it's a new territory of your own country. This is what I think most of us in the 21st century seem to have forgotten about the imperialist era. 

Britain – its leaders and all of its people – actually considered India to be just as much a part of Britain as Scotland and Basingstoke are today. 

To French people, Algeria and Vietnam weren’t just foreign places where the French army and some French citizens lived. Those soldiers and people were in France.

Portuguese people seriously considered fucking Mozambique just as much part of Portugal as a Lisbon suburb. In the 1960s!

Imperialism is about conquering foreign territory and considering it your own.

Empire, as a concept, is bigger than any one country’s army. It’s not about anything as provincial as conquest. Empire is about how the structure of the global economy includes mechanisms to define who is a person and who isn’t. 

This power no longer rests with governments, where we’ve figured out some minimal accountability strategies like democracy. It rests with systematic economic relationships.

Bit of a difference from just shipping some tanks and hopped-up bodyguards to Baghdad. That’s what Negri taught me.

The First Step of Justice Is Reaching Out, A History Boy, 21/12/2015

I thought I'd write a short follow-up of this weekend’s post about how abstract, theoretical thinking can blind you to real suffering. Because it isn't just complex theories of literature that make you think others’ suffering either doesn't exist or doesn't matter.

I’ve started working on a script for a film version of You Were My Friend, the play I wrote and helped produce in Hamilton last Fall. The story applies to this problem of indifference, in a lot of ways. It’ll take a few tangents through my memory to explain fully.

All the terror of our current century has followed from
the effects of this day. We should never take its
power for granted, or think of it as ordinary.
Don't worry – I won't spoil the story.

Let's start with yesterday's main topic. Lisa Ruddick ends her article about the moral coldness of modern literary theory with an appeal to heart, which is a little vague when you think about it. Aside from getting back into a more generally sympathetic frame of mind, how would you analyze or understand an artwork this way?

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my old friend D shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks about irony in art. So much of the most popular art in the 1990s had a thick veneer of irony and misanthropy, which were sources of humour. 

We sat and wondered what would happen to art, whether irony would be dumped, inadequate to the trauma that had just been inflicted on our culture. We imagined a new era of art whose primary tone was a heart-rending sincerity.

Because 18-year-old students can be really pretentious sometimes. 

But I sometimes think we were onto something. At least in terms of tendency. Intelligent art isn’t always drenched in disdain or contempt. Being a dedicated Seinfeld fan was appropriate to my self-absorbed teens, and it's not like that show stopped being funny. 

Throughout my 20s, I've been more drawn to works of art that explore real struggles, and either find humour in them or depict them in all their gut-wrenching intensity. The most remarkable TV comedies of the early 2010s, Community and Parks and Recreation, mined cartoonishly absurd humour from narratives of love, friendship, and dedication. 

Community was probably the perfect example of how
to combine thickly referenced media literacy, hip
sensibility, healthy irony, and genuine ethical
sympathy with its characters.
These are examples that impacted me the most anyway. Being able to take part in the online communities that grew around these and other shows also contribute to a powerful sense of belonging. These were our communities.

Able to reach out and form fandom communities with people all over the world. Where more and more of the best cultural entertainment properties combined humour, satire, and love. These intensely social environments and sympathetic ideas have shaped how I engage with art. 

So I’m trying to bring that same attitude to You Were My Friend. The warmth of watching a friendship come together, but in a world constantly haunted by the worst economic and family traumas that Mike Leigh or Lars Von Trier could come up with.

I’ve told Samantha before that her big moment in the storyline is when I go “the full Von Trier" on her. One of the most powerful moments in cinema that I think I've ever experienced is the end of Dancer in the Dark. I saw it in a theatre, and it left me frozen in my seat for at least 10 minutes. 

The ambition of You Were My Friend is to combine that kind of emotional power with moments of ridiculous levity and warmth in one movie. It tries to depict how real friendship can develop and fall apart in the pressures of the real economy and urban life.

So if I can venture an answer to Ruddick’s question. What would a literary theory with heart be? It would move away from finding significations that conform to a theory that sees liberation in the total explosion of personality and history. That’s what it's not.

It would understand an artwork in terms of its affects and its mission. What an artwork makes an audience feel, and what they learn from it. In my own case, they feel the real pain of people cast adrift in an economy and a business world more obsessed with empty buzzwords and quick cash than real struggles. They feel the real joy of the friendships that are our life rafts in these harsh times. 

And they understand the world where all this happens. It’s ours.

The Nuclear Bombs of Criticism, A History Boy, 19/12/2015

The discussions I took part in at Jockey Club, the flat hierarchy philosophy club of Memorial University's philosophy department, were tremendously influential on a lot of my life, the way I think, and the way I approach teaching and educating. 

They taught me to be open-minded and interested in whatever came my way, that there was value and something to learn from every tradition and style of thought. But it also taught me that critique was equally necessary for a thinker and an approach to maintain itself. Neither close yourself off, nor accept everything without forethought.

University of Chicago's Lisa Ruddick
I remembered those lessons when I was reading this article about the ethical dissonance that many young practitioners in literary theory experience. The whole article by Lisa Ruddick lays out the problem quite comprehensively.  But here's my short version.

Even on top of the institutional pressures of the insane academic labour market and university research funding economy today, they feel pressure to write using a particular theoretical framework. And that framework leaves them anxious, adrift, and a little terrified.

The intense humming of literary theory. Literary criticism’s tools have become nuclear bombs, weapons of political mass destruction that – no matter the progressive aims of its users – destroys everything in their wake.

Sounds crazy, but have a look at Ruddick’s article and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Ruddick even starts her article describing how many young practitioners of literary theory sense “an immorality they can’t put their finger on” in professional discourse. This immorality is in the fundamental presumptions of the analytic framework. The major publications require sticking to a particular model.

Ruddick calls such a theory an anti-humanism that “make[s] ruthlessness look like sophistication.” In the name of destroying old moral and political idols like essential gender identity, disciplinary cultural critics let theoretical analysis blind themselves to real cruelty.

She sticks to examples, hoping that the concept will be clear from the cases. Ruddick describes an essay by Judith Halberstam that describes Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill as a heroic figure for his deconstruction of binary and essentializing gender identity.*

* I encourage you to read Ruddick’s entire essay, as it contains examples that are even more disturbing when you think them through.

Ruddick wants us to understand how inherently horrible
it is to venerate a fictional serial killer as a hero for
his transgressions against essentializing conceptions
of gender and identity.
Murdering women, flaying their skin from the corpses, and wearing them as his own deranged gender transition is analyzed as a heroic act because of how it breaks down a human gender binary that’s oppressive when it’s taken as essential, eternal, and unchanging. Yes, it’s a fictional story, but . . . . 

Western culture’s liberal mainstream of political philosophies and presumptions has many problems, and many vectors of oppression. Most of these are rooted in liberalism’s veneration of the individual: 

a) entirely self-possessed, a stable personal identity;
b) freedom as the total autonomy from community (to the point where moral obligation itself is oppressive);
c) an uncritical embrace of the free market (which ignores the problems of venerating greed and understanding only individual injustice instead of the systemic as well).

But this anti-liberal attitude that sees any assault or critique of essentialist individualism as good also blinds you to real injustice. In the case of Halberstam’s essay, it turns a fictional serial killer into a heroic figure in the crusade against the oppression of gender essentialism.

The notion that people have any kind of genuine psychological self-cohesion is understood as a control mechanism. Attacks on essentialism of the individual can be useful in many circumstances. Trans people, for example, have benefited greatly from popular understanding that gender isn’t an essential binary.

But applied to all circumstances requiring liberation, such a principle can blind you to real injustices, and worse, justify real material violence as liberation.

Theory becomes a form of silencing. Instead of listening to the narratives of people who’ve suffered violence that assaulted or shattered their identity, the uncritical critic praises that violence as having attacked and eroded the oppression of essence itself.

While we sit proud of our theory’s power, a real victim weeps, ignored.