Not Summarizing But Fetishizing Proust, Research Time, 31/10/2013

Continuing through The Origins of Totalitarianism, I find Hannah Arendt’s account of the Dreyfus Affair brilliant and gripping. This was a social, military, and political scandal that rocked France to its foundations, and destabilized it for decades. Arendt makes a good case that the culture of the Vichy regime was basically a reiteration of the anti-Dreyfusards from the 1890s. There were rumours, which I largely believe, that Emile Zola, the famous French novelist who advocated for Dreyfus’ freedom, was murdered for his outspoken support of the Jewish captain. Arendt uses the Dreyfus Affair to describe a culture of ubiquitous and ugly anti-Semitism in French civil society.

Quick version of the Dreyfus Affair. Captain Albert Dreyfus was accused and convicted of treason, selling military secrets to the German army, on evidence later learned to be falsified. He was sentenced to life on Devil’s Island. Despite the unveiling of all the evidence against Dreyfus as forgeries, the French military continued to hold him in Devil’s Island for years, maintaining their belief in his guilt (even as another French officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, admitted that he spied for Germany two years after the initial conviction). 

What I find most curious about Arendt’s account of the Dreyfus Affair is the way she sets the scene. Her exploration of the upper class salon culture of Paris shows how this scene fetishized the Jews as the Affair ran its popular course. The attempts of Jews to climb social pyramids in France through involvement with Faubourg Saint-Germain salon culture and through the French military officer corps were what led the Catholic Church in France to make anti-Semitism a political principle for the first time. 

She describes the attitude of French aristocrats to the Jews as a fascinated fetish. Everyone of the Faubourg Saint-Germain was, to some degree, anti-Semitic. But they welcomed Jewish people into their social circles throughout the decade of the Dreyfus Affair’s prominence because it became sexily dangerous to do so. Jewishness was seen in Faubourg culture as a vice, a kind of legal criminality. Engagement with vice is cool.

Attempting to map In Search of Lost Time to
Proust's own life is one of the more intricate
and useless puzzles in modern literature.
But the major source material to understand the culture of Faubourg Saint-Germain circles was the work of Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. Proust’s novel is a mutation of his own autobiography, that of a young social climber who ingratiates himself with the Parisian aristocracy, watching the rise and fall of notable people within that society, including himself. Because In Search of Lost Time was so autobiographical and so intensely detailed in its depiction of the social scene and the characters of those within it, Arendt could take Proust’s fiction for the mutated memoir that it was. 

Jews (such as the dignified Swann) and homosexuals (the effete nobleman Baron de Charlus and his Jewish lover the violinist Bloch), despite still being seen as dangerous, no longer had to hide their identities, because the viciousness which the aristocracy perceived in them was fashionable, sexy, cool. The meticulous detail with which Proust rendered the world in which he grew up and lived made In Search of Lost Time a historical document in addition to an innovative work of fiction, a reworking of the epic, and a politically radical artwork in its frank treatment of homosexuality, particularly the translucent closet where gay noblemen lived in Faubourg culture. 

Because his work was so multifaceted, the careful, comprehensive, and scholarly Arendt could use Proust to depict a historical time and place with which she had no personal experience. Given the social and psychological detail with which Proust draws his characters and their relationships, I’d go so far as to say that she was right to do it. At its best, fiction can comprehend reality better than reality. 

The Power of Conviction and Belief Over Mere Truth, Research Time, 30/10/2013

While I was editing my MA thesis, my supervisor told me to tone down the frequency with which I referred to the ‘insights’ of various philosophers, and use words like ‘argument,’ and ‘central idea’ instead. This was because philosophy was a discipline of explicit and tightly-reasoned arguments, and the concept of ‘insight’ implied a personal mysticism. No matter how rational it may be, it was still an insight, potentially incommunicable, or at least justified only after the fact of its coming to be.

I do understand his point, and see how philosophy is often written this way. Yet, reading some philosophers, I simply find ‘insight’ the most appropriate term to describe what I see on the page. Hannah Arendt is one of those philosophers who seems to operate by the meticulous justification of insights, and her work is all the better for it. I’ve begun investigating her more historical works, looking for seed material for the positive aspects of my utopias project.* This week, I’ve started reading The Origins of Totalitarianism, her first crack at understanding the horror of the Nazi phenomenon and the Holocaust.

* I don’t try to be one of those philosophers who looks for other philosophers to have found the answers for him. The answer to a problem in one author or tradition is rarely already found in the works of some other author, but in your own thinking. Failure to understand this, at least among scholars, results in a career generating secondary material exclusively.

Hannah Arendt is one of the writers
of whom I feel safe saying is a
definitive philosopher of the 20th
The book’s first chapters on anti-Semitism describe a fascinating picture of the problems Jewish people faced in continental Europe in the decades leading up to the First World War. The classes of Jews who became intellectuals or financial businessmen in the 18-19th centuries were often co-opted to serve monarchial governments by the granting of civil privileges to their communities or families. These privileges were only possible in the context of the wider communities of all Jews being denied political rights or social standing. These upper class Jews were the exceptions among a people without status for having status, and the class of Jews themselves were exceptions within a society in which they did not fit into established caste structures. She describes a maddening set of social tensions so accurately that I feel my teeth growing dirty exploring this world of politically and socially institutionalized racism so different from the perspective in which I grew up.

But the most interesting, and I think most important for my own research, insight of Arendt’s is a simple point she makes about the nature of doing history. She takes, as her appropriate example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to explain. I can think of this equally well in terms of the ridiculous conspiracy theories of our own time, like 9/11 Truth (which, if you examine it reasonably well, you find quite a lot in common with the conspiracy of the Protocols*). Basically, mediocre history simply goes through the circumstances of the Protocols’ authorship, and discovers conclusive evidence that they were faked.

* If you get the chance to read Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, it’s a wonderful introduction to the logic by which conspiracy theories work, in contrast to how actual historical knowledge works. To put it bluntly, conspiracist thinking plucks ideas from previously established conspiracies, mixing them into new ideas and events. It’s the logic of association gone mad, and quite often gone paranoiacally racist (more often than not, against Jewish people).

Arendt’s point is that it doesn’t matter if you discover that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were faked. If I can take a point from Eco, your refutation of their conspiracy would, to the conspiracist, simply indict you as either a dupe or an active participant in the conspiracy. That’s an interesting discovery, but ultimately a critical idea only. Arendt’s productive idea is that the best historian (or perhaps that exceedingly rare blend, the historian-philosopher, as I consider Arendt) investigates why, despite their falsity, the Protocols were so widely believed.

In other words, the motive forces of history have nothing to do with truth and falsity, but what people believe. Discovering the truth or falsity of some notion has no connection to the political power of that notion. This is a pivotal element of any engagement with political work. Politics is a power game played with public beliefs, the manipulation of which has nothing to do with truth or falsity. A common idea today, but it’s refreshing to read one of the earliest and clearest articulations of this insight.

The Strength of Ideas, Composing, 29/10/2013

If I had known I’d spend the last hours of Sunday night and well onto sunrise Monday morning looking after a sick friend (don't worry — no one is dead and those who needed to get better are getting better), I would have saved the speculations on Doctor Who to update for yesterday. Then, that’s the nature of the unexpected.

Just a brief note today, a hodgepodge of events from the last few days. I’ve finalized the cover design of Under the Trees, Eaten, and have secured the required legal release forms so that everything can be used properly. While I’m sad my feminist Lovecraftian horror tale couldn’t drop in time for Halloween, I’m sure plenty of folks will enjoy some eldritch horror for the Xmas holidays, as we should be on track for a release in the last weeks of this year.

Regarding my philosophy work, I’ve reached a bit of an impasse regarding my research. I’m about to start my investigation into Hannah Arendt’s historical works on totalitarian politics (The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem), where my previous engagement with her work has focussed more on her strictly philosophical contributions (The Human Condition, The Life of the Mind, and the Kant lectures). I had originally hoped that Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason could supply a basic storehouse of some useful concepts for my utopias project, but I find his project too mired in the Marxist tradition. 

Marx's ideas have such ubiquity in the history of radical
leftist philosophy, that he seems to quash all alternatives,
even when the object of ridicule.
I think I can now say about Marx what I briefly say in my ecophilosophy manuscript about Heidegger. As soon as you mention Marx, everything else in conversation and thought becomes about Marx. His tradition is useful in some respects, but also too statist, not truly attentive to the power of individuals to constitute society. Yes, individuals act in Marxism, but that action only counts insofar as it constitutes a group which subsumes individual identity to its unity. Marx, and therefore all the philosophies that follow the Marxist tradition, have that same dangerous tendency I can call Old Hegelian: that the individual is only truly free when acting in the unity of his state. 

This last principle may be the philosophical cornerstone of fascism. I'm tempted to say that, but I'm not sure if I want to make it a definitive statement until I can put it at a climax of a completed and published utopias project book.

The more I think about this project, it’s the works of the peaceful anarchist tradition (authors like Mikhail Bakhunin and Peter Kropotkin) that have more potential in this regard. And Arendt’s historical-political work may also offer hints for goals in civil society. My work in philosophy of science has hit a strange head-scratching moment from which I’m not sure how to move on (more about this later, I think, as it develops). But my political work at least has some momentum. Same with my meta-philosophical work, but again, that’s for later. 

Ghost Light: My Ecophilosophical Doctor Who, Jamming, 27/10/2013

I know that I only just instituted by “No More Sundays” idea, and I’m breaking it already. Call it a minor blogging addiction or just an idea I had on Shabbas.

You know from my having mentioned it before that I’m a published Doctor Who scholar. The depth of my work in the field is dwarfed by Phil Sandifer at the TARDIS Eruditorum, but I’ve made one contribution that was noteworthy and read. I even gained a twitter follower because of it. But I’ve had another idea as I was watching Ghost Light, one of my favourite classic series stories, yesterday.

For those of you who haven’t seen Ghost Light, don’t worry if I’m spoiling it. Really, I’m just telling you what’s actually going on, because events in the story move too fast that randomly missing a line can cause you to miss some key information for the characters or the narrative. It’s probably the most dense Doctor Who story ever written. Even in the DVD extras, the author didn’t quite explain it so well. The plot summary on TARDIS Wiki is pretty good, insofar as it describes the events that happen in the story in a linear order. That would actually be a spoiler. Once you know the basic idea behind what happening, the story now becomes about seeing all the parts of the puzzle assemble in such small, momentary fragments, then come together to make sense once you’ve connected them properly.

What I’m about to explain isn’t the narrative, but the condition of the narrative we see on television. Thousands of years ago, a survey ship visited Earth. It was a fully automated biological survey ship, meant to collect a constantly growing catalogue of all life forms that existed. The catalogue would be complete, because the ship’s mission was never-ending; only by constant additions can you have a genuinely complete catalogue of a constantly dynamic realm like always-evolving life. So in 1881, it came back, and materialized in the basement of a Victorian manorhouse, that of the Pritchard family. It found a much more complicated lifeworld to study, because in addition to its biodiversity, it also had cultural diversity, as humans had become culturally creative as well. Imaginary creations, complex mathematics and sciences, profound and complicated philosophical and religious traditions.

If Western values can be said to have reached their essence
in Victorian culture, then a defence of Western values has
a lot of explaining to do.
The ship wasn’t completely automated. It had a controller, and one other organism that was part of its in-built equipment. That other organism was a kind of simulator, a semi-conscious blob that would mimic various organisms on the planet for experimental purposes. Things went wrong when this blob mimicked the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman. Because the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman is a chauvinist imperialist bastard who believes it to be his right by his very nature to be the superior creature and conquer all others, bending them to his desires. His own desires are, of course, the most enlightened, because he’s superior to all creatures by his nature. He even cruelly misinterprets Darwinian theory to justify his egomaniacal personal and cultural sense of total superiority. In order to mimic the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman properly, you had to include these cultural beliefs.

Of course, no Upstanding Victorian Gentleman is going to put up with being ordered around by some technocratic controller. So he locks the ship’s controller in his old booth and takes her place. Here’s where things get disturbing. As in David Lynch disturbing. Because the ship fulfills its survey functions by hypnotizing surrounding organisms. They move and feel just as the ship wants them in order to perform the tasks it needs, but remember everything they did. When the controller is working as it should, one organism is taken to run the cataloguing, becoming a superpowered extension of the ship’s computer existing as pure thought and energy.

When the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman takes over the ship, all its organic survey parts start malfunctioning according to his imbecilic and egotistical conceptions of Darwinist theory and its implicit horrifying morality. The cataloguing computer becomes obsessed with the actual completion of his records, to the point where he tries to stop evolution on Earth by sterilizing the planet. The Upstanding Victorian Gentleman formulates an insane plan to take his rightful (as the naturally superior life form, of course) place at the head of the British Empire, by assassinating Queen Victoria and so proving himself strongest in the Empire. He uses the ship’s controlling powers to turn the house’s staff and family into his pawns and toys.

So much of the discussion of the story treats Light, the avatar of the cataloguing computer, as the true villain of the Ghost Light, because of his immense power and his theatrical reveal at the last cliffhanger. But he’s just as much a victim of the mimic blob’s mutiny, because the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman’s takeover of the ship’s functions has turned it into a monstrous, destructive creature. A creature that perfectly obeys the morals and metaphysical beliefs of the most upstanding Victorian gentleman.

All these attitudes the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman mimic-creature displays are precisely the attitudes of contemporary society that my ecophilosophy manuscript diagnoses and stands against: the destruction that flows from the attitude that you’re the natural pinnacle of creation, a superiority that grants you dominion, dictatorship over all other life on Earth. 

It sums up the horror of the modern human character in dramatic form in a 75-minute cheap sci-fi story. Philosophies that have occupied a whole new modern tradition of thought, combatting the hubris of humanity, are crystallized into three episodes of Doctor Who, if you look hard enough.

So We Finally Have a Villain, Assignment: Earth VI Story Generator, Jamming, 26/10/2013

I wanted Patrick Troughton to perfect a way to mug the
camera in a way that would unnerve an audience.
Only Patrick Troughton could play Francis Eight. 

Of course, Francis Eight wouldn’t be anything like the Doctor. Watching The Enemy of the World convinced me with certainty of Troughton’s incredible versatility. What Francis Eight as a character relies on is a lack of trustworthiness, a characterization that makes you suspicious of him all the time. I suppose the character has a smarm more appropriate to Salamander, the villainous dictator Troughton also plays in The Enemy of the World

But the character would work differently than Salamander as well. After all, I wouldn’t want to throw soft pitches to Patrick Troughton, especially after paying him enough money to get him filming in New York television studios for six episodes this season. Francis has to combine a sense of considerable wisdom and experience with that uncertainty of his moral character. He’s slyly charming, like a rogue from a spy show who’s retired to become a snide Control figure, but who occasionally lets slip a Machiavellian ruthlessness. There should also be a sense that he’s personally much older than his appearance. He was a warrior who’s become a sage, but who may be a closet gangster. 

Jacqueline Hill was capable of still, steely performances
that would perfectly suit Morrigan, another Aegis familiar
named after a god of death, this time Celtic.
Naturally, his familiar is a bird, a raven named Morrigan who appears with him at various surreptitious points in the city, delivering him strange signs or mysterious messages. When in human form, Miss Morrigan is a prim Englishwoman dressed entirely in black, and played by Jacqueline Hill, who has a similar sly characterization. She’s meant to echo an even more extremely secretive and haughty version of Isis as she was in the first season. This is where the progress of the main cast in growing more human and individual will become clear. Isis sees in Morrigan a direction she might have gone if Gary had been a different sort of person, less impulsive and moral on an individual level, which would have made him less likely to form emotional bonds like with the Robinson family in season three. Beyond that, it would be joyous to watch Jacqueline Hill slowly develop an appetite for scenery over her and Troughton’s six appearances in season four. 

One might wonder how much influence Doctor Who could have on American adventure television at this time. Until the late 1970s, after all, no episodes of Doctor Who were broadcast outside Britain beyond a few strange transmissions that would see film prints end up in Hong Kong and Nigeria. The show could never have found an audience in the United States. 

However, that didn’t stop me, the imaginary time-displaced Emmy-nominated (but never winning!) showrunner Adam Riggio from going on vacation to London in the summer between seasons two and three in summer 1972. While there, I caught a strange program Saturday evening that transfixed me with its weirdness. I asked around at the BBC, and while none of the current stars would be available anytime soon, I was given a brief history of the show. So I had them make some old prints and mail them for my review. I spotted Hill from a brilliant performance in a story they sent me called The Crusade, and from the moment I finished watching the print they made of The Power of the Daleks, I had to have Troughton. I left the film prints in a storage space in the studio, and they should still be kicking around somewhere. 

So what precisely is Francis Eight doing in New York? He and Morrigan are part of the new British delegation to the United Nations, giving Francis direct access to the goings-on of the Security Council and privy to much of the gossip floating around the General Assembly. He’s perfectly positioned to spy on and nudge the behaviour of various delegations and governments through a carefully placed word here, an overheard conversation there, and the occasional raven surreptitiously using the photocopier. Gary, Roberta, and Isis have been tasked by Aegis authority to see that Francis is using the right nudges, only those the bosses want him to use.

Progress Isn’t Just Criticism But Creativity ("Realism & Philosophy's Future" Part 2), Composing, 25/10/2013

My essay “Realism and Philosophy’s Future,” discussed yesterday, included another element aside from my critique of Graham Harman’s philosophy. This other element I consider the most important takeaway from the essay: it lays out a vision for what precisely is philosophical progress. Harman’s thought basically becomes a case to clarify precisely what my conception of progress is. 

Here’s how it works in “Realism and Philosophy’s Future,” on which, despite a very bad start to the day, I’ve actually finished my post-review edits Thursday night. It’s basically a case study of the speculative realists, particularly Harman and Levi Bryant, contrasting their approaches to philosophy to illustrate a conception of philosophical progress that, in this essay at least, has two elements. 1) A social conception of progress, having the personal confidence and originality in thought to move beyond your influences. Take me, for example. My own work is significantly influenced by that of  Gilles Deleuze, but I don’t like to call myself Deleuzian, and I don’t think there’s a single true perspective his writings generate that constitute the only genuine philosophical problems. Essentially, a socially progressive philosopher is a Young Hegelian, and a socially conservative philosopher is an Old Hegelian. 2) What I’ve called in the new version of the essay a conceptual conception of progress. Yes, I know it’s a little silly. But this is basically about having that originality of thought to move beyond your influences in the first place, identifying the limits of their own thinking and what has changed in the world between their time and yours which changes how you engage with philosophy.

This was the second rejection the essay had received. I had originally sent it to a top journal specializing in Continental philosophy, but within a couple of days of my sending it, the editor wrote me a very kind email saying he liked “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” very much, but that it wasn’t really in their remit, and recommended I send it to a cultural studies journal. I received the rejection from that cultural studies journal Tuesday, which included a pretty thorough critique. Aside from the usual kinds of recommendations (ex. more direct quotations instead of paraphrases) was the suggestion that I cut the conception of progress, along with major references to the other speculative realists, and make this an essay solely about critiquing Harman. 

I simply do not want to do that. It’s a matter of my own philosophical priorities. I don’t just want my publications to be grist for the mill of critique upon critique upon critique. I don’t consider it progressive for philosophy to consist of people arguing against each other ad infinitum over smaller and smaller scopes. I explained earlier this week that this approach to scholarship is a major element of what drove me away from philosophy of mind. I never conceived of this essay as a list of why Graham Harman is wrong about stuff. 

It's fascinating what Google Image Search will turn up when
you search one-word concepts like 'conformity.' I find it
remarkable that in a culture where we praise rebels and an
evolutionary science that stresses the importance of
mutation for adaptation and survival, we encourage
conformity and quietude within our institutions like the
academy. Intellectual history is a study of mutants and
innovators, yet our education system discourages
mutation and innovation.
I composed “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” as an engagement with the speculative realists as a case study in figuring out what separates good philosophy from bad, what delineates a living, vibrant tradition of thought from a snake that eats itself tail-first. This is a continual problem for the discipline of philosophy, especially given how integrated it is today with cultural norms of disciplinary fragmentation, and undermining the confidence of young researchers in their originality. The worst feedback I’ve always had on my work is advice to think smaller, to produce nice ordinary essays that touch on a single topic in a single sub-discipline. That’s never been how I approached philosophy, and I’ll never approach it that way. I write like the people I think make valuable contributions to the tradition because I want to make valuable contributions to the tradition myself. I don’t think this is an illegitimate goal for a young writer to have.
This isn’t the first time I’ve taken issue with a peer reviewer before, although as far as "Realism and Philosophy's Future" is concerned, I'm just going to send it to a different journal next week. For my essay in Doctor Who and Philosophy on the Doctor as a Nietzschean Übermensch, one of the three reviewers said I had misread Nietzsche: The Übermensch was a revival of the ancient Greek strong man, he said. 

When I sent the editors my pre-publication revisions, I told them I wouldn’t follow the recommendations of that reviewer because he was wrong. Nietzsche is very clear that you can’t go back to the uncomplicated strong man who takes what he wants. Such a figure is always vulnerable to attacks by the morality of self-hatred and resentment, so the new strong man has to incorporate noble versions of the virtues of forgiveness and generosity into his values to protect himself from reactionary Christianity. I explained my case clearly to the editors, and they agreed with me to dismiss the critiques of reviewer #2. 

When I take a stand in my profession, it’s on the merits of my work, talent, and knowledge. On those grounds, if I’m engaging with people who respect hard work, talent, and knowledge, I win.

Revising "Realism and Philosophy's Future," Part 1, Composing, 24/10/2013

I got a rejection notice from a journal today, regarding an essay I had written earlier this year. It was with a very critical peer reviewer’s report, but I can actually answer the critiques with a little effort, so I started working on those revisions today. I expect them to be finished by Monday at the latest, at which point my only problem is working out what kind of journal would accept the essay. If any of my regular readers (or anyone with a perspective and the reasons to back it up) have any recommendations for journals that might make a good venue, please leave a comment on the post, message me on facebook, or tweet at me.

The essay itself is “Realism and Philosophy’s Future: Can Object-Oriented Ontology Progress the Discipline of Philosophy?” and like most of my projects, it has a bit of a history. I first became aware of a group of philosophers called speculative realists when I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation from my friend B. I had actually read a book by a member of this group when it first came out in 2009, long before I knew about his affiliation: Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude. I found it a very interesting book, and incorporated some of his ideas about the nature of contingency into my ecophilosophy project. But when I looked into the rest of the group, I became a little disappointed.

B first spoke about them as if they were a fairly unified group of philosophers working on creating a new approach to metaphysical realism, the idea that we don’t encounter representations of the world, but the actual objects of the world themselves. To a degree, that’s true. But their measure of success in achieving this goal isn’t quite up to where I think it can be. “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” focusses on the group’s (possibly now formerly) de facto leader Graham Harman, and critiques some of the problems of his philosophy. 

What I find ironic about Heidegger. He frequently discussed
how the next generation of philosophers should move
past him, because he only diagnosed the problems of
philosophy as it was at the time. Yet his followers seem
incapable of moving beyond his ideas.
In short form, Harman sees speculative realism as his own project, Object-Oriented Ontology. You might think this is some kind of scientifically-inspired realism, which I did when I first heard the term. But it’s actually an extension of Heidegger’s ontology, an affiliation that Harman embraces, calling Heidegger among the greatest philosophers who ever lived, and dismissing as utterly irrelevant every other tradition of philosophy that arose in the 20th century. He and I were already off to a bad start.

Essentially, he interprets Heidegger as distinguishing the object as it exists in relation with other objects, including perceivers (the sensual object), from the object as it truly is (the real object), which is utterly inaccessible to perception, experience, and thought. Yet the real object is the necessary foundation of objects in relations. But we’re unable to say anything about such real objects, precisely because they withdraw from any relations with us or anything else. Knowledge of sensual objects isn’t real knowledge, because it’s only the knowledge of an object as it is in relations, not as it is in itself. His books over the last few years have been increasingly desperate attempts to move his philosophy past this impasse. But they all fail. “Realism and Philosophy’s Future” calls him on this, and basically says that following Harman’s ideas leads to dead ends not only for speculative realism, but for philosophy more generally.

To be continued on Friday . . . 

Love of Wisdom Doesn’t Mean Seeking Eternal Truth, Research Time, 23/10/2013

Some final thoughts after finishing Joe Margolis’ Aesthetics book. The last argument of this short, but dense and rewarding, book is a sustained critique of the major theorist of aesthetics in the English language since the mid-twentieth century, Arthur Danto. An impartial survey this book is not. Ultimately, Margolis sees a fundamental problem in how Danto combines his universalism with his historicism. He says you can combine these productively, but that Danto doesn’t.

Some disclaimers before I riff for a while. One, I don’t yet know a whole hell of a lot about contemporary aesthetic philosophy, and Margolis’ book serves as a critical (and boy, is it ever critical) introduction to Danto’s aesthetic theories. I went to Margolis as a starting point, an entry to the field. I’ve always tried to avoid general survey books or books that claim impartiality when I really want to engage with a new field of thought. It’s the same reason I don’t trust textbooks anymore: they simplify a complex field of thought too much. I’d rather leap into a new field with the help of works by writers whose work I already trust. Like Jean-Paul Sartre helping me dive into Marxism, Joseph Margolis is helping me dive into aesthetic theory. 

Two, my remarks today are more general thoughts on whether philosophy, as a discipline, should pursue the truth, rather than pursue truthfully understanding the world. There is a difference between the two.

Danto is quoted, “I am . . . an unabashed essentialist, as much concerned with specifying necessary and sufficient conditions as I would be were I in the immediate company of Socrates, engaged with him in the pursuit of definitions. What may look like historicism on my part is my recognition that except and until art revealed its deep philosophical nature through history, there was nothing philosophers could do, not knowing the way art was to reveal itself.”

Basically, this is sham historicism. Genuine and honest historicism is the view that all of existence is subject to change. We don’t know how that change will come or what will come about, but all is changeable, and will change eventually if you wait long enough. This makes the traditional philosophical quest for the eternal unchanging truth about the world impossible.* In the kind of historicism Danto describes as his own, the flux of history is a means by which conditions eventually arise that reveal eternal truths to us. If we’re paying attention at the right time, eternal truths appear for us to recognize and accept. They could be about any subject: the nature of the good, the character of God, the structure of justice, or the essence of art.

*I don’t think very many people in the discipline think philosophy is about the discovery of eternal truths through pure reason anymore. But it’s an unfortunate tendency of thinking among some mediocre practitioners and some particularly annoying undergraduates

This isn’t real historicism. It’s lip service to historicist insights so those ideas can be more easily dismissed from an essentialist perspective. If you accept contingency as the nature of the world, then you won’t want an essentialist perspective on the universe. You won’t believe in The Good, but in various goods for creatures and bodies of various types, and their relations. You won’t believe that art has an invariant essence, that there could ever be an unchanging categorical definition of what art is that “carves nature at the joints.”

That old Platonic saying doesn’t realize that the joints of nature change over time, and that a clearly true idea in one context isn’t true in another. This isn’t an arbitrary relativism, because philosophy takes on an ordering task in this vision of truth. Philosophy becomes about mapping truths to their conditions of validity, understanding how the flux of history operates. I think that’s actually a much better practice than how philosophy has been conceived as seeking eternal truths through pure reason. After all, on that latter conception of philosophy, it has an end: when all the truths are discovered, philosophers must retire because the task is done. On my conception of philosophy, the practice need never end, but only change.

Where Is My (Place in the Philosophy of) Mind? A History Boy, 22/10/2013

I suppose I need have had no serious concerns about arguments between Joe Margolis and myself over his treatment of the nature-culture relationship in his Aesthetics book. The last quarter begins with Margolis making the same point I did yesterday about culture being an emergence from natural processes. 

This last quarter of the book is where he makes a statement that I knew was lurking under the surface of his analysis for a while, and that I very much agreed with, despite not always wanting to say so. When someone becomes very skilled not only at writing philosophy, but also thinking it, that person can understand how concepts that are at the forefront of one sub-discipline may occur implicitly in a different, seemingly unrelated, field. Margolis is able to connect the tendency of Analytic aesthetics to presume that no cultural knowledge or background is required to understand an artwork, with the principles of eliminativism in philosophy of mind. Both presume that there is nothing about cultural or mental propositions that cannot be explained by reducing them to propositions about natural bodies or mere being in aesthetics, and the brain in theory of mind. 

The classic Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius features
a literal brain in a vat, who is quite desperate to get back to
the worldly action that completes him, mass murder and the
conquest of the universe.
I became fascinated with the problems of the theory of mind in my late undergrad, and wrote my MA thesis on the problem of the relationship of mind to the outside world. I argued, basically, that worldly perception was a part of thought and everything else associated with mind. Internalism about mind makes no sense, the brain in a vat is not a real problem, and one can’t build a workable theory of mind that doesn’t integrate mind with the perceptual relationships of the real world. Basically, exactly Margolis’ point: any account of the human mind and personality is incomplete if it doesn’t include cultural factors, a person’s actual life in the world.

My last public work in philosophy of mind was a commentary I gave at the 2010 Canadian Philosophical Association conference at Concordia University, in Montréal. The paper was about the spectrum inversion problem in philosophy of mind: Victoria sees a particular patch as red, and has seen that colour as red all her life, while Jamie sees and has seen such patches as green, but they both use the word ‘red’ to refer to the colour in question and have no problems saying true propositions about the colour; who sees it correctly? 

The most explicit reason why I left philosophy of mind is a question of style. Writing style: the essays in the sub-discipline abound in ridiculously obtuse technical language. Most papers in philosophy of mind contain so much technical shorthand as to make it utterly inaccessible to non-experts. Not just non-philosophers, but non-experts in philosophy of mind. Sometimes even non-experts in that particular sub-discipline of the sub-discipline (which would mean they’ve created sub-sub-disciplines?). 

An even worse problem I think was more fundamental. What today is called philosophy of mind has its heritage in cybernetics and the cognitive science that arose from it. This was a very multi-disciplinary community: in addition to philosophers, there were computer scientists, mathematicians, robotics engineers, neurologists, psychologists, and biologists. But as the field evolved, it splintered into a cornucopia of different debates and problems with their own concerns and sets of problems. An intellectual movement that began as a wide variety of disparate researchers coming together fragmented into highly technical debates whose terms and problems have become mutually incompatible. 

The paper focussed on the problem of Jamie and Victoria's phenomenal experience. My commentary focussed on what grounds anyone has to say what perceptual qualities are normal in the first place. My critique came from far outside the typical terms of the debate on this problem in philosophy of mind, but I thought it made an interesting challenge. The audience, including a former professor of mine, found my ideas interesting. Through the question period after I delivered my commentary, the presenter didn’t even acknowledge my presence in the room and when the session was over, he stormed out. 

What I find the most moribund sub-fields of philosophy of mind are the ones that refuse to accept what Margolis and I understand: that mind is incomplete without its world. The few, like Andy Clark, who try to explain this in the terms of philosophy of mind end up resorting to ridiculous arguments about shopping lists and iPhones. They try to prove that the mind exists in the world because actions we consider mental, like memory, can be carried on outside the skull. With, for example, shopping lists and iPhones. 

Having to put the argument in the terms of philosophy of mind makes a profound and intriguing argument sound silly. Margolis, and the Adam Riggio of 2007, are trying to explain how worldly perception grounded in a historically contingent and dynamic set of cultural practices and processes is necessary for a complete understanding of the human mind. I find it incredibly difficult to understand how some highly intelligent people need to have it drummed into their skulls that, in the words of Hilary Putnam, meaning “just ain’t in the head.”

Natural Culture, Research Time, 21/10/2013

A curious idea occurred reading Joe Margolis’ Aesthetics book this weekend. The central motive of the book is that the contemporary Analytic aesthetics discourse in the discipline of philosophy either ignores or refuses to believe an important truth: culture is separate from nature, and cannot be explained entirely in naturalistic terms, referring only to individual thinkers and universal terms. The precise argument I won’t go over here, because it’s extremely complicated, involving an exploration of the Hegelian model of historicizing our aesthetics. I’m writing an 800 word daily blog post, which has a slightly smaller mission statement. 

So take it for granted that the framework of aesthetic production and critical appreciation is conditioned by historical contexts and developments. From this, it follows that peculiarly cultural processes are the only such processes that can create what we call art in all its forms, disciplines, and genres, and art’s appreciation and criticism.

If you ever need a visual explanation of the natural character
of human culture, watch Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana.
Among many things, it shows how even empires rot.
This would appear at first to put me at odds with my older colleague. My ecophilosophy manuscript describes a conception of culture that is itself a naturally generated process: the plasticity of the human brain enables a creative sense with our artifacts and tools because we become self-conscious of our relationship with the world. Engagement with the world actually drives and shapes the intelligence and personality — self-consciousness — as the higher brain develops through practical action as an infant and toddler. An evolved human trait, a trait that emerged from ecological selective processes, our brain plasticity creates culture. 

I latch onto this as the only way to conceive of humanity, as a natural creation, that can condition an unalienated environmental activism. If we see our ecological crises today as a war between the good creative nature and the bad destructive culture, we end up with a politically dangerous environmentalism that devalues humanity through making ourselves other than nature. Overcoming this, we can more easily conceive of humans as natural creatures ourselves, subject to natural happenings like self-extinction from drowning in our own waste matter. How we overcome it is understanding culture as a product of nature, a peculiar adaptation that may be beneficial for some contexts, but not for others.

How to adapt my suspicions that an aesthetically informed ethics can be the philosophical science of virtues that can show us how best to live? If the whole solution to whatever impasse in which contemporary aesthetics finds itself stuck can be solved only be separating nature and culture?

Easy. Just because culture is a natural process doesn’t mean specifically cultural products are of the same kind as non-cultural parts of nature. After all, if cultural products weren’t a radical innovation from what had come before, we cultured creatures wouldn’t have built any of the systems like technology, government, economies, or art. It’s clearly of a different order from what came before. 

The ecophilosophy project doesn’t reduce culture to anything. It expands the concept of nature to cover all of what is. Culture is a brand new, peculiar, remarkable creation of nature with its own singular order. 

Cutting Back on Sundays, 20/10/2013

I've decided, thanks to web traffic and what my working schedule is turning out to be anyway, that Sunday posting will be discontinued for a while. My productivity has picked up a lot since I've started pulling a Walter Sobchak and taking Saturday strictly to relax. The weeks have seemed to breathe better.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Assignment Earth V: Story Generator, Jamming, 19/10/2013

I’ve actually left my weekend readers hanging longer than the imagined audience for my impossible fourth season premiere of Assignment: Earth. You had to wait a week to find out how the confrontation of Gary Seven and Louis Ten was going to end. The imaginary people watching it on TV only had to wait until the end of the commercial break. 

So of course Gary shows up at the motel first. After Roberta Lincoln sends the distress signal, we see where Gary has been all this time, in a Foto Hut van in New Jersey.* He’s grown a beard, and looks more like a dropout hippie than ever before. But when he detects the signal, a kind of ESP, he reverts to his old, hyper-logical, determined self. There’s one more scene where Isis, believing she could die at any moment, is about to tell Roberta a horrible secret about her role in the Aegis when she loses consciousness. Gary appears and mystically heals her, but she won’t wake up until the end of the episode because that would ruin the climax.

Ideally, I would have disguised whether Nimoy would even
return to the series for the fourth season. His beard would
make people suspect that he had taken another role, because
it's a modification of his appearance. I would even have
made up a fake show, Torchwood-style, shot by the same
studio and production company, to explain why Nimoy
would be near the Assignment: Earth set so frequently.
*Yes, in case you’re wondering, I essentially turned Gary Seven during his wilderness year into Leo from That 70s Show. And be fair, as wonderful as Tommy Chong was in that part, wouldn’t it have been hilariously weird to have seen Leonard Nimoy in that role too? Basically, I think any role involving an eccentric weirdo on television from 1970 to 2005 would have been amazing if it had been played by Leonard Nimoy.

Walking around outside the motel, Roberta, in a motormouth style Barbara Feldon will have perfected over the last three years of playing her, rapidly infodumps as much as possible on Gary. After she runs out of breath, he tells her that everything was stated much more clearly in Isis’ psychic message, but he appreciates her concern. He also reveals that he’s known Louis Ten for a long time. When Louis arrives, the two men talk calmly, like old friends, then walk into the fields of the abandoned industrial district. 

Naturally, we don’t see the fight. Seeing the fight would ruin it. Instead, the camera follows Roberta in the motel room looking after a recovering Isis, then being interrupted by the thunder and lightning of a hurricane appearing outside the motel, which quickly changes to hideously unnatural colours. Green, red, blue, and purple lights. Thunder that incorporates horrifying howls that are beyond the capacity of any life form on Earth. When the scene calms down, Gary staggers into the motel room, picks up a still-unconscious Isis, and takes her back to New York.

Roll credits. Welcome back to Assignment: Earth.

One of the arcs of Assignment: Earth is that, from the first season onward, Gary Seven is going to learn powers that bring him closer to those of his alien masters, the Aegis. Isis assures him that his developing powers are a sign of his growth as an operative, as he progresses beyond the needs of physical technology and becomes able to control the energy weapons and quantum calculations that she and the Aegis central computers can. It’s an old theme in both science-fiction and philosophy that the human body as we understand it is limited, but that we have the potential to access higher planes of existence. I personally don’t think of these planes as higher, just a different set of abilities which open up different capacities for worldly action. Given some of the problems physical technology have caused humanity when combined with our natural sense of greed and hunger for power, I wouldn’t mind a few years of experimentation with psychic powers again. I’d probably regret it.

Season four of Assignment: Earth, after the premiere, would see the same adventure plots returning, but with the new twist that the Aegis didn’t entirely trust Gary Seven or Isis. Being their only operative on the scene, and the only operative capable of killing the rogue Louis Ten (or did he???), they don’t mind his more eccentric methods and his new taste for individuality and variation. They don’t mind it, but they don’t like it.

For an actress as talented and versatile as Nichelle
Nichols, it's remarkably difficult to find images of
her online that aren't in a Star Trek uniform.
I thought of a wonderful way for Aegis to reassure Gary that a return to something like the status quo is possible after the events that caused his own rogue status. When Gary Seven, Roberta Lincoln, and Isis return to the Prospect Heights brownstone that was their base through the third season, they aren’t sure what they’ll find, whether Louis Ten represented official Aegis, or was another rogue agent operating for a mysterious purpose. At the start of the episode, they learn the new status quo. On walking up the steps of the brownstone, a familiar face emerges. Gary immediately and happily welcomes his old friend, Selena Three, played by Nichelle Nichols. 

We learn from Selena, who will be a recurring character in season four, that Louis was a rogue agent who had murdered his minder Osiris and disappeared from his own assignment in the USSR to find Gary. He had sent a series of increasingly unhinged messages to their command, growing obsessed with Gary’s ability to disappear from the view of Aegis. Gary’s new mission, in addition to any historical-dialectic tweaks that become required, is to help Selena discover why Louis Ten went rogue, how he was able to kill Osiris, and what effects his treason might have had on other operatives on Earth. His mission for the first episode in the new status quo, after shaving his terrible beard, is to find out if the operative Francis Eight, currently attached to the British delegation to the United Nations, is likely to betray Aegis.

Selena Three claps her hands to call her black labrador dog, Loki, and leaves the brownstone, letting them know they’ll be seeing her again.

Philosophical Analysis Through the Historical Case Study, Composing, 18/10/2013

So I finally finished that Bergson essay Thursday night, after taking slightly over a year from conception to completion of the first draft. I know that next comes the second draft and dealing with the vagaries of peer review. But I prefer not to think about that right now, because this project has taken long enough and I’m writing this post itself on Thursday night, a night on which I want to sleep. If anything has shown me how far I’ve fallen behind on where I want to be in my research, it’s this mess. 

However, one way the essay has benefited from the long delays in its composition is that I’ve reconceived its structure in what I think is a beneficial way. And this reconception really is a recent development, in the light of ideas I had over this past Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. I was thinking of ways to combine techniques of ethnography with moral philosophy as a way of prodding discussions and debates of moral philosophy out of the armchair, out of abstract universals (which are all inherently inadequate to the messiness of the actual practice of morality), and with a firm grip on the real world. I thought of describing the moral practices and beliefs of various communities and groups, systematizing them, and relating one morality to another. 

The Bergson essay works a little differently, less ethnography than a qualitative case study. In this case, it’s a case study from the history of philosophy that I’m using to learn about relations of philosophy and the physical sciences. I just finished my end of the edits on a collaborative project on this broader issue at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, which I’ll write about to publicize its coming publication. I hope to send it either to a journal of philosophy of science, science and technology studies, or continental philosophy. Because I talk about the relation of philosophy with science and mention the Sokal Hoax, it can work for the first two. Because I discuss Bergson, it can work for the latter.

Lately, I’ve started reading a report from back in 2004 from the National Science Foundation in the United States on the state of qualitative research in the social sciences, looking for ideas in disciplinary standards on these techniques in sociology to adapt them to philosophical problems and inquiries. I’ll get back to you as those ideas develop in my own thoughts.

You might also notice a new link on the side of the blog under "Interesting People." Steph Guthrie is a community organizer in the Toronto area who writes perceptively, intelligently, and reasonably about a variety of justice issues in the city and on the internet. I've followed her twitter feed and periodically checked in on her blog for a few months now, and I consider her one of the more admirable people I've recently come across making an actual material difference in the world. Too many so-called activists I've met on twitter are just self-righteous shut-ins who think they're improving people's lives by trolling other activists or sympathizers.

Online, Steph cuts through the bullshit, and in her real life, she helps people for a living. Here's a pretty solid talk she did this September. I don't agree with everything she says in the talk about how to deal with various types of trolling and online harassment, as I think this kind of mass-shaming tactic should only apply to the blatantly horrifying cases she cites in the talk. (After all, it's TED, and if you want subtlety and nuance, you don't go to TED.) But it's an intelligent assessment of the situation.

Two Flavours of One Man That Make Him Seem Like Two (or More) Men, Research Time, 17/10/2013

Some of the future philosophical projects I want to work on involve aesthetic theory, or at least reference it. The first signs were a few passages throughout Félix Guattari’s book Chaosmosis, where he discusses how ethics and even ontology can be considered, after a fashion, an aesthetic matter. 

This doesn’t have strictly to do with arguments about the nature of the beautiful, or any of the traditional topics of aesthetics. Guattari’s thought begins redefining aesthetics as a set of philosophical tools for understanding how the parts of bodies assemble to work harmoniously. That’s the ontological way of thinking about it. He also connects ethical reasoning to his model of aesthetics, but doesn’t do much with it in that book. Shortly after its publication, Guattari was dead of a heart attack and didn’t do much of anything following that. I think one way to pursue this line of inquiry is in virtue ethics; we can consider a set of virtues as derived from an aesthetic analysis of what makes a good person. This idea is still very rudimentary.

But to familiarize myself with some of the core concepts of aesthetics, I’m doing a little research. Right now, I’m periodically reading a short book by Joseph Margolis, On Aesthetics: An Unforgiving Introduction. I met Joe in Summer 2011 at a week-long conference at University of Oregon where he was a keynote speaker, and we stayed in periodic contact.

Hegel is a brilliant example of my basic idea of
how the history of philosophy works. There is no
one absolutely correct interpretation of a
philosopher's writing and ideas. This is why I
don't like going to conferences and presentations
by historians of philosophy: their professional
debates all seem to be over who is right as if
there can be only one.
One thing this book reminded me of was a different sort of reading of Hegel than I had typically made myself, as you might remember from some of these posts. To make sense of where I’m about to go, it helps to remember that after Hegel’s death in 1831, there were two traditions of philosophy that took up his work over the 19th century. One group, today called the Old Hegelians, took Hegel to have described in his Logic the only possible structure of rationality, and how that rational structure culminated in the perfect knowledge of Hegel himself and the socially conservative German society that produced him. This was my reading of Hegel, and the source of my dislike for his philosophy. The emphasis in this reading is on the structure of thought’s progressing through a series of conceptual negations to a perfection of rationality that contains all possible ways to understand the world, and rejects all alternatives it hasn’t already accounted for as not true reason. This was the Hegel of Deleuze’s interpretation, which I share.

However, Margolis takes his reading of Hegel in a different direction. He focusses on the historicity of knowledge, the idea that what thought is capable of changes over time, that thought is never truly impersonal but is always expressed within a partiality, a worldly context. The universal structure of knowledge is created and attained by people in a given time and place, and their ability to create systems of universality in thought frees them in a positive sense. Essentially, Margolis historicizes Hegel. He considers that vision of reason's progress to perfection in Absolute Idealism as Hegel's own mythmaking, his contingent philosophical response to the problems of his own day. The idealist metaphysics that the Old Hegelians fetishized is one set of beliefs that will be made obsolete as the world changes in history. Margolis keeps the mechanism of generating grand visions of the world, while rejecting the particular grand vision Hegel himself offered. This interpretation is more in line with the people who were called the Young Hegelians, people who applied Hegel’s philosophy to their theories of social revolution. 

You might expect me, having encountered such a reading (and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this; after all, I’ve read some Ludwig Feuerbach and Max Stirner), to let go of my previous reading of Hegel and embrace the socially progressive one. But I won’t, because Hegel didn’t. 

Rather, I should say that Hegel’s philosophical corpus was sufficiently complex that different emphases within his works result in widely divergent interpretations. It’s no problem for me to accept the validity of a position like that of Margolis, but remain on my own path, and my own engagement. The works of the Young Hegelians had, on their own power, a more far-reaching legacy than those of the Old Hegelians. This is the natural tendency of works that progress beyond the conclusions of those who inspired them. The Old Hegelians were philosophical conservatives; they considered Hegel unsurpassable, so restricted their works to commentary and application of their visions of Hegel’s own philosophy. Just like social conservatism, philosophical conservatism dies out from a lack of creativity, the inability to adapt to changing times. To the flux of history.

The whole reason I don’t want to inform my own work with too much of Hegel’s thinking is precisely because the conservative interpretation can so easily exist alongside the progressive. There’s a duality to his thought that I’m philosophically uncomfortable with. Even though some of the most progressive and utopian social and political philosophy flowed from Hegel’s influence, this shuttered conservatism of the forgotten Old Hegelians follows these progressives like a vampiric shadow. I find this shadow too dangerous.

The Slow Pace of Constantly Interrupted Labour, Composing, 16/10/2013

I have been writing a single essay for nearly an entire year.

Of course, I don’t mean literally that every moment of my waking existence has been consumed by the composition of a single article. I’ll admit that could be a hilarious short story, though.* I mean that sometimes, events intervene in the writing of a piece that should have been short and easy, which makes the writing process much more difficult. 

* Yes, as of this post, I’ve already started writing that story. I’ve called it “Fixation.” Updates in the future.

The story goes something like this. Around this time last year, I thought of an idea that I could use for a job talk if I landed any interviews for tenure-track positions. It was based on some of the research I had been doing on Henri Bergson’s philosophy, particularly his relationship with the science of his time. I’ve discussed this in earlier posts, but what’s most interesting for this article is what we can learn from how well Bergson engaged with his contemporary science for Matter and Memory, the mistakes that crept into Creative Evolution, and the phenomenal public disaster of Duration and Simultaneity. From this lesson, I hoped to derive a more general lesson about the relationship of science and philosophy, and the dangers that can arise in the conversations between them. The Bergson analysis would occupy the middle bulk of the essay, and the general points about philosophy and science would frame the analysis, making Bergson a case to understand this more general problem.

I feel like Bergson was more relaxed writing his
books than I was while I was writing one article about
his work.
Once I thought of the idea, I wrote a short provisional outline and began the research, gathering a great deal of secondary material on Bergson’s philosophy and raiding my own notes and archives on the history of philosophy’s relationship with science for the framing problem. My PhD supervisor, Barry Allen, was a great help in simplifying my search for material on Bergson. I began reading this material over November and December.

All this time, I was working at the answering service and as a TA for Fall 2012’s introductory philosophy course at McMaster, squeezing in research when I could. I finally wrote the introduction in late December. But I had to drop it for a while. In order to secure the week over New Year’s Eve off the answering service to attend my friend E’s wedding, I arranged to work a full week over Xmas leading up to 27 December. I had hoped to research the essay a little over my break, but returning to Newfoundland for Xmas was as hectic as ever. I love my friends in St. John’s, and had a pretty wonderful time. But I never got much time to relax.

Returning to Hamilton in January, I found myself with TA duties again, and had to catch up on the material for an entire introductory moral/political/legal philosophy course with no warning. I’m not about to complain about the extra unexpected work and money, but I was damn busy. Just as I caught up to the work for my teaching assistantship, the answering service gave me a pile of extra hours: I was one of their best workers, and they were short-staffed to a level that wouldn’t recover until the Spring. And I was called in for blizzard duty. And for a 32-hour three-day weekend for the Ontario civic holiday of Family Day, the same weekend as my excellent but insane 30th birthday party. I had barely started the Bergson essay, so I decided that I wouldn’t get it finished by the time of any possible job interviews. I adapted my essay about Graham Harman and his unfortunate debt to Heideggerian philosophy into a shorter talk of about forty minutes. I already had a version of this paper accepted to the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in Victoria. Bergson went on the back burner while all my writing effort was focussed on this.

At the start of April, I did a job interview on the west coast of Newfoundland. I was running out of steam at this point, and it was all I could do to work on the last stages of the moral/political/legal philosophy course, and continue my hours at the answering service. I had to leave early the day before my job interview because I was breaking down from the stress of the day, week, month, and last year. Though I got a little work done on the Bergson essay, each time I sat down to write it, I had to re-read the entire draft just so I’d know what I had covered already, because my sessions at it were so far apart. This recapping ate most of the time I had set aside to work on it. 

At the end of May, I got word that I was rejected from the position in western Newfoundland. Seniority rules were cutting me out from being considered for adjunct teaching work over the summer and the entire rest of the following academic year. As well, I was too stressed to continue working at the answering service. I got no work on the essay done this month. After I went to the CPA, I spent the following two weeks in June looking after my friends’ apartment and cats in Toronto. I thought I’d be able to relax and work on the Bergson essay, but some unfortunate professional meetings threw me into an even greater depression than I had yet experienced. They convinced me that I would never be able to secure a tenure-track position without several years of teaching experience as an adjunct/sessional, but also that I would never be able to secure such positions in southern Ontario, where unionization had produced hiring rules that prevented new entrants like myself from securing work. For the rest of June, I was too depressed to work. 

I wrote a little of the essay in spurts over July and August after I convinced myself, thanks to some more data on the market, that this advice regarding my tenure-track prospects was wrong. Nonetheless, I put the Bergson and science essay on the back burner while I concentrated on working on some preliminary research on my utopias project, Sartre mostly, and starting this blog to make sure I wouldn’t slip into unproductive weeks of wallowing like I did earlier this summer. I started work on the essay again concurrently with preparing this round of tenure track applications. 

Last Friday, I was about to write the climactic closing section of the essay, but then the incident described in that day’s post happened, and I wasn’t able to work for the rest of the day. I recovered more quickly, however, and hope to get that last section finished this week. 

After all this, I just hope that publishing this essay goes fairly smoothly.

Ethnographic Philosophy? Jamming, 15/10/2013

I understand how weird it might have been to see my Assignment: Earth fiction exercise post the day after such a depressing argument on Friday. The truth is, last month, I wrote four of those posts in a night, and spread their uploads over several weeks, because no one reads the weekend posts anyway.

As I’ve been thinking about some of the central ideas of the utopias project, it occurred to me recently that the key tradition for me to engage with isn’t Marxism, but anarchism. I am, of course, talking about the political philosophy describing hypothetical societies who survive by building institutions of everyday mutual aid on community-sized scales without the necessity of a large bureaucratic state requiring heavy taxes to sustain. 

Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakhunin are the theorists I’m most familiar with, and even here I’m rusty. There doesn’t seem to be that sense of historical inevitability in anarchist thinking that appears in so many Marxisms. There appears to be much more faith in nonviolent action in close-knit communities of people working together to improve the conditions of their lives. What could be a more foolish dream than that?

Think about anarchism of this type, the ideology that says local communities can organize among themselves, and use the various talents of each person in a neighbourhood to work as a team to provide essential, or at least pleasant and beneficial, services. Yet much of mainstream political theory emerging from the last few decades has focussed on liberalism and critiques of liberalism, a typical move given that modern political philosophy in North America was literally revived from the dead by John Rawls when he published A Theory of Justice. The main reason I think anarchism isn’t a word that’s considered seriously in political philosophy is because there were actual anarchist terrorists in the late nineteenth century in Europe, and because the obvious public image of anarchism are the window-smashing people at political protests.* 

*Speaking of conspiracy theories, these black-clad hyper-violent protestors are the object of rumours that they’re undercover police officers who are assigned to damage property to turn the public against protest movements. Speaking at least from my anecdotal experience, at every gathering of anti-violence political activists, there’s at least one person who presumes this of every marcher who throws a brick through a window. I can’t say for sure. None of the black-block protestors at the Toronto G20 ever showed me their IDs.

One problem with pursuing this line of research now is that I have a lot of work to do. I’m very rusty on the anarchist tradition, having left much of my thinking in that branch of political philosophy behind when I began focussing on philosophy of mind research (yes, it’s been that long). So while I have a long way to go, I need to know the best places to start, not just to examine the classics, but who is thinking along these lines now, if anyone.

One interesting way to investigate anarchist philosophy is to look at examples of this kind of community organizing in real life, interviewing actual people working today, who, practically speaking are anarchists, whether or not they call themselves by the title. It amounts to doing political philosophy with a grounding in direct political action, using the tools of ethnography to build a conceptual starting point for a more complex set of inquiries and arguments that move in the abstract and theoretical directions philosophy can contribute to understanding. 

Steven Stitch and Jonathan Weinberg are two philosophers who incorporate laboratory techniques into our discipline, investigating how people tend to think in intuition pumps, exploring how civilian humans use the tools of philosophy, and seeing how general purpose our reasoning really is. Stitch and Weinberg’s work is very important as a critique of philosophy itself, but their most important conclusion so far applies to the limitations of common philosophical tools like intuition pumps. I’d be using the methods of ethnography to collect raw material for philosophical reasoning.

After all, there are quite a few histories of philosophy that describe the discipline as a once-broad subject that other disciplines develop inside, then diverge from. It’s time we took a couple of ideas and methods from other disciplines instead.

From One Community to Another and Back Again, Jamming, 14/10/2013

So the blog has been silent for a few days, breaking my promise with an altogether epically crazy Thanksgiving Weekend with the girlfriend's old compatriots in St. Catharine's. Things I learned included that pumpkin ales are fantastic and that EVE Online is far too complicated for me to have bothered getting into now that ground-floor entry is impossible.

For a brief philosophical reflection, I have been thinking more broadly about virtue ethics not just as a moral philosophy on a personal scale, but the social effects of virtuous people being one of the motivating factors for incorporating that kind of moral structure into people's daily lives. Political philosophy tends to focus on large-scale events and structures: global economic flows, states, legal regimes and court institutions. Think of it as the macro level. Moral philosophy tends to focus on individual decisions; even in several of the virtue ethics discussions I'm familiar with, the discussion aims to identify rational moral principles and imperatives relevant to a particular problem, about which a right or wrong decision could be made. Call this the micro level.

But what about the meso level? Events at the level of social interactions, but involve more people and have more complicated cascading effects than a single moral decision taken in isolation. A couple of weeks ago, at the last McMaster Invited Speakers' Series talk I attended, I asked the speaker about the contribution of communitarian perspectives to the problem he was speaking about. Even here, focus on productive and freeing elements of community relations were a matter for skepticism. Communitarian theory in most of its history has been about obligations individuals have to conform to the standards and practices of a community, or how the community shapes and constrains the individual.

How individual action in social contexts changes communities over time doesn't seem, at least to me at this point, to be a subject of discussion. Yet it seems to be a clear element of how communities are created that individual actions maintain the habits that create such a culture. If the individual actions change, so can the aggregate of all the cultural habits, if that change catches on with enough people.

I'd be happy to have someone point out some theorists who have been discussing these ideas to me, but I haven't discovered any yet.

And thanks to everyone who sent me support messages this weekend through my haze of Niagara Region wines. They were very much appreciated and I'll get back to you individually soon.

St. Catharine's Ontario. Sunny and bright as the wines it produces, not to be confused with other liquids of the same colour, no matter how much you may have had of the proper liquid that night.

Assignment Earth IV: Story Generator, Jamming, 12/10/2013

By the fourth season of my entirely imaginary and physically impossible term showrunning the television masterpiece of the early 1970s, Assignment: Earth, we would follow up Leonard Nimoy’s Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series with a special two-hour season premiere. At the centre of this story is whether Leonard Nimoy will even return to the show.

Of course, Louis Ten will be played by
Ricardo Montalbán. How could it be
As you will remember from the tragic third season finale last week, after the brutal murder of his friend Johnny Robinson, Nimoy’s Gary Seven has disappeared. His mission for the Hegelian extra-terrestrial manipulators of human history, the Aegis, has gone spinning out of control. No Aegis operative has ever abandoned his mission for any reason short of his own death before. Gary has been missing for the last year, and Isis has spent that time fending off threats from her superiors/creators to punish her for his disappearance. She’s promised to find him, even though she knows he doesn’t want to be found.

We discover Roberta Lincoln working in a genuinely boring clerical job in Queens. She has tried to move on from her three years working with Gary Seven, but something about booking meetings for an architecture firm just isn’t as exciting as historic-dialectical espionage. One evening, she’s at her local for a drink to unwind from the ennui when a middle-aged Hispanic man in an impeccable suit begins chatting her up. She’s put off at first, but then slightly intrigued, and starting to get into it, when he starts asking questions about her employer, and her former employer. Then she realizes that he’s never said his name.

“Louis,” he answers. “But my full name is Louis Ten.”

This is when Roberta understands that she’s being interrogated by an Aegis operative. He’s quite charming, but makes no secret that he is prepared to torture, warp, and destroy her body and mind if it will lead him to Gary Seven. That’s when a black cat appears in the window.

I’m not entirely sure what this fight scene would look like. Maybe some freeze-frames to indicate that Isis has frozen all the non-Aegis people at the bar in time to prevent them from being hurt when she and Louis are throwing energy beams at each other. Either way, Isis rescues Roberta and prevents Louis from killing everyone in the bar to get to her. 

Remember, Isis can turn into a cat.
A comment from one of the other readers of the Vaka Rangi post that started this whole insane scenario discussed the status of Isis in the original episode as a familiar. Gene Roddenberry's sexism has become notorious over the years, and Vaka Rangi has amassed a pretty comprehensive catalogue of Roddenberry's moral repulsiveness over the original series. The familiar, in traditional European folklore, is a kind of animal companion to a witch, having magical powers that supplement the witch's, and a subservience to its master. In the original Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth," Isis clearly functions as Gary Seven's familiar, even accompanying him to such ridiculous locations for a cat as a rocket launch tower. When she transforms into humanoid form at the end of the episode, her hair is even made up to resemble cat ears. She acts as a trickster according to Gary's orders. She was originally designed as a female character who is basically a magical cat.

The arc of Isis in my imagined series is quite different from the static familiar we got in that one hour of mediocre television. One of the science-fiction tropes that have always fascinated me are aliens that are sufficiently more powerful than us that they become practically indistinguishable from gods. Star Trek has a long history of dealing with these types of aliens, since some of its very first episodes. One of the many absorbing ideas in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 series* was his conception of the monolith-making aliens: creatures who were so lonely in the universe that they created machines to encourage the development of intelligence around the galaxy. The Aegis are gods that use their powers to bend the histories of intelligent species to their ideals of logic and thought. They have human operatives like Gary Seven and Louis Ten, but these operatives are accompanied by familiars like Isis. Consider her, for this story, as a Clarke-style monolith that can speak. Indeed, one of the suspicious attributes of Louis Ten is that is that he has no familiar.

*As much as I think that the original novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey was the greatest artistic achievement of a progressively declining book series, the books were filled with intriguing ideas throughout the run.

Isis would offer my parallel-universe Diana Muldaur a great challenge for an actor. Isis is a creature defined by her designed purpose: the successful operation of the Aegis plan for human development. In the course of her adventures on the show, she must form friendships with humans in order to live properly in the world. However, she remains separate from them because of her nature as a machine-creature designed by alien engineers. Gary Seven (and Leonard Nimoy's real-life iconic character, Spock) are defined by their inherent duality, a blended heritage of alien and human. For Isis, simply achieving a blended heritage would be progress in breaking away from her programmatic nature. This would be the arc of her character over the first three years of Assignment: Earth. She is first entirely defined by her plot purpose of being Gary's computer, genie, and also his minder to make sure he stays on track. Over the three seasons so far, but especially through season three's storylines based in ordinary struggles, she comes to be defined by no purpose at all. For the first time (that we know of), an Aegis familiar simply lives. 

Mike "The Situation"
Sorrentino is one of those
turds from Staten Island.
That's how low Roberta has
Precisely how many capture-escape sequences occur as Roberta and Isis are on the run from Louis Ten depends on how long it takes to build tension to Gary’s inevitable return. I will have devoted quite a chunk of the first hour of the finale to looking at Isis and Roberta’s lives without Gary in it. Isis will have several scenes where she’s hounded by communiques from Aegis taking place over the absent year between the last season and the current episode. This would be intercut with some comic scenes showing Roberta’s dull life: interacting with her dormative bosses at the architecture firm, going on dates with turds from Staten Island. 

But after one more battle with Louis, Isis is dangerously wounded, and they escape to a hole of a motel in New Jersey to recuperate. There, Isis reveals what she’s actually been doing for the last year. She actually hasn’t been searching for Gary; she’s been keeping him hidden from the Aegis. Louis Ten’s theatrically violent methods are a tactic the Aegis has never tried before because of their huge amounts of collateral damage, and it suggests that Aegis authority is slipping. Isis has had a homing beacon in her cat’s collar for the last year. If she activates it, Gary will come, and Gary is the only person on Earth who can heal her injuries from Louis’ weapon. But the beacon will also lead Louis straight to them, and they’ll have to hope that Gary arrives first.

Isis finally passes out from her wounds, and Roberta knows she doesn’t have long. She goes out into the grassy fields and abandoned industrial districts behind their off-highway motel and activates the homing device. 

There are twenty minutes left in our climactic two-hour fourth season premiere of Assignment: Earth.