The University Is No Place for Intellectuals, Composing, 30/08/2014

You can consider this post a place for reflections that aren’t fitting into content that I’m preparing for the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. Actually, the bulk of my ideas in this piece are personal reflections on this article by Justin Cruickshank and Ioana Cerasella that appeared on the website this Friday, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” 

The piece itself is quite wonderful, though it is also quite long and written in an extremely academic style. So the informal nature of my comments wouldn’t really fit the type of exchange that could happen on SERRC. I’m more than happy to have a Twitter war if Cruickshank or anyone else from the Collective is up for it, though.

At the heart of Cruickshank and Cerasella’s ideas in this essay is a critique of neo-liberal ways of thinking and organizing higher education. In this model of thinking, an education institution is a service provider: students are customers, and the purpose of the educators is to cater to their desires, to give students the best possible customer experience. 

Customer service models of education and the corporatized
funding frameworks that accompany them enforce established
moral practices, such as the tolerance of campus sexual
misconduct and assault. Genuine education would challenge
established models of thinking and organization.
The problem is that this attitude is anathema to the civil purpose of education, which is to challenge students and encourage them to critique their own social and moral presumptions, and the cultural traditions of their own society. Education is meant to encourage people to become agents of social change. This process of change wouldn’t be through direct agitation necessarily; that’s for times of crisis. Ordinary social change happens simply through people thinking differently than the people who raised them. 

Dialogic interaction and education is how you inculcate this attitude, engaging people in a wide conversation among people and works in which they are always open to reconsidering and changing their own beliefs and desires. Cerasella and Cruickshank, following Karl Popper and John Dewey, call a society that engages publicly in these kinds of debates an open society. This is inherently different from the neo-liberal model of education as customer service. The customer never opens his desires to the possibility of change, and defines the quality of his education by how well his existing desires were satisfied. In this model, professors and other teachers are discouraged from challenging students because having their central beliefs and desires brought into question risks creating a negative customer service experience.

There are many books and essays currently being published that critique and decry this model of education as customer service. The increasing pressure to conform university education to this model is one of the reasons why I’ve left a career in post-secondary education and research behind. The goal of my original career was to use a post as a university professor to research and publish books that would speak to the issues of our times, and promote them to the general public to encourage thoughtful discussion and dialogue about ideas such as how to become ecologically conscious people or craft utopian political projects without falling into coercion or violence to enforce dogma. 

But these kinds of intellectual projects are largely no longer welcome in the university sector, especially from new entrants to the professoriat. They’re barely tolerated now coming from established figures. University posts are about providing services that satisfy a client’s existing desires and promoting one’s employer as a brand. The social and cultural consciousness that is necessary for a genuinely healthy university is gone. Hell, that social consciousness is important for a business: it’s what keeps a business, and even a brand, developing in a way that’s beneficial for a community and for humanity more generally. Without social consciousness, we’re little more than a bunch of mercenaries looking for the quickest buck.

Cerasella and Cruickshank’s article discusses this general perspective, with one particular example of how one attempt at using dialogic processes to enliven a British school district was demonized and destroyed by the Cameron government. The district had a large population of Pakistani immigrants, and school administrators initiated a cultural dialogue with the community about how the schools could better serve the community. 

It offered the opportunity for a community to integrate with wider British culture, and for the British mainstream to influence the Pakistani Muslim community. Since Muslim cultures today have a tendency to moral conformity, even beyond the horrifying Salafist sect (which these Pakistanis were not), the community could benefit from an open consideration of the British values of impish rebellion

The Cameron government denounced the effort as the radicalization of English schools with terrorist ideologies, clamping down on their dialogue while simultaneously using the affair to champion neo-liberal values of extreme individualism as inherently British values under threat from the menace of Islam.

Henry Giroux, a professor at my alumnus of McMaster
University, has written that the university is the natural home
of the public intellectual
, and is under assault from neo-liberal
values. I agree with the latter, but no longer the former.
Henry Giroux’s book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, a review of which I linked in the accompanying photo caption, laments the corruption of the university by customer service business models because it corrodes the role of public intellectuals. But most university professors are disciplinary researchers; they don’t write to the public, but to other researchers in their discipline. 

Universities used to be elite institutions, and the trend of democratizing the professorial class had hopes of making universities into institutions that served public progress, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But the norms of disciplinary disengagement with issues of public relevance pervaded the academy. Now the neo-liberal values of customer service further prevent professors from becoming critical voices in society. 

I hope that my new education will give me the foundation to work in a publishing, media, advocacy, or political organization that can provide society some of these critical voices when we so badly need them. The university and the education system more generally certainly will not provide such a voice.

A Character’s Conceptual Reality, Composing, 29/08/2014

A break from the anarchism, which has been simply depressing, as you could probably tell from my last post, which indicated how little we’ve progressed (and how much we’ve probably backslid, given the bleak, Thatcherian individualism that has permeated our society) in the last hundred years.

I spent a good chunk of today taking care of the bureaucracy for my new retraining plan in Sheridan College’s Corporate Communications program, an opportunity to land a solid, well-paying job with an environmentalist group, or a publisher, or a film company, or a lobby group on behalf of affordable housing in Ontario. I want to use a career that’s typically called public relations to help people and make the world a better place. I think that’s a reasonable request of the universe.

Of course, that career path won’t stop my creative pursuits in philosophy, fiction, and scriptwriting. Basically, it will allow me a virtuous way out of the relative poverty I’ve been stuck in for the past two years while my creative work can continue. I spent this afternoon in a meeting with my director, Mel, about our upcoming play, You Were My Friend.

As I polish the script over the next few days, we’re preparing for the auditions for the two parts, which will take place in a couple of Sundays. I designed the parts so that the actresses will not only have fun doing them, but be challenged and impress their audience. I wanted the characters to be crafted such that they follow an idea which I think is essential to most quality literature and drama.

One of my favourite eras of cinema is the social realist era of
the 1970s, and Five Easy Pieces was one of the best of those
films, easily the most influential on my own work.
First, they have to be neither particularly heroic nor villainous. Both of these women have virtues and flaws. One has a powerful sense of optimism and hope, a basic faith in people to be decent, despite having been kicked around by several people who were very close to her. Yet this is also her flaw, as it leaves her still vulnerable to being manipulated by others, and vulnerable to the harms that the world has in store for us all generally. One is an insightful pragmatist, able to see reality for what it truly is. But she doesn’t have the sense of hope to fight against the foregone conclusion of defeat. If they can combine their virtues properly, they’d be practically unstoppable, friends for life fighting together against a world full of petty micro-injustices. Because I’m a terrible person and I like to make people feel depressed, it doesn’t quite work out that way. They’re both the protagonists, each of their stories illuminating and colliding with the other. In that sense, they’re people.

That’s the essence of what I think of as social realism, art that articulates the singularity of human personalities and the essences of how we live today. The play itself isn’t purely realist in that I never strive for verisimilitude. There are scenes where telephone conversations that happen across town merge into the same apartment, where characters make revealing remarks in Shakespearean (or Underwoodian) asides to the audience. But the people and the world they live in are real, because they’re ours.

The characters also embody so much of the experience of my own generation in the modern world. We work hard and intelligently in difficult circumstances, but too often remain trapped in the bad situations we were in before. And all too often, we don’t really understand how it could be anything but our own fault, unable to perceive the aggregate association of individuals interacting so that so much is ruined, but it’s impossible to apportion intentional blame to anyone, even sometimes when someone actually does commit a terrible act.

But that would be spoilers. You’ll just have to see the play in November. Or audition for it – write me at the Twitter account along the side here, and you’ll get a pm back with the address to apply. I promise you’ll love it.

Resting Easy With Social Progress Stops Progress Dead, Research Time, 28/08/2014

One of the great dogmas I came across when I studied the popular culture of the 19th century West was the belief in the inevitability of progress, that we would be better, healthier, and more free simply because of the inevitable march of time. Reading Emma Goldman is an ice bucket over the head of this idea, for two reasons.

Even rich and famous women in 2014 are
demonized and critiqued in ostensibly
feminist circles for refusing to conform how
they express their sexualities to purity norms.
The most direct reason is that so much of what she yells about cover exactly the same issues and concerns in the current era that troubled the women of 1910. She writes in one essay denouncing the criminalization of prostitution about how women face a double standard because of a morality of purity in American society. Men have licence to act out their (hetero) sexual desires, which is either put down to playfulness or the healthy expression of male sexuality. Women, on the other hand, face hideous discrimination because most displays of female sexuality are interpreted in our wider culture as an inherently impure promiscuity. A young woman who expresses herself sexually is all too often seen as corrupt and vile, and she deserves any violence and material harm or dejection that comes to her as men react to this behaviour.

It was at this point that I felt like I had to check the original publication date to be sure that I was reading a book that was written in 1910. So I was. The occasional references to Theodore Roosevelt* helped clarify the time frame too.

* Her reference to the McKinley and Roosevelt presidencies could have similarly been lifted from the modern left: the Republican party, in Goldman’s words, “stands for vested rights, for imperialism, for graft, for the annihilation of every semblance of liberty. Its ideal is the oily, creepy respectability of a McKinley, and the brutal arrogance of a Roosevelt.” Substitute Romney for McKinley, and Bush or Gingrich for Roosevelt, and it could be 2012.

But Goldman’s writing offers a more philosophically intriguing argument against that necessitarian definition of progress. In another essay, this one on universal suffrage, Goldman comes out against it, but on the grounds that giving women the right to vote is laughably insufficient for genuine liberation and equality among the genders.

Much of her reasoning has to do with social practices. Merely giving women the vote will not overcome all the material economic inequalities between men and women. Women were shut out of many high-paying professions and positions of business leadership, either through authoritative prohibition or cultural taboo. Women were still disproportionately employed in low-paying industries, and additionally saddled with all the burdens of child-rearing as well as paying work. Where they did achieve equal title and responsibility with men’s positions in a workplace, they rarely received equal pay.

Are you getting confused again too? What’s the year again? Oh yes, I’m typing this on a computer.

There was a profound moral dimension to why suffrage was inadequate to genuine social progress. Apparently, many of the campaigners for universal suffrage in Goldman’s era advocated it on the grounds that the more virtuous perspective of women would result in a more just society once women had the power to participate in the political process as equals. This idea is laughable precisely because so many American women themselves had such uptight Puritanical moralities that they were just as socially conservative as the patriarchal men that dominated the country’s political class. The American Temperance Movement, a political movement that turned out to be socially disastrous in almost all its effects, was driven by middle and upper class women newly empowered by the vote.

Freedom doesn’t come with merely being able to vote in an election, as many of us have had to learn again in the first two decades of this century. If you are still trapped in a material situation that constrains you so much that you can do nothing but work and scrape by for your living, you aren’t free. But even deeper than that, you can’t be free if you still hold yourself to a morality of pettiness, resentment, and purity ideals.

Without the vote, you’re enslaved within your state. Without economic and social power, you’re materially enslaved. Without overcoming a petty, reactive morality, you’ve enslaved yourself.

There Should Be a Jailbreak II: Freedom as a Trap, Research Time, 27/08/2014

Continued from previous. . . . If she was going to stick only to the Nietzschean analysis of our drive to punishment that reveals its underlying desire for revenge, then her ideas would only be that of Nietzsche himself turned activist. The transition to political activism would itself be incomplete if a person stuck only to a Nietzschean framework for thinking. To put radically creative ideas into practice through political organizing, risking the corruption of your ideas in the ongoing whisper game of human society, you need fire.

Emma Goldman’s fire, and that of many other anarchist activists with whom she worked and who she followed, was born in the immense physical poverty of so many people. The state, police, and the classes of elite businessmen (and they were always men) who called the shots of government in her era made sure the mass of America’s population stayed poor, and were unable to lift themselves out of poverty even through starting businesses. And even though their material choices were always heavily constrained by all the circumstances and social frameworks that keep poor people poor, their poverty was always held to be their own responsibility.

This is a moment where metaphysics, which is normally a dry and serene tradition of largely useless contemplation of truths and questions that are taken to be fundamental, gains a ruthless political power. Much of Goldman’s argument in her essay on the injustice of the prison system focusses on how most crimes are crimes of necessity: the paradigm example is someone who is driven to a career as a thief or a drug dealer because no other viable options are available to him in his community, and he can find no employment elsewhere because of stigma about people from his community.

The answer to such crimes is not to punish the individual who commits them, but to ameliorate the economic and social conditions in which the individual lives, so that there are material opportunities for an honest living and an end to the prejudices in wider society that prevents people from disadvantaged communities from fully integrating with the whole country.

Namond Brice was one of the kids on The Wire who faced
a choice without freedom, locked in a community so
damaged that even his mother wanted him to deal drugs for
a living.
Very few people understand this, both in Goldman’s time and today. Instead, too many people see crime as an individual decision. If you’re a drug dealer, then it’s because you chose to be a drug dealer. It’s always your free choice. Goldman correctly identifies this as an ontological point, an idea about the fundamental nature of existence itself, given a horribly destructive political articulation. Each human being has free will: every human action is that individual’s own choice. Because we are all metaphysically free in this sense, each of us is wholly and completely responsible for our actions.

If we understand moral sanction in this way, then poverty and racial or religious discrimination is never a cause of evil activity: only the individual who commits a crime is responsible. Punishment is therefore the response to evil actions. Any recourse to environmental factors like a poverty-stricken lifestyle, discriminatory social norms, a non-existent legitimate economy, are seen as excuses. The free choice is always to do good or evil.

“You sell drugs and rob people for your living. That’s evil! You will be punished!”

“But there’s nothing else for me in my neighbourhood. Everyone I’ve ever known was either a drug dealer or a thief. My teachers never cared about our education and never even disciplined us in class. My father was killed by a police officer when I was five years old. My mother used to spend all the money she got from the government to feed me on drugs for herself. Even the nearest convenience store is two miles from my home. What else could I do but starve?”

“You always have a choice to do good or evil. You have free will. Because you did evil, you should be punished.”

“Should I let myself starve?”

Metaphysical freedom, the ostensible free will of the self-aware person, can’t trump someone’s lack of material freedom. 

There Should Be a Jailbreak I: Prison as Vengeance, Research Time, 26/08/2014

Moving forward by a few decades in my exploratory journey through the great figures of the anarchist tradition, I’ve hit across Emma Goldman, particular the book of essays she published in 1910. Anarchism as a political movement in Europe and America had taken a particularly violent turn by that point, articulating itself most notably as a series of assassinations. Self-identified anarchists had, by the time this book was released, successfully killed Czar Alexander II of Russia, King Umberto I of Italy, and American President William McKinley.

Goldman herself was hounded by the law enforcement agencies of the United States for this last assassination, even though McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, had no material connection with her. This circumstance of an intellectual leader in a movement persecuted for terrorist activities in which that leader played no part would repeat in the case of Antonio Negri’s being declared responsible for the murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro nearly eight decades after the McKinley assassination.

Emma Goldman, one of America's most
prominent anarchist activists, a woman who
should be properly legendary.
While I am thinking further about the identification of the anarchist movement with violence, and how this continued, I’d prefer to talk about another curious kind of historical repetition I found in her work. One of the essays in the collection I’m reading is about the serious need for prison reform. Goldman is intensely concerned that the prisons of America are becoming overpopulated, fed a steady diet of people who are so badly mistreated during incarceration, all in the name of punishment, that their recidivism is inevitable.

Goldman is incensed that prisoners are made to perform forced labour for which they are pathetically reimbursed, for the benefit of a corrupt collusion of state governments and contracting private enterprises. She is also extremely concerned that the state is spending such a terrible amount of money on prisons every year, a sign that the priorities of the government are severely schizophrenic at best, and outright hostile to the people it ostensibly serves at worst. The annual expenditure that worries her is $1-billion per year.

It is, to make the biggest understatement that I think I possibly could in the circumstance, a sad state of affairs that nothing has changed regarding the pathetic nature of American imprisonment. In fact, the problem has grown so terrible that it is an objective worry that the United States has become a police state in some regions, with 1% of its population currently living in prison. The problem has grown worse, but the majority still believe that incarceration is necessary.

More than this depressing analysis of a state of society that has only grown to more catastrophic proportions since then, Goldman makes a philosophical analysis as well. I’m quite impressed with how she has combined philosophical analysis with the blistering language of modern polemic. It’s a style that I think most philosophers who are interested in the political effects of their concepts should develop.

The heart of her analysis of why we all believe so deeply in the necessity of prisons lies in our need for revenge. She shares this notion with Friedrich Nietzsche, and has in other places mentioned her debt to his philosophical mind. But Goldman, whether rhetorically or sincerely, says that most people in our society have lost the nerve and fortitude to carry out an act of violent revenge ourselves. So we entrust the state to do it on our behalf, rationalizing its behaviour through the impersonal machinery of law and the excuses provided by philosophical argument.

Robert Nozick once argued that Nietzsche’s idea made little sense because one could build a concept of retributive justice that could stand on its own without having to be justified by virile desires for revenge. However, this was precisely not the point. Nietzsche’s and Goldman’s arguments are not about what can be justified. Goldman herself mocks the notion that retributive justice has its own argumentative justification as precisely missing the point about the ubiquity of the need for punishment in our own justice system.

Clayton Lockett's execution in Oklahoma unfortunately let
spectators see how much he suffered as he died. Like
cowards, we were appalled at his pain.
You can use the mechanical arguments of philosophy to justify any moral or political position. What matters politically is what actually lies at the heart of the motivation to punish. Revenge is the essence of the punishing soul which dry philosophical arguments for the rightness of retributive models of justice coldly permit. Just as most of us no longer have the stomach to pull the trigger of the gun that blows a hole in the head of the man who murdered our spouse,* most of us can no longer face that, despite all philosophical chicanery, the visceral motive of retribution and punishment is that we crave vengeance and blood.

* And we are even so squeamish that we no longer allow death penalties by firing squad or other bloody methods, but use poison gas or injections so the dying man appears more peaceful and we can believe the lie that he’s dying painlessly. That way, we can feel sanctimoniously merciful as we condone the state-sanctioned killing of a fellow citizen.

As well, Goldman identifies an aspect of the philosophical arguments and concepts that justify retributive justice that I find similarly disgusting. . . . To Be Continued.

Lessons of Darkness, Doctor Who: Deep Breath, Reviews, 25/08/2014

"Deep Breath" features an effectively creepy monster who
is polite enough not to overshadow the regulars, when the
episode properly is about them.
My girlfriend loves the new theme music. So do I. It’s a theme that harkens back to the roots of the Doctor Who theme music in the tradition of electronica, and I always found the more orchestral arrangements less effective, too bombastic for a show that works best when it sneaks up on you or snuggles into your sofa.

These aren’t going to be typical reviews of Doctor Who, where I talk specifically about the aesthetic aspects of the episode’s production and evaluate whether they succeed or fail in producing thoughtful entertainment. Doctor Who today is inevitably thoughtful entertainment (the days when the show’s own writers could believe it to be stupid are long gone). Instead, I plan on having a philosophical discussion about Doctor Who. I’ve already been published in this subject, so you can definitely consider me qualified. Each Monday or Sunday, depending on my availability to watch the episode, have a think about it, and write down my conclusions, I’ll update the blog with a discussion of some conceptual aspect of the show.

In many ways, I’m in a great deal of debt to Phil Sandifer and TARDIS Eruditorum for this idea. I consider Phil’s work to constitute literally a new era in Doctor Who fandom and scholarship, having changed irrevocably what kinds of conversation we can have about Doctor Who. He's reviewing this season himself as well, but with a different focus.

The link to his blog that I posted in my comment about condescending writers is to a particularly important post in understanding how the Steven Moffat production house has managed fan expectations about who Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will be. The recurring idea in the discourse is that Capaldi’s will be a darker Doctor, a less trustworthy Doctor. Now, Doctor Who fandom has exploded worldwide on a scale and level of popularity that the show has never seen before. But this has meant that fandom has become more internally complex than it ever was before. Specifically, there are now fans that are mostly aware of the post-2005 or post-2010 series, and there is another layer of discourse of those fans who have deep and detailed knowledge of the entire history of Doctor Who, what I’ll call expert fandom.

The Colin Baker era of Doctor Who is essentially when the
show reached such a disastrous nadir in quality that it
almost destroyed itself and deserved it.
Among expert fandom, the notion that Capaldi’s will be a darker Doctor has echoes of one of Doctor Who’s most terrifying eras, the Colin Baker era. Colin Baker, in conjunction with John Nathan-Turner, developed an idea that his Doctor would have been untrustworthy, inexpert, and kind of a dick. With a consistently solid writing staff, like what Doctor Who can draw upon in 2014, this would have made for a new take on the Doctor as a morally alien anti-hero, appropriate for the increasingly nihilistic sci-fi of the 1980s. However, the Colin Baker era actually had a writing staff who shouldn’t have been allowed near a typewriter. So we ended up with a Doctor who was a pretentious blowhard in a coat so loud it could double as a crowd control weapon, and whose relationship with his main companion embodied almost all the concepts that we today identify with rape culture.

So identifying Peter Capaldi’s Doctor with the notion of being ‘darker’ associated him with the moral disaster of the Colin Baker characterization. And we ended up with a character that very nearly went in that direction, or so we thought. At this point, I should probably include my usual tag of 


if you don’t want to read any further. Because the pivotal scene where Capaldi’s Doctor goes off the rails comes when he and Clara have been captured by the episode’s villain, a clockwork robot who’s lived on Earth for an extremely long time, cannibalizing the local organisms for spare parts in hopes of repairing his ship to return to “paradise.” The Doctor has ended up on the side of the door that lets him escape, while Clara is stuck in the room full of robots. The Doctor tries, but can’t open the door with his sonic screwdriver from his side, only Clara’s. So Clara desperately whispers for him to roll it under the small gap to her. But he doesn’t.

"Deep Breath," in both its narrative and promotion, is a
story made of mis-directions. We think the dinosaur,
because it's a bloody dinosaur in Victorian London, will
be a major part of the story, when it's really another victim.
“I might still need it.”

And he runs away. Clara then works through an escape attempt of her own, which fails, but leads her to probably the most virtuoso scene Jenna Coleman has had in her entire time playing Clara. For just a few minutes, as a viewer with knowledge of the show’s history, you wonder if they’ve gone too far again, if Capaldi’s Doctor is going to become truly unreliable, slippery, unstable, monstrous himself. Moffat suggested that there were parts of the Doctor who were too monstrous to be considered even part of Doctor Who anymore, but this ethical wound on the show and the character was healed in The Day of the Doctor.

Davies toyed with the idea of the Doctor being monstrous, but that was more in the notion of the Doctor being more of a god than a person. Even so, Davies restored the mortality of the Doctor through the inevitability of tragedy: godhood was a hubris for which the Doctor would be punished. For more analysis on this, I suggest, once more, that you turn to Phil Sandifer

But for just one moment in “Deep Breath,” we believe that the Doctor has truly lost his moral conscience, that he has left his friend to the narrow mercies of the villains. In that moment, we forget all Moffat’s talk of the Doctor being the greatest hero for our current age, all of Capaldi’s comments about how inspirational the Doctor can be in these times of war and violence all over the world. We think we’ve seen the true darkness of this character, that in the thick of trouble he would abandon even the people who are closest to him. True darkness for the Doctor is to let fear overcome him, to become cowardly.

He is the Doctor, and I quite like it, really.
Then, of course, it’s blown out of the water. The Doctor left to get the cavalry, having trusted that Clara was a solid enough adventurer that she could keep the villains from killing her long enough for him to sneak back into the robots’ hideout. In a brilliant example of the compressed narrative techniques that were perfected over the previous season, we don’t even need to see him doing it; the drama is made best as we watch Clara confront the robots, faithful that the Doctor will have her back. When we see a robot’s gloved hand grab hers as she reaches back instinctively for the Doctor, it’s terrifying. But that robot was the Doctor in disguise. 

The real ‘darkness’ comes in the final confrontation with the villain, when it’s left ambiguous whether the Doctor actually killed him. But this is territory the Doctor as a character has skirted before. The early days of Tom Baker, the few good stories when Colin Baker could get solidly menacing, Sylvester McCoy’s callously manipulative behaviour, David Tennant’s “No second chances.” 

The Doctor tells the chief robot in their last tangle that, while suicide may be against the robot's programming, murder is against his. We know the Doctor is a hero, but viewers who know the Doctor also know this to be false. The Doctor is willing to kill, and he has killed many times. Part of the moral challenge of the Doctor is that he doesn't let you rest easy in your hero worship by being perfectly virtuous in the tired Christian sense. The Doctor knows he lives in a violent universe, and he can and does respond in kind when the situation requires it. We don't know whether the robot jumped to his death or if the Doctor pushed him. In the end, it doesn't matter, because the result is what the Doctor wanted: the villain is dead. His alleged ‘darkness’ is a feint, just as much as when the Doctor seemingly abandoned Clara, a para-textual dramatic move to keep us interested, doubting ourselves and our hero.

Moffat's long experience as a sitcom writer has given him a
great skill for the witty banter that exemplifies the Doctor-
Clara relationship from the first moment they're back on a
case together.
I actually rather enjoy the new Doctor-Clara relationship. Moffat writes sarcasm extremely well, and their new interplay seems to consist of playful jabs and insults. Capaldi’s Doctor and Clara speak to each other like the stars of a screwball comedy fighting robots and Daleks. Doctor Who has explored many genres, but I don’t know that it’s ever done Preston Sturges.

This threat of the Doctor’s monstrous cowardliness was built into the show itself in dialogue with the publicity material for the show that its creators themselves shaped. While Doctor Who has always had a growing degree of meta-textualism to it (again, see the TARDIS Eruditorum, this time pretty much all of it), it’s becoming more prevalent in the show itself, and the creators are playing with it in different ways. One element of “Deep Breath” that I think I’ll see more frequently as the season plays out this Fall references to past events on the show that the audience understands, but the character doesn’t. 

Here’s my main example. During his confrontation with the chief clockwork robot, the Doctor discovers that they’re from the 51st century, a ship called the SS Marie Antoinette, sister ship to the SS Madame du Pompadour. The Doctor knows they’re of a similar vintage and model as the clockwork robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace,” but doesn’t know the precise connection. We do, because the audience of the episode knows that the ship from “The Girl in the Fireplace” was the SS Madame du Pompadour. The Doctor never saw any identifying marks on the ship in the 2006 episode, but the audience did. So these bits of information that are only meta-textually known will, I think, become more important as the season wears on. 

Unless it’s another feint of Steven Moffat’s and this is just a little game he inserted into the episode, which is entirely likely. Anyway, see you tomorrow for thoughts on American anarchist politics at the dawn of the twentieth century, and next Monday for thoughts on “Into the Dalek."

We Don’t Want Your Kind Here, A History Boy, 23/08/2014

An article made the rounds of a few of my circles on Facebook a while ago, and while it very deeply struck me, I never expected to be struck in this way by content like this. Michael Crummey, one of Newfoundland’s leading novelists, investigated the people who live in very small, ancient communities that are currently being resettled

It’s a very sad story for people who live in these communities that have existed for centuries in these isolated crags of that island, watching their hometowns disappear around them. This is actually the second wave of rural resettlement in less than a century of time. The first wave came in the years after Newfoundland joined Canada: hundreds of small, isolated communities were so physically inaccessible that the government couldn’t bring them the social services that the Canadian state mandated. So the Smallwood government evaluated which communities were the most inaccessible, then forcefully moved them to larger towns in the region.

Just pointing a camera anywhere in key neighbourhoods of
St. John's can capture remarkably beautiful images.
Crummey contrasts this experience with the modern experience, which is a voluntary resettlement born of irreparable economic decline. The province is flush with oil money. The people of Newfoundland are confident, bursting with national pride. I was actually very happy to leave when I did, as this confidence was expressing itself in a kind of arrogance. My last couple of years in Newfoundland, I felt very out of place, and I still do when I come back to the city where I grew up, even as it’s all very familiar and remarkably beautiful. The particular articulation of national pride that Newfoundlanders showed at the time, I found distasteful and tasteless. I still do. It articulated itself in a disdain for intellectual pursuits, slavishly socially conservative politics, and a worship of the oil economy with no real concern for its ecological harms and its inherently limited lifespan.

My ambivalent attitude toward my home island comes out in the stories of my A Small Man’s Town collection. Hell, it’s pretty clear just from the title. And I always had a similarly contrary attitude toward the resettlement program. I learned about the horrifying poverty and economic exploitation that many of the smallest towns in Newfoundland had lived for centuries. I was always told throughout my Newfoundland history classes in grade school that resettlement was a terrible thing that ripped people from their homes. But when your home is a place of absolute poverty and total cultural isolation, I would think you’d be glad to leave. 

So I wasn’t sure at first why reading Crummey’s article and his interviews with people in the smallest and most isolated of Newfoundland’s remaining rural communities struck me to the core. But as I was thinking about what to write about this article, I understood. The resettlements now are not mandated by a government central planner. They’re self-organized. The government gives them winks and nudges and assistance packages between $100-200,000, but the people themselves organize their own local votes. 

They see how the economic boom of the oil fields and related industries has passed them by. Expensive, haute-cuisine versions of traditional Newfoundland food is served in high-end St. John’s restaurants. Real estate prices are booming in the centre of the province’s business life, and the towns that have integrated themselves with the oil industry, either through refineries or other construction and processing business, have similarly caught fire. But small towns like Gaultois, Nipper’s Harbour, and Little Bay Islands have none of that. They’ve been told that they’re superfluous, unimportant for the new, proud Newfoundland. 

I would go absolutely stir-crazy living in any one of these tiny, isolated villages for longer than a single day. But I sympathize today with how these people feel, looking at their world and realizing that their way of life is gone. They can no longer live how they want to, and adaptation means that the place they called home for countless generations is no longer viable. The towns essentially commit suicide through a public vote.

It reminded me of the isolation and superfluousness I felt when I was leaving Newfoundland. I was an environmentalist in a province who welcomed oil companies and refineries with open arms. I was a left-wing democrat who watched Danny Williams and his cabinet of idiot yes-men take over government and enjoy levels of popular support that military dictators usually get. And even Bashar Assad still needed the secret police and institutionalized torture networks to get those poll numbers. All Danny had to do was speak in his natural accent while yelling at the federal government. I saw a culture where the work I wanted to do had no value. There was no place for a misfit writer like me. So I tried Ontario and the university sector. Had a good run there.

When I left Newfoundland, I looked around me and saw that the place where I lived no longer had a place for me. Reading Crummey’s interviews with the local people of these communities whose desires, lifestyles, and heritages were so different than mine, I saw others realizing the same thing.

One Legacy of Bakunin, Part III: Can a Revolution Come Without Guns?, Research Time, 22/08/2014

Continued from previous . . . Mikhail Bakunin’s writings are filled with admiration for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of the founding figures of the modern tradition of anarchist politics, having lived in the first half of the 19th century. But there were important differences, particularly in their lives as social and political activists, between them as well. 

Bakunin had worked hard for a better life for
the people of Europe, but achieved nothing.
It wasn’t a question of what their political goals were. Bakunin and Proudhon both thought that the ideal human society was the local community, bound together through ecological interdependency and moral obligations. They both thought the modern state was an oppressive institution. The state used mediocre-at-best popular expressions of electoral institutions to enact laws that police forces would enforce. Inter-state relations among states were chaotic collisions of interests that could tip into violence at any time, so required strong militaries for national defence. State government was heavily centralized, taking almost all autonomy of action and independence of mind away from people, their communities, and their associations. To be governed is to be told what to do by an authority that you only trusted because it was your state government.*

* After spending my doctorate at an institution that is a central research hub for contemporary North American legal theory, the tradition that follows from H. L. A. Hart, it is a relief to me to dive into these old texts of anarchist theory and see so many of that tradition’s presumptions called into serious question. I heard and read many arguments for the different ways that the authority of the state and its legal regimes were legitimately grounded. Yet I could never shake my skeptical attitude that there was no such grounding for the authority of a state other than the brute fact of its existence.

Bakunin and Proudon’s difference lay in the means by which they thought such a political order should come to pass. Proudhon advocated the creation of communities and associations of people that would stand back from the centralizing authority of the state. They would reintroduce the norms, moral systems, and ethics of voluntary associations and the neighbourliness of mutual aid at the local level, and encourage these social structures and attitudes to spread to other communities through the simple influence of social networks. 

This proliferation would eventually spread because it offered an ethically better life; a kind of lifestyle or practical political meme, if you want to call it that. You would never attain the kind of absurd wealth that too many of us dream of acquiring. There would be no lottery of capitalism catapulting you to riches on the scale of Mark Zuckerberg, Mitt Romney, or Jordan Belfort. But you would live in a vibrant community of people who would help you develop the skills you would need to help your community prosper materially and artistically. They would help you when you were sick or needy, and you would help them when they were in similar trouble. It pains me that today we see such a community as a dream for fools. But it would be a good life.

This is how I see many anarchist political movements operating today. I don’t mean the black bloc protesters at every major political gathering they can scrounge a bus ride to. I mean ordinary people forming associations of mutual aid in their communities, to grow food, manage a local business, or just to look after each other in stressful times. 

Bakunin, like many anti-Czarist radicals, spent years in
brutal penal colonies. It seems little has changed in the
Russian prison system has changed since then.
Both these men had to become revolutionaries. Bakunin was particularly dedicated to the violent overthrow of the state, himself leading several attempts before his decade of imprisonment in the cells of Czarist Russia and its wilderness penal colonies. After returning from exile, his work with the International Workingmen’s Association made him a social networker of revolution, linking revolutionaries and activists all over Europe to help each other as they each worked on the problems of their own homes and lands. 

Proudhon sought a social revolution through his grassroots organizing of new communities. Bakunin could not support this because he understood that, while state authority still existed, the militarized government would pose a threat to these experiments in living. If people lived well enough in self-organizing communities that they realized that the state was unnecessary for a good life, then the state would either be overthrown or impotent. So Bakunin chose to overthrow the state before the state could crush the new communities.

He was not successful. Neither was Proudhon. The lure of being a political authority was too much even for the revolutionary sector, who, from the dissolution of the First International, largely joined Karl Marx’s militarized, ideologically unified, authoritarian brand of revolutionary communism. The Slavic revolutionaries campaigning for freedom from Austrian and Ottoman domination didn’t want the genuine freedom of managing their own communities. They wanted their own ethnically homogeneous nation-states, or else wanted to be incorporated into Czarist Russia in the name of Slavic unity. Monarchies and bureaucracies gained power throughout Europe.

Not much has changed in the articulation of state power
since Bakunin's day either.
Bakunin, as he was slowly dying, wrote a letter to an old friend where he said that the potential for genuine social revolution in Europe had withered away over the 1870s. He thought that only a total war between the militarized state powers could awaken that potential again. “These gigantic military states must sooner or later destroy each other. But what a prospect!”

The Great War would only create the conditions for even greater destruction, and the militarized monarchies of Bakunin’s era paled in comparison to the oppressive and destructive power of the totalitarian regimes that arose in the 20th century. And nuclear weapons changed the way we thought about the necessity of war. The hostility of state-centric military powers for self-organized communities remain. We are essentially watching the military invasion of a city in the middle of the United States of America today. 

But contemporary global capitalism has changed so much, has decentralized the forces that shape the world from states and spread them around more complex networks whose hubs pay little attention even to militaries. Anarchist experiments have space to breathe again. Will projects of liberation from political and military authorities be more successful in the coming decades?

One Legacy of Bakunin, Part II: A Nation’s Dreams, Research Time, 21/08/2014

Continued from previous . . . And even at the end of his life, Bakunin didn’t have any answers. All there was, was the resignation of a dying man that he would never see the social revolution of which he dreamed. His massive network of labour organizations, the International Workingmen’s Association, was split and torn apart by the internal rifts between his own factions and those of Marx and his authoritarian followers. Meanwhile, monarchist Germany consolidated its position as Europe’s new leading economic and military power, and nationalist movements continued to sweep the continent.

Gavrilo Princip, the nationalist
revolutionary whose terrorist attack
would start the First World War.
Nationalism would come to define the politics of the following century and beyond throughout the world. Today, we often understand nationalism as an entirely negative, destructive politics. In most of its articulations, that’s true.

Mikhail Bakunin interacted with many nationalist movements throughout his political life, and his reflections on the subject at the end of his days shows his usual clarity. When I read Bakunin, his words have a directness that is rare in most philosophical writing, which is usually very detail-oriented, more often to its detriment than otherwise. Reading secondary material about Bakunin’s work, I find snide remarks from the academics who write about him, even admirably, regarding his up-front style. Kolakowski’s giant book of Marxism is a noteworthy example of this subtle derision.

But Bakunin’s direct language crafts some clear assessments and condemnations of the nationalist movements that were growing in Europe at the time. Pan-Slavism is the central object of his criticism, being a major focus of his only long-form work, the career-capping Statism and Anarchy that still remained unfinished. At the time, few Slavic peoples had nations of their own. They were almost all dominated by one of two imperial states: either the Hapsburg monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Ottoman Empire.

Pan-Slavism, in its most popular form, reached for what Bakunin rightly considered the worst form of liberation from these two empires: the expansion of Czarist Russian rule over the Slavic territories of the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary. This would simply trade one oppressive regime for another, replacing an Austrian or Ottoman monarch with a Russian one. The kind of Slavic nationalism that embraced domination by the Russian monarch was a notion defined by paternalism. 

As well as Bakunin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky diagnoses this as the pervasive corruption of the Russian character: the tyrannical authority of a father figure weighs over all people at virtually all contexts of self-understanding, individual, familial, communal, bureaucratic and national. This cultural paternalism was the villainous force underlying Dostoyevsky’s most utopian novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Slobodan Milosevic, an heir to the petty,
exclusionary nationalism that Bakunin
decried in the 1870s. We've come so far,
haven't we?
The only form of nationalism with any genuine potential to liberate is the version that recognizes the singularity of a local culture as it has developed throughout history. In this sense, a culture or a nation has a similar kind of character as an individual person, Bakunin says, and its constituent people should be free of oppressive measures to run its own affairs according to their own logic, dynamic traditions, and decisions. But this kind of nationalism can similarly (and often, or perhaps I should say usually) go horribly wrong when the people in question understand their national character in an exclusive sense. 

This is the petty kind of nationalism that defines itself by its physical and social borders, the ability to reject those who do not conform to its narrow self-definitions. We are all familiar with this brand of insular nationalism, because we’ve all grown up watching the violence and warfare it generates when such a movement takes control of a state apparatus, or even just enough guns to cause trouble. We’ve seen petty nationalisms do violence to minorities in the name of cultural purity, the exclusive definition of community. It’s in the suffering of the Jews, Roma, Albanians, Muslims, African immigrants. The topical term for it is ethnic cleansing.

The petty, superficial definitions of what it means to be of a particular nationality take precedence over what should be a person’s most important expressions of nationhood. The nationalism of brotherhood, of expressing one cultural history as a singular voice in a diverse world of equally unique and therefore valuable social characters, is the nationalism of friendly pride that motivates peace and freedom. Its rarity is another way Bakunin would remain a disappointed man. What could be done? To be continued. . . 

One Legacy of Bakunin, Part I: The Only Self-Justifying Government, Research Time, 20/08/2014

I finished reading the collection of Mikhail Bakunin essays that I had been working on for the last while yesterday, and the chapters excerpted from his unfinished book Statism and Anarchy were remarkably insightful for both his own time and ours. The immediate discussion of the book was his critique of the pan-Slavist movement that was gaining popularity in the last years of his life, the 1870s, but his concepts apply to all utopian anarchist thinking.

Again, this has turned out to be essential for my Utopias book. As of now, the basic structure has a rough sketch: the materialist utopianism that would overcome humanity’s weaknesses to create a totally mechanistic man receives an antidote in the Spinoza-Bergson-Deleuze-dynamism tradition of scientific metaphysics, and the socio-political manifestation of this scientific tradition is an anarchist mode of organizing ourselves. 

One thing that impressed me was how some of the anarchist political philosophy that I’ve read that dated more than a century after his death are essentially just catching up to Bakunin. This March, I read a monograph by Robert Paul Wolff from the 1970s, an argument for why anarchism is the only democratically legitimate form of government. He spends 80 pages arguing against the conceptions of the methods of how a representative assembly secures democratic legitimacy to act on behalf of its voters, ultimately concluding that such representative legitimacy is impossible.

Bakunin explains this in a single paragraph, then uses this notion as a premise in a much larger argument against his contemporary enemies, the authoritarian communist movement of Karl Marx that had just taken over the First International from anarchist leadership at their Hague conference in 1872. Marx’s communism as a revolutionary political movement had the essential goal to wrest control of the state from the current ruling classes and invest it in the intellectual proletarians and scientists who would manage society and the economy through a comprehensive dictatorship. 

I don't have Stalinist Russia in mind here, a case more of
pure totalitarianism than elite rule. Better examples of
Marxist states that replaced an old elite with an elite of
Communist Party bureaucrats are the petty states of the
Eastern bloc, like Czechoslovakia.
In this, the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and Alain Badiou surpassed Marx, at least as a revolutionary political activist: to seize state power would simply recast you as a new elite, and all you will have done is destroy an old elite so you could replace them yourself as the new oppressors of the masses. A revolution worth being called such would actually reorganize society so that the state itself did not have to exist. The ideological uniformity that Marx instituted throughout the First International after the Hague conference is another symptom. The state, just like the networks of the First International under Marx’s control, is a means to enforce uniformity of thought, word, and action. All the different models of the state government only truly differ in terms of what the moral and political values of the elite are and how that elite justifies its rule. This would have been true under a Marxist state, as indeed it was.

The anarchist idea is that people and communities should have the power to develop their own frameworks of thought in a dynamic relationship to their local conditions. All these diverse localities would work together in voluntary associations for larger political, social, economic, and ecological goals in common. 

The question for an anarchist political movement is how you manage to make this total revolution in all of a society’s ideas about how to organize itself actually happen. To be continued . . . 

A Stationary War Machine: When Men Become Weapons, Research Time, 19/08/2014

Race riots are so 1960s. The very concept almost feels like a dinosaur, an idea we thought had gone extinct. No one ever said this about the conflict on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. But that’s what it is. A race riot.

A young man is murdered and a neighbourhood
explodes. All too common in America today. Once is
too often.
Yet it is also more than a race riot. Ferguson is different from previous conflicts between a racialized group and wider society because the violence we’ve seen in that city was purposely stoked by police actions. Protests of Trayvon Martin’s killing at the hands of a Neighbourhood Watch member in Florida two years ago did not mutate into violent riots that destroyed communities and infrastructure. Protests of Mike Brown’s killing at the hands of a police officer did. 

It is obvious what the material difference is. When the St. Louis County police confronted the protesters, they were wearing camo gear, carrying military-grade assault rifles, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. When the Missouri Highway Patrol accompanied the protesters, they were wearing ordinary blue and black police uniforms, and the largest gun they carried was their standard sidearm. Those protests were peaceful affairs that saw a more ethnically-integrated police force marching in tandem with an outraged people, many even sharing their pain and outrage. 

This moment of calm would not last. I doubt even the most optimistic residents of Ferguson suspected it would.* Very little trust seems to have existed between the people of Ferguson and their law enforcement officials. In a city where the revenue of police departments depend on their harassing residents for parking and driving tickets, it combines with tensions between a virtually all-white force (the number of non-white officers so low as to be statistically insignificant) to create a social environment of institutionalized predation. 

* However, I don’t exactly have the funds as an independent journalist barely managing to restart this section of his career to travel to Missouri to speak with the city’s residents. If anyone wants to offer me those funds, I would not waste them.

This is even without factoring the validity of mounting anecdotal evidence of profit-free police harassment of black residents and the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old. This is even without the contemptible indignity of trying to criminalize Mike Brown with the claim that he was an armed robbery suspect at the time of his murder, a charge which even the owner of the store refutes, and which the officer who killed him didn’t know anyway. Last time I checked, petty theft wasn’t an offence warranting summary execution in Missouri.

Still, within days after peace was restored to the protests, looting and violence began again, and Missouri governor Jay Nixon has invoked emergency powers to assign a curfew to the entire city, essentially imprisoning its population as an act of collective punishment. The National Guard, the United States’ actual domestic armed forces, is now enforcing the curfew in the city. Violence continues. 
• • •
But the phenomenon of Ferguson is more complex than high-grade enormous weapons simply “going to someone’s head” in the words of America’s new national conscience Jon Oliver. A person’s self-conception is rarely dominated by an image that he would recognize as fully human. We are processes more than static bodies, and our understandings shift as readily as our states of being. Ta’Nehisi Coates discusses in The Atlantic the power that American police forces have typically held over black people’s bodies in the country’s history. 

Mapping is an act of definition,
labelling, ranking.
But the militarization of the police doesn’t just affect black bodies. It transforms men into weapons. Police officers do not simply become enforcers of the law when they don the uniform. They also become agents of the state, and this is a decision with profound dangers. The state is an institution that striates society, organizing it into clearly mapped coordinates. These coordinates are not simple locations, but can carry complex identifying marks. These are the marks of hierarchy, the marks by which one knows one’s place in the state order.

Perhaps Coates would call them the marks on black bodies over the centuries: the scars of whips, the burns of plantation brands, rope burns along the neck, even the haphazard scars of a billy club assault, or the pink and red craters of a rubber bullet entering the thigh or the abdomen. Rank order can be instituted through the honesty of direct violence, but more often it is done through the personality-free institution of bureaucratic rules. The state, in the name of the people, provides services for human welfare, and possibly even flourishing. But to claim them, one must become a number in the complex system of dispersing those goods. 

Your social lifelines through your state are given or revoked not by the bureaucrat himself; that poor man is only a functionary, and often is sincerely sorry for the hardship he must bestow. The bureaucratic rules themselves define what the institution does. Will the taxpayers subsidize the police? Or will it be the hunt for parking and speeding violators? Which burden is more vulnerable to corruption by old prejudices? I think that much is clear. Driving While Black is the offence so common that it became a joke.

If the policeman becomes the tool of striation, part of a machine that organizes society by enforcing rank, then the militarization of the modern American police department introduces a strange new element to this dynamic. The last 20 years have seen the American military adapt its arsenal to desert warfare. The desert is a smooth space where a destructive force can move like lightning.** Massive metal bodies can shoot across these spaces, moving almost like pure destructive energy.

** The analogy can be coincidental if you’re me, or intentional if you prefer to think in echoes of devils.

We saw it in America’s two invasions of Iraq. We can see it today in the explosion of the Islamic State through the countryside of eastern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. Only in the cities and the mountains can these armies genuinely encounter resistance. Even then, the resistance must be dedicated to the prospect of extreme casualties, willing to scorch its own earth to drive the invaders away.

These forces were unleashed upon Ferguson, without even the modicum of self-consciousness lying in the discipline of the military infantryman never to point his rifle as a default stance. Even in a war machine as powerful as lightning, these checks of small mercies exist. Not so for the undertrained war machine let loose in Ferguson. The application of machines whose purpose is to destroy countries on a city full of barely armed protesters destroys inescapably. The war machines typically set loose in the desert abandon their targets as quickly as they attack, always moving on to the next. Unlike the desert, the city of Ferguson experiences wave after wave, because the material components of warfare in smooth spaces have been given to the apparatus of the state, and so focussed intently on a single place.

For more detail on these concepts of striated
space and the war machine, read 1000 Plateaus,
chapters 14, 12, and 13.
One of the sick advantages of bureaucracy as a means of oppression is that it encourages docility. The pain is so slow to inflict that its daily dose is never more than an annoyance. The power of a weaponized people – the St. Louis County police and the Missouri National Guard – provokes explosions in reaction. Old-fashioned moral categories of blameworthiness cannot really be applied here. The population of Ferguson have become victims of rapid violence. Self-consciousness and self-control shattered, rage at these latest blatant injustices fuel action. 

Police, too, have become little more than machines channelling the violence of their armour and vehicles, and the destructive racism of their anger. When given permission to explode, the explosion occurs across all dimensions of their existence. A blaze fuels its own rampage on air alone, and this last week of violence has turned people into fires.