Political Devotion to Purity and Unity, Research Time, 30/04/2014

This is Adolf Hitler, Leader of the Nazi Party.
My comments a couple of posts ago about using imagery from Triumph of the Will to underscore the weirdness of Lucy’s Newfoundland nationalist political propaganda in A Small Man’s Town reminded me to check out the film, which until last night, I had actually not seen in full. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, with terrifying images of creepily Aryan boys (the Hitler Youth sequences carry just a hint of pedophiliac eroticism, which only makes the film more disturbing) and Nazis and swastikas marching in freakishly perfect unison.

Its core ideas feed into some of the notions I’ve been developing for the Utopias project: the devotion to a political cause as an all-consuming religious faith, the unity of the entire people in the political movement, defining the political movement as the literal expression of the Leader’s will. In many ways, the Utopias project is a critique of the idea that a political movement that overwrites the individuality of its members in a single movement or an ideal social form. Such a movement is inherently violent, but its inspiration comes from the attractiveness of that ideal shape for society. Who wouldn’t make any sacrifice to achieve paradise?

Contrary to the last few years of political propaganda from
his opposition, this is not Adolf Hitler.
Nazi political ideology was, in my view, the most pure expression of this notion, that one must devote oneself to a political movement to the point of sacrificing not just your life, but your very individuality to achieving your political goal. It was also the most disgusting, and profane such ideology, which is certainly a help to me in my argument that this kind of idealism in politics is inherently destructive. Of course, I’m not so dumb as to believe that I, or anyone else, can actually succeed in an argument whose form consists of, “The Nazis were the perfect expression of Edenically idealistic politics; Nazism is evil; therefore, Edenically idealistic politics is evil.” I’ve seen enough examples of Godwin’s Law, as well as two decades worth of propaganda against George W. Bush and Barack Obama to know just how badly that method works. 

If I can say at such an early stage in the project that Utopias has any central core, it’s the notion that the problem of Edenically idealistic politics, the political movement that calls on a devotional faith to sacrifice all to achieve a vision of a perfect world, is too simple. It ignores the existence of difference in existence, and that an ecosystemic world, which all life constitutes, is inherently driven by difference. 

Contrary to the political propaganda of his opposition in
my youth, this is also not Adolf Hitler.
Living systems only survive through the increase of diversity because diversity in a system itself encourages health. For my editing job, I’ve come across some biological studies on the development of industrial agriculture, and one critical focus of these works is the destructive effects of razing diverse ecosystems to create monocultural farms. Immense numbers of complex nutrient cycles among plants, mammals, insects, birds, thousands of fungi genii, and God-probably-can’t-keep-track-of how many kinds of bacteria are all thrown away and flattened to create corn and wheat fields. A simple, pure, unified ecology replaces a messy, absurdly complex one.

The result is soil that loses its nutrients and can’t even grow these simple fields of plants within a few decades. Consider this an analogy for politics. Any movement or idea that would see its goal as the implementation of a uniform political program according to a single, simply set of principles is as politically and socially destructive as the monocultural farm is ecologically destructive. Nazi ideology was not only a simple image of a political Eden to which the party strove, at great cost and sacrifice, for two decades. It was also, even for ideologies, a simple one. It valued absolute unity of a diverse people (and the German people, with their cultural heritage in all those towns and duchies with their own unique histories and traditions, is remarkably diverse) in the will of a single man. It valued total uniformity of political, moral, and religious beliefs. It valued total purity according to a childishly simple theory of ontological race.

Absolute uniformity is death.

What Does It Mean to Dehumanize? Research Time, 29/04/2014

One of the common features of continental philosophy that follows Heidegger’s model and ideas is the notion that we have slowly become dehumanized. But I’ve always been uncertain, at least myself, as to what this means, and the field offers many perspectives, but little consensus. Of course, this is just how I like my philosophical fields, with many different interpretations and perspectives in dynamic tension with each other. So, in dialogue with Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman, I offer a few hundred words on what dehumanization is.

Richard Lindner's "Boy With Machine"
appeared in Anti-Oedipus, which conceived
of humanity as actually being machines.
For someone who entitles a sub-section of a chapter “Becoming-Machine,” the image of humanity Braidotti sketches is far from what anyone would call dehumanized. I’d say that it’s more vibrantly alive than most humans ever actually manage. Her concept follows the line that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari set out: if our subjectivity is constituted from the affects that our body generates in its interaction with its environment, then humanity is becoming increasingly mechanized as more of our lives incorporate technology. 

Martin Heidegger would have been appalled, but that harried old social conservative was dreaming of an Eden that never really existed. My old PhD supervisor documented research ten years ago in his book Knowledge and Civilization that the human brain was plastic enough that its architecture kept developing long after birth. This is one of humanity’s fundamental unique features in the world of nature. Our tool use was far more intimate than any other animal: not only did we make creative use of them, but the ability to manipulate tools and build artifacts is deeply integrated with our neurology. It’s as if our own technology (even when it was simple as a flint knife) is a second, worldly womb.

So we have always been technological in our essence, which makes the concept of becoming-machine a little less freaky. Braidotti considers this conception of humanity an ecosophical, or a transversal matter. What these words mean have a touch of epistemology about them. We normally divide our knowledge into discrete categories, and the disciplines have been splintering as our knowledge of the world has grown. But the phenomena that constitute the world influence each other paying no heed to the disciplinary divisions of humanity’s sciences. Real affects in the world transverse our categories of knowledge. The only category of human science that can really handle this transversality is ecology, the science of multifaceted connections among wildly different things. In a more general form, ecology is the science of how the interactions of a multiplicity of multiplicities constitute a single, incredibly complex field of interaction.

Ecosophy: the philosophy where the one is the many. Plato would have a lot to learn. 

So if dehumanization isn’t a matter of changing what humanity physically is, what could it be? Some of Braidotti’s remarks on the horrors of the 20th century’s politics and war accord with my own thinking. The perpetrators of political violence, both at the policy-making level and the police officers on the streets, must slowly become inured to the psychological effects of violence if they want to continue doing their jobs. Consider what I find most disgusting about realpolitik thinking: treating everyone you encounter as an element of a strategy to achieve geopolitical objectives. Their singular personalities are forgotten so that they can be manipulated and used for some global-scale interest.

Because you have to deaden yourself to empathy to carry out such thinking efficiently, you effectively numb your empathetic senses away. And without empathy, I can’t really say that you’re a human.

Redux, Composing, 28/04/2014

I was revisiting my old manuscript for A Small Man’s Town this weekend, thinking about turning this sprawling, plot-light, disjointed narrative about life in St. John’s in the 2000s into a series of short stories. As I got to know the conventions of the publishing industry, I’ve realized that I could have more success with the manuscript if I were to edit the loosely connected scenes of the narrative into linked short stories. It would have helped if I had bothered to research the conventions of the publishing industry before I started writing the thing in 2007, but we all have our regrets in life. 

I grew up in this strange, beautiful town.
So here’s roughly how the novel would look as a group of short stories. I’m not sure what order they would go in for the final version of A Small Man’s Town: The Collection, but here, they roughly follow how each storyline starts in the novel version. All of these are very provisional titles, of course.

Stop The War, Please. In Fall of 2003, student activist Laurie is the lead organizer of a protest at the university campus against the American invasion of Iraq. The rally is a disaster because their first speaker is a local left-wing activist-for-hire who uses her speech to praise Islamist militants, suicide bombers, and al-Qaeda for bravely resisting the growth of Western imperialism. I actually wrote this draft in 2007, long before my recent fights over the politics of today’s Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts. Nadia, a child of Palestinian immigrants, tries to save the rally with her own speech, but she gets stagefright and runs away. Laurie and Nadia reconcile at a party that night over hash.

When Joseph Met Laurie. Joseph was the original protagonist of the novel, a quiet guy who seems basically kind, but mostly observes the world around him. By the end of the novel, you realize that he’s actually sort of a jerk as well. But this would basically be the story of his awkward meet-cute with Laurie, as they become friends through the campus newspaper and activist organizations, and he gets over just enough of his late-teenage anxiety to ask her out. She kisses him first.

But I Thought She Loved Me. This is a longer story, told in several scenes. Nadia, whose father works for an engineering firm in rural Newfoundland, comes to Memorial for university, living in St. John’s for the first time. Joseph and Laurie are her first, and best, friends in the city, and also the first people to whom she comes out as a lesbian. She then engages in a tumultuous relationship with Jen, a beautiful white woman who essentially uses Nadia for an experimental six-month fling, during which she continually cheats on her with men. Laurie, Joseph, and their friend Sanjay spread a humiliating story about one of Jen’s sexual encounters out of revenge for her treatment of Nadia. After they break up, Jen continues to display her promiscuity specifically in front of Nadia to upset her. 

Gone. A minor, but loveable, character in several of the university-centric stories is suddenly killed in a car crash shortly after graduation. Joseph has two awkward conversations at the funeral. First, a brief exchange with his gruff, Bayman father that reveals how ashamed Joseph is of his own rural Newfoundland heritage. Second, a walk with his ex-girlfriend Laurie.

Now Hit Me! Several years after the university stories, Joseph is picked up in a bar by a headstrong woman who, during sex, demands to be beaten and choked. Lucy later calls Joseph to apologize for making him uncomfortable, and they end up in a long-term relationship.

Come Near at Your Peril, Canadian Wolf. By force of personal charisma, Lucy becomes the provincial Conservative Party nominee in her Western Newfoundland district during Danny Williams’ 2007 electoral sweep. She adopts several propaganda techniques from Triumph of the Will to organize cross-province rallies to maintain popular support for Williams. She later picks a public fight with the CBC over their national network running a television news story about a stroke victim whose slurred speech vaguely resembles a stereotypical Newfoundland accent. Lucy's popularity comes to rival Williams, and he views her with suspicion.

Literary Ambition. Joseph works as a submissions editor at a St. John’s publishing company run by the eccentric Mr. Bradley. Bradley hires a new employee, a Newfoundlander returning from a decade in Argentina, to run international submissions, part of a plan to turn his small company into a globally famous publishing house. Arlena Gutierrez (born Arlene Parsons) is incredibly pretentious, and waxes on about the beauty of Argentina and her deep feelings for her former lover, Juan Garcia Rubenstein. Joseph better connects with her easygoing, English-deficient husband Hector. 

Unreadable. Another longer story. Joseph and Lucy keep trying to help his old university friend Bernie get his life together. He’s held down a series of mediocre, go-nowhere office jobs while trying to start a career as a novelist. But the manuscript he sends Joseph is terrible, an awful collision of James Dean clichés and mawkish romance set in the 1970 FLQ crisis. Bernie joins Joseph and Lucy on a night out with their old friend Sanjay, who has returned to St. John’s from his home in Toronto to marry his happily pregnant girlfriend Sarah. After Bernie lands a job answering phones for the city’s Arts Council, he meets Deidre, the sister of a local celebrity actor, with whom he becomes infatuated. Because Bernie is neurotic as hell and can’t just ask a girl out to coffee, he talks Joseph and Lucy into being his wingmen at a dinner party with several folks from the Arts Council. Smoking a joint with his host in the upstairs library, Joseph learns that his boss Mr. Bradley has been the kept man of one of Newfoundland’s richest men, and that his company was formed as a vanity project and sinkhole for the accounting of losses in other parts of the corporate empire. While he’s away, Bernie reveals his feelings for Deidre in a way that creeps her out and ultimately costs him his job.

My Secret Life. Joseph gets a manuscript from a local author on his desk: it’s about a young female adjunct literature professor who discovers her sexuality and self-confidence through an affair with one of her students, who is suddenly killed in a car crash shortly after graduation. Joseph is shocked to realize that this is actually a thinly veiled story of his own friend’s actual affair with their first-year literature professor. Joseph remembers a party they attended at another professor’s house where they showed up, seemingly on a date. At the time, he was preoccupied by accidentally seeing his friend Nadia’s ex Jen having a gymnastic threesome with the slimy professor Elias Farkas and his wife, while on his way to an upstairs bathroom. Lucy calls the manuscript creepy and obsessive, and on her advice, Joseph rejects it. Two years later, he finds the book in a local store, heavily revised and published by Random House.

Was It All About Me? Joseph visits Toronto for the first time at age 29, replacing an ill Mr. Bradley at a publishers’ conference. While there, he meets his old girlfriend Laurie, who moved to Toronto six years earlier and now works for PEN International. They have dinner that night at the hotel and talk about their past and current lives: Laurie has had no serious relationships, having dived into her political activism, while Joseph and Lucy are engaged and planning a family. Laurie realizes that Joseph never held any very strong political or even ethical beliefs of his own. He changes his politics and morals to suit those of his romantic partner. He briefly visits Sanjay, Sarah, and their toddler before happily returning to the comfort of home.

Long Lives and Long Memories, Jamming, 27/04/2014

We watched Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, a little while ago, and like most of Jarmusch’s films, it didn’t disappoint me. Jim Jarmusch makes films with a kind of loping pace, lingering over images and ideas in a way that most North American films haven’t really been comfortable with since the 1970s, a period of social realist cinema that I dearly love. And in many ways, it’s the closest a vampire film can come to genuine social realism. I’ll explain.

This is the story of an immensely old vampire couple who at first seem notoriously pretentious with the way they name-drop countless references to the famous artists and scientists they hung out with and inspired. One of their vampiric friends, played by John Hurt, is actually Christopher Marlowe, yet another science-fictional take on the mysterious fate of William Shakespeare’s rival. And of course, the dialogue implies that he actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Tom Hiddleston plays the male vampiric lead, a reclusive musician who records brilliant art on analog equipment which he smuggles out to the world through his intermediary, Anton Yelchin, under the presumption that the records are sent to artists to be inspired by the sounds. This is my least favourite aspect of the film, because of its implication that all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs and innovations of humanity are actually the work of a physically superior species, vampires, who prey on us. In comparison, humans are mere zombies, as Hiddleston contemptuously calls us.

But even the vampires are all too human. When they drink blood, they do so from a small aperitif glass, and it knocks them back in their chairs with the vacant bliss of a heroin high. It’s implied in a later that drinking an entire human worth of blood at once would send them into a frenzy. Yet they have to contend with the fact that it’s impossible to cover up a murder anymore. Police actually have the wherewithal today to perform detailed scientific autopsies on murder victims, and a vampire can’t just get away with throwing a victim in the local river to mingle with the other anonymous floaters. As well, because almost everyone today has a video camera in their pocket, it’s incredibly difficult to do anything vampiric in public without someone capturing enough evidence to lead police straight to you.

As well, contemporary levels of pollution and disease in the human population constitutes a genuine health hazard to vampires. This is part of the core drama of the film — hunting has become riskier than any reward. So the vampires employ a series of corrupt doctors to skim a little of the blood supplies off the top for them. It actually makes them remarkably vulnerable, as the creatures that they hunt can now effectively hunt and control them.

Few loves grow as deeply as the (practically) immortal.
This is the setting, but the story and the characters (aside from their supernatural elements) could have come from a Mike Leigh or Hal Ashby film. The cinematography and storyline is clear about the nature of vampires: they’re addicts to human blood. Hiddleston and his eternal life partner Tilda Swinton are essentially bourgeois, respectable drug addicts. They get their stuff from clean, respectable sources, pay well for it, use it in moderation, and live in idyllic, reclusive bliss together. But Swinton, Hiddleston, and Hurt have all been having eerily prophetic dreams about her sister, Mia Wasikowska, and they speak of her with the hushed tones that a lesser vampire film would use to introduce an epic villain filled with plans of world conquest and human enslavement. Think Queen of the Damned, only worse.

Then Wasikowska shows up, and she’s basically an immature party girl. She loves to go out and hunt people, no matter the risk of potentially fatal contaminated blood. She has no sense of moderation, drinks their supplies dry within days, and still has that sisterly influence on Swinton to get dangerous again. Basically, this is the story of an upper-class drug addicted couple having to deal with an uncontrollable relative. Of course, Wasikowska ruins everything, because her type of impulsive character always messes everything up in these movies.

So there’s a beautiful social realist heart to this arty vampire film. Wonderful. But there’s even more to it. Hiddleston has, over the last few centuries, become remarkably depressed about humanity. They seem to have lost a skill that only he remembers, and the science they developed after forgetting it seems effective, but is only the self-destructive stumbling of people who can’t understand the universe’s more fundamental laws. It all becomes clear in a scene where Hiddleston reveals the actual means by which he powers his apartment without being connected to an electrical grid.

He’s built a working Tesla generator out of spare parts. But he explains the principle by which it works very curiously. The generator has a pair of antenna that download electrical information from the Earth’s electromagnetic field, and this information is itself the replication of that energy. From manipulating information, the symbol, of electricity, he can manipulate electricity, the thing itself. In other words, he’s the last remaining alchemist. And in the world of this film, alchemy is real.

This knowledge of how to manipulate the world by manipulating its information used to be common among humanity, but it had been forgotten through generational change. Hiddleston is the only one who remembers this true highest science because he’s the only person from the alchemical era who hasn’t died. This is why he’s so particularly depressed about humanity; they were always his prey, but they also had this incredible potential. But it’s all been squandered as they forgot the true principles of reality. Our environmental and health problems today are a by-product of this profound lack of memory. 

In a narrative whose structure is socially realist, this literal resurrection of magic provides its emotional core, the one drive other than pure hedonism (whether in the responsible mode of Swinton or Wasikowska’s self-centred wildness) that keeps an immortal going through this terrible, shuddering world we’ve made. Well, that and love.

Life Makes Hope If You Let It, Research Time, 25/04/2014

I sometimes think about what makes the difference between a student of philosophy and a philosopher. One idea that I keep returning to is that a student defines his philosophical perspective with terms that are already part of the vocabulary: reliabilist, utilitarian, Hegelian, Davidsonian. A philosopher just carries out her conceptual explorations and arguments, and other philosophers are obstacles or fellow travellers.

Rosi Braidotti is definitely a fellow traveller, almost to the point where she’s anticipated ideas of my own. She pitches her philosophical project of post-humanism as part of the Spinozist tradition that understands all matter as inherently active, that moving bodies interacting to constitute more complex bodies and structures basically amounts to self-production. Physicality itself enables freedom because all bodies have the potential to articulate all that they can do. Braidotti calls herself a vital materialist, but unlike Jane Bennett, who figured into a small role in my thesis, she is able to escape the mystical metaphors of historical alchemy and the phenomenology of metallurgy and actually develop this idea as a philosophical concept.

My imperative in crafting my own take on the vital materialist concept was the ecological crisis. The human self-conception that saw nature and humanity as inherently opposed and alienated, two poles of an everlasting zero-sum conflict, has only gotten us into the trouble of a potential extinction, so we really should drop the whole idea and think of something else. So I developed a vision of the subject as constituted from a complex field of interacting affects out of some concepts from molecular biology and standing on the shoulders of Deleuze and Guattari. Free of the mystical mumbo-jumbo that too often still haunts environmentalist philosophy, I built a conception of the self that was also its world. She and I share this basic environmentalist imperative, but she has some additional imperatives that arose from her lifelong professional dialogue with feminism, post-colonialism and the related race theory, and 20th century anti-humanism.

A challenge of 20th century philosophy is whether the
Enlightenment's concept of social progress through
technocratic science could lead anywhere other than
One of the particularly interesting bits of argument to arise from her book in relation to these other traditions, at least for me, is her conception of anti-humanism. Basically, the 20th century in Europe, especially leading up to the barbarism of the Second World War, was interpreted as the crash of the Enlightenment conception of humanity. The notion that scientific knowledge could control every aspect of human life for the better ran up against the fact that, far from enabling the moral progress accompanying the technological, that vision resulted in moral degradation as humanity was ignored in favour of mechanism. The hypocrisies of colonialism also fed anti-humanism, as the end of Europe’s military empires led to the imperial governments rightly being called out as hypocrites for all their talk about universal freedoms while carrying out serious political, social, and racializing oppression.

Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer project is part of this extended calling out of the European/Western humanist tradition. His angle revolves around a distinction of two conceptions of life: bios and zoê. Bios is the conception of a life as a human citizen with full political rights and capacities. Agamben contrasts this with zoê, or bare life, the organism whose killing is permitted, and even rather unremarkable. I first encountered Agamben during my Master’s degree, when a class I sat in on slowly read through his first book of the Homo Sacer series. It’s clear from the connotation of the term that zoê is the conception of life that emerges from the camps: a human whose death is unremarkable, of no more consequence than exterminating a mouse. If this is where Enlightenment humanism takes us, then there’s no use for Enlightenment at all.

Braidotti has a more hopeful point of view here: she redefines zoê in the vital materialist sense of life, the fundamental activity from which all the complex structures of the biosphere (and the universe as a whole, if you take a wide enough view) constitutes itself. Bios in this view is the problematic concept, because what matters on that conception is an exception from the material world. Only in the anthropocentrically human conception of participation could a life be politically relevant; all other forms of life and matter were ethically immaterial. Braidotti and I make no exceptions when it comes to political relevance, only how that relevance occurs. It requires an entire redefinition of what a political process is, but we’ve been working on it. And we’ll keep working on it. What else is philosophy for, but radically rethinking what we once presumed to be true?

All Knowledge Is Meta-Knowledge, Research Time, 24/04/2014

I’m not really going to explore in detail the reflexive nature of consciousness — that sort of post would have to encompass the entire history and conceptual development of contemporary phenomenology at least. Really, I’m just writing a short post to plug my latest reply essay available open source at Social Epistemology. I’m joining an exchange by two writers who are discussing the nature of relativism. My own take on relativism itself is clear enough in the article, and if you want to read that, you can do that here. I strongly recommend it, as I’m quite a sharp philosophical writer.

My discussion at Social Epistemology concentrates on the fear moral relativism that arises when we consider that variation in moral beliefs is natural because the common store of human goods (freedom from harm, the ability to flourish) underdetermine which moral system we develop to safeguard them. Instead of being frightened by spectres of moral relativism if we admit that many moral truths can satisfy the same practical goals, we should instead craft a philosophical science of morality, analyzing and categorizing moral systems and theorizing about how they can change over time.

However, I want to make a few remarks about relativism in knowledge here, the type of relativism that I skipped over in my reply. Such a small topic, I know. But my thoughts about knowledge are quite akin to my thoughts about morality, at least in terms of how I think philosophy should handle the subject. Over the years, I’ve only soured on the conception of moral philosophy as an inquiry to find the definitively true good and right. I don’t think there’s an answer to that inquiry. But the project of moral science, the systematization and creation of moral concepts, principles, and problem areas, I think has always been the most effective philosophical approach to the subject.

This chicken does not want me to have it for dinner.
The same goes for knowledge. There are different ways to understand facts and systematize them. This isn’t the same as anything-goes relativism that would scare the crap out of people. Here’s an example. Take a fact about the price of a chicken in the grocery store. This fact can be understood as having an immediate practical impact on whether I buy that chicken for dinner tonight. It can also be understood as an expression of the price fluctuations of a national agricultural market. It can also be understood as the product of a factory farm (a morally relevant fact, in fact). I’ve just carried out some philosophy as epistemological science. I’ve taken a simple fact and classified it according to its meaning in several different contexts. None of these contexts take precedence or priority over any other as the true nature of the chicken’s price.* They’re different modes of understanding. Philosophy conceived as an epistemological science would develop different modes of understanding and map their relations to each other.

* You might wonder how the chicken feels about spending a life cooped up on a farm until it’s killed for me to buy it at a market in Ontario and eat it for dinner at my home. That would be another set of knowledge modes. 

Other philosophers (not all, but some) have occasionally told me that philosophy is about inquiring for the answers to eternal questions, searching for the eternal truth of existence. Apart from finding this definition of the discipline too pretentious for me to handle myself, I just find this notion terribly old-fashioned. The human world (let alone the world wider than human scopes alone) is too complex for any profound question to eventually have a univocal answer. Philosophy has to maintain its relevance in today’s world by conceiving of itself as the discipline of pure understanding, conceptually mapping a fluctuating world in all of its complex categories. 

Ethical Posthumanism: Why Nietzsche Is My Hero, Research Time, 23/04/2014

Rosi Braidotti’s work is fascinating, and I think some of her ideas will be important figures in new drafts of my Ecophilosophy project, and will likely join the flow of ideas taking shape on my back burner in the Utopias project.* For one, admittedly superficial, point, she and I share the same general view of Georg Hegel’s philosophy of history. Because he reads European culture as uniquely expressing self-reflective reason, Hegel gives the most profound justification of Eurocentrism. Rationality itself privileges Western man over other paradigms of culture and thought. Braidotti and I both call shenanigans on this entire project.

* For those of you wondering how I can so quickly shift projects from the front to back burners as contingent events like feedback from consulting colleagues, conference deadlines, or upcoming job opportunities assail me — I’m a professional. We work on multiple projects at once and have a lot of priorities to deal with. This is the life of the modern intellectual and writer. So get used to it.

I touched yesterday on what precisely transhumanism is, the philosophical engagement with the possibility of transcending or overcoming the limitations of the human organism through technology. I’ve only recently become interested in it because it strikes me as a more whitewashed iteration of the brutal Futurism of Marinetti, the vision of humanity remade through industrial machinery. While I was researching the Ecophilosophy project, however, I just thought of the transhumanist project or perspective as naive. It was barely worth my engaging with the scene because not even a critical thought about whether technological progress is ethical or ecological progress even appeared to me. But the transhumanists I knew of were the most obnoxious, like Max More. And even their role in the Utopias project will be minor at best — modern transhumanism seems a pale shadow of the real first technological utopian, Filippo Marinetti.

It is frankly a beautiful cover, which
reflects its fascinating content.
Braidotti arose from a tradition that combined feminist political philosophy with the ontology of difference of Gilles Deleuze. And when I say she’s part of that tradition, I really mean that this is a basic account of how she approaches philosophy herself. I like to think of good philosophers as constituting their own traditions, even if in the next generation, we don’t find too many self-professed Braidottians. Her posthumanism doesn’t have the violent thrust of the transhumanist vision of progress, instead asking a subtler question of what in our current conceptions of humanity needs to be overcome. More will come on this notion as I read more of her book last year on the subject.

My own encounter with this notion of posthumanity came from engaging with Nietzsche, which is why I consider Braidotti a fellow traveller, now that I’m growing familiar with her work. In the proliferation of academic writing, she is another voice that is worth reading, which is more than can be said for many (quite possibly myself included, and I write this project, of all things). The problem with the technological forms of transhumanism is that they are closely integrated with economic factors. As far as I'm concerned, it's of no use creating a new cybernetic iteration of humanity if only the super-rich will be able to invest in the enhancements, if only those who can afford it can enter cryogenic sleep, or enhance their lifespan and perceptual abilities with technological additions. Most people will be left behind in a technological transhumanism. But an ethical posthumanism, which Nietzsche was really the first to develop, or at least the most influential single figure to do so, is democratic. Reconsidering one's ethics and self-definition is a task that has no price tag. All it takes is to think about your life in a particular way that calls the moral values you have long taken for granted into question, and develop new practical priorities in the face of problems to which those old values are inadequate. The transvaluation of values sounds like an epic cultural shift, and in fact constitutes one. But such a shift is so mundane that it happens all the time, as moral priorities change with every generational changeover.

More to come.

Ethical Posthumanism: That There Can Be More, Composing, 22/04/2014

It’ll take a while to get there, but it’s coming.

Some of the people I’ve recently consulted with on my Ecophilosophy project have given me very interesting, but unexpected feedback. Most of the unexpected feedback I’ve gotten about the project has to do with suggestions to include particular ideas that seemed natural to them, and as I think about them, they have a curious origin.

The most common kind of feedback I get on my article and book manuscripts are questions about why I didn’t include some particular philosopher. Some of the first editorial feedback I got on the Ecophilosophy project was a suggestion that I read Nicholas Agar. He’s a New Zealander professor who specializes in environmental moral and political philosophy, and wrote a short book that I quite enjoyed. I incorporated some ideas of his 2001 book Life’s Intrinsic Value into the first chapter of the manuscript. 

Nicholas Agar wrote a later book that
critiqued philosophical transhumanism,
which I'd probably enjoy, and I'd agree
with a lot of it. I haven't read it, though.
But I found his ideas couldn’t take on the more central role to the argument that my consultant felt they should. While my own project engages with the long-standing debate over the intrinsic value of nature, it isn’t a work of value theory as such. Really, the manuscript only touches on value theory long enough to describe its tools as inadequate to a task that requires a larger redefinition of how we understand the world and act in it. The core conceit of the Ecophilosophy manuscript is that people who think as we do are never going to be able to accept that nature itself has some form of value intrinsically, or at least without necessary dependence on human evaluation. But the manuscript isn’t about to resurrect any imagined Edenic perspective of semi-vanished indigenous people. Pretty much anytime an indigenous person shows up in environmental moral philosophy as an idealized figure, the atmosphere gets way too racist for me.

The basic point of the Ecophilosophy manuscript is developing a conception of humanity and its place in the universe that encourages environmentalist activity while also preserving productive aspects of scientific and technological knowledge and practice. This was the point that my most recent consultant made when he pointed me toward the posthumanists, particularly Rosi Braidotti. I’ve only just started exploring her work, but I already find it rather fascinating. I can understand why I had never discovered her work before — it’s rooted in the feminist philosophical traditions that I rarely exposed myself to in my undergraduate years, and that after those years I felt too embarrassed until now to plunge into for the first time. However, because we both lean on Gilles Deleuze as a significant conceptual influence, so in this regard at least, she’s a fellow traveller. Instead of incorporating her into an early chapter for the sake of criticizing, as I did with Agar’s work, she can instead supplement my final conclusions. Precisely how, I’m still figuring out, but I think this is the direction I’m going in.

I didn’t know it when I started the project, but I suppose it makes me a transhumanist of a sort. I say ‘of a sort’ because, as with most labels I temporarily adopt, my own version of it is so singular and, to a degree, idiosyncratic, that describing myself with that term misleads you about what I actually think instead of helping explain it. Transhumanism often revolves around embracing technology to overcome our human and organic limitations, essentially to become supermen. That’s the cartoonishly simple version, anyway. 

My own work is better characterized as posthuman. As a slogan, I could call it ethical post-humanism. The typical transhumanist conceives of human transformation using technological modification. I consider it important for humanity to change how we understand ourselves, to begin an ethical transformation.

The Art of Balance in Teaching, Composing, 21/04/2014

Just a short post today, summarizing most of the philosophical work I’ve done this weekend without getting too specific. I’m applying for a few temporary positions around my neck of the woods, and so have been preparing new course ideas and outlines for the position. 

I’ve worked with many professors over the years in my own training to teach philosophy. They have all approached their classes, especially introductory-level work, very differently. But if I could group such approaches into any simple system, this is the best dichotomy I can think of: survey courses and close reading courses. 

When a lot of students bring their laptops or tablets to
classes, I like to have competitions to see who can look up
factoids for my lectures the fastest. "Jenkins! Original
publication date of the Leviathan. Go!"
Survey courses are often organized by topic, and each week will feature a short philosophical reading that illustrates a simple concept. This can often work well for teaching applied philosophy, because it roots the conceptual work in a variety of real-world situations. Each short piece of work can cover a different aspect of some philosophical problem in worldly action, like a series of papers on different environmental justice problems. Several different articles can offer several different ways to approach a problem like, for instance, tracing the complicated networks of responsibility and moral obligation in a disaster like an accident that causes heavy pollution. Even more complex would be the webs of such obligations and responsibilities in conflicts arising from droughts and floods. If you examine a complex issue from enough angles, you will come to understand it.

But for the most part, the survey course isn’t quite my style of teaching. I find that you can’t really take an idea into philosophical depth if you have only a short reading and a brief lecture to introduce it before moving on. As much as we rely on short definitions of philosophical concepts (e.g. utilitarianism, virtue ethics, epistemological fallibilism), increase ability in philosophical thought eventually understands just how inadequate those short definitions are. I’m just not a fan of conducting a whole course that’s nothing but introductions. 

If I’m teaching an introductory course on some broad topic, I’m going to find the classic works that developed that topic. I’ll stick to a central three or four that are especially pivotal, and represent the major directions that developed since then. That way, students are introduced to the classics of philosophical canon as early as possible. And because we spend a few weeks at least on each central text and topic, we can all explore it in far more detail than if I filled a semester with a survey of as much stuff as I could. That way, they aren’t just learning the classics; they’re learning why these books are classics. 

I certainly hope I can get an opportunity to actually do this. After all, it’s what I spent an entire four year degree, in part, training to do.

The Geography of a Library Is The Geography of a Mind, A History Boy, 19/04/2014

I moved into a new apartment with my girlfriend a while ago, which has been generally amazing, and the best development in my personal life since I moved out of my mother’s house. The only thing that really annoys me, aside from the pigeons that have been roosting on our balcony, is that through the chaos of moving day, all our books, DVDs, and CDs* are jumbled together on the shelves. As well, those bookshelves are overflowing, because our combined collections are larger than what they can contain. Some stuff is still in boxes. My old friend Arnold Bennett once told me that you should always keep your library so that no more than two-thirds of your books have already been read. Including electronic books, I’m keeping to his wisdom.

* Yes, I still have CDs, most of which are either new purchases since I came to Ontario, or that I brought with me for personal reasons. So my Super Furry Animals record is a purchase from a McMaster used music and movie stand, and my Sunn O)) record that I got at Hamilton’s Cheapie’s is brilliant but I don’t play it too often for fear of shaking the building down. All my Frank Zappa, Manic Street Preachers, and TV on the Radio albums are with me for sentimental purposes.

We're not quite at this point yet, but it's conceivable for
our house about a decade down the line.
So once I buy a fourth bookshelf with my April paycheck for her books, everything will be properly arranged. The only question is the order. Here’s the layout, first of all. There’s one bookshelf behind my computer desk, which means its bottom three shelves are obscured. Still accessible, but it involves crawling. So whatever goes there will be low priority — stuff that I like to have, but that I don’t really access too often. Next to that is a more accessible shelf between my console and our couch. There’s a third bookshelf across from the couch next to our television, and when I order the fourth, it’s going on the other side of the couch. If we eventually buy a fifth shelf, it’ll go either next to the fourth, or in the corner of our dining area. 

The shelf behind my desk will house the books that I don’t use very much. So the bottom shelf will have my old ESL teaching textbooks, my hardcover or large softcover books of history (Bruce Cumings’ Korea’s Place in the Sun), politics (Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil), and journalism (Peter C. Newman’s When the Gods Changed) that I don’t refer back to very often, along with some old fiction hardcovers I picked up at a university book giveaway. The Barack Obama books that my mother got me in 2009 will go down here too, because he’s betrayed all the hope I put in him during his first election. My Complete Works of Shakespeare hardcover goes on the second shelf, along with all the philosophy books that I don’t re-read very often (Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Dewey, Hume, Habermas, and the ancient Greeks) along with my old issues of the Canadian philosophy journal Dialogue, and survey texts and coursepacks that I used for undergraduate classes, whether taking them or teaching them. My books by the speculative realists (Graham Harman, Ian Bogost) will go here too because I wrote one paper about them that I’m still trying to get published, and I don’t really see much more philosophical potential in that movement at all.

This will spill onto the third shelf as well, along with more recent philosophy that I don’t read very much but may still be useful for some projects (Badiou, Derrida, Heidegger, Russell, Gilbert Ryle, Kripke, Searle, Habermas, the history of analytic philosophy, Dewey and the other pragmatists). The shelf above would house fiction that I don’t read much anymore, and the top shelf would share this fiction with my graphic novels and comics. The CDs would rest on top of the books on the bottom shelves.

The more accessible shelf between that one and our couch would start with general DVDs on top (my assorted movies and TV shows, my Herzog collection), then transition to my Doctor Who collection (new series, classic series, novels, Big Finish audios resting on top of those). After that come my science-fiction books (Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, Iain Banks, Terry Pratchett). The bottom shelves would include my biographies (of Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser, Fellini, Russell T. Davies, and Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin), and physically large philosophy books (Johnson and Lakoff’s Philosophy and the Flesh, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach).

The shelf next to our television will have all the large fiction books that I particularly love on the bottom shelf (In Search of Lost Time, Don Quixote, Joyce, Borges, Lovecraft, all my Dostoyevsky, War and Peace, Pynchon, Infinite Jest, Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain). Working my way up the shelves, Wittgenstein, my political philosophy (late-period Sartre, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Mill, Tocqueville, Marx, Peter Kropotkin, Max Weber, Marinetti, Edward Said, Foucault, Negri, Arendt), then my Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson. All the books by Deleuze, Guattari, the Deleuze-Guattari gestalt, and the writers inspired by them (Manuel DeLanda, Brian Massumi) would probably have the third shelf to themselves. Upper shelves would feature my environmental philosophy and related studies,** media theory (McLuhan, Katherine Hayles), feminist theory (Margaret Urban Walker, Amy Mullin, Julia Kristeva), transitioning into my physically smaller favourite fiction (Alice Munro, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Laurence Sterne, Virginia Woolf, and Roberto Bolaño).

** Tim Morton goes here too, even though he identifies as a speculative realist and his most recent book (which I have electronically) demonstrates just how bankrupt and obscurantist so-called Object-Oriented Ontology can become. But I have his much better books of environmental philosophy, Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought. Sometimes, a bookshelf can rewrite history, if only a little.

When I was in my undergrad, a history professor I knew was moving offices and getting rid of a bunch of his old books for free. I came back from the Arts Building with enough books in my arms that the stack went from my crotch to my chin. My old philosophical mentor, Jim Bradley, saw me with this cartoonish stack and declared, “Now there goes a learned man!”

Social Self-Determination in Ukraine, Dialogues, 18/04/2014

I’m introducing a new category to the blog today. Dialogues are short to long interviews with colleagues and friends about issues relating to what I write about — political philosophy, the related journalism, and my various fiction projects. Below is an edited version of a conversation I had with my friend M, in response to my post yesterday on the worsening political situation in Ukraine and the threats the Jewish population in Donetsk have received recently of ethnic cleansing.

Unrelated to this, I had an article published this week with Newfoundland’s newest literary and arts magazine, Landwash, which you can read here. It adapts my posts regarding the institutionalization of creative writing, the wider educational effects of University of Iowa’s seminal program in that area, and how my upcoming novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, confronts and critiques these issues. 
• • •
Vladimir Putin is a dangerous man
leading a geopolitically dangerous
country. He's even more deadly
when he takes his shirt off.
Hey Adam,

I'm curious as to your thoughts on this, but didn't want to lob this grenade into the thread on your Facebook wall. I feel like the current issues in Ukraine are a fascinating example of Putin's mastery of the Western love affair with the notion of the liberal subject. Crimea, for example, is being spun as a case of individual sovereignty, with the referendum understood as the free choice of the Crimean people to join Russia. Further, the Russian line interprets attempts by the West to reject this referendum’s legitimacy as nothing more than a typical unilateral decision as to what is best for any given country, regardless of the feelings of that country’s citizens.

Of course, such arguments have to ignore the past and present geopolitical history of Crimea. One could ask how the province’s Tatar population feels about its region’s political developments, because no one ever has. The party of the current president of Crimea only received 4% of the vote in Ukraine’s last national election, and he ascended to power at gunpoint. Turning to these facts, however, means suggesting that some kind of Ukrainian federalism would have to override the apparent desires of the current citizens of Crimea.

While I'm not totally sure where my ideas could go, I can't help but feel that Putin has grasped how to use the Western idolization of the liberal subject to get what he wants. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, given that you have much more knowledge in this area than I do.


Self-determination as a political concept can get so slippery, and I think it has to do with the notion we have of treating countries and cultures as if they were unified individuals. As the concept was first developed with John Locke and his successors up north in the Scottish Enlightenment, it focussed on individuals being able to live in freedom from interference by the government or armed forces, and quite literally determine themselves. Then the Kantian moral philosophy made self-determination (which he re-conceived as self-legislation) an essential function of reason itself.

There had been a tradition in absolute monarchy of conceiving of an entire kingdom as the extension of the King's body, hence Louis XIV's habit of referring to himself as France. But I think the real kicker to blending universal self-determination with the self-determination of polities was justified with Hegelian political philosophy. Hegel and the thinkers he influenced tended to subscribe, at least for the first 100ish years, to a notion that humans could only be free insofar as they articulated the cultural values and continuities which constituted them individually as people in the first place. So the state was conceived as the engine of freedom, culture was linked to the state, and the internal consistency of a culture in a territory defined by state borders was seen as a culture's gaining internal consistency. This ended up only fuelling racism, because cultures were linked to states and territories, and a culture could only be authentic if everyone shared the same moral and religious beliefs. Cultural authenticity was possible only when all citizens of a state shared a culture. Otherwise, discord would necessarily arise to disrupt the rational order of a people. I see this underlying a lot of racism in modern Europe against Muslim immigrants: because they have a different culture, they don't belong in Holland, France, Hungary, Austria, etc. This identification of culture, country, and state has been ingrained in Europe for so long that I don't know if many Europeans can conceive of alternatives, unless they're ethnically mixed or otherwise pluralized already.

But the result of this was that instead of identifying a kingdom with its king, a people are identified with the state. It's become a justification of racism because any cultural diversity in a state is seen as introducing discord. I've heard quite reasonable people suggest that Canada isn't really a country because of its incredible internal cultural diversity. On Hegelian (and Heideggerian, but let's not go there because I have a busy day) grounds, that's actually true.

And so we still use the segregation of diverse peoples to solve problems of racism that arise in ethnically plural societies. This is a justification for the creation of Kosovo, just as it is for Crimea, Donetsk, and Transnistria. It only works when racism has become so terrible and violent anyway that culturally plural regions have practically been ethnically cleansed anyway. Kosovars or Timorese just wouldn't feel safe still living with Serbian or Indonesian controlled police. 

But I'm Canadian. So I don't see this as a necessary result of cultural pluralism. You can just as easily get the racism parodies of Russell Peters arising out of a culturally diverse society as you do ethnic cleansing. And even though he's not my favourite comedian, I prefer the Canadian path.

Everyday People and Totalitarian Actions, Jamming, 17/04/2014

If you remember my posts about my reading through Hannah Arendt’s work, you remember that I spoke a lot about the structure of totalitarianism, which is fundamentally important to my Utopias project. Even though that project has moved to the back burner, it remains in my thoughts. I read some news out of Ukraine last night that made me recall some of the core ideas from Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian politics, and my own uptake of those thoughts.

The flag of the Donetsk People's Republic, the most
recently declared pawns in the new Russia-Europe
geopolitical games.
The Donetsk People’s Republic is the world’s newest unrecognized state. This seems to be the model for Russia’s desperate attempt at imperialist expansion – encouraging Russian nationalists in the area to form a breakaway government of some region of a country, which would be loyal to the Russian government, who would then advocate on the separatists’ behalf. Putin seems to have adopted the model of Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, as his central means of intimidating his European cold enemies and expanding Russia’s military influence beyond its borders. As for the country where Russian influence is expanding, the proxies of that expansion essentially form guerrilla militias to start a civil war.

He did the same with separatist regions in Georgia, having invaded that former Soviet republic in 2008, ostensibly to protect the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It’s only becoming an issue for Western politicians and journalists now that it’s breaking up a large country that was integrating with the European Union. Nobody who matters in our society really cares that much about Georgia of Moldova, which is pathetic and hypocritical on the part of our leaders and media elites. But we could have seen this mess coming.

Now Russian separatists in Ukraine are getting especially disreputable and terrifying. It’s been reported across Israeli media that gangs of armed militiamen gave out flyers to Donetsk’s Jewish people as they left Passover services that they were to register the families and property with the breakaway government, or have everything they owned confiscated. The written orders were signed by the breakaway government’s president, and he’s stood by them, and backed their legitimacy.

I know using the word makes me sound hysterical, but these anti-Semitic actions on the part of Donetsk-Russian nationalist militias indicate a definitely ugly turn. It recalls the ideas that I found in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Orders like those that the Donetsk Jewish community received are preludes to ethnic cleansing, actually informing the targeted community that the new government has authorized that they be ethnically cleansed. The confiscation order indicates that the cultural and ethnic purity of Donetsk as Russian is now a priority for the breakaway government. Jews in eastern Europe have historically been treated as exceptions from the social order, their presence a plurality in a culture that otherwise sees itself as uniform.* 

* Of course, no culture is ever genuinely uniform, because all cultures are composed of individuals, and individuals are inherently variations from the norm. No one ever precisely conforms to any general cultural model. A conception of a culture is a phenomenon only on a macroscopic scale, and mesoscopic or microscopic scales always reveal variations and irregularities that are rarely statistically significant on the macroscopic. Even then, they’re only significant in aggregate, never as an individual, unless you’re talking about charismatic leaders of genuinely dictatorial governments, the type of Leader that Arendt capitalized.

Ethnic cleansing is a violent movement whose central premise is that a culture is linked with the land on which it lives, and must be entirely uniform to be in perfect health. It prioritizes the purity and uniformity of the group on a macroscopic level to the point of erasing all singularity on the microscopic level of individuals. It is the political destruction of singularity. In other words, totalitarianism.

Precisely Who Would This Be For? Composing, 15/04/2014

So I got enough initial feedback on my draft of my Ecophilosophy book publishing proposal that I can finally complete the thing. Guidance in writing a proposal was never really a major focus of my doctoral education; I think it was just something my program’s designers thought we’d pick up as we went along. But my own work creates something of a problem for publication because my larger projects cut across several areas of philosophy at the same time. It’s easier to say what books with which your own would compete in the intellectual marketplace when you have a topic precisely defined by disciplinary standards. 

I’ll give you a basic outline of the Ecophilosophy manuscript as an example of the difficulty I have categorizing my work. Essentially, it’s about creating an ecological self-consciousness. Call it an experiment in ethical post-humanism. 

Chapter one introduces the concept of nature’s intrinsic value as it’s been developed and critiqued in environmental moral philosophy, and the existentialist dilemma by which I resurrect its relevance. The next chapter sticks with environmental moral philosophy, but focusses now on a critique of the oppositional view of humanity and nature, to show that caring for nature doesn’t imply disdaining humanity. Something like my critique of Lee Edelman yesterday, my problem here is that such a choice is a false problem. There’s nothing in the essence of humanity that makes us inherently anti-natural.

Environmental activists, or revolutionaries of any kind,
don't need complex philosophical arguments and concepts
to spur them to action. If anything, people like me only get
in the way of the mission. So do we philosophers do?
Chapter three gets explicitly political, as I explore the problems of embedding a movement that began (and remains) a rebellious, activist path in the curriculum of a university. And further, philosophy is especially ill-suited to revolutionary politics because of its tendency to critique and make complex everything in sight. Philosophers undermine their own political revolutions through the force of their analysis. 

Chapter four gets more than a little strange, as I explain the ontological concepts that ground my creative answer to these problems. First, reality is inherently processual. Nothing in the world is permanent and everything is in flux. The source of this flux is that every body in the universe (even those that appear stable at first glance, like bricks and mountains) is constituted from the motion of other bodies. From this, I conclude that there are no simple bodies. instead all bodies are composed of parts, both internally and externally. Because all bodies are processes, they cannot be said to contain parts in the conventional sense. Instead, a body is part of another when it is involved in the processes that generate, maintain, or change that other body. So because all these processes are fundamentally interdependent, from that perspective, the entire universe is a single, immensely complex body.

The following three chapters combine the conceptual machinery of chapter four with several scientific and philosophical fields — metabolic biology, systems theory, just a dash of cognitive science, phenomenology, animal behaviour, complexity and chaos theory, Deleuze and Guattari’s ontology of intensity and flux — to define the nature of the self as it arises from this complicated swirl of processes. Indeed, we’re each one of those complicated swirls. 

As well, on the recommendation of some of the more advanced professors who have given me feedback, I’m going to add an afterword, following my actual conclusion where I wrap up all this philosophy. That’s going to cover, in brief form, the basic framework of the political institutions and approaches to law that a society of people who thought in this way would enact. I only just thought of this afterword yesterday afternoon, so the details aren’t quite worked out yet.

But what do you think of this idea? What kinds of books do you think it would compete with in the market? Who would its intellectual cousins be? What do you think particularly of my pitch as a philosopher who develops experiments in ethical post-humanism, literally re-conceiving ourselves to overcome the flaws of our humanity? I write philosophy that consists of plans and diagrams for an Übermenschen factory.

No Future Epilogue: Figural Thoughts in The Real World, Research Time, 14/04/2014

It seems my initial trepidation about publicly admitting that I was engaging with queer theory for the first time has borne out at least a little social awkwardness, especially as I tried to work through what I think Lee Edelman’s political psychoanalytic method misses in reaction to his treatment of A Christmas Carol in No Future. Edelman himself doesn’t seem to be the most representative of queer theory either; many writers who contributed to the field following No Future’s publication paid its intellectual force tribute while distancing themselves from his conclusions. Its influence was notable, because it couldn’t be ignored. But the reaction was to run away.

Reading this book from beginning to end, No Future made a brilliant diagnosis of the cause of such nearly-ubiquitous horrifying violence and hostility toward non-hetero sexualities, the queer.* So many moral compasses throughout human societies, though Edelman focusses specifically on the West, place an idealized and pure image of the child in a zone of inviolability. Any indication that one’s life can be complete without taking part in the procreative activity of humanity becomes at least suspect, and at worst a threat. Hence, the concept of the queer as an inherently destructive figure, a force that would undo society and morality because such a way of living is indifferent to reproduction. All this even though reproduction simply continues humanity toward a future that, despite its value, remains obscure and essentially distant. 

* For anyone who might say that North America and other generally gay-friendly countries have made progress on this front and that such violence is over-estimated, you make too much of what is ultimately too little. Yes, our continent is focussed on concerns like gay marriage, and we no longer criminalize homosexuality, treat it as a disorder to be cured, or officially answer it with a state-administered death penalty. But Edelman opens his last chapter with an account of Matthew Shepard’s brutal 1998 murder. Most importantly, the public discourse around his death revolved around his mother having lost her son, not a young man having been murdered because of his identity. And I remember a lot of news media reports saying that Shepard had made a pass at the men who killed him, implying that his murder was his own fault. And although violence against queer people continues, few if any of these incidents appear on national news media anymore. So yes, enlightenment.

I am confronted with his argument, and I am impressed. It makes sense, and convinces me that it is at least part of the truth. The fear that those who hold traditional moralities have of deviations from family-centric heterosexuality is an existential terror of creatures who appear indifferent to whether their physical lineage continues. Such a moral perspective would feel horrifyingly threatened by the mere appearance of someone who doesn’t share the concern for humanity’s continuation, someone who is content with the present. In the Lacanian frameworks of his thinking, such a person is not even a person in his own right, but the embodiment of the death drive itself, the joy of self-destruction. This is the core of Edelman’s concept of reproductive futurist morality: the sacredness of procreative coupling and the children it creates determines the good.

A staple of psychoanalytic political analysis, as I see in
both Edelman and Slavoj Zizek, is interpreting cultural
products, like Hitchcock's The Birds, as expressions of
self-obscuring social pathologies.
But what unnerves me about Edelman’s thinking is that he doesn’t articulate an alternative to this good. He actually defines queer sexuality as an affront to this good, living articulations of the death drive. No Future carries through his initial statement that radical conservative opponents of queerness having a place in society are right about its nature: to be queer is to be a living social expression of the joy in self-annihilation. Edelman’s own illustrations of the meaning of queerness from the films of Hitchcock show this. Martin Landau’s Leonard from North by Northwest responds to Cary Grant’s pleas to help him save Eva Marie Saint for the sake of their forming a reproductive couple by forcing them to fall off Mount Rushmore. The cultural and social-psychoanalytic meaning of queerness is the embrace of death and the joy in it.

Even worse is his illustration of the meaning of queerness for children themselves: these cultural meanings, which are all but essential in their metaphorical structure, are Hitchcock’s Birds themselves as they mercilessly attack and terrorize small towns and schoolyards. There is no reason for this attack; it is an uncontrollable force of nature which destroys whatever sees good in the continuation of existence into the future.

I can argue, as I attempted in Sunday’s post, that psychoanalytic political theory, while useful for ideological understanding, is terrible at incorporating the complicating processes of actual historical development into its analyses. None of that complexifying critique will prevent this conclusion that sickens me. Understanding society and ideology with the tools of Lacanian psychoanalysis means accepting its central ordering concepts as dogma. Any opposition to Eros, the productive love that builds an amorphous futurity, is Thanatos, an incarnation of the death drive. Not wanting to develop significations that elide the emptiness of actual existence embraces the destruction of everything. On Edelman’s reading, queer sexualities actually are this destructive force. 

And I simply won’t have it. No argument, no critical thoughts, no witty jokes, no conceptual engagement. I understand Edelman’s perspective; it’s very clear in the book. And I don’t want any. 

I described at the end of yesterday’s post that psychoanalytic political theory could be useful in the analysis of ideologies. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s only tool. It ignores history as a social phenomenon, but also as individual material singularities — people. In concentrating so much on mapping worldly phenomena and cultural products to its framework of interpretive concepts, figurative meanings become more important than real life. Edelman himself admits that his interpretation is more about what phenomena represent than the phenomena themselves. You can find an amazing story, which is also meaningful, but you discover nothing of the world.

No Future 2: Entrancing Images Whose Truths Can Find No Fact to Prove Them, Research Time, 13/04/2014

Continued from last post. Lee Edelman’s book No Future has a fascinating reading of the wider cultural meaning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that ubiquitous storyline that is more frequently attended every holiday season by more people than go to Church. The story has become such a stereotype that everyone has done some version of it — every mediocre sitcom’s Christmas episode, Bill Murray, the Muppets, Doctor Who.* Edelman considers it, and the sentimentality that it wields for its power, to be an assault on queer sexualities and people, denouncing them as inherently evil and cruel creatures who must be converted to family values.

* The only reason I can think Doctor Who’s version of A Christmas Carol would be exempt from Edelman’s critique of the storyline is that it isn’t a child who saves that story’s Scrooge from his ethical wasteland. Instead, it’s his love for a terminally ill woman, a love that itself has no future, but lives only in its fleeting, indelible experiences. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

As much as I love The Muppets, and the particular beauty
of their production of A Christmas Carol, Robin has always
been so cloyingly sentimental that it drives me mad.
The lynchpin of Edelman’s argument of what A Christmas Carol means in contemporary culture lies in the character of Tiny Tim. Now, what the story means today is distinct from what Dickens himself may have intended in its authorship, but something very important is lost from our understanding when we forget this historical continuity between the conditions and motives of authorship and a work’s contemporary significance. As for Tiny Tim, Dickens renders him with such over-the-top sentimentality that he is less a character in his own right than an injunction and plea for pity in literary form. He’s an entirely abstract plea for love, not for any particular child, but to all suffering children. The literary form makes Tiny Tim more remarkable an image, the kind of singularity in each of its forms (even the mawkish Robin Frog) whose evocation of sympathy is so much more powerful than the mere, “Think of the poor, suffering children!” But for Edelman, Tiny Tim is no more than the pure voice of the morality of reproductive futurism, the valorization of the child’s purity as unquestionably the primary social good.

Scrooge, in contrast, is a voice of pure death. Dickens even describes him freezing cold, making him resemble a walking corpse. Because Edelman is so Lacanian that it hurts sometimes, he understands Scrooge as a masochistic version of the Freudian death drive. So far, so Disney. But in the previous chapter, Edelman has walked us through Jacques Lacan’s argument that the death drive actually expresses a kind of joy. The technical term in Lacanian language is jouissance: the soul’s fiery exhilaration as you burn yourself away to ashes. Edelman has already identified this joyfulness with the life of the queer, because children and reproduction are not involved in this kind of love,** only enjoyment in the present. It only helps that it’s so easy to read Scrooge’s personal and professional partnership with Marley as a closeted gay relationship.

** This statement only applies to Edelman’s ideal concept of the queer, as many actual people of many sexualities are still interested in raising children in their households, and should receive all the social benefits and support for parenthood that straight people do. But Edelman introduces No Future as focussing only on what queerness and cultural products involving it figure, not what actual queer people think and believe.

So when Scrooge is finally overcome by the sentimental pleas for pity that echo from Tiny Tim, Edelman reads it as the norms of aggressive straight morality, reproductive futurism, overwriting his queer nature. In Dickens’ original words, Scrooge becomes a celibate second father to Tiny Tim. So this universally beloved story constitutes an act of violence and hostility to queer sexualities and people.

Removing A Christmas Carol from its original historical
and political context overwrites the lives of everyone who
suffered under the hideous conditions of 19th century
factory labour.
This is one analysis of the modern cultural meaning of A Christmas Carol. But the continuing phenomenon of A Christmas Carol in all its aspects is more complex than just its cultural meaning. Remember the conditions of its generation: It is essentially a political pamphlet in the form of a novella, one of the most successful such pamphlets. Charles Dickens wrote with an entirely different political consciousness than we have today. His primary political motivation was labour reform, particularly ending the prevalent practice in Britain of child factory labour. Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and A Christmas Carol constituted a touchstone in the political movement of emancipating children from tortuous factory labour. It required an immense philosophical transformation throughout European society to make people believe sincerely and wholeheartedly that children did not belong in factories. Insofar as he was a tireless political advocate for a marginalized people, the children of the poor, Dickens was an intellectual social liberator, a similar function Edelman can serve for the queer community. It’s just that Dickens chose sentimentality, not Lacanian psychoanalytic political theory, as his weapon. As such, he was much more effective.

Edelman, to me at least, seems more Lacanian than Jacques Lacan himself. So he thinks in a way that I suspect, porting frameworks of understanding from psychoanalysis to the entirety of society. But even if psychoanalysis is a useful such framework for individual people, societies operate according to entirely different mechanisms, and are constituted quite differently. Ecological and economic processes come to the forefront in the constitution of a society. So, to me, a solid framework to understand the cultural imaginary, where our cultural products develop personal meanings, requires a merger of frameworks for thinking appropriate to the individual and those for the social and ecological. The result would likely radically transform both. Lacanian social theory moves too simply in transferring its philosophical frameworks.

And I think the biggest mistake of Lacanian thinking is that the metaphorical aspect of thought, what a social phenomenon figures, becomes more important than its actual history. Just as psychoanalysis diagnoses people through metaphorical figuration, rational engagement with our most a-rational thoughts, psychoanalytic political theory diagnoses societies by analyzing cultural products as the expressions of unspoken social drives. 

It suffers from the same incompleteness as psychoanalysis: the analysis misses critical aspects of the world by ignoring the historical development of societies and the actual lives of people, each of whom are more singular than its metaphors. So the products of psychoanalytic political theory become generalities of which every real-world example is an exception. A diagnostic image that makes perfect sense, but has no practical instantiation.