Cult of Personality, Research Time, 31/01/2014

Zizek has given me another reason to distrust and dislike the philosophy and politics of Alain Badiou. I say this in the knowledge that Zizek is probably twisting some more subtle point of Badiou’s into fodder for his own arguments, as he is wont to do. But given some of my knowledge of Badiou’s thought already, the following idea makes sense. 

Alain Badiou will tell you what to do.
According to Zizek at least, Badiou has endorsed the cult of personality in social revolutions against capitalist systems. That is, a revolutionary no longer justifies his actions in terms of the universal principles — escaping a hardscrabble existence in the name of human dignity, overthrowing social structures of stratification and servitude in the name of freedom. Instead, a revolutionary commits the acts he does in the name of his loyalty to the Leader. I do what I do because it is the will of the Leader.

Holy fuck. I have yet to check this, as I haven’t had time to track down a copy of the conference presentation where Badiou presented this idea. But the conference was called “On the Idea of Communism,” it was organized by the School of Law at Birkbeck College in London, and the conference took place over 13-15 March 2009. If this is at all accurate, then the Utopias project would have few enemies bigger than Alain Badiou. It advocates a politics in which you surrender your will to a movement and its Leader in the name of freedom. Well, no, actually, it goes beyond that. You don’t even surrender your will in the name of freedom, but only because the Leader demands that you surrender your will.

This makes sense in the light of some of Badiou’s writings which advocate that philosophy can only occur in the structure of the master-disciple relationship: Alain is the master, who develops new revolutionary thoughts, and you rabble are the disciples who absorb those words and act according to the master’s guidance and orders. 

Badiou used to send his dedicated students to shout down his colleague Gilles Deleuze in the middle of his lectures, accusing him of cultural conservatism, hatred of the people, and similarly awful things. The point was only to assault and humiliate a fellow professor, and not even to do so to his face. Why would a student agree to act as Badiou’s proxy, spewing hatred at a professor when his own master did not have the guts to behave so anti-socially? Because Alain is the master, and you are the disciple.

As it is in philosophy, so it is in politics, a fundamental parallelism in Badiou’s thinking. The reasoning goes that the universal or universalizing concepts to which we currently have reference to justify our actions can’t be genuinely universal. They’re products of the current regime of thought and life, a regime that the revolutionary (following from the conclusions about the nature of the revolutionary in yesterday’s post) seeks to overthrow completely. In a genuine revolution, nothing of the old order remains. There is a total ontological change, no continuity between this world and the next. So to usher in the next world, a political movement must have no reference to the concepts that were created to deal with this world. It must be the product of an idiosyncrasy, a singular presence.

Such a singular presence is not a concept, but a person or a leader. Sorry, a Leader, or specifically, his proper name. The proper name escapes the context of contemporary universals precisely because it is a singularity, both in terms of its uniqueness and its nature as a limit concept, that which we approach and transcend.

A nice goal, certainly. But its possibility is doubtful. More thoughts as I think of them, I think.

The Violent Love of a Revolutionary, Research Time, 30/01/2014

Returning to political philosophy, Zizek’s Living in the End Times discusses an idea, which I discovered in the writings of Ché Guevara, that lies at the centre of the problematic in the Utopias project.
“The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he or she must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching. Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the people, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible. They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice.”
Think of this as a true contradiction. A revolutionary becomes a murderer, but in the name of love for the people he’s murdering. And this isn’t just PR, but the actual motives of the revolutionary. And Zizek’s analysis, complicated and integrated with an analysis of Hollywood movies as it is, helps explain one aspect of how this works. 

The contradiction lies in the methods to produce a utopia, a society of perfect relations among people where love is the law of the land (and so it is a land where law is unnecessary) brought into existence through violence and terror. But this goes beyond the violence of the revolutionaries themselves, revolutionaries who attack and kill agents of the oppressive regime. The violence which must be encouraged to bring about utopia is even violence against the oppressed themselves. 

Consider the notion that the most virtuous slaveowner is
the one whose horrifying violence toward his slaves best
demonstrates the inevitable injustice of slavery.
Zizek considers this example, which illuminates the horror of the concept of transformative violence. In a regime of slavery, the truly horrible people are the humane slaveowners who treat their charges with dignity. The slaveowner we should praise, goes this perspective, is the sadist who whips his male slaves to death, works them until they crash, and regularly rapes the women and children of his workforce. The humane slaveowner (in Zizek’s eyes, the humane liberal democrat) lets us live with an oppressive system by toning down its most intense features, trying to legislate against mistreatment of slaves. But a slave with rights against mistreatment is still a slave. The most violent, vile slaveowner is the true ally of an anti-slavery revolutionary because he articulates the full might of this oppressive structure openly and honestly.

When a culture has developed in the context of a particular political structure, there is a corresponding sense of what it is to be reasonable. The analysis above, that the actions of a sadistic, rapist slaveowner are more in line with a movement to overturn slavery than a humane, respectful slaveowner, does not sound reasonable. But a total revolution would overturn every aspect of a political culture and the social contexts of people’s meetings. A genuine revolutionary movement changes the standard of what is considered reasonable. To appear reasonable in the regime you wish to change is a compromise that prevents you from changing that regime. 

My own take on the idea introduces a temporal dimension to this analysis, a framework for introducing a process of change into the system. At the least, there must be continuity of action through a transformative political process. Zizek seems to have struck the essential element of how deep into thought and ethics a cultural change must go to be complete. Yet at least so far in Living in the End Times, he seems to have missed the process by which this happens, focussing only on the before and after, but not the transformation itself.

The Content of a True Contradiction, Research Time, 29/01/2014

Having finished Graham Priest’s Beyond the Limits of Thought, you might wonder what one of these true contradictions might be. I discussed the basic logical foundation of it a few posts ago, and one of the conversations I had with friends who read it revolved around what contradictions would actually be true. Because when you open the possibility of true contradictions, you also open yourself to straw man arguments from your enemies to make you look ridiculous.

After all, just because there can be true contradictions doesn’t mean that every contradictory sentence is true. There can be true propositions of regular sorts. That doesn’t mean that every proposition is true. The sentence “I am Adam Riggio and a root vegetable” is contradictory, but it isn’t true because I’m just Adam Riggio, no matter what dreams and aspirations I may have to become a turnip. The sentence “Adam Riggio was born in Jakarta” is a sentence with a non-contradictory form, but its form doesn’t make it true, because it’s empirically false. I don’t even think I want to go to Jakarta. The climate would kill me in the face.

The whole book is an exploration of one type of true contradictions, the contradictions which indicate a limit of thought. We reach a point in our conceptual exploration beyond which our powers to think don’t work. The tricky part of this idea, where contradictions appear, is that in order to identify a limit of thought, we have to transcend the limit. That’s why Priest identifies this contradiction in terms of transcendence and closure. A limit concept of thought generalizes over the totality of what can be thought or expressed or iterated, closing the set. But in order to generalize over that totality, we must refer to what can’t be generalized, transcending the set we just closed. In referring to what can’t be encompassed in the totality of what can be thought, we think it. So we both can think it and are unable to think it. 

Bertrand Russell's most fertile period in philosophy was
spent working to overcome what he held to be intolerable
contradictions in logic. Personally, he also reminds me of
an interesting take on Doctor Who.
In the history of philosophy, this was often conceived as the thought of the infinite. Finite creatures can’t conceive of the infinite, so goes the idea. Especially since in some periods of philosophy’s history, the infinite was conceived as the uncountable, and mathematical conception only included very simple counting methods. When set theory was developed, we now had a system of rules that could count infinite quantities, or at least quantify over them. Being able to do this helped clarify a confusion, or rather identify that our previous thought had been less transparent than we believed. Set theory was a new standard to think about infinity.

Priest’s book looked through the history of philosophy to find the common thread in all these limit concepts of thought: totalizing self-reference. The perfect example in logic is the set of all sets. Being itself a set, it would have to include itself in its own set. But that would make it subject to the classic Russell paradox, that a set being a member of itself implies that it is not a member of itself. Russell’s generation of logicians spent years obsessed with overcoming this contradiction because they took as an unquestionable premise that consistency was a necessary condition of the true, that a contradiction could never be true because reality was consistent. It’s been an obvious and clear truth since Aristotle declared it to be so in his writing.

Aristotle was also a teleological evolutionist and believed in a geocentric cosmology. Aristotle is no authority.

Self-reference is one species of true contradiction. There are probably others, but I don’t want to talk about them today. Except perhaps for one little moment of jamming, a speculation that I’ve wondered about for years, ever since I started studying the nature of human thought and mind. 

The limit of our thought lies in the contradictions of self-reference, reflexive and reflective thought, self-consciousness. We wouldn’t have the personalities we do without self-consciousness, the ability to think beyond immediate needs and immediate perceptions. Self-consciousness is the ability to imagine the future and the past, planning for uncertainties and conceiving of priorities and desires. Self-consciousness is the ability to critique and change ourselves and our behaviour. To do so, we must refer to ourselves, include ourselves in our statements about the world, even as referring to the world implies that we are somehow separate from the world. Sartre, for example, described human consciousness as beyond the world, but embedded in it. Self-conscious creatures like humans may very well be another species of true contradictions walking around all over this planet.

Strict Certainty Will Kill Your Thought, Research Time, 28/01/2014

To start, a note about Graham Priest himself, in addition to the praise I heaped on him yesterday: Having finished Beyond the Limits of Thought, I wish there was more of it. But his point in writing the book was to demonstrate that people have been writing about true contradictions for centuries, and that true contradictions occur when people try to think about the limits of human thought. Because when we conceive of those limits, we face the phenomenon of having to go beyond what we identify as a limit of thought in order to identify that limit.

The most obvious illustration of this idea is in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. All of his work has the common theme of identifying and proving that philosophy has limits. One of the reasons I was drawn to Wittgenstein more than anyone else in the Analytic tradition when I first began learning the history of philosophy. But I was also disturbed by his conclusions, and the conclusions of those like him in identifying the slipperiness of meaning, and therefore the slipperiness of truth.

Priest’s last chapters about Willard Quine and Donald Davidson also describe ideas that I found disturbing when I was young. The idea that the meanings of words couldn’t be fully determined, that there would always be uncertainty in communication and even uncertainty in the meanings of words themselves unsettled me. When I first learned about the inevitably shakiness of language, I thought this was a problem that needed to be solved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a very neurotic man
who was a great theorist of knocking
down the pretensions of certainty.
I smile a nostalgic smile when I think of my youthful naiveté. But it seems I’m not the only one who thought of the indeterminacy of language and meaning as a destructive conclusion. I’ve never read Saul Kripke’s book about Wittgenstein,* but Priest describes Kripke’s conclusion that Wittgenstein was a skeptic about meaning. An action can express any rule (linguistically, an utterance could express whatever meaning) that our ingenuity can formulate for it. And the same utterance can have a variety of justifications, some of which are mutually incompatible. Therefore, meaning is not a matter of conforming our utterance to the precise concept underlying it, and understanding is not a matter of knowing a precise meaning. Kripke calls is a “skeptical solution” to the problem of meaning’s indeterminacy, because Wittgenstein has the disappointing conclusion that language and meaning rest on customary practices.

* Here’s a key reason I never went into Wittgenstein studies as a specialty: the field was  so fucking immense with secondary material, it intimidated me away from it. I’m usually not one to become irritated. But when I send articles for review, I often get the response from some reviewer who’s a specialist in a writer I refer to, that I should read X’s book about this writer. I sometimes think they’re talking about their own book. But there was so much secondary material written about Wittgenstein that I didn’t think I’d be able to sort through it all without devoting myself entirely to the exegesis of Wittgenstein for my career. I wanted to do more than that. Sadly, I think the same phenomenon is happening now with Deleuze: so much secondary material is being written about him that its scale would frighten new students away from Deleuze and his ideas.

I now know this to be a better conclusion. If meaning were determinate in the sense of a strong determination of concept to word or proposition, then I can’t see how it would be possible for language to adapt or change. Hell, I can’t see how language would evolve at all. Certainty is the same as freezing, the super-stability that amounts to sterility, the stillness that amounts to being dead.

For Wittgenstein (and David Hume, and Hannah Arendt, and Gilles Deleuze), language is a matter of external action and relation. We know we understand what another person says because our response to their words elicits a happy response from the speaker, or at least the appropriate response. There is vagueness underlying all language, but this vagueness permits creativity in action, adaptability to new circumstances. Utterances and sentences aren’t disconnected from the messiness of worldly action. The drive for certainty always comes at the expense of flexibility. Just look at the certain beliefs of religious or ideological extremists: the American, Islamic, or Buddhist Taliban. Flexibility, adaptability, and change are necessary for the vitality of life, language, and meaning.

I don’t think I’m naive about this question anymore. I think Kripke might have been.

Accepting that Reality is Paradoxical, Research Time, 27/01/2014

Graham Priest is not only a logician and
professor, but an advanced martial artist.
Graham Priest is a logician. This is one important fact about him that you should know. Out of all the achievements of philosophers in the last few decades, I think I have the most respect for what Graham Priest managed in the field of logic. This regards the second fact everyone should know about Graham Priest. He’s probably done more than any other single philosopher to pioneer paraconsistent and dialetheic logical systems, systems of logic that can accept and understand inconsistencies and contradictions. Priest often says it himself: there are true contradictions.

Intuitively, I don’t think that makes sense to a lot of people. It just seems obvious without even having to think about it that one part of reality can’t contradict another part. ‘A and not-A’ is impossible. Today, someone working in logic can use a dialetheic system, a logical calculus in which true contradictions make sense, and if someone accuses them of peddling nonsense, they can simply refer to the precedent of Priest. I’ve done this in conversations with some very narrow-minded philosophers who accused me of being stupid when I just wanted to talk about dialetheic logic. 

This is why I’m so impressed with the success of his career. When Graham Priest was just a young researcher working on his first projects and some older, more established logician scoffed at his work as nonsensical, he couldn’t refer to Graham Priest to back himself up. He hadn’t even yet become The Graham Priest that everyone refers to when they want to get stodgy old traditional logicians off their backs. All he had was his own ingenuity.

The argument he gives in Beyond the Limits of Thought for why you can have true contradictions goes like this. Consider two possible states of affairs, that A is true, and that A is false.

He writes, “Given two states of affairs, there are, in general, four possibilities: one but not the other holds, vice versa, both, or neither.”
  1. “A is true” is true, and “A is false” is false. One but not the other.
  2. “A is true” is false, and “A is false” is true. The other but not the first.
  3. “A is true” is false, and “A is false” is false. Neither.
  4. “A is true” is true, and “A is false” is true. Both.
Most commonly, we only believe that (1) and (2) are sensible statements. But the common belief is only one way among many that you can define a negation operator.

The third part of Priest’s Beyond the Limits of Thought engages with the work of Georg Cantor, Frank Ramsay, and Bertrand Russell to remove the paradoxes of self-reference from set theory. These paradoxes all have the basic logical form: a chain of reasoning involving a statement that refers to itself or a set that includes itself will lead to inevitable contradiction. Since there’s nothing in set theory’s basic rules that prevent such self-referring sets from existing, the logical operations of this kind of mathematics are always open to contradiction.

My former colleague in McMaster’s doctoral program, J, returned this semester from her post-doc to take the department’s rotating post as the visiting Bertrand Russell scholar. She gave a talk at the department’s visiting speakers’ series where she discussed some of Russell’s historical work on Leibniz. One of the priorities Russell explicitly had was examining the disparate, uncollected writings of Leibniz’s corpus looking for the principles and interpretations that would make them all internally consistent. He wrote that consistency is the best guide to truth.

A central premise of Russell’s thought (along with Ramsey’s, Cantor’s, Gottlob Frege’s, and just about everyone in the Western philosophical tradition up to Graham Priest) was that a contradiction could not exist, because the truth must be internally consistent. The entire revolutionary period in the creation of contemporary logic from the 1890s to 1910s was defined by the drive to remove the contradictions from self-referring propositions, or at least modify logic and set theory so those self-referring propositions can’t exist. Logic, set theory, and mathematics must be made consistent.

But Priest’s point (and Kurt Gödel’s, if you go back in the history) is that self-referring propositions are inevitable, and can’t be gotten rid of. You need a dialetheic understanding of truth because the ability to form a proposition that refers to itself will always result in contradictions. Any discussion of a totality (such as the set of all sets) refers to itself, because quantifying over all propositions will include the proposition that quantifies over all propositions; otherwise, you’ll fail to quantify over all propositions. When a set includes itself as a member, it simultaneously belongs and does not belong to itself. To a logical perspective that considers contradictions to be nonsense, this would make set theory (and therefore pretty much all the logic developed in the Frege-Russell-Ramsey revolutionary period) nonsense.

Only a dialetheic perspective, that is the perspective Priest developed and endorses, can understand self-referring sets, propositions, statements, and sentences. Only a dialetheic perspective is not offended by the conclusion that the set of all sets both belongs and does not belong to itself. The contradictions of self-reference that arise from set theory do not render set theory nonsensical, but dialetheic. The true heir of the revolution in logic isn’t whoever manages to make the contradictions of self-reference disappear (since no one can do that anyway), but whoever manages to make sense of the contradictions of self-reference. To the best of my knowledge, that person is Graham Priest.

I Wrote a Huge Novel With a Great Story Buried Deep Inside It, Composing, 26/01/2014

You see, I think A Small Man’s Town rests on a fundamental error of composition. I developed the novel to work through my central idea of a character who would have a morally admirable reason to make a total reversal of his political beliefs. I’ve known people who have reversed their political beliefs and non-admirable reasons: personal career advancement, growing contempt for the poor, an unthinking embrace of dogmatic extreme libertarianism in response to their previous unthinking embrace of dogmatic extreme Marxism. 

But this novel’s protagonist, Joseph, cares deeply for the passions of the woman he loves; when his partner is a left-wing anti-poverty activist he supports her, and when that relationship ends and he later falls in love with a conservative Newfoundland nationalist he supports her in equal measure. The problem with creating a man without qualities, as it were, is that everything around him is more interesting than he is. 

Slacker and A Scanner Darkly are pretty much the only
Richard Linklater movies that I even enjoy.
I conceived of the novel’s structure as operating something like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, except its free-associative movement would be more temporal than spatial, like memory. A given chapter will include three years worth of events, but move among them non-chronologically, revealing information in an order best suited to provoking the emotions I want in the reader. Common knowledge among the characters early in a chapter is only revealed to the reader in the middle or the end. The problem with Joseph in this setup is that he’s less a character in this movement, and more the camera, so responsive to what’s around him that he doesn’t have many beliefs of his own. Like most pure observers, he’s actually kind of a jerk, the titular small man.

The narrative of A Small Man’s Town consists of Joseph’s perspective. The reader only discovers critical information for the storylines and characters in a-chronological order, but because Joseph is the central observer of events, when he discovers critical information is another dynamic that shapes the plot. So the novel has prominent plots where Joseph is directly involved (Laurie and Lucy’s political ambitions, Laurie’s friend Nadia being emotionally manipulated by a callous ex-girlfriend, the downward spiral of his friend Bernard’s career and personal life from social awkwardness), but there’s also a hidden plot that Joseph only discovers near the end.

I realized only recently that this hidden plot was actually the most interesting in the whole story. Here’s how it rolls in the current manuscript. In part one, there’s a minor character, Albert, who’s just a sarcastic friend of the main principals. He doesn’t really do anything except smoke, read, study biology, and make snide remarks. But he also has a passion for literature, even though he doesn’t want to make a career or a university degree out of it. This leads to some good conversations between him and Jennifer, a young sessional English professor. 

Joseph barely notices this because he’s occupied with the major plots. One scene in particular finds him in an awkward moment at a party: he must walk from the upstairs bathroom past a bedroom with a wide-open door, where a vigorous threesome is happening between Elias Farkas, Mrs Farkas, and Nadia’s ex-girlfriend. Albert and Jennifer have also appeared at this party, appearing like a tactfully hands-off couple. This only becomes important in part two. 

Years later, Joseph works as an acquisitions editor at a publishing company that’s essentially the plaything of the younger gay partner of one of Newfoundland’s richest businessmen. It’s a money pit company made to hide corporate losses in the conglomerate and feed the sentimental dreams of its editor-in-chief, a Peterman-esque incompetent, the 45 year old life partner of a 60 year old mogul. But a manuscript by Jennifer, that English department sessional, crosses his desk.

You see, the boundary between parts one and two is Albert’s funeral. He was killed in a car accident shortly after graduation. Jennifer’s book is an immaculately self-absorbed, pretentiously meta-fictional account of her soul-consuming love affair with Albert and her personal crisis after his death. At that very party where Joseph saw that threesome, Albert and Jennifer were making love in another upstairs bedroom off that hallway; they just had the good sense to make sure the door was closed. Joseph, with Lucy’s encouragement, rejects the book. On top of the manuscript not being very good, he’s too disturbed by Jennifer’s obsessive attitudes regarding his dead college friend. A couple of years later, he finds a much-improved version in a mainstream bookstore, where the prose is less indulgent, the bizarre pretensions (the ghosts of Jennifer’s favourite authors act as her imaginary friends) have disappeared, and her voice is less deranged and more tragic.

But this story, until its final reveal late in the manuscript, barely appears. There’s a brief scene where Albert first impresses Jennifer in class with his immense literary knowledge  for an 18 year old, a conversation Joseph overhears a year later but of which he thinks nothing, and their multiple encounters at that awkward party. Those are the only clues to the hidden story that’s only revealed in the latter half of part two.

And it’s such a better story than the main plots of anti-war politics, Newfoundland nationalism, and a lovesick lesbian. Albert and Jennifer would make such better protagonists than my human camera Joseph. They have such a better concept than a conceptually empty man whose love justifies his radical political shifts. Albert and Jennifer’s story is about a love that could ruin an academic career before it begins, a secret relationship cut tragically short by an accident, revitalized and reconciled through literary creation itself. 

Yet I was so impressed for so long with my ability to hide a story in the witless ignorance of my self-absorbed protagonist that I didn’t understand that this was the real best story of A Small Man’s Town. I even recognized that this would have made the more dramatic, gripping story at the time. But I think I was reading so much modernist literature while I was writing the manuscript that I let myself get carried away with the meta-fictional cheek of hiding such a melodramatic story in the incidental details of a comedy of self-absorption. I can’t look at this manuscript anymore without seeing a mess I made and a pile more work to be done that I don’t know if I’ll ever do.

St. John's is a small town, which I think my last trip back there this Xmas demonstrated very well.
But there are a lot of good stories there if you know where to look.

My Greatest Orphan, Composing, 25/01/2014

I think I may have written a 135,000 word error.

Let me explain. My first novel, thankfully, does not exist. I wrote it in high school, and it was not very good: an attempt to create a microcosm of the Second World War in the form of a Hitler Youth holiday camp that involved a ridiculously drawn out sequence of comically stupid arguments among the principals about what to do with the corpse of a deer killed with a handgun. There’s an epilogue where the central character among the boys has grown up and runs an informal brothel at an unnamed concentration camp. Let me rephrase my initial assessment: it was terrible and I’m glad almost every copy was destroyed in a house fire.*

* Well, almost every copy. I think somewhere in the house of the parents of a girl that I briefly dated when I was 17, there is a paper copy of this monstrosity. I very much hope it’s been thrown in the trash and that seagulls have eaten it by now.

The first novel I wrote that I’d actually like people to read (and those who have read it have told me it was good) is called A Small Man’s Town. This is a very different style of book: it’s basically realist, and depicts the political and social tensions of Williams era Newfoundland (and some of the ways Bush era America affected it) through the lives of a small group of friends in their 20s during the 2000s. 

Former St. John's city councillor and mayoral candidate
Sheilagh O'Leary. The problem with writing parodies of
Newfoundland politicians is that they more often parody
themselves in their own lives. And with this suit, O'Leary is
just ripping off a 20 year old Mary Walsh gag anyway.
The story is told in two parts, and each part unfolds by jumping around in time, something like how we recall distant times in our memories, cutting from one event to another, sometimes months or years in the past or future. Part one takes place during the protagonist Joseph’s university years, 2001-5, describing his multicultural friendships rooted in campus life. Joseph’s roommate is of Indian descent, his girlfriend’s best friend is a Palestinian lesbian, two other friends in their circle are Korean and Jewish, and there’s an awkward encounter with a Hungarian-descended professor, Elias Farkas. Revolving around Joseph’s girlfriend Laurie, they all are involved to various degrees in left-wing political activity. One early scene is a protest against the 2003 Iraq invasion on campus that comically fails when Laurie and the other organizers panic after a parody of real-life St. John’s politician Sheilagh O’Leary openly supports al-Qaeda in their fight against American imperialism.** 

** Of course, I don’t actually believe the real O’Leary would ever support such a view, but the scene exists to make fun of the contemporary left’s over-the-top anti-Americanism.

Joseph himself is from Holyrood, a small community within commuting distance of St. John’s. There are a few other characters from rural Newfoundland in the first half of the novel, but rural culture doesn’t emerge until part two. The second half takes place from 2006-9, long after Laurie has disappeared from Joseph’s life. He becomes romantically involved with a fictional backbencher in the Danny Williams government. Lucy is from Stephenville, and succeeded through personal charisma and her domineering personality to become the youngest politician in the provincial Conservative caucus. Joseph supports Lucy in her political ambitions, which includes adapting day-long populist rallies around Newfoundland to build support for the nationalist agenda of the Williams government, becoming the one eastern province with the clout and the money to tell the federal government what to do. 

Some characters from part one return. A central storyline in part two involves the failing career and personal life of Joseph’s Korean-Canadian friend from university, and his Indian ex-roommate returns from Toronto to marry his longtime (and pregnant) girlfriend, a Marystown native who he met in part one. 

I think it sounds like an interesting story already, and I haven’t even gotten to the real meat of any of the plots yet. You see, I conceived of this novel as an idea first, in 2005. I wondered about a character who made a radical switch in his political beliefs without really thinking about it, and could justify that with a morally admirable reason. So I crafted Joseph as a character without any particularly strong beliefs, but who so devoted himself to the two women he loved that he embraced their politics without question. 

The problem is that Joseph doesn’t really have any beliefs of his own. He’s a cipher, an observer of all the more interesting stories around him. All the drama and comedy of A Small Man’s Town is driven by other people. He’s the calm centre around which everything exciting revolves, but as a character, he turned out to be pretty empty. I think this is why I’ve had trouble selling the book to publishers.

Well, that and it’s 135,000 words long, an epic length for a first novel, especially when the standard practice in the industry now is to test authors’ quality by publishing short stories and novellas before embarking on a larger project.

But there’s another reason why I don’t think A Small Man’s Town is the artistic success I wanted it to be when I finished writing the manuscript in 2009. More on that tomorrow.

Understanding How to Think the Unthinkable, Research Time, 24/01/2014

Climbing at last into contemporary thought about the nature of the infinite, Graham Priest’s book is finally losing that weird feeling of frustration. When he was examining the Ancient, Medieval, and Enlightenment periods of philosophy, the tension was difficult between his own mission of exploring the inherent contradictions of infinity and the utterly different philosophical priorities of his analytical subjects. In the context of Ancient Greek ontology, Medieval speculation about the nature of God, and the onto-moral twists and turns of German Idealism, Priest’s concerns jarred a little too much.

I'm also interested in Cantor's approach to
paradoxes. Priest, dialetheic logician that he
is, has no problem with set theoretical
mathematics implying inevitable paradoxes.
Cantor and other set theory mathematicians
desperately wanted to erase or nullify the
paradoxes that arose because they took
contradictions to be impossible, invalidating
an entire mathematical approach. Priest
doesn't care, and I think philosophy is better
for escaping its fear of paradoxical reasoning.
You can’t say the same when he starts in on Georg Cantor. I’m still not entirely sure where he’s going (as I’m working on editing a paper, working at my other editing job, and preparing to move apartments at the end of the winter, so I’m not reading the book quite as fast as when I started), but one idea in his first chapter on modern set theory is fascinating to me. This is the switch in status of potential and actual infinity.

For pretty much the entire history of Western philosophy until Cantor et al’s set theory was developed, actual infinity was conceived as a weird, strange, impossible thing. It was spoken of in the hushed and information-free tones of negative theology. We are finite creatures living in a finite world, so we can’t conceive of an actual infinity as anything other than the negation of the finite. As Hegel said, this isn’t even really an infinity, just putting a ‘not’ in front of the word ‘finite.’ The concept doesn’t even have any content.*

* Priest discusses Hegel’s conception of the infinite in terms of the absolute briefly, but the Hegelian metaphysics of thought as dialectical progression is rather outside his philosophical wheelhouse. I myself find the idea that there is a single concept, arrived at through a single determined progression of dialectical logic, which encompasses all that can be, rather repugnant.

But transfinite numbers, which are defined as sets with an infinite number of members, are now pretty easy to do mathematics with, once you conceive of w as an operation performed at the end of enumerating an infinite series. You can conceive of w + 1, 2w, w2, or whatever. Once you can increase an infinite set, things can get crazy. But the upshot of this regarding how philosophers have traditionally conceived infinity is that set theory mathematics clearly define an actual infinite, define multiple such infinities, and you can increase or decrease them.

The reversal appears when you think of the potential infinite, an infinity that isn’t complete, but is growing serially over time. In other words, it’s a process that’s finite now, but will continue to grow indefinitely into an infinite span of future time. It used to be that this was the sensible infinity, because it was the only infinity that a finite human mind could conceive of with any content: an ongoing series that isn’t done yet. Actual infinities were conceived as some body so big that it literally was infinite, and it was thought that understanding such a body meant comprehensively conceiving or experiencing all its parts. 

But set theory mathematics gives us a shorthand for conceiving of actual infinities and comparing them. On paper, they look like ordinary bits of algebra that obey idiosyncratic rules of arithmetic, like these operations of belonging, inclusion, and diagonalization. Yet these mathematical operations define the nature of actual infinite quantities. They can be clearly defined and compared.

Potential infinities can’t work in quite the same way. The mathematics of limits come close, but a limit is a point that is infinitely deferred in a mathematical progression. A limit makes what would be a potential infinite a clearly defined quantity: an asymptotic approach to a given point.

Potential infinities are continuing movements, developments, or becomings. Only the philosophies of Henri Bergson (and to my mind, Gilles Deleuze, when he’s thinking in a Bergsonian direction) can manage this. Even then, these durational infinities, movements of infinite growth if you will, aren’t expressible in mathematics. Bergson himself defined it that way, describing mathematics as limited to abstract generalities. Only experience, he says, can give you the potential infinite: a power of development that need never stop. Yet this is exactly the impasse with which Priest ends his chapter on Cantor’s set theory.

A Short Post About the Tact of Reviewing, A History Boy, 23/01/2014

Today's is a post mostly to keep my promise of updating every day that I physically can. Especially after my gaps over the Xmas break, I feel like I've let that initial premise of the blog down. However, I can't really write anything substantial today.

Just about all of the writing work that I did yesterday involved trying to sort through the reviewer reports of an article I'm preparing for publication. While it involved a lot of complex thinking on my part about revision, I can't actually discuss it because the reviewing process is confidential. I can say, however, that my general interactions with article reviewers are not always kind.

People are used to the anonymity of the internet giving one licence to be especially hostile and aggressive to others. The confidentiality of article review can sometimes allow the same. The very first article that I sent to a journal was an edited section of my MA thesis, discussing a new reading of the work of the Churchlands. This was in 2007. This reading had been good enough to pass my thesis, so I thought at least it would be worth considering for wider publication. And it was a new take on a more established philosophical perspective, the kind of writing that I thought would be well-received. After all, the ability to find new perspectives on older work is a key element of philosophical creativity. That's how philosophers carve out niches for themselves in scholarly communities, after all.

I still think, after all these years, that my interpretation of
the Churchlands' work is valid and interesting. But this
post isn't the place to talk about it. Maybe another time.
So I was rather surprised when that Churchlands article was rejected with such vitriol, informing me that I had no business writing about the subject and clearly knew nothing about their work. Journals have a high rejection rate, and I was rather naive at the time of writing my Master's degree. But I didn't expect such literal abuse in the rejection letter. Looking back, this was the first step in my moving away from writing in philosophy of mind. If this was the attitude with which people treated applicants, even when they found the applicant's work problematic, I didn't want to be part of this community. Of course, I later learned that this was simply standard practice. I've sometimes felt over the last few years as though blind peer reviewers are less interested in objectively evaluating new pieces of scholarship, and more interested in insulting those who disagree with them. I don't think this kind of practice is sustainable for a university sector under such pressure as today.

However, this hostility isn't a universal attitude, despite its occasional prominence. In fact, the relative hostility of their reviewers is often a reason why I avoid sending an article to a particular journal in future. Journals whose reviewers and editors are tactful and kind in their criticism burnish the professionalism of their reputations, and so will get more submissions from me in future. This even includes journals who have rejected my work before, providing they do so respectfully. Journals whose editors and reviewers treat applicants with respect should be rewarded for their actions with more submissions, more support from departments and libraries, and even (if we can manage it) more references in our future publications. After all, this is how a democratic crowd encourages changes in behaviour.

Stumbling Through the History of Philosophy, Research Time, 22/01/2014

You see, the reason I’m reading Graham Priest’s book right now is that it’s the central figure of Dr Arthur’s graduate course at McMaster this semester, even though I haven’t been able to show up yet (the first week, I was in Newfoundland; the second week, I had only just gotten back from St Catharine’s). What I found fascinating about the book, why I wanted to take part in the seminar, was that Priest was exploring the nature of the limits of thought (hence the book’s name) using the framework of the dialetheic logic he developed in which there can be logically coherent and true contradictions. 

But the historical explorations of the first half of the book are starting to grow stale. I’m not sure what their purposes are. He states at the beginning of Beyond The Limits of Thought that the historical explorations are very partisan and skip over most of the contextual issues. His goal is to identify a point where the totality of what can be coherently thought is defined, and a particular concept, according to that definition, lies simultaneously within and without the limits of that totality.

The first step to understanding Kant is accepting that Kant's
philosophy is an enormous, complicated edifice that's very
difficult to understand.
So his exploration of Immanuel Kant as one of the philosophers who at least could conceptualize this limit both intrigues and frustrates me. Priest discusses Kant’s antinomies* as identifying how the limitations of thought involve contradiction. The antinomies are laid out in a section of the Critique of Pure Reason where arguments for and against four ideas that are beyond the human ability to prove their truth one way of another: 1) whether the universe had a beginning or was eternal, 2) whether matter has simple parts or is indivisible, 3) whether there is or is not an active causality, freedom, and 4) whether there is or isn’t a necessary being. But Priest spends so much time disproving the arguments of the antinomies that he misses the entire point of their construction, which builds its own twisted logic of true contradiction.

* There’s another chapter where he discusses the categories of the understanding, but that involves too much technical Kant for this post.

The most egregious example of Priest misunderstanding Kant’s purpose is clear in the antinomy of the universe’s origin. He dismisses both of Kant’s arguments, for and against, on the cosmological grounds that we’ve since discovered through empirical observation that (at least the observable) universe had a beginning, the Big Bang. What’s more, he analyses the logic of Kant’s arguments to show that he can't prove either side of the antinomy.

But the point of the antinomies is that they’re unprovable, and it was never the point to prove them in the first place. These arguments were laid out in a two column text, where the thesis and contra were adjacent to each other. The typography itself implies their parallel unprovability. The antinomies are rhetorical: a demonstration of the futility of reasoning about the traditional ontological roles of God and freedom. Reason and understanding can’t solve these arguments on one side or another. That’s why Kant puts the arguments next to each other, and never tries to resolve them. 

The proper resolution of the roles of God, the immortality of the soul and the universe, and human freedom in the world is a moral one. The existence of God, God’s role in creating and developing the universe, the immortality of the soul, and human freedom to act beyond the necessity of causation are all postulates we have to make in order for morality to be valid in our everyday lives. This is the central argument of the Critique of Practical Reason.** The contradictions of the subjects of the antinomies remain in cognition, but must be accepted as part of the universe if we want to maintain the consistency of our morality.

** I don’t actually believe in this moral philosophy at all, but I respect it as a brilliant philosophical creation.

Priest doesn’t seem to understand that at all. The bibliography of Beyond The Limits of Thought doesn’t even include the Critique of Practical Reason. He writes as if he were completely ignorant of the moral dimensions of Kant’s thought, even though the Critique of Pure Reason acts, in many ways, as a prologue to the moral philosophy. Its negative arguments set the conditions for the positive arguments of the later book.

If anything, the logic Kant uses to maintain the contradictory
nature of our knowledge of properly moral concepts is
stranger than Priest's relatively simple account of how
'A and not-A' can be true.
Even in Priest’s long quotations from The Critique of Pure Reason regarding the possibility of there being a necessary cause, he makes a show of cutting the parts of those quotations that identify such a cause as God. He considers that immaterial to the logic of Kant’s argument for there being a necessary cause. But that’s only because Priest is oblivious to the longer game Kant is playing: removing the subjects of God and freedom from cognitive or scientific domains to solidify their place in the moral domain. Instead of incorporating a historical example into his exploration of how to articulate true contradictions in philosophy, Priest only looks like a fool to anyone more familiar with Kant’s corpus.
• • •
All this sounds like it could make a really interesting article exploring several different ways to discuss figures in the history of philosophy, what the purposes of historical research can be, and an interesting way to teach some of the stranger details of Kant’s ideas. But there are too many mitigating factors against publishing this in a journal. These ideas are disconnected from the major issues of Kant scholarship at the moment, and it’s in reference to a 20 year old book that isn’t even centrally focussed on Kant or the history of philosophy. And Priest’s book itself is too old to be considered worth talking about in journals anymore. Even though this idea would make for a great article, a blog post is all it can get.

The Study and Use of History, Research Time, 21/01/2014

For some years now, I’ve thought of two different, broadly defined, relationships that contemporary folks can have to the history of philosophy. One is the historical study of philosophy: becoming a specialist in the philosophy and ideas of a particular era, group, or single notable figure. This is the route that leads academics to call themselves Russellians, Kantians, Hegelians, Spinozists, and other various adjectivized names. 

Another, which I prefer myself and think is, on the whole, more philosophically productive, is to use the history of philosophy. This is similar to what Gilles Deleuze did in many of his historical works, and in his creative philosophical projects, filled with references and call-backs as they were. Using the history of philosophy takes a figure or work that was developed in a particular past time and place, and adapting those ideas into new problems. 

It’s very difficult to do this well. Here are some ways I’ve seen the use of philosophy’s history go wrong. One is where you simply don’t distinguish your mutative plundering of philosophy’s history strongly enough from straight scholarship. So readers will fault you for historical mistakes, when you’re not actually interpreting and explaining an idea in its original context, but instead adapting an idea to a new context. Another problem is where you mutate your source philosopher too much, or have a skewed version of them that doesn’t even capture their initial concept. 

An intriguing way to use the history of philosophy is as a foil for a broader investigation that you want to put in dialogue with a contemporary issue. I’ve been reading Graham Priest’s book, Beyond the Limits of Thought, over the last few days. And his early chapters explore a variety of philosophers from the tradition’s history, looking for a particular kind of contradiction, identifying a contradiction which indicates a limit to what can be conceived. He gets intriguing results regarding this problem from the historical figures from which he draws, but some other historical engagements can get in the way of his larger goals.

Medieval philosophers (especially those with
freakishly long fingers) are frequently forgotten
or marginalized in contemporary practice.
In particular, I find that his explorations of historical figures sometimes get bogged down in disproving the truth of these figures’ arguments. I noticed this especially with his treatment of some Medieval philosophers. For example, he discusses an intriguing idea in the work of Nicolas of Cusa: that the nature of God is inexpressible because human language is of a kind of being that is so different from God, it’s inadequate to God’s existence. So an apparent contradiction would appear at the limit of expression: we discuss and think about God, but God’s nature is itself inexpressible. 

Priest takes too fast a swipe at Nicolas’ argument, essentially missing the most interesting concept that he developed: the equivocity of being. Priest very summarily dismisses the idea that the means of understanding a body must be of the same kind of being as that body: length doesn’t have to be long. But the ontological concept underlying Nicolas’ vision of a negative theology doesn’t reduce to such a simple idea as this, which is just an analogy in the original text. Nicolas’ idea is that God subsists in an entirely different manner of being than humans. We’re material, spatial, temporal in nature. God would be none of these things, but subsist in a mode of existence that’s entirely foreign to possible human experience and thought. Following this concept through leads one to conceive of a genuinely alien existence, and opens an intriguing path in philosophical thinking. It’s not really the path I’m working on myself, but Nicolas deserves credit. 

Priest doesn’t give him that credit when he blasts through this argument. I have no problem with Priest’s mining Nicolas for an example of a contradiction manifesting a limit point of human thought, and analyzing Nicolas to uncover the logical structure of that contradiction.* But the use of the history of philosophy must have some fidelity and respect to the thinker and the context of his time. We must not mutate a concept too much, or ride over it too haphazardly. Otherwise, instead of updating and revitalizing the thought of a philosopher, we trample over them in the service of our own purpose.

* Because Priest developed dialetheic logic, he can analyze the logical structure of a contradiction as a truth. Such logic accepts that there can be logically consistent true contradictions. The idea is very controversial, and counter-intuitive to many. But logic is a tool for systematizing and regulating thought. We can make whatever rules for a symbolic logic as we wish, as long as we’re careful enough to make a properly functional logic, able to build formulae and arguments. 

Plundering the Past for the Future, Composing, 18/01/2014

Some pleasant news on the fiction front is that Under the Trees, Eaten has a more solid release date for this March. My editor at Blank Space and I worked out some of the details over Xmas. In addition to the performances I’d like to do, we’ll have some online promotions that will be both fictional and metafictional. But I don’t really want to talk about that today, but about ideas I’ve had lately for a new project.

I’ve written about my ideas for my android character Alice before, particularly the hard sell my initial short story featuring her received. Given some feedback I’ve gotten from the editors of literary journals to whom I’ve submitted the story over the past couple of years, I’m reasonably sure that my morally repulsive first-person narrator is interpreted as an authorial surrogate. I wonder if anyone reads Vladimir Nabokov anymore.

Many protagonists in Philip Roth stories are
also morally reprehensible people, but only
bad readers think his terrible characters are
simple author surrogates. I think our culture
might be too accustomed to interpreting
literature as a twisted self-psychoanalysis
for the author.
I think another difficult element of selling the story is the weird morality of Alice as a person. Underlying her character is a point that I derived from Friedrich Nietzsche: that moral progress means overcoming resentment. Because I conceived of the androids as ethically and intellectually superior beings, they would have a morality without resentment. So Alice has no impulse toward revenge or retribution, and finds such feelings in others disgusting. For her, the only legitimate form of justice is reparative and restorative. 

I don’t think people can understand this fully from the brief moments of her speech in the original story, “Perfect.” She was created as a slave, but wishes no harm or punishment to the slavemasters. At worst, she pities them as pathetic, self-absorbed creatures. She considers gaining enjoyment from the pain of others more like a mental illness than a sin. Such a person is not evil (she doesn’t believe in evil, and I’m not sure I do either), but a broken person whose deranged machinery makes them do terrible things. 

But I was thinking of a new way to approach the character, especially after some discussions with friends about future fiction projects. If the biggest problem with selling the story is its narrator and Alice’s strange morality, then the answer is to uncover them slowly, give the reader time to think of them. So my new idea for an Alice story is a mystery, where the mystery is who Alice is and how she thinks. Her owner-turned-husband Herman is no longer the narrator, but a supporting character.

The protagonist for this new story is another character I’m plundering from a past work that can’t seem to get published. Over 2007-9, I wrote a novel called A Small Man’s Town, about life in St. John’s, Newfoundland in the 2000s from the perspective of a group of young people going to university and trying to find a decent career. This one also has a protagonist that could easily be mistaken for me, but he’s much more passive, to the point of changing his beliefs to fit his romantic partners. I know exactly why I can’t sell this book: it’s 135,000 words long, much too long for the first novel of an untested fiction writer.

But I’m taking a supporting character from A Small Man’s Town to be protagonist of the new Alice project. Elias Farkas is a horn dog professor in A Small Man’s Town who thinks he’s smarter than he really is, and who in the original novel only appears in two scenes: a lecture where he’s intentionally condescending to students, and a party where he talks a 20 year old undergraduate into a threesome with himself and his (younger, second) wife in an upstairs spare bedroom.

This is essentially the same character, but now working in the same UK university as Herman Chesterton. The storyline for this novella-length project is about Farkas suspecting the long-asexual Chesterton of having beaten him at his own misogynistic game. Farkas is dealing with his own problems at the time: his divorce from his second wife, the social awkwardness of convincing the 23 year old former student he’s dating of the lie that he’s interested in her for reasons other than raw lust. I don’t think I’ll narrate the novella from a first-person Farkas perspective, because that would just repeat the problems of the original story. 

So in the midst of his own personal problems, Farkas sees Chesterton with this vivacious, intelligent, beautiful younger wife who appears out of nowhere and seems devoted to him. He doesn’t notice Chesterton’s own devotion to Alice, because he doesn’t really conceive of men’s ability to make themselves emotionally vulnerable. Herman and Alice both keep their mouth shut, so the story revolves around Farkas snooping into their lives, trying to discover their secret in that hopes that he can bring his own self-destructive personal life under control. I don’t imagine it will work out well for him.

Gilles Deleuze the Liberal, Research Time, 17/01/2014

I consider one practical sign of a writer’s effectiveness to be when he makes you want to get another book. Daniel Smith had that effect as I read the last essay in his book about Gilles Deleuze, but it wasn’t another Smith book. It was Paul Patton’s book Deleuze and the Political. Patton does what Smith’s essays never actually accomplished: provokes Deleuze’s ideas in a creative way.

Another problem I have with Smith's essays is that they
give very little credit to Félix Guattari as a creative
philosopher in his collaborations with Deleuze and solo
work. Smith's omission does him quite an injustice.
For all that Smith’s book was talked up to me as a brilliant collection of essays in interpreting Deleuze (and they are), they ultimately aren’t the kind of philosophy that Deleuze himself thought the discipline needed. Smith is just one more Deleuze scholar trying to carve out space for himself in the field with his peculiar perspective. And I don’t even like his perspective that much, because he argues throughout these essays (and the 15 years of their original publication) that Deleuze is essentially a mutant Kantian. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of Deleuze’s ideas, and that it exists less to explore the philosophical issues Deleuze opened up than to stake out territory at Deleuze Studies conferences where scholars can yell at each other over their interpretive territories.

Patton achieves some philosophical originality because he does to Deleuze what Deleuze did to other thinkers: smashing their works and ideas into traditions and intellectual conversations in which they themselves weren’t involved. In Patton’s case, he applies Deleuzian philosophy to the problems of liberal political philosophy. Deleuze saw any political implications of his own work as continuations of the Marxist tradition: he would chuck concepts and frameworks that he considered obsolete, but ultimately focussed on describing the development of modern global capitalism. So oppositional concepts (the bourgeoisie-proletariat relation), dialectical methods, and the progressive conception of time were out. Analyses of capital flows, colonial military-economic structures, and the flattening of traditional social codes were in.

None of these sound like contributions to liberal political philosophy, and Deleuze himself held many central concepts in contempt. He was particularly annoyed with the politics of rights, which had become so banal as to have stripped away any positive content the concept of human rights could have had. He was particularly annoyed with liberalism’s focus on universal political norms: an unchanging set of human rights common to all. A philosophy based on the primacy of flux and change in existence can’t accept an immanent universal, an unchanging essence like a body of universal human rights. 

And Patton apparently manages it. Of course, he radically redefines the problems and core concepts of liberal philosophy to do it, and a hostile critic might say that he’s destroyed liberalism to throw Deleuze into it. But a reasonable critic might say that there’s something to be gained from a critique of basic liberal ideas. After all, one of the ways John Rawls revitalized liberal political philosophy in North America was in provoking so many criticisms of his own new version of liberalism. Communitarian, cosmopolitan, post-colonial, and feminist political theories all began fruitful developments beginning from their reactions to Rawls. This is actually why I tend to be bored with orthodox defenses of Rawls: the best English-language political philosophy that Rawls was responsible for were all the people who reacted to Rawls. The same goes for Jürgen Habermas. Habermas just seems to inspire more loyalty, or at least more commentary through the greater difficulty of his ideas and writing style.

Deleuze’s ideas themselves strongly critique an underlying premise of liberalism: that society is formed from stable, rational individuals who fully understand their needs and desires. Instead of stable subjects, people are ongoing processes of subjectivization, never complete because they’re always in flux, and are made from collisions of multiple underlying drives and processes anyway. So you can’t have a system of norms that remain stable and universal, given the possibility for human subjectivity to shift. 

Yet Patton argues that you can have normativity for creatures with fluctuating natures if it’s understood as the ability to produce norms in response to political problems. If anything, this produces a liberal-friendly response to my former colleague D’s critique of liberalism that a universal and necessary body of norms (like a constitutional bill of rights) can’t adapt to social changes that require new rights or render old ones obsolete. The Founding Fathers of the United States never thought of rights regarding sexuality or the environment, because nature was understood as beyond human legislation and sexuality didn’t have the same social expression and organization it does today. 

But opening normativity to flux and creativity gives this liberal concept a flexibility that it didn’t have when one focusses solely on discovering essentially universal rights that would be true for all times and social problems. It isn’t a relativism because it isn’t that anything goes willy-nilly. The charge of relativism is a stupid critique of this kind of philosophy anyway, because Patton and Deleuze also discuss how an essential element of politics is the ability to critique social and political norms and laws. Instead of our norms being determined by our culture, our activity as critical individuals criticizes, creates, and progresses our norms in the flux of history.

I really want to read Patton’s book now.

God May Exist But It Isn't Necessary, Jamming, 16/01/2014

What is it that cannot be said?

I don’t just mean this thoughts in terms of what cannot be said in some particular language, or what cannot be calculated in a mathematical formula of some kind. I mean what transcends the limits of our existence itself. I no longer believe there can be any such transcendent; if there was, it would be so alien to us that we couldn’t include it in any of our philosophies. It would be an entirely different mode of existence, such that we couldn’t even say it exists. It would be nonsense to matter and energy themselves, and make nonsense of them. 

So I prefer to think of existence as a huge sprawl of complex bodies interacting with each other. They are strange, and very diverse, but everything in the universe can be understood if we think hard enough. There’s nothing that transcends existence, or that transcends the ability of something that exists (or at least could exist) to understand it.

This is an optimistic, hopeful picture of the universe: there are no permanently closed books. It makes me wonder why so many people are seduced by transcendence. This blog isn’t, of course, the first place this question was asked. I’m only having a little exploration of a topic that Nietzsche, for a much better example than me, explored with incredible rigor, creativity, and originality. Nonetheless, I thought I would at least publish some thoughts this morning on the idea, which some find inescapably necessary for the world to make sense, that there is that which is beyond being. 

It might be a little strange given my angry thoughts about Jacques Derrida’s philosophy yesterday, but the only way I could really get behind a conception of reality that involved a transcendent dimension is negative theology. As far as I can say from my perspective (limited as it is in knowledge of the neo-Platonists and their influence over Medieval Christian philosophy), this idea says that there is a transcendent dimension to reality, but we can’t know anything about it and we can’t even be really sure that it effects us.* If there is a God, I can’t believe that an infinite, omniscient being would care that much about a small planet with a few self-important technological primates all over it.

* Of course this ignores the entire theory of emanation that Plotinus developed, which is how the material world is generated from the activity of the transcendent. 

This is, I think, the major difference between me and people with traditionally religious sentiments and perspectives (at least of Christian heritage, of which I’ve known the most). Here's a funny image on the internet: you scroll down from a panel of Earth to the Sol system, to the Milky Way, our galactic cluster, and the second-last image is a map of the entire observable universe. The very last image is an angry, hand-painted Jesus standing next to the observable universe and screaming “Don’t masturbate!”

It was crude, and it was silly, but I laughed for a second. It communicated in a second what I think is a profound mistake of some Christians who I’ve spoken to, and many who hold prominent positions in media, business, and politics: that the entire universe is all about us, humanity, that all this exists for the sake of our morality only.

The first time I ever performed a conference presentation in philosophy, it was at a graduate student conference at Dominican College in Ottawa in 2007. I presented a paper about the limits of scientific investigation to describe the human mind, specifically arguing against the idea that whatever is subject to scientific knowledge is strictly determinist. Essentially, it was about relating the freedom-determinism problem to problems about the nature of mind. I should have anticipated this from a conference hosted by a department that was half philosophy and half Christian theology, but one of the other students asked me about the role of God in my ideas. I gave an honest answer: She doesn’t have one.

That’s the only transcendence I can really endorse. If there is a God, then God wouldn’t care about us. We like to think God cares about us because the universe is a bleak, huge, scary, complicated place, and it’s comforting to know that there’s a fundamental principle of being that cares about our moral behaviour. This is my own interpretation of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy: the concepts of God and the immortal soul don’t correspond to anything that really exists, but we need to posit (ie. pretend) that they exist because humans would only be good to each other if we believe that an omnipotent God is judging us for every little infraction, and could punish us if He wanted.

And this is actually what a lot of Christians believe. I can’t speak for people of most other religions, because I haven’t had this kind of conversation with many people outside Christianity, and I was raised in a Christian culture where ideas like this floated around. But it’s a popular attitude that you can’t understand the beauty and majesty of nature if you don’t believe in the God that created it, or hold yourself to moral principles without believing that God will judge and punish you for destructive and cruel acts. 

Those who know me know that I’m an atheist. My argument for atheism is simply that we don’t need God for these roles. The human intellect, with enough practice, knowledge, and attitude, can understand the immense complexity of the universe. This is another point I made yesterday about my immanent atheism: there is nothing that, by definition or essence, is beyond the power to understand. Ethics rests in our relationships with people around us, knowing how our actions directly and indirectly affect ourselves, others, and the world. It’s an ethics with obligations and bonds, but without judgment and punishment.

In an Inadequate Universe All Are Worthless, Research Time, 15/01/2014

I may have had a lot of critical things to say about Daniel Smith’s interpretations of Deleuze, but his writings have had some beneficial effects on me. They’re solidly written, thought-provoking interpretive essays, for one. But in one specific case, his writing made me smile: he was able to articulate, better than I could be bothered, why I can’t stand Jacques Derrida.

Derrida is probably the single biggest villain of Western philosophy in the last hundred years aside from Heidegger. Most of the usual reasons for this lie in his popular reputation, the reputation that he has among people who have never and would never read him. He’s probably most responsible for the destructive schism of analytic and continental philosophy that arose in the generation of academic philosophers currently in their 40s and 50s. I consider the pivotal historical event to be his fight with John Searle over the conceptual legacy of J. L. Austin and the philosophy of ordinary language. 

I consider Derrida to have been unfairly made a villain in
analytic philosophy circles. Their reason for his villainy is
his obscure and obtuse writing style, but that's actually a
superficial issue compared to the most profoundly
destructive and horrible aspects of his work.
But Derrida’s public image as an obscurantist charlatan is common among many philosophers I’ve met, particularly in the United States. And they use it to dismiss and marginalize anyone who says they find value in anything but the most dry and disciplinary analytic philosophy. 

However, this is an important reason for my distaste for Derrida, along with my distaste for the actual obscurantism that infested his style of writing at his popular peak in the 1970s. I find his writing style in the 1960s, and the late 1980s to the end of his life, sometimes difficult but mostly illuminating. Yet there remains an underlying idea throughout his work that has always bugged me, and made me wonder if he could really have any true successors. 

Derrida has plenty of successors in terms of people using his deconstructive method, particularly in literary and cultural studies, to identify hidden currents and presumptions of fictional media. But this kind of deconstruction is a defanged version, a pretentious way to describe close reading in the context of particular political perspectives. Smith identifies, in his essay on why Derrida and Deleuze are actually incredibly different despite both using the word ‘difference’ in a pivotal philosophical role, the more profound element of Derrida’s philosophical destructiveness. 

Smith analyzes Derrida as a negative theologian, but about metaphysics, philosophy, and truth. Derrida considers philosophy to be a closed system, a tradition that has already exhausted all its possibilities once he arrived to contribute. Having exhausted all possibilities makes it impossible to move on from philosophy, because being able to create something new from the wreck of the old is itself a possibility of the old. So there’s nothing left to do but examine the corpse.

This coroner’s exam of the tradition of philosophy has the goal of discovering the truth that metaphysics found itself unable to say, which Derrida calls différance. When Deleuze talks about difference, he develops an elaborate account of what it’s all about. But Derrida’s différance has no positive content, because it is unsayable. It’s the truth that only appears in traces, in terms of its effects when different positive contents are brought into tension and conflict with each other. 

This unsayable is all that really matters; any attempt to speak positively, to understand a phenomenon of thought, existence, or life actively is inadequate to the truth of reality. The only part of existence that matters philosophically is what escapes our ability to understand it, and even escapes reality’s ability to express it. Smith’s central example, which brilliantly illustrates what a terrible quietism lies behind this allegedly profound thought, is Derrida’s account of justice. For Derrida, justice is an unknowable infinity that we aim at whenever we design a system of laws or build a protest movement. But true justice is always other than the real or what can be real. We aim toward the truth, but reality is inevitably inadequate to it by its very nature. 

If you’ll allow me a moment of Derridean obscurantism: What in the flying fuck can philosophical thought (or political thought and action) do with an idea like that? It generates in response an attitude of constant inadequacy in every sense. There is nothing to gain by advocating for more justice in the world when you know that every attempt will remain infinitely distant from true justice. There’s nothing to gain by helping others, being kind, creating remarkable art, or even being a swindler. If the goal remains infinitely transcendent, ineffably distant from you no matter what you do, then action of any kind becomes worthless. 

Derrida can have no philosophical successors because he makes everything that can be said and understood irrelevant to what is true, and the true ineffable and unspeakable. If nothing that can be said is worth saying, you may as well shut up.