The Real and the Most Real, You Were My Friend, 31/10/2014

A brief post today, a further elaboration on some of the ideas in You Were My Friend (for which tickets are available). It’s relatively spoiler-free, but even these spoilers won’t really be such, because all I’m going to describe of them is that they exist, not precisely how or why the scenes shift as they do. 

Throughout, You Were My Friend is what I’d call a social realist piece of theatre. I mean it’s social realist in the sense that I learned about it from Phil Sandifer, after whose lesson on the landmark BBC tv-movie Cathy Come Home, I realized applied to a lot of my favourite old movies: Five Easy Pieces, MASH, The Passenger. My own production is deeply political, and finds its profundity in the small scales. It’s about two women living in an apartment overlooking Kensington. All scenes but one take place in that single apartment. 

The pressures that drive them throughout the narrative are utterly ordinary, and exactly what drives most of us to distraction. They have hostile or passive-aggressive relationships with their families. They experience crises of confidence as their careers face roadblocks or stall out completely. They undergo the pressure of having to pay the same or rising bills at a time when they have less and less money. 

That’s what social realism is about. In Phil’s words from his Cathy Come Home post in 2011, “The point of social realism is simple. It’s out and out politicized art. You do social realism because you want to get people to change something about the way they live their lives.” Social realist storytelling conventions let us experience a person’s life in such a more intense way than we usually do, because it’s packed into, in the case of You Were My Friend, only about 80 minutes.

That intensity of a sympathetic example of someone whose life circumstances are very different from yours can achieve the political purpose of helping you understand such a person better than you otherwise could. Some reactions to learning that a person is stuck in a crap job is, “Well, they should get a better job!” But that idea doesn’t take seriously the idea that you can’t.

As well, when a person is lulled into an attitude of accepting a realistic portrayal of life on stage, seeing that shift into a hyper-real mode is especially jarring, unsettling. This is what we spent a lot of time on during the technical rehearsal tonight: getting the transition from the social realist mode of lighting and on-stage movement to a more meta-fictional dreamscape that directly involves the audience in the characters’ existences. It’s a step beyond the social realism that encourages sympathy, and into a mode of theatrical storytelling that actually takes the audience directly into the experience of the characters. 

This November Is My Most Ambitious Month, You Were My Friend, 29/10/2014

In a week, I officially become a playwright. I’ve written scripts, stories, blog posts, and ideas about a lot of things. But for the past month, I’ve been working with two brilliant actresses speaking the words that I’ve written. I’ve been working with an insightful and skilled director, and a dedicated and creative crew. You Were My Friend debuts in eight days. Shameless plug: Advance tickets are available.

So on November 7, we’ll see whether this career as a playwright really has any legs. I thought that today, I’d run through some of my major themes in a spoiler-free manner, to provide an easy reference point as I convince influential figures in the arts communities of Hamilton, Toronto, and the cities around and in between, to come support what is a socially, politically, and ethically valuable work of theatre. 

Hannah Ziss plays Madison, Samantha Nemeth plays
Vicki, and Mel Aravena the director took the photo. I'm
the writer. None of them would be here without me.
Probably the most important theme in the play is, and I know I’ll sound corny writing this but it’s true, the power of friendship. Vicki and Madison are two roommates in a dingy apartment in Kensington, a neighbourhood that attracts tourists from all over the world to see an authentic part of traditional Toronto life. But it’s also a neighbourhood with a lot of poverty, even as it sits among some of the most expensive property in one of Canada’s most expensive cities. 

They’re both working jobs that barely let them live with a reasonable level of dignity and self-respect for a human being. Madison is an underpaid office monkey in her mid-20s, facing the creeping anxiety that she’ll soon be made redundant. The type of work she’s done for years is being squeezed out of relevance from the contemporary business world, and a stagnating economy at the level of working people prevents her from feeling secure in her career and her income.

Vicki is in an even worse situation. The play starts as she meets and moves into Madison’s spare room. Even this mediocre futon in a room little bigger than a closet is a better deal than she was in before. She was barely old enough to drink legally, but she was homeless, kicked out of her mother’s house over crap decisions she made in her sex life. She spends the rest of the play working waitressing jobs where the customers (and occasionally the bosses) degrade and proposition her. But these are the only jobs she can find, and she’s unable even to get a loan to go to school until she’s eventually able to qualify as a mature student. 

The only bulwark against a world that’s continually wearing them down is their friendship, and their ability to talk through each other’s problems. But even this is tested eventually, as poor decisions and flashes of anger keep them from listening to each other at pivotal moments.

Vicki and Madison are stronger together than they are apart, as are we all. We’re stronger when we help each other, when we communicate well enough to build a strategy to overcome our obstacles, or at least better withstand the more powerful shocks and economic currents that would otherwise capsize us monetarily and psychologically. This is a message that people in an age of the valorization of pure individualism need to hear, and not didactically but demonstratively.

We are not alone. Or at least we need not be alone as we face currents that can swamp us, and we should not be alone. But it’s our own responsibility to reach out and end our self-destructive isolation. That itself requires strength.

It’s easier to walk away from anything than to maintain it in the face of difficulty. Here’s where what I consider the Nietzschean themes enter the dynamic of You Were My Friend. The most destructive force in the play isn’t the economy that’s ruining Madison’s career before it can even really get started, and it isn’t the morality of female purity that put Vicki out on the street. 

The narrative's most destructive force is the personal weakness that makes running away from problems and leaving our friendships, commitments, and promises behind easier than building the relationships that can overcome material adversity. You Were My Friend isn’t just a comedy of poverty (even though it’s hilarious), an actors' showcase (even though our cast is brilliant) or a tragedy of failure (even though I dare you not to cry by the end). It’s a challenge to my whole generation not to fall for the mug’s game that says it’s better to be an individual free from constraint than a person who’s empowered by what they give to others (call this the Spinozist theme).

If you want your work to make an impact, you have to think big about it. I’m talking Tunguska big; talking “I want an Ibsen Prize in the 2040s” big. Write with ambition.

Thinking the Divine I: Pushing The Limits of Understanding, Research Time, 28/10/2014

This weekend, I started diving into Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the radical political-religious work of philosophy with probably the coolest-sounding name in the Western tradition. I’m still going through the early chapters and weeding out some of the fascinating philosophical ideas from the scriptural analysis. 

Cornelius de Witt, along with his brother Jan,
were the republican rulers of Holland and close
friends of Benedict Spinoza. They were
considered dangerous radicals in 1600s Europe
for ruling Holland as a country without a king.
The House of Orange eventually overthrew
them, murdering the de Witt brothers and
many figures in their government, forcing
their supporters like Spinoza into internal exile.
I can definitely understand why TTP was so provocative in the 1600s; just what I’d expect from a radical anti-monarchist in that era. Benedict, I’d say you’re a man after my own heart, but you’ve pretty much got it already. His argument in these early chapters is essentially against Biblical literalism, an argument that many devout people in my own era need to hear and take seriously. At first, it sounds like an argument against religious belief, but it’s actually a very pious perspective: how the divine manifests to us depends on our ability to understand God.

We’ll never be able to form a genuinely adequate understanding of God. In a Spinozist perspective, humans only consist of two attributes of the divine, thought and matter, so can only understand divinity in these contexts, not any of the infinite other ones, whatever they might be. But our ability to understand divinity can improve with our intellectual abilities. Basically, as we better understand the fundamental structure of the world, we are capable of a more nuanced understanding of the divinity whose expression is reality.

Spinoza describes the early tales of Exodus, particularly the intellectual capacities of the Hebrew tribes of the time. We shouldn’t be too impressed. They had such a difficult time grasping the basic idea that their god could be immaterial that as soon as their main prophet Moses too an extended break from shouting laws at them for some sustained transcription with the divine presence, they all freaked and started dancing around a cow statue.*

* I think if I had learned religion through descriptions like this, I’d have been a more dedicated believer. Still wouldn’t have been able to take Christianity, though. I’d probably just have figured out that I felt most comfortable with Jewish theology a little sooner than I have.

Why would you freak, Hebrew masses? asked Spinoza, if he had been able to get into outdated hip-hop slang. Because their society hadn’t yet developed a ubiquitous intellectual and educational capacity to understand a God that wasn’t incarnate (let alone substance itself) and a morality that didn’t have a basis in an authority analogous to a king. Only a simpleton, relatively speaking, goes this line of thought, is moral from fear of divine retribution if you slip up. Only a fool believes that the basis of morality is your people’s god barking orders at you.

But if this is all you can believe in, then this is the best understanding you can come to of the divine: a giant policeman in the sky who’ll beat you senseless for all eternity with a transcendent billy club if you don’t follow his orders.** Spinoza spends the early chapters of TTP arguing very well against this juvenile conception of religion and morality. A more advanced understanding of morality behaves ethically for its immanent, worldly benefits: a peaceful society of free people who help each other when they’re in need. 

** This idea that how God manifests to you depends on your intellectual and ethical capacity to understand divinity is actually fairly common in more contemporary Talmudic scholarship. I don't know enough of the history of the scholarship to know if it was specifically an eventual reaction to the critiques of Spinoza in the TTP. I first learned this in my mid-20s from my friend Arnold Bennett, a retired documentary filmmaker who lived just outside St. John's, and who I knew through Jockey Club, the regular discussion group of Memorial University's philosophy department. Arnold regularly got into arguments with the local rabbi at the synagogue in St. John's over theological matters like these, but he knew his Talmud to a comparable level through independent study. He died nearly four years ago now, while visiting his family in Washington DC.

We are sorely in need of this kind of behaviour today, and Spinoza’s approach to ethics, integrating ethical improvement with improvement of how you understand the physical world, is especially important in our modern world. I’m thinking especially of the conflicts of the contemporary feminist movements, particularly the #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen debates on our social media platforms, and the hideousness of #Gamergate. To be continued . . .

They Aren’t the Villains This Time, Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night, Reviews, 26/10/2014

It took me a while to get around to seeing it this time, but In the Forest of the Night was well worth the wait. It was a remarkable Doctor Who story, not just because it finally had a child cast written by someone who actually knows how to write children properly. Myself, I’m a pretty big egomaniac when it comes to my own writing talents, but one task that I definitely have no idea how to do is write a child well. 

Danny Pink does a proper job of thinking of the children.
I know how to write a child badly. One way is to make them an idiot. Another is to make them so precocious that you want to smash their favourite toy just to laugh while they cry. Children don’t have quite the same singularity as adults because they haven’t yet learned how to speak with subtext yet. I think this is why real-life adolescents are especially insufferable; they’ve started incorporating multiple meanings into their speech, but are still largely terrible at it, so I cringe at their poor performance at covering up how horrible they are.

Children, on the other hand, have a special way of bullshitting that’s almost an anti-cover-up, as in a brief little comedy flashback when Danny and Clara discuss how remarkable it is that their students are not being twats in this very strange situation of a forest that’s grown up in the middle of London overnight. When Danny draws a triangle on a whiteboard, indicates an angle with an X and asks Ruby (appropriately cast as a ginger), she tells him that it’s right there at the top of the triangle on the board.

“But what’s its value, Ruby?” asks Mr. Pink.

“Why are you always asking me, sir?” pleads Ruby.

Frank Cottrell Boyce clearly knows how to write children, and I think he should be the go-to writer whenever Doctor Who needs any character under age 12. He’s written both the novel and the screenplay of Millions, as well as three sequels to the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang children’s novel that have actually been artistically successful. It’s a rare feat. 

But aside from his ability to craft multiple child characters in a single story who are not only non-obnoxious but also genuinely interesting, Boyce has made a wonderfully hopeful ecological fable in Doctor Who, which,


aside, is both a fantastically insightful tale as well as being fantastically naive. I’m on something of a home field here, as I wrote an entire doctoral thesis (under consideration for formal publication) on ecological philosophy. I describe it this way, and not as environmental ethics, because the scope of my Ecophilosophy manuscript is actually broad enough to constitute a complete philosophical perspective on how human society can adapt ecological principles to its structure and daily habits. 

In academic philosophy, writing on the environment means writing environmental moral philosophy, applying the existing moral theories of the philosophical tradition to questions of how to deal with human industry and environmental protection. There are moral principles in my Ecophilosophy manuscript, but the main thrust is adapting principles from the ecological and biological sciences (following the lead of several writers who had done so already) into the framework of the philosophical tradition to build a framework of human nature and self-conception that would result in ecologically sustainable habits on a personal and civilizational scale. 

Another theme I like this season is how frequently the
Doctor has been interacting with children, foregrounding
his importance as a mythical children's hero, even in a
season whose stories have a much more adult sensibility
thanks to their horror content.
In the Forest of the Night is about a forest that appears worldwide overnight, and the narrative follows the Doctor, Clara, Danny, a very special child named Maebh, and the rest of the gifted class from Coal Hill School figuring out what precisely is going on. Eventually, they’re able to figure out that the voices Maebh hears isn’t genuinely a sign of mental abnormality, but a burgeoning telepathic ability.*

* Some of the comments at Phil Sandifer’s review of this episode get into the controversy that the story seems to actively discourage children with mental illnesses from taking their medication. I don’t know what it’s like in Britain, but it’s common in North America to give heavy sedatives to two-year-olds to control hyperactivity. The last couple of generations of children are, if anything, over-medicated to the point of worn-out teachers, overbooked doctors, and overworked parents making them drug addicts before the start of puberty. Doctor Who is a modern myth for our society, through which we deal with major social questions through allegory. This was largely an ecological story, but we can have a behavioural-pharmacological theme running under it as well (if any show can have two allegories running under it, it’s one where the lead has two hearts ;) ). I had behavioural difficulties of my own as a child, particularly a short temper that would lash out whenever I felt afraid, and being very easily frightened that other people were going to hurt me. My mother had the good sense to avoid following the orders of doctors whose first instinct was to reach for their prescription pad before even meeting me. My problems were better solved with cognitive behavioural therapy to improve my consciousness of my own desires, urges, and thought processes. That, however, took the time and effort of a caring and sensitive child psychiatrist, which is too often too much for anyone to commit to.

This telepathic ability is that Maebh can communicate with trees. In the mythical context in which the imagery of the story places us, this is the ability to communicate with the world of faerie. But in the more scientific context in which I understand our mythical narratives, she can literally communicate with trees. 

After all, Doctor Who has always been about awakening
children to the wonders of the strange, so that we never
rest content with a world that feels familiar to us. If we're
never afraid of what's different, we'll be open to
understanding the alien, an epistemic issue on which
the future of our species could very well depend, and . . .
Wait, did I get the wrong picture again? Well, at least
this mistake was easier to make.
Our era’s ecological crisis is, in a fashion, a failure to communicate, or rather a failure to understand the ubiquity of communication. If I can be extremely quick in this argument, one of the ideas I dealt with in my Ecophilosophy manuscript was an underlying principle of systems theory. The mathematical models of systems theory are excellent at describing ecological relationships, because ecological processes are the interactions of multiple overlapping feedback loops at a variety of scales, all affecting each other in unique ways. 

However, the only things that can move back and forth between bodies in systems theoretical models are affects, and the influential philosopher of systems theory, Niklas Luhmann, therefore concluded that there is no true communication among bodies. This is because affects can have no content, only form, that form being a pattern of disruption across various media.**

** I should give props to a wonderful essay by Carey Wolfe for explaining this notion quite clearly, and connecting it with core themes of nihilistic post-modernism that are essential to the early work of Jacques Derrida. I disagree with it completely in the larger sense, but this only helped me solidify my own interpretation of the general post-modern paradigm, as a split between the hopeless nihilism of Derrida and the joyful perspective of Gilles Deleuze.

However, as anyone familiar with information theory or the most profound ideas in contemporary philosophy of language can tell you, form IS content. To communicate is to send a particular pattern of fluctuations across some medium, and have it transition to another medium while keeping the pattern intact. Thought or language is the recognition and interpretation of such patterns. A given pattern doesn’t have content or not in itself alone; it has content if an interpreter of that pattern can make sense of it. So content emerges from the relation of interpreters and media. 

The core lesson of In the Forest of the Night is that we
shouldn't run from what's strange and frightening (no
matter how central running is to Doctor Who), because
listening to what is beyond our knowledge and learning to
understand it could save our lives.
The core human mistake we’ve made that got us into this ecological crisis is that too many of us only know how to understand human language, and every other kind of pattern transmission among bodies, we take to be a mere affect. The Doctor begins to solve the problem of In the Forest of the Night when he realizes that Maebh can understand the patterns transmitted among plants. In the scene in the glowing glen, the Doctor is able to translate the plants’ patterns into human speech.

If only it were that easy to understand the lives of all the other organisms and ecosystems on our planet, we’d live in a much more harmonious, clean, and just world. 

Humanity is lucky In the Forest of the Night, because this time, the trees are here to save our ecosystems from dangerous solar activity. The sun brings life, because it supplies Earth with the energy to produce metabolisms and ecosystems, but it brings death because it’s also an enormous ball of nuclear fusion explosions. The trees are giving us a chance not to destroy our own world with our stupid, short-sighted thinking that can't understand ecological relationships, as when David Cameron orders all the trees burned down instead of trying to understand what happened.

And we forget because we humans are stupid, and so few of us know how to communicate with anything but what’s already just like us. It’s hard enough to get people to learn a second human language, let alone speak with trees. Communication is simply finding new ways to understand all the transmissions that surround us all the time. 

As the Doctor says, if we remembered that, there would be no war and no injustice. But we forget to probe what we can do, and instead rest stupidly content with what we already know, as if that’s all that’s worth knowing.

In the Forest of the Night. A classic.

Peace Is the Only Answer, 24/10/2014

My own political beliefs exist at a curious point, relative to many people I know. My thoughts on Wednesday's attack in Ottawa demonstrate that more clearly than anything else (even my contrarian focus on violent attacks on innocent Jewish people around the world during Operation Protective Edge). What I had been afraid was the case turned out to be so, and I think some of my earlier predictions seem to have come true.

In his reaction to the violence, Prime Minister Harper hinted that he would speed up and perhaps also strengthen legislation he had planned to give Canadian police and military even more powers to spy on citizens with impunity and restrict people’s movements, as well as expanding our role in extraordinary rendition (yes, this practice continues) and collusion with foreign security agencies who torture prisoners. It’s exactly the wrong reaction to take, simply doubling down on universal surveillance and expanding police powers, treating citizens as suspects. 

Yet my country’s houses of parliament now have bullet holes in them. It makes sense for there to be more armed guards in Canada’s centre of government to help protect elected and institutional officials. But further expanding and empowering a security apparatus (let alone also doubling down on a dodgy military intervention in a war whose sides are fractally sectarian) is not a rational response to a serious incident like this. Our security politics should be much more nuanced than this if we are to preserve the fundamental elements of personal freedom that our democratic culture needs.

While the attack was a shock, it did not come from nowhere. The perpetrator, Michael Zehaf Bibeau, was in all the usual parameters, a lone wolf spree killer: a man with a troubled past, few if any prospects for a dignified life, and severe bouts of mental illness, he developed a violent fixation and eventually acted on it. Complicating matters was the content of his fixation, as he had apparently planned to join ISIS. He had gone to Ottawa for a passport to travel to the Middle East, becoming one of several Canadians who had already joined that army. 

A lone madman, or a terrorist acting on the Caliphate’s call to arms? Apparently, Zehaf-Bibeau was both. As a personality, we should be able to dismiss him as an isolated madman. But he was not isolated; the politics of our era spurred him to unforgivable violence. 

American commentators discuss Canada’s “loss of innocence.” But as my old friend from university and current QMI reporter Sheena Goodyear wrote, Canada isn’t exactly innocent. Although such shocking violence is a more rare affair in Canada than the United States, we do suffer from it: the Air India bombing, the Montréal Massacre (an event explicitly evoked in a recent threat of mass violence against a video game critic in Utah), a school shooting in Alberta, Mayerthorpe, and a gunman running amok in Moncton this year. 

The real lack of innocence that concerns me is the tendency on the left, in the name of anti-imperialism, to imply that attacks against Western centres of political power are justified, or at least that we have it coming. I am against Western intervention in the war against ISIS, largely because our armies don’t do anything in Middle East conflicts except make a horrifyingly complex and deadly war even worse. 

What is now ISIS was once the most hardcore element of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that arose to fight the United States’ military occupation of that country, an occupation that was defined by incompetence by state armies and horrifying acts of abuse, violence, and murder of the civilian population by mercenary armies (that is, Blackwater) for which none have ever been called to account on returning to America. 

Our current behaviour is little better: our drone strikes, to take the most outrageous single example, are so frequent in some areas of Yemen and Pakistan that we’ve made children afraid of blue skies. A drone strike is empirically a horrifying and scarring experience. They fly too high to see and their missiles travel too fast for any sign to reach you before impact. You may just be standing by a shopping centre talking with your friend about a local sports team, or an annoying mutual friend. Then the shopping centre explodes, and you’re perforated with shrapnel of metal, stone, and flesh. This violence must end.

However, we aren’t imperialists anymore. Canada and the United States individually use their state security and intelligence institutions to interfere and meddle in the politics of other countries for our own vague interests (usually resulting in direct harm to whatever interests on whose behalf we were interfering). We’re condescending, idiotic, meddling stumblers incapable of the self-reflection at the level of our political leadership necessary to start untangling ourselves from the webs of international military violence into which we’ve fallen. 

We are trapped in a situation of quid pro quo, tit for tat, and any other suggestively named exchange of smacks you care to think of. Western powers have been interfering with territories, nations, and countries predominantly inhabited by Muslims for centuries, ever since European foreign policies consisted of actually invading and conquering these lands. Resistance to the violence and racism of actual state-centric colonialism of conquest has extended to the faux-colonialism of military meddling and institutionalizing economic unfairnesses. 

The character of exploitation has changed radically: not enough people on the radical left understand this shift (from what Edward Said would call imperialism to what Antonio Negri calls empire). The decentralized global economy behaves more like a network than ever before, as Westphalian-model biopolitical states no longer exclusively dominate political activity. They are powerful, but only one type of actor in a more level (and therefore more chaotic) playing field. 

To think as though states are the only actors in the networks of oppression in which our people and individual soldiers are ensnared is inadequate to the situation. Most importantly from my perspective, it lets ISIS (as well as Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Iranian government, etc) off the hook without moral accountability. Too much discourse on the radical left is afraid to make the most radical step and denounce all violence. The legacy of colonialism forces us to admit that violent revolution is inevitable in the overthrow of an oppressive regime. The revered Nelson Mandela had people necklaced, you know. 

But we can’t take a one-sided view, in dissent, of a conflict, as too much rhetoric allows. The fact that we have to defend ourselves as merely trying to understand the motives of our enemies instead of actually sympathizing with them betrays not only how anything short of bloodthirsty patriotism in response to acts like the would-be massacre that murdered only Nathan Cirillo is perceived in the wider culture, but how we dissenters understand ourselves. 

Framing all violent resistance to the horrific acts of Western state militaries lets all revolutionaries claim the same nobility that few deserve. In opposing the military violence of our own countries, and focussing exclusively in arguing against our own leaders, we commit the ethical lapse of granting explicitly genocidal groups like ISIS or Hamas moral high ground by omission from our accusatory gazes.

There is only one ethically and morally sane way out of this conundrum. It’s the most radically idealistic, utterly insane and impractical stance of all. It’s the only one I can take in good conscience. I’ll sound stupid, naïve, like a babbling political idiot. I’d have said the same thing myself about this sentiment ten years ago. In fact, I did. But now, it’s all I can say.

End all this violence. Everyone. Now.

Some of the Usual Suspects, Research Time, 23/10/2014

This is not Éric Alliez, Claire Colebrook, Peter Hallward, Nicholas Thoburn, and Jeremy Gilbert.
Many months ago, my friend T alerted me to the existence of a pdf.* It was a copy of a book chapter, a round-table interview between five scholars of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (among other things).

* You might wonder why I have nothing to say on this blog about the shooting yesterday in Ottawa on the grounds of my country’s house of federal government. Well, it’s because the situation is ongoing, and I want to wait until the full shape of the fallout is known before I make any public pronouncements. I have my unfortunate expectations (ie. increased security and lockdowns on government, permanent restrictions on the movement of citizens in their own capitol buildings and the wider downtown area).

The eccentric-appearing philosopher Éric Alliez.
Éric Alliez is a prominent scholar of Deleuze, and the co-author of The Guattari Effect, a book which I don’t own, but would like to, that explores the impact of Félix Guattari on changing many important elements of Deleuze’s thought; Alliez’s argument is that his collaboration with Guattari made Deleuze the revolutionary thinker he became, and kept him from getting bogged down in structuralism. 

This is a notion that I came to myself independently, as I reflected on the change of character that Deleuze’s work underwent during and after his collaboration period in the 1970s. It’s another reason why I’m glad I didn’t specialize in producing secondary material: there are so many of us that we all have similar interpretive ideas and have to contort ourselves into absurd shapes just to provide original points of view. I’d much rather use Deleuze and Guattari’s (and Alliez’s) ideas to discuss political and social issues rather than produce commentaries on the primary writers.

Claire Colebrook
Claire Colebrook has written many books on Gilles Deleuze, including multiple introductions to his thought, none of which I have read because I’ve always preferred primary material to books aiming to simplify it. I’ve been suspicious toward such books precisely because complexity of expression is part of what makes philosophy interesting. The titles of her books amuse me, though: Gilles Deleuze, Understanding Deleuze, and my favourite Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed

Throughout this roundtable debate, I find myself sympathizing most with her argument, as she articulates clearly the political power of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy: not only do they help understand why people develop subjectivities that desire their own political and economic repression, but they analyze better than anyone else I’ve encountered how social movements can arise spontaneously from communication affects across long distances and among disparate people. Colebrook explicitly aligns Deleuze and Guattari just as I do: as the foundational figures of modern network politics.

Colebrook has also written a book called William Blake and Digital Aesthetics. Phil Sandifer's influence has gotten me more interested in Blake over the last couple of years, and I think this book might be worth delving into. It's entirely possible that Phil has already explored this book, and he can let me know how it turns out.

I do not like the work of Peter
The participant I have very little sympathy for is Peter Hallward. He knows a lot about Deleuze and Guattari, but he hates them. Hallward is a vocal partisan for the philosophy of Deleuze’s lifelong arch-enemy, Alain Badiou. Shortly after Deleuze died, Badiou published a short book called The Clamour of Being about Deleuze’s philosophy. Based on what he claimed was a years-long exchange of letters (which I suspect Badiou fabricated), he analyzed Deleuze’s philosophy and Deleuze himself as if he had been lying to his audience for his entire life about the true meaning of his work. Instead of a philosophy of multiplicity and the infinitely potential creative power of being, said Badiou, Deleuze finally admitted to him that his philosophy was really about formlessness, emptiness, and death. It was a bitter character assassination by a resentful old man relishing the opportunity to destroy the reputation of his rival of decades.

When I read Hallward’s main book on the philosophy of Deleuze, Out of This World, I found it to be merely a respectable articulation of the same hack job Badiou perpetrated in the 90s. The problem with Badiou’s and Hallward’s interpretation of Deleuze is that his ideas centre on the tension between the vibrancy of multiplicity and the garbled oneness of chaos. But they interpret it only in terms of its formlessness, instead of the genesis of forms. 

Nicholas Thoburn and
his excellent beard.
Hallward is the only one who’s critical of Deleuze in any strong sense in this round table, but he’s critical merely as an empty opposition. Hallward describes Deleuze and Guattari in this exchange as able to inform us about some innovative new ways that modern capitalism defangs its opposition and keeps the kinds of subjectivities capable of collective action from forming, discussing this in its form as Badiou’s communist dogma, where the only way to change a social order is a doctrinally unified revolutionary vanguard’s imposition of a political order where all individuals only exist insofar as they’re members of a collective. The others on the panel rightfully shoot him down as utterly ignoring the ways in which Deleuze and Guattari’s works find productive frameworks for political organizing and resistance through decentralized networks. 

This is not Jeremy Gilbert the philosopher, but actor Steven
McQueen, who plays the character Jeremy Gilbert on The
Vampire Diaries
Nicholas Thoburn has published several articles, and is in the middle of what seems like a fascinating project on multimedia forms of publishing political philosophy and criticism. I only just discovered this project while researching them for this blog post, so I as yet have no idea what it’s about. But it sounds fascinating. Thoburn has also written a book called Deleuze, Marx, and Politics, which is about exactly what it says on the tin. Jeremy Gilbert has written two books on radical politics, collectivity, and critiques of contemporary global capitalism, the older of which is available for free on his university faculty website.

The Most Profound Changes to Humanity, Research Time, 22/10/2014

I finished reading The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man by Karl Jaspers yesterday. It took a while, as my currently rather busy lifestyle finds me without the same amount of time per day of pleasure reading that I used to have. Still, it let me savour this strange artifact of another era. 

I mean it seriously when I say that Jaspers’ book, originally published in 1958, is a creature from an alien time. So many of the presumptions that animated the details of Jaspers’ conceptual investigation no longer apply. For one, the post-colonial movement, which was still in the process of liberating African states from European possession as he was writing, has flowered into a thousand different strains of economic co-optation, political interference, and internecine war. 

When Jaspers wrote, it was a popular opinion that the
human race would be destroyed in a nuclear war within
a single generation. That itself is quite foreign to a
contemporary ear, to say the least.
Let alone the economic colonialism now perpetrated by Chinese state-owned corporations building their own mines throughout the continent. Jaspers’ invocation to let the newly independent peoples of the world find their own paths have gone unheeded. His own analysis of the end of imperialism was quite accurate about the harms colonial institutions had done to Africa and Asia, but didn’t seem adequate to the challenge of the incredible economic inequities that remained between the exploited and former direct exploiters.

Jaspers’ analyses of politics we can now see to be sadly inadequate. He discussed the politics of the nuclear era in terms only of states and polities. His slipping from direct relevance here can’t be said to be his fault. The politics of his own times were still dominated by the importance of states, and it was difficult to conceive of how agitation against the state per se could be progressive, given the era of the welfare state and the military-industrial complex.*

* For a writer in 1958 whose life had been dominated by the rise of nationalist barbarism that created a totalitarian firestorm, I can definitely understand why the relation of a free and rational citizenry to their state would be the primary political consideration. Anarchism as a serious political movement had disappeared, its last serious advocates never surviving the Spanish Civil War. Its ideas wouldn’t return until the abortive revolutions of popular discontent in 1968, and remain on the margins of political life.

The globalized economy of the era of the internet and unfettered capital have blown the presumptions of decades of political thinking into uncertainty, and we’re still as a society trying to grip the realities of the liberating and enslaving effects of a networked world.** However, the centre-less communication and community-building possibilities of network politics give a central concept of Jaspers’ analysis here more serious breathing room than it did in the days when all political thinking languished in the inevitability of the state in every argument.

** Understanding the decentralized nature of network politics opens one’s mind, however, to a return to central anarchist concepts. The context is new, of course, but the basic message that there can be more to political organization than the state remains the same.

The last chapter of Jaspers’ book expresses the high idealism that philosophy can change the world. It does so when the profundity and rigour of philosophical thinking brims forth and is expressed in every person. One at a time, thinking according to the ethical path of reason results in a world where the spontaneous action of countless individuals acting on their own in communication with each other articulates fear of universal destruction in nuclear bombardment as the resolve of a global peace movement that organizes all people to help each other in a spirit of human friendship.

It sounds so saccharine, doesn’t it? Yet this is the central faith of the philosophical tradition, even as we saw all the countries of the world fall away from this ideal. Our politics are now dominated by hysterical fear and bullying nationalism. Name whatever example you want: a Russian leadership on the path to restore Czarism destabilizes and threatens its neighbours, the media of an industrial country with advanced state medical infrastructure soars into panic over ebola, a whole region from Libya to Iraq and Turkey collapses into a fractally sectarian civil war. Jaspers’ ideals have failed.

The global environmental movement is a giant advocacy
campaign for mass lifestyle change, and proceeds one
person at a time.
Yet the ideal that individual-scale activity can change the world one person at a time is absolutely necessary to any political activity that seeks genuine change. That’s precisely what a social movement is: individuals communicating to discover their common frustrations and reaching, in their aggregate and collective actions, the critical mass necessary at least for the political mainstream to notice them. The size of a movement in society that transforms us all, at least indirectly through the echoes of their ideals and their rage. 

This assessment of the power of philosophy to change the world is at the centre of my own work, especially my Ecophilosophy manuscript. It’s a philosophical analysis that stretches across source material from environmental activism and moral thinking, scientific principles from ecology, systems theoretical biology, and ethology, as well as a meta-philosophical argument of how philosophical reasoning functions in psychology and social movements. 

That’s a mouthful, but its ultimate point is that philosophical reasoning in its various forms can change people’s minds about how they live. The changing character and priorities of their lives can constitute a social movement that changes the consumption and production patterns of the world, I hope along more ecologically mindful lines. While the precise character of our global conflicts have changed, in this, Jaspers still has much to say. Philosophy can change how we think, and thereby how we live. When enough people transform how they live, they have changed the world.

Mates of State of Nature II: What If It Was Real? Research Time, 21/10/2014

Continued from last post . . . So what exactly is this Deleuze-on-Rousseau concept anyway? For someone who understands Deleuze’s work, it’s actually of a piece with what we all know about his philosophy already. While it’s an ordinary approach in the context of Deleuze scholarship and the wider philosophical explorations that have flowed from his work, I feel safe saying that it’s a novel or at least strange idea in the context of Anglo-American contractarian political philosophy. 

What should Rousseau's own concerns
have to do with how we understand his
writing today?
One of the cornerstone concepts of contract theory of politics is the state of nature. This is the notion of what human existence would have been like prior to society. The purpose of contract theorizing, after all, is to isolate the essential principles of social interaction and the minimal political obligations we all hold to each other. We achieve this by postulating what would have been the core issues and concerns in facilitating the agreement to begin acting socially in the first place. 

So “the state of nature” is the term for humanity’s imagined pre-social state in which the contract occurs. How a thinker imagines what the state of nature would have been like will influence the core principles of political association that he develops in his theory. Thomas Hobbes, the first social contract theorist, conceived of the state of nature as a “war of all against all,” where the strong strove to dominate the weak but the weakest was always strong enough to kill the strongest.* So Hobbes conceived of the state and political association as primarily about grounding and maintaining physical security.

* That last phrase, succinctly summarizing the key dynamic of Hobbes’ state of nature, is Deleuze’s own phrase, which I consider a bit of a cheap shot against the haters who say everything he wrote was obscure claptrap. 

The central postulate of social contract, however, was that it was always an imagined contract, a thought experiment to isolate what principles should be fundamental to political activity and philosophy. Empirically speaking, humans have always been social creatures, and no one has ever agreed to form society per se as a historical event.

Yet Deleuze: in Rousseau’s thinking, the state of nature is real, and it exists all the time.

No, not this Genesis. That's from Star Trek.
It’s humanity’s virtual being. Deleuze interprets Rousseau as conceiving of the state of nature as the potential of human social and political existence; the state of nature functions in Rousseau as the full range of all that humanity can do. In Deleuze’s words in his course notes, Rousseau’s state of nature is how humanity exists prior to action in “objective circumstances,”** which would fix our nature more concretely as we developed specific faculties to the detriment of others to deal with the situations in which we found ourselves. So we should read Rousseau in the context of the state of nature being humanity’s state of genesis. 

** Another wonderful part of studying Deleuze’s thought and writing is how he fluctuated his terms. He adapted his language to the problems that he faced, and toyed with a variety of different expressions of the same fundamental ideas. If he thought one term didn’t work so well in a recent publication, he’d change the expression in a new work. This makes hell for conventional authors of secondary philosophical material (books on philosophy, as I said yesterday), because of the tendency in that mode of writing to systematize and unify a primary author’s vocabulary, problems, and concepts. Because Deleuze is so flexible in his expression, he frustrates this intellectual desires. Good on him.

No, not this Genesis either.
Is this what Rousseau himself was an about? I have no idea, but the point of Deleuze’s alternative interpretations of philosophical figures isn’t to achieve some perfectly accurate reading of their writings. A perfectly accurate reading of an author’s writings is literally what they mean, understood in the context of the author’s individual perspective and how s/he responded to his/her own objective circumstances. 

Deleuze concentrated his writings largely on understanding this concept of genesis and differentiation. As such, he mutated Rousseau into a tool to help explain a philosophy of genesis. His brilliance as a historical reading was retroactively creating a tradition of genesis theory out of his creative interpretations of philosophy. 

It wasn’t accurate to the intended meanings of the texts he examined, but they were meticulous and insightful interpretations of these historical figures on his own terms. It’s an impressive feat of philosophical reasoning and interpretation, how a man with one lung could still put on an impressive gymnastics show, the only tightrope walking he could do. And it taught readers another angle to think about the philosophy of genesis. As long as you know precisely what he’s doing, there’s no need to take issue with it. Deleuze was a brilliant man.

Mates of State of Nature I: Linking Concepts, Composing, 20/10/2014

I’ve followed up my reading of Robert Nozick with a little research into the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. So I thought, with this short entry, I’d discuss some of my composition methods as I feel around the concepts that will motivate the third third of my Utopias manuscript. 

Bear in mind, this is an extremely amorphous document right now. It consists entirely of a notebook full of, well, notes, my past blog entries discussing it, a word processing file with a rough breakdown of the chapters and most of the component arguments of the first two thirds, and stacks of mostly primary research material on my own physical shelves and in electronic formats. I probably won’t have a manuscript for a few years, which is a reasonable thing to say for a non-fiction philosophical manuscript of this sort.

So here is how I’m structuring my research, at least insofar as it reflects how I’ll plot the argument. Utopias is a work of philosophy, which I consider different from a work on philosophy. Most philosophical books that are produced today, and really most philosophical books that have been produced for some time, are books on philosophy. Books on philosophy examine and critique key arguments and texts of a particular figure or movement in the history of philosophy or a contemporary sub-discipline. You could consider it, though it doesn’t isomorphically map onto, secondary material.

Then there are books of philosophy, creative works which vary in scope and ambition. Most books of philosophy would examine and venture some contribution to an ongoing debate in contemporary professional literature in a particular sub-discipline. I distinguish these from debates over historical figures and movements, because those are largely interpretive, trying to divine a clear right answer about what movement X or thinker Y was all about.* A book of philosophy has some ambition to progress behind it. If the aim of a book on philosophy is improving our understanding of the past, a book of philosophy has the aim of creating future knowledge. 

Part of what I admire about Deleuze is the
ambition with which he always approached his
writing. He never settled for an ordinary work.
* The pressure to carve a niche for oneself in a historical specialty in academic philosophy results in some conceptual gymnastics that I’m not entirely sure are all the productive. The first example that comes to my mind is Daniel Smith’s strange reading of Gilles Deleuze as a closet Kantian. Although there are elements of Deleuze’s philosophy, particularly regarding the importance of conditions over causes traditionally conceived, that make such a reading sensible, I’m just not sure what to do with it. Deleuze’s thought is ground-breaking and foundational on its own; saddling him with a label like that distorts the traditional short-hand of the description ‘Kantian’ and, in parallel, eliding the originality of Deleuze’s corpus to trivialize it.

The scope of a book of philosophy is a matter of its ambition. With nothing to lose, I decided to craft a very ambitious text with Utopias. It was always going to be an ambitious project, even under my original plans of writing it from a university post. Working outside that institution, I’ll be free to experiment with my writing. Hence this length prelude to a short idea.

I started thinking about the concept of the social contract when I saw what Robert Nozick did with it in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I came to Nozick in the first place once I understood that the denouement to my own Utopias would involve an engagement with libertarian philosophy, and Nozick’s work was philosophically the most intense and rigorous treatment of the core ideas. If I was going to go to any classical source for reading after Nozick, it should be John Locke, whose work I have on my shelves. Nozick explicitly identifies all the organizing principles of his own conception of the state of nature in Locke’s work. 

But instead, I’m going to Rousseau, particularly Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Rousseau’s political philosophy, as expressed in a recent translation of an old course outline he produced on the subject for a 1959 class. This early text understands Rousseau’s conception of the state of nature very differently than typical interpretations do (more on that tomorrow). 

Deleuze’s thinking about the key concept underlying the purpose and implications of social contract theory helps undercut the more conventional way Nozick uses it, as an abstract counterfactual to illustrate a particular standard of historical justice and political right. So I go to Deleuze-on-Rousseau after reading Nozick to understand one possible element of the skeleton of the argument. 

The concepts themselves guide me through the research. More conventional uses of philosophical research, like using books and articles on philosophy to bulk up my accounts of the primary thinkers involved in my arguments, are for later in the research process. It makes most sense to go to these smaller works to supply the detail work after the broader points are established. 

I haven’t at all decided what role social contract theory would play in the argument of Utopias, so it’s only when I’m sure exactly how I’ll use the concept, which models of it will dominate my own argument, and how it relates to other elements in the plot, that I’ll explore those supplementary works for context. If I start on that route now, I’ll find myself distracted from the central goal early in a project of figuring out the basic structure of the argument itself. To Be Continued . . .

Our Ideals Are Our Ethical Skeletons, Doctor Who: Flatline, 19/10/2014

Thematically, Flatline was a strange episode. Phil Sandifer’s review caught all the problematic points in terms of plotting and characterization: Danny is given too little time in the story to be anything but a signifier, when his appearances in the first half of the season indicated so much more; the episode’s tone can veer too far too inappropriately.

I think this dance might literally be my favourite part of
this episode, possibly Capaldi's entire tenure. The Doctor is
doing a Grandpa Dance. Think about that.
That said, with a cursory mention of those


Flatline succeeded on a host of levels. And even the elements that didn’t entirely succeed still offer intriguing possibilities. For one, the episode was properly paced to be quite entertaining, moving from set piece to set piece throughout, and each individual set piece being top-notch exciting and visually striking. Capaldi himself is brilliant, especially in moments like his hand crawling the shrunken TARDIS off the railway tracks and his happy disco celebration dance immediately thereafter. 

Mostly this season, the Doctor has been treated as an alien object, someone to hold at a distance, a force too cosmic for human interaction. But Capaldi’s Doctor is capable of these very funny charismatic moments, which will be important to how his character must eventually develop: when Clara leaves, he’ll need another companion, and he’ll have to express himself in such a way that someone else will want to travel with him. He’ll need to display himself in ways like he did in Flatline, Robot of Sherwood, and The Caretaker: his version of the larking, smiling, slightly mad Doctor. 

Because in addition to having two-dimensional villains this week, we’re in danger of having a two-dimensional image of Capaldi’s Doctor. This is another effect of the pre-transmission press coming from Steven Moffat’s publicity wing: that this would be a dark Doctor, and this season would explore dark themes. The aesthetics of the stories and imagery are definitely taking on more of a horror style, but this message “the dark Doctor” is having detrimental effects on Capaldi’s own image. 

Jamie Mathieson's pitch for Flatline was apparently a
drawing, which I quite badly want to see.
We remember the harsh sarcasm in the face of death from Mummy on the Orient Express, the haughty pretence of Kill the Moon, the chilling bombast of Into the Dalek, and the disturbingly still intensity of Deep Breath. We forget the wit of The Caretaker, the mischief of Robot of Sherwood, the grandpa dance in Flatline, and the joyous smile at the end of Mummy on the Orient Express. 

Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t only pure callousness, alien sublimity, and utilitarian calculation of who should live and die on the fly. He is as he’s been since 23 November 1963: a fantastically complex character who’s only grown in internal multitudes since then.

Yet Clara seems to be making the same mistake of elision that the audience does when we give too much credit to the quick lines of a publicity message like “dark Doctor.” She ends the episode, having ignored and lied to Danny, having carried most of the heavy lifting of the adventure, presuming what she thinks is the Doctor’s moral point of view. Because only a few people died, but the world was saved, those deaths were acceptable. You give people hope only because it’s a better motivator than thoughts of certain doom, but you don’t believe in that hope yourself. 

But the Doctor makes it clear in his reaction that Clara has made a mistake: those aren’t his ethical principles for adventuring; they’re his moral compromises. The distinction is clear philosophically. A principle or an ideal (they’re equivalent in this context) is a concept, including its behavioural imperative, to which you believe you should structure your life accordingly. The Doctor’s would be freedom, hope, wisdom, and progress. That’s why he fights creatures like The Boneless.*

The irony of casting Christopher Fairbank as
the brutish, stupid, abusive leader of Rigsy's
community service group is that his most
famous role was as the sympathetic ex-con
plasterer Moxey on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet,
one of the greatest working class dramas
that Britain ever produced.
* Incidentally, The Boneless** are nakedly Jamie Mathieson’s attempt to add a monster to the Doctor Who pantheon. They fit all the templates of a Doctor Who monster: a purely malevolent and destructive nature, plus a visual or conceptual gimmick of some kind. Honestly, I think he’s done a pretty good job. The Boneless are visually amazing, though they’d be impossible with most any special effect known prior to the 21st century. Their methods are genuinely creepy, and their central concept of two-dimensional creatures invading three-dimensional realities is freaky, and is simple enough to return.

** Some would say that the end of this story was a cop-out. Yes, Clara did trick the Boneless into recharging the dying, shrunken TARDIS, but once it was restored, the Doctor just waved a magic wand, and energy from the TARDIS made the monsters disappear. But this was actually an instance of the TARDIS’ nature as an alchemical machine: it transforms the material world by manipulating symbols and reflections. The Boneless are monsters, demons without an identity, and in naming them, the Doctor gains power over them. So the Doctor literally won by magic. He’s named them: they are no longer unstoppable monsters that will overthrow our world, but Doctor Who monsters who can now have their proper Wikia page.

* Problems, I think, would include their simplicity. They don’t really do much other than amble after the main characters. They’re much more exciting as shadow-like presences, distortions on walls and floors that can otherwise be easily missed. Any future Boneless stories would have to complexify their relations with each other, and anything that could be adequate to the weird intimations we get this episode would require some deep and strange thought. Still, what else is Doctor Who for?

For all the Doctor may tactlessly speak to him, he does
praise Rigsy, and try to be his usual inspirational self.
"Your last artwork saved the world; your next better be
just as good." But Clara had already built the friendship
that would have made those words count, even though
she ignored his huge mural in the tunnel.
Where were we? I’m not sure if that recursion was totally pulled off. It was an interruption within an interruption. Oh, I have it!

That’s why the Doctor fights creatures like The Boneless. He is the man who fights monsters, and his role is to fight malevolence on its allegorical level, as monsters and villains in our stories. Doctor Who is a modern myth in the strongest sense, and the stories we tell in the television show (along with all the other media) constitute the collection of this myth. The Doctor embodies his ideals, and fights for them. He makes the compromises he does because even in his stories, the world is a complex place, so there are losses and mistakes in every battle, just as in our far more complex battles in real life. 

The Doctor struggles through his adventures not to let his compromises overpower his ability to find the better way. And now here’s Clara presuming that his compromises constitute the whole of the Doctor’s character. This is the real tragic arc of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship this season, not that her relationship with Danny and her Earthly life is pushing them apart, but her having forgotten her friend’s ideals. 

At the end of Deep Breath, Clara said that she could accept the new Doctor for who he was, but I think this episode has confirmed that she still feels a dissonance between the Doctor she first knew, Matt Smith, and the Doctor she now deals with, Peter Capaldi. Capaldi’s Doctor defaults to a gruff, sarcastic attitude, where Smith’s was more typically warm and jolly. Clara has come to define Capaldi’s Doctor through his harshness, and has forgotten that this was once the same man she shed a tear for on the last day of the Time War.

Perhaps if Clara had watched Capaldi’s Doctor stand at the Moment’s activator with John Hurt and David Tennant, she would have let him push the button and kill billions of people who should have been saved. It would have been just another moral compromise that the Doctor makes all the time. But if the Doctor ever teaches us anything, it’s that our moral compromises shouldn’t define who we are. They’re what we should regret as we fight a world so hostile that our ideals become impossible.