A Minor Obsession With the Nature of Obsession, Composing, 30/11/2013

Just a short note for this weekend, as there’s a Chanukah in Toronto to take care of later today. I’ve been looking into working on some short stories again in my fiction writing, as I’m still not sure about the publication status of my longer works. Under the Trees, Eaten should be out if not later this month then in January. But I’m still waiting to hear back about the status of my older novel A Small Man’s Town. I don’t want to commit myself to working on another major piece when, like that older novel manuscript, it will simply be homeless for years. 

Ben Kingsley starred as David Kepesh in Elegy, the 2008
film version of Philip Roth's book The Dying Animal, his
best book featuring that character.
Rather fitting that I’m writing today about some of my story ideas revolving around obsession. These are also stories that have professors as the central characters, but not for the usual reasons of skewering the schizophrenic culture, politics, and economics of contemporary academia. I mean, it’s not that it doesn’t deserve skewering. There are a lot of serious problems the modern university system has to face. I just mean that when it comes to satirizing or critiquing the university system and professoriat in literature, Phillip Roth already did that much better than I ever could. Go read the David Kepesh novels. 

I thought of one story idea just the other day, a classic case of fixation. That’s even its working title, “The Fixation.” It’s literally about a professor who is composing a masterwork almost entirely in his head. He’s constantly researching and incorporating new ideas into his plan, whether to agree or to respond or to critique. He’s neglected his personal life: friends haven’t seen him for days, his live-in partner moved out months ago. He’s neglecting his other teaching work, either giving lacklustre lectures or ducking out of teaching obligations altogether. 

The department head, wary of stoking conflict of any kind, sends the central character to drag the fixated professor back to work. The structure of the story would be similar to the original Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with the character of Gabriel Utterson being our protagonist much of the time, slowly uncovering the mystery. But instead of a horrifying resurgence of ancient alchemy, he simply finds a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown. 

This basic theme is, I think, becoming common to my fiction work. It’s the idea that the reasons behind epic events are less otherworldly than we may first think, and often have their roots in the petty concerns of self-absorbed people.

I developed another story about a scholar’s mental collapse as well, though I haven’t written anything beyond a basic outline. I’m not even sure how I’d approach constructing the narrative. The central character is a professor of moral philosophy who is a strict utilitarian: he believes that politics and economics should operate along the most egalitarian rules possible, so the possibility for emotional and material happiness is spread among the largest possible amount of people. This motivates him to become a tireless anti-poverty activist. 

Nonetheless, he lives in a large, comfortable house, drives a van that uses a lot of gas, and is paid a salary that can pay for all of this without trouble. He feels tremendously guilty that he seems to be taking a far greater share of the planet’s resources than he deserves. But he does it to provide a good upbringing for his family, knowing that in our current system, to leave the position he has would risk plunging them into poverty. His own obsession is his feeling of hypocrisy for living a lifestyle antithetical to his philosophies, but unable to abandon it because he would cause direct physical harm to his wife and children.

Just Another Good Law-Abiding Citizen, Research Time, 29/11/2013

When I was working on my doctorate at McMaster, the department began hosting yearly conferences in legal theory. This was part of Wil Waluchow’s chair in legal philosophy: he had a regular endowment to sponsor a yearly conference and bring in guest speakers to discuss various issues in the theory of law. 

At the conference a couple of years ago, Ken Himma was one of the delegates, and his presentation discussed an idea that I was very glad to hear was taken seriously at least sometimes. In my experience working and getting to know the legal theorists among McMaster’s faculty and students, it seemed that one point was always taken as a basic given: that a prerequisite to there being a legal system at all is a duty of all citizens to obey the law. The literature on civil disobedience was largely focussed on finding the conditions in which the duty to obey the law no longer applied. The examples often referenced were always rather extreme; violations in law of basic points of justice, like Jim Crow and the Nazi regime. Himma’s presentation questioned whether there was a duty to obey the law at all.

I found it so refreshing. There are a lot of complicated ideas in legal theory about the relation of law and morality that it’s difficult to plow through the details of it. The distinctions seem to get smaller and smaller. First learning about the field through my interactions with Waluchow and his students, I now know the traditional Hart-Fuller debate and Hart-Dworkin debate, the Inclusive vs Exclusive legal positivism debate, each of which set the conditions for how North American legal theory has developed, well enough to teach them.* Even so, one of my methods of teaching them would be to focus on just how minor the differences between many of the sides really are. One commonality among all these sides was the premise that because the law was law, you had a duty to obey it that could only be broken in extreme circumstances.

* While exposing myself to the central works of this tradition through interaction with North America’s leading legal theorists at these conferences, teaching introductory courses on the subjects as a tutorial leader, and going through the central books of the tradition, I don’t keep up with the new legal theory scholarship in enough detail to publish on it at the moment. For one thing, I find the official style of discussion too confrontational, and almost nitpicking in its attention to detail and its conceptual distinctions that seem more fine than reality itself. For another, for a university with a very well-endowed chair in legal theory, McMaster keeps very few legal theory journals in their own libraries. The folks I saw using inter-library loans most often for their research material were the legal theorists: philosophy of law journals were all at McMaster’s partner libraries, but rarely its own.

I don’t know how much influence Hannah Arendt on the development of these debates, but I’m not sure if there was all that much. Because one element of her analysis of Adolf Eichmann is that he was the very model of a law-abiding citizen. This analysis also connects clearly to a point from Origins of Totalitarianism, putting another nail to the idea that Eichmann in Jerusalem is a break from the earlier work. In Origins, she described how totalitarian legal regimes function not through legislation (legislation is treated as superfluous in such regimes; for example, Hitler never repealed the Weimar constitution, so even under the Nazi party, Germany still had a federal democratic constitution), but through the expressions of the leader.

Heinrich Himmler desperately hoped to put a respectable
face on Nazi Germany at the end of the war. Note the Death's
Head logo at the centre of his cap. I'm not sure if this plan
had much chance of success.
There’s a section describing how Eichmann, in the last months of the war when Nazi Germany’s defeat was pretty much certain, doubled down on deportations to the death camps. Heinrich Himmler had given explicit orders to slow down and eventually halt the deportations, part of a delusional plan to secure the trust of the Allies. Arendt speculates, based on Himmler’s written official and personal communiqués, that he thought he could secure a negotiated end to the war if they committed just a little less genocide than they actually did. This was also the plan of the old guard of the German army, who actually thought they could hold onto chunks of Poland, all of Austria, and the Sudetenland if they could depose Hitler and put a respectable face on the war.

Yet Eichmann disobeyed Himmler’s orders, because his orders were not the law. Arendt theorized in Origins that totalitarian political theory puts not legislation, but the personal will of the Leader at the origin of laws. Eichmann seems to have understood Arendt’s theory before she had even written it, because he didn’t consider Himmler’s orders to be law. He knew and expressed in his trial that the law of Nazi Germany was the will of the Leader. Because he knew the Leader wanted the death camps to continue action, he sped up his deportations. Hitler’s will was law, and a good citizen follows all the laws of his country.

Eichmann was nothing if not the very model of a good, law-abiding citizen. 

One Reason Why I Try to Be Humble, A History Boy, 28/11/2013

To people who know me personally, you may find that title a little strange. I’m not exactly sheepish about my ideas in philosophy or literature. But I’m discussing humility in a more broad sense, particularly because I’m taking a break from my Arendt discussions today to talk about a new book I discovered yesterday about Alain Badiou.

François Laruelle has written a book called Anti-Badiou. It doesn’t get any more confrontational than that. Badiou is a huge figure in European philosophy, though I don’t know if anyone takes him seriously in North America beyond the self-identified Continental philosophers.* I agree that Badiou is brilliant, but I’m very glad this book exists, because despite some very intriguing ideas, I don’t think his overall effect on the culture of professional philosophy is positive.

* I’ve discussed in a previous post how I think this is an unfortunate label, because it treats as a single tradition what is actually seven distinct, if sometimes mutually influential, schools of thought. I originally wrote of six, but later realized I should have made one more distinction: hermeneutics, related to Heidegger’s work but different, had slipped my mind. It’s the school I work with least. Badiou’s influence, as well, may now constitute an eighth division in so-called Continental philosophy.

I don't dispute Badiou's brilliance. I
dispute his philosophical methods.
Some colleagues have told me that Laruelle’s other work isn’t exactly impressive, but I consider the book valuable at least for trying to poke some pins in Badiou’s reputation. I’m very hesitant about philosophers who tend to be worshipped, let alone those who encourage that kind of worship while they’re alive. It bespeaks an arrogance that I don’t think people deserve. No human, no matter how brilliant, deserves to be treated as though they’re a messenger of The Truth.

My own encounters with Badiou’s work over the years have demonstrated this. I first read Being and Event in 2006, as I was about to start my MA. I thought his ideas about interpreting set theory as a fundamental ontology were brilliant, as were the techniques he began developing in the book to do so. I had doubts about his approach to political philosophy in that book, particularly over why the student revolts of May ’68 could be taken as a foundational political event for a person, and why some more conservative cause could not. An individual’s foundational encounters with the world don’t have some pre-set political agenda; an event can make a person a racist social conservative, but if he had experienced a different event that similarly affected him, he may become a radical socialist. At the time, however, I was working on other projects in philosophy of mind, and while Badiou intrigued me, I put his work aside.

When I became more interested in Gilles Deleuze’s work later in the decade, I found Badiou’s book about him, The Clamor of Being, first published shortly after Deleuze’s death. I expected a respectful critical examination of Deleuze’s work, like Deleuze’s own book on Michel Foucault. But instead I found a book that argued Deleuze’s philosophy was precisely the opposite of the exploration of a world defined by differences, where stability was a slow-moving flux, where the universe offered potentially endless variety in thought and existence. Badiou instead presented Deleuze as a philosopher of total Oneness, where all variety is superficial and all that matters is the unity of flux. Even worse, he described the unity of flux as inevitably culminating in the death of everything in total entropy. He turned Deleuze from a joyous celebrator of variety, difference, and the hopeful potential of life into a dour worshipper of death.**

** This interpretation isn’t necessarily a hack job. Peter Hallward’s book Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation ultimately reaches this conclusion as well through a reasonable critical analysis of his work. I think it’s plausible because Deleuze’s philosophy walks a tightrope between the nihilism of a world of pure flux on one side, and the relativism of every perspective legitimated by having its own cause on another. I think Deleuze’s philosophy is precisely focussed on the tension between these two ontological ideas. Quite appropriate of him.

No one should attack this man as simply as Badiou did. He's
wily, not like a fox, but perhaps like a sorcerer.
What’s more, The Clamour of Being claims that Deleuze admitted as much in an exchange of letters between them where Badiou built a detailed argument against him, and Deleuze admitted that Badiou was completely right. He also claimed, however, that Deleuze destroyed all the letters in this exchange before Badiou could make them public. That immediately made me suspect him, but I first simply dismissed The Clamour of Being as a mediocre book and moved on in my Deleuze research.

A few years later, I read a biography of Deleuze and his collaborator Félix Guattari, François Dosse’s Intersecting Lives. One incident Dosse describes happened while Deleuze and Badiou were both teaching in the Paris VIII Vincennes campus in the 1970s. Badiou had converted a group of students to his version of Maoist radicalism, and he would regularly send these students to interrupt Deleuze’s lectures and scream Maoist slogans and denunciations at him, violent verbal attacks whose goal was literally to drown him out. So this is how Badiou treats his philosophical rivals: He has patsies scream at them until they shut up.

I do not believe that the deeds of a philosopher in his life can be treated separately from the ideas he develops. I know that life operates too fluidly for such perfect compartmentalization. About a year before I read of the violent and disrespectful way Badiou treated Deleuze when he was alive (and a departmental colleague, no less!), my friend B became very excited for Badiou’s new book about Wittgenstein just coming out in English. I was a fan of Wittgenstein, the book was very cheap on Amazon, so I bought it. And I read the following passage. Page 68, to be precise.
"The philosopher assumes the voice of the master. Philosophers are not, nor can they be, modest participants in team work, laborious instructors of a closed history, democrats given over to public debates. Their word is authoritarian, as seductive as it is violent, committing others to follow suit, disturbing and converting them."
This vision of philosophy displays a dictatorial attitude. The philosopher, he says as he elaborates on this introductory passage, must act as a master, shutting off debate and critical questioning of any kind because the philosopher’s task is to deliver the truth. He is the master, everyone else is a disciple, he tells you what to think and how to live, and you obey. I do not believe knowledge can progress from this authoritarian attitude. 

I’ve spoken with advocates for Badiou over the last couple of years at conferences or online. One considered his authoritarian streak an ironic stance. Another considered it unimportant to his wider philosophical inquiries. Discussing this review yesterday, another considered this authoritarianism advocacy for truth against all dispute, that political chicanery like climate change denial can’t truly stand against the facts of the universe. 

I remain very skeptical. I look at Badiou’s meta-philosophical writings where he expresses this authoritarian attitude toward how his own work should be received, his shoddy treatment of Deleuze both before and after death, and I find him untrustworthy. I consider philosophy to work best when all participants treat each other as equals. Badiou claims to be an egalitarian in his politics, but in the practice of philosophy, there is a clear division of rank between the philosopher (particularly himself) and the rest of the world. It looks like cheap hypocrisy to me.

The Morality of a Coward, Research Time, 27/11/2013

There’s a famous passage in Eichmann in Jerusalem where Hannah Arendt describes Adolf Eichmann’s way of speaking. The page positively drips with her contempt for him. Here, she describes a man who speaks in clichés and political catchphrases, parroting key phrases from the speeches of Himmler and Hitler instead of actually formulating an opinion of his own. This is often cited as a central element of Arendt’s conception of the banality of Eichmann’s particular brand of evil, the man so thoughtless that he doesn’t question horrifying actions, even as he knows the pivotal role his actions have in the torture and murder of millions.

But I see something different in Eichmann from this. I’m not precisely sure why I do. Perhaps it’s my natural contrariness: I don’t want to read a book that’s become so well known for one idea without discovering an alternative reading. Perhaps it’s a spot of academic careerism. If I have an interpretation of a book like Eichmann in Jerusalem that diverges from the vast number of commentaries on it, that revolves around an idea that hasn’t been written yet, then maybe I have an idea for a new article to burnish that CV. Maybe it’s merely that, like my partner says to me so frequently, it’s as if I’m constantly thinking about something. Don’t worry; she intends it as a compliment. At least I think so.

You see, Eichmann displays another ethically contemptuous attitude than his lack of thinking, the inescapable self-absorption that is the literal definition of idiocy. This idea occurred to me as I was reading of an incident Arendt describes long after the description of his borrowed speech. 

This incident was the one time Eichmann displayed a conscience. He was in charge of shipping a large number of Jews on a train, as he was frequently in his job. He could send it to Riga or Minsk, where Einsatzgruppen would kill them all by mass shooting. He could also send them all to the Lódz ghetto, which was run by a Nazi more interested in profiteering than genocide, so turned his ghetto into a workhouse. For this reason, people were rarely shot in Lódz; they died of starvation and disease, but were a slave workforce that wasn’t subjected to mass violence. He sent the train to Lódz.

As I first read these, in my mind, more illuminating
passages, I first thought of Waylon Smithers as a fitting
analogy to Eichmann's sniveling nature. Then I realized
that Smithers actually had a more dignified, ethically
upstanding character.
And he landed in a pile of trouble for it. Lódz was full past its capacity already, and couldn’t accept another trainload of people. The officer in charge kicked up a stink with higher command, and Eichmann only kept his job thanks to the personal intervention of Himmler. Himmler also extracted a promise from Eichmann that he wouldn’t do something like that again. Eichmann obeyed that promise. 

Eichmann never did any research to see if this train could have been accepted anywhere other than at a killing field, he made no contingency plans, made no arrangements with anyone to make this transfer of Jews to a safer place actually succeed. He felt bad for a moment about what he was doing, and impulsively changed the train’s route. At testimony, Arendt relates how he was more concerned about getting in trouble with his bosses over this incident than he was over the actual death of these people when they were properly sent east.

Adolf Eichmann was the most cowardly nebbish the world has ever seen. He perfectly illustrates the ethic of a total coward. 

Another incident puts his nature as a sniveling yes-man at the forefront. Eichmann acted as secretary for the Wannsee conference of the German civil service as they planned the logistics of the Final Solution, all the niggling details of concentrating Jews at key geographical positions and shipping them properly to their extermination camps, making sure that the shipment schedules never overburdened a single camp site. They were literally drawing up a freight train schedule for genocide.

Eichmann remembered very little about the details of this conference, even though it was his job to record all of it in the required detail. He attached very little moral significance to its subject matter, despite its monstrousness. The reason the day stuck in his mind was because it was the first time he ever joined his boss, Security Office Chief Reinhard Heydrich, for drinks and cigars after a busy, tough conference day to shoot the shit and unwind. The only reason he remembered his role in building the literal architecture of the Holocaust was because it was the best opportunity he had in his career at that point to brown-nose and suck up.

Eichmann in Jerusalem isn’t just a study in how idiocy can encourage monstrous acts. It’s also how even in the context of monstrous acts, it’s still possible for a person to be a cowardly sniveling sycophant.

Is Hannah Arendt the First Ethnographic Philosopher? Research Time, 26/11/2013

As I’ve studied Hannah Arendt’s work on and off over the years, I have noticed one mainstream interpretation of her openly political works. This is that there is a significant break between her analysis of totalitarian philosophy and culture between The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. I most recently read Daniel Maier-Katkin’s biography of Arendt, Stranger From Abroad, which described Origins as a book about totalitarianism as a mass radical fanaticism. This, for a start, simplifies the ideas of Origins to an absurd degree. But he says there was a radical break between this conception and Eichmann, where Arendt focusses on the pettiness and small mind of those who do evil, the horrible acts that come when people do not think. 

Now, that distinction is definitely correct, but Arendt’s thinking is really far more complex. I think the interpretation of a radical break between these works comes from misinterpreting them as being more similar than they really are. Origins and Eichmann are works with similar themes that refer to the same historical period, that of the totalitarian dictatorships of Europe. But they are books in entirely different philosophical domains.

Origins was published in 1951, and although the chapter “Ideology and Terror” was a 1958 edition and some changes were made over the editions leading up to 1968, it has a markedly different focus from Eichmann, which was published in 1963. Origins is a wide-ranging study, attempting to describe the essence of totalitarian movements themselves by analyzing all their peculiar articulations. Their innovations in the secret police, the creation of death camps, the universalization of a climate of fear and terror, the reduction of individuals to constituents of a unified nation-state alone, these are descriptions of what makes that new political system unique. 

This philosophical specimen, labelled
Adolf Eichmann, was collected in 1960
and preserved in glass.
Eichmann in Jerusalem has a different domain entirely. And I’m not talking about the difference between political/historical scholarship and journalism, though that difference of style is important. Eichmann is a case study, and an extrapolation of philosophical ideas about an individual’s relation to political and social movements, how an individual negotiates moralities in a political context that has already been described. It constitutes an example of what I’ve called in earlier posts philosophical ethnography, a technique of philosophical research I want to explore in the utopias project. Eichmann in Jerusalem is itself a case study of a particular individual who held a position of power in a totalitarian regime. Adolf Eichmann himself is this case study, the empirical basis for a series of philosophical reflections. 

I think of Arendt’s work as fitting into two categories, depending on their emphasis in subject matter. There are the philosophical works like The Human Condition, The Life of the Mind, and the Kant lectures that focus on political philosophy in straightforwardly conceptual terms. These works refer to the philosophical tradition explicitly and position themselves as contributions to that tradition. 

Then there are the political works like The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. These are more often called history or journalism and are the works that a doctrinally conservative voice would say disqualifies Arendt from being included in the canon of philosophical writers. But these works, despite their thorough historical empirical method in the earlier book or the journalistic style of the latter (a necessity when your first commissioner is The New Yorker), are just as philosophically creative. Origins and Eichmann are both works of political and moral philosophy. 

The only difference between these and most other philosophical works is that Arendt does not restrict her analyses to an abstract level of pure concepts. Empirical research informs her philosophical thinking and stimulates her to pursue particular lines of inquiry and reasoning. In the mid-twentieth century especially, all divisions of philosophy kept empirical research and information out of their reasoning so as to keep their thought purely universal. But Arendt’s philosophical originality depends on her looking to the world of particulars in which she lived to spur thinking that operated outside traditionally-accepted prejudices. Only with the stimulus of the everyday world can we understand when that which everyone so obviously believes to be true has actually become an outdated prejudice.

Disappearing From Life and History, Research Time, 25/11/2013

My entry last Friday about my reading of The Origins of Totalitarianism had an air of finality to it, seeing as it was about Hannah Arendt’s account of where the death camps fit into the essential structure of totalitarian political philosophy. They really were an essence, the purest expression of a system that exists to strip a person of everything that’s remarkable about them, both for the victims and the perpetrators. It was a world without singularity or individuality, where your only nature was the external determination of the orders you were giving. On its own, it was a wonderful transition to reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, which I started Sunday night.

But there’s one more Arendtian idea from the earlier book that I want to discuss, because I don’t do smooth transitions. That’s too easy.

One of the concepts underlying the utopias project is the human relationship with time. My central idea is that political philosophies that are threats to human freedom privilege an imagined ideal past or a hoped-for ideal or perfect future over the messy singularity of the present. An idea of Arendt’s about a peculiar relation of totalitarian secret police to the past of their regimes throws a wrinkle in this hypothesis, but I think it’s a productive complication rather than a problem.

The secret police have many important functions in a totalitarian regime. A key feature that distinguishes totalitarian regimes from more ordinary dictatorships is that the secret police now becomes an open secret. They’re no longer the subject of whispers and kept from official reports and ceremonies. The secret police now make their central position in the government hierarchy widely known to the general population: they’re present at official functions, give press conferences, appear blatantly in their role as important government functionaries. Nonetheless, the secret police remains an organization bent on making people disappear.

Disappearing people is the essential function of the secret police. Regular police send riot police to destroy your political associations and your homes, and lock you in prison. But everyone still knows where you are when the regular police are done with you: You’re lying on the ground trying to cry the pepper spray out of your eyes, or you’re in a jail cell. You can be seen. If you’re dealing with a secret police, once they have you, you’re never seen again. The peculiar danger of this secret power is that this kind of police doesn’t even need to have a reason to take you beyond the act of taking you.

The temporal element appears when Arendt examines one of the curious attributes of Stalin’s purges. Not only did he make various officials in the government and party disappear, he also had the secret police erase them from government records. They’d be airbrushed out of photos, their names blacked out of records and legislation or else all the written record of your existence is outright destroyed. Not only do you no longer exist, you have now never existed. History has been rewritten. The secret police is the closest humanity has come to time travel: the ability to wipe people from history.

Philosophy can be considered a discipline working in pure
concepts. But sometimes the experiments of science-fiction
can create a more pure concept than philosophers. We have
to step our game up, people.
[One of the frustrating things about writing philosophy is that philosophers lately seem, in some circumstances, to be in competition with science-fiction writers for explaining some of these concepts. Appropriately for its 50th anniversary week, I remembered an old Doctor Who story, a Paul McGann audio called Neverland, which featured a terrible Time Lord weapon that had never been used. It was able to wipe, literally and completely, anyone it was used on from history. But the only reason it had never been used was because the machine erased the event of its use from history along with all the other events that constituted its victim’s life. 

This is a fascinating idea, but it essentially turned a key figure among Doctor Who’s heroes, Romana, into a totalitarian murderer. As President of the Time Lords, she authorized using the erasing machine a VERY LARGE number of times, but because her previous uses were erased from history, she had no idea she had erased hundreds of people, despite agonizing over each decision as, literally, the first time she would ever use it. Previous presidents were much worse.]

So the temporal relationship of, specifically, totalitarian secret police to history was their ability to rewrite it. Totalitarian movements want to push society toward a future state that they take to be perfect, the absolute triumph of their ideology over the world. So their eyes are on the future, at the expense of the present. But they also do violence to the past through totalitarian secret police having the power to erase people from history. Where there was once a person with accessible concrete facts about her life, there is now only a rumour at best. 

They may not have been able to change history in a literal sense, though our friends in the sci-fi world have explored already how having such a power would make even the most liberal regimes horrifyingly corrupt. A liberal regime could be as fascistic as it wants, as long as they know that their crimes will be erased not only from official records of history, but from causality itself. But this is the corrupting force of the secret police, the ability rewrite history at the expense of humanity.
One last point about the secret police, a curious historical footnote for me. Arendt describes a historical detail, the types of files that the secret police of Russia before 1917, the Okhrana, used to keep on people. These files included cards with graphical diagrams tracing all the associations of suspicious persons: co-workers, family, friends, anyone who might be corrupted by the anti-Czarist thoughts of the central suspect. This was how the Okhrana enforced guilt by association. The only problem was that their cards were only so large, and could only trace so many connections.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those Facebook apps that create a graphic image of all your connections in the network, but this is basically what a modern Okhrana would use to keep track of you and all your possible associations. And we’ve done it for them already in private industry. I won’t go so far as to say the NSA operates on secret police principles: after all, they may collect terabytes of information about the citizenry of the United States and the wider world every hour, but they don’t use that information to make people literally disappear. But if some NSA-like organization were ever to go full NKVD (and I honestly DO NOT AT ALL think they EVER WOULD), it would be very easy for them simply to requisition or steal all the files from Facebook or LinkedIn and have a complete map of the associations of almost everyone in their country. 

"Hannah likes German Philosophy and The
Right to Dissent."
This is why I always sort of chuckle at people who think they’re somehow anonymizing themselves when they use a fake name (like when Steve Smith’s Facebook name is Scotsman Flibby-Magoo) for their profile, but otherwise connect to all their friends and associates, and allow themselves to be tagged in photos and statuses. People who actually understand security on the internet and don’t want to be found aren’t on Facebook. I understand security on the internet, but I don’t actually do anything threatening to any military or government powers around the world. I’m trying to start a career as a university professor and public intellectual, so I need visible social connections to promote myself and my work, like this blog. 

Public intellectuals aren’t threatening to modern anti-democratic politics. At most, our products act as a release valve for people’s frustrations with the modern world so that they feel better about their mediocre lives and don’t become so enraged that they act violently to change them. If anything, that’s the lesson that the architects of the modern surveillance state have learned, at least to some degree. 

People like Aaron Swartz are still persecuted until they’re financially ruined suicides. But this is really the crude reaction of state prosecutors and other officials who don’t fully understand. Total domination, the persecution and destruction of all dissent and dissenters against our laws and our social/political structures is overkill. Violent resistance becomes inevitable in such circumstances, if not from within then from without as neighbouring countries became shitlessly scared of you. Swartz was ultimately harmless to the surveillance state and the police. 

The secret is that it doesn’t matter practically how much government and private intelligence agencies know about us. What only matters is that we know that they know and what they know, and that they don’t use this knowledge to destroy and manage the populace.

Catch the Conscience of the Doctor, Jamming, 23/11/2013

I think I’m going to use my weekend posts to discuss my ideas that I’m working on in relation to fiction. Maybe it’ll be pure story brainstorming drivel, maybe an interesting character or idea, maybe an exercise like the last few weeks of my Assignment: Earth story. I do want to make a story like that too: a historical companion book to a television show that never existed. It could be Jorge Borges by way of D. C. Fontana.

But I thought I’d spin a few moral philosophical reflections about the Doctor Who 50th, seeing as that pretty much dominated my afternoon and evening.* Because this is fundamentally a story about the nature of conscience. Incidentally, I’ll take this footnote break to broadcast an enormous 


to anyone who hasn’t watched The Day of the Doctor yet and still wants to be surprised.

* I also watched the drama, Adventures in Space and Time, Mark Gatiss’ tv-movie of the birth of Doctor Who and over William Hartnell’s era, and I think the last two minutes actively constitute fanfic on BBC2 and the international broadcast partners. I’m not sure if that’s good, or if it’s absolutely terrifying. I shall have to think further on this.

Whenever I've looked into philosophical
articles or seen presentations on the
morality of conscience, all the
discussions end up becoming
commentaries on Kant's conception
of conscience. While he was a brilliant
innovator of this kind of moral
philosophy, we shouldn't return to him
as if he said all that could have been
said. We need to escape our ancestors
You see, the whole story is built around John Hurt’s use of The Moment, a weapon whose computer was so powerful that it developed a conscience. And any weapon — any killing machine — with a conscience is going to prevent itself from being used. Really, The Moment’s conscience is so extreme that it calls for philosophical analysis. There’s a powerful purity to the conscience that Steven Moffat wrote.

In the material sense, The Moment prevented itself from being used by connecting John Hurt, the one who wanted to use it, to the future versions of himself who would prevent him from using it. But these future versions would also do double duty of showing the full ethical consequences of his actions: what kind of person he would become if he were to use the weapon. And he was, in many ways, a haunted man. David Tennant’s Doctor is defined by his regrets; there’s a reason why one of his catchphrases was “I’m so, so sorry.” Matt Smith’s Doctor is defined by his flightiness, his forgetfulness, how he flits from one topic to another in a manic squeal to cover up the rage. This is precisely what Moffat intends us to think: he has Billie Piper’s Moment avatar explicitly say it. 

Hearing Hurt’s rage as they sit in the Elizabethan cell, Smith chuckles that this is how he sounds when he’s alone. Smith hides his self-hatred.** Seeing his same old heroism shine through the trauma, and the impact that trauma makes on his future selves, Hurt returns to Gallifrey knowing that, no matter what he does to himself, he doesn’t become a monster permanently.

** I think this is why I’m glad Christopher Eccleston was being paid far too much money to leave the set of Thor II. His Doctor, wonderful though he was, had so short a tenure that his character was defined too much by the raw trauma of the Time War and his destruction of Gallifrey. It’s why I’m still conflicted about Eccleston’s Doctor, why I’m sad we never had more than a single year to explore his character. The Time War weighed too heavily on him, and we never got to see him truly deal with it, only scream with the pain. At no point in the Eccleston Doctor’s life would he have been able to do anything but rage uncontrollably at John Hurt. The story would have to be utterly different.

Because what Hurt wants to do is monstrous. That’s why he doesn’t think of himself as the Doctor, why he accepts his punishments that The Moment gives him during their initial talk. Her own sense of conscience is so pure that even the intention to use the weapon for any reason is worthy of punishment. Hurt realizes, with Tennant and Smith beside him, that there is another way. 

Only when he was alone did Hurt have no choice but to use The Moment as a weapon, losing the privilege of being called The Doctor. When he has himself as a companion, he can become better than his worst defeats. The Moment avatar acts as a companion to Hurt, serving as a voice of pure conscience, the faith that he can be better than his circumstances dictate. Clara does the same for Smith, calling him away from activating the weapon and reminding him that he can find another way out, the ethically best way out of an impossible situation. Clara, The Moment Avatar, the companion, is the call of conscience for the Doctor, the conscience that sanctions him to pull himself out of the narrative whose structure and associated necessity bind us completely, and cheat.***

*** The Moment acts as a pure conscience, which is often described as an internal voice. Yes, Kant described it this way. He was influential for a reason, after all. One can understand that voice as whispering, “There should have been another way.” The three Doctors gathering at The Moment’s moment of activation even describe that event as immune to conscience’s intervention, the day there was no other way. It would make sense that Moffat would choose The Moment’s avatar as Rose Tyler’s Bad Wolf, the literal goddess from the machine, the TARDIS, who ethically renewed Eccleston’s Doctor by ending The Parting of the Ways without further loss of innocent life. She cheated the story for the Doctor, when Eccleston couldn’t think of how, demonstrating that there was another way. Bad Wolf Rose was a voice of pure conscience that could act on her will, just like The Moment.

Because the explanation is pure technobabble, just like the more obvious technobabble of Russell T. Davies’ cheats that win his epic stories. The real story of The Day of the Doctor is about watching the ethical transformation, the redemption of John Hurt, and through him, the redemption of the character. He is now primed to truly run forever.

You see, I think the Doctor has had a problem since its revival. Materially, it’s become bigger than it’s ever been before. Never in the wildest dreams of anyone before the international export and promotional blitz that has occurred during the Moffat era, has Doctor Who ever been this big, when The Day of the Doctor is simulcast literally across the world. The Wikipedia page for the special has a map of how many countries picked up the simulcast. There are more who did than didn’t. On Earth. That’s how big we are.

But the Time War and the trauma it inflicted on the character of the Doctor is a weight around the show that wouldn’t go away. There’s a reason Smith’s Doctor is called the one who forgets: it’s been so long since the Time War continuity was introduced, Moffat knew it would get in the way constantly having to wax on about it, as we could in the Tennant years. Because the Davies era formed a single continuous storyline of overlapping characters (except for the one little gap just before his regeneration where, in-canon, Tennant’s Doctor comes for the 50th Anniversary), from Time War’s end to Tennant’s goodbye was a fairly short time. 

Smith’s Doctor lives for centuries longer: he’s had long stretches travelling by himself, there are many gaps in the timeline of his main friendships, his entire life with River Song**** was off-camera, and he pops in and out of Clara’s life as she continues to live individually, disappearing with The Doctor for periodic adventures. But the trauma was still there, even after nearly ten years from the show’s revival and the introduction of the Time War continuity (let alone the centuries of in-canon life Smith lives). The destruction of Gallifrey, the one moment The Doctor became literally just as monstrous as what he fights, would always determine the character. 

**** Of course, when Tennant asks how Smith could let himself forget the details of the trauma of activating The Moment, he says, “Spoilers.” It was the love of his relationship with River that helped him process and move on from his own trauma. That’s why he was so depressed and isolated in The Snowmen. It wasn’t just Amy and Rory who were gone; it was the Ponds. All three of them. Between Angels Take Manhattan and The Snowmen, River went to The Library and died.

That trauma would be the one constant in the Doctor, a source of terrible gravity dragging down his character. Smith and Moffat (in the current creative process of Doctor Who, they’re the joint designers of the Eleventh Doctor, just as Tennant and Davies were for the Tenth) could find a new take on the trauma after Eccleston, Tennant, and Davies. Peter Capaldi might have managed it too.

But what about the Doctor after Capaldi? And the one after that? And after that? The weight would grow. The character would become inflexible. The show would no longer be about anything and everything, but about the inescapable trauma of being single-handedly responsible for the murder of billions. It wouldn’t be Doctor Who anymore. The weight would become so much that it could not go on.

My esteemed colleague Phil Sandifer has described the Time War as the cancellation of Doctor Who itself, appearing in the context of Doctor Who’s own continuity, the scar on the history of the show. It makes a permanent break in the nature of the classic series from the revived series. Just as Doctor Who lives with the trauma of cancellation, The Doctor lives with the trauma of the one day he became a monster. Phil tweeted on Anniversary night that now The Gallifrey Chronicles was closer to the nature of the Time War than Dalek was. The Gallifrey Chronicles implied a hopeful ending to a similar arc about The Eighth Doctor having destroyed Gallifrey in the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel series (1997-2005). However amazing Dalek and the Eccleston year was, it only offered us Doctor Who with the burden of a terrible scar.

With The Day of the Doctor, Moffat has healed that scar, yet given us a storyline that preserved continuity with the scarred history of the revived series of 2005-13. The trauma of having believed he destroyed Gallifrey and its billions of citizens was The Moment’s pure conscience punishing him for even planning to carry out so hideous an act, wiping the memory of saving Gallifrey during his regeneration from Hurt into Eccleston. That’s the moral story of The Day of the Doctor, depicting a conscience so pure that it punishes for monstrous intents and pushes those who intended to use monstrous weapons away from actually using them.

But The Day of the Doctor also depicts Doctor Who as a television show reconciling itself with its past, understanding and accepting its own unity despite the fracture that means a show with a fifty year history has only thirty-four years worth of transmitted television. That’s why it was necessary simply for us to have hope that the atrocity of the Time War, the cancellation, the destruction of Gallifrey, can be healed. 

We needed Tom Baker to do it. A literal voice from the classic series, its most recognizable living icon, first appearing by his most distinctive feature, his voice. Because Tom Baker, as he appears in The Day of the Doctor, isn’t simply a museum curator. He isn’t some technobabbly echo of the Doctor’s past futurity, or whatever. We know from understanding the basic structure of Davies’ and Moffat’s styles of Doctor Who that the technobabble details don’t matter in the structure of the story. The ethics matter.

Tom Baker is clearly playing the Doctor. He isn’t imitating the Fourth Doctor. He is literally playing the Doctor, as he approaches the character. He is simply doing it at the age of 79. He is the classic series appearing in the new and saying explicitly that he and Smith are the same. The trauma of destroying Gallifrey, the trauma of the cancellation, made the classic series different from the post-2005 Doctor Who. The character was different because each actor playing him since 2005 has had to incorporate this one day of monstrosity into his take on the character. Hurt didn’t even have to, because his character hadn't yet done his one irredeemably monstrous act. That’s why, as Clara told him, he looked so young, even though John Hurt is 73 years old.

Knowing that Gallifrey has been saved from the destruction of the Time War and that the lives of billions are no longer on his hands, the Doctor has been ethically redeemed. Now that Smith remembers having saved Gallifrey, he is free from the guilt of his monstrous crime. Having to live with what is impossible to live with for centuries was The Moment’s punishment for having intended to do what would be impossible to live with. From now on, the writers and actors who create Doctor Who for the next fifty years will be free, because the character of The Doctor is free from the trauma. He knows he was never a monster at all; he was only the Doctor.

Tom Baker delivered the message because the break in the history of the show is healed. Because Steven Moffat’s international promotional blitz wasn’t only about pushing the new series. All that promotion treated the entire history of Doctor Who as a unified whole, a cultural tradition that was now being spread around the world with more power than ever before. If we take Phil at his word that the Time War was the trauma of the cancellation made manifest in Doctor Who’s continuity, we now have healed that trauma. And we now have a show that has run for fifty years across television, film, novels, comics, radio, video games, and audio plays. 

Tom Baker, once the living embodiment of Doctor Who itself, could reach across to the incumbent and declare with a song of hope in his remarkable voice, that they are the same. They are the Doctor in one mad fifty year story. No cancellation in the future will ever be quite as terrible, as raw, as hopeless as 1989-2005. Because now we know it can return. When it eventually goes away again, we know it can always come back. 

Doctor Who is back.

The Essence of Totalitarianism, Research Time, 22/11/2013

The last chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism is about the death camps. Needless to say, it’s also the most absolutely harrowing chapter to read. Aside from the terror, it also indicates precisely what Hannah Arendt is doing with this book. I’ve mentioned before my conversations with some folks who aren’t even sure that it’s proper for Arendt to be taught in a philosophy program, as she’s more of a historian and public intellectual than a philosopher strictly within the tradition. 

I, of course, completely disagree. To me, the chapter on the death camps, entitled “Total Domination,” solidifies that The Origins of Totalitarianism is a book of philosophy. It is philosophy whose source material is the analysis of a historical event and political movement that occurred in her recent history, of which she barely escaped being a victim herself. If the book was simply about the history of the totalitarian movements in Germany and Russia, she would stop at the facts of the death camps, describing their central location in the economy of Nazi Germany, the otherworldly exceptions to human life and humanity, which is how most authors of history treat them. 

After all, while the majority of German people may have had a suspicion that something terrible was happening on the Eastern Front, they knew nothing. The camps were a secret to everyone but the elite of the Nazi Party and the SS Death’s Head units who were assigned to them. As far as German society under the Nazis was concerned, the camps existed in a marginal corner where no light was allowed. Instead, she describes the death camps as the essential expression of totalitarianism itself, the drive to reduce all individuality away from people, rendering them as literally bare life. The death camps, the destruction of the human personality and soul through the literal creation of hell on Earth, are essential to the purest form of totalitarianism.

An artist's rendering of daily life at Auschwitz.

The subject of her work is the philosophy of totalitarianism, identifying, describing, and understanding the concepts that are central to its essence, without which a political system would not be totalitarian. This is ultimately the same goal as my own utopias project, an attempt to understand a political philosophy that makes individual people literally superfluous, removing them from the human community. The sacrificial murders of revolutionaries, the sacrifice of people for the realization of a larger political goal whether or not those people are aware of that sacrifice: that’s the philosophy I want to explore in the utopias project. 

I always begin a new project looking for basic figures among those who have written already. They’re my shoulders to stand upon. In my ecophilosophy project, those figures are Arne Næss, Francisco Varela, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze. They provided central ideas from which I worked forward in environmentalist morality, the material definition of an individual, and the ontology of assembly from a plurality of forces. Combining all their ideas led me to an account of what constitutes an individual in a world that is assembled from relations that grow exponentially in complexity as they compound each other, and of the moralities that such individuals tend to adopt once they understand themselves in this way.

At this early stage of research for the utopias project, I’m still looking for my giants whose shoulders I’ll stand on. I can say right now that Hannah Arendt is one of those giants. 

Who Is a True Sovereign? Research Time, 21/11/2013

I mentioned yesterday how totalitarian Leadership is the closest any actual political system has ever come to instituting a true Sovereign in the textbook Hobbesian sense. As I approach the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt describes what precisely would be the government institutions that would permit the rule of a Sovereign with the powers Hobbes describes: held apart from all of society, yet imbuing that society with his will alone. 

One apparently inescapable feature of a modern state government is that a government had many levels and agencies with many different domains of authority. There are, of course, the devolved powers of the federal system between the broad abilities of the national governments in planning, foreign relations, and economic oversight; the more administrative powers of states or provinces, and the local management powers of municipal governments. Aside from this, there are a variety of government agencies, each connected to a different level and responsible for a different domain. Food and health inspection agencies, municipal police, vehicle registration, public welfare, urban planning, and so on. Each of these levels and agencies of government should, at best, have a clearly defined set of powers and range to apply those powers.

A totalitarian system, however, does not. There is similarly the proliferation of government agencies, particularly as regards policing, the primary totalitarian activity. Arendt describes how the Nazi party created an entire mirror of the state within its own agency, such that when it came to power, all the mechanisms to govern were already within the party. Not only that, the regional divisions of the party were divided in ways that didn’t match at all with any of the administrative regions of the German government. They overlapped and cut across provinces and municipalities. 

One thing that has annoyed me about American politics in
the last five years is the far right's painting of Barack Obama
as Hitlerian. It is utter ignorance of how genuinely radical
Hitler's politics really were. This man made himself literally
omnipresent in a police state mobilized for the actual
destruction of hundreds of millions of people. Obama has a
shitty healthcare insurance signup website.
In effect, this created multiple police forces all acting simultaneously, and often stepping all over each other. Enforcers from multiple agencies would often be assigned to investigate the same matter. As a result, the average German citizen knew that one would be arrested for bad behaviour, but would never be sure which agency would make the arrest. The names of the agencies themselves would become interchangeable, practically speaking. The only thing in common would be, “Leader’s orders.”

The proliferation of police authority in such a chaotic way doesn’t actually devolve authority to any of these institutions. They have power, certainly. Power to arrest, to disappear, to kill, and to condemn to the death camps. But to have authority, the domain of an institution’s action must be restricted to their exclusive responsibility. The chaotic proliferation of police power means that the only one who still has authority is the Leader himself, the only one who is exclusively responsible in any domain at all. Because there’s a proliferation of powers with no strict limits on their domains, they all have competition for authority among each other. And where there is competition for authority, authority does not exist. The only authority is that which is held in common among all these powers: the Leader, the Sovereign.
I think at this point, I at least have the starting material to assemble a course on totalitarian political institutions and philosophy. Starting from a reading of the Leviathan, we analyze the role of the Sovereign, his relation to the rest of his society, and what his powers over them could be. Hobbes’ own account is vague in places, where the powers of the Sovereign would be more specific, he prefers to discuss them in the general sense. This section of the course would probably be supplemented with some readings taken from various chapters and passages of Agamben’s long-running Homo Sacer project, the theme of almost all his major books.

The Origins of Totalitarianism would essentially be the next step in developing the theory of government by pure Sovereign. Perhaps for such a course, it would also be worth looking into other political philosophers between Hobbes and Arendt for other material that develops these ideas. I remember Carl Schmitt has been recommended to me for this tradition before, but he was a Nazi contemporary. I’d be really interested to see if any political theorists in the West (or indeed, in China, perhaps?) had developed concepts for government by pure will in the intervening period from the 1600s to the 1900s.

Surrender of the Will, Research Time, 20/11/2013

You may have recalled that earlier in this particular reading of The Origins of Totalitarianism, I discussed how Hannah Arendt invoked Thomas Hobbes to explain a central idea in totalitarian thinking. Her original use of this idea was to describe the state of a totalitarian society, or a society that was at least primed for totalitarian motivation, in terms of an ultra-bourgeoisie. These were people who were so disconnected from each other that they regarded their neighbours as fierce competitors who should be crushed in the name of self-defense. 

I’m not a huge fan of the bourgeoisie metaphor (perhaps petty robber baron of the street corner would be better). But the initial idea that a society’s individuals can easily fear each other, as interpreted from Hobbes’ Leviathan, is clear. 

But later in the book, she describes the role of the totalitarian Leader in terms very similar to the textbook version of the Sovereign in Leviathan: the ultimate authority of a society who stands outside society in order to be that ultimate authority. The key to totalitarian thinking would be that the relationship of absolutely loyalty to the will of the Leader, which at least the elite of the movement must hold, actually abnegates personal responsibility. There is total devotion to the Leader to the point where the dedicated movement member acts only as his extension.

Arendt was a philosopher whose work began
with investigations of the material world. She
examined the political structures of
totalitarian governments, and speculated on
what the social conditions of their existence
would be. Transcendental political philosophy.
In other words, Arendt is developing a way for the excuse “I was only following orders” to be somehow legitimate. That she has to describe such a total breakdown of the ethics of tens of thousands of individuals in order to achieve this shows either what a terrible excuse it is, or it shows the incredible power totalitarian mobilization of a populace has. 

When I say that she understands its legitimacy, I don’t mean that she excuses the SS Death’s Head (yes, their actual name, Totenkopfverbände) concentration camp guard for their actions. I mean she tries to understand how an ordinary person could perform such horrifying acts as running an industrialized death camp. It’s her way, as an intellectual, of looking utter terror in the face. 

A stereotypical response to the old excuse of “I was just following orders” to deny responsibility is to dismiss it as a lie. I’m not going to cite the Milgram experiment as an authoritative example because it’s become just as stereotypical as taking “following orders” as an empty excuse. She’s trying to examine the psychology of someone who would let their reputation be destroyed and be executed as part of a Stalinist purge because their faith in the movement is so strong, they believe that their sacrifice to maintain the loyalty of the people to the Leader is a fair price. 

In this way, totalitarianism really is the denial of one’s own identity, one’s desires, hopes, and even will. Arendt carefully distinguishes (on page 365, to be precise), following orders from submitting to another’s will. A dictatorship is simply the loyalty of a soldier to his commanding officer: strict, but still bound within a reciprocal ethical code. A commander who needlessly endangers his troops is punished within the army; a dictator who puts the country in military or economic jeopardy may face opposition. But a totalitarian Leader doesn’t give orders; he directs his will. And the members of the totalitarian movement obey, not from choice, but almost autonomically.

When Can Comparing Something to Nazis Actually Make Sense? Research Time, 19/11/2013

Watching American politics over the last five years, I saw a lot of spurious comparisons of Barack Obama to Hitler and his policies to those of Nazi Germany. These comparisons, saying that a marginally social democratic set of domestic policies and doubling down on the surveillance state constituted genuine Nazism, and that his speaking style was Hitlerian, were utterly offensive nonsense that in most cases revealed the underlying racism of the accuser, or at least their woeful ignorance of what actual Nazism was. 

That said, when one actually investigates and explores the governmental structures of totalitarian regimes, then you can make legitimate comparisons to Nazism. Arendt discusses several features of Nazi German politics that have been mentioned in my other research. Focus on these features can, at least semi-plausibly, allow one to describe some facet of modern politics as Nazism and be technically correct.

One aspect of that is Nazi environmental policies and the underlying philosophy. Nazi philosophy conceived of the movement as thoroughly anti-humanist, abandoning the politics of humanitarianism and the need for human welfare (whether that welfare was provided by direct government intervention or through a smoothly functioning marketplace). 

Luc Ferry was minister of education in the government of
Jacques Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, 2002-4. My distrust
of philosophers who become electoral politicians is borne
out once again.
In its place was a notion that Nazi politics followed, as Arendt terms, “the laws of nature and life.” Practically, these were the race-based eugenics that scientifically justified their horrifying social policies. However, justifying political policy as conforming with nature’s laws does continue today in some facets of the environmentalist movement. The importance of following natural laws ranking above human concerns is a reason why the liberal humanist philosopher Luc Ferry wrote his book, The New Ecological Order in the 1990s about how environmentalism was inevitably fascist, and the environmentalist political movement should be destroyed. His idea was that to say human concerns should be, in many cases, subordinate to the overall health of ecosystems meant that humans would no longer be allowed to choose their paths in life. He thought the politics of ecosystems constituted a zero-sum game between humanity and nature, and that if you were a democrat, you had to side with humanity.

And the Nazi party used rhetoric about following the laws of nature to justify their destruction of democratic processes and ordinary social bonds. They instituted protected species policies, even if those species were only protected because their symbolism was important to their image of a triumphant German race. They certainly ignored those protections when they were losing the war and preparing to destroy all of Germany themselves, part of their own zero-sum politics of total victory or total annihilation. 

But there are key differences between environmentalist politics and Nazism. I can’t believe I actually had to write that sentence, but the mere existence of Ferry’s book means that I have to. The argument exists, can be found and read, and has the credibility of a leading French intellectual and politician having written it. Most adults in power today have the advantage of not having experienced actual totalitarian regimes. It means they’ve probably led less horrifying lives, but it also means that it’s more difficult to understand the true magnitude of totalitarian horror itself, which dwarfs any possibility of legitimate analogy with modern politics.

The most important difference, for me philosophically, is that environmentalism, at least the best environmentalism, doesn’t understand the humanity/nature conflict as a zero-sum game. My own ecophilosophy manuscript finds theorists who think this way, and I join them myself. Choosing, as a society, not to carry out certain activities that are ecologically harmful does not denigrate human freedom. It’s an articulation of human freedom, understanding that we have the power to change our own lives for the better. 

Not only that, but modern science is more effective. The Nazis based their race and natural preservation laws on eugenic theories: the superiority of the Aryan race and its natural springs in the Black Forest. But this is junk science, because race isn’t biological; it’s a social construction that gained political power when it was used to justify European imperialism overseas and the practice of enslaving African people. Social constructions have real effects, but they’re also within human power to change by will. 

When we start to think of race as ‘being racialized,’ being illegitimately treated as if you were defined by a series of stereotypical judgments connected with race, we begin that process of change. Our biological science today is based on the actual processes that constitute life, like metabolism, protein synthesis, DNA recombination, and the chaos mathematics that describe ecological dynamics. Environmentalism that embraces the principles of our much-improved science is a democratic movement. That Ferry’s screed of a book can still be cited as a source to disparage environmentalism as a new Nazism in disguise irks me profoundly.

Expressing Philosophy as Fiction, Composing, 18/11/2013

I’ve mentioned my first philosophical publication to be accepted earlier on the blog, a chapter in Doctor Who and Philosophy that interprets the Doctor as a Nietzschean Übermensch. It had quite a lot of personal importance to me, because Doctor Who has always been important to me as a piece of culture, and I was glad one of my earliest efforts would contribute to a book of essays about it. Plus, it was a popular philosophy volume, so I could have many more people see, and hopefully enjoy, my work.

In a way, my work in philosophy and fiction converged there in multiple ways. I was writing a philosophical essay that used an example from fiction to illustrate an interpretation of one of Nietzsche’s concepts. In my mind for the potential audience was simply regular people who’d like reading a softly challenging, maybe slightly kooky, book. More like the readers of my fiction than my technical philosophical work. 

There are many ways philosophy can inform fiction, and fiction can inform philosophy. I see the two as similar in many respects, in terms of the analysis of form and content that the best works require. The author’s level of craftsmanship in both fields be very high, as a slight change to a word’s place in a sentence, or the precise expression of an idea, can cause serious changes in what the reader tends to interpret. We work in dialogue with the figures of our past; so much of the best undergraduate philosophy programs expose students to the highlight of the canon, and the best authors are lovers and systematic appreciators of literature. I could go on.

It's important for young writers to know, starting out, that
we all have to take on a variety of unexpected and different
work than we may have initially planned. Like
impersonating Rasputin in a Vegas retro dance show.
One way to go on is to discuss my current entertainment reading, Alan Moore’s From Hell. The book is actually informed by many themes in my own broader approach to political and ecological philosophy. I’m no expert on Moore’s work; I only got into comics in the last few years, a latecomer to the medium. And I know he’s an obvious choice to talk about the creators of great comics. But I do think his work is incredible, and when I compare it to other comics that I read, his work is original and accomplished in so many formal and emotional ways simultaneously, that he’s far beyond the talents of any other comics author I’ve come across so far. And I think I can assert that I will continue to find other comics writers are not as good as Moore. So I’m sort of a fan.

As for the ideas I see in his work, they express many elements of my own thought. I’m very interested in understanding social relationships as ecological relationships. No social link, even to institutions, is reified as permanent in any real sense. All is changeable and flexible, and its changes are interdependent. So while we’re actually free in that there’s no physical necessity precisely determining our thoughts and acts, our freedom is very restricted because we move in a world of pressures from many other movements, often occurring at distances and levels that we can’t usually comprehend in our immediate experience. 

Just as you must diagnose a culture to diagnose a single crime, Moore’s central idea in From Hell, we act freely to create a culture that conditions and guides us as individuals. The human personality is fashioned from the give-and-take of cultural movements and traditions guiding our development and values, in conflict with our desires to adapt and innovate to forge unique paths. The tension of conservatism and rebellion.

In those two paragraphs are ideas about the nature of determinism, a meditation on the problem of moral responsibility in a world of contingent cultural influence on individuals, an epistemological problem about our limits in knowing what affects us beyond what we experience, an existentialist problem of an individualist vs a communitarian ethics, and the political version of that debate as well. All this from thinking for a moment about the basic ideas that went into the production of From Hell.

My Assignment: Earth essays over the last couple of months essentially did the same thing. I’d like one day to be able to write a work of fiction in the form of a comprehensive production guide and history for the fan market of a show that never existed. It would be a show that covered philosophical and ethical ideas (like whether there is a single perfect morality to which lesser peoples should be guided, meditations on the nature of empire, or the ability of friendship and empathy to build virtuous people) in its stories. It would be a work of fiction, in part, about the possibilities of popular fiction to express philosophical ideas. 

The major difference between philosophy and fiction is that philosophy is much harder than philosophical fiction writing. A fiction writer can build his characters and include enough moments in the narrative that allude to the philosophical ideas he’s working with. A philosopher has to be explicit and precise about the ideas; philosophy is a mode of human knowledge that deals with raw ideas in this sense. When I write philosophy, I can’t obfuscate or imply; I must display my concepts blatantly in your face. 

This also touches on another difference of philosophy and fiction. Moore doesn’t have to come to any solid conclusions, as if From Hell was an argument for a specific position. He can introduce the idea, let it play out in different ways, and let the reader think over it and come to their own conclusions. Philosophers have to take a stand on their issues. Even when a stand is a refusal to take a stand, we must explicitly justify that stand. It’s far more difficult to achieve, and far more rewarding when you do.