New Project! Radical Democrats Radio

Wow. I totally haven't been here in a while. That's because I've been working on my new project, Radical Democrats Radio, a podcast that combines progressive political activism in the (broadly) autonomist and communitarian tradition, with philosophical reflection and analysis. The main website is still under construction, so while you can go there, you won't see much.

Most episodes will run about 30-40 minutes, and consist of a monologue and an interview. My interviews usually run for 60-90 minutes, and cover a variety of discrete but related topics. So a single sit-down with an interview subject will produce multiple podcasts.

The monologues are rather like my blogs – me talking about different topics. Sometimes, they'll be related to the interviews, sometimes not. Most of the time, I'll contrast the two parts of each show. If the interview leans more philosophical, then the monologue will be more directly political, and the reverse. As for whether the monologue or interview comes first, I'll probably decide that by the tones of both.

I'll also occasionally try out more experimental types of episodes as new ideas occur to me. Best (and only) example so far is my reading + commentary on Jian Ghomeshi's attempted comeback essay in the New York Review of Books. I cut some segments of a few seconds where I stumbled over the occasional word, but I recorded it all in one take.

Here are the most important links for Radical Democrats Radio.

Subscribe! Here's the podcast at iTunes, so you'll get new episodes as I throw them up. This is the best way to access the show, not only because it takes the least effort, but we're still early days, so the publication schedule remains a little sketchy.

We're on SoundCloud too, so you can follow the podcast there.

Support! Here's the Radical Democrats Radio Patreon page, so if you like what you hear after subscribing, you can throw a few dollars (pesos, euros, lira, shekels, rupees, yen) every month. The page's income goals describe key improvements in the production of the show that I'll make as our audience of patrons grows. More rewards will come as patronage grows, and as I think of them.

Finally, here's a transcript from my monologue on the 14 September 2018 show, on the constitutional crisis that Doug Ford's extremist government in Ontario created.
• • •
Notwithstanding Norms

When Doug Ford was elected Premier, I knew he was going to be a jackass, a crap Premier, and probably very destructive and harmful to vulnerable people. I cried on election night for the people I know who are going to suffer from his cuts – efficiencies.

I didn't think he was going to cause a constitutional crisis before Autumn Equinox hit.

What is this constitutional crisis? I’m not going to get into the legal details because I’m not a legal expert. I may have a legal expert on soon, as this mess develops a little more to get some real analysis on what’s going on.

Canada in constitutional crisis, 2018. Brought to you by Deco Labels. Deco! Here at Deco, we make labels.

The notwithstanding clause is the shorthand for Section 33 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It says that, for situations of incredible danger to the security of the people, a government can overrule particular Charter Rights.

Think of an armed uprising against the government. It’s plausible these days. If Ammon Bundy could occupy an American National Park office for weeks, some fastidious Albertan Three Percenters could set off some organized political violence in Edmonton if the NDP gets re-elected. If there was a clear, present danger, Rachel Notley would be justified in overruling Charter Rights temporarily.

But those suspensions would be rightly temporary – the notwithstanding clause is our constitutional mechanism for emergency rule.

Doug Ford is using this mechanism to pass legislation.

Put to the side Ford’s reasons behind Bill 5, whether you think it would improve or degrade Toronto’s governance. Those aren’t important to the question of Canada’s constitutional nuclear option. What is our nuclear option? The constitutional off-switch on the government’s recognition of its citizens’ basic human rights.

Using the nuclear option to pass legislation makes the suspension of citizens’ basic human rights normal. In this case, the notwithstanding clause suspends the basic human rights of about three million people, with no expiry date.

Even worse than when Pierre Trudeau sent tanks to the streets of Montreal in 1970, Doug Ford’s suspension of Torontonians’ Charter Rights to the exercise of democratic governance has no withdrawal time. Toronto’s electoral districts won’t revert to the map of 47. The change to 25 seats is permanent.

It gets worse. Premier Ford made clear in his initial press conference on Monday that he’d have no problem using the notwithstanding clause whenever there was any substantial opposition to his government’s policies.

That means, he sees the constitutional mechanism that suspends the Charter Rights of Canadian citizens a perfectly ordinary, reasonable thing to do in pursuing a legislative agenda.

I have two fears here. One fear is that Doug Ford legitimately doesn’t know how government works. That’s plausible, and I think true.

As a city councillor, he never appeared at committee meetings. He often said that no work happens in committees. Actually, committee work consists in reading reports, hearing from experts on policy, logistics, and city management, or meeting with community groups about planning city ordinances. Mr Ford has no idea that any of this went on.

In an interview on 11 September, Ford said that he was genuinely shocked that a judge in a constitutional court had the power, on hearing a case regarding some particular laws, to declare laws or legislation unconstitutional.

Ford also often talks as though everything he does while in office is entirely legitimate, proper, and merits no serious opposition. The reason is because he won the election. Winning the election, according to Premier Ford, gives you a mandate.

I think he believes that “having a mandate” means “being able to do whatever you and your core supporters want until the next election.”

Which brings me to my worst fear. That Doug Ford legitimately believes that his job is to use all means required to bring his core supporters’ agenda to fruition as fast as he can. He said on 10 September that he would suspend citizens’ Charter Rights whenever they got in the way of his agenda.

Doug Ford’s core supporters include extremist Christians, extremist misogynists, and extremist white nationalists, especially anti-Muslim extremists. Some of them, like extremist Christian Sam Ooesterhoff, are MPPs in the Ford government.

The power to suspend citizens’ Charter Rights can be invoked at any time. Doug Ford did it to pass a municipal governance bill. What prevents Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms from losing all power to regulate Canadians’ relationships with our state, is how terrifying our officials find the prospect of revoking those rights.

Revoking the basic rights of citizens is a terrifying thing to do. Doug Ford believes that revoking the basic rights of citizens is a totally normal and ordinary way for a government to advance their legislative agenda.

Maybe he’s ignorant. Maybe he’s an extremist. I think it’s something of both. Either way, it’s very dangerous.

Effacing Solidarity II: Propaganda Disguised as Philosophy, Research Time, 09/08/2018

Today, I want to write about what yesterday’s post was supposed to be about. As often happens with my blogging, what was supposed to be a preamble turned out to be long enough to justify its own post. That’s how my two-parters happen.

Understanding common frameworks among very different phenomena* is an essential aspect of any empirical approach to philosophy. In this case, those different phenomena are the propaganda of nationalist mobilization, corporate public relations, journalism, and philosophical thinking.

* And the real differences obscured by superficial common features.

Here’s the conceptual continuum that runs through all four – the relation of language, message, and truth in political movements, how societies constitute themselves.

My hatred of Uber has only grown over the last few years, as its
driving principle seems to be reducing our economic life of taxi
service to a dangerous shit show without rules. For one thing, I know
how poorly paid Uber drivers are. I don't use the app myself, but I have
several friends who do, and I'll ride along with them. I slip a driver
cash after as many rides as I can
Propaganda removes truth from communication, making messaging into the transmission of orders. Corporate PR uses messaging science to shape public perception of actual events, organizations, and people. Done ethically, PR messaging emphasizes some real aspects of a company’s client, de-emphasizes others, and generally puts its subject in the best possible light, given circumstances. Done unethically, PR messaging promotes outright lies.

Journalism and philosophy critique both. That’s not all they do, of course, but it’s what they do relative to propaganda and corporate PR. When done ethically, they both reveal the full truth of a situation that powerful actors would often prefer obscured. Journalism does this through empirical investigation. Philosophy does this through analysis and argument.

This four-sided distinction came to me as I reflected on some later chapters of Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have space or context to fit this exploration into the main review. A couple of chapters work through some new economic and business ideas that – ostensibly at least – discourage modern capitalism’s fragmentation of community solidarity into disconnected warring individuals.

Unfortunately for their subjects, these business models are slight of hand moves. You think a new system is correcting some terrible harm, until you’re able to put yourself in the position where you can see all the worse injury that this system is doing.

In these chapters of false solutions, Sassower makes some solid critiques. But I think he tends to give too much quarter. Best example I’d say is Chapter 13 from The Quest for Prosperity. It’s about the sharing economy.

The corporate culture of Uber and pretty much every other sharing
economy and Silicon Valley industry leader encourages
mercenary hostility and paranoid anger more than any kind of
community-building solidarity. The most famous image is of
Travis Kalanick himself losing his temper at a driver who had the
gall to question the company's pricing policy. But when I was
briefly a student affairs manager at a private college, the
students who had the most trouble with their programs were the
part-time Uber drivers. They had to work overnight almost
every day of the week to survive.
Sharing economy companies pitch becoming a service provider with them by promoting the job’s flexibility and your own autonomy from corporate control of how you do the job. Sassower explores the promises of the sharing economy from an even more profound booster than Uber’s PR and recruitment departments, Arun Sundararajan.

Sundararajan himself is a professor of operations management at NYU’s Stern School of Business. The book is the ostentatiously titled The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism.

I can understand how your first instinct on hearing about the “end of employment” is to reach for medication to prevent heart attacks. But Sassower does Sundararajan the benefit of the doubt. Sundararajan describes the sharing economy as having the potential to restore community to capitalism.

Sharing economy companies, he says, give people who would never otherwise have found each other a platform to build a community of mutual support. Platforms take advantage of internet connectivity to return to the informal, decentralized networks of commerce and relationship building as in the medieval market squares.

The industrial revolution, says Sundararajan, brought authoritarianism to markets and production. It’s an authoritarianism of the factory floor’s automation, the demands of oligarchs to beg for the least crumbs of productivity as wages, and government police suppression to maintain those oligarchs’ power.

Heavy industry flattened and crushed the friendly truck and barter of small communities. Sundararajan expects the sharing economy to restore it. As people become linked through networks of sharing goods and services, they come to trust each other. Since the platforms network people without regard to ethnic or cultural boundaries, our networks will become more diverse.

But it gets worse. There are many examples of Uber drivers
assaulting and robbing their customers. This actually happened
to a former partner of mine: a (now former) friend left her in an
Uber after getting her too drunk to speak. The driver physically
threw her out of his car at her destination, cracking the back
of her skull on the parking lot and robbing her phone and cash.
As brutal and unforgivable as acts like these are, I can
understand why people might be driven to that desperation if
this is their only means to live..
Sassower critiques this cheap utopianism as far from inevitable, and in fact quite unlikely.

When the platforms set to work, the result isn’t an end to authority, but the stress of being subject to an app provider’s whims. As any Uber driver knows, drivers shoulder all the risks and costs of daily business – fuel, insurance, upkeep – but with no control over such business essentials as their rates.

TaskRabbit is the sharing economy company that came closest to this model. It began as an auction platform for handyfolk workers – plumbers, carpenters, appliance repair people, renovation workers would bid on jobs, schedule tasks around existing jobs, and build relationships with repeat clients that would get them regular business, referrals, and friendships. Clients and contractors were all happy.

An acquisition in 2014 saw it become an Uber for home repair. The auction forums and ability to schedule were gone. Instead, clients posted a job to be done now, and the nearest available contractors decided in the moment whether they’d take it, then grab the required tools and get to it.

Life for TaskRabbit contractors became hell. They could no longer schedule tasks, but had to have their day free of any work whenever they wanted to log on and look for gigs, which kept them from optimizing their income. It became impossible to build relationships with clients, as there was no guarantee you’d ever connect again. So there goes your repeat business or referrals.

Things only picked up for the company when IKEA bought TaskRabbit last year, and began using its platform to schedule furniture assemblies in the cities where the company was active. After all, it had to restore the scheduling function to do so. Now contractors could plan their other jobs around TaskRabbit assignments.

The sharing economy can only function when its platforms encourage workers to take control of their own working lives, and the platform is a proper communication tool that opens the space needed to build thick relationships.

But the developers and investors in sharing economy companies have no interest in this. Because it’s easier to maximize revenue with a fleet of desperate, under-employed contractors incentivized to tie themselves to the rhythms of the app instead of a working life that would improve their own prosperity.

Effacing Solidarity I: Their Language Is Absurd, Composing, 08/08/2018

Four years ago, when I trained in corporate communications, there was a brief introductory lecture in one class about the history of public relations. One discussion that seemed very anachronistic at the time was distinguishing between public relations and propaganda.

It went over strangely because propaganda seemed quaint, something no longer done. A horror of the past.

I wish that had stayed true.

Anyway, the definitions of propaganda and public relations that we discussed in that lecture were ultimately a little flaccid. It ended up amounting to “You know it when you see it.” Let me illustrate this with a hard case.

When the powerful laugh, they're usually mocking ordinary folks.
When we laugh at the powerful, it's a means of self-defense.
In our Ethics of Public Relations class, one of the main presentations we covered was the contract between the Hill & Knowlton PR agency with the American government to help convince United Nations leaders and other international influencers to go along with the war against Iraq in 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Hill & Knowlton team developed a comprehensive public relations plan. They regularly monitored the American public through opinion surveys to test the strength of their messaging. They helped dress the Kuwaiti ambassador for his public appearances in styles that Americans would find charismatic. Those public relations techniques are ethically reasonable.

Where things get freaky is in the most harrowing message. Testimony from a young Kuwaiti woman, presented to the US Congress as a hospital nurse, that Iraqi soldiers occupied a hospital and killed an entire ward of infants in a maternity ward by throwing them out of their incubators.

None of it was true. Iraqi troops never committed massacres in Kuwaiti hospitals during the occupation. The woman who testified to Congress that they did was actually a daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador. Members of the Hill & Knowlton team had done a great job of training her in acting.

Would you call it propaganda? I’m not sure that’s quite appropriate. I’m looking for a conception of propaganda that’s a little thicker than “public relations actions that I don’t like.” It works fine as a designation, an insult, a way to tell people my own feelings. But it isn’t actually useful to learn anything about the world.

Some speculations. I think I could characterize the stupidity of United
States geopolitical strategy this way: They rely on alliances with
ruthless people, groups, and factions around the world to do their
dirty work for them, so United States leaders can continue to defend
the country's international and domestic image as virtuous guardians
of democracy and freedom. Since the Reagan era and with
increasing frequency, this strategy has backfired, causing spirals
of cascading political violence as ruthlessness compounds on
In that way, I appreciate Trump for his honesty. He never
pretends to be anything other than ruthless.
See, while Hill & Knowlton’s incubator strategy was built on lies, there was still one aspect of respect for truth in their strategy. They wanted you to believe in the truth of what they said. They were trying to convince you to support a military action by convincing you to believe a set of propositions. They maintained respect for the logic of reason.

Doesn’t propaganda try to do this too? Well, it doesn’t if we’re going to make a useful distinction between public relations and propaganda. Why make the distinction? So we can use our new conception of propaganda to understand a real difference

That’s a key part of what philosophical creativity is – developing concepts to understand real differences.

Propaganda looks like public relations but differs because it doesn’t concern truth or whether the content of its propositions and messaging is believed as fact. I’ll offer two quotes from a pair of French thinkers of the last century. First, from Gilles Deleuze, discussing a kind of language he calls “order-words.”
 “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.”
Propaganda messaging isn’t about encouraging people to believe what’s said as fact, or truth. It’s about transmitting orders and how to give signs to your leaders that you’re following their orders.

That’s why Trumpists continue to repeat Donald’s blatantly false statements, even when you physically demonstrate their falsity in front of them. They don’t believe and follow Trump because they think what he says is right. They repeat what he tells them to repeat and believe what he tells them to believe because he is their leader.

You know what my problem is with Sartre scholarship in the
university sector? They rarely, if ever, discuss Sartre as a fundamentally
political thinker. I think that would clear away a lot of the confusion
that I see about his own flavour of existentialism.
Now for a longer quote. It’s going to lock down for sure the kind of communications I’m talking about with the term propaganda. It’s from Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’ve seen it floating around my Twitter circles lately.
“Never believe that [propagandists] are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.
“The [propagandists] have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors.
“They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”
He was talking about the anti-Semites of Europe in the days and years laying the conditions for the Shoah. At the time he wrote it, within months of France’s liberation from German occupation, Sartre – as well as most of the everyday population of France – didn’t know that the Shoah had happened.

Today, we call it by the silly, defanged name of trolling. But these words describe the bullying indifference to truth and amusement at others’ pain and confusion that freed people’s minds to create the Shoah.

Change Is Why We Exist, Composing a History, 06/08/2018

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting quite as frequently lately. This is because I’m in the process of amping my philosophical social media beyond a new threshold. Can’t say anything at the moment because all the infrastructure isn’t yet in place, but it’ll be a pretty radical project.

The blog itself will keep going. I’m not sure if I’ll port all the entries over to the new main home of my online philosophy and activism. For one thing, I kind of like the retro feel of continuing to publish first-draft versions of some content that will appear in a more high profile place.

For another thing, there are nearly 1300 posts in the entire history of this blog and I suspect porting all that content to the new site will be fucking hard.

Yes, I know. Even lower overhead than this. Have you seen my apartment?
I started this blog with a specific purpose of simply motivating me to write something creative every day. At the time, I really needed that motivation. The conventional paths of a university career were shutting down for me, and what I thought was decent preparation to find decent work outside that sector turned out to be incredibly inadequate. I had no idea what to do.

Short version – I was mad depressed. There was a period of three days in May 2013 where I literally didn’t leave my bed except to go to the bathroom. I hardly ate. All I knew was that I still loved creative work, I still loved philosophy. Philosophical thinking, writing. Same with narrative storytelling. So I needed something to focus my mind and keep me feeling like I was doing something more than treading water.

Since then, Adam Writes Everything has been an essential centre of gravity that my creative life could orbit. It was a machine that kept me thinking, that kept my brain active. It became a tool that helped transform my own thinking and research process, and make it a lot better.

Blogging introduced a kind of recursiveness to my thinking, encouraging me to experiment with how concepts and techniques could fit together. It helped me refine my writing style into something less burdened by academicians’ conventions. It helped me figure out what kind of writing I could do that I hadn’t tried before. It helped me learn how to write for the internet.

It’s taken a long time, and there have been a lot of setbacks along the way. But I’m now at last in a situation where I can centre myself, feel confident in what I’m doing, and have enough financial security that I can put a small investment into a business like the media project you’re about to see by – I hope – Labour Day weekend.

I’m not the first with an idea like this, and I won’t be the last. But it’ll be good listening, and a strong model. My overhead is lower than my predecessors, and we can reach more people than ever before.

Playing Games in the Street – Free Rider! Jamming, 01/08/2018

Funny little things crop up in the small margins of a book worth reading. Distilling the core arguments of a 300-page book and juxtaposing some critical perspectives in about 3000 words, you lose some details.

Which is why I like to revisit some of those discarded but interesting points on the blog.

One of those casual moments is Sassower’s critique of the free-rider problem, which amounts to a flippant rebuke. At that moment, I cackled.

As someone who was educated for the academy in a philosophy department, such a thing is blasphemy. The Free-Rider Problem is a central example in Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, and has gone on to become a standard model for pumping intuitions to understand moral truths.

Now that's a fare inspector who takes his job to heart.
Okay, after writing that paragraph, I’m cackling again.

See, the method of pumping hypothetical or artificial scenarios to intuit universal moral principles or foundations is utterly barmy. It presumes that every person is going to think morally in the same way you do. And that’s just not the case.

Maybe Kantian morality conforms to the intuitions of a lot of people raised in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Maybe Kant derived the principles that his philosophical reasoning justified from the mainstream culture of his time. Maybe Kant’s work was so influential that it affected the popular moral development of European and broader Western culture.

It was probably a combination of all three. But the problem with the Free Rider Problem is that it just isn’t necessarily true that it describes a problem, just because some folks who uncritically absorb individualist Christian-influenced morality or work as Kantian moral philosophers say it is.

So what is it? Someone rides a public bus without paying for a ticket.

Dear God, the terror!

Seriously, though. Analysis of the Free Rider Problem takes up a lot of space in Western moral philosophy, especially in the academy. Conceptual problems like this are a gold mine for academic philosophers – you can change your take only slightly to generate a new article for the paywalled journals with little effort, but great reward. See also, the Trolley Problem, the Gettier Case, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

The best buses are the ones for freedom.
The intuitive outrage at the centre of the Free Rider Problem is what you should do with the cheater on the system. As someone who benefits from a common good without directly contributing to it, he’s conceived as a cheater of the system.

A common conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is that only those who can themselves directly contribute to public goods have the right to make use of them. That sounds very fair in the abstract, but in real life, that results in actions that sound morally upright, but are in fact terribly destructive.

So if someone is too destitute to contribute directly to the upkeep of the public good, the typical conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is to deny them the right to use the system. Throw the homeless woman off the bus, even if she’s on his way to an interview about a housing opportunity. She didn’t pay her $3.25.

There’s a mainstream approach to morality that puts all evaluation of praise and blame on the isolated act of an isolated individual. Did you steal that food? Did he skip that line? Did she kill that man?

As for the approach to communitarian moral thinking that Sassower articulates when he wonders if Free Riding is even a problem? It’s empirical – you examine the situation, history, and network of causes that constitute that entire situation. It’s dynamic – you take account of how wider situations and institutions constrain and liberate potential actions.

You were hungry. Everyone was skipping the line. She was 14 years old and that man was sexually assaulting her in their house. Culpability never rests with one.

Not every $3.25 is worth a life.

Why Does Anyone Do Anything For Anybody? Research Time, 31/07/2018

Here’s the thing about revolutionizing your entire culture’s values. It’s much easy to think about than to achieve. That gap is even more frustrating because so many of those values already exist in society – it’s just that they don’t predominate.

You see, this appears to be a pretty common theme in all my philosophical writing. At least the big projects. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity started with problems of environmental ethics, moral philosophy, and ontology. It ended with an imperative to develop better methods of changing people’s moralities and self-conceptions.

Knockoffs do have some merits on their own terms.
Utopias is a sequel of sorts, in that it revolves around the methods, tendencies, and directions for revolutions in moralities and self-conceptions throughout a culture. And I think I’m just about ready to start diving into the manuscript now that I know how that book is going to end.

Once you’ve worked out the mechanics of how to revolutionize moralities and ethics, you have to ask what your endpoint is. For me, that endpoint is an anarchist-flavoured communitarianism.

It makes Raphael Sassower something of a fellow traveller, since he's also exploring the potentials of communitarian political economy and morality. His work will probably be quite influential in how I come to think about how communitarian values work in a civilization like ours – industrial, high-technological, in a state of global ecological reorientation (if not outright collapse).

Here's one example of how communitarian values end up creating quite a lot of prosperity. Sassower discusses the knockoff economy, particularly China’s dominance of trade in knockoff goods. He argues that the knockoff business sector offers an empirical rebuke to one of the unquestioned presumptions justifying intellectual property rights.

Not all forms of intellectual property need be respected to encourage innovation. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about art – I’m a writer and I like to be paid for my work. At the same time, I don’t exactly need every payday to be $5-million. It wouldn’t even be all that nice – it’d be too much.

Not this Gucci, no. Although he is my favourite Gucci.
But I’m talking about product designs – fashion products like clothing and handbags, personal appliances like dvd players and watches. Knockoffs don’t detract from the sales of the top label products because of the social status of actually having the proper product.* Knockoff economy businesses, meanwhile, are creating fashionable goods and appliances that working class people can afford.

* It’s a doubly elite status. Not only do you have the status of owning the proper product, but in a knockoff-dominated economy, the only ones who can tell on sight that you have the genuine article are connoisseurs of the product. Cash and hipster cred.

Preventing knockoffs actually harms the prestige of the brand, especially in the fashion retail sector, where the prevalence of knockoffs is a sign of the brand’s prestige. In all these ways, the knockoff and elite markets support each other.

This is a context where a supposedly universal principle – that innovation can only occur when patents and intellectual property amount to a practical monopoly. At least temporarily, to incentivize them with exclusive profit from that property.

Knockoff symbiosis shows how the prestige economy can thrive and fuel popular trends in fashion. It also shows that thirst for the maximum profits is not the only driver of economic activity. A demonstration for communitarian values.

Teaching Prosperity in the Underground, Composing, 29/07/2018

So it’s been almost a week since the last post. I didn’t mean to do this on purpose – it’s just been a busy week. Thankfully, it’s mostly been busy with some promising business opportunities starting to come together.

And sometimes, just some incredibly long days. So long that I’d run out of energy before getting down to write. At least to write this, as I’ve mostly been working on other things that I actually get paid for. The blog is meta – a writing project about my writing projects – meta takes a back seat to actual.

I'm one person, not a mechanical writing machine. I'm powered by
food, coffee, and serotonin.
I’ve started work on a small media project that will involve interviews, and I’m starting to line those up for later in August. More updates to come.

But there are some other interesting developments in my teaching job as well. As you might remember, I published my review of Raphael Sassower’s book The Quest for Prosperity last week. I read it months ago, and only got around to writing it all now.

But that means I’ve had a few months to stew over its arguments and ideas. I think the book does come up short in some areas. But its critical chapters on the political economy of the 21st century global economy are wonderfully insightful.

There's a lot going on in those early chapters of The Quest for Prosperity that I couldn’t fit in all their detail into the main review. I only had so much space and so much time to write the thing. But in working over the ideas, I've begun incorporating them into my teaching work.

To give you an update, I’m the head of a program in Business Administration at a small private college. We’re using a standard set of textbooks, but I’m working on lecture content that itself goes beyond just those lines.

For example, I’m not about to present uncritically a map from Freedom House ranking the economic freedom of different countries around the world. I’m not going full communism in there. I’m just asking students questions about what economic freedom means to them, whether they ultimately agree with Freedom House’s terms, and how to articulate their differences.

The marketplace should be a friendly place.
Actually criticizing some aspects of business school orthodoxy as part of the program is turning into a pretty effective value proposition for the place. Unfortunately for the rest of North American civilization, this is how we stand out from the crowd.

One idea of Sassower’s that I’ve incorporated into my program’s business lectures is how he distinguishes between markets and capitalism. Markets are a matter of what Adam Smith called “truck and barter,” small exchanges among community members that add up to mutual benefit.

Capitalism as an ethical attitude is a spirit of competition, where you can all too easily see another person’s benefit as a potential loss for you. Worse yet, you expect others to see your benefits the same way you see theirs. So you become paranoid, aggressive, and suspicious.

Solidarity is broken. Friendship is impossible.

Manuel DeLanda covered the differences of markets and capitalism in a book published more than 20 years ago. But he had an ontological focus on the macroeconomics of the massive capital flows that industrialization and colonialism powered.

Sassower’s emphasis on political economy foregrounds moral principles and ethical attitudes, so we can see the transformation of a society’s values along with their economic system. Good is no longer giving benefits to your community, but leading your community as a function of your wealth. You don’t want to be part of a community – you want to own it.

Conceiving Prosperity Again, Composing, 23/07/2018

If all goes well, this is going to be a very different kind of website in a few months. It’s why I might not post here as frequently as I have before. It will be the first good reason behind any sustained pauses in blog updates I’ve had in nearly a year.

So I came home from the gf’s place Sunday afternoon and after I unwound, I started work on my review of Raphael Sassower’s book, The Quest for Prosperity. It’s not quite finished yet, though I wanted to get it done by now. But I don’t have much longer, and it should still go live by Thursday at SERRC.

A key idea I’m writing about in that review is the notion that civic institutions aren’t sufficient to prevent the rapacious activities of oligarchs. I think our current political moment seems to be demonstrating that. What American Trumpism shows is that institutions – despite all the structural precautions that may exist – can always be corrupted somehow.

Shepard Fairey drew this image of Ronald
Reagan on a wall in the Little Tokyo
neighbourhood of Los Angeles in 2011, as
part of a public art initiative called the
Freewalls Project. He had the support of
the city's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr /
Creative Commons
I think it’s a bit of shortcoming in Sassower’s analysis. But only in the sense that landing a crew on Luna is a shortcoming in that we eventually need to get to Mars.

Sassower, in the latter chapters of his book, asks what kinds of civic institutions can best guide people to socialize each other into communitarian moralities, where oligarchical personal greed is less likely to develop. He identifies several key ethical principles, and a few very intriguing examples among existing institutions and organizations.

I can probably add to his list of example institutions, given what I’ve been reading lately as well. I’m thinking of how Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes the ethics and socialization paths of Ontario’s Indigenous societies.

It’s a life that’s called Nishnaabewin, and I’m going to talk about my own engagements with these ideas, including how I want to use them in my own work, later on. As you can imagine, it’s probably going to get awkward.

So we have our guidelines and we have our models. But those guidelines and models aren’t enough because institutions alone can’t do anything when power imbalances grow.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I’m trying to say. Because I’m at the point in the review where this is what I’m trying to say, and I’m having a tough time articulating it.

Let’s say you’re a claimant in a civil case. Doesn’t matter if you’re technically in the plaintiff’s or defendant’s chair. All that matters is that you’re making a claim with the help of your legal defence, and the other side is making their claim too.

In terms of your civil rights, you’re both equal. That’s what equality before the law means – the institutions regard you as equal claimants whose dispute will be settled according to reason. But in terms of your material resources, you aren’t equal.

You can tell how unequal you are when you see your opponent walk in with Alan Dershowitz as his counsel, and you’re sitting next to a snot-nosed, freshly graduated, already-drunk part-timer.

Material power dynamics overcome nominal equality in the context of civic institutions. This fact is a powerful reason why it’s so difficult to overcome greed – no matter the law, money is always power. Now what do you do about that?

Demonstrating Any Alternative At All, Composing, 19/07/2018

Another quick meditation. I polished off about half of my official review of The Quest for Prosperity over the last couple of days (as well as the draft of a policy paper I’m writing for the think tank). That’s why I didn’t have time to write a blog entry for Wednesday.

One of the leftover ideas from Raphael Sassower’s dense yet accessible book regards the different ways we try to create new forms of life. Now, this is a major concept in my own political philosophy – the utopian drive to build a new society.

The Occupation left Wall Street, but it never failed. It's still
succeeding, because Occupy was the uprising that generated the
ethical energy of anti-oligarchical politics in the 2010s.
Art by Eric Drooker
I’ve mostly been concentrating my historical eye on those creative revolutionary processes that have had real success. Maybe they’ve overthrown a government or two, like the Arab Spring or the Maidan protests. Maybe they’ve inspired an entire generation – on average – to reorient their deepest ethical and moral beliefs about what kind of political economy we want in our society.

Sassower, in a few remarks late in chapter one, makes me wonder what I can learn from the unsuccessful cases.

We’ve got to be careful about how we understand success and failure here, though. Remember that success is more complicated than having a succinct list of demands that are fulfilled. That was the complaint I often remember levied at Occupy – how to make change without specific demands.

But we’re talking about a social movement – not an election campaign or a collective bargaining session. So a utopian uprising’s focus must be general as it generates. The uprising is the social movement in embryo – the flurry of energy that focusses people’s thought and minds, and dedicates their lives, to the hard work of actually changing society.

The hard work of transitioning Tunisia to democracy, or overthrowing Bashar Assad. The hard work of restoring social democratic principles to governance in a globalized civilization and economy.

Actual material success in a specific task isn’t necessary to whether a particular utopian impulse is a success. It’s also difficult to tell when such a project is a material success. The Tunisian democratic government, for example, is still only a few years old and still embattled. Is a democratic Tunisia that lasts only a few more years a success?

Let me put this to you, to demonstrate that asking about persistence of an institution isn’t the right question here. Would you consider the Abbasid Caliphate a failure as a pluralistic society because it lasted only 800 years?

The energy of the uprising is not the same as the institutions people create with that energy. What remains when you bracket the material achievements of a social movement is the energy of the movement itself.

From one of the few long-term successful hippie commune farms.
The Stephen Gaskin Farm began as a community of radical utopian
Americans, who moved to Tennessee to drop out of industrialized
society. It still exists today as a scientific and political research
centre and charity. Its energy, creativity, and practical intelligence
continues to renew itself for more than four decades now.
If the energy of the movement, the revolutionary dedication and drive in a society – or at least a fairly significant number of people in it – is what matters, then we know what success and failure of a social movement is.

A social movement succeeds when the energy of its uprising is sustaining and renewing itself – when people join and contribute to its creative processes, as different contexts to do so appear. There is no point when a social movement has succeeded – that would imply that the movement is finished, and so no longer sustaining itself.

So the death of a social movement is its stoppage. Once people’s creative drive dies, the institutions that movement built immediately ossify and become authoritarian. Their only justification is their existence, which is no justification at all.

Now we have a conception of how to know the success or failure of a social movement on any scale. Success is sustaining its vibrance. Failure is dissipation.

I worked this out Wednesday night as I wrote this post, thinking about Sassower’s example of a failed, small-scale social movement – an experimental agrarian community. These are the farming communes to which frustrated Vancouver office workers retreat when the alienation of their corporate lives becomes too much for them.

That they go is a demonstration of their creative drive to develop a new way of life – a living demonstration that their old lives were obsolete. Not many get too far, though.

The utopian energy of their small group’s social uprising against the constraints and blandness of corporate life isn’t strong enough to overcome even their first challenge. When everyone arrives at the experimental farming commune and they realize that none of them know how to grow food.

Rising Tides Lift Only Boats That Can Pay for Maintenance, Research Time, 17/07/2018

So yes, the conception of prosperity as abundance has all those problems I talked about yesterday. Ultimately, the concept can’t escape the perennial problem in human history – the conflict of the powerful and powerless.

I'm wondering – Do they all have to wear the shirts?
Lords and peasants. Nouveau riche and factory boys. Oligarchs and Taskrabbits.

Society is always much more complex in all the dynamic processes and knit us all together, of course. But this question of distribution always comes up because of the disastrous results of extreme inequality. When so much of a civilization’s wealth is locked up and never returned to the market, there’s a mass slide into poverty.

When the bulk of a population slides into penury while a small elite become earthly gods from their extreme wealth, you have a potential revolution on your hands. Oligarchy’s survival mechanism is to bring all the counter-revolutionary powers of the state – both military and messaging – to bear.

The counter-revolutionary state is a fascist one, because its purpose is to suppress and deceive the desires of its people. That’s why such an important message in democratic organizing is “fight the real enemy.”

I was lecturing in my Business class today about how inadequate general measures of a country’s wealth – like Gross Domestic Product – are to understand how that economy actually functions. Pure aggregates of economic measurement collapse too many distinctions to make the world comprehensible. They measure nothing about how many people in that society are comfortable and who is not.

So what does the concept of prosperity as abundance show us? It does lead us, productively, to focus on the phenomenology of economic anxiety. Abundance is the image of the world’s perfection for the economically insecure.

It’s what you dream of as you weigh how much you can fill up your car today against how many groceries you can buy that week. Progressive political philosophy could use a few more phenomenological accounts of that state of consciousness.

“He Was the God of Abundance,” Research Time, 16/07/2018

Here’s a really interesting idea about how the concept of prosperity has developed in Western thinking. It’s an idea that I really wanted to work into my review of The Quest For Prosperity,* but that couldn’t quite fit the general direction.

* Forthcoming in about a couple of weeks.

A prominent idea in one concept of prosperity that you can perceive in Western culture over the last few centuries is to define prosperity as abundance.

There's a complex relation of our visions of abundance with our anxieties and fears. To live in abundance is to never want again – more than that, it’s the security of never having to worry that you’ll want again. Not only do you live in a situation where you’ll always have comfort, but you know that this comfort will continue – that it won’t end.

Pictured: A succinct expression of ethical, psychological, and cultural
economic anxiety.
This is the dream of abundance. But it was popularly believed, and as a popular image still exists in our culture.** The image functions as a response to individual anxiety, showing that anxiety is a central component of the concept.

** Probably also in a bunch of other cultures as well. The title is a way-too-layered joke about how abundance imagery operates in many non-Western contexts. Sassower sticks with the Western context, because that’s the tradition he knows best.

The concept of prosperity as abundance expresses anxiety – depending on the context where we analyze how the concept plays out in thought, it’s an individual anxiety, or a cultural anxiety. Anxiety is your motivation to achieve prosperity, and abundance is the dream of an end to the torture of daily life.

The anxiety of poverty – whether you live it or have to avoid it – fuels the intensity of how a person or a public discourse conceives of prosperity’s abundance.

This image of abundance has painted the goals of socialist movements from the 19th century to today. Raphael Sassower draws from the recurring image to understand this driving concept of abundance – prosperity as the achievement of comfort. As a political movement, socialism aims for the basic dignity of comfort for all, that no one need live in poverty, penury, misery.

It’s admirable. But I can’t roll with this concept in my own approaches to progressive activism anymore. Basically, it’s because the concept turns out to be more destructive when it animates our current political priorities. When you make universal prosperity your political goal, and you understand prosperity as abundance, then you presume that your world can be made to create that abundance.

Is this really all that matters to you? The temptations of consumerism are
pretty intense, but the question remains of whether this is even
something you can achieve without facilitating a disaster.
Karl Marx himself thought this way about the ultimate goal of socialism. As he conceived the material achievement of communism, it was a world where technological industry would produce prosperity and comfort for everyone. But we have to move beyond the thought of the 19th century.

Environmentalist political movements being as mainstream and powerful as they are, we largely have. If we think of prosperity as everlasting abundance for all people, then we rapidly run up against the carrying capacity of the Earth.

I don’t mean this in some cheap Malthusian sense – no simple ratio of resources to population to consumption intensity. I mean it in the larger sense that the exploitation of material resources for economic prosperity will destroy the means of physical comfort. We may relieve our monetary anxieties, but our health and quality of life anxieties will be worse.

If the ecological side effects of the technology to create abundance makes life a torture, that’s no prosperity. Just look at the water quality in cities that prosper economically from the high-paying secure jobs of oil or metal extraction, or steel foundries and oil refineries.

This continues to be a conflict in our society. Obviously from the extremist extraction politics of state leaders like Hugo Chavez, Stephen Harper, and Vladimir Putin. These people who’d build an entire economy around spreading the wealth of oil money inevitably and quickly come into conflict with environmentalists.

But the most telling – and depressing – such conflict among priorities of extraction and ecology is among the progressive set. Take the Canadian case.

Right now, the provincial leadership and membership of the New Democratic Party in Alberta and Saskatchewan support prosperity-by-extraction with similar zeal as Chavez. In each case, they’ve come into conflict with Indigenous activists and their settler environmentalist allies, who refuse to accept the bargain of the land’s utter destruction for the economic abundance of consumerist values.

Two Utopian Visions of a 1600 Year Civilization in One Page, Research Time, 13/07/2018

One of the reasons I wanted to review Raphael Sassower’s new book formally* was that it’s relevant to my own major book of political philosophy – the messianically in-progress Utopias.

Few images of Jesus better communicate the essential idea of the
Incarnation better than Buddy Christ – He really is one of us.
* Which these blog posts are most definitely not. I’ve already outlined the review formally speaking, and know which points I’ll be covering. No specific critiques or interpretations that I’ll be throwing down in the review at the end of this month will be included in these blogs. It’s a compliment to Raphael that I consider his book complex enough to sustain more than one take. As all books should if they’re worth the paper or the hard drive space.

Concepts of prosperity all tend to focus on building a more perfect society. This refers at least to concepts in the Western tradition, in which I grew up and which until recently dominated the popular imaginary of most of Earth. To prosper is a joyful wealth, joy in wealth. Prosperity is a wealth about which you need no longer worry, a secure wealth.

How individualistically you read those last couple of sentences tells me a lot about your ethics and personality. The progressive political movements of contemporary Westerners share a common ground in their economic philosophy – we no longer believe that the prosperity of individuals in a community is the same as the community’s prosperity.

We ask how many individuals are prospering. We measure highest achievements, averages, create ranks, tax brackets. But if those prosperous individuals become wealthy from dynamics that keep others poor and suffering – whether intentional, systemic, or both – you don’t have a prosperous community.

Never mistake the prosperous man for a sign of a prosperous
In a single page from his introduction, Sassower lays out the religious and ontological framework that – broadly speaking** – Christian civilization has centred in thinking. Put very broadly, the Christian engagement with time is a sublime and terrifying teleology.

** This is based on a note from page 6. Literally the first chapter of The Quest for Prosperity. We’re still talking in broad strokes before more detailed examinations of the concepts. It always annoys me to meet academics who’d quibble over the details of clearly broad ideas to accuse an author of sloppiness. People with enormous institutional authority acting as if their research was to poke needless holes in the work of their colleagues. It’s called contributing to the current debates.

The Christian Bible is organized as the history of existence, and so conceives of the passage of time itself in human, Biblical terms. Christianity’s foundational and focal idea is the event of the Incarnation – when God literally becomes a creature, and that creature is human. Given that, you conceive all of existence as being for the sake of humanity.

Humanity’s existence and development is the purpose of the universe. How is that purpose framed? By utopias.

When the first skyscrapers of the United States
were built, popular culture conceived them as a
great achievement of human (and Western)
culture – the towers of our living paradise. Now
they're a sign of gentrification, condo crises, the
marginalization of poor people to distant suburbs,
the longest commutes, stress, misery.
Time begins with Eden – the pure presence of God with humanity on Earth. Time ends with Heaven – Earth’s corruption is cleansed and God now lives with humanity on Earth as one of us in this newly pure world. God the Creator is now God the Neighbour.

Jesus built my hot rod. Literally.

It’s not only time that happens in the middle of those two utopias – perfect existence at the beginning and perfected existence at the end. A Christian framework of thinking understands that middle temporality as purposeful suffering. We suffer now so that we can live in the utopia of Heaven.

Time becomes a process toward perfection, and the suffering of the present is an investment in achieving that perfection. You can secularize*** Christian utopian time, ending up with a teleology of technological progress. Human scientific, technological, industrial, and capitalist endeavour end with achieving paradise on Earth.

*** That’s how I want to understand secularity when I’m examining the religious aspects of Utopia’s argument. I may not engage with this too much, but it’ll be in the background. Faith: dogmatic religious belief. Atheism: pushing the logic of materialism to its limit (like Spinoza, or some readings of Kabbalah). Agnostic: Fucked if I know. Secular: retaining the concepts, the frameworks for understanding, of faith, but dropping reference to the dogma.


Challenges for a Globalizing Philosophy and a Globalizing Writer, Composing, 12/07/2018

Back in March, I published a review at SERRC of Bryan Van Norden’s book Taking Back Philosophy. I thought it was a pretty good review, and that Van Norden had written a pretty good book.

It’s a straight-up polemic – a political pamphlet for the university sector. The language is direct, but you can tell how deep the knowledge roiling in the background of this fascinating book goes. Van Norden has some of the most comprehensive knowledge of ancient and contemporary Chinese and other East Asian philosophical works as anyone I've encountered in my professional life.

When there are always too many things to read.
Only my old supervisor Barry Allen has knowledge that rivals Van Norden’s. His two recent books on Chinese philosophy, Vanishing Into Things and Striking Beauty, provide a history of the philosophical vectors of development across Chinese and Indian cultures.

Of course, I say this because I myself haven’t gotten to know very many Asian people who themselves are experts in the history of Asian traditions of philosophy. Or any, really.

My own review offered a few directions to anyone who has any expertise or experience in the Western tradition of philosophy – and no others. I gave a summary of my own knowledge of Asian philosophy, and the ideas in Chinese traditions that offers some crackling synergies with my own work.

The process-focussed ontologies and ethics of Daoist traditions offer a lot of profundity and depth to Western process thinking. Western traditions tend to keep process thinking in a minoritarian, obscured position. So a tradition where process thinking is mainstream and a subject of centuries of commentary can offer Western process thinking a lot.

I’m working now on another review for SERRC, on my colleague Raphael Sassower’s book The Quest for Prosperity. It’s a complex argument on behalf of communitarian approaches to economic, moral, political, and ethical matters.

A Chinese Daoist funeral service. Complex philosophies that have
grown out of thousands of years of culture, intellectual work,
religion, and engagement with the world.
I took a lot of notes on Sassower’s book, so I’ll be rolling through a few of those ideas as riffs on the blog for the next while. This is going to be a bit weird because I haven’t written the actual review yet.

I have the outline, which is based on a bunch of those notes that I took as I was reading the book. So I was of two minds for a while about whether I’d even mention Sassower’s book on the blog at all.

Ultimately, I decided that I would. Two reasons why.

First reason. The review is going to be a unified 2,000-word composition discussing a core concept of Sassower’s book – his communitarian vision of prosperity as a network of friendship.

The blog doesn’t do that. My cousin Hulk Stuart MacLean has described my blog as a profound act of improvisation, like the improvisations he plays with his colleagues as jazz musicians. He’s right. I’ve written blog posts where I haven’t even known where it was going to end, and ended in a totally different place than it began. That’s in less than 500 words.

Second reason. When I was reading The Quest For Prosperity, I had no idea what I was going to write about in this review. So I was taking notes on everything I found interesting as I was reading it. That’s what you’re going to see over the next while. Much more weird than what you’ll see at SERRC in a couple of weeks.

More Than Mere Images, Composing, 11/07/2018

Over the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about different ways I’ve seen philosophical writers push themselves into more ambitious expressions. The results are beautiful and inspiring. The quality of the results are mixed, but that’s true of any attempt to overcome limits.

You’d be right to ask what limits I’m talking about, for a start. Well, these limits are based in the norms of academic writing, which tend to the self-destructive. Let me take a paragraph or six to explain how.

Academic training in the university sector tends to cause a lot of impostor syndrome. There are many causes for this, but I want to focus today on two causes.

One cause is that there’s no generally acceptable upper limit on how comprehensive a paper must be to appear credible. A writer must always prepare to face someone who calls their work inadequate because it doesn’t refer to a particular writer that critic is familiar with.

A powerful mystical experience can be had here, but only if you're
already open to it. If you aren't open to that phenomenological
communion, you might just see some potentially valuable
minerals that this damn National Parks act prevents you from
accessing, for the economic good of the people.
Image by Jorge Lascar via Flickr / Creative Commons
But research overproduction has made this impossible, especially combined with how long peer review takes. In the sometimes two years or longer between submission and publication, a study might become obsolete or out of date. If an article for a research journal was written in 2015, it won’t be able to include references to relevant stuff published in 2017, even though it didn’t come out until 2018.

So academic writers are brutally scrutinized by journal authorities through a process that makes their submissions irrelevant because publication takes so long.

Another, related cause, is how the training and publication peer review processes are so rigorous about the form of academic research writing. An essay must use a particularly narrow range of writing styles, tones, and ways of explaining ideas, if it’s going to pass the muster of a peer review process for a publication whose credits count toward tenure and job security.

Little to no experimentation is allowed, until you’re so deep into your career that you’ve likely lost your zeal for experimentation in writing at all.

So I have a lot of respect for writers like Jussi Parikka, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Jane Bennett, who base so much of their philosophical positions on imagery as a starting point. It’s a method that breaks with the dry prose style where bloodless argumentation and obsolete rationalist attitudes dominate.

Now the question is, like I said a few days ago – Can you open up the evocation of the image to find something philosophically experimental and innovative?

When I was researching Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, I found a lot of academically-written environmentalist philosophy that depended on the power of the image alone for the strength of their argument. I did read one author, Scott Aikin, who dismissed the style of this argument in an insightful, if cruel way – He called it seeing a big rock and having an experience.

The lands where the different nations of the Nishnaabeg lived before
they were driven from their lands by the violent dispossession of
Canadian and American state institutions.
Map by DarrenBaker - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Thinking about this more mystical philosophical method now, I think the point was well-made, but without giving credit to a failed attempt to write philosophy differently than the academy typically trains you.

The naive environmentalist argument is that these experiences – farming, hiking, naturalistic observation, among others – is that there’s only one correct response to them in thought. But they made no argument as to why that one response is the correct one.

A few days ago, I started reading Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done. She produces a strong argument for why a reverent, respectful attitude to the ecological networks in which we live is the proper response to experiences of Indigenous ways of life.

That argument is rooted in the philosophical concept of grounded normativity, a central framework principle of many Indigenous North American philosophical traditions, particularly in her own culture, the Nishnaabeg of what is now called the Great Lakes region.

Simpson is building a remarkable philosophical edifice. It’s one of the most conceptually ambitious works I’ve come across in a long time. I don’t want to talk much more about this book right now, because I only just started reading it, and there’s already enough philosophical density to sustain centuries of commentary and uptake. It deserves such devotion.

As for Parikka, his reliance on images to express philosophical concepts is still vulnerable to the Aikin critique. More respectfully, it means that an image underdetermines its meaning. The Geology of Media does interesting things with media theory, and along with allied works like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, pushes against the tired restrictions of academic style. Reading Parikka, I want his next book to try even harder.

Data Thieves Seed Clouds to Rain Then Get Big Buckets, Jamming, 10/07/2018

That title is ridiculous. But it reflects how ridiculous a lot of popular imagery of the internet unfortunately is.

Virtual Reality!
Even worse is that I don’t just mean popular imagery. It’d be a lot more sane, frankly if we were only talking about how Tron and similar stories across many films, television shows, books, and other media popularized this silly conception of “cyberspace.”

It was another plane of reality, where we could live inside the computer and an entire world of energy opened up before us. The world of . . . Virtual Reality!

The leaders of the business sector really do talk about using VR technology to create parallel planes of existence – technologies that bring direct physical presence to distance. Palmer Luckey genuinely refers to the imagery of fanciful science-fiction to describe what virtual reality does.

Nothing about the internet exists on any other plane of reality. The same goes for the hard drives. The data of the entire internet is all coded onto physical disks somewhere. They are massive server farms.

Virtual Reality!
There’s nothing that distinguishes a VR interface communicating between Toronto and Shanghai from this reality. We’re learning how to communicate more aspects of our own presence to others without actually being in the same room, until there’s no real difference from our being in the same room.

Reading Jussi Parikka, I was chuckling at the passages where he tries to knock some sense back into us. Let’s not think any of this is really virtual in an ontological sense. Only our presence to each other is simulated – the physical things that we run our communication through still sits around us.

Wires. Wires everywhere. Where there aren’t wires, there are wifi and cellular data projectors. But it really is mostly all wires. The wires all thread together and connect into massive cables. The massive cables all connect to massive server farms. The server farms need electricity all the time – enormous amounts of electricity.

Virtual Reality!
Even more if you start earning money from Bitcoin and other blockchain-based currencies. Because cryptocurrency mining is probably the dumbest lucrative business in the world. You build a massive server farm, and dedicate its processing power to verifying cryptocurrency transactions. Your human workers sit around maintaining the server farm. Your company collects commissions on each transaction.

Providing you can afford the massive power bills it takes to run and cool a server farm huge enough to verify as many cryptocurrency transactions to make this profitable, you can make thousands of dollars a day by sitting around and making sure a computer doesn’t break.

Why aren’t I doing this right now?

My burgeoning entrepreneurial career aside, I want to make one last ontological point about virtual reality and the internet. We’ve become accustomed to thinking of cyberspace as a realm apart. Parikka’s point is that cyberspace is just as massive, heavy, smoky, and grimy as the old steam engines and coal-fired boot factories are.

Its by-products poison us differently, but they still poison us. There’s just not as much smog as there was a century ago. More pollution of water and soil, as lead, barium, and all those rare earth metals leak into the ground and rivers.

Waste never truly goes away.

Earth As Its Own Memory, Composing, 08/07/2018

Philosophical writing at its best walks a dangerous wire. Well, several such wires, really. The more wires you walk in your writing, the better your writing can be when you pull everything off. Of course, the more wires you walk, the riskier it is that you’ll succeed.

Acknowledging a truth doesn’t make it any easier to handle.

There's a curious image that appears in Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media – the Earth as its own memory. It’s an evocative image, and would be an impressive, brilliant image and metaphor when used in a literary context. If I ever write a sequel to Under the Trees, Eaten, I might use such a metaphor myself.

It's one thing to imagine walking in the earliest days of Earth. It's
another entirely to know walking in those days, living as much as
you can the real ancient past.
But in a philosophical context, such an evocative metaphor can be dangerous. The literary power of metaphorical imagery rests in its ambiguity. Metaphors can create an atmosphere for thinking and contemplation, expose a relationship that a write wants to examine.

But a metaphor resists any attempt to pin down its specific meaning for good. Its purpose is to open a spiral of interpretation – you’re meant, as a reader, to lose yourself in it. Metaphor paints thought, gives it a character or a general direction, a tendency. Yet it strays too far from the concrete to be philosophically productive.

Philosophical writing needs specificity – a philosophical concept is widely applicable, but very precise. Like a blueprint or a plan. Or an OS designed with intricate detail, which can then do a huge variety of different things – but a different sort of variety that you’d get with another OS.

No, those are all metaphors, similies. Images and comparisons, not the actual conceptual structures.

And there you have a demonstration of why metaphor isn’t very philosophically useful.

So does Parikka’s image succeed? Is it a philosophically interesting component of a planetary-centric way of thinking? Or does it only evoke?

I think it succeeds, anyway. For one thing, it relies on a conception of memory as a form of consciousness of history. You experience knowledge when you learn something for the first time, of review it, cementing it in your memory. So memory itself is an experience of learning and engaging with history.

This isn’t a purely discursive history – this concept of history leaves no risk of reduction to current human discussions. You aren’t left open to that juvenile interpretation of history as discourse about the past. You aren’t left wondering if history is only talk about the past, with the grittier, complex accounts no better than the empty exaltations.

Here is a concept of history as the material reality of the entire past, the persistence of past presents, events, and processes into the current time.

A piece of Earth, flying through space.
The material reality of the past is, geologically speaking, the crust of the Earth itself. Geological strata and the transitions between them reveal the actual development of Earth, the planet itself over time.

We can analyze rocks to reveal chemical, atmospheric, and geological conditions of the planet up to 4.4-billion years ago. The literal preservation of the most ancient past of this planet. Becoming conscious of this history, investigating and learning about these astronomically ancient conditions is an act of memory.

We are part of the same 4.4-billion year process of development of the giant ball of matter that we call Earth. We’re very strange, innovative parts – even sending little pieces of Earth far into the vastness of interstellar space.

We think of ourselves as separate from the planet. The planet is a giant thing that I live on. I personally pay a sum of money every month for the right to reside on a particular patch of the planet Earth.*

* When you explain rent and mortgages this way, it makes our entire civilization’s economy sound absurd and ridiculous. I think we should each do this regularly, to give ourselves a sense of perspective.

Now think about the history of your development. The web of causes that have produced your life so far. Causally, we’re part of Earth because the same processes of growth and decay continue as we’re born, eat, shit, die, and are eaten by bacteria, insects, and worms.

A few traces of the earliest days of Earth exist as they once were. All the other traces of the earliest days of Earth exist as they are now.