Truth Comes in Degrees, Research Time, 28/02/2014

It’s very common in philosophical writing to discuss the nature of an epoch, which is usually framed in terms of what kinds of thoughts were possible. Heidegger continually refers to the modern era as incapable of understanding existence as anything but a resource. Hegel, in his writings on history, described Indians and Africans as having no history because they had no institutions or style of discourse like the Western history book. 

Yesterday’s post ended with Bruno Latour caught in the same situation. He wrote in 1991 that Modernity was dead, a framework of understanding the world whose premises had been shattered. Then in 1992, a book drops from another leading French intellectual with nerdly glasses and wavy black hair defending humanist Modernity in its purest form, and denouncing all critics as anti-democratic fascists, communists, and religious fundamentalists. This situation shows how plural humanity really is. We’re so accustomed, especially in philosophy, to demarcating what was conceptually possible for a culture according to the chronology of its great philosophical works. But the presence of these works doesn’t simply cause a blanket social change even within the discipline of philosophy, let alone the wider culture.

Likewise, the entire fourth chapter of We Have Never Been Modern is all about dealing with accusations of relativism that would fly against Latour’s central thesis that social and political factors always play a role in the construction of scientific institutions, investigations, and discoveries. Despite the presence of books like Latour’s, and others from sectors of philosophy of science like Science and Technology Studies or the affiliated and slightly diverging acronyms, I haven’t seen an introductory philosophy class where introducing ideas like Latour’s don’t result in accusations of relativism from the audience.

In other words, Latour can write all he wants about how sensible it is for us to drop our cultural presumptions that contingency results in pure relativism, and that involvement in human processes for its generation results in pure relativism. I can too, because I haven’t believed in this facile separation of necessary, certain knowledge from contingent, relative opinion in nearly a decade. I can be criticized for making the separation in such blunt terms. But my point is that most people still believe this way.

A frequent reason given for why atheists are mistrusted in wider society (aside from the shrill anger of Dawkins and Hitchens, and Sam Harris’ denunciations of Muslims in Britain that border on outright racism), is that they’re held to be moral relativists. Many people still genuinely believe that you can’t be a good person without having a religion: without having a set of moral rules in whose correctness you believe absolutely, and without believing that a god will punish you for your sins. The discussion of scientific enterprises in these contingent terms often results in the same dichotomy. If you don’t believe in the certainty of scientific knowledge, then you permit the validity of beliefs we now know to be hogwash: racialized eugenics, phrenology, phlogistonic chemistry, Galenic medicine. If there is no God, everything is permitted. If there is no Science, everything is true.

However many times we defend ourselves, I think atheists
like me will always face pressure from people who believe
that you need to believe in a God delivering you
absolute truths to understand moral right and wrong.
The problem with these statements is that people’s moral systems converge, but differ, and if you consider the history of science, there is no straight progress of enlightenment over time. Good projects may flounder, worse ideas may come to prominence: enlightenment is no more inevitable than decay. Latour offers a much more sensible and politically productive way of dealing with this impasse. After all, decay is no more inevitable than enlightenment.

One conservative (and frequently still popular) idea about science is that what we call science is wholly right and true, and what we call pseudo-science, or what gets relegated to the dustbin of science’s history, is wholly wrong. All my intellectual colleagues will describe how crude and over-simplified this idea is. They all hear it from their first-year students — it’s still widely believed. It’s the kind of faith in science that New Atheists have been peddling for decades.

It’s far more accurate, when talking about the history of science, to treat some models of thought as being more true or more false than others. In other words, with complex systems of numbers, truth comes in degrees. Here’s an example. If you think about the history of evolution, the standard hardline evolutionist line is that Charles Darwin was right and more creationist perspectives wrong. But now contrast Darwin with other evolutionists. Denis Diderot postulated an evolutionary account of how life arose (according to some definitions, so did Aristotle). But because they had no empirical research backing up their claims, Darwin was more right than they were. But you can’t throw Diderot on the trash-heap of history, because at least he got it basically correct that life developed through evolutionary processes.

For example, Led Zeppelin's early
records synthesized musical influences
that had never come together before,
but their modern albums sound retro
because— Sorry, wrong Robert.
Now contrast Darwin with empirically-minded theorists of evolution who postulated methods other than natural selection, like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His vision of the inheritance of acquired traits turned out to be untrue, but he no creationist, and certainly not of the idiotic Biblical literalist stripe with the highest influence today, which even frustrate theologians. But Darwin also wasn’t right either.

Darwin never had a solid idea about the mechanism of carrying the inherited traits. Gregor Mendel’s experiments that systematized how inheritance worked were popularized only after Darwin’s death. The discovery of DNA as the cellular carrier of traits made Darwin’s theory obsolete. Nonetheless, we don’t denounce Darwin as wrong. He was just less right than evolutionary theory that was able to account for inheritance through DNA. And the first theorists of DNA were less right than most evolutionary biologists today. DNA was first conceived as carrying traits simply: that there would be ‘a gene’ ‘for’ big ears, eye colour, or proclivity to heart disease. We have since discovered that our genetic code operates in a complex relationship with protein folding in developmental processes that unfold in terms of contingencies and tendencies. Nonetheless, Watson and Crick’s generation of biologists isn’t wrong; they just held hypotheses that never worked out, because the world turned out to be more complicated.

When it comes to science, the law of the excluded middle doesn’t hold. This is true for morality, history, and all of existence. Either/or is so outdated. I like to keep my logic fuzzy.

This Is Progress? Research Time, 27/02/2014

The core of the Utopias project lies in the human relationship with time. It’s not about a categorical statement of the relationship itself, but how we conceive of our temporality. In this, Bruno Latour actually provides a central thesis, because We Have Never Been Modern considers a central element of so-called Modernity as an era of human history to be a conception of temporality that is bound up with progress.

Bruno Latour makes an argument. I do not know if he
Progress is an essential part of the rhetoric of modernity as a human epoch. This isn’t a result of a conceptual argument about modernity, but begins from simply looking at what people wrote and believed in Europe and America’s secular intellectual communities. Human history itself was conceived as a progressive drive, which Latour cites the poet Charles Péguy describing with the metaphor of time itself as a savings bank. The future will always be better than the past, goes this vision, as human science and technology improves the condition of our species and world. Any attempt to return to the past fetishizes archaism on this conception of temporality, because the march of time is a continual march of improvement. So goes the philosophical analysis of the rhetoric of progress that developed from the European Enlightenment period.

If you look back at the writings of intellectuals and influential people from the 18th to the 20th century, this rhetoric of progress appears everywhere. Latour gives a fascinating analysis of the concept of progress: it implies that every moment, or at least every point in time where a present can be divided from a past, where you can make even the most minor epochal distinction, contains a revolution. Latour, I think as part of his own rhetorical tendency, describes this as the creation of the past. 

Of course, this is not in a literal ontological sense of creating the past, but creating a particular relationship of present humanity with its history. Every technological shift brings about an improvement in the human condition, such that a return to the previous era would be a categorical loss. Before the Scientific Revolution, we lived in the Dark Ages; before the French Revolution,* we lived in chains. This was a place to which we should not return. This is the concept of time and human temporality that Latour says is the essence of Western secular Modernity, and it’s a concept that would make a fantastic framework of analysis (one of many) for the Utopias project.

* Or the American Revolution, or the Communist Revolution, or any other of your preference.

Although Latour writes of Western society as if it had made uniform social growth regarding these problems, such cultural uniformity is always an illusion. Any diagnosis of a particular problem of thought will never apply without exception to a society. Let me give you an example. Latour writes as if this conception of progressive time no longer applies to our society. He argues for this, in part, by briefly constructing a narrative of major streams of philosophy in France over the 20th century that illustrates a growing critique of the traditional value of progress from within the conceptual conditions of Modernity: he includes phenomenology, Heidegger’s mourning of Being, semiotics, Habermas’ theory of communicative discourse, and the despairing nihilism of the paradigm postmodernists Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Beaudrillard.

Latour’s book itself, coming out in France in 1991, would have begun an epoch of positive critique of the structure of Modernity that could achieve creative steps to think without the narrative of inevitable progress or the irredeemable collapse of progress. But in 1992, Luc Ferry’s The New Ecological Order was released. This book amounts to a culturally conservative critique of the ideas Latour would pursue in The Politics of Nature a decade early. 

"Your Honour, I call the plaintiffs to the stand."
In 1999, the original French-language version of this latter book described a model of politics that included nonhuman creatures as a means of approaching our global ecological crises. But Ferry had already argued in his own book that any attempt to include nonhumans in political procedures would destroy human freedom by subordinating our concerns to those of animals and plants. He introduced his book with reference to a Medieval canon law by which human farmers would sometimes have to pay restitution to rats, allowing them to eat some of their crops as compromises over territory disputes in their fields. Yes, it was pure rhetoric, but it was rhetoric that Latour had already said in 1991 would no longer be believable: referring back to a time before a particular democratic revolution, in this case against the legal power of the Church in daily life, as a Dark Age to which we would be horrified to return. Just a year after Latour declared it impossible, a major intellectual of his own country argued against environmentalist principles in the name of preserving a rationalist vision of progress.

I think it’s always a danger in philosophy of losing your arguments simply because we trade in universal statements. Whenever someone argues that society had reached a particular point that makes some particular perspective impossible to think, such a supposedly impossible thought will appear to criticize you.

A Parliament of Beings, A History Boy, 26/02/2014

The work of Bruno Latour fascinates me in many ways. I wouldn’t write about him here if he didn’t. The ideas of his book, The Politics of Nature, were originally going to play a minor role in the dissertation version of my Ecophilosophy manuscript, but my advisor told me that my brief account passed over the complexity of his ideas too quickly, and I cut that small section.

He was right, but I’m still skeptical of Latour’s development of his ideas in that 2004 book about a parliament of nonhuman, and even non-organic, creatures. Here’s my problem in a cursory format. The Politics of Nature is an attempt at a solution of the modern ecological crisis, which in that book, Latour interprets as a problem of inclusion in the political process. In other words, our politics today focus on the concerns of humans alone, but this anthropocentric focus has blinded us to the destructive aspects of actions for the benefit of humanity (industrial technological development, the physically violent extraction of resources from the land) because nonhuman bodies, those we relegate to the sphere of nature, bear the brunt of such destruction.

Latour strikes me as a philosopher who
develops very complex ideas that have very
simple problems.
His proposal in The Politics of Nature was to open human politics to creatures and bodies normally considered natural, and my initial problem with his account was that he anthropomorphized nonhumans too much. He analyzed the possible dynamics of political problems that would arise when animals, plants, fungi, and ecosystems were given a place in a parliament that would let their voices be heard. Quite literally, this is impossible, because only humans have language, and it is difficult to discern whether nonhumans of various kinds can even be said to have interests. Animals have desires, plants have circumstances of flourishing, ecosystems have tendencies and conditions for their stable development, but only humans can be said to have self-conscious interests in the sense that they can be politically activated. We’re self-conscious social creatures who regulate ourselves on macroscopic scales by creating systems of morality and political institutions about and through which we communicate linguistically. Articulating political interests require self-consciousness and language. Humans seem to be the only creatures on Earth who have these abilities. 

The suggestion in The Politics of Nature was that scientific instruments can be developed that can translate the actions of nonhumans into specific statements of interests.* From one perspective, my Ecophilosophical perspective agrees with this idea: if we take the health and flourishing of nonhuman creatures and systems seriously, we will learn more about them, and so be better able to deal with them, and ensure that our environmental negotiations no longer work by destruction and pure exploitation, but through compromise. My real problem is that I hate the way Latour anthropomorphizes his language about nonhumans so much.

* My second, less serious, problem with Latour’s vision in that book is that he relies so heavily on the institution of science to develop magical ways to translate the activity of nonhumans into the language of interests, so that we can conceive of them as actors. His early books on the sociology of scientific communities, institutions, and practice showed how difficult it is to get any coherent, unified model from the complicated fumbling of the contemporary scientific establishment. The politics and economics of laboratories, universities, corporations, and research institutions prevent the practical unity of science at all, let alone the development of their communities along the virtuous paths of emancipating our environmental politics through including all creatures in a parliament. 

But his basic idea of reintroducing science to its political dimensions results in these anthropomorphic conceptual frameworks. The first major chapter of his 1991 We Have Never Been Modern describes the historical conflict that resulted in our current separation of the political for the realm of humans alone and nature for the realm of nonhumans. Thomas Hobbes developed a political philosophy that was immensely influential in conceiving, for the first time in the West, politics as the exclusive domain of humans. 

Progenitor of modern experimental science
Robert Boyle, who, despite the hair, is not
to be confused with Robert Plant.
Robert Boyle simultaneously developed experimental science as a means of using special instruments, controlled by an elite group of experts, to reveal and create new truths about nature. After all, laboratories do technically create new truths. Experimental science creates situations that can never happen in nature precisely because its practitioners control more variables than ever stay constant in natural events. So we create scenarios that can never occur naturally to discover facts about bodies that have indirect and pivotal affects on their ordinary behaviour, which are never directly visible in that behaviour.

Latour’s analysis is basically that Boyle had to develop a new concept for the experimental science practitioner so that they could practice without political interference, so that a king and his army could never interpret the activities of scientists and philosophers as a threat to royal authority. Even though such people are, at their best, threats to established authority, we have an interest in keeping this secret from those authorities so that we can remain alive to make our threats. So Boyle developed the notion that matters of politics were separate from matters of natural science. In the modern era, this is biting us in the ass, as the industrial technology scientific research has developed has resulted in our current ecological crisis.

This is the first of several points on Latour’s ideas that will come in the next week or so as I dive back through We Have Never Been Modern with an eye to adapting some of its ideas to Ecophilosophy manuscript revisions and Utopias project concepts. The relevant aspects of environmental philosophy are obvious. For the Utopias project, the book touches on ideas of how inclusion and political boundaries can shape political ideals. More to come.

Why Communism Anyway? 3: Existence Is Inadequate to Living, Research Time, 25/02/2014

Badiou’s ontology doesn’t tell the whole story of ontology’s entire domain. If you take set theory as the basic and comprehensive language of ontology, the framework of the nature of existence itself, then it leads you to the conclusions Badiou reaches (at least in that ontological context). A body is, as regards fundamental ontology, a member of a set, so only exists insofar as it is always already enfolded in a collective, even if that collective only has one member. I don’t actually disagree with him when considering ontology from its fundamental perspective.

Why do you have to complicate my simple ontological principles with all this proliferation of difference, nebula?
The difference between myself and Badiou, philosophically, is ultimately a difference of emphasis. He emphasizes the fundamental, and I emphasize complication and complexity. At the most fundamental level of any ontology, being is univocal, and there is no real difference among bodies in terms of their existence. But actual bodies proliferate and develop in directions far more complex than their most fundamental dimension. Subjectivity is one direction of this tendency of existence to complicate itself, but it's far from the only one, and not necessarily the highest one. All ranking is relative to a purpose anyway. The distribution of energy in the universe was uneven, and so clumps into stars and galaxies. As matter/energy clumps together, tendencies to motion that never existed in less dense arrangements begin. The arrangements of molecules become increasingly complex, and the most complex arrangements, assemblies, and relationships occur on biospheric planets.

My mother always said I liked to make things complicated. Well, I’m not just being obstreperous; I’m following a natural tendency of existence itself.

All the elaborate conceptual mechanics in pure ontology that concern Being and Event is an elaboration on only the most simple, universal aspect of any being: its mere existence, that it exists. Now, if you’re of a philosophical disposition that privileges the fundamental as the most important aspect of a domain (e.g. existence considered as such, the epistemic problems of skepticism, the categorically necessary principles to make a system of rules a morality), then good for you. We can have some great conversations. 

Under our masks that allow us to act collectively, we have
faces that strain against being anonymous.
But I don’t share your disposition. I’m more inclined to the styles of ontology that concentrate on these complicating movements that make existence as it is lived categorically different than existence as such. Philosophy about existence as such focusses on the ways in which all bodies are ultimately the same, the nature of being. A focus on existence as it’s lived sends you searching after all the ways that bodies and fields can differ from each other, mapping those differences, and conceptualizing the principles of their emergence. This is why I affiliate myself with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Margaret Urban Walker, Bruno Latour, John Dewey, and schools of philosophy like STS. Their ontological eye is on the creation of difference, so can encompass the myriad variations that Badiou’s fundamentally univocal ontology passes over.

Just as Badiou’s fundamental ontology of the collective implies a politics of communism, my own ontological focus on differentiation implies a politics where emancipation is along anarchist lines. Zizek concluded Living in the End Times with reflections on what a new utopian vision for the world could be, because the versions of statist communism failed. Badiou’s essay on failure in The Communist Hypothesis is similar, but appears to be more of a cop-out than Zizek. Badiou sees no flaw in communism itself, but only in the struggle for a new order: for Badiou, failure of emancipatory revolution lies in the intensity of the war unconsciously shifting revolutionary priorities from destroying the state infrastructure itself to replacing the leadership of state infrastructure with yourself. Zizek’s exasperation is more profound, that of a man searching for a new model for emancipation itself. I don’t have all the answers either, but Badiou still has too many answers for my taste.

I admire Badiou because he really is a systematic philosopher, having derived political and social principles from an ontology. But I don’t think he’ll ultimately play a major role in the Utopias project, because of this fundamental philosophical difference between us. Even though you can definitely call him a utopian thinker, on this very basic level, he’s incompatible with the underlying philosophical priorities of the project. The Utopias project ultimately is about articulating a relationship with time, one’s personal and social temporality, that encourages the proliferation of difference, the multiplication of singularities. 
• • •
I think if I was on a more historically conventional employment track in academia, I’d spin this argument into a book-length polemic against Badiou’s philosophy. After all, it connects his ontological with his political principles, and takes their integration seriously, just as Badiou’s own thought does. I think it would be the kind of book that could solidify the reputation of a young scholar. 

But that’s not my career path anymore, because the likelihood of my securing any permanent academic work in future is minimal. Union rules for sessional work in this region of Ontario lock virtually all new labour market entrants out of employment, and no one in their right mind would move provinces or countries for a four-month contract worth less than $7000 (and most of the American adjunct contracts are half that pay scale). Although I’ve seen it done, I have little expectation that I’ll ever land a tenure-track university position without spending a long time drifting from gig to gig four months at a time. My life just isn’t compatible with that itinerant lifestyle anymore. 

I, and a lot of other young scholars, likely won’t get a university position despite our qualifications and skills. So we have to hustle ourselves as writers and editors and publish as independents. Frankly, I have to hit more ambitious ideas than devoting years of work to a single book that would still be in the shadow of an already-successful and near-legendary philosopher. 

What Is Communism Anyway? 2: Come and Join the Collective, Research Time, 24/02/2014

Continued from previous. Ultimately, as a philosophical matter, my biggest problem with Alain Badiou is his conception of the subject as collective. That is, individuality is only ontologically possible insofar as a person is counted as one, counted as a member of a collective. That collective can even contain just one, but it is still a collective. This may sound like some dogmatic Maoism, one more fool uncritically following a doctrine which they believe on the basis of faith. In his political writings, Badiou does discuss how an individual must have total faith in the movement to bring about a just world and change human character along the lines of justice and true material equality among people. But those words about faith do not seem to be for him. Badiou himself has already discovered the reasons why the subject is necessarily constituted through a collective. I think it lies at the fundamental basis of his entire philosophy.

Badiou can be quite difficult, especially in his ontology,
but he deserves his reputation as a tantalizing author.
You see, the first I read of Badiou was Being and Event, a copy that I picked up while on vacation in Toronto back in 2006. It was a Book City bookstore, which is why I’ve always had good feelings about that franchise: most relatively commercial bookstores have pretty miserable philosophy sections, and this one had an esoteric, huge, and complex account of set theory as the original ontology of existence itself, and how political devotion to a revolutionary cause arises from our encounters with events that are incommensurable with previous orders of being and re-inscribe participants into a new collective. Being and Event is one hell of a book, and I consider it one of the greatest philosophical achievements that a single person has made since the Second World War.

However, we don’t always agree with that we admire. Sadly, I don’t see enough admiring critique in philosophy. Young partisans and fans of Badiou tend to lionize and worship him too much. But the grounds of my disagreement lie in Badiou’s conception of the subject.

A detour that isn’t really a digression. The hallmark of Being and Event was, for me, Badiou’s account of set theory as fundamental ontology. Basically, because at its most basic level, in terms of a body’s mere existence, it can always be counted as a member of a set — the most we can do is count them. He spun several more elaborate ontological principles from applying the operations of set theory in an ontological context, but my story today only requires that basic starting point. Even if a body is counted only as one, it is still one only insofar as it is a set; it would simply be a member of a set with one member. Even nothingness counts as one: the null set. 

So every body is only an individual insofar as it is part of a collective; in the most fundamental aspect of its ontology, its mere existence, a body is part of a collective. So it goes for the subject; even at the individual level, it exists only as part of a collective. To deny this status as a collectivity ignores the most fundamental aspect of its very ontology: that it is only what it is insofar as it is a member of a set. Even a set of one, or a set of nothing, is still a collective. And every individual is a set.

Badiou has done something quite remarkable in following through the implications of his approach to fundamental ontology completely into an ethical and political philosophy, his theory of the subject. Bear in mind that this is only speculation after a partial reading of his work. I don’t speak as an expert on the corpus of Badiou (that may never happen, depending on your standard of expertise), but as an expert on philosophical research and reading exploring an idea of Badiou’s in some essays. So any categorical statements I make now will be provisional (and elaborated a little more tomorrow, but not in the sense some of you might think). 

In an essay in The Communist Hypothesis, Badiou describes
China's Cultural Revolution, particularly is first three years,
as a properly subjectivizing event.
In a political sense, the event, that incommensurable opportunity to change the character of one’s existence, is a moment in a subject’s life when he can actually subjectivize himself. It is a moment when he can change who he is: from a self-conscious individual who believes in his separateness from all others, he realizes that he is a member of a set. The event is the kind of moment that wakes a person up to understand that he only exists as a member of a collective. 

One of the earliest criticisms I made of Badiou was that a person’s formative event need not be one that lets someone actualize himself as a radical/communist egalitarian, but could instead have inspired Nazi nationalism, robber-baron capitalism with absolute contempt for the poor, or some other repugnant ideology or faith. Now that I have a better handle on the implicative relationships of the ontology to the politics, I think I understand how the communist political philosophy follows from it. 

Communism is the only political form that is adequate to the fundamental nature of a body’s existence, existing only as a member of a set, a collective. So the only authentic subject is one who struggles for communism, the radical material equality that counts every person as one, just as every being is counted as one.

My central problem with this, and the topic of tomorrow’s post: There is more to the subject than its existence alone.

What Is Communism Anyway? 1: States and Affairs, Research Time, 23/02/2014

Badiou is a fascinating philosopher, but my own work may
not even really need too many of his ideas.
I’ve thrown enough digs at Alain Badiou over the last few months that I should finally dive in more detail into some of his work. As I mentioned on Friday, my friend B sent me an article of his, “The Idea of Communism,” and it’s given me an excellent set of ideas to react to. I still have fundamental disagreements with Badiou’s approach to politics and philosophy, and even though I very much respect that perspective, I’m not actually sure to what degree his work will be useful for the Utopias project. There’s one inescapable element of his thinking that I find remarkably disturbing, his conception of the subject as a collective. This will spread over multiple posts.

“The Idea of Communism” contained two sprightly concepts, each created from merging two ideas that are typically kept separate. One such concept is his term, “State,” always capitalized, to refer both to the institutions of territorial government typically given this term, and simultaneously the situation of one’s current life. In other words, he unites the State with the state of affairs. If you think this sounds fishy, it is, because we experience these phenomena very differently. Of course, most original philosophical concepts sound fishy when they’re first developed, until you can work with them and figure out what they can do. This is the true test of a philosophical concept: what and how it lets you think. If you believe an idea wasn’t worth thinking because it isn’t immediately transparent in the terms you’re most accustomed to, then you’re a bad philosopher.*

* And also a social conservative, but that’s immaterial to this meditation. Maybe.

But there are some further problems with blurring this distinction between institutions of governance and one’s general worldly situation. Badiou, because he’s writing specifically about politics in this essay, is working through how to oppose the injustices of capitalist systems. In particular, he discusses how to overthrow our state institutions of governance. 

The problem is that the enormous capital flows that constitute our modern financial systems are bigger than most states. So overthrowing a state might not cut it in terms of making a substantial dent in the system where it really matters: not the governance institutions that are tied essentially to a defined territory, but the flows of money, credit, capital, and material which constitute a moment that can crush many states. Yes, a state can raise an army, contract mercenaries, run weapons factories, and even control nuclear arsenals. But state actions, even those of the most powerful, have lately been about reacting to developments in these world-sized waves.**

** The People’s Republic of China so far may be the only state whose single actions have had a serious active effect on this process, when they injected billions of dollars worth of credit into their investment markets and construction projects. It is seriously enough to almost double the size of Wuhan. If this credit extension collapses, shit could get seriously serious, even compared to what’s happened already.

Far from withering, Marxist governments
tend too often to over-solidify themselves
in state power. Eventually, they need a new
revolution for one more shot at the
institutional justice the first one failed to
So a focus on states as the primary political and economic units of our time is one problem with Badiou’s concept of the State. However, it also lets us inject some greater profundity in what is, to me, one of the most abused and idiotically parroted ideas in the Karl Marx corpus: the idea that, under communism, the state would ‘wither away.’ When we talk exclusively about a communist party taking over a governance institution, the state doesn’t wither away through the direct social connections of collectivization. It more often results in the slow strangling of a country through bureaucracy. 

It’s an unfortunate side-effect of one of my most hated legacies of the 19th century, the equation of the state with the public. After the last century of failure, a genuinely revolutionary attitude wouldn’t trust the institutions of the state to bring about social change through top-down edicts. At least I don’t.

But Badiou actually has a decent account of how this conceptual union of state institution and state of affairs means for the event of withering. What the social revolution, in Badiou’s perspective, brings about is literally the end of injustice. The state institutions are themselves conceived as the state of affairs. He doesn’t conceive communism as a party in warfare and electoral politics, but as a movement advocating for justice. His conception of the just is bound in communistic principles, but the state of affairs that changes is the whole world we live in.

This leads me to what I think is the greatest benefit of Badiou’s concept of the State. All too often, we think of our government and its bureaucracy as more stable than the mountains. We take its basic functions for granted. At least in the West, they’ve persisted for so long that their nature feels immutable. But we conceive of our worldly situations as fluid, open to change, and always fluctuating to some degree anyway. By blurring the boundary between our worldly situations and our governance institutions, conceiving of those institutions as one element of a wider situation, we can open our thinking to imagine more radical changes to governance. We can see the capacity for change in what we too easily take to be immutable.

About the method of that mutation, Badiou and I still have some very angry words to say to each other.

A Hopeless and Stupid World, Jamming, 21/02/2014

I was originally planning to write another post about the political philosophy research I’m doing for the Utopias project, perhaps about the Badiou essay that my friend B sent me a copy of the other day. Then I learned that Kyiv exploded.

As of my writing this draft (on the evening of 20 February, which will be posted on the morning of 21 February), there were over twenty confirmed dead in Independence Square. I have my own perspective on the subject, which is very simple. I’ve been watching periodic news on Ukrainian politics throughout my adulthood, not for any personal reason, but just as part of my taste for international news. I remember watching reports of Viktor Yuschchenko’s near-fatal poisoning and the public protests that resulted in his presidency. I remember Yuschchenko’s mediocre tenure as Ukrainian president until his own coalition kicked him out. I remember the most recent election, when Yulia Tymoshenko, another Orange Revolution protest leader, was defeated in her run for president by Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin-backed politician whose 2004 election fraud began this mad decade-long cycle. Yanukovych himself, since he returned to the presidency, has been following as best he can the post-Soviet script for leaders: jailing his opponents, such as Tymoshenko, on amorphous charges of “corruption,” and using the powers of his office to enrich his extended family to oligarchical levels.

Today is not a good day in Ukraine.
Now Kyiv is consumed with rioting and police and protestors are shooting each other. When this kind of violence last happened in the old Soviet sphere of influence, a coalition of NATO countries and UN peacekeepers rolled in to bring some semblance of order, or at least make a gesture towards it. But this isn’t Bosnia, and we live in a very different world than the early 1990s. It isn’t just that Russia is a much stronger country actually able to flex its muscles in what used to be its exclusive territory (indeed, in this case, its national territory). But this is the case. And it isn’t just that the United States is a much weaker power than it has been, having lost its taste and stomach for foreign intervention after imploding the material and mental capacity of its own armed forces in two protracted, practically unending Asian wars. But this is the case.

A significant part of why our world has changed, aside from the policies, economics, and military powers of states, lies in the internet. When the siege of Sarajevo began, we had only the conventional television, radio, and newsprint media to follow the situation and inform us of what was happening. Now, we can follow all the action of the Kyiv protests and police violence all over the internet, particularly on twitter. We can even trace the story and life of an individual medical volunteer wounded by gunfire during the last few days. 

Smartphone technology is an indispensable tool for anti-Putin/Yanukovych activists to organize themselves. But smartphone technology was also an indispensable tool for the Ukrainian police to track and intimidate protestors, as in the incident of police sending texts to Kyiv citizens within the region of the protests, “Dear subscriber, you have been registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” 

Viktor Yanukovych is not a democrat. Democrats don't
throw their political opponents in prison.
Even beyond the powers and vulnerabilities that contemporary technology grants to people, the internet enables access to a plethora of knowledge and conversation. But this isn’t knowledge that informs people; it’s the chatter of conspiracy theory that plays into the hands of politicians (Viktor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin, to avoid any ambiguity on my part) who use police state tactics and a Stalinist gulag system to oppress and silence anyone who would critique their regime or act against it.

This absolutely awful viral video, to which I will only link, because I don’t want this crap on my page, was the product of filmmakers funded by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and US-government-funded pro-democracy groups. Its makers intended it to mobilize global support for the protests. And it’s certainly encouraging a lot of slacktivism. But after it's debunked over this weekend, many people of otherwise good conscience will turn against Ukraine’s protestors and side with 'the true people of Ukraine' in their culturally organic association with Russia and resistance to the corruption of the European Union and dominance by the capitalist empire of Washington and American corporations.

It sickens me.

The “I Am Ukrainian” video clearly echoes Kony 2012, which means Yanukovych and Putin are probably immensely happy to see it. That idiotic scam, trying to mobilize popular support for a US invasion of central Africa to arrest a warlord in the name of international peace and justice was the last nail in the coffin of the international civil society that was once the dream of people like Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt. Because politically-minded people today see conspiracy and manipulation behind every attempt to encourage the end of a war in a foreign country. Even worse, they see imperialism and racism.

The right wing is the traditional opponent of
billionaire democracy activists like George
Soros. Post Kony 2012, the left are calling
him a sneaky villain of corporate capitalism.
The 2003 Iraq War permanently turned all socially progressive civil society against any American intervention for the sake of peace in a foreign country. Now, we all take it for granted that when a rich democracy speaks out against some human rights abuse or foreign police state, it’s the pretext for a 21st century empire. 

The Ukrainian protestors have become violent, and they have killed policemen. And both police and protestors have probably killed some innocent civilians by now. But if your state police force is mobilized to use unrestrained deadly force against your protests, damn right you’ll pick up a gun and defend yourself. Or a molotov cocktail. Meanwhile, Soros and the United States are vilified as meddlers and imperialists. We used to consider them the beacons of democracy and freedom. The truth is, we live in a world where no one trusts anyone anymore, where every political agitation in the name of democracy is a conspiracy to install and enforce the terror of global capitalism.

As far as the best story on the internet is concerned, all these protests are “part of Washington’s goal to control the entire world.” The protests aren't about an established police state (Russia) aiding the evolution of Ukraine into an allied police state, they're how Ukraine is conquered by "Western corporate predators." 

A few weeks ago, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was on The
Colbert Report. In a few months, she might be in an
unmarked grave in central Russia. Her possible death in
prison would be the fault of the anti-empire left's and the
isolationist right's heroic resister of Western corporate
capitalism, Vladimir Putin.
And idiotic leftists who take a few courses in post-structuralist philosophy and valorize the Paris protests of May 1968 will become fervent supporters of Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych as allies against Washington’s domination of the world, and the growth of Western capitalism. They’re no worse than the Communists during the Great Depression who spied on the United States and the European democracies for Stalin’s Soviet Union. The grassroots left in North America, who perhaps used to be intelligent, will forget Russian democracy activists being whipped in the street and sent back to gulags to die because the evil Western corporate empire is oppressing those poor police state elites of Ukraine. It was only the day before "I am a Ukrainian" dropped that Russian police were beating members of Pussy Riot in the streets like a sadist would beat a starving dog. But because he stands against the expansion of Washington's power, a lot of morons of the contemporary left will soon claim Vladimir Putin as a champion of the downtrodden.

Modern corporate capitalism is objectively awful in many ways. It’s created an elite of international oligarchs and a worldwide system of industrial production that rests on an impoverished underclass of billions and is causing catastrophic ecological change to our planet. Modern capitalism is our name for a culture whose solution to food shortages is to pollute our farms with layer after layer of pesticides, whose solution to flailing manufacturing industries is to dismember unions to force people to work for barely above subsistence wages and take on tens of thousands in debt. 

But we will never overcome these injustices by allying ourselves with police states!

Fear of the Future, Research Time, 20/02/2014

While I was publishing my extended riff on the institutionalization of creative writing, I was securing a couple of journalistic publications, working on a new theatre script, preparing some promotion for Under the Trees, Eaten, continuing some research for the Utopias project, and preparing to move apartments. Among a few other things. 

But my Utopias research discovered another interesting take on the nature of authority that could either be useful for the analysis, or a head-scratching anomaly for it. I still haven’t quite figured that out. Part of Zizek’s analysis of authoritarianism involved the example of Josef Fritzl. This was the case of an Austrian man who, in August 2008, was discovered to have spent the previous 24 years holding his now-middle-aged daughter captive in a cellar under his house. He had frequently raped her and bore seven children with her, though one died shortly after childbirth. Three of them were raised entirely in the cellar, and another three were raised by the elderly Josef and his wife, the latter children regarded as foundlings they had adopted.

The immensely creepy Josef Fritzl is led into court.
Zizek examines Fritzl’s behaviour toward his daughter and incestuous grand/children over those 24 years to reach a more disturbing conclusion than even the popular reporting did. I remember it being widely regarded at the time as a case of a twisted, deranged sex criminal. Something like the Ariel Castro case today.* Reports in the media at the time were also flabbergasted at how such a thing could go unnoticed for 24 years by neighbours, and even Fritzl’s wife. News reporters often ran analysis pieces discussing the excessive politeness of Austrians, their tendency (almost pathological in this case) to leave others to their own business without interference. Zizek interprets Fritzl in an even stranger and horrifying light. 

* Castro began kidnapping women in 2002, while Fritzl was only discovered in 2008, so there is no way we can consider Castro to be a Fritzl copycat. I wonder how many other such crimes over the years have gone undiscovered, and how many women who are simply not prioritized in missing persons investigations are actually in cellars and attics, unseen outside for years or decades.

Zizek describes Fritzl’s behaviour toward his grand/children in the cellar as mimicking a strange kind of normalcy: visiting them regularly, playing with the small ones, and watching television with them. No matter how much he may have been a horrifying spectre to his daughter, who was his imprisoned incestuous rape victim for over two decades, his day-to-day interaction with this hidden family followed all the trappings of an ordinary family man. Zizek refers to Fritzl’s own accounts of himself where he speaks of his love for his children and grand/children, his desire to protect them from the evils of the wider world. Paternal care is perverted to justify torture.

This is how Zizek finds the political content of Fritzl’s pathology: he is the paradigm case, on a micro scale, of the paternalistic authoritarian, for whom oppression and control is an expression of love. He interprets the same pattern in Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship of Romania: the tight social controls of his government over the behaviour of the people is for their own good, to protect them from the dangers of the wider world for which they lack the fortitude to handle. 

Fear of the future, of the development of a people, is the driving force of the temporal relationship and conception here. The most deluded parent is the one who has become incapable of understanding the experience, maturity, and adulthood of their children. They universalize the present moment of childhood and immaturity to all times, never understanding that such states of being change. 

This political pathology reveals the temporal dimension of a central element of democracy: that no matter how good a government may be, it must at some point leave power and change itself. The movement of time brings flux, and the imposition of stability over that flux will inevitably become repression. We must not ignore the reality of the yet-to-exist future for the sake of constructing an infinitely enduring present.

IowaLit 4: The Limits and Dreams of Ambition, Composing, 19/02/2014

Continued from previous. Yet literary singularity remains a paradoxical matter, at least in the account of it that I gleaned from Eric Bennett. The perfect articulation of a literary singularity is a description so precise and detailed that no general description or summary could be fully adequate to it. There is always some remainder. 

Derrida's embrace of seemingly insoluble paradoxes
include his decision to make a living as a writer, despite
considering language inadequate to reality in many ways.
Typical negative theologian.
Literature of the evocative image actually strives for a remarkably ambitious goal, which the Derrida-influenced streams of literary theory would actually take to be impossible. One of Jacques Derrida’s most intriguing concepts in his philosophy of language is that any linguistic expression is inherently inadequate to reality itself. The words of language are themselves generalities because they are applicable to more than one unique situation. In any description at all, there is always some remainder, some facet of the described reality that escapes the ability of language itself to describe it. Yet in the atmosphere of institutionalized middling that is Bennett’s experience of University of Iowa’s creative writing program, the supposedly unambitious evocative paradigm strives for a genuine impossibility.

Language puzzles people, I think more than literature. Despite the overrated break between analytic and continental philosophy over the last hundred or so years, one can make a solid case that the major philosophical discourses and controversies of the 20th century revolved around the nature of language. For examples, see any of the following list: Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, Bertrand Russell (though his work is often misunderstood by ignoring his dual focus on both language and mathematics), Alfred Tarski, Martin Heidegger, Rudolf Carnap, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean Beaudrillard, Saul Kripke, Willard van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, Elizabeth Anscombe, David Lewis, John Searle. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of people.

That century was even more inventive in its innovations in the forms, techniques, and subject matters of literature. Compared to the innovations of the last century, the 21st would seem rather bland in comparison. Literary creation is far more corporate, and authors no longer innovate quite so wildly, and when they do, those experiments do not receive the same popular enthusiasm as the experimental works of, for example, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon. Bennett’s essay is not only an advertisement for his own book on the genesis of the Iowa program, but is also part of a collection exploring the tensions between the MFA program establishment and the major New York publishing houses. The 21st century seems dominated by corporate priorities instead of artistic ones.

You need not restrict that last statement to the world of the arts alone.

Art and commerce have always had a
problematic relationship, but sometimes the
art is too amazing to worry too much about
all the problems. This caption brought to you
by Netflix, where you can watch Breaking Bad
until you starve to death on your own sofa.
Yet the literature of evocation quietly hides this mad ambition. Writing a wildly ambitious novel is openly and obviously a grand gesture. I have always had sympathy with artists who strive to create works that serve for the cultures of this century what Joyce, Marcel Proust, Beckett, Pablo Picasso, the Beatles, or F. W. Murnau supplied for the last one. And what Paul Cézanne, Charles Dickens, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herman Melville did for the 19th century. Perhaps we’ll remember David Simon, Vince Gilligan, and Death Grips that way in decades to come. Writing the Great American Novel (or even the Great Canadian or Kenyan novel) is an ambition that includes all the skills of literary, narrative, and philosophical creation in a single, enormous project. Its writer becomes a bonfire that can be seen from a long way away. 

But here is the calm, sedate, humble style of evocative literature strolling out of Iowa with an ambition to do what some of the great thinkers of the last century have called impossible: craft language that is ontologically adequate to reality and life itself. The genre mashups that characterize my own Under the Trees, Eaten and some of the other ideas for short novels that I’m mulling over, have a different focus, which is less ambitious in this regard. 

My own literary works are philosophically informed art, but don’t strive for this kind of singularity. I’m too comfortable in the pulpy world of science-fiction to fit into the culture of Iowa as I understand it. My work in this realm, like the works of philosophy that I most admire and value, aims to provoke a reader to think differently about their life, and perhaps even change it, even in the relatively minor details of their thought and ethics. When some brilliant writer of the Iowan model finally does accomplish the impossible and craft language completely adequate to the singularity of reality, I’m not sure what can happen after that, how the form can move on. Literature whose motive is to change the world will always be vibrant because the world will always have problems to solve, and those solutions will constitute further, different problems in the future. Evocative literature seeks to reflect the world perfectly. But philosophical literature seeks to change it.

IowaLit 3: Using Stereotypes to Overthrow Stereotypes, Composing, 18/02/2014

Continued from previous. Canadiana is one of those words that every Canadian understands when they hear it, and can actually give a pretty reasonable definition if you ask them. St. Augustine would encounter no problems here. Such literature would be a paradigm for how Eric Bennett describes the University of Iowa model, as Canadiana short stories and books would be composed almost entirely of vivid evocations of a time and place, usually an isolated, rural place, and a time before the intense connectivity of modern technology. I’m reminded of Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, in part about the difficult task the protagonist has of tracking down a former childhood friend. Set today, this sequence would usually last no more than a moment of searching on the internet for a Facebook page. 

Part of what I actually enjoy about Atwood's
fiction is how much, in her later work, she fought
those awful stereotypes of Canadian literature
that she catalogued so well.
The point is that Canadiana has virtually no positive connotations, at least to a contemporary audience. It’s dull, boring, and about a country that doesn’t really exist anymore, the all-white anglo-British wasteland carved out of wilderness where nothing changes and nothing even really thrives.* Atwood didn’t call her book of literary theory encyclopedically describing and defining Canadiana Survival for nothing.

* So not only is Canadiana boring, but it’s implicitly racist too, often overwriting and invalidating the presence of francophone Canadians, as well as the existence of indigenous peoples and non-British immigrants. The Canadiana model whitewashes this land.

But the form of Canadiana is the linguistic evocation of the place with such vividness that each individual description becomes a singularity, each story and novel a unique point on this continuum of desolation. The literature of Canadiana is the apex of what the Iowan approach demands of creative expression. And the exhausted emptiness of Canadiana today demonstrates the emptiness of the Iowan approach to literature.

Yet we don’t live in a world that has seen new literature completely robbed of philosophical and political ambition. For one thing, even the typical Iowan model produces political relevance: the ability to craft a literary singularity that defies all reduction to an ideological position politicizes the apolitical itself. Paul Engle the cultural Cold Warrior achieved all he wanted in this regard. The question is whether there is a way forward from the model, and Bennett’s central critique (aside from the usual questions of whether any politically radical notion or action can survive CIA sponsorship) is that the Iowa style has stagnated. Institutionalizing creative writing within a university degree system that requires a continual influx of majors tailors an education in writing to the less-talented participants. The techniques that are most often taught are the easiest to master, and the more talented who could handle ambitious approaches are left to fend for themselves. 

It would have been strange enough
for a Lovecraft story to have a female
protagonist at all, let alone one as
strange and powerful as Jo.
I crafted my own approach to overcoming a stagnating field of fiction in my own novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, which has been called a twisted revitalization of Canadiana, ironically enough. The story is, in part, an engagement with one symptom of literary stagnation, the reliance on genre tropes. Current alternative literature is seeing a boom in works dealing with the ideas and iconography of H. P. Lovecraft. I’m not an innovator in using iconography plainly inspired by Lovecraft for my own original work. The comic series Fatale is probably the best example of this trend that I can think of because it uses Lovecraft’s imagery in relation to a style of character that would never have fit in Lovecraft’s world, a femme fatale with psychic powers of the sort found in more futuristic science-fiction genres. 

The first extension of Lovecraft’s genre after his death was by August Derleth. Although popular at the time, Derleth’s stories are recognized as rather retrograde. While Lovecraft created the legendary iconography of Cthulhu, Derleth synthesized all these elements into a unified, internally consistent mythology. Essentially, Derleth completed the Lovecraftian mythos, turning it from a set of related images into a canon. Most people now understand this to be a terrible thing to do, because it means there could only be one style of Lovecraftian stories, those which were consistent with the details of the mythology. Thankfully, writers have since learned how to overcome this terrible act of creative limitation. We ignore it.

So Under the Trees, Eaten introduced a realistic contemporary female character (with just a hint of implicit genre-awareness à la Buffy) into a Lovecraftian horror story featuring a smattering of Canadiana tropes and my own gleefully pessimistic approach to human drama. It’s the simple story of a woman coming to grips with her parents’ deaths in the context of a Lovecraftian contract with otherworldly aliens, through scenes describing imagery and events with the meticulous and evocative detail of the Iowa style according to Bennett's account. Pulp meets feminism meets literary singularity. To be continued . . . 

IowaLit 2: Fighting Ideology With the Singularly Unique, Jamming, 17/02/2014

Continued from previous. Yet there is more to the Iowa school’s rejection of erudite writing styles than the simple distrust of ambition and the humiliation that comes with failure to reach lofty goals. Because literary ambition is never employed for the sake of ambition alone, but to make a statement about human nature itself, which would employ literature as an ideological tool.

Eric Bennett’s article describes how the Iowa style of short story writing emerged from an ideological battle. Ideology, as it was originally used in the works of Marx, referred to a framework of thought that distorted one’s view of reality. There was reality according to ideology, and opposed to this was reality itself. But contemporary investigations of ideological phenomena have discovered that all thinking and practical action occurs within a framework of ideas about how the world is that helps constitute our partisan place as political and social actors.

According to teachers at University of Iowa’s creative writing program, and the programs across North America that followed its model, their style is about leaving beside abstraction. The pyramidal schema that Bennett discusses leads most students of the program to focus on evocative imagery and simple character development. It’s easy to achieve your ambitions when you set those ambitions low. If you try to write another Invisible Man, or Ulysses, or Lolita, you’ll probably fail, so don’t try.

But the culture that developed in the wake of Iowa wasn’t just tainted by that sad attitude of academics phoning in their work, curving their evaluations to their low expectations. Bennett also describes a disdainful and dismissive attitude in the Iowa program regarding stylistically, formally, and philosophically ambitious authors: William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace, all treated with derision. What strikes me about this is not so much that students were discouraged from emulating these challenging writers, but that the writers themselves were denigrated.

Your Iowa man sneers at books and stories that aim for the strange, ambitious, philosophical, and symbolic, while loving and fostering depictions of particular, contingent, specific places. There is a veneration of the microscopic over the macroscopic. I think, and Bennett suggests, that the foundation of this attitude lies in the  ideological aspects of the Iowa program’s development. Paul Engle, its founder, developed Iowa’s creative writing program as a means to defeat the Soviet Union, a political battle that was defined by its opposition to Marxism.

In a very simple sense, Marxism constitutes an ideology itself, a universal framework for understanding the world that can comprehend any phenomenon according to its terms. No matter what kind of activity under discussion, a dedicated Marxist interlocutor (at least one of Cold War vintage, little brighter than a human parrot) will interpret it as an expression of the class struggle against capitalist exploitation. Now, you might think that the best way to fight a universalizing ideology like this is to create one of your own, about the inherent superiority of market forces. That’s one way the old American Cold Warriors fought the Soviets, and you can see this ideology kicking into overdrive whenever you talk to a fairly doctrinaire young libertarian. 

But ultimately, fighting one theory with another theory doesn’t work. You’ll end up with a stalemate of opposed rationalizations, neither ever able to throw up a scenario that another can’t explain. No, the real way to oppose a universalizing ideology is to find exceptions: an exception to a universal ideology invalidates the ideology. You’ve found a place where an idea that supposedly applies everywhere doesn’t apply.

Alice Munro is a skilled author of some of the most
beautiful fiction works in literature. Yet she also includes
some of the most tired stereotypes of Canadiana: rural life,
the conflict of generations, characters who live event-less
So we now have, at least in a philosophical reconstruction, a goal for why creative writing programs in the style of University of Iowa’s focus so much on intensely detailed descriptions of contingent, specific images, places, times, and characters. These stories constitute moments and objects that can’t be generalized. Any attempt to interpret them according to a universalizing ideological world-narrative or philosophy always leaves some remainder, showing the inadequacy of the ideology to the real world. This is a brilliant idea.

Yet the idea still encounters the problem of triteness. Yes, you have a singular moment where the uniqueness of a place, moment, or character (or sometimes a combination of several or all of these) is so vividly rendered that it strikes a reader dumb. I found this structure almost inevitably in the works of Alice Munro. She is able to depict powerful moments, revelations of twisted pasts, and characters about whom I found my mouth dropping in shock. But beyond these portraits, there is little else. They’re stories of great beauty, but they have no majesty.

The conundrum speaks to where I find myself as a writer in Canada today, thinking about the relationship of my own work with that tired old concept of Canadiana. To be continued . . . 

IowaLit: The Perils of Institutionalized Art, Research Time, 15/02/2014

I have some friends who have gotten creative writing degrees and diplomas, and the whole institution of academic creative writing programs fascinate me. They are literally degrees in creative expression; not just the technical aspects of writing fiction and poetry, but the expression itself. And my friend A posted an article from Chronicle of Higher Education by Eric Bennett, an English professor and alumnus of University of Iowa, about the history of the pivotal creative writing program that generated the contemporary explosion of them across North America: Iowa City.

I linked the article, so you can read it yourselves when you want to. But here are his basic points that I considered most intriguing. 1) University of Iowa’s MFA program in creative writing secured the funding and international cultural influence that it did through a strategic alliance of the program’s director during the Eisenhower years with the CIA and various prominent businessmen of the United States to promote their literary cultural products in competition with the Soviet Union. 2) University of Iowa’s program was so successful that its model spawned proliferating creative writing programs around North America. 3) Many of these creative writing programs produce boring, unambitious work, short stories focussing on intensely detailed and emotionally evocative depictions of generic, unremarkable moments.

Recently, I finally started reading Invisible Man, a
masterpiece of 20th century literature which combines
beautifully evocative language, vivid characters, strong
metaphors, and trafficking in ideas that challenged the
entire society of the United States.
Bennett decries how the educational methods of these programs drive people away from philosophical literature, or literature that deals with ideas. To illustrate, Bennett describes how one of his teachers would draw a pyramid on the classroom chalkboard. The bottom, foundational layer was grammar and syntax, the basic skills of written expression that people need to write coherently at all. The following layer up is sensorily descriptive language: smells, sounds, and visions, the composition of imagery. 

After imagery came the crafting of character, and resting on the development of characters was metaphor, imagery or events with multiple interpretive meanings instead of just evocation. The apex of the pyramid was symbolism, the deeper meaning of a text taken as a whole. Bennett doesn’t claim this exact model was universally used, but that it represented a fairly universal framework of how people were taught to write in the MFA context.

Because as a guide to how a good piece of writing works, taking this model is an excellent idea. The best works of literature include these five priorities* in composition. But the techniques of such writing programs as institutions, he says, don’t encourage you to incorporate all five priorities — basic skills, imagery, character, metaphor, and ideas — into a work. Instead, Bennett describes programs as encouraging students to treat each priority as a mode of writing itself.

* My personal favourite exception to this is the work of Jorge Luis Borges, although in many of the conversations and interpretive writings about him that I’ve read, he doesn’t get the credit he does for creating vivid characters inside his ideas and plots. 

In other words, the message is that it’s very difficult to write a good story with a lot of complex symbolic content, but it’s much easier to write a story whose purpose is evocative sensory imagery. So a student who writes a simple story with minimal character development, but good use of the simpler techniques of imagery will get a better grade on their story than the ambitious student who tried to craft a more complex story yet wasn’t quite up to the task. In other words, the message is that aiming low will make your work more successful, because low ambitions are more easily achieved.

And as far as Bennett’s analysis goes, this is the result of institutionalizing the creation of art. Making artistic creation a university program open to mass enrollment results in people who may not have the most potential in fiction writing taking the courses. All teachers are familiar with these, just as I am from teaching philosophy: they’re the B and C level students who understand the basics of the material, but never quite apply themselves to mastering the implicit elements of a text. 

A C-level reader of philosophy can understand the accounts of a text that they receive in lecture or through reading secondary material. A B-level reader will understand how the text generates those interpretations. An A-level reader of philosophy will understand how the text can generate multiple interpretations. The people who can continue to practice philosophy, if they so choose, are those A-level writers. And I don’t just mean write secondary material, but develop new primary material, writing the new works that progress the discipline itself. 

And so it goes with creative writing programs, the academic institutions that have incorporated the profession of fiction and poetry writing into a system of majors. Because if there’s one thing teachers know about the B and C students of a class, it’s that they probably wouldn’t be best at doing this task for a living.

Yet this is precisely what Bennett accuses the professors of creative writing programs of doing. If we put contemporary fiction writers in competition with Alice Munro, James Baldwin, Elfriede Jelinek, Roberto Bolaño, and so on, they have to strive to the same level as geniuses. At heart, all artists worth reading strive for this. But the professors reward students not for ambition, but for craft alone. The simple story written well receives more praise than the flawed work of ambition. To be continued . . .