Dreaming of a Better World, Call It a Utopia, or a Music Festival, Jamming, 31/07/2014

A rhizome of memory. Thanks for the image,
My girlfriend and I went to our first giant electronic music festival as part of our one year anniversary. Eclipse was quite possibly the largest, most entertaining, utterly epic shit-show that I’ve ever experienced, and I’d love to return to the next one in 2016. But I was also very philosophically stimulated by the entire affair, so while this post won’t discuss the personal aspects of the long weekend (because they’re personal), the political and metaphysical will get their due consideration. 

When the hippie movement began, it was intensely political and deeply politically informed. They were the social revolution in the class of white intelligentsia in North America, a group of young people rejecting their parents’ ideals, at least for a while, large enough that they couldn’t be written off or swept under the rug. Yet the culture was always driven not only by socialist political ideals and opposition to international war, but also drugs. At first, psychedelics were pharmaceutical routes to personal and communal spiritual enlightenment. Now, the rhetoric survives, but psychedelics are now one part of a wider cornucopia of substances that exist mostly just to get you pleasantly fucked up.

I’ve noticed a recent trend in drug use that could actually put people’s health at considerable risk. MAOIs are chemicals that were originally developed as anti-depressants, but which are now pitched as a ‘high enhancer’ for people who are already having a really rather pleasant trip on LSD or mushrooms. But these drugs chemically contraindicate each other, resulting in extreme toxicity (which induces vomiting if you’re lucky) and can raise your blood pressure to disastrously high levels. 

I’ve long had something of an ethical problem with using hallucinogens as party drugs, once again because of their original purpose in hippie culture as pathways, in conjunction with meditation and philosophical and scientific learning, to enlightenment. Under the guidance of a shaman, DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, can bring a person into a trance that displays their entire past existence before them for contemplation and analysis in experience. The goal is to understand one’s entire past narrative as a foundation for ethical progress. That purpose of enlightenment has become largely forgotten as hippie culture has slowly changed its focus to dropping out of society’s rat races and getting pleasantly fucked up.

A reasonable skepticism of government chicanery about such deceptions as the Gulf of Tonkin incident and of hiding the full truth about the Kennedy assassination has developed today into a belief that the September 11 attacks were the work of government conspiracy (including anti-Semitic notions that Jewish businessmen were secretly in league with the CIA to destroy the WTC to foster conflict between the USA and Arab nations), and a healthy distrust of pharmaceutical companies has snowballed into widespread anti-vaxxerism. 

The modern hippie community has no longer dropped out of the mainstream to inspire political revolution. They have dropped out merely for the sake of a misfit existence. Even the community’s political radicalism, where it exists, is misdirected. I overheard one attendee last weekend talking about his desire to move to a commune where everything would be shared. But he said that as soon as anyone attempted to barter or trade, he would leave. He called such behaviour, “economics.” 

That seriously saddened me because it confused the mere act of asking for something in return for a product you worked hard to produce with the large-scale economic exploitations of the modern industrial era. A successful commune returns its residents to a lifestyle where power arises from the community’s own productive labour. It is not a place like a music festival, where the escapism and partying of the many attendees rest on the intense labour of a small technical crew working to the bone. 

As I watched a field full of people dancing wildly on more speed than a fighter pilot usually takes while the enormous bass of hour-long psy-trance mixes blasts them with more powerful forces than a riot control sound cannon, it reminded me of Marinetti’s comments on the mechanization of man. Human industry creates a force so powerful that it dwarfs humanity itself, crushing it under its waves. 

The psy-trance was exploding across the central field of Eclipse Festival for 90 of 96 total hours. Its rhythm constant, its beat continuous, its pulse shattering, its force unrelenting. As the music overtook our entire environment, dominating every aspect of our experience, I felt myself become psy-trance. In a wonderful, adventurous weekend that brought me romantic joy and happy encounters with old friends and new ones, I experienced philosophical disappointments that re-energized me for future creativity. 

I realized that a book like Utopias, with its goal to help resurrect a livable ideal for a better world, is more necessary than ever when the former vanguards and prophets of that world have sunk into ignorance and self-absorption. Perhaps with a little charismatic writing, they can be woken up again. 

Brief Hiatus, So Buy My Book, 25/07/2014

Just a short note to let any regular readers and random happenstance readers know that Adam Writes Everything is going on a bit of a hiatus for a few days, which is a massive gap compared to the actual purpose of the blog.

By the time this post is published, I'll be on my way to Eclipse festival in a campsite in the middle of nowhere in Quebec. With my best girl by my side, my copy of Spinoza's Ethics in my hand (and maybe I'll take some Negri along too; I'm not sure), and our friend Dreamboat driving the rental car up with his compact-size girlfriend L, I'll dance, rave, philosophize, and promote my book with a campsite full of hippies and party people.

I probably won't get back to the internet until the following Tuesday or Wednesday. It'll be a good break, especially after this past week. Until then, here's the link to my publisher's website, where you can buy my book, Under the Trees, Eaten.

The Ideology Must Also Free You, Research Time, 24/07/2014

Some more thoughts on the nature of revolution. Reading through Bakunin’s essays is quite interesting precisely because he never actually developed a systematic philosophy, though his thoughts were shaped by a profound engagement with the philosophy of his time. I’m sure there are plenty of interesting and hideously boring texts comparing the Hegelian influence of both Marx and Bakunin. I’ll ask B about them one day, as his work is must more directly focussed on Hegel. 

George W Bush, unknown prophet of his own end.
One of the recurring ideas in revolutionary political philosophy and the real concerns of activists is that, after a revolutionary government is established, the new rulers will be little better than the previous one. I know what The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is about; it’s really quite obvious. One of my favourite Bushisms was his, “Fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice . . . well, we won’t get fooled again.” And not just because The Who is totally fucking awesome. 

In that one moment, he embodied the entire future of failed radical political change that he tried to inculcate in Iraq through his government’s incompetent, abusive, and destructive invasion. The goal of Bush and his advisors from Project for a New American Century* was to turn Iraq into a democracy through military invasion, under their belief that merely the opportunity for a free vote would let the natural light of liberated reason shine upon the people of Iraq and they would elect enlightened leaders, Iraqi equivalents to Jefferson, Franklin, and John Jay. 

* This was a think tank formed in the 1990s that essentially incubated all the international political philosophies of the W government, particularly the notion that a military invasion could introduce democracy into a region, and that Iraq was the best candidate to begin this democratic domino effect. Of course, this domino effect was no more effective for democratic culture than communism. Prominent members of PNAC included Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and William Kristol.

Seriously. They actually believed this. They did the same in Israel when they brushed aside the concerns of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas that Hamas would win the Palestinian national election of 2006 and their brand of radical Islamic fundamentalism would gain a streak of democratic legitimacy.

I think because too many in the West no longer confront
racism on a daily basis, we've lost our ability to accept its
existence and how pervasive such ideologies still are.
The secular left-wing democratic defenders of Hamas** that I have spoken with over the last few weeks since the Gaza offensive kicked into gear have defended that organization’s legitimacy on this ground. This was yet another unfortunate legacy of the Bush Administration and PNAC, in addition to creating the conditions for the incompetent Shi’a despotism of modern Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki regime.

** I can’t believe I actually wrote that phrase and it refers to an existing set of people.

But there is a deeper reason why many folks on the secular left of Western democracies treat a political organization whose central constitutional goal is to replace the state of Israel with a Muslim fundamentalist state run according to traditional Shari’a principles on the model of the Muslim Brotherhood as an ally and comrade. No one who looks at the disenfranchisement of the ordinary people of the Palestinian Territories can ignore that there are great injustices in their political and social situation. 

There are many factors in this injustice: they include Israeli laws about who can legitimately hold real estate in the Territories, Fatah corruption, a culture that is increasingly tolerant of racist extremism on all sides and intolerant of the conciliatory gestures and friendships forged by idealists working toward an integrated community, the long cultural neglect of their former rulers in Jordan and Egypt who conceived the Territories’ peasantry as no more than political tools. I make no claim that this is a complete list.

Shortly before the current Gaza offensive, legendary Israeli
author Amos Oz spoke out to denounce the price tag wave
of violence: extremist Jews who vandalize and destroy the
property of Arabs, Christians, and Jews who do not support
an ethnically pure and fundamentalist Israel.
In such a situation of injustice, any form of resistance is legitimized because resistance to such an intractable political and social situation is legitimate. But while resistance itself is legitimate, there are many concrete forms of resistance that are ultimately counter-productive. The resistance strategy of Hamas and their Iranian military sponsors is ultimately nihilistic because the practical ideology of Hamas does not itself enable human freedom.

Say Hamas were to succeed in its revolution. While Article 31 of Hamas’ Charter gives lip service to religious pluralism, stating that Muslims, Jews, and Christians are hypothetically capable of living together in an Islamist state, the amount of anti-Jewish hatred Hamas has inculcated among Palestinian people to encourage militant action against Israel has poisoned any cultural possibility of genuine pluralism in a Hamas-governed Palestine that covers the entire modern state of Israel. 

Besides, in all of the surrounding Arab states, children’s television encourages the hatred and murder of Jews, and elementary education still teaches such genocidal slander as the blood libel and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as basic facts about Jews and Judaism. Add to this, all the standard Islamic fundamentalist political norms of heavy restrictions on freedom of thought, hostility to secularism and science, and the institutionalization of the abuse and commodification of women.

Frantz Fanon, one of the original leaders of the anti-colonialist struggle in the Muslim world, is often cited as one of the thinkers who argued that violent revolution against colonial oppressors was a legitimate and appropriate expression of the people’s work for freedom and emancipation. That’s the textbook version of Fanon that everybody knows and cites. But there’s a lot more in Fanon’s ideas than this, and he provides the clearest rebuke to anyone, especially anyone who was raised in a democratic culture, who would use this concept to justify whatever acts of terror, violence, racism, and murder organizations like Hamas would commit in the name of freedom from oppressors.

Leader of Algeria's liberation, Frantz Fanon.
Fanon doesn’t stop with the legitimacy of resistance. The most unfortunate forms of political resistance are those that, while legitimate in the abstract sense, will only bring further material destruction on their people in eventual victory. If the political and social vision of a revolutionary army does not include the inculcation of a democratic culture, it will only result in further oppression. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote of two ways a revolutionary movement can fail in this sense. 1) They become so defined by the struggle against the enemy that, even when in power, their politics remain defined by the hunt for enemies, so they continue a war against their former masters and paranoiacally hunt down any form of dissent in their own culture as if mere refusal to obey were an existential threat. 2) The revolutionary ideology is merely a different kind of oppressive social and political structure. 

Revolutionaries are not simply warriors; they must also be nation builders. They themselves, their actions, and their philosophical thoughts provide the role models and templates for the citizens of their revolutionary new public. The true revolutionaries of the Middle East are the activists and artists who denounce racism in all its forms. Hamas are not true revolutionaries because they are just one more actor in the Middle East who seek to impose their vision on the world through violence. They are no exception to the region’s political order. 

The closest thing to an exception in the Middle East is the democratic culture of Israel, where despite the vehement denunciations that some members of the public fling at those who advocate an end to war, peace demonstrations and criticism of the government is accepted as a natural expression of social and political freedom. The utopian democratic movement of the kibbutzim was an essential element of the original Zionist movement, building alliances among oppressed peoples (Jews from around the world, the Sephardic communities that had lived in the region for thousands of years, in solidarity with local peasant populations who were similarly oppressed through feudalist hierarchy and monarchial despots; today, this population identifies as Palestinian) through communal agricultural production. In a society riven with hatred, fear, and violence, the most truly revolutionary act is to lay down arms and eat together as friends and neighbours in the face of armies.

By Demons Be Driven, Research Time, 23/07/2014

I’ve been reading a little about the history of anarchism lately too, familiarizing myself with the contexts in which Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin’s ideas and activism arose. The 19th century was a time of incredible political upheaval, after all. The stereotype of the Victorian era’s stability is often used to gloss over the genuinely radical activities of the period and the popular resistance.

This was a century that began with the Napoleonic Wars, a military movement that lasted two decades, whose ostensible goal was quite literally the conquest of Europe. Globally, the century was dominated by the rise of colonial empires across the world. The colonial possessions of Britain and France (and the other major countries of Europe, but these were the major powers) enabled those states to build their armies and navies to such a degree that they would conquer parts of the world that were never within reach before. 

Because of the incredible ethnocentrism and racism that had developed in European culture, they had no qualms about overwriting the cultures and moralities of the people in their newly colonized lands. Instead of simply exploiting the locals’ labour and extracting their resources, as most colonial empires had done before,* the European empires set about marginalizaing the cultures of the subjugated peoples. Only the horrifying trauma of the First World War could bring this process to a skittering halt. Even then, the true wind-down never occurred until after the Second World War, when the European economies and military had literally been exhausted fighting each other in a conflict that literally spanned the Earth, making the Second World War the only truly unified global war of states. 

* When you look at the investments that state and Communist Party owned corporations have made throughout Africa today, it’s easy to see that this economic colonialism continues today. The Chinese, however, have the good business sense simply to strip these lands of their resources and not rub salt in the wound through further cultural destruction in the name of a false sense of moral and rational superiority.

Bakunin, the revolutionary who never
lost his hope, even after he lost all his
teeth from scurvy developed in a
Russian prison.
The story of anarchist movements in the 19th century is the story of domestic resistance to these powerful state militaries and the institutions that they supported. These movements, of which Mikhail Bakunin was a central leader throughout Europe, sought to dismantle the modern militarized state and restore a new form of governance adapting the model of the communal city-state to the industrial era. We’ll never know precisely how these forms of government would have developed over time, because the political revolutions in 1848 and 1870 that tried to institute such governance models were all stamped out by the state militaries of the time.

Reading through a long biographical essay on the life of Bakunin, I am struck by the ferocity with which he advocated violent revolution, and the equal ferocity with which he denounced violence. One of the more important stories of Bakunin’s life was his brief relationship with a Russian revolutionary named Sergey Nechaev. Nechaev advocated revolution by any means, that whatever violence and despotism was necessary to install and maintain a true communist regime was justified through the justice of its goal. Bakunin could not tolerate this, and eventually broke with Nechaev because of the younger man’s utter amorality. Bakunin himself advocated violence against the state and its agents in the army and the police, but he drew the line at Machiavellian murder.

Nechaev was eventually arrested in Russia. He murdered a former member of his revolutionary cell and attempted to manipulate the murder’s public image to encourage revolt against the Tsarist regime. This plan was an utter failure, and a few years later, he was captured and locked away in the hells of the Russian prison system.

If the story sounds familiar to you, the murder and its motivation is the basic plot of Pyotr Verkhovensky’s story in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Dostoyevsky himself had been a political revolutionary, but abandoned the cause of radical socialism after the trauma of receiving a pardon from the Tsar, timed to arrive literally seconds before his execution by firing squad. After serving his prison sentence, he became a staunch social conservative and Orthodox Christian, and wrote some of the greatest works of literature in human history, including Demons.

Demons is Dostoyevsky’s most explicitly political novel, engaging with the liberal and socialist revolutions that were rocking Russia and Europe at the time. His story offered revolutionaries a powerful challenge in the figures of the Verkhovensky father and son, Stepan and Pyotr. Violent revolution, articulated in the machinations of Pyotr (who was, remember, based on a real communist revolutionary, Nechaev), could only achieve empty violence that inspired no true believers in the cause of liberation from despotism. 

The route of persuasion, meanwhile, led you to the position of Stepan. A writer of moving works of political philosophy, Stepan essentially was a self-parody. A man who spent decades writing to advocate the overthrow of the Tsar and to inspire a democratic culture, he was employed as a teacher and scholar through the support of the very landed gentry he thought at the heart of such intolerable despotism. His figure cuts close to my own anxieties, as I believe in using my books to advocate and inspire social change. 

So if both paths are ultimately impotent, says Dostoyevsky, what choice is left, either for the activist or the writer?

Yellow Wallpaper: Centuries Collide in Joyous Explosions, 22/07/2014

Last week, I wrote a post that was a philosophical analysis of Yellow Wallpaper, an original play that my friend Kristi Boulton adapted from a short story by Charlottle Perkins Gilman. I discussed many of the meta-fictional and feminist aspects of the play in the first post, based on a couple of conversations between Kristi and I. Now I’ve seen the play, and there’s even more roiling within it. The play is still running until July 27, and it's a good idea to go.

Yellow Wallpaper depicts a woman in
a multifaceted prison: a locked room,
a morality that reduces her to an
incubator, politics and economics that
make her entirely servile. Forces from
beyond her walls offer liberation.
“Yellow Wallpaper” the short story is a product of the late Victorian era, an expression of the feminist culture and the female voices that were rebelling against the period’s cultural oppression. And the trappings of the era are well on display. The costumes evoke the physical constraints of the time’s upper-class fashions and stiff pretensions. The characters themselves speak in mannered Victorianisms, which slowly strain and crack under the emotional pressures that the protagonist’s mental illness forces on them. 

This growing pressure constitutes the narrative thrust of the play. As the play begins, the protagonist just looks as though she needs a vacation in the country after a stressful period. Her husband, a Victorian doctor, is concerned for his wife, but confident that he and his brother, a fellow doctor whose Victorian coldness and status-consciousness is played for laughs, can restore her to mental health. Her sister-in-law Rachel is similarly confident and optimistic. The family maid is a non-entity. 

As the lead actress becomes more unhinged and obsessed with her visions and nervousness, her husband becomes similarly uncertain in his abilities and wracked with self-doubt. His collaborating brother becomes openly cruel to her. As Rachel sees the protagonist’s behaviour and statements sensibly questioning the Victorian morality in which the purpose of a woman is to bear and raise children, she snaps and begins losing her temper. The maid begins a scheme of her own to rise in this wealthy family at the expense of the doctor’s marginalized wife.

Yet Yellow Wallpaper is not only a story of oppression, but of liberation.

The first sign of this is in the use of names. The only use of the protagonist’s own name throughout the entire play was at the very end, spoken by the yellow spectres. She has been referred to as a patient, a wife, a mother, a threat, and as darling, but never by her own name.* The spectres call her Charlotte in the only moment where any character acknowledges her humanity. It is to the detriment of the human characters that only the spectres of the house, whose very ontological nature is obscured among many possibilities, accept Charlotte’s singularity.

* Names have a curious power in Boulton’s script.** One subtle assault on the protagonist’s security is an otherwise unremarkable character breaking her place in the social hierarchy when she calls the lead actor John.

** And I’ve just used our common naming convention to accord my friend an extra layer of respect. After all this analysis, it would be improper for me to refer to her by the familiar Kristi, trivializing her contribution to her own production. So here I call her Boulton.

Hanah Itner's masterful performance as
manic intensity itself straining against
its constraints anchors and elevates an
already fascinating play.
Charlotte is not simply mad, not simply unhinged. She is a creative figure, diegetically a nationally famous author of children’s literature, a genre that the play explicitly associates with fantasy and escape from reality. A symptom of the typical Victorian (and generally patriarchal, whether Western, global, past, or present) repression of women, her husband does not allow her to write, to express her creative drives, until she is cured. The doctors frame this cure in terms of self-discipline, self-control. Her presumptive healers see imagination, the creative act itself, as a threat.

The other female characters join with the doctors to supply the content and purpose for this discipline. She will have considered herself cured when she can hold her baby without anxiety, when she is able to be a mother, joyously happy in the care of her infant. Rachel herself articulates this ideology most clearly: she turns from Charlotte’s only apparently sympathetic ear to a dedicated enemy when she hears her express seriously the idea that not all women are cut out to be mothers. 

As a character, there is a psychological reason for this, because Rachel herself is barren. So psychologically, this is a simple expression of jealousy. However, Rachel never appeared in Gilman’s story. She is entirely Boulton’s creation, and Boulton herself plays her well. Her performance goes beyond this petty psychological motivation so that Rachel expresses one of our culture’s most oppressive ideologies: that the only purpose of a woman is as a vehicle for procreation.

It’s fitting that the day before I went to see Boulton’s play, I wrote some light reflections about how one can be happy in life without having children. I framed my own take on this in reaction to Lee Edelman’s notion that a life without children signifies a joyous embrace of death and the annihilation of the self and all others. Edelman’s Lacanian influence leads him to think this way, interpreting Lacan’s concept of jouissance as the annihilation of identity, the joy of becoming thanatos, the death drive.

Boulton told me that the more overtly sexual
elements of Granger's dance came from
collaboration with the Fringe version's lead
actress, Itner, and was absent in the original
McMaster production. A great improvement.
Because I have no loyalty to Lacan, I need not argue against this, only state my opposition, and instead argue that my own ideological perspective offers a better existence. Charlotte, in betraying her husband to the spectre women of her wallpaper, does not embrace death. Much of this is down to the physical interaction of Hanah Itner as Charlotte and Sarah Granger as The Wallpaper Woman. They relate through a sensual dance that is clearly sexual in nature, which supplies Charlotte’s positive identity: as woman, as writer, and as homosexual, a triple threat to the oppressive morality of the Victorian era and so many other oppressive cultural currents that still exist today. Granger’s dancing is explicitly a product of the twentieth century: she is a modern dancer breaking into this militarized Victorian setting. Their dances are the only times in the play when Charlotte’s body language changes from the shaking nerves of constricted energy to the smooth bodily flows of free motion. 

The Yellow Wallpaper charts many attempts to constrain Charlotte, whether through a reproductive futurist morality, the rhetoric of self-control, economic dependence, medical institutions, or anaesthetic drugs. Joining with the Wallpaper Woman is a physical and ontological transformation, setting Charlotte free. She doesn’t trade one morality from another, but articulates an ethical transformation, a complete metamorphosis of who she truly is. A new genuine identity is created, and the regimentation of Victorian identity, ideology, and political morality is impotent before the power of a woman who has finally freed herself.

Editor's note: In case you were wondering, Kristi: Yes, I thought it was good. And I hope you don't mind that I used a couple of photos from your Facebook page.

Institutionalized Sophistry, Jamming, 21/07/2014

I think a reason most ancient Greek sophists could get away
with such cheap rhetorical tricks in their city assemblies is
because democratic political culture of this sort hadn't yet
developed a worldly sense of cynicism in the West. So
people were more easily bamboozled.
In terms of individual page views, this post from last July is still my most popular. I even noticed that, with no help from my own social media feeds, it experienced a sudden surge in page views this May. It’s about a terrible problem that philosophy departments and programs face because they tend to attract a particular type of undergraduate student. If you’ve hung out in a philosophy student society long enough, you’ll see them: they’re combative, arrogant, finding any excuse to argue with people. They are precisely the people that drive a lot of women and generally kind people out of studying philosophy, and most of them will feel good about having done so.

Having spent most of my twenties encountering such people, I became thoroughly tired of them by the time I began my doctorate in philosophy. Whenever I encountered such confrontational and argumentative people in the classes I taught, I quickly shut them down with the two weapons against which they can’t defend, a smile and an open mind. I even encountered the occasional philosophy professor whose confrontational attitudes had survived his (and it was always a man) impetuous youth. 

I mention this dislike of the undergraduate sophist that philosophy departments tend to produce now and then because of a curious comment in Michael Gilbert’s Coalescent Argumentation that demonstrates how correct my old professor David Hitchcock was when he said I’d like that book.

Gilbert describes just the same attitude of argumentative hostility that I just have, but identifies it specifically as arising in critical reasoning classes. These classes are the bread and butter of most philosophy departments in universities that allocate budgets according to course enrolment numbers. They’re relatively simple courses as well, which focus simply on the rules and techniques for examining and analyzing arguments, the composition and relation of premises to conclusions in day-to-day argumentation.

But critical reasoning as it's typically taught tends to forge or reinforce the aggressive argumentative habits that drive more reasonable people away from philosophy classes. One analyzes an argument, in the typical critical reasoning class, to find its flaws and mistakes. You analyze an argument not to see how it functions, what its aims are, and why it's being made when it is, but only to discover what's wrong with it. More than this, such antagonistic argument is sometimes described as being fun. Most people who have spent any time hanging out with enthusiastic young male philosophy undergraduate students will usually have experienced one person who takes unnecessarily aggressive stands in favour of arguments he (and it is always he) doesn't even really believe in, just to be devil's advocate. Gilbert critiques this model insofar as it reduces all critical thinking to a kind of nihilistic cynicism that's more interested in tearing down what someone else has built than building in your own right.

There's another problem that the book diagnoses in critical reasoning. Critical reasoning classes are themselves often perceived as bird courses, which is really a shame because their basic task — identifying the formal structure of arguments in everyday discourse — can be enormously difficult. When I took elementary logic and reasoning courses in my own undergraduate years, I found these tasks most difficult. You had to cut through a lot of extra material — appeals to emotion, social and political context, the particular relationships of the individuals making the argument — to identify each particular formal element in each person’s argument for his case and the logical rules by which the argument transitioned from one such element to the next.

Gilbert’s idea for reform of critical reasoning would have made this procedure easier in one sense and more difficult in others. One of the concerns of Coalescent Argumentation is to reform critical reasoning classes to make them more practically useful. You don’t understand how an argument actually functions in the world when you strip away all those contextual elements to grasp its essence as its skeletal logical structure. So Gilbert brings the resources of argumentation theory and related academic discourses to analyze both the logical skeletons and the operative political, social, and personal flesh of an argument. As he says in the title of chapter three, his focus is just as much on the arguers as the arguments.

This, however, does make critical reasoning analyses more difficult because you now not only have to extract and analyze the framework of that logical skeleton, but understand as well all the functions and relations of the contextual elements that is physically making that argument in the world. 

Well, philosophy is hard, and so is life.

The Value of Life Is Immanent, Jamming, 19/07/2014

When couples who don’t have children hang out with couples who do have children, there are occasionally those awkward moments when the children-havers ask why, and they are rarely satisfied with the answer that we just don’t want any. I anticipate these questions will arise fairly frequently over the course of my life, because my girlfriend and I don’t want kids.

I’m a writer, philosophical journalist, playwright, and whatever other creative endeavours will give me a paycheck of some kind. I don’t need children. My artworks will be my children — unlike children, art can never disappoint its creator.

Because an important element of environmental politics is a goal for an overall reduction in the human population by peaceful means, it’s important to encourage more people to decide not to have children. To do that, people have to live in such a way that they don’t need children to be happy in life. Yet an important concept in the image of reproduction as the validation of one’s present existence is in creating a heritage for the future. 

Well, to answer those concerns in this particular case, as an artist and creative figure, my artworks are that heritage. When my play, You Were My Friend, is produced, its script will be available in a Canadian database of theatre for other performers to produce in the future. My novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, will be available for purchase from Amazon for a long time. And if it ever goes out of print, ebooks will still be available. If Amazon ever discontinues the ebooks, I’ll seed it to piracy sites and sell copies by other means. The same goes for any other works of published art or philosophy I create.

Marry for love. Create for happiness. Or terror; whichever
you prefer.
Yet this question of heritage for the future is not even all that necessary. Back in April, I posted about my engagement with Lee Edelman’s No Future, a landmark work of queer theory that engendered some very strong reactions in me. If I can summarize my take on Edelman’s idea, he describes the queer as the living embodiment of the death drive. His Lacanian philosophical framework guides him to understand the only alternative to an uncritical embrace of heterosexual reproduction to safeguard the future to be an embrace of death. If children and the futurity they represent do not matter to you, says Edelman, then you can only be a walking spectre of annihilation.

Needless to say, I am not a fan. First, it’s a mutually exclusive (and alternative-exclusive) dualism, which I consider poor-quality thinking. Now, I do admire the gumption of Edelman embracing precisely the view of non-hetero sexualities that radical social conservatives share, and which motivates their desire to stamp such people out. But it still adds up to an embrace of death. 

There is a way to value one’s life, not because of the legacy you leave for the future, but for the effect you have in the present. One of the central ontological principles of my Ecophilosophy manuscript is that every process in the universe is ultimately interconnected because of their shared causal histories going back to the beginning of the universe and going forward into the future. Because every event has conditions that brought it about and effects that proliferate forward, every event leaves its imprint on the entire process of the universe’s development.

The effects of every event, in some small way, constitute the specifically singular character of the entire universe, throughout its duration. Each event itself is as only it can be, unique in its innate arrangement, singular in its essential nature. Its legacy is unimportant, both the past that led to it and the future that it conditions. The effects an event has on the world while it exists are most important to its value. 

On a personal perspective, that means what matters most in our lives are the effects we have on our co-workers, friends, families, and the wider world around us. Where we come from and our legacies don’t matter; only what we do counts as to the value of our lives. 

I’d Like to Have an Argument Please, A History Boy, 18/07/2014

Because I’m a really huge nerd, I’ve been reading an argumentation book for fun. When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, I actually had no idea this sub-discipline of argumentation theory existed. It’s one of the unfortunate parts of the fact that very few people can specialize in everything in a discipline anymore.* When I got to McMaster, I did discover argumentation theory, and found it quite fascinating. One of the department’s professors, Dr Hitchcock, was a specialist in argumentation theory, and my colleague Young Breezy in the PhD program was raised on theory of argument and informal logic in his undergraduate years at University of Windsor. 

* If I was still on a career path in academia, I would have liked to become one of those people who had his specializations, but knew a little of the basics of every field, enough to point an inquiring student in the direction of the major works. I still plan on writing and publishing philosophy independently of the university system, so maybe I still can.

When I did discover argumentation theory, I thought it had a lot of potential for explorations in meta-philosophy. If philosophical discourse consisted of arguments, then the study of argument structure would double as the study of philosophical discourse.

"An argument is a connected series of statements intended
to establish a proposition."
"No, it isn't."
So I found it a little sad that most of the argumentation theory that I read tended to be mostly about colloquial arguing. The meta-philosophical angle was rarely addressed except in asides and quips. I did assemble a paper on disagreement theory that eventually found a home in a young journal of argumentation and epistemology called Cogency, that’s published out of Universidad Diego Portales in Chile. It was an implicitly meta-philosophical paper about the idea that reason itself comes in many forms.

And that little paper received quite a lot of negative peer reviews in my initial attempts to publish it, even though, predictably, I was never able to follow their advice because my different peer reviewers (even for the same journal) gave mutually contradictory feedback. One said my paper wasn’t worth publishing because the notion that there are different types and frameworks of reasoning and reason was actually pretty obvious. Another said that my idea was ridiculous and immature, because the fact that people can mutually understand each other at all demonstrates that reason is entirely univocal and any attempt to describe it as plural misunderstood what argument was.

But today, I’m reading, for my fun book, Coalescent Argumentation by Michael Gilbert. It originally dropped in 1997, and Dr Hitchcock recommended it as a strong book in the kind of argumentation theory that I would enjoy. I had often spoken with my colleagues about how displeased I was with the confrontational form of argument that tends to dominate academic philosophical discourse: the notion that critique consists in attack. 

To me, a philosophical idea first exists as a hazy notion, and the purpose of criticism is to let the idea go to work, see what it can do in thought and what its implications are for action. Subjecting a tentative hypothesis or notion to aggressive critical attack, searching for its flaws as if it were a fully-fleshed out concept from the start, only nips creativity before it even has the chance to establish itself. I was interested in finding models of argument that approached the subject with a little more nuance. Dr Hitchcock assured me that Gilbert’s book was the most fruitful for my meta-philosophical discourse about discourse. 

I only started it recently, but I do enjoy one key idea. Gilbert describes the example of two academics. Smith writes a complicated 500 page book. Jones writes a review of the book, summarizing and attacking its ideas in about 2000 words. Smith explains that Jones has completely misunderstood her. Summarizing a large book in a couple of thousand words and expecting your attacks on this summary to stick isn’t solid philosophical analysis or even charitable engagement. 

We don’t need to be precise in what we say (because we so rarely are) to be understood (as we so often are), even though the bulk of argumentation theory tends to believe that precision of necessary for comprehension. I’m only at the beginning of the book, so I’m not sure where Gilbert ultimately takes this. But I consider it a promising start.

Putting Minds on Paper, Composing, 17/07/2014

I had a meeting with Mel today, the director of You Were My Friend, which will be my debut as a playwright this November at The Pearl Company theatre in Hamilton. We’ve made our plans for the revisions to the draft script, and discussed our plans for what actors we would want for the two roles in the play, Vicki and Madison, two mismatched roommates.

No, not these comically mismatched roommates. Mine are
women, so it's a completely different kind of fun.
It’s coming together very well already, though the revisions are interesting. I originally designed the play as a series of alternating monologues and dialogues. My motives for this structure were twofold. On one level, I was being entirely pragmatic. I wanted to book the best actresses possible, and to do that, I gave them a huge amount of juicy material in long format that would feed their egos. On another, less mercenary level, I wanted to build tension between the characters’ public personae — how they interacted with each other — and their private selves — how they interacted with the audience.

This could feel stilted after a while, though, and take time away from the most entertaining part of the story, watching these two spar and laugh together. So I’m recasting most of the material in the monologues to be revealed in longer, more involved dialogue scenes. The play is called You Were My Friend, after all, so we should see more of their actual friendship.

However, I do think the play’s development was improved by casting so much of it as long monologues to start. Sometimes, writing dialogue alone results in ambiguous characterization, ideas that can be too easily misinterpreted, and characters who feel thin, self-contradictory, or wedded more to the plot than any authenticity. But having these monologues to translate into more playful scenes together gives Vicki and Madison a more secure grounding. 

I don’t have to look at the dialogue now, and wonder what thoughts it may express or elide. I already have those thoughts, and I can reveal them cagily or directly, as the situation demands. I may try this with scripts I write in the future, plotting the inner lives of the characters before completely wiping over their direct expression and weaving it through dialogue and story.

You Don’t Have to Endorse Something to Understand It, Research Time, 16/07/2014

When this blog first started about a year ago, I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, a book that is firmly rooted in Marxist traditions of political, social, and psychological analyses. At the time, I had conceived the Utopias project as more firmly rooted in Marxist ideas, though that focus has shifted considerably since then, with its positive political direction being more a style of community-centric anarchism.

When you get to be as old as Kolakowski was,
you're thankful you can still smile for the
camera, so you smile well.
One early post included a footnote where I mention that I was planning to pick up my own copy of Leszek Kolakowski’s massive work of philosophical, historical, and political analysis, Main Currents of Marxism. My friends B and P told me that, despite the comprehensive scale of Kolakowski’s 1200-page masterwork and the praise it had accumulated as a work of scholarship, it wasn’t worth going to. Kolakowski had turned against Marxism, and my friends were skeptical of his work for this reason.

I never bought the book, but a copy came into my possession anyway. When my girlfriend and I moved in together, she took from her mother’s house the remnants of her deceased father’s book collection, which included a complete hardcover edition of Kolakowski’s tome. Rudy was the type of guy who would casually buy a 1200-page critical history of Marxist philosophy. It’s a damn shame I never got to talk with this guy.

Even at 1200 pages, the book is incomplete. It never engages explicitly with anarchist theorists — Peter Kropotkin, for example, only merits only a few sentences of discussion scattered around two of its three volumes, despite his seminal place in anarchism as a philosophy and political movement. As well, having been published in 1976, the book only has very indirect lessons for the development of Marxism since then, how the philosophy has adapted to the end of the Cold War and its relegation to the work of university scholars disconnected to working people. Finally, Kolakowski’s focus is entirely on European and American Marxism, and doesn’t touch on how the political theory and movement picked up across the globe. Africa is a sad blank spot, but Asia, particularly Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indonesian Marxism, is historically significant and passed over.

Nonetheless, I was happy for the coincidence that brought such a book into my life for free. After reading through the book of selections from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, I thought I’d read through Kolakowski’s chapter on the Italian writer to see what he had to say. 

Reading Gramsci makes for a good critique of Badiou's
thought, even if just to show that he isn't that original.
I found the chapter a fine summary of a thinker with a large and complex corpus. Gramsci, in Kolakowski’s words, conceived of a socialist revolution as a more profound transformation of a society than a party simply seizing the reins of state power. Though Kolakowski was unable to say so in this book, Gramsci anticipates some of the ideas of Badiou on revolution, that a Communist Party taking power over the state is no revolution at all, but the failure of the revolutionary party to follow through on its own mission, instead becoming one more clique who contests for control of repressive apparatus, whether through violent or peaceful means. 

I found Kolakowski a little to quick to dismiss Gramsci’s thoughts on the ground of seeming contradictions among points, such as the Italian’s apparent historical relativism about truth being supposedly incompatible with his skepticism about necessitarian laws of social development. Perhaps this is a symptom of simply trying to encompass so much complex theory and history in such a massive and complicated project. Going through the notable theorists and ideologists of European Marxism one person at a time is going to wear on you, and person-to-person arguments in philosophy tend to be a little too quick. The Gramsci chapter is the only one I’ve read so far, but I’m glad Kolakowski is now another of the great writers in my apartment’s library.

Why I Am Such an Excellent Writer, Composing, 15/07/2014

Having done some promotional duties for one of my fellow artists yesterday, I thought it best to promote my own upcoming projects as well. As my difficult hunt continues for such an apparently simple thing as a day job with a reliable income stream, I at least have a writing career that, while it doesn’t yet produce a lot of cash, at least reminds me that I have something valuable to contribute. 

One of my personal favourite under-
employed philosophical writers, the
title of this post is a play on his
ironically egotistical chapter headings
from Ecce Homo.
Not everyone who is underemployed has this kind of fallback for their sense of self-worth. For almost two years, I’ve had the qualifications and the references for a good start to the career that I chose, and that I was continually told that I could make a great life from. Those qualifications were the result of seven years of hard work: one year and change for my MA, eight months of preliminary research, and four years of my doctorate. Realistically, I’ve spent the last two years trying to get that career started and coming up empty in terms of steady employment. Like a lot of academics in my generation, despite my best efforts and the assurances of people who have actually worked with me that what I do is valuable to the discipline, the university sector simply does not want me.

Now, like a lot of former academics, I face the difficult task of convincing employers in the private sector that my years of experience as a writer, researcher, and teacher (and in my case, as a contractual editor, a customer service phone jockey, and having helped run one of Canada’s largest university newspapers for two years) is relevant to their faster-paced working environment. Also, that I am sincerely devoted to my career change, and will not rush back to academia the minute a poverty-waged four-month teaching post opens up. There is the additional problem that I will not know precisely what my new career is until I land my first job. I'm qualified to work as an editor (which I'm doing freelance now, but is not a reliably sustainable income) and as a researcher (which is the bulk of my current applications). 

Even so, the most creative part of my career(s) is beginning to take off. For one thing, my novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, is slated for release later this month. I’m beginning from an independent publisher, but BlankSpace take their work seriously, and they take their ambitions seriously as well. They’ll be pleased to know that, as I’ve discussed Under the Trees, Eaten with members of Toronto’s literary community, they’ve heard of the label, and it’s all good things. If the work I publish with them ultimately opens a pathway to future success with larger labels, I’ll always have BlankSpace to thank.

In fiction, my favourite inspirations are
writers whose ideas I can take in
directions they never would have gone
themselves. Lovecraft writing a female
protagonist and a comprehensible
alien? Never.
Going through the proofs this weekend was the first time that I’ve revisited my own manuscript in a while, and it felt like I was reading it with fresh eyes. I wove enough thematic complexity into the work to please anyone who generally enjoys anything science-fiction. The heritage of H. P. Lovecraft is clear in the basic premise and the nature of the central extraterrestrials in the story. 

At the same time, Under the Trees, Eaten grows beyond its primary inspiration in many ways. For one, I cannot sensibly equate the radically Other with the utterly unknowable as Lovecraft does.* The mysterious creatures of my novella are indeed terrifyingly different than humans, more terrifying and casually violent in ways we would find abhorrent. But they move with a calm rationality, and their reason, though radically different than that of humanity, is still a reason and can still be understood. This is a fundamental aspect of my research in environmental philosophy: that humanity must lose its hubris that its own reason is the only reason that can exist. Lovecraft, in his xenophobia, was all too guilty of this small-mindedness.

* And as many of my least favourite traditions of European philosophy over the last hundred or so years have done as well, but that’s another story.

My theatre work continues as well. You Were My Friend, which will play at the Pearl Company Theatre in Hamilton this November, features many of the same feminist approaches as Under the Trees, Eaten. One of Lovecraft’s greatest weaknesses as a writer, after all, was his inability to craft a woman. My novella’s very spine and backbone is its protagonist, Marilyn. Her story searching for the truth about the death of her mother and the mental breakdown of her father is the central driving force of the story.

You Were My Friend is similarly rooted in the complexity of women’s lives and families. It has a cast of two, both women. The story begins when one of them, Vicki, is cast out of her mother’s home before she even has the chance to finish high school to fend for herself, all because of her relationship with a man in his mid-20s (who disappears from her life at this very moment of crisis). It is the story of a young woman who is thrown, quite literally, to the wolves because her actions don’t conform to a puritanical sexual morality. 

No matter how many job applications I may send out, their fate is ultimately out of my control. This was true when I was looking for university work, and it’s true now that I’m transitioning into research and editing work in the wider private sector. But if there is one place where I’m not adrift, it’s the words that come from my fingers on these keyboards. 

That’s why, no matter how difficult or demoralizing my work in this economy might become, I keep working, in my spare time, on this blog, the philosophical publishing projects that it often tracks, this novella (and the other ideas for fiction works), and this play (and other theatrical ideas as well). It is the one area of my productive life where I can maintain some measure of control. I wish more people adrift in our economy could have a similar anchor.

Yellow Wallpaper: The Undeniable Power of Theatrical Experience, 14/07/2014

Theatre is supposed to be strange. We usually gripe about how a special effect in a movie doesn’t look real enough, but we always know that it isn’t real because it’s an image on a screen. When we experience the strangest images theatre can create, the effect is especially powerful because we are physically in the same room as these phantasms. 

See it at the Player's Guild theatre at
80 Queen Street South in Hamilton,
June 17 – 27.
I met Kristi Boulton a couple of years ago when she was a theatre and media student and I was doing my doctorate at McMaster University. Today, she’s written a play based on “Yellow Wallpaper,” a chilling short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story is written in the first person, and the play presents a fictionalized version of Charlotte herself playing the protagonist, a woman confined in an attic for medical observation after an embarrassing mental health episode spoken of only in hushed terms. 

Locked away, she begins to experience visions, hauntings. A featureless female figure in bright yellow emerges from the titular modular wall, stalking her around the room with the voices of the women who have been confined there before. Not only these, but the cries of all the women who have been broken by the violence of men. Not only these, but echoes of Charlotte’s own torture and suffering, as her husband has happily betrayed her to a medical institution that has stripped her of freedom, personhood, agency. 

Boulton told me that her script and production has left it up to the audience to decide whether Charlotte’s experiences are real supernatural events, or if she really has had a mental breakdown and has become delusional. But the weirdness of theatre both complicates and simplifies this impression. It’s a fairly simple form of narrative literacy to think of a performance like this as presenting the audience with a choice between whether Charlotte’s haunting experiences are real or imaginary.

Because a contemporary theatrical (and televisual, and cinematic) literacy is more sophisticated than this. A reasonable viewer of this play knows that they’re watching an artificial experience: actors on stage in an adaptation of a Charlotte Perkins Gilman story. The ambiguity of whether her haunting is diegetically real or illusory is part of the play’s own structure. Posing and thinking about the question is itself part of how the audience engages with the play, and a discerning audience will understand that the ambiguous nature of the events on stage is part of the theatrical event. 

Audiences today don’t need to postulate the reality of what they see on screen or on stage to engage with an artwork, as if they were watching a documentary about imaginary people. Theatre is the presentation of a narrative through self-consciously artificial means. The sets are wooden blocks, often intentionally bare or sparsely decorated. Theatre creates an intentionally unsettling space, bringing its audience to an experience where they will see a purposely artificial story, a live barrage of affects whose purpose is to express ideas and emotions, and enfold an audience into that expression.
• • •
Theatre wasn’t always supposed to be strange. Before the invention of cinema, an artistic movement began in the 19th century for theatre to depict social situations realistically. Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen are the most famous voices from this movement today, though Leo Tolstoy and other Russian playwrights affiliated with the Moscow Art Theatre were remarkable figures as well. 

If you watch Brando's The Wild One, you understand just
how strange he makes that movie. The Wild One is an
extremely stupid movie. Its tone is essentially Reefer
, only about motorcycle riders. But Marlon Brando
shows up in this world of cornballs giving a totally realistic
performance as a swaggering young man driven to criminal
life by a lack of opportunity who acts out to cover the deep
wounds of his soul. It's totally incongruous and brilliant.
Probably the most influential inheritance from theatrical realism today comes from Constantin Stanislavski, the progenitor of modern psychological realist acting. The Method, when Marlon Brando brought it so forcefully to the American stage and screen, ushered in an era of realist filmmaking in cinema that lasted for decades. The theatrical flourishes and purposeful artificiality of the silent and studio system generations disappeared from American cinema for decades, only resurfacing in the genre play comedies and action films that developed in the 1990s and 2000s.

But the growth of cinema forced theatre to give up its pretensions to realism. This was not an immediate process, of course. Brando’s own theatrical work, along with the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller were developing viscerally realist theatre while Eugene Ionesco, Dario Fo, Peter Shaffer, and Samuel Beckett were bringing a new weirdness and surreality to the stage. Harold Pinter's works were deliciously vital combinations of realism and artifice. These experimental works created new forms of dramatic, conceptual, and emotional expression by dropping all pretence that the events on stage were real, or even aimed for verisimilitude to the real.

But the strangeness of theatre’s obvious artificiality belies its ability to express vitally important realistic ideas. Consider Boulton’s Yellow Wallpaper. A woman is trapped in a confined space and stalked by the psychic echoes of all other women who have been abused and tortured through a medical system that treated them as living laboratories and a wider patriarchal society that robbed them of physical agency and self-control. 

It’s a perennial struggle, one of the defining struggles of human culture for well over a century. The theatre is a space where an essential dynamism of the forces that constitute the globalized culture of our world can be displayed before us. The performance itself expresses those forces and we participate in them in real time as we experience and engage with the narrative

Charlotte is locked in an enclosed space where the narratives of millions of tortured and oppressed women are brought before her through an experience that, in its artificiality is more than real precisely because its nature as a performance allows the direct expression of forces that are normally diffuse and barely noticeable throughout our planet’s societies. She, and we, are the audience to the history and narratives essential to the entire human experience.

This is the power of theatre.

To Develop a Singular Identity, Research Time, 11/07/2014

One of the centrepiece concepts of my broad philosophical work is singularity. In an absolute sense, this is the notion that every body and event in the universe is at least minimally unique from every other. In a relative or practical sense, it is the notion that there is a natural tendency for systems, especially when they interact, to become more complex over time, thereby increasing their degree of uniqueness. They become more singular.

We can see this functioning, for example, in human personalities. One of the most lamentable developments for a person to take is to become nothing more than a stereotype, a cookie-cutter person, a total conformist. The best people are remarkable, interesting, weird. 

This notion of singularity is at the centre of my Ecophilosophy manuscript, and it will be very important to the basis of the political philosophy in the Utopias project. Wonderfully, Peter Kropotkin has given me a foothold to use this idea in relation to the anarchist project. In a late essay, Kropotkin contends that the most important political and social priority is something called individualization, creating a social and economic structure that allows people to do what they are best suited and find most interesting. It would encourage them to develop their personality along entirely unique lines, creating a world of the remarkable. In such a society, we would never be bored, always meeting fascinating and weird people. This is a world of extremely intense human singularities. 

I only discovered the idea in a short article, in fact an encyclopedia article Kropotkin was asked to write about anarchism, so it doesn’t go into much detail. But he considers anarchism the political system best suited for achieving this singularization of the human race. The central argument for it in this essay is that coercion encourages conformity, the stifling of one’s individuality for the sake of survival. This is so whether it’s conformity to the rules of the state in fear of its military violence, or to the dictates of an oligarchical business clan in fear of its ability to trap you in poverty.

One of the nice things about encyclopedia articles written by brilliant theorists and writers is that it allows them to define a complex concept in as straightforward a manner as possible, and a political concept needs a straightforward articulation. Anarchism, says Kropotkin, is a political system of voluntary associations, obligations, and agreements to manage all social and economic functions which currently rest within the state. Instead of the state’s univocal laws that are so difficult to change as to be ossified, we govern ourselves in a complex network of dynamic covenants. We are each a node in the network, and in being so, have the power to help shape that network.

The theory isn’t perfect, after all. We know now that in dynamic, mutually self-constituted networks, not every node is created equal, as Kropotkin would suppose. Spontaneously developing networks are usually scale-free, with some nodes being much more important than average, and some nodes quite marginal and isolated. But the dynamism inherent to a networked relation would make an individual equally dynamic, encouraging their creativity not from fear of harm, but from the desire to connect and evolve. 

How to Ground a Social Order, Composing, 10/07/2014

The grand old Peter Kropotkin.
I finished Mutual Aid last night, and found it fascinating. Kropotkin ended the book with a discussion of the rural and urban mutual aid associations that were growing in his time, particularly voluntary associations for poverty relief, the resurrection of communal gardens, farming fields, and meadows, the use of industrial equipment for agriculture, and the nascent union movement among workers in the cities of contemporary Europe and North America. But the ideas that I found most interesting of all, I described mostly in previous posts, and can’t really think of any way to elaborate them further just now.

Instead, I thought about one rhetorical point that Kropotkin made throughout the book, his rebuke to the notion that any resource held in common among a community will be destroyed. This is the tragedy of the commons, originally described by John Locke and for us, recently described again by Garrett Hardin. The analysis goes that, because each individual will take the most immediate material benefit out of any resource (like a farming meadow, pasture, or fish stock), the actions of all of them without restraint of property right or police will exhaust and destroy the resource beyond renewal. Kropotkin says it’s bunk. So do I.

I spoke yesterday about the relatively recent birth of the concept of the radically individualized person, upon which the argument for private property by the inevitably tragic nature of the commons depends. It defines self-interest to be the same as greed, and that the only person whose welfare any of us would ever really care about is ourselves. Such a social order is defined by the war of each against all, and the coercive and violent institutions that keep the peace against the inevitable dissolution of our society.

The entire argument is flawed because it is an expression of dogma. It appeals to a notion of the individual that we have all become too accustomed to thinking is true without actually testing it against the actual behaviour of people. After all, most of our associations with people around us in our everyday lives have nothing to do with accumulating personal wealth and power at their expense. We do our jobs and associate with our friends and neighbours, and are generally quite kind to each other.

Those who do act in such a way as to ruin common goods and profit at the expense and suffering of others are rare enough that we can identify them for what they are and act accordingly. Hobbes and Locke describe radically free individuals as, essentially, assholes. The vision of humanity that Kropotkin and I hold focusses more on human kindness and altruism than egoistic, self-aggrandizing behaviour.

So how do you ground an institutional social order in this circumstance? The entire Utopias project is ultimately about visions for real social orders, and eventually aims to offer explicitly what I think is the best such kind of order, as many political philosophers have done over the years. The question of law is paramount, but I’m not quite sure of how to engage with it.

Kropotkin himself has some writings on the nature of law which I briefly revisited, and some ideas in Alexandre Lefebvre’s The Image of Law go some way into a Spinozist conception of law which I think could be quite interesting. But there’s an enormous field of legal theory that I don’t know well in detail, and there’s only so much that the Utopias project can do in one shot.

The project has three parts. One is understanding the mechanistic vision of humanity that emerged from the First World War and had its essential formulation in European totalitarianism and the Futurist political philosophy of Filippo Marinetti. The second part describes a machinic vision of humanity, a more hopeful political tradition that has its ground in the metaphysical tradition of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze, the four most prominent among a variety of other thinkers who will supply the conceptual centre of the project.

And the final part will describe the core political features of this new world, essentially a self-organizing, anarchistic politics. This is the most amorphous part of the project at this point, and it’s why I’ve been reading Kropotkin again, and will explore Bakunin, Goldman, and others soon enough, along with, perhaps, a little Marx. But no project is ever truly complete, even when it’s finished.