A Post-Pride Post: My Gay Interest Content, Composing, 30/06/2014

I spent this weekend at World Pride with my girlfriend and her best friend Dreamy. It was an absolutely mad weekend, and despite my new sunburn, I had a wonderful time in the most ludicrously deranged bacchanal that I’ve ever experienced. I think Toronto now knows its physical limits in terms of how much of a party it could sustain without breaking. Let’s just say that after this weekend, I’m extremely glad to get back to work.

As my overstuffed workweek begins again, I thought I’d share some ideas at the heart of one of my fiction projects, A Small Man’s Town. This is the sprawling novel about life in St. John’s in the 2000s that I’m turning into a book of linked short stories so that I can sell it to a publisher more easily. 

The stories all revolve around subtle, slow-dawning epiphanies. My favourite short stories are by James Joyce, though my too-late discovery of Alice Munro’s work has brought a new element to my influences. You could say the modern stereotype of the short story involves a moment where the protagonist comes to understand some fundamental aspect of his life differently, or more truly, than he had before. My short stories in this collection all have this moment of realization, but we see how it doesn’t really change the characters at all.

When it comes to the gay characters in my St. John’s stories, you see this best with the two stories featuring Nadia, my 21 year old Palestinian lesbian. She’s a central character in the collection’s first story, which was also the first scene that I thought of when I first conceived of A Small Man’s Town in 2007. The campus protest scene was originally much more ludicrous, and was played for cartoonish laughs. Its current form is more subtle and cynical.

It’s a protest against the Iraq War, a scene that takes place in early Fall of 2003. The first speaker is a local leftist activist, who almost brings the rally to a halt with her ridiculous defence of the Ba’ath Party as brave resisters to American imperialism. Newfoundlanders will probably know which local politician I’m skewering there. Her friend Laurie, who organized the protest, throws Nadia on stage too early to try to save the rally (instead of doing any public speaker herself), and ends up sputtering through her speech in a moment of stagefright. The next day at a party intended to celebrate a successful protest, Nadia and Laurie reconcile over a block of hash. 

Their friendship is central to a later Nadia-focussed story, which describes how Laurie and her boyfriend became Nadia’s first friend when she moved to St. John’s. This story focusses on the fallout of Nadia’s only real relationship during her university years, with an egocentric girl named Jen. They only date for six months, and it’s implied that Jen was cheating on Nadia with men — she was more interested in amassing sexual experiences now that she was living independently in the city. 

Nadia, however, fell stupidly in love with a woman who was only ever using her, like a lot of people do in their 20s. One New Years’ Eve, when Jen rubs her promiscuity in Nadia’s face one night until she’s reduced to tears, Laurie comes to her defence, kicking Jen out of the party* and helping her feel better about herself. 

* A lot of the major events in the university-centric stories of this collection happen at parties and rock shows where people are drinking heavily. This is when people’s most honest natures tend to emerge.

What was most important to me for these characters was establishing the complexity of their friendship. Too often, I’ve seen relationships between straight women and lesbians depicted according to stereotypes, and within the swirling network of these stories, I wanted to have one set of friends who would just relate to each other as people instead of The Gay Best Friend™ or close friends who are Awakening Their Latent Sexualities™. 

Laurie and Nadia are a decent person who’s sometimes too full of herself and a sweetheart who can become terrifying when she loses her temper and despondent when her heart is broken. I wanted to offer people a story that offered that kind of complexity in such a simple friendship.

Why Are Morality and Real Life Separate Anyway? Composing, 27/06/2014

This is just a short reflection for the weekend, a few brief paragraphs about the reasons why I reacted so positively to my first explorations of Peter Kropotkin’s work in nearly a decade. So often in academic philosophy, we classify the theorists who are pivotal in our history. Analytic and Continental are, of course, the two major classifications most people in the discipline are familiar with. Honestly, I feel almost tired discussing these categories, not only because they grossly oversimplify a genuinely complex exchange of ideas, but because they’ve become such stereotypes.

I went back to Kropotkin for the Utopias project, because the foundation of modern anarchism, whose most fertile period was the 19th century, will be very important to its denouement. My Utopias is ultimately a critique of faith in the directed action of large-scale state power to change our world for the better. 

I have some libertarian friends on the internet who tell me that the only true opposition to state power is libertarian society, but that philosophy focusses too much on the dogma of competition in an absolutely free market as a solution. I simply don’t believe that markets can arrive at optimal solutions for social ills without a lot of stumbling, cheating, ancillary destruction, and above all, wasted time. 

Some form of community action — I don’t want to say communism, because that term is so difficult to rescue for any purpose beyond polemics anymore — makes necessary social change as quickly as possible. I’m engaging anarchist political philosophy because of my intuition that its set of concepts offers the best framework for a creative solution to our problem of social change. 

The recent anarchist theory I’ve read, such as Robert Paul Wolff, focusses mostly on negative arguments: arguing for anarchism because of the flaws of capitalism, communism, or representative models of democratic government more generally. That fertile period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the time of Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Emma Goldman — seems to offer a positive, constructive, creative vision of what an anarchist world would be.

There are very few creatures in the world capable of
surviving and thriving in a dangerous, cold world alone.
Humans included.
Kropotkin is usually included in the typical list of anarchist political theorists. As I said before, I first read his work in an undergraduate political theory course. But when you read his masterwork Mutual Aid, you see a book of naturalism and prototypical ecology transitioning into a work of political theory. It uses an analysis of activities that are optimally adaptive to the harsh environment of the Siberian wilderness to draw conclusions about how humans can best live. From a particular point of view, this makes Kropotkin an early forerunner not only of anarchist theory, but of the environmentalist political philosophers that arose in the late 20th century.

The atmosphere of the late 19th century was so polemical that Kropotkin was considered a radical scientist for even suggesting an alternative to the paradigm of natural selection as shaped by brutal struggle among individuals. In that context, even suggesting the importance of sociality and maintenance of communal peace for evolutionary fitness — hell, even suggesting that many species of animal were primarily social — was an insane suggestion in some circles.

Kropotkin’s move from an analysis of evolutionary adaptation and optimality in natural selection to moral and political prescriptions for the best human practice in organizing our communities is dangerous in some major philosophical sub-disciplines today. It would amount to the naturalistic fallacy, that one cannot derive the rightness of some particular moral principle from empirical facts about the world; that one cannot derive an ought from an is. At most, one can derive hypothetical practical prescriptions: that one could say what is prudent, given our nature and our situation, but not what is right.

My own Ecophilosophy project includes a similar move, developing a moral injunction, or at least an ethical attitude, in response to the question of how best to deal with the current global ecological crisis. Insofar as we are currently drowning in our own multifaceted industrial shit, what are the best political and ethical habits to rescue ourselves, and what are the best concepts by which we should understand ourselves to encourage these habits? It is a political and moral question, but it is ultimately one of prudence.*

* I also discuss how the stance of prudent action to survive can stand up to the broader existential question of whether humanity deserves to survive at all, but that’s for another time.

The separation of questions of moral rightness from questions of prudent actions to achieve specific goals in the world has always struck me as problematic, even though it is widely accepted as a dogma. It seems, as far as I’m concerned at least, to presume that the grounds of what is morally right are somehow separate from the world. Such a presumption inserts an unhealthily personalized transcendence into thought, and I think thought works best when it’s rooted entirely in the material world.

Maybe that’s why Kropotkin strikes me as a fellow traveller. He looked around him, and the world he saw gave him a notion of how the world could be better.

Mutual Aid II: How Living Can Inform the Life Sciences, Research Time, 26/06/2014

Continued from yesterday. Peter Kropotkin was not an ignorant political theorist alone, but a biologist and proto-ecologist with deeply held and detailed political beliefs. As I said yesterday, it is utterly ridiculous to derive a moral principle directly from a scientific principle. This is precisely the fundamental idiocy of Social Darwinism. It took the principle in the evolutionary theory of the 19th century that the engine of change in natural systems is conflict among individuals for resources, and turned this into a moral principle.

If the natural order of things was a ruthless struggle among individuals for life, then there is nothing unjust about structuring your society along lines of conflict. Those who have achieved much have won the struggle for survival and have, in doing so, demonstrated their fitness. Those who have lost have only proven their natural inferiority. The weak and enslaved were so because it was in their nature to be defeated, and any attempt to improve their lot went against the way of nature. The fact of victory by violent means justified violent means to victory. The subjugation of weak peoples by military strength merely articulated the true order of nature: the strong will dominate the weak. Such conceptual idiocy justified exploitation and empire.

Young Peter Kropotkin, an admirable man
with an admirable beard.
Kropotkin’s political theory was anarchistic, and the arc of Mutual Aid describes how the kind of cooperative relations among animals survive in humanity in the form of community and neighbourly relations. As a scientific endeavour, it’s one theoretical perspective on how altruism arises. Such a holistic approach to science should become more prominent in evolutionary biology, at least at the most broad conceptual level. My friend Y is working on a doctoral dissertation in the philosophy of science, a critique of the conceptual blockages in evolutionary population studies that prevents the quantitative science from understanding the development of altruism.

I think, at least given my preliminary engagement with the work so far, that Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid can provide a great service for researchers running up against the altruism problem in evolutionary biology. Where passing on genetic material is an evolutionary priority, the individual, or at least its kin, take precedence, and the notion that one could sacrifice oneself for the sake of an unrelated fellow is inconceivable. However, such behaviour happens frequently. 

This theory used to be extremely puzzled by social insects such as ants, whose colonies were populated by drones that would never reproduce. So they had to come up with the notion of group selection, which, after a fashion, makes no radical conceptual changes to the notion of individuals struggling to pass on their genetic material. Instead, it only treats the group as a super-organism, statistically.

This is just the wild speculation of a philosopher whose work in evolutionary theory concentrated more on ecological concepts than problems of inheritance: Mutual Aid could be a useful theoretical starting point to re-evaluate some basic concepts of the science. Kropotkin didn’t make the same mistake as all those Social Darwinists did, although it may seem as though he did and he has been summarily dismissed in some discussions of the relation of science and morality as having done so. This essay from 1997 by Stephen Jay Gould explains why he didn’t better than I could.

In short form, Kropotkin could think more easily about the problem of altruism because he didn’t have to deal with the wrinkle of inheriting DNA as the primary goal of evolution. But there’s a conceptual subtlety about inheritance that too many discussions of evolutionary theory seem to miss. Ultimately, natural selection and evolutionary change is driven by the inheritance (or lack thereof) of genetic material from generation to generation. But all Kropotkin had to see on his expeditions to Siberia were animals desperately banding together to help each other, as a group, survive hostile conditions.

And in the actual life of organisms, that’s all we know too. No animal, apart from a human with a passing familiarity with contemporary evolutionary theory, ever plans its actions with the intent of perpetuating its genetic legacy. It just wants to survive. If it survives better in a harsh environment by banding together in a group as a social creature as they all share their efforts, so much the better. A group whose members turn against itself can’t survive when environmental conditions become truly harsh. 

Here is how a political principle derives legitimately from a scientific investigation. The investigation has revealed some fact about the world which can guide the practical activity of the human race. Humans are social animals who survive and thrive evolutionarily better as groups than isolated individuals. We coordinate our societies through political means. A politics that values mutual aid over ruthless individual competition will be more likely to ensure that such a community survives an ecological catastrophe. 

Existence works probabilistically. Thinking of an individual alone, whether genetic material survives into a future generation is a matter of certainty: it either does or not. But when an entire population is taken into account, the likelihood of a given individual passing on its genetic material will depend on the vitality of its group. Momentary sacrifices for group survival make sense if we’re all in this together. The science of inheritance will be incomplete until it fully incorporates this ecological contingency, and the greater chances of survival through teamwork and group effort, into its mathematical models. 

Mutual Aid I: Moral Lessons from Evolutionary Theory? Research Time, 25/06/2014

If there is any single notion that all scientists, historians of science, and philosophers of science can agree on, it’s that it is ridiculous to try to derive moral principles from scientific discoveries and interpretive frameworks. There are many reasons why one should never do this. 

But the reason that I prefer to concentrate on in my own thinking is that the movement is much too simple. Moral principles and systems are complex cultural creations that develop over centuries of a community’s physical constitution. Simply extrapolating a scientific principle along a straight parallel into a moral guiding principle is a philosophically awful move. But this move is the conceptual foundation of Social Darwinism. 

Social Darwinism was the largest cultural movement to emerge from evolutionary theory, and it has given the theory a bad name ever since: the notion that the natural order of the world is ruthless competition among individuals, and that it is right and natural to structure human society at all levels that those who can stomp on more people as they rise to the top of society should, because they are able. I have even still found myself discussing this idea with students, who at first seem to consider it seriously. It’s precisely the most dangerous kind of poor thinking that exists: It’s so easy.

A young Charles Darwin, the most unjustly
vilified scientist in human history.
The name itself was an insult to Darwin’s own views about evolution, which were so nuanced, you would almost believe that he was a brilliant scientist who carefully considered his theoretical interpretations and constructions, and meticulously organized his massive collections of observational data. 

I mention this because I’ve started reading some anarchist political philosophy to sort through ideas for the final third of the Utopias project outline. I already have the basic shape of the first two thirds, but this last, purely political section still needs some conceptual work. Peter Kropotkin was the first person I began reading in this regard, mostly because he was the one I’d read before. I was first introduced to his work in my undergraduate degree, in a political theory course offered by Memorial’s political science department. Michael Wallack was the professor, and we were reading Kropotkin in dialogue with selected works of Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse in that last half of that course. So I had some haunting familiarity with his works already.

The full manuscript of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid is actually another work that seems to make something like that illegitimate move from a scientific theory immediately to a parallel in prescriptive moral philosophy. At least, this is the popular account of the book. As I explore it further, I’ll have something else to say. A book doesn’t have the legacy Mutual Aid does without being more nuanced than the idiots who took up Social Darwinism.

Already, Mutual Aid impresses me, at least in providing an alternative conception of how evolution works than the Darwinian mainstream of his time. Darwin did his seminal fieldwork in the tropics, with a booming population of species and individuals squabbling over a lush landscape. Kropotkin did his in the wastelands of Siberia, where a sparse and dispersed population of all creatures helplessly scrounged for whatever occasional scraps of sustenance they could find in the desolation. In such an environment, creatures have to band together for a slim chance to avoid starving to death. Kropotkin’s detailed observations of animal behaviour in these harsh ecosystems were the basis of his biological framework of the evolution of mutual aid. To be continued . . .

Friedrich Nietzsche's Casual Greatness; A History Boy, 23/06/2014

This weekend, I read Nietzsche’s essay “The Case of Wagner,” largely because I felt like it. Nietzsche has been a major philosophical influence on me, to the point where I can say that if I hadn’t read him, I would be a completely different author and person. Nietzsche is another figure in the history of philosophy that I’ve never been taught in class in any great detail. I started reading his work on my own, without any detailed direction from any other professors or similar authority figures. 

The egotistical, German nationalist, anti-Semitic
Richard Wagner. History has come down on
Nietzsche's side in this dispute, I think.
The Wagner essay is a little minor, not exactly a home of Nietzsche’s most profound or influential ideas, but it’s a beautiful piece that demonstrates his skill as a writer and thinker. But it uses those central ideas in an essay with a specific purpose, a critique of the enormous cultural power of Richard Wagner’s aesthetics in the Germany of his day. Wagner’s art, goes the essay, is an assemblage of pathos. His character arcs are reactive and rather unoriginal (every one of his women, says Nietzsche, has essentially the same narrative arc as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). His art exists to impress you, to overwhelm you with emotion.

And that’s basically fine, but holding this set of aesthetic goals, as Wagner’s works were, as the pinnacle of a culture’s artistic achievement, speaks terribly for the culture. For me, at least, this gets at the heart of what Nietzsche means when he calls Wagner’s art an expression of cultural decadence. To call an art that revolves entirely around cookie-cutter narratives whose presentation is solely to evoke strong emotion the pinnacle of the form, ignores the multifaceted power of art. To say that this is all you want out of your art reveals how shallow you are.

Because art can encourage philosophical and moral thinking, fiercely radical ideas on personal, moral, political, and even cosmological scales. My girlfriend and I were watching Slavoj Zizek’s new documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,* which included a discussion of Beethoven’s Ninth. Zizek discusses how the climactic choral movement switches from a bombastic explosion of instrumental and vocal power to a carnivalesque jaunt (in other words, it switches from the famous enormity we’re familiar with from the Ninth to the music that was playing in the record shop where Alex DeLarge picked up those chicks in A Clockwork Orange).** Beethoven here lets his own art critique the bombast of symphonic music; the music moves you and simultaneously carries out a dense task of philosophical aesthetic criticism.

* That’s how cool my girlfriend is; we watch Zizek documentaries together.

** Another aspect of A Clockwork Orange which makes it infinitely superior to the novel, a book remarkable in itself, in that its own author ruined it. It took a fearless filmmaker to bring it to its true greatness.

Fitzcarraldo was sublime in its imagery and fascinating in
its philosophical density.
My own rant about A Clockwork Orange is a Composing post for another time, which will focus on the importance of thematic multiplicity as a necessary condition for a truly great work of art. Werner Herzog is actually a counterpoint to Wagner, as far as explaining the power of the operatic. Arguing against Wagner makes Nietzsche in this essay rather hostile to the operatic form of art itself, which I can understand. So much of opera truly is about the evocation of enormous feeling above all else, an emotional sublime. This is a power to be reckoned with, but Herzog’s art is a creative answer to Nietzsche’s criticism of opera as able to be little more than this.

In his quest for the most remarkable images in the world, Herzog was creating a cinema of opera. Only during the production of Fitzcarraldo did he realize that much of what he had done in his own art was an operatic mode: searching for incredible intensity to capture and put before an audience. One reason he made fewer films in the 1980s was because he was in Germany making operas. 

But Herzog’s films were not only acts of emotional intensity; his images evoked concepts and sparked chains of thought that encompassed so many philosophically vital aspects of life. Here are just three examples. An ecologically philosophical meditation on the weakness of simplistic human imperial drives in the face of an implacably complex nature: Fata Morgana, Aguirre, Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness. The alien nature of human madness: Stroszek, Woyzeck, Heart of Glass, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done. An exploration of the pinnacle of human virtue and the creation of new moral paradigms through implacable situations: Signs of Life, Fitzcarraldo, Rescue Dawn, Invincible, Bad Lieutenant. This is operatic cinema with the philosophical power of which Nietzsche thought opera was incapable.
• • •
I doubt my own thoughts on “The Case of Wagner” are all that original, however. Werner Herzog has long been associated with existentialism in cinema. The relationship of Nietzsche with Wagner, both the man and his art, have been the focus of works by many philosophers and historians of art and culture. Nietzsche’s concept of decadence as it applies to culture and art is the subject of countless articles across several specialties of modern academic philosophy. Since I’ve been locked out of university libraries for the last year, I’ve had no access to any of the databases whose journals could corroborate my ideas, or indicate just how unoriginal they are.

Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated not
only many ideas of 20th century
philosophy, but also hipster fashion.
This is part of why, when I was more firmly inside the academic system, I was always hesitant to focus my research on the history of philosophy. The major and minor figures of the philosophical tradition have been the object of so much scholarship already that it’s difficult to find your own place. You almost have to contort yourself in a ridiculous shape to find anything original to say at all. I was most interested in producing philosophically original work, and still am, which is why I focussed my research on problems from which I could draw upon a wide range of scholarship across debates, disciplines, and fields of knowledge. 

Another problem regarded relevance. Nietzsche himself wrote a wonderful character in Zarathustra, the man who was the foremost expert on the brain of the leech. He was brilliant and knowledgable, but his knowledge was so intensely specialized that it was practically useless, and he couldn’t even coordinate his knowledge of the leech’s brain with other biological, neurological, or ecological studies. He knew his narrow corner intimately, but the rest of the world was darkness.

This is how I felt when I learned what kind of scholarship would be necessary to become an expert in a specific figure in the history of philosophy. Reading the primary material of the thinker in question was no problem — these were the philosophically dense and interesting works that started the firestorm of the self-named sub-discipline in the first place. 

The ancillary material was a different matter. One would not only have to become an expert in philosopher X, but an expert in all the other experts of philosopher X. This, especially for a central figure in the tradition like Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, would essentially make you into the leech brain expert. Brilliant and knowledgable, but unable to connect any of his work to outside applications. You lived in a brightly illuminated bubble which could light nothing of the darkness around it. 

I chose a disciplinary specialty outside of the history of philosophy or the production of secondary material on a historical figure because I wanted my works to contribute to the tradition of which those primary texts were a part: a tradition of philosophical writing and thinking that sought to understand and change the world. Even, perhaps especially, now that I'm outside the formal academic system of the modern university, they still can.

Moral Ideology III: Philosophy Makes You a Free Machine, Research Time, 20/06/2014

Continued from previous. The typical, or at least stereotypical, reply to this looming spectre of technological processes making machines out of men is to return to nature. I encountered a lot of this notion in my research on environmental philosophy, where witlessly romanticized conceptions of the natural world were sadly commonplace. 

That sad old fox, Martin Heidegger.
The most profound offender in this regard I consider to be Martin Heidegger, though he at least promises philosophical complexity in his ontology of a pure nature and the destructive egotism of the technological drive. He came of age as a philosopher during the period of Marinetti, Gramsci, Fordism, and totalitarianism as well, so developed his thinking in the wider context of that dialogue. He has since become an inspiration to many in environmentalist philosophy, his late-period writings explicitly on the nature of technology giving them at least a starting point for a conceptual framework to oppose the current eras drives to extract from the Earth instead of live on it. 

Yet Heidegger himself was an utter fool in how he expressed his philosophical insights in action, allying with the political movement that was the most intense articulation of the drive to become machine. The reasons for this choice will probably become more clear as his Black Notebooks grow more prominent, but they will always be murky and uncertain. Reality, including human action, always underdetermines our theories of it.

The ultimate ending of the Utopias project, will be a stand against this idea of subsuming all human singularity in a mechanistic system. But it will not be a return to nature. I have learned Nietzsche’s lesson well. Once the old dogmas have been rendered obsolete, you can no longer return to them to defeat the new dogmas. The new dogmas contain the very elements that defeated the old. 

Some of Gramsci’s writings indicate part of what that stand will be. I know it will have to do with some principles of political anarchism, the impossibility of truly representing the needs and concerns of a person through any representative medium but the voice of that person herself. He presents some notes on education in which I can see seeds of that resistance. Education, he says, are about building the habits of a person who can understand himself, which is only possible not only through introspection in one’s own psychology, but through historical and cultural understanding. Not only must you know your mind, but also the history and the world that produced you.

Italian Futurist and First World War casualty Umberto Boccioni's The City
, a brutally organic vision from a group who worshiped technology.
His account is still about developing habits, a mechanistic notion. In this, he has surpassed the challenge of the mechanistic vision of humanity. The brutal efficacy of the mechanistic way of life crushed the plausibility of any romantically spiritual visions of what it means to be human. It was called the First World War. And that mechanistic vision sought to create a human that was literally mindless, a collection of habitual movements, driven by the directions of the wider machine, whether it was used for war or to build cars. Gramsci instead discusses the habits of how to liberate yourself, how to make yourself into a thinking machine.

Anyone can be a philosopher, says Gramsci, a statement with which I profoundly agree. We live in a sea of concepts that we already use to make sense of the world through language and religion, and build a hodgepodge of common sense. The high-intensity professional philosophical writers like me and the others in my tradition essentially do the same thing, but with a lot more rigour than most folks muster. But our art is a popular art, the art of thought. Anyone can perfect that art in such a way that they can resist the terrifying trends of current existence, whether Gramsci’s or our own. Thought is the beginning of resistance.

Moral Ideology II: Henry Ford, An American Totalitarian, Research Time, 19/06/2014

Continued from previous. A key feature of totalitarian politics is the horizontal enforcement of social control, when your friends, neighbours, co-workers, and family members serve the same function as the police. You can be denounced from anywhere, corrected by anyone. And because enforcement of a moral ideology can come from people in any aspect of your life, it opens up every aspect of your life for scrutiny. Morality is universal, so it should inform all your activity. The greatest sin for a moral person, after all, is hypocrisy.

These passages from The Prison Notebooks find Gramsci discussing the terror of total control rather than horizontal enforcement. I suppose the real horror-show for the latter wouldn’t come until the Cold War, when the secret police would blossom as an institution around the world. 

Until then, we have Antonio Gramsci describing the framework of total social control, particularly how some management techniques developed in the capitalist enterprises and political movements of the 1920s and 30s practice it. A disclaimer first. I do not intend to compare the people I am about to discuss to the Soviet and eastern European secret police institutions. That would be terrifying, even though these people have well-known historical reputations as America’s greatest jackasses. But one can identify the same phenomenon occurring differently in varying political and historical contexts. This is what political philosophy is all about, tracking the commonalities and divergences in human arrangements. 

Gramsci himself was a radical anti-capitalist, and much of his life was taken up with political activism whose goal was bringing about a communist revolution across Europe. Yet the fascist police institutions that ultimately killed him came to define the political movement in which he played such a major philosophical role. With that said . . . 

Henry Ford, forerunner of surveillance in
American private enterprise.
No model displays totalitarianism in private enterprise better than Henry Ford and the business philosophy, appropriately called Fordism, that regimented workers’ activity in the production process more than had ever become necessary. We all learned about the basic idea of Ford’s production model in grade school: concentrate the entire manufacturing process in a single massive plant, arrange the construction of goods on an assembly line where workers would perform a single basic task only. Gramsci correctly and obviously analyses this manufacturing system as making human workers into mechanisms. 

The Fordist model of production makes its workers into elements of the factory itself in ways that would not be acceptable today. Ford and his company’s agents even attempted to police the activities of workers off the job, controlling every aspect of their lives, surveilling them to make sure the only places they ever visited were their homes and the factory. The mechanistic man was to have no respite from surveillance and discipline. Workers would devote themselves to their roles in the machine, because they would be trained to embrace them. 

This is another way in which, without saying their names, Gramsci engages with the contemporaneous political philosophies of Filippo Marinetti and Ernst Jünger. Their ideas emerged in the wake of the destruction of the First World War, a post-humanist philosophy that made mechanized technology the future of humanity, whose ethical goal was purging humanity of empathy, and purging human society of nature and organic existence. This era’s philosophy of Futurism was a vision of the Machine-Man.

At the time, Ford’s control of every aspect of their workers’ lives was interpreted largely as an expression of the puritanism whose most obvious voice was prohibition. But Gramsci sees an economic motivation. Puritan activists like the radical temperance movement, whose greatest success was the nationwide prohibition of alcohol across the United States, were themselves largely motivated by Christian values of extreme moral purity. But the prohibition of alcohol is remarkably useful law for hyper-controlling businesses like Ford.

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, capturing the essence of
the drive to make machines of men.
Workers, even at the relatively high pay scales of Ford’s plants in the context of a society with no minimum wage, were still relatively poor compared to the upper classes of the American economy. During prohibition, it was largely only these wealthy patricians who could afford black market alcohol. Working people could not gain access to any substances or activities to help them relax. 

An entirely temperate working class could never be free from discipline, and having discipline constantly enforced by the police and corporate moral guardians of your employer would eventually wear down those constraints, and workers in the Fordist system would genuinely become machines. To Be Continued . . . 

Moral Ideology I: The Vital Importance of Hypocrisy, Research Time, 18/06/2014

My paternal grandparents grew up outside a town in Calabria called Cosenza. They were devoted Catholics all their lives. At their house in Montréal, they always had an up to date photo of the Pope on their living room wall. Even when it was Emperor Palpatine. But they weren’t what we typically think of as Catholics in that community. As important as the Church was in their lives, one practice would be very strange to most members of that Church today. In those little towns, if the local priest didn’t live with a girlfriend, people didn’t trust him.

Father Ted featured a cast almost entirely of hypocritical
blowhards, and Bishop Len Brennan blew the hardest.
Central to Catholic doctrine for centuries has been the celibacy of the clergy. My own experience of the Catholic clergy has long included just that kind of hypocrisy. I’ve mentioned before how the excessive and oppressive piety of the Catholic Church in my home province of Newfoundland covered up the institutionalization of violence against children, sexual and otherwise, in their educational and care institutions. Probably my favourite depiction of Catholic life is the classic Irish sitcom Father Ted, whose strict, enraged antagonist Bishop Len Brennan used his influence in the Church to amass considerable personal profit, and maintained a secret family with a young woman, including a son, in America. 

Yet here were my salt-of-the-Earth Italian grandparents, sly if lethargic resisters of Mussolini (even if it was only hiding most of their harvest from the tax collectors and deserting from the army to get drunk in the woods for two years), calmly accepting the hypocrisy of their Church leaders, moral and spiritual advisers. In fact, the hypocrisy of the town priest was a sign of his trustworthiness. If the priest adhered to the vow of celibacy, he was suspect. How could hypocrisy be considered a virtue?

Well, Antonio Gramsci makes a good case for explaining precisely how. In most societies, the people whose role is enforcing moral norms like priests, teachers, and policemen constitute a different class than the people who are in their charge. This may not be so in terms of their economic class, but their professions and places in the community gives them a veneer of prestige that elevates them socially above those they guide. This social prestige turns these moral enforcers into an elite, and elites end up acting as oppressors, at some intensity.

Usually, the intensity of oppression is very low and social tension of the moral elite and the controlled masses simmers lightly, constituting community stability. But where the power of the elite over the masses grows too great, oppression becomes too powerful to be tolerated. Yet the elites remain in a position as the enforcers of the good; to stop submitting to them would be immoral.

Here, hypocrisy acts as a social safety valve. As the power of an elite grows, their ability to profit personally from their social status grows. Such profit would be hypocrisy. Its revelation will either humanize the elites and reconnect them with their community, as in the Cosenzan example, or provoke such anger in the community that they are overthrown, as we did in Newfoundland, razing the Mt Cashel orphanage to the ground and dismantling the faith-segregated public school system. Moral hypocrisy among socially empowered elites is what prevents oppression from becoming too violent. 

Because Gramsci calls this kind of oppression of a social elite empowered to enforce morality on a population totalitarianism. When true believers in a moral ideology use all their elite status to enforce it on their people, the result is despotism and the most crude oppression of all. But this isn’t true totalitarianism, and Gramsci’s insight here justifies giving his ideas a critically important place in the analyses of the Utopias project. 

In the most terrifyingly oppressive type of enforcement of a moral ideology, there are no elites at all. Members of the general populace itself are the true believers in the morality to be enforced. And they control their fellows at all times, in all places. Within communities, among neighbours, inside families, the fanatical believers in moral ideologies reach out their tendrils horizontally, without class distinctions, to control every aspect of everyone’s lives. To Be Continued . . . 

Political Contingency: We Can Always Succeed and We Can Always Fail, Research Time, 17/06/2014

Outside the strict contexts of the Marxist tradition, which is the place where I read Antonio Gramsci, he develops insights that can be useful for anyone working in any material aspect of political activism. His conception of hegemonic rule is already a wonderful rebuke to the tiresome conspiratorial politics of Noam Chomsky and his fanatical followers. 

Gramsci understands the incredible heterogeneity of the ruling classes, and that their unity is only a fragile coalition among complex mutually incompatible interests constantly on the verge of, if not collapse, then at least reorganization. He’s a kindred philosophical soul to me in this important sense, that he understands the world to be far more complex than any popular dogmatism would depict.

A lot of the dogmatism in his own political activism came from the orthodox conceptions of Marxism that dominated communist politics and thinking in the early 20th century. One example that very much strikes me is the notion that history itself has its own driving force. There are several points in these Prison Notebooks that discuss the weird kind of political apathy that held in Europe’s Marxist revolutionary activist parties. The Russian Revolution having taken place and enthroned itself in that state, many communist activists believed that the international movement had begun. Therefore, they sat back and waited for history to sweep the continent-wide revolution into being. 

Gramsci makes the incredibly sensible argument that it’s the active work of communist parties to sweep that revolution into being. If you wait for history to happen, nothing will happen because you’re too busy waiting. It seems strange to me today how radical it was at the time for Gramsci to tell activists to get off their asses and start acting to move progressive politics forward in its own national arena. But apparently, they had to be told.

There appears, however, to be a sliver of that historical determinism surviving in Gramsci’s thinking. This is just a cursory, initial view right now. Over the next year or so, as I gain more regular access to university libraries, I’ll be able to correlate this with some secondary literature. And if anyone reading this is more familiar with the details of Gramsci’s thought than I am right now, I welcome the advice as I prepare my ideas about him for the Utopias project and possible teaching work.

Kuwait's oil fields burn in 1992, a spectre of the end of
humanity that haunts my generation. A thinker like
Gramsci would be adrift in this era. Sometimes, the greatest
challenges for the great philosophers of the past is how to
deal with the material world making them obsolete.
Gramsci describes two fundamental principles of political philosophy and science that guide his thought. 1) “No social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement.” I have no problem with this, as long as we understand those forces as material. The second principle is the one that irks me as an ecological philosopher. But this may be a function of Gramsci’s own material limits — he could only think with the resources and contexts of his time. His era was not ours, was not the ecological era of philosophy and science.

The second principle of Gramsci’s political science: “A society does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated.” The seeds of the resolution of all political conflicts are embedded in the structure and material of the conflicts themselves. Its a very necessitarian principle, albeit one with a Hegelian complicating stripe. I can see why someone working and living (and eventually dying) in a Marxist context would believe it.

I can’t accept it at all. Essentially, it says that, while not all problematic situations are actually solved in real life, the solutions to those problems are contained within the world that the problems themselves create. While failure always remains possible, success and progress are also always possible. And I think this notion is inherently incompatible with the ecological principles of the contemporary age of philosophy and human civilization. 

Ecological crises and cosmological knowledge brings the human existential crisis of humanity’s confrontation with the end of life into stark relief. To take humanity’s contemporary problems seriously, we have to understand that there are some problems for which success is simply not an option. One day, the sun will boil us away, and long before that, the human species will probably be extinct. These were not ordinary thoughts in Gramsci’s day. They are now. Failure is always possible, but what is possible may not include success, or even survival. This is the fundamental principle of the ecological era in human civilization and thought.

Wondering About African Languages, Literature, and Life, Composing, 16/06/2014

Over the last few years, the political philosophical concepts that I believe are most important have come from reflecting on the cultural and legacy of colonial empires. So many of the stereotypes I encounter about Africa, especially the ones that as a younger person I believed myself, come from a failure to understand the history that bounds my own culture to those of that continent. There is a reason why these countries are so poor, so riven with strife and war, why corruption is so endemic. 

In very short, I’ve come to the conclusion that, respectively, there were huge transfers of material wealth and resources from colonies to Europe enabled by military occupation, colonial administration exacerbated existing tensions among groups and cultures of their possessions to head off organized rebellions, and they enabled a centuries-long culture of bribery in the ruling classes as administrators of colonial enterprises which remained intact after the political independence of the colonized territories.

That was a damn long sentence. I’d only risk writing it on a blog. 

The more typical image of Chinua
Achebe we see is of him as an old man.
So I found a photo of him as a young
person, because I like it when people
look at the world differently than
they may have before.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the first book of African literature that, according to the stereotype, you always read if you’re a white person. It strikes me as very much of a pace with the mythical realism of other writers from outside the North/West in the mid to late 20th century. I’m particularly thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

Politically, Things Fall Apart and One Hundred Years of Solitude run parallel purposes, in my estimation. Marquez described the turbulent politics and civil wars of Colombia through mythic language and imagery. Achebe described the collision of rural Igbo culture with the militarized Christianity of the English colonial force in language with the tone of the folk stories, fables, and myths his characters tell. Everyone calls it magical realism, but when I think about the language of those books, especially Achebe’s, I think mythical realism is more appropriate.

But I don’t really consider myself qualified to make any firm comments, literarily speaking, about these books. I know people who have become experts in literary analysis and history, and my own knowledge of African literature is extremely sketchy. Case in point, I’m only reading Chinua Achebe for the first time now. I similarly revealed my ignorance with a post last Winter about my thoughts on reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for the first time. I wondered if anyone had ever considered the book a work of black existentialism, which I later discovered was one of the first reactions to the novel.

One thing I noticed when I was reading about some of the initial reactions to Things Fall Apart was the controversy Achebe first faced for publishing the book in English. Another African writer on my list to read soon, Ngugi wa’Thiong’o, stopped writing in English in his mid-life, deciding to compose all his works in Gikuyu from then on. I found some curious remarks Achebe made to explain his aesthetic decision, which is rooted in the colonial cultural destruction of Nigeria.

Igbo had no widespread formal written language when the region now called Nigeria was first colonized by the British military and government. There was an idiographic writing system, but it was used mostly by elites, and popular communication remained oral. Instead, the language was a complex panoply of dialects, largely mutually intelligible (though sometimes with effort). Igbo speaking peoples were rather like German or Mandarin speaking peoples that way, with a culture just as varied and complicated. 

The English, in their morally enlightened quest to spread true civilization to these ignorant peoples, created a formalized Igbo language itself for popular written communication. However, the English-designed Igbo writing system, using Latin letters, was designed entirely academically, a compromise among many complex grammatical and semantic variations made without any experimentation with practical use. The result was a stilted, fragmented language. In Achebe’s words, this colonially-made written Igbo could never sing. So he composed in the organic written vernacular of Nigeria, English.

Deleuze and Guattari's little book on Kafka is the
most remarkable engagement of philosophy with
fiction that I think I've ever read, and should be a
model for how the two disciplines should engage.
Wondering what a singing version of written Igbo would look like put me in mind of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor language and minor literature. This is a creation of language, usually literary but it doesn’t have to be, that is in a language that you use fluently, but is not your vernacular. The writer’s subtle lack of comfort with this tongue results in unorthodox uses that create new modes of expression in that language, that use that language in a way that a native speaker would never be able to. Their central example is Franz Kafka: a Czech Jew (a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) who spoke Czech and German fluently, whose life and career was thoroughly Germanophone, but whose faith and personality was infused with Kabbalistic mysticism.

So an Igbo writing in English with a mythical realist style is writing in a minor language, and Things Fall Apart displays the same kind of productive literary and linguistic experimentation for which Deleuze and Guattari praise this approach. Achebe’s English, and his identity, is a complex blend that can never be pure, a system of dynamic tensions of the fable-like tone of his storytelling with the nature of English itself, a European language at home in Nigeria today because of long-lasting military occupation and cultural imperialism.

Yet I wonder if some Nigerian writer has since taken up Achebe’s gripe with the standardized written Igbo as a challenge. Achebe chose English to write his novels because popular written Igbo was an academic creation of a colonial power who knew nothing of Igbo life, who designed written Igbo as a West African Esperanto, a clunky language made in a laboratory instead of in life. 

I’m not a linguist, and personally know very little about the languages of Nigeria, but I can at least imagine a scenario like this. Today, the Nigerian economy is strong enough and literacy high enough that a book could be composed in Igbo that restores elements of the spoken dialects into the sterile standardized Igbo. Someone could revise written Igbo through the act of literary creation, breathing life from the vibrancy of the spoken dialects to make a literary art object of the language itself. Such an act of linguistic creation would take a concept like minor literature into a whole new territory. The living variations of Igbo dialects could vitalize the hierarchically sterile written Igbo.

Maybe this is happening already. Maybe it’s utter nonsense. But it’s an idea.

The Source of Our Values Are Around Us, Research Time, 13/06/2014

I love watching a horse race. And by horse race, I mean election. For one thing, I’m very impressed with Kathleen Wynne’s victory,* happy that Tim Hudak is leaving the leadership position of the Ontario Conservatives, and pleased that Andrea Horwath got her comeuppance for losing some very good MPPs, gaining some other very good MPPs, and forcing an election that cost the New Democrats their voice in the provincial budget process. 

* I refuse to make THAT pun. Everyone, intentionally and unintentionally, makes THAT pun.

I’m an NDP member, and I have been for seven years now. I was proud to have supported Nathan Cullen and Tom Mulcair in the 2012 federal leadership convention. I was proud to have marched on strike in 2009 with CUPE local 3906 alongside David Christopherson (federal MP, Hamilton Centre) and Paul Miller (provincial MPP, Hamilton East). I’ll proudly support the federal NDP in next year’s federal election. I live in Horwath’s own district, but I voted Green as a protest against the blatantly triangulated campaign she ran this month, which reminded me of the abandonment of principle that brought the duplicitous fanatical Catholic Tony Blair to power in Britain in 1997.

Andrea Horwath thought she understood the lessons of
Jack Layton's political legacy. But she missed its most
profound aspects.
I got into a couple of arguments on twitter about my distaste for Horwath’s campaign because it struck me as engineered solely to take seats from otherwise Conservative-leaning supporters, presenting a purely electoral ideology. After all, that was the complaint of the NDP old guard against Mulcair and Cullen, who I supported in 2012. I even saw an interview with the re-elected MPP for Windsor-Tecumseh, Percy Hatfield, in which he gave the traditional definition of his party as the conscience of Canada. Horwath positioned herself as an heir to Jack Layton’s legacy, someone who understood that the NDP were capable of winning elections. Surely, the backfiring of this perspective is a sign that the New Democrat traditionalists were correct?

I actually think that Horwath has badly misunderstood Layton’s legacy, which Cullen and Mulcair have carried on. Layton carried himself as if he was running for Prime Minister, which any self-respecting leader of a political party must do. Horwath understood this much, as do Mulcair and Cullen. 

But there was another, even more important element to Jack Layton’s subtle revolution in the NDP. Layton’s last electoral breakthrough from fourth party to official opposition in 2011 did not come from a baldly ambitious focus on electoral victory. It came from understanding a new movement in Quebec society that was rising against the obstructionist sovereigntist ideology of the federal Bloc Quebecois. Layton offered Quebec a vision of a political party that would represent leftist ideas and policies they could support which would engage in the Canadian project as a partner, no longer as an opponent. Not enough people realized, when Layton won so much of Quebec, that this was a new social force among that province’s people saying that Quebec would no longer sit outside the Canadian conversation and wanted to rejoin the federal system on its own terms. Basically, Quebec wants in.

Layton won an election by tapping into a political force that emerged immanently from the people of Quebec. What impressed me most about Mulcair as a person was that he quit the provincial Liberal party of Quebec over an environmental issue, the destruction of a park and nature reserve in the name of a construction project.** He took a very risky move for his career in the name of his values, the source of which was the continuing environmentalist movement. These are not only values I share, but they are the values of a social movement, a force that emerges from people acting in their daily lives. 

** And we all know how transparently and ethically construction projects are undertaken in urban Quebec.

What impressed me most about Cullen’s 2012 leadership campaign was how much he foregrounded reconciliation and reparation with the First Nations of Canada. He tapped into the same power that would manifest over the next two years as Idle No More, a political movement that emerged from people themselves whose goal, difficult though it might be, is to forge a contract of the many First Nations of the Canadian land on equal terms for the first time with the Canadian state, provinces, cities, and settler or immigrant peoples. Social movements can give life to electoral politics such that they genuinely transform the status quo. Engaging the ideas of new social movements is how electoral politics avoid growing too bureaucratized.

As I explore more of Gramsci, I realize that,
no matter your political affiliation, you can
benefit greatly from reading his work.
As part of my research for the Utopias project, regular readers will have noticed that I have lately been reading Antonio Gramsci. One section of The Prison Notebooks discusses the nature of ideology. Quite often, even today, we refer to ideologies in terms of their being true or false. A false ideology is a lie, usually conceived as a conspiracy or a creation of the ruling class, a framework of political thinking that deceives the oppressed into believing that a social order that oppresses them is somehow good. A true ideology, in contrast, is the political thought process that awakens people to recognize the use of false ideologies to oppress them. For a modern statement of this way of thinking about ideology, read Noam Chomsky’s political works.

Gramsci considers this way of thinking inadequate, because frameworks of thought are not designed specifically for purposes. They are complex cultural, cognitive, and philosophical creations that develop from the aggregate historical interaction of millions of people over the histories of nations and civilizations. 

The best way of thinking about ideology does not distinguish the true from the false, which is a poor question to ask. Instead, distinguish what he calls the organic from the arbitrary. An organic ideology is, precisely, a framework of thinking that develops in a community or nation over time, through the daily interactions of people dealing with their political, economic, social, and environmental problems. 

An arbitrary ideology is developed abstractly, entirely conceptually, without necessarily any input from ordinary people dealing with problems. It does not grow from people, but is imposed on them from positions of authority. People chafe against arbitrary ideologies because these frameworks are not necessarily adequate to their practical concerns. Unlike organic political ideologies, the arbitrary did not emerge from the practical engagements of life, but from, perhaps, the speculations of an ivory tower, the insular machinations of a cabal of extremists, the shining walls of a think tank, sometimes the sweat and tension of an electoral war room or the harsh fluorescents of a focus group.

Andrea Horwath did have a vision in this campaign, but it wasn’t a vision crafted to deal with people’s problems and concerns. It did not connect with any political desire of people in Ontario, not even a small or especially vibrant sector. Horwath campaigned on a political framework designed in isolation for the sole purpose of ideological triangulation to incorporate progressive state politics and far-right, small-state ideology to capture votes from fiscal conservatives and right-leaning Liberal sympathizers. 

Horwath’s ideology was arbitrary. Even the most subtle revolutions must emerge organically from the movement of people.

Science-Fictional World Building, Composing, 12/06/2014

Under the Trees, Eaten developed from a simple point. The head of BlankSpace Publications asked me if I had any ideas for a sci-fi story the size of a novella, and I came up with one by the end of the day. I had been reading some philosophy that made a very creative ontological use of H. P. Lovecraft, and having long been a fan of his stories, I wanted to create something that would overcome some of the limitations of the Lovecraft milieu. 

So I developed a concept for aliens that made them strange to humans, but not horrifyingly destructive, and a storyline that included a major role for the evil and pain that humans inflict on each other. And I developed a protagonist narrator who was not only a woman (non-existent for the Lovecraft corpus), but who could adapt well enough to her circumstances with just enough genre-awareness that, while she still stumbled a bit, could emerge victorious. 

The conflicts she facts go beyond just the characters in the book to include actual threats to her narrative voice within the book herself. Her father, occasionally speaking from three years before the story’s main events, buts into her narrative with his more conventionally Lovecraftian style, essentially trying to steal his own daughter’s narrative. Beyond that, the aliens themselves are a meta-diegetic force in the story who also, at least for a moment, overwrite Marilyn’s power to narrate her own life and existence. 

Between my own work as author and Jeffrey’s suggestions as editor and chief, we have a tight and wonderful novella to inflict on the public later this month. While I’ll be promoting it at as many bookstores around the GTA as I can over the summer and fall, Jeffrey is preparing for an internet-based blitz. It includes a blog at BlankSpace that regularly publishes short, creepy excerpts from the novella’s text as brief previews.

It also includes a meta-fictional element that I’ve been preparing this week, The Seul-Coeur Logs. This is a blog that will publish ancillary material to the central event that gets Under the Trees, Eaten’s plot moving, the plane crash over the isolated, alien-influenced town of Seul-Coeur, Quebec that killed Marilyn’s mother in 1997. The posts themselves will be written as if they were from the files about the plane crash that Marilyn’s father Paul collected from then until his death (this isn’t a spoiler; he’s dead at the book’s first sentence). It’ll include extended versions of his own increasingly unhinged rantings, pseudo-scientific explanations of the physics behind the alien habitat, and interviews with air transport security officials, which might include a character I’ve thought of including in a possible sequel to the story.

And of course, this blog will be following the story as well, and explaining, spoiler-free, some of the ideas behind each new update on The Seul-Coeur Logs. All these websites – BlankSpace Publications, Adam Riggio Writes, and The Seul-Coeur Logs – along with the book itself, will take part in building the world of Under the Trees, Eaten. The motives of writing Under the Trees, Eaten included my own concerns about science-fiction storytelling, and the characters themselves shape their narratives in ways that suggest they are familiar with the notion that they don’t live in the real world, but in a science-fiction narrative. Understanding the meta-narrative elements of the novella will help a reader see how I put it together, and seeing the cogs and wheels that assemble the whole is part of the fun.

An Example of the Most Profound Courage, Research Time, 11/06/2014

In every empirical sense of the word
'victory,' in the battle between Gramsci and
Mussolini at least, the fascist clearly won.
The communist seemed never to have fully
understood the message.
Any student of the works of Antonio Gramsci must be impressed by the incredible courage of this man as a person. I don’t know that Western people today can entirely understand the everyday fear that must have haunted him during the last ten years of his life, which he spent in prison under Benito Mussolini. Gramsci was, in every sense of the word that matters, a casualty of the decades-long war against fascism. He was a lifelong enemy of forces that would show no hesitation to kill him, and he never gave an inch to any of those forces. We do not know this kind of fear in the West today, except perhaps for those rare people who volunteer for our armed forces and serve on the front lines. 

In a prison where the fear for his own life must have been a humming constant, Gramsci wrote works aiming to revitalize the revolutionary philosophy that, in almost every realistic context, had been utterly defeated. Marxist orthodoxy included the belief that the march of history was, in some sense, inevitable. The progress of capitalism would stratify society into a bipolar world of ruling class and proletariat, and the growing tension as the former’s exploitation of the latter would eventually lead to a break in the revolution. Even in Marx, there was a streak of the conservative Hegelian, the notion that the dialectical march of history determined, or at least conditioned, the behaviour of individuals. 

The Russian Revolution itself was a counter-example to this notion. Marxist orthodoxy of the 1910s would have concluded that Russian capitalism was too primitive for a communist revolution to happen. The society was too rural, the population too spread out among a vast territory, and the economy not nearly industrialized enough for the bourgeois-proletarian tension to reach systematic breaking point. 

Gramsci’s writings as a free man, even as they discussed the communist revolution in Italy as inevitable despite its political setbacks, grappled with this tension that the first successful such revolution took place in a country where it should never have occurred. My favourite of these analyses is his discussion of the First World War as the catalyst of Russian proletarian solidarity, literally forging the revolutionary mass in the industrial death machine of artillery and chemical warfare. After all, such mechanized murder on an enormous scale was inconceivable to Marx and Engels when they initially formulated the philosophy of communist revolution. Gramsci could see history itself making the predictions of Marxist orthodoxy obsolete.

The crushing of left wing political movements under the fascist boot was itself a kick to the face of the Marxist notion, prevalent in the revolutionary politics of the time, that capitalist relations and other forms of elite rule were in inevitable decline simply because of the existence of political communism. Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Antonio Salazar, and Hitler proved that wrong. 

One should understand, when reading Gramsci, how inspirational it is that the Prison Notebooks exist at all. The victory of fascism would have driven most people to despair and the paralysis of depression. It instead drove Gramsci to an intense theoretical re-evaluation of how revolutionary politics of emancipation could be possible. His imprisonment, despite living in an atmosphere of fear, was a time of intense philosophical creativity, as he crafted a theory of temporal contingency for political revolutions. Only death could keep the flames of his resistance from burning.

A Journalistic Model for Philosophy, Composing, 10/06/2014

I didn’t post this Monday for two reasons. One of those was a very ordinary reason — I spent most of Sunday after posting my Tom Green story partying on a beach with my girlfriend until we were rained out and went home to pass out in the crooks of each other’s arms. So I had my priorities straight for this weekend. 

Also, I was focussed on pointing people on my facebook and twitter feeds to the article I published that morning with rabble.ca’s Campus Notes column. It was a revision of my post from this May about the dismissal of Robert Buckingham from University of Saskatchewan and the further catalogue of my grievances regarding their TransformUS program that would have overhauled and cheapened the entire institution in the name of austerity. However, the revised version on rabble goes just a little farther in one direction than the original post.

Robert Buckingham, whose firing this
May started this entire mess.
I added some material to the section at the very end, which departs from a more pure summary of the situation at University of Saskatchewan and my subsequent outrage. It contrasts two moral philosophies, one that is quite prevalent today, and one which I think should be more so. The moral philosophies that prioritize rights is about protecting our abilities to do things, and institutions have come to be treated almost as if they had the same or similar rights that humans do. I can insert a link to the Citizens United decision, but I won’t because the actual text of that decision is far more nuanced than many of its effects or public image. All we need to learn about this morality is to watch the public conversations that unfold about whistleblowers. 

We hear the conclusion that the corporation has a right to fire employees who go against the directions of leaders, or who speak out against injustices their employers commit. The corporation is referred to as if it has rights, freedoms to act and pursue ends which trump the rights of communities not to be deceived or harmed by corporate activities. It’s not as though the corporation itself has rights enshrined in law equal to those of human citizens. It is that we all too often refer to corporations as if they did. 

I opposed a morality that, instead of cataloguing and protecting rights to act without interference, tracked the physical effects of actions, and assigned responsibility for those effects. At heart, it’s an ecological morality, one that prioritizes reparation and redress for harms done. Rights don’t enter into this philosophical picture because this is not a morality about making claims for others to follow, but owning up for your actions. 

All this is an extremely general set of comments about fundamental moral matters, a loose enough conversation simply for a reader to get hold of the basic difference between these perspectives. There is a huge academic literature which I’m leaving to the side for the sake of the brief discussion of some of the ideas that I briefly discuss in my rabble piece. But they are discussions that will get people thinking about moral philosophical matters at fundamental levels. And it’s a discussion that’s connected to a fascinating event of real-world injustice, the TransformUS program and the wider trend in university corporatization it signifies. 

In this sense, blending a discussion of fundamental philosophical concepts with political phenomena unfolding in the everyday world, I wrote a piece of philosophical journalism. It may be one way that folks like me can do philosophy outside the confines of a university system that, under the increasing pressure of that very corporatization, has less and less room for genuinely critical thought. It’s also the kind of philosophical work that can engage with the public outside the tuition-paying group, engaging a genuinely popular audience with the same level of respect that is usually reserved, in academic circles, for disciplinary peers. In that sense, you can call this work one more experiment in the future of philosophy.

After all, it isn't as if more philosophical training among those writing in the public sphere about related issues can't hurt at this point. The insipid coverage of the recent Eugene Goostman program illustrates that (I won't link because I couldn't settle on a single article that I'd noticed yesterday was dumb enough). The Turing Test is actually about whether an artificial cognitive processor could form and act upon the actual intention to deceive, not whether someone could design a chatbot algorithm with enough caveats in its presentation to convince people to overlook its egregiously unnatural errors in expression. If more writers had actually read and bothered to think about the original essay in which Alan Turing laid out that test, coverage would have been much more provocative and intelligent.