Kraftwerkdenken 1: Machinic Man in a World of Computers, A History Boy, 31/03/2014

Watching Kraftwerk’s 3D concert this Saturday was delicious for my philosophical brain as well as my musical and cinematic brains. It provoked me to revisit an old argument that I’ve heard for a long time, why people are uncomfortable with the typical materialism of philosophy in discussions and contexts regarding mind and soul. 

One of the most striking philosophical denunciations I’ve ever had thrown at me lay in this issue. It happened at one of the Jockey Club meetings in which I used to take part when I was at Memorial’s philosophy department. Discussing a paper about mind-body dualism, I expressed my belief, which I basically still hold, that humans are entirely physical creatures, and that our personalities and mental aspects are ultimately generated by physical processes. And an older student from the English faculty then loudly denounced me as someone who did not believe in morality or ethics, for that reason. 

No matter what their art has suggested over the years, we
are not actually robots. Not even Kraftwerk anymore.
I was more than flummoxed by the response, but it’s rooted in a concern that still rankles people, me included. This is the presumption that material, the physical, is only capable of extremely simple activity. After all, what more can be done with a physical object other than kicking it down the road? When the image of the mind as software for the brain was first developed, computers were very simple machines running very rudimentary processes. They were the kind of computers that Kraftwerk depicts in their visuals and music. Harshly bright green text on a dark green screen, huge clunky monitors and little more processing power than a calculator. 

If this is the kind of computer of which the human mind was a slightly more complicated model, then this vision of humanity depicts us literally as robots. Their mobility depressingly limited, little more than a talking mannequin. All of humanity’s profundities would be mere simulations, lying to ourselves that we could be more significant than we really were. If this was the dream of a technological, materialist humanity, then for many people it was a nightmare. 

If anything bugged me about Cmdr.
Data's existentialism, it was that he
framed it in terms of 'becoming human.'
Really, just like humans, we should all
strive to make ourselves more complex
Venerable curmudgeonly scholars muscle strong arguments against this reductive materialism, the idea that we are “nothing but” or “mere” matter in motion. But you don’t have to believe in anything transcendentally or cheesily spiritual to overcome this idea. Even just learning how vastly complex material systems can actually become are good enough. This is why I was happy to discover the work of Manuel DeLanda during my doctoral research. He spells out in detail just how complex even the simplest movements of particles (convection currents in your oven, in your oceans, or over your city) actually are, and the frightfully difficult mathematical locations just to plot their tendencies of motion. His 2011 book Philosophy and Simulation was a series of chapters describing the different systems of cellular, organismic, ecological, and socio-political interactions that computer simulation can depict accurately with chaos mathematics. We can now do actual simulations of small tribe economics, one level of ecosystemic relations (that is, just the animals and plants consumption relations and symbioses), and urban traffic flow of vehicles, transit, and pedestrians. And that's just with the technology of the 2000s. There has been progress since. The visuals Kraftwerk played for their "Tour de France" suite at the concert depicted even France itself as an enormous, complex machine, constituted through the trillions of geographical and technological threads that knit it together. 

We too often think, at least in the popular consciousness, that mathematical prediction of movement is easy. The world’s most powerful computers strain to grasp the complexity with which urban traffic systems move. Now consider systems with the incredible complexity of systems and their many layers of interaction as an ecosystem or an organism. The materialism I believe in isn’t that old-fashioned reductive kind that depicts humans as robots moved only by the most simple drives. Why I distrust Freudian or Lacanian perspectives in philosophical and social criticism is because their framework for human motivation is too simple, almost facile, compared to the frameworks of chaos mathematics that actually approach the tendencies of actual matter interacting in the world. My kind of materialism believes that the material is actually adequate to all the tasks for which we commonly believe that a mind is necessary. 

So don't be afraid of your nature as a machine. It’s not that we get rid of the immaterial substance of mind. It’s that we could achieve so much without even having it at all. Matter is powerful enough to be a mind.

Self-Production: A Body of Continual Genesis, Composing, 28/03/2014

Yesterday, I went back through the chapter of my Ecophilosophy manuscript that wrapped up the project, working on some edits and developing some notes for my formal book proposal. I had planned to get the proposal finished earlier this month, but then it turned out that moving apartments took quite a lot of logistical effort. And I wrote a play.

But revisiting this project reminds me of some of the solid philosophical ideas that I developed for it, and the value of these ideas for other people to pick up. Even if it just amounts to a discussion on the blog for a while, I’m interested to work out these ideas in public, and maybe encourage a reader to think a little differently. After all, that’s what philosophy is for.

A prominent example of self-producing bodies are simple
organisms, compared to which even an amoeba is
ridiculously complicated.
One concept that was central to this project is that of the self-producing body. The minimal condition of the existence of the self is an auto-producing process, a process that literally creates and maintains itself. There is a very facile argument against there being self-producing bodies. I often find myself incredulous that I have to argue with such a view at all.

Here’s how it goes. The very idea of a body being able to produce itself is self-contradictory. If a body produced itself, then it would have already had to exist before it was produced. Therefore, a self-producing body is impossible.

Of course, anyone who actually studies even any of the basic principles of the biological science where this idea (its technical name being autopoiesis) arose, will see how ridiculous this argument is. The type of body that can produce itself isn’t like an android arm on an assembly table putting its other parts together. It’s a complex of chemical reactions that, once they get started, produce a physical boundary that stabilizes the chemical reaction that produced it in the first place. That’s the kind of ‘self-production’ I’m talking about. One of the problems with keeping argumentation to very abstract and very simple contexts is that, if you simplify your thinking enough, everything turns to straw.

I reference phenomenological philosophy in the manuscript, particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for several reasons. One of those is that an environmentalist version, called ecophenomenology, conditions a person to think in terms that are more receptive than humans usually are to understanding themselves as integrated and interdependent with the processes and affects that surround them. Of course, it isn’t perfect in doing so — any phenomenological perspective is going to concentrate too heavily on the primacy of the subject to be truly and completely ecological. But its eco- version can bump you in the right direction. I think of it as a tool with which you start, but that you should leave behind. 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Like all my influences,
nobody's perfect.
Merleau-Ponty’s own thought, especially in his final years, I find has a lot of potential for the de-centring of the subject and subjectivity that I found in Deleuze’s thought, and that is vital to the Ecophilosophy project. But one of his more problematic concepts (along with his premature death, before he could develop these directions in detail) kept him rooted in the primacy of the subject, that of pre-reflective consciousness. The argument that there must be a pre-reflective consciousness goes something like this. 

Human consciousness is reflective. But if human consciousness were entirely reflective, there would be nothing prior to the act of reflection to do the primal reflecting. Therefore, there has to be a pre-reflective element of human consciousness, which is always hidden from our experience, because human consciousness always exists in a pre-reflective mode. 

Am I the only one who saw that this has the same form as the facile argument against auto-producing bodies? A body cannot produce itself unless something of it existed to produce anything in the first place. A consciousness cannot reflect on itself unless there were something of it there to reflect in the first place. Consciousness is actually a process more like autopoiesis than intentional, physical construction. It’s an assembly of many processes that, in their very coming together, stabilize themselves and better enable those processes to continue. 

That’s essentially my argument against having to port the concept of pre-reflective consciousness along with the other ideas in Merleau-Ponty’s thinking that I think work — what it presumes is unnecessary. In a fundamental way, consciousness and perception does not work in the particular way this argument would imply. It is far more complex.

Janitorial Duties, Jamming, 27/03/2014

Skipping a post today so I can get some of the last organizing done around the apartment. I hope everyone who reads semi-regularly is okay with that. Until then, I thought I'd do a quick summary of some of my favourite posts since I started this project last July. As you might remember, it was basically a motivational work at its core — something to make sure I got at least a little work on my creative projects in fiction and philosophy done every day.

Some of my favourite things

Your Obsession with Sophists Is Juvenile Sophistry! This remains one of my most popular posts, and still gets hits even though I published it back in July. Who knew my griping about one of the more annoying habits of philosophers — being dicks to each other — would spark such a conversation.

Catch the Conscience of the Doctor. My very long take, after my first two viewings, of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, The Day of the Doctor. Doctor Who is a cultural property that's been extremely important to me. In childhood, he was the closest thing to a direct father figure I had in my life, weird as that sounds. In adulthood, Doctor Who is somewhere I can turn when I'm feeling depressed or stuck because, in its best moments, it inspires me to believe that anything is possible. This story achieved that more than most.

Questions of Heritage. Michel Serres is a fascinating and strange philosopher, the kind of writer who's done the best possible thing with his retirement. He's gotten weirder with age. Reading his book, Le Tiers-Instruit for some of the edits I was making to my Ecophilosophy manuscript this Fall encouraged some reflections on the nature and styles of philosophy when it's written best. With ambition.

Colin McGinn and the Inevitable Sexism of Institutional Power. Philosophy at its worst, however, is an institutionalized excuse for desperate and self-deluded old men to take advantage of emotionally and financially vulnerable people. I actually got into some fights about my stance on McGinn. One commenter defended him. A couple of former friends actually interpreted my stance on McGinn as a creepy old man whose perspective was twisted by arrogance and egomania into believing that he was some kind of victim was actually showing some kind of sympathy for him. This is an example of what gets me most enraged about universities today, that behaviour like this results in a cushy pension and early retirement, while dedicated young teachers and writers are shut out of even entry-level positions.

She's Sort of a Nietzschean Superhero / Sex Goddess / Zen Master. But on the bright side, there's my utopian vision expressed in my long-term plans for science-fiction writing. You can read the history of one of my favourite fictional characters that I've created so far, Alice. I've imagined several different science-fiction stories featuring her character (and so far written only one). Probably the most difficult thing about approaching this character, as a writer, is understanding someone who is free from so many resentful motives that she isn't even really human anymore. Alice embodies optimism in my thinking, because she lives in a way that leaves behind the pettiness of humanity. But she embodies pessimism because I don't think it's possible for a human ever to achieve this.

What I'm looking forward to

In addition to being able to tour my novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, this Summer (available soon from BlankSpace Publications), you'll know from a post earlier this week that I'm having a play produced. I'll be blogging about various stages of the production, making announcements, and reporting on its promotion. And over the Summer and Fall, I'm going to try to get started on another fiction writing project, I hope revisiting Alice in the idea I describe in this post. Connected to that, I'm looking forward to reading more of Philip Roth and J. G. Ballard to plunder ideas about how to write about, respectively, horrible people who still earn a reader's sympathy, and the dystopian nature of the world we live in today.

In terms of my philosophical work, I'm going to leap into revisions of the Ecophilosophy manuscript soon, to purge the last stylistic vestiges of its nature as a doctoral dissertation (not that there were more than the minimum to begin with) and make it a potentially popular book examining human nature and potential in the context of our contemporary ecological crisis. And research for the Utopias project continues. I hope to have a collection of Filippo Marinetti's works on my overcrowded bookshelves soon, as he's a central historical and philosophical figure in the project. As well, I'm looking forward to revisiting the ideas of Antonio Negri, who will probably be my last major philosophical shoulder on which I can rest my own ambition.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

To Belong Is to Be Who You Are, Research Time, 26/03/2014

I often get into arguments with my libertarian friends, despite how much some of our beliefs overlap. We very much disagree when it comes to the libertarian tendency to economic conservatism, but we tend to agree on the basic philosophical importance of individual freedom and liberties. Even so, we differ substantially. A conversation I had with my friend C over the Hobby Lobby case before the United States Supreme Court found us disagreeing on a simple, intractable matter. 

I sympathized with the position of a woman who should have the economic freedom to have her medical expenses, birth control included, covered by her insurance plan. He sympathized with the position of an employer being forced to underwrite insurance plans that included services he considered unconscionably immoral. Two incompatible needs collide where the satisfaction of one creates an intolerable situation for the other. But beyond the collision of individuals, a greater social tragedy unfolds. For me, at least, the world is already too cruel to tell people ‘Then don’t work there,’ because so many of us can’t actually afford to make that choice. 

John Locke was a definitive thinker of the era we call
modernity, whose individualistic political philosophy
captures the essence of the new time as it arose.
One of the most interesting of the pithy descriptions of libertarian philosophy I’ve come across in my time as a professional philosopher came from my friend D at the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in Waterloo two years ago. He described philosophical libertarianism as, basically, the ideas of John Locke ported into the modern world. Reading Karl Mannheim, I find myself thinking of particular dimensions of human life that such a philosophy does miss. 

Mannheim spends good chunks of the introduction to Ideology and Utopia explaining and justifying why his focus on the social generation of knowledge is required. One way he does so is to explain the era of individualist thinking in which the problems of philosophical epistemology and the individualist conception of the human personality arose was, in fact, an anomalous era. 

The popular view of modernity is as a new epoch, an emerging social order in the West. But Mannheim sees that period instead as the end of a social order in Europe, where a new order doesn’t begin. The old order was the medieval period, where every social function and moral question was determined by the dogma and guidance of the Church and its officials. Just as Max Weber saw the Protestant movement as ushering in a new era of thought and personal morality, Mannheim follows this notion that the assault on the dogmatic power of the Church in the West to avoid fundamental questioning of its guidance. 

But where Weber saw a new beginning, Mannheim seems to describe a pure transition zone. He appears to interpret the fragmentation of society’s moral orders with the proliferation of different religious creeds and authorities as a period of flux that would eventually settle down into a new order. Individualism would be a passing phase on the way to a new social order of conformity within accepted institutions.

I’m not entirely sure what I think about this (though I still have a ways to go in the book, and I expect Mannheim to surprise me yet). The consensus today seems to be that individualistic capitalism has actually become our newly unquestioned moral order. Indeed, historical research into the medieval period of the West has since shown there to be far more cultural fragmentation in that time than was typically believed. Many intellectual perspectives today regard capitalism and its individualistic philosophical premises as the unquestioned moral order of our day. Many people across disciplines have written about how, despite all the upsets to social order, stability, and prosperity unfettered capital flows and corporate power have provoked today, no one really conceives of any genuine alternative to capitalism on a large political scale. Some of those people are my friends

Yet I do sometimes wonder if our capitalist culture has made us forget about our individualism. Perhaps instead of submitting our individual desires to the control of Church dogma as Christians, many working people now submit their individual desires to the control of their companies as good employees. That seems to be, at least to my thinking, how to rationalize a company owner’s right to mandate to his employees what health care options they are allowed to access.

What Can We Know From an Armchair? Research Time, 25/03/2014

I haven’t had much time to explore Karl Mannheim’s work in detail just yet, what with moving everything we own to a new apartment and slowly unpacking it in a relatively sane manner, finishing up the script for You Were My Friend, and working on my paid editing jobs. But I did notice an intriguing point that Mannheim made in the very first pages of his introduction.

He actively engages with philosophy as a discipline, remarking that his own project in examining the social aspects of knowledge is a significant departure from other investigations into the subject. Epistemology has traditionally been the venue of philosophers, and if you ask a gathering of philosophers, it obviously remains so. Some close friends of mine are currently working on projects in epistemology within philosophy departments, in regions of research dominated by philosophical journals and disciplinary philosophical conversations. 

So Mannheim, writing in the 1930s, would have been engaged with philosophers in his work on the nature of knowledge, at least as peers, if not as explicit conversation partners. Not even as peers, really, but as members of the discipline that has dominated all talk of the nature of knowledge. 

I've come to hypothesize that problems of skepticism and
justifications of individual knowledge, stereotypes of
armchair philosophy, are so ubiquitous in this discipline
because René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy
is one of the easiest traditional texts to teach. It was of
immense historical importance, but it makes some
problems appear more important than others, which makes
it so hard to get philosophers out of their armchairs.
And the first thing he does is launch a critique which, while launching the field of sociology of knowledge within that discipline, had little to no effect on the development of philosophy. He lays out the philosophical approach to problems of knowledge as focussing exclusively on the individual case. How do I have knowledge of the world around me, that my representations and experiences are reliable? How do I justify what I believe as knowledge of how the world truly is? These are the types of questions that a single person can ask from the isolation of his office or armchair.

Mannheim also critiques the focus on scientific knowledge, the justification of complex theories of physics about how the world is in its fundamental nature. Not that such questions are not important, but one of Mannheim’s central concerns in Ideology and Utopia is with the knowledge of ordinary people in their daily interactions with each other. These are social, political questions about people’s knowledge in everyday interactions, how what they know, believe, and are certain of shapes their day-to-day activity. In the focus of the philosophical discipline at the time on questions regarding the reliability of erudite mathematical science and the reliability of individual representations and experiences, this dimension of everyday interaction has been forgotten.

And it remained forgotten. I don’t have the knowledge right now to make a case for how it was forgotten, but I know it was. When I was taught the history of philosophy over the 20th century as an undergraduate, and in more detail throughout my graduate work, Mannheim’s critiques never appeared. Neither was anything like he said picked up in later critiques of the philosophical trends of the 1930s. Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin’s ordinary language philosophy received more focus, and were the dominant ideas in the philosophical reaction to Bertrand Russell’s work and logical positivism. Only in sociology was Mannheim a historical reference figure, and even there, he isn’t a major one.*

* Although sociology as a discipline does not emphasize to the same degree as philosophy its own history. Usually, the major historical figures of undergraduate sociological education, to the best of my knowledge, are the central triumvirate of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. Even Auguste Comte is sometimes lucky to find a place.

Only recently has philosophy as a discipline considered critiques of the same flavour as Mannheim’s all that seriously. Here, I’m talking about the growth of experimental philosophy, with its lovely images of burning armchairs. The provocation of this movement is to get philosophers out of the habits of only considering knowledge in terms of the beliefs and representations of individuals, and understanding how worldly life shapes knowledge beyond the construction of skepticism problems and Gettier cases that have come to resemble Rube Goldberg machines (one of my favourites being "Fake Barn Country") more than actual situations of life. But I’m not sure how successful it will be. Just look at how well disciplinary philosophy ignored Karl Mannheim.

Shall We Go to the Theatre? Composing, 24/03/2014

I think today I’ll be the first to advertise the latest development in my writing career outside philosophy, because it’s turned out to be the most productive part of that career so far. This November at the Pearl Company Theatre in Hamilton, my play, You Were My Friend will be available to see. 

The project has turned out to come together far quicker than I’d planned when I made the pitch to my friends and producer/directors, Mel and Jeannette. One aspect of theatre writing I’ve come to enjoy are the incredible constraints it puts on you. I learned from the negative reactions of industry professionals to my enormous, sprawling novel A Small Man’s Town that I should probably keep my eye on something smaller. And when I got the fairly simple constraint from my publishers at BlankSpace for Under the Trees, Eaten, “Keep it under 40,000 words,” it’s turned out to be some of the best prose fiction writing I’ve ever done.

You Were My Friend takes place in Toronto's Kensington
Market, a place that, despite its status as a central bohemian
tourist trap for the city's downtown, also has some very
dangerously cheap housing.
The constraints that I, and the institution of independent theatre, gave me for You Were My Friend were even greater. It was a budget. So the story has only two actors and a minimal set, with most of the transitions between dialogue and long monologue scenes done through lighting. I’m designing the characters to make actresses salivate and clamour over themselves to play them. After all, when it’s hard enough just landing a supporting role as Alison the Gunshot Victim on mid-season episodes of The Listener, you’ll love a part with at least three immensely long semi-confessional monologues apiece.

There are only two parts, both female, one mid-late-twenties and the other in her early twenties. The story takes a very social realist perspective on two roommates interacting with each other. One is an older, directionless, office worker who constantly feels as if she could lose her job to redundancy at any time. “What I do could be handled by a computer program if one of my bosses thinks to contract some tech firm to write it.” And one is a young woman who’s been kicked out of her parents’ house and is trying to survive on her own in Toronto. 

You get to watch them get to know each other, display their neuroses, hangups, bad habits, and good habits. Then it all comes crashing down because this is the recession, and social realist theatre doesn’t have happy endings in a recession. Hell, it’s hard enough to find social realist theatre or art of any kind with happy endings even in economic boom times. Scan through Mike Leigh’s catalogue and try to find something straightforwardly uplifting or optimistic, and get back to me when you’ve stopped crying in sympathy for just about everyone on screen for their pathetic existences and broken dreams. 

But I’ve written two people who are rambunctious, tragic, funny, and real. I hope you’ll see it this November and follow the production updates here throughout the spring and summer.

Happiness in Complacency, Research Time, 21/03/2014

Slowly reading through Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia as I prepare various parts of my apartment to be packed up and moved a block away to a bigger apartment, I only have a few brief starting reflections at the moment. Nonetheless, I think they’re meaningful. However, I have no idea yet whether Mannheim himself would have agreed with anything I’m about to say. 

Yesterday’s post discussed some points in Louis Wirth’s introduction, focussing on the problem of social instability. Writing in the 1930s, there was no question that the old social values that seemed so secure in their truth were being called into question and doubt. Doubt in these values created social instability, and this was a terrible thing. A lack of uniformity in our values resulted in the degradation of social cohesion, and without all people believing in the same values, the decline of civilization would inevitably ensue. I hear the same talk, for example, in the United States when I hear evangelical politicians decrying how their country is falling away from their Christian values. 

Of course, such uniformity never existed in the first place. Every society is a combination of different classes, whether those classes are defined by differences of economics (all the range from Mitt Romney to a homeless Dalit), race, ethnicity, religion, or even just social distinctions in caste that are more subtle, like the nuances of urban-rural divides or the peculiar social power of being descended from a certain family, even as that name accrues no material benefits anymore. 

If I can contrast what I’ve read so far of Mannheim himself with Wirth’s introduction, I can say that Wirth appears far more naive about the social fluctuation and development of values than Mannheim. Of course, that’s why I’m reading Mannheim’s book and not Wirth’s. Because Mannheim, in the first few pages, identifies precisely why social stability shakes. It isn’t that people used to have all the same beliefs and values, and now they’ve started to diverge. It looks like that to people who are in the position of, for example, being able to write fawning introductions to new works of social theory and philosophy. 

There are still people who believe that total
cultural uniformity is the only way to prevent
social conflict. Some of them, I hope not for
much longer,
run Canadian provinces.
But really, people have always had different beliefs and values. Social stability shakes when those different people actually start interacting with each other and taking each other seriously. In a stable society, when people with different values interact, they describe each other as repugnant, immoral fools and bastards. “How dare she think that wearing a scarf of that sort is acceptable in society!” says the Jonquière doctor who thinks nothing of hanging a giant wooden crucifix in in medical office. Or take an image of the 1930s I appropriated from Hannah Arendt, the crisply dressed banker who looks with disdain on the shtetl trash with their strings hanging from their coats. Yet they all ended up in the same place — except they didn’t, because the bankers bought their way into Switzerland, and the shtetl trash got stuck on cattle cars. An unstable society is one where a person takes note of all these differences among people, but instead of rejecting them as inferior, deluded, or otherwise smelly, instead comes to doubt the certainty of his own values. "Manvinder seems like a perfectly reasonable and kind person," says Kyle, "could I have been wrong to reject him as a deranged sinner just because he's Sikh and he dresses like one?" From the moment we ask that question, our imagined first-time thinker destabilizes his society, because he wonders whether his Christian values could learn something from someone else's Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, or atheist values. Mannheim understands the social instability that frightens Wirth as simply respectfully considering the already-existing differences between yourself and your neighbours.

It’s a common thought in society that we come to sympathize with each other when we can see what we have in common, what we share. Understanding ourselves as the same brings social stability and peace. But finding common ground leaves aside the question of our actual needs, which arise from those parts of ourselves that diverge from our common social context. We may be all kin, but what matters is our difference.

Reviving social stability through focus on commonalities may work, but it will only work for a while, because some new difference will always emerge. As for Mannheim, at this early point in the book, he understands that people are always different, but I’m not sure if he’ll eventually come to the conclusion I’ve already reached in my own thinking and learning. 

Differences persist because the process of living constantly creates new differences. An everlasting social stability would come from a mind that was constantly curious, fascinated, and embraced new differences whenever he saw them. People are always different from each other, and when we come into contact, we can either regard them with disdain or befriend them for their singularity. 

Do Not Mourn an Authenticity that Would Destroy You, Research Time, 20/03/2014

When I said yesterday that my research was moving into some old-fashioned territory, I was talking about Karl Mannheim territory. He’s known as the developer of the sociology of knowledge, which is one reason for me to be interested in his work. Another reason is that his 1936 book Ideology and Utopia develops these ideas in the context of totalitarian movements, so offers me a source to understand the social fields that condition the mass man. Hannah Arendt’s work examined how the political application of ideology can create a society that strips its component organisms of their individuality. 

Because of the slightly mad logistics of moving (Do you expect any posts this weekend? Because I don’t.), I haven’t managed to read much of it, but the preface by the editor of his English edition, Louis Wirth, intrigues me for two reasons. One of those is more purely philosophical, which I’ll discuss tomorrow. But the other involves a wider social phenomenon, the perception of society’s decline.

Writing in the mid-1930s in Europe, it wasn’t exactly difficult to see signs of social and ethical decay around you. What had been a continental powerhouse had plunged into an economic depression that saw millions starving, and the only way Germany had raised itself out of this downward spiral was through a massive military mobilization that was radicalizing its population to colonize and empty Europe of millions. Nazi images of the health of the German people as medical care for a single man was only the most obvious sign of their social conditioning through propaganda and fear: their politics would see the erasure of individuality.

Really, you should embrace the
decline of Western civilization as
remarkably punk rock.
But I’ve found this notion that civilization was in decline to be a common trope of all, or at least the vast majority, of times of social change. It’s often the reaction of social conservatives to the trends that would see their moralities become obsolete. The difference between the concept’s articulation over the last century and the various other times it’s come up, is that the motif of decline was embraced by the radical left. The social and political theories we call postmodernism was the community pushing social and ethical change embracing the notion that civilization was in decline. 

Here are my very tentative speculations on why this happened. It’s the result of a very schizophrenic philosophical development. I think it would actually make a very good book on the history of philosophy. Perhaps I’ll write it later, when I’m more comfortable in my career and I can write a less radical work that focusses more on the history of ideas than an attempt at conceptual progress.

The most detailed philosophies of postmodernism emerged from French philosophy that analyzed the contemporary media and political landscape of the 20th century to conclude that Western humanity* had lost the grounding in a single tradition, lost its faith in the truth. We now had many truths, and because all truth was destabilized, it was impossible to refer to any truth to ground the creation of a new truth. Knowledge was now an endless play of signifiers.

* Therefore humanity as a whole; among the philosophers of Paris in this era only Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari properly understood the full implications of the end of European colonial imperialism.

The central figures who are normally associated with this notion of postmodernism as the end of any possible truth are Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean Beaudrillard. It doesn’t matter than their own philosophies are more complicated than this reductive statement fit only for an 800ish-word blog post. That’s how they were popularly received, the stereotype by which other traditions of philosophy refer to them.

But the really pivotal figure in this idea that the technological era was one slow slippage of authentic existence into relativism, exploitation, and meaninglessness was Martin Heidegger. For him, the process of this meaninglessness was the loss of cultural conformity to a tradition which was rooted generations-long bonding with the land of a people’s existence. 

Martin Heidegger in 1934, as Rector of the University
of Freiburg. No, he doesn't look like a Nazi at all.
When Heidegger’s philosophy was taken up in France, the key work of his influence was Being and Time, which framed this dynamic, according to the phenomenological philosophy to which he still held at the time, solely from the perspective of the individual. This is why so many on France’s radical left could pick up his ideas and develop the tradition we now call postmodernism. His other most frequently read work were his essays on the nature of technology and the concept of dwelling, which he wrote and published after the Second World War. But when I looked into his work from the 1930s, I saw this dynamic of a loss of authenticity articulated in cultural terms. The fall into meaninglessness may be experienced as an individual, but it can only be corrected as a culture, by developing total cultural uniformity of a single people in an exclusive relationship with a single land.

Some of what I’ve read about Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, which according to the instructions of his estate are coming up for publication soon, suggest wildly that they will expose him as a Nazi loon. I don’t think this will be the case. Instead, we’ll simply discover that, far from being a Nazi idiot, Heidegger was the smartest Nazi who ever lived, the only one who could build a profound philosophy from the basic premises of Nazism and the totalitarian movement. I suspect that we will discover that Heidegger developed his idea that one could only preserve individuality through the authenticity of one's culture. His drive to protect and sanctify the individual ended up becoming the ultimate rebuke to the power of human individuality, that he was (against his own wishes and dreams) the deepest and most true philosopher of the mass man.

Can You Have Politics Without People? Research Time, 19/03/2014

Apologies for two days without posting. There’s been some shenanigans with my internet connection as I coordinate everything running smoothly over apartment-moving weekend. Who knew how difficult this would get if we were moving farther than a block away? I shudder to think, sir.

But Sunday’s reflections on the broad issues I see in political philosophies that concentrate on the state and human rights were inspired by my reading an old book on anarchism (they’ll get older soon, as well) by Robert Paul Wolff. In Defence of Anarchism was the first text I came to as I turned my Utopias project research to the anarchist tradition itself (which I see, in general outline for now, as a rebuke to ideological politics, when it’s conceived best). If Wolff’s book can account for anything throughout the history of anarchism, it’s that the individual human subject stands at the centre of it. 

I mean, that’s generally true of all traditional political thought, so it’s really not much to say that. But as for justifying Wolff’s anarchism, he does so through an argument with which I sympathize and agree wholeheartedly. Consider that the relationship of a citizen to their state is one of obedience. I’ve heard the death penalty justified this way by a man who called himself a political liberal: because a citizen submits to his state, the state has the right to take that citizen’s life, if the process unfolds according to its laws. I am against the death penalty as we conceive of it today because I find this notion repugnant and horrifying. 

The other principle, which comes inevitably into conflict with any duty to obey the state, is the autonomy of each person, the ability to control their actions and justify their decisions such that they take responsibility for what they do. I can’t be responsible if I submit my powers to my state, but to absolve myself of responsibility is the most profound debasement of my individuality. The problem of democracy, as Wolff puts it in this nearly-half-century-old book, is the attempt to justify the submission of autonomous people to a state. No mass of people can be adequately represented in all their views by a single parliamentarian or councillor (and that doesn’t even include the autonomy of that representative herself, who is still an individual citizen). The only system of relatively large-scale governance that preserves the autonomy of all its citizens is the direct democracy that governs by consensus. But that’s so fragile that it can only work for small assemblies, and only so long as the community is uniform enough in its culture and political beliefs not to have any irresolvable disputes. Practically, there can be no such communities. 

So the turn to anarchism is a negative turn — if you have convinced yourself that no system of governance can maintain the autonomy of people, then no system of governance can be truly legitimate, even as the new traditions of H. L. A. Hart and John Rawls* dream of and strive towards or even presume the legitimation of representative democracy with a relatively free press and civil society. I have convinced myself of this.

* Yes, Hart and Rawls themselves are part of ongoing traditions of liberal philosophy that most of us in our classes learn truly began in the modern era with John Locke. I consider Rawls and Hart as having started traditions because of their epoch-making status in the last few generations. Since Hart, the field of legal philosophy in the Anglo-American world blossomed, and all legal theorists in this world still operate in his shadow. One of my professors at McMaster was one of Hart’s last doctoral students. Same goes for Rawls; his ideas don’t dominate Anglo-American political philosophy in the same way as Hart does legal theory, but every new development in this world has been a reaction or a correction to Rawls. How you feel about Rawls defines your place in this world.

However much hope we may have held in the Occupy movement to change
our politics and our world, what has remained with us is the spectre of its
failure. The a-personal forces of contemporary politics were ultimately
too big, even for 99% of us to occupy at once.
But one point in Sunday’s post cannot make me a complete anarchist either: that the economics of a globalized world moving at a pace as fast as ours overpower most states. They would certainly overpower assemblies of autonomous people. There can be no kibbutz in the same world as George Soros and Warren Buffett. No communes are safe from the wolves of Wall Street. Only the state offers any hope of protecting what little autonomy and responsibility people have left from the tsunamis of globalized capital flows. It may be a powerful state like the United States, the People’s Republic of China, or the Russian Federation. It may be a madly chaotic and disorganized state like the Republic of India. The a-personal aspects of our political world (trillion-dollar-per-day capital flows) overpower the personal (our autonomy as individual people to take responsibility for our actions). 

The Utopias project, like all other large projects I’ve embarked on, has had hazy and amorphous goals at the beginning. I’ve cast around for concepts and coordinators. But I think this is where a lot of the research on totalitarianism (the society of the mass man), violent social revolution (the sacrifice of present people for a future paradise), and genuine utopian visions (the satisfaction of personal autonomy and responsibility) come together in a single conflict. 

How do we preserve the person in an era where the fundamental forces of politics have become fundamentally a-personal? Can we? Should we?

A Longstanding Suspicion of Tradition, A History Boy, 16/03/2014

When I was a kid, I used to love analyzing and watching elections. I was a huge nerd. I think we can accept this by now, if you’re a regular reader. The same intensity my friend @Philosojaysfan* can develop about baseball, I develop about poll results, electoral support, political positioning, the growth of funding chests, and lobbyist jockeying. And during my period of empty teenage rebellion, I identified as a centre-right liberal, mostly just to piss off my mom because I was 16. Nobody makes smart decisions when they’re 16.

* Yes, that is his Twitter feed. Why do you look so incredulous? He’s a philosopher and Blue Jays fan. He becomes his portmanteau. 

In the mid-2000s, it felt as if a cabal of insane people have taken over
the White House. And despite the size of this protest, people like them
and me were in the minority, because Bush and Cheney were re-elected.
But once I got to university, I began to question my longstanding political beliefs of being generally okay with the status quo. I think the fact that the World Trade Centre was destroyed on my fifth day of university was a pretty significant factor in this. One thing I noticed when I began teaching people ten years younger than I was, was that I had to explain just how messed up the North American continent became in the first few years of the decade. Exactly the wrong people were in charge of the United States at a moment of hideous national trauma that caused political repercussions around the world. I had to explain to students who were children when the USA toppled Saddam Hussein that even just expressing doubt in the country’s leaders or their reasons for going to war in Iraq was enough to label you a traitor. It wasn’t so bad here in Canada, but the social heat of paranoia was oppressively present. 

Living in that kind of atmosphere, even just as an intelligent observer, growing up far from the heat of the political action, it was enough to make me doubt that our political system had no serious problems. Because I had a philosopher’s attitude, my doubts even extended to the very fundamentals. In my late teens and early 20s, I saw massive armies mobilized to invade countries for what turned out to be hazy purposes. It doesn’t even measure up to the ideas of my friends who thought it was “all about oil.” For all the conspiracist thinking at the time, nothing about the international oil market changed that dramatically once Saddam was deposed and international sanctions lifted. The development of natural gas fracking in the United States and all the associated ecological problems turned out to be the more critical issue of fuel resources of this century so far.

But in my personal case, what emerged from this crazy time was doubt in the political systems we lived under, which could allow such a thing to happen. When you’ve seen a country invaded by a foreign power and plunged into a civil war in the name of human rights, you’d have skeptical feelings about the underlying philosophies. What’s missing from that concept that allows it to be perverted this way?

So you can’t blame me for being more intrigued by philosophies whose political implications were very different, or whose underlying concepts provided a very different set of priorities. Reading John Rawls, the philosopher who, more than any other individual, set the standards and frameworks for modern North American political philosophy, I found underwhelming and boring at best. I never saw his work as challenging or pushing forward the political concepts and ideals of our societies, only as reinforcing those ideals or critiquing their poor implementation. I felt this way about a lot of the political philosophy that centred on rights, states, and governance. I was drawn more to political philosophies (or broader philosophies with political implications) that approached human and planetary welfare from different perspectives.

So as I researched environmental political philosophy, I learned that for an epochally important problem of our age, talk of rights was largely inadequate to the problem, only doubling down on the conflicts of human growth and satisfaction with ecosystemic health. As I learned more about globalized economics and capital flows that dwarfed the power of most states to control them, political concepts of human rights and state governance were simply inadequate to confront these problems practically. As I learned more about the long-term economic and social injustices that were inherited from the colonial and imperialist era, philosophies that never confronted this historical legacy were just inadequate to understanding a multipolar world. 

Since I was young, I've been most drawn to thinkers like
Félix Guattari, whose work destabilizes faith in what too
many of us have come to take for granted.
Thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, Antonio Negri, and Frantz Fanon seemed better equipped to handle the political problems of the 21st century simply because they were experimenting with new vocabularies to deal with new problems. Meanwhile, I saw discussions in post-Rawls political philosophy focussing on individual rights, property rights, and the social contract. And I saw discussions in post-Hart legal theory focussing on the same, while also arguing over which justification of obedience to the state was correct (when they should have been questioning whether it was ultimately right to subject yourself to state authority at all). 

So I learned enough of these pivotal figures in North American and English political philosophy to be able to teach them. If I’m given a month or so’s warning, I can go through the central texts of these figures like H. L. A. Hart, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick, design lectures and assignment questions, and adequately teach mid-level undergraduate courses on their works and ideas. I have the same (if not better) facility with the classics, like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Niccolo Machiavelli.** I am a professional, and I act like one.

** Although as I prepare my ideas and outlines for the Utopias project, the ideas of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are becoming central touchstones in the tradition from which I can draw ideas. 

So while I acknowledge that a lot of valuable work goes on in the discussions that developed in the revival of liberal and rights-based political philosophy, I don’t find them the most adequate philosophies for the serious problems we face today. Our age needs a new vocabulary, and I wanted to specialize for my research in the tradition that I see producing that new vocabulary, or which at least as the most potential for it. The conceptually radical traditions with central figures like Deleuze, Fanon, and Aldo Leopold are the traditions I don’t just want to teach, but to which I want to contribute.

One More Dying Dream in the Twenty-First Century, Jamming, 15/03/2014

Sometimes, I think about what makes a historically great philosopher or intellectual. It lies in the impact their lives and works had on the world they lived in. How many people in the world around them, and in worlds to come after their deaths, did a great philosopher influence? Think about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance. He was poor all his life until he made friends with Denis Diderot, which led to his books being widely read and discussed among educated people in France and across Europe. We remember these great thinkers because they wrote books that were read and remembered by a fairly wide audience. We remember them because they were engaged with the wider public.

Having read this article in The Nation yesterday, I found myself thinking that those of us in the humanities and social sciences who want our work to have a beneficial public impact must fight harder to preserve a place in the modern university system for that. It tells the story of two professors who were fired from a political research institute, the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia for not securing enough federal grant money. The article explains the situation in more detail, but government funding cuts had reduced the amount of money available, and fewer grants were being given.

So Kim Hopper and Carole Vance found themselves without offices one day. Hopper’s work on the homeless and Vance’s on human rights, gender, and health were beneficial, and inspired the work of activists working around the world to improve people’s lives. Meanwhile, grant committees frequently distribute awards based on contributions to peer-reviewed academic journals, whose high subscription prices heavily restrict their own readership. 

Really, only university libraries and databases pay these exorbitant fees. The old philosophy librarian at Memorial University once told me that Environmental Ethics, a journal in which I was published, costs $10,000/year. And they were a cheap one. Of course, such journals are only accessible to university faculty and students. The general public can walk into a library and read those journals, but high conversions to electronic-only databases puts all those works behind a username. No position and no tuition means no access.

The workers who engage with a class of peer reviewed journals with a heavily restricted readership and technical subject matter are rewarded with grant money, prestige, and in some cases, some measure of basic job security. Those who engage with organizations and activities that actually use the tools of critical thought and social science to contribute to changing the world, or at least how people think about it, are let go.

People who care about institutions of higher learning have to fight this trend. I wish I could think of anything that would be effective.

One the side of the main text, you'll notice that I posted a link to Robert Paul Wollf's daily blog in my list of interesting people. He has a fascinating post this Friday that I think you should consider my sampled conclusion to this discussion. I don't want to risk putting words in his mouth my taking his thoughts for the conclusion of my own. But I think he'd at least be glad I made my perspective known.

The Defining Idea of Modernity Is That Someone Runs the World, Research Time, 14/03/2014

I wasn’t kidding about Donna Haraway being a fellow traveller in my own philosophical work that I regret I never delved into before now (better late than never, but still should have been earlier). But there’s still one little element of what I consider the obstructively postmodern in her thinking. It has to do with the way we’ve transformed how we conceive of nature in science and philosophy more generally.

She describes that shift as beginning after the Second World War, locating its first element in E. O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology. But the same trend has developed throughout the biological sciences, into all the major physical sciences, and is now slowly creeping into the social sciences as computer modelling of complex systems have become increasingly prevalent there. I think the only reason this hasn’t caught on fully is because the core concepts are so strange to the way we normally think about the world. Before this era, the era in which the mathematics of chaos and probability have developed and were found to be ubiquitous in natural systems, we thought of the world as directed by minds, intentional, purposive. The prime movers. The gods, goddesses, and directors of activity.

Haraway defines this kind of thinking as the essence of modernity, but I see it as actually much older, really the last harbinger of old-fashioned religious points of view: that the development of reality is directed by a figure with a mind something like ours. That figure may be a god, a God, or gods. The scientifically modern folk at the vanguard of modernity may have stopped believing in Churches, but there remained this stamp of a belief in a personal, anthropomorphic god in their behaviour and thought. Instead of a God, there was now a principle of unity, simple enough that the human mind could understand it analogously with itself. What Haraway calls the postmodern era, and what I call something entirely different, is when the vanguard of new thought understood that reality was far more complex, and that its movements were largely beyond the powers of human thought and mathematics to model without technological assistance.

The closest I’ve ever had to a philosophical epiphany was about this subject, the inadequacy of human standards of thought and beauty to the complexity of the world. I was visiting Edinburgh for a conference, and because I was staying with an old friend, I took a few extra days to explore the city. One of my walks through Edinburgh took me to a public park. It was a pretty large urban park, but its layout unnerved and disgusted me. The whole park was a fenced-in meadow. Gravel paths ran along its north and south edges, and three paths extended from the centre of the south path to the east corner, west corner, and centre of the north path. All the paths were lines by trees on each side, spaced equidistantly. 
I find few things uglier than straight lines where they do not belong.
This felt criminal to me. A park is supposed be a place of relatively tamed nature for people of all ages to play in, so they can develop a positive feeling for the non-urban world through brief, pleasurable exposures on weekend afternoons. A park laid out on a grid? An insult to the chaotic orders of the world. Grids are the natural structures of human cityscapes, human homes. Plants and fungi have their own orders, which an open-minded human should explore. I felt like it was a travesty to line trees up with such an offensively modern, Euclidean (the word feels gross on my hands as I write it) geometry.

The era of scientific thought that kicked off with the development of the chaotic mathematics and the vision of the world as the continual collision of dynamic fields of energy is as alien to this Euclidean subject-centric mind-set as you can get. Haraway calls it technological because the analogues she uses to describe it are all drawn from communication systems, information theory, and the science of immunology. This is a vision of a nature that is neither subjective nor objective. A universe of intensive differences renders all talk of subject and object obsolete. Same with the notion of truth as accuracy in representation.* But I don’t consider this knowledge so inherently technological as she does. There is a technological aspect to this knowledge, because we wouldn’t have been able to carry out the mathematical calculations which describe the actual assembly of the universe without computers. But chaotic geometry and the dynamics of intensive differences is the first time our scientific knowledge has approached adequacy to nature itself. 

* Reading Haraway also reminded me why I left work in philosophy of mind. Far too much of this sub-discipline of philosophy remains caught in models of thought as representation which reify the positions of subject/mind and object/world. I would try to discuss how thinking and perception works by structural coupling and dynamic embodiment, and was usually dismissed. Now, the professor in charge of philosophy of mind at my doctoral university at the time was particularly conservative, but new papers and books throughout philosophy of mind still harp on problems of representation and bridging the subject-object divide. It’s as if they’ve become so obsessed with solving their problems that they can no longer comprehend that they’re working on false problems.

Instead, truth is a matter of adequacy in understanding and adapting to a situation. Representation has nothing to do with it. Our world can’t be divided into subjects and objects; reality is all fields that constitute bodies as they smash, collide, dissipate, engender, and very occasionally even love each other. Such a world is nature, and our thinking is finally starting to understand it.

The Immense Power of Unrestrained Philosophy, Research Time, 13/03/2014

I’ve taken a couple of slow days as I’ve been sluggish from getting a tetanus vaccination the other day. But even though my mind feels a little heavy, I can still think. One thing I’ve been thinking about as I look through my notes on these Donna Haraway essays is my relationship with the naturalistic fallacy, the idea, pretty universally accepted in philosophy, that you can’t derive a moral statement (about what you ought to do) from an ontological statement (about what there is, or how it is). 

Though Haraway has definitely encouraged people to think
very differently over the years, I'm just not sure how much
potential universities ever had for fostering genuine
change in society.
I see this functioning in terms of the separation of philosophical domains. Ontological, epistemic, moral, and aesthetic problems are rarely treated as if they have anything to do with each other. But I think some of the most remarkable and powerful philosophical ideas come from thought processes that blur and mutate the shapes of those boundaries. Take, for example, the situational feminist epistemology that Haraway develops. 

Writing in the early 1990s, she’s concerned to overcome accusations of relativism of which feminist and other philosophies critical of standard accounts of science have been accused. I feel that so much progress has been made since then.* But she probably explains situational epistemology better than most writers I’ve come across. It’s an epistemological thesis advanced for ethical reasons, with what I see as some wonderfully strange ontological implications. 

* Not that much progress has been made since then. I sometimes feel as if philosophical conservatives continue to make the same old accusations against streams of thought influenced by Haraway, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, Edward Said, or other critics of the possibility of pure objectivity. No matter how much folks with whom I sympathize may develop nuanced ways to have our criticism and our objectivity too, I’ve come to doubt whether the people we’re trying to convince even bother to read such work. 

Knowledge is perspectival. There can be no knowledge that is literally, in Thomas Nagel’s words, a view from nowhere. Pure objectivity is impartial, but we can compare, contrast, and combine the partial perspectives of people. There is no dichotomous separation of the purely subjective, variable, and unreliable, from the purely objective, consistent, and true. All partial perspectives are themselves objective, and can be understood and mapped.

Leibniz's hair was even bigger than that of the
greatest rock musicians of the 1970s. The 1600s
was a strange time.
Every subjectivity is a partial illumination of an enormous and complex world. Each such illumination is unique because it only has a single, particular position in that complex world. There is usually far more of the world unseen through a single partial perspective than there is seen and understood. Essentially, this is the structure of subjectivity that Gottfried Leibniz spells out in his monadology. The structure of a monad is, in this way of thinking, the same structure as a subjectivity: a partial view on a world that is far more complicated than that single illumination can reveal on its own power alone. 

There are definite differences, of course. Each Leibnizian monad contains the same entire world within it, with its partiality defined by its inability to illuminate the whole of that world and the different location of its illumination within it. So all relations are internal to a monad, where Haraway’s subjectivities all exist in a world and illuminate it externally. And of course there are significant differences in their philosophical priorities. Even just considering their different stations in the world show this. Leibniz was a courtier to German princes, where philosophical and mathematical work was an elite activity, subject to the ostensible supervision of theological authorities. Haraway is a university professor who came of age in a politicized liberal academy that saw higher education democratized to a wide public. But the older metaphysical system can be used as a model for the contemporary epistemic and ethical system. This is not only how we can learn about and illustrate our philosophical ideas, but also how we understand the world where they develop and their power in that world.

The Value of a Fellow Traveller in an Ecological World, Research Time, 12/03/2014

I think my generation has finally adjusted to the fact that we live in the future. The kind of world that previous generations could imagine at best as the product of a categorical shift in technology and society has already come to pass. We live in the world that, only a few decades ago, most people thought would be pure science-fiction: a world like Star Trek, Johnny Quest, Doctor Who, or The Jetsons. Of course, because this is real life, our problems in this new world are just as intractable as many of the old problems were.

This is one of the many messages in Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, a text I’ve come to far too late in my life and career. Even so, I don’t know that I’d react to it as I have if I had not already spent years exploring and applying the concepts of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy. I have no idea how much actual cross-pollination of ideas occurred between these writers. Indeed, the one encounter Deleuze and Félix Guattari had with the feminist theory scene in the United States went disastrously: biographer François Dosse describes Guattari being booed and insulted by an audience of feminist activists during his presentation. 

Donna Haraway, and one friend she can rely on in a
fluctuating world.
Nonetheless, Haraway and Deleuze essentially describe the world operating according to the same principles: flows of capital, material goods, raw manufacturing materials, garbage, and information constitutes fields of affectivity that unite all of us on Earth. National boundaries matter less in terms of delineating the borders of a specific people or culture, and more insofar as they can manage these fields as their fluctuations create variations of intensity that can shock people, communities, and collections of all sizes. Our world is the continual product of dynamic fields interacting to constitute intensive differences. Haraway concentrates on the political context this conception of reality permits, while Deleuze is usually content to rest in ontological terms. 

This vision of the world feels, intuitively, as if it were the expression of a radical transformation of the way the world has been. Haraway refers to the myths we used to be able to believe in. One of these was an agent of oppression: the notion that a state government had the right to control its citizens down even to the biological and cellular levels.* More profoundly, these are the myths in an authority that could supply a foundation for an absolute moral principle, an indisputable claim that one could go no further.

* We still face agents who would control these aspects of our existence. But instead of a monopolistic state mobilizing us for an ideological purpose, there are a series of actors in private industry developing nano/bio/cyborg technology for a variety of ends. Having researched European and American bioengineering projects of the early 20th century as our politics developed from the colonial to the totalitarian model, I think I prefer our current setup.

I call them myths because there hasn’t really been a categorical shift of the kind that is often written about in several popular contexts in political philosophy. Postmodernist thinking refers to this as the end of certainty. Following Nietzsche, this would be the death of God. In environmental philosophy and some pivotal versions of ecofeminism, this is the loss of access to the purity of our natural existence. Where once we had access to truth and its certainty, now we live in a contingent world where everything is in flux. As Haraway writes, “It’s not just that ‘god’ is dead; so is the ‘goddess.’”

But Haraway’s approach shows that such a world was always mythical. The reason we could so widely believe in it was because the world we lived in was stable enough that cultural, economic, and political habits of a community could remain productive across enough generations that our world felt permanent. It only takes a few generations for a state of affairs to feel like it’s been there forever; all you need to achieve this feeling in a community is marginalize everyone who remembers when things were different or wait until they die. The world has always been constituted from global flows of material, capital, and information. 

But those flows moved, for a long time, at a low enough intensity that presumptions about how to live could remain stable across generations. Now, so much moves so fast that we must adapt our ways of life to new global circumstances from decade to decade. Just as we figure out one paradigm of life, the roiling dynamics of our world cause another categorical transition, and our old thoughts are inadequate. 

This notion is at the heart of my Ecophilosophy manuscript. It's one more contribution to the planet-wide discussion of how we can adapt ourselves to a world that is constantly destabilizing itself, where we can't necessarily rest on the wisdom of our elders and must always keep our eyes on the shifts around us, trying to work out which of the many increasingly terse dynamic tensions in our world will explode to create yet another new context of life. 

What Is Trustworthy About a Visionary? Research Time, 11/03/2014

Through the random posts of a couple of Facebook connections, I came across a remarkable little essay, just over ten years old, by a pair of otherwise unremarkable scholars named Mark Van Atten and Robert Tragesser about the nature of mysticism. In particular, they took a left-field, but deceptively simple, tack on the Common Core Thesis in the philosophy of mysticism. This idea is that, underneath all the divergence of mystical visions, there is a common set of truths at the core of all mystical visions and visionaries.

The notion speaks to our contemporary spirituality of the market of everyday enlightenment. When spirituality can come in a pill, there’s a shaman in every drugstore and on every street corner. But mysticism has played its role in all of humanity’s spiritual traditions. A mystic vision is described as an experience of the Absolute Good, and so that Common Core Thesis would seem to be the only way mysticism could offer genuine guidance in life. When Van Atten and Tragesser discuss contemporary mystics, they’re comparing two people in a profession that’s rarely associated in its popular image with such thinking: L. E. J. Brouwer and Kurt Gödel, the logicians and mathematicians.

I think if I had ever decided to pursue contemporary
philosophy of mathematics itself in any substantial
way, I'd build on the concepts of Kurt Gödel.
Not all visions of an Absolute Good are defined in mystical terms; sometimes they’re couched as political movements, ideologies based on the realization of a single core concept. This is how theories of mysticism can operate in my Utopias project. But I don’t think they’ll play a very central role, and perhaps can play only an underlying role to avoid bogging down my analysis of the religious fervour of politics in the fervour of a singular vision. Singular visions are at the heart of both phenomena, but for an ideologue, that vision can be shared and acted upon, while the mystic vision would appear incommunicable.

Their essay analyses Brouwer’s and Gödel’s different conceptions of the Absolute, and examine the implications of that comparison for the Common Core Thesis. They describe Brouwer as a pure Kantian in one pivotal way: he considered time to be a construction of subjectivity. Going beyond Kant, Brouwer considered mathematics to be an elaboration of the intuitions of discreteness (moments) and continuity (passage or flow) of time. But Brouwer considered this a falling away from the Absolute in which time is not sensed. We are able to achieve practical actions, but in doing so, we are isolated from the true nature of things.*

* In conceiving of the faculty of intelligence or intellect as the ability to quantitatively take stock of the world and focus our thoughts for practical action, Brouwer greatly resembles the ideas of Henri Bergson. Of course, he differs from Bergson in a variety of other, more fundamental, ways. Bergson is an interesting figure in the philosophical tradition of trying to understand mysticism. His treatment of the subject in his last major work, Two Sources of Morality and Religion, is fascinating and nuanced. I don’t quite have the space to go into it here, and I don’t even have a solid enough memory of it to put anything in pixels again just yet. But his entirely immanent conception of what the mystic intuits or experiences wildly differs from virtually every other mystic or analyst of mysticism I’ve ever found, who focus on mystic visions as contact with a transcendent Absolute. It also has no room for any version of the Common Core Thesis. If mysticism becomes an important conceptual pillar of the Utopias project’s analysis of ideology, Bergson’s concept may be a critical alternative to the political absolutisms.

Gödel, meanwhile, conceived of mystical insight as an intellectual matter entirely. His Platonic conception of mathematics made mystical contact with pure mathematical concepts the centrepiece of his epistemology of math. Mysticism was Gödel’s path to intellectual enlightenment, the truth of mathematics. He considered himself extremely influenced by Schelling in this regard.** Contrasted with Brouwer, our trusty co-authors saw them together as disproving the Common Core Thesis. Their concepts of mystical experience, and how they described their own experiences, stand in total opposition and contradiction to each other. There could not be a single universal truth underlying every mystical experience if the content of each of those experiences includes incompossibles, notions that can’t both be true, where the truth of one falsifies the other.

** I’ll say it right now. I’ve never read Schelling. Not one iota. I don’t even really know where I’d start. If any of my friends who have read Schelling have some recommendations on his best books (I don’t want any ‘introductory’ or ‘the easy stuff’ first; I can handle the pure shit), let me know.

If I decide, for at least one dimension of analysis in the Utopias project, to understand ideological absolutism as the worldly articulation of a mystical vision of the Absolute, this paper has been remarkably valuable to me. It offers grounds for the discord underlying all absolutism.