Introducing the Introductory, Composing, 29/01/2015

Things have been pretty busy between school and the manuscript work, but I finished my chapter edits yesterday. My next task, which I only just started and won’t finish until after I move this weekend, is writing the new introduction to Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity

Frankly, the introduction to the original dissertation version of this manuscript just wouldn’t do for a book whose audience is a wider community of intellectual people. It was the only part that stuck to the more unfortunate aspects of dissertation style. I mean, I never did a lot of the stuff that makes a dissertation project completely unpalatable for popular consumption. I always approached my dissertation as if it was going to be my first book.

I took that approach for two reasons. One was that, when my career was dedicated to the university faculty route, I wanted to get ahead of the game by as many directions as I could. An excellent way to stand out among a crowded field of applicants was to have a book out as soon as possible, so designing a dissertation project to be easily modified for mass publication was a great way to jump the queue. Instead of writing a dissertation then beginning a completely new project to be my first book, I’d write both at once.

The problem I encountered when I first began approaching potential publishers at the end of my doctoral program was that no one believed me. They were all so accustomed to dissertations being hyper-focussed, jargon-filled works written according to the micromanaging directions of committee members that my own strategy was inconceivable to them. It was only the support of my friends and colleagues that I knew through SERRC that helped me represent myself to publishers with any credibility. It still took three years to get there.

Even then, I never mentioned that Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity had been my dissertation until after they accepted my proposal for publication. They promised me that its history as a dissertation wouldn’t have affected their decision, but I still felt safer not saying anything until I got some assurance of publication.

Really, I'd just like my writing career to generate a big enough cult that
I land in the Library of Congress. If that's the pinnacle of my creative
life, I'll be more than happy.
But the original introduction probably suffered from the most dissertationese. Originally, it was just a breakdown, little more than a list, of what fields of philosophy and science it covered, and a brief account of the manuscript’s overarching problem. It did the basic job of an introduction, telling you what would come in the manuscript, but was mostly a jumble of references whose connections wouldn’t become clear until you had read the entire thing. And the only people who would still read it, after an introduction like that, would have been the people who were reading it because it was their job.

Instead, the new introduction takes a more direct look at the concepts of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. The introduction still has to be short too, because I have word count limits here, and I want the main part of the book to do the main part of the work. 

So I start by talking about why my book about environmental philosophy is in a post-humanism series, because building an ecological humanity means developing a new conception of what it is to be human. Then the concepts start. There’s singularity, the profound uniqueness of every body and process. Then interdependence, the fundamental principle of ecological science.

The other fundamental concept, though there are other concepts that I won’t get into right now, is contingency, the fact that nothing is inevitable in the strongest sense. Even deterministic systems are still contingent in their being complex enough that they’re described with non-linear mathematics. A set of initial conditions will always have multiple possible outcomes, with its environmental situation determining which of those possibilities actually happens.

The chapter-by-chapter breakdown will still come, but it will be much shorter, and will focus more on the topics as ideas than a list of the referenced authors. 

This has to do with one of the purposes of dissertations, proving to your supervisors that you can research and lot of whole bunch of stuff and synthesize them into a single project with reasonable coherence. A general audience has no investment in this, however. They know that you can write and research because your book was published by a reasonable company. 

An audience for a book wants you to blow their minds a little. More books should be written like that.

I Seriously Hope the Libertarians Aren’t Right, Composing, 28/01/2015

A review I wrote jointly with some of my colleagues at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective went up this week, discussing the new book written by Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0. I enjoy writing these joint reviews because each of us can take a partial point of view on the work we’re talking about, and write freely without pressure to be fully comprehensive. We usually each focus on a particular concept or angle, and let each of those different perspectives add up to a multifaceted view of the whole work.

But I also have a few more thoughts about Heath’s book and the political ideas he expresses in it that I eased away from in my review. I had space constraints, and these issues are really more relevant to some of my ongoing political philosophy research for my own projects. 

Even though most of my writing work at the moment is concentrating on Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, the Utopias project is still on my radar as well. It’s why I’m reading Friedrich Hayek and thinking about how his own intellectual confrontation with Nazi and Bolshevik totalitarianism has influenced the contemporary right wing of Western politics and the contemporary right wing view of the left wing.

Inventive businesspeople can monetize anything.
I realized just from reading and thinking about today’s politics, especially today’s conservative movements, that you can’t write a book that deals with the dangers of totalitarianism without engaging with libertarian thinking. It’s not because libertarians are totalitarian – far from it. The reason is that libertarians believe they’re the front line of defence against totalitarian currents in modern politics. They’re people who seriously believe that Barack Obama and Jack Layton represent totalitarian political movements.*

* When the Tea Party first arose, I thought the Obama = Hitler meme was just ignorant racism, like those posters depicting him as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. But there are people who are genuinely anti-racist who actually believe that Obama wants to make the United States a new Nazi republic. I still find it so depressing that I have to write these sentences seriously.

Joseph Heath co-wrote The Rebel Sell, which made his popular reputation as a critic of consumer and corporate culture. The book analyzed counter-cultural movements as not genuine rebellions against an oppressive mainstream, but equally consumerist tribal identities. It was a popular, but quite controversial account of grassroots political movements as merely alternative brands. 

The impeccable depth of research in Enlightenment 2.0 impressed me. His book journeys through psychological studies of human reasoning abilities. He compiles a mass of evidence to demonstrate pretty conclusively that humans are not as rational as the old faith of the original Enlightenment movement thought we were. 

Here’s an example that I didn’t have space to cite in my review. Heath discusses how detergent companies design their bottlecaps. The caps double as vessels to measure and pour laundry detergent, and they all have markings on the inside to show how much is needed for a single, double, or triple load. 

Even our laundry detergent caps are insidious.
But the markings are all extremely faint, usually written as raised plastic and not as actual marks of contrasting colour with the cap. As a result, most people don’t see them. I see them, but I’m accustomed to looking for them. Most people don’t see them, and fill the detergent cup almost to the brim for every load. Not only does this use unnecessary detergent, making you spend money needlessly on more laundry detergent than you need; you also end up spending more money on clothes because washing them with so much detergent damages the fabric and prematurely ages them.

I cite this example because it’s so ordinary in all our lives, but also a very small detail in most people’s lives. This is a way that unscrupulous companies take advantage of the petty non-rationality of most people. And because his body of psychological evidence suggests how difficult it is for most people to overcome their non-rationality through self-conscious knowledge, Heath recommends a different route.

Heath’s key concept in Enlightenment 2.0 is the kluge. It’s a little modification to your environment that encourages you to think better or discourages a counter-productive thought. It’s easy to do on an individual level. For instance, I have a tendency to forget where I put particular small items that I need every day, like my keys or my phone. My environmental kluge is to keep all those things in the same place on my writing desk as soon as I come home from work. 

The kluge is the engine of the new enlightenment. And Heath entirely lays it on the state to install these kluges throughout our lives to ensure the public’s rationality so that our representative democratic institutions continue to work in the public interest. Even down to the caps on our laundry detergent.

It’s not that I’m against all government regulation.** But a refusal to trust the state is necessary to maintain democratic politics today. We can’t go back to the old era of trusting the state to manage every little aspect of our lives. That minute universality of management is what Michel Foucault called the oppression of biopolitics, and Hayek argued against it too. 

** I admit that I rather sound like Heath when he distinguishes his own distrust of the public’s rationality from that of philosophers like Zhang Weiwei who are open state authoritarians. Heath is unconvincing about his continued faith in democracy, and when I talk as I do here, I sound pretty unconvincing about my continued faith in government.

A thinker as quality as Foucault can't be contained
in the doctrines of a single political movement.
Ultimately, my argument on this problem of public rationality is that if we all work together, we can overcome the dirty tricks of our natural unreason that profiteers use to separate us from our increasingly hard-earned money. That’s just what I said in my section of the book review. 

The message that I want you to take away from this blog post is a lesson about anti-corporate politics. It’s similar to what I wrote about Daniel Zamora’s recent critique of Foucault as a closet neoliberal.*** Fighting the manipulation of oligarchic interests shouldn’t send us back to oppression under a micro-managing state authority, and fighting state authoritarianism shouldn’t send us back to life as corporate playthings, which is the practical endgame of modern libertarian politics. I’m not even any good at playing ping-pong. I don’t want to be a ball.

*** Yes, I’m aware of the irony of the term applied to Foucault. It’s quite a simple piece of wordplay.

Progress in fighting oppression under authorities of all kinds should ultimately free us from oppression from authorities of all kinds, not just trade one for another back and forth. Progress means taking control of our own lives.

A Message for His Era, Research Time, 27/01/2015

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was planning to start reading the foundational work in the popular political influence of Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. Well, I started, and I’m already pleasantly surprised.

Some background. For just less than three years, I was internet friends with two hardcore right-wing libertarian conservatives, who eventually broke off their relations with me after they became convinced that I would never change my political beliefs to become a hardcore right-wing libertarian conservative. 

At the time, I thought some of their beliefs were legitimately kind of crazy. The most notable example, given what I’m going to talk about today, was that they genuinely believed that any institution through which the government directly acted in any economic sphere would grease the slippery slope to the complete totalitarian takeover of the economy and the destruction of democracy and individual liberty.

Despite his baldness, he is not to be mistaken for
Jack Layton.
Here’s an example of the extremity I mean. On the first anniversary of Jack Layton’s death, G the libertarian posted a photo sincerely memorializing him as a historically remarkable figure in Canadian history. The photo was of Vladimir Lenin. Although this was a joke in bad taste, he was also expressing his serious belief that Jack Layton was a totalitarian because Layton wanted government programs to provide services to the poor and homeless.

For the last couple of years, I thought such beliefs were genuinely ridiculous. But reading about the ideologies underlying the global networks of conservative think tanks that began with meetings Hayek and Milton Friedman organized at Mt. Pelerin, Switzerland gave me pause. 

According to Donald Gutstein’s account of the goals, priorities, and perspectives of organizations like the Fraser Institute, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, and Civitas, many of the most influential conservative intellectuals actually believe that welfare services like food stamps and government subsidies to homeless shelters actually are totalitarian in character. So I raised the priority level of my engagement with Hayek’s work.

I found, at least in the early stages of reading The Road to Serfdom, a very different kind of Hayek than the image Gutstein painted. So far, I’ve only read the editor’s introduction to my edition (part of the collected volumes series of Hayek’s works), and some of Hayek’s own introduction to the 1956 edition. The Road to Serfdom was originally published in Britain in 1944, and later that decade, an extremely abridged version was published in America through Reader’s Digest, and this much shorter volume became a popular sensation.

I haven’t yet managed to compare the Reader’s Digest version of the book to the complete one, but given the way Hayek talks about the popular reception of his ideas, I think I can hazard a solid hypothesis. Hayek, in his 1956 introduction, clearly and emphatically states that he does not actually believe that any form of government intervention in the economy is totalitarian or opens the doors to such a change. He believed that government intervention in the economy should be limited, but the intense anti-government rhetoric of modern libertarians was nowhere near how he actually pitched his work.

The young Hayek's major concern was
preventing democratic governments
from falling into totalitarianism
through the necessary social controls
for national economic planning.
Hayek himself considered The Road to Serfdom as an attack on the political movement, common in the totalitarian, the fascist, the authoritarian, and the democratic states of the West, to plan the economy. There really was a strong current in all political parties of the time that the government should nationalize all sectors of the economy and manage the entire country through scientific planning institutions. A centralized bureau would set prices, order manufacturing in all sectors, and distribute goods to the population.

This kind of activity Hayek called socialist, and he explains it as the meaning behind his sarcastic dedication of The Road to Serfdom to “the socialists of all parties.” Contemporary libertarian politics seems to have taken Hayek’s opposition to this kind of massively comprehensive government economic nationalization and planning to apply to any government attempt to regulate economic development, help raise people out of poverty, develop tax systems to combat inequality, or enact sensible environmental legislation and criminalize ecologically destructive activity.

No government (apart perhaps from North Korea) seeks this kind of total control over the economic activity of its entire country anymore. Bruce Caldwell admits as much in his forward, written in 2004. Hayek himself says so in his 1956 introduction. Even by then, the mania for total centralized planning of the entire economy had passed out of popular political consciousness in Western democracies. 

The political pressures of the Cold War probably had more to do with that than Hayek’s work in particular, but the repercussions of Hayek’s influence have gained an equal, if not greater power than the old form of confrontational international politics.

Sometimes It Just Isn’t Worth Including, Composing, 26/01/2015

I was back to editing Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity at the end of this weekend, though most of my time was spent dealing with the logistics of my move to Toronto. That will be next weekend. As of Thursday, the blog probably won’t hear from me until a few days into February.

I posted this image in one of my earlier posts, but that
was over a year ago, and I think it just looks really cool.
But I made a significant cut to chapter seven Sunday evening. The original dissertation version included a brief passage of about three paragraphs where I analyzed a concept in a book called The Natural Contract by Michel Serres. My supervisor, Barry Allen, recommended the book as an interesting source of ideas when I was originally researching the project. While it’s a brilliant book, the concept I discussed in the dissertation had its problems.

It was the concept of an environmentalist scientist-philosopher-sage called The Third-Instructed, or Le Tiers-Instruit if I can formulate it in a language where it makes some grammatical sense.* I wrote about Serres a few times on the blog, because I was reading his book Le Tiers-Instruit (its title was translated into English as The Troubadour of Knowledge) in the early months of Adam Writes Everything.

* Serres is a brilliant writer in his native language, able to use many of its grammatical and semantic subtleties to communicate some fascinating ideas. The problem with this brilliance is that it’s so difficult to translate because his subtle points play off connotations that are idiosyncratic to French. 

Aside from my general interest in Serres’ thinking, I ordered this book during my first post-graduation round of revisions of the ecophilosophy manuscript because I thought I had dealt with this concept of Le Tiers-Instruit too quickly in the dissertation. I mentioned it briefly, over a mere three paragraphs, in the last major chapter, where I dismissed it as a concept with some potential, but which was limited because it was still described using the language of opposites. 

Serres described this troubadour of knowledge as “archaic and contemporary, traditional and futuristic, humanist and scientist, fast and slow, green and seasoned, audacious and prudent.” But he never progressed the idea beyond this union of opposites, which can only gesture at progress instead of actually pushing you toward it. Philosophical writing that unites opposites is all too often counter-productively vague.

I seriously couldn't find any decent
images of Serres through a Google
search where he looked younger
than 70 years old. It made me
wonder if he's always been an
elderly man.
Then I discovered that he followed up The Natural Contract with a book that explicitly focussed on Le Tiers-Instruit. This was a massive potential embarrassment, for me to have critiqued Serres’ concept without even considering the input of the book that spent 200 pages discussing it.

But when I read The Troubadour of Knowledge, I found that Serres had developed the concept more as a philosophy of education instead of the openly ecological and environmentalist direction it had in The Natural Contract. It was an appropriate development, but it made a full account of the concept at that point in the manuscript very inappropriate. 

What’s more, I only included Serres in the dissertation manuscript where I did because it was in a chapter that dealt largely with concepts from the influence of Serres’ contemporaries and fellow-travellers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. How I dealt with the concept, critiquing the vagueness of its oppositional language, better suited my critiques of vague language in environmental philosophy more generally, in the earlier chapters. But because Serres developed the concept into a completely different context than this, discussing it in the context of environmental philosophy’s problems wasn’t appropriate either.

Why is this a Composing post instead of A History Boy, then, given how much time I’ve spent talking about my own history with Serres? Because of the result of this reflection on how limited the concept of Le Tiers-Instruit was in my manuscript, how its limitation came from working only from a book where it was treated briefly, and that the book which specifically focussed on it set the concept in a context that was completely different from the ecological philosophy I’m working in.

I cut it entirely. There are now no references to Michel Serres in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity

When you write philosophy, you can reference a lot of whole bunch of stuff. It’s a complex tradition, and many different writers have dealt with similar concepts in different contexts across the last three thousand years. And I’m just talking about Western philosophy. Including Asian, Indian, African, and Amerindian traditions complicates our conceptual heritages even more. 

Serres is a better role model for me as a writer than in
his particular philosophical ideas and the problems he
explores. He uses language brilliantly, and weaves
concepts together with incredible subtlety. We're just
interested in different things.
When you write a dissertation, there's institutional pressure to include as much of what you researched as possible, because part of its goal is showing your committee the scale of research you can do in the program's time frame. 

When you're writing professional academic philosophy in other contexts, like journals, there's a similar pressure to include as much stuff as possible. Reviewers tend to default to a very obvious criticism: Why didn’t you include author X? Clearly, this paper is inadequate and not worth publishing because you didn’t include author X. 

Sometimes, this is a legitimate point because X is an important figure in the particular tradition that you set yourself in, so missing him is a genuine blind spot.

But academic publications, especially journals, operate in a prestige-based market. Part of a journal’s prestige lies in its rejection rate. And the more prestigious a journal is, the more submissions it will receive. So a reviewer will be under pressure to reject a submission at all costs. So he may think of any other writer who has dealt with a similar concept as you and your research background, and fault you for not mentioning this historically tangential but conceptually convergent figure. Not a morally blameworthy act on the reviewer's part, just the pressure of the institutional position. 

So sometimes, you have to take control of a creative process when you have the power to do so. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity has been accepted based on a proposal that focussed on its conceptual originality, not as a historical work. What matters is the clarity of the concepts. In this case, cutting Serres improves the clarity of the conceptual argument. Better leave him aside entirely than treat him superficially.

So this is one of the few Composing posts where I actually have some direct advice about writing. Who ever thought that would happen?

How We Extended the Earth Into Space, Research Time, 22/01/2015

They wanna see me on my satellite. Get it right. Here tonight.
I never read any McLuhan in the philosophy courses I took as a student, and I never taught any McLuhan in the philosophy courses I delivered as a tutorial leader. A major reason is disciplinary: he’s classified as a media theorist, so while he’s creating concepts, which is the essential philosophical activity, he isn’t identified as a philosopher and his books and ideas don’t enter the mainstream narrative in the university-based tradition of what philosophy properly is.

I think another reason why he isn’t included in most philosophy canons is that he’s fucking weird. Academic philosophy is typically taught as having a single form of writing: the argument. So while a text may create concepts, explore ideas, and touch on major philosophical themes, a university professor won’t call it philosophy unless it’s written as an argumentative essay.*

Then there were philosophers like Heraclitus, who were
sages writing epic poems like The Iliad, but about
* Of course, there are exceptions within the canon. No university-based philosopher would deny that Plato’s dialogues and Spinoza’s Ethics are works of philosophy because they’re such undeniably huge figures in the Western tradition. But Plato’s surviving works are these strange mutations of the dramatic script. Dialogues contain arguments, yet usually end having undermined all the positive statements. Spinoza’s Ethics is often called an argument, but that’s just because philosophy’s institutionalized culture is really uncomfortable dealing with an experimental composition that adapted the form of a logical-mathematical proof to examine abstract metaphysical, ecological, and psychological concepts.

The fourth chapter of Laws of Media isn’t written like an essay. It doesn’t even have paragraphs. It’s written as a series of tetrad diagrams. See, there are four laws of media that the book is largely about. A given piece of human technology does four things simultaneously.

1) ENHANCES some phenomenon or mode of experience.
2) REVERSES the character of its enhanced characteristic when its intensity reaches an extreme.
3) RETRIEVES some abstract principle that’s latent in its enhancement.
4) OBSOLESCES some other phenomenon that used to be fairly widespread.

So I thought of talking about some examples of these four-sided frameworks of thinking and understanding. One of McLuhan’s tetrad diagrams describes what the satellite does. It reminds me a lot of the major ideas in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity

The satellite enhances the planet Earth itself, extending it beyond its physical limits of the atmosphere that is capable of supporting macroscopic life. The Earth’s affects and communication from one part of it to another now extend into the stratosphere. This is actually one of the central concepts of my book: that you can’t understand the full range of a body’s possible powers and potentials if you take its boundary to be just the physical membrane of its discrete corpus. A human extends beyond its skin, and a planet extends beyond its atmosphere. A body is a field of affects, the proliferation in space and time of what it does beyond its membrane.

The abstract principle that this phenomenon of the satellite’s activity brings to the forefront is what McLuhan calls ecology. And so do I. This tetrad shows how bodies, in this case the Earth itself, can extend beyond their physical boundaries, and how important these extending, environmental affects are to its identity. I take the extension of bodies beyond their physical boundaries to integrate with each other to be the foundational principle of any ecologically-informed philosophy.

When the dynamics of satellite communication reverse themselves, we get what McLuhan calls an implosion of reflexivity. Signals travel around the Earth so fast that distance becomes practically immaterial. As far as communication goes, satellites can make the planet the size of a house.

However, satellites make nature obsolete. Well, I should say Nature, not nature. Because McLuhan’s diagram refers to Nature as the mythical concept of the wild Eden, the absolute Other to human civilization. There’s a dominating dynamic in environmental philosophy and environmentalist political activism that sees Man as essentially a technological, destructive, rationalistic force that’s in inevitable conflict with Nature and its creative, instinctual harmony. 

The first three chapters (of seven) in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity are an extended polemic about several aspects of this dualist view of humanity and nature. Ecological thinking makes this kind of dualism totally obsolete, in the literal sense. There’s no use thinking in terms of that romantic (and Romantic) dualism when you understand all of existence in terms of ecological relationships.

There can be nothing literally outside nature, like the dualism of Man/Nature (and Technology/Natural and Mordor/Shire and Earth/Eden and Discord/Harmony and Evil/Good), if everything that acts integrates with each other as our affects extend ourselves beyond our bodies. 

There are only natural processes that sustain themselves and natural processes that wreck themselves and drown in their own shit. Environmentalism as a political movement and a philosophy is social mobilization to push humanity to sustain itself instead of destroy itself and drag a lot of other creatures down with us.

All this is in just one brief tetrad diagram. And I hadn’t even read McLuhan before writing that book.

Metaphorical Words? II: Powerfully Arbitrary, Research Time, 21/01/2015

Continued from last post . . . When you get to Marshall McLuhan, you understand just how much Donald Davidson was mistaken. Because his argument that metaphors were meaningless depended on a conception of meaning in which each word had a precise meaning, fixed necessarily (though not necessarily sufficiently) by a precise referent. If a word did not refer properly, then its use obscured its meaning. If the use of a word obscures its meaning, then the word in that instance becomes meaningless.

McLuhan approaches the topic of metaphor from a completely different perspective. Davidson worked in fairly conservative Analytic philosophy, having accepted the principle that language is primarily transparent in meaning and practical in use. I’m simplifying an enormously complex tradition of the philosophy of language, of course. For Davidson, what a philosopher does with language is analyze and clarify concepts and meanings. 

But McLuhan came from the discipline of literary criticism, which was open to very different philosophical ideas about language than Analytic philosophy. He developed a theoretical approach to language as affects. I described this in an earlier post as words and utterances literally smacking you around, and I’m sticking to that image because my readers have told me it’s remarkably effective.

An old critique of Analytic philosophy that I’ve often heard in classes introducing the subject is that one of the most common conceptions of language in that tradition is too simple. Words and propositions have precise meanings that our ordinary language* obscures, and so logical analysis must make those meanings clear.

* I’m leaving aside the tradition of ordinary language philosophy whose key figures were the older Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin. I’m referring to the paradigm analytic philosophy that developed as Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Frank Ramsey developed symbolic logic, and as Russell and the younger Wittgenstein developed the techniques of the logical analysis of ordinary language. 

In our lives, the meanings, functions, and reference of our words are
determined through what we do with language and things. These actions
are contingent, and not necessary elements of words themselves.
McLuhan has an even simpler conception of language, but one that isn’t reductive in the sense that I described last post. He has a thoroughly materialist view of what language is (and I share this basic conception): language is an assemblage of mental and social operations, funny noises, and written marks. When I type the word ‘stone,’ the word is an arrangement of pixels on a screen and data on a hard drive. Printed, it’s a pattern of ink on a page. Spoken, it’s a pattern of air pressures. None of these are an actual stone that I can kick down the street as I walk.

A metaphor is a word that is used to signify something other than what it is. The surf was a loving companion that would break you on a whim.** We use words to refer to lots of things in the world other than words themselves. The paradigm works of Analytic philosophy consider reference to objects in the world an essential component of meaningful words or propositions. But the act of reference itself transforms a word into a metaphor.

** I just finished reading a chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice that takes place in a small community of obsessive, mystically-minded surfers. It ends with an acid trip vision of the protagonist’s mysterious ex-girlfriend on a Triad-connected yacht in the south Pacific. It’s a wonderful book.

The constructions that we usually call metaphors are just unusual enough for us to notice this. Most of our word use has become so habitual that we don’t readily perceive that our words, as sounds and marks, don’t have any necessary connection to their referents. There’s nothing inherently right about me saying ‘tree’ any more than there’s anything inherently wrong in Pierre saying ‘arbre.’ ‘Hello’ has no more necessary connection to the act of greeting someone than ‘Ni Hao.’ 

Our complex language systems developed contingently over many thousands of years from the first grumbling vocalizations. The functions our words achieve define them. Language works when we all use the best words to achieve what we want.

If there were necessary connections between words and their objects, then there would be no major differences between languages. We would perceive an object and know precisely what sounds to make when we refer to it. The words themselves would be extensions of the things into our thoughts.

There are traditions of thought that hold there to be necessary correspondences of words and things, but they aren’t exactly held in high esteem by conservative circles of Analytic philosophy of language. I’m referring to the mystical language concepts that anthropologists discovered in several indigenous cultures. McLuhan discusses an Inuit who, when asked why his word for ‘stone’ is what it is, said that the word ‘stone’ is an extension of all stones in the world. If it was not, then how could it refer to them?

Metaphorical Words? I: In Search of a Real Question, A History Boy, 20/01/2015

Here’s another idea in the McLuhans’ Laws of Media that stuck into me as I was reading through this book. The role of metaphor in language, and the meanings of words. 

I first encountered philosophy that explored this topic in Donald Davidson’s writings. It was the last year of my undergraduate degree, and I was coordinating Memorial University’s philosophical discussion group, Jockey Club. This was one of the papers that one of our participants brought in my first months on the job, over the summer semester as I transitioned out of full-time work at The Muse, the university’s student newspaper.

In that first Jockey Club discussion of "What Metaphors
Mean," I'll never forget the recurring example of a
clearly meaningless metaphor, "Love is a fish."
“What Metaphors Mean” was a very uninspiring essay to me, and I should say that I don’t pretend to give a definitive take. I don’t have a copy of the paper anymore, I haven’t read it since 2005, and I’m not about to pirate a copy and read the whole thing again for the sake of a blog entry of a few hundred words in between modules of a research ethics tutorial.*

* I find it ironic that, despite finishing a doctoral degree in philosophy, I never had to complete the Canadian Tri-Council training program in proper ethical conduct in research until my communications program. I’m not totally sure what that says about philosophy as a discipline (maybe another sign of its distance from the lived reality of people?) but I don’t have the energy to go into that again.

I found “What Metaphors Mean” the most depressing example I had read until then of what I call deflationary philosophy. It was an argument that what you might think is an interesting problem isn’t actually worth talking about. It’s the one principle that makes me anything of a partisan in the Analytic – Continental conflict in philosophy. 

Most of the time, when a philosophy professor makes a big deal about the worth, or lack thereof, of one side or another of this divide, he or she just repeats the same empty dogma that they learned from their original supervisors. But Analytic philosophy did have one core fundamental problem** in its definitive years.

** Continental philosophy, from my own personal perspective, has one core fundamental problem in its definitive years as well, and his name was Martin Heidegger.

It began in just circumstances, as a rebellion against the conservatism and quietism of British Idealism at Cambridge. The movement’s major weapon was a set of tools for logical analysis of propositions and statements, articulating them in a form that would clearly display their truth conditions, the foundation of a proposition’s fundamental meaning. 

If logical analysis showed a statement’s truth conditions to be unclear and impossible to clarify, then it had no sense. Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore were the main figures arguing that all of metaphysics itself was nonsense. Unable to clarify the meaning of the core questions, they could not be settled. The traditional subjects of philosophical discussion were, in essence, not worth talking about. 

The deflationary thought of
Donald Davidson.
Davidson’s essay, at least in my decade-old memory of it, delivered to me the conclusion that the meaning of metaphors were one of these nonsensical topics. By the time Davidson published his metaphor paper in 1978, much of Analytic philosophy was in an uproar, as many of the old metaphysical topics were returning to respectable discussion through the previously entirely respectable fields of logic. 

From exploring the logic and truth conditions of counterfactuals, David Lewis developed a theory of possible worlds really existing, not just as imagined postulates for the sake of an inference, but as actual planes of reality. From developing a systematic logic of necessity and possibility, Saul Kripke introduced a new approach to the metaphysics of possibility.

So to read this essay about metaphor that struck me as so reactionary, even before I knew this history as well as I do, disappointed me. Davidson’s basic argument was quite simple. Metaphors use words in picturesque ways that do not match their proper referents. Since they don’t match their proper referents, words used as metaphors no longer have meaning. They may evoke, but there is no longer any meaning. 

I still remember, at ten years’ remove, Davidson’s argument as assertively reductive. Because metaphors had removed themselves from the realm of meaning, there was nothing more that could be said about them philosophically, no question worth asking, no inquiry worth exploring. 

I couldn’t have called it such at the time, but it was a perfect example of deflationary thinking. And it actually depressed me. I’ve read work by writers who see the world and human life as existentially empty and devoid of purpose, who analyze the most horrifying crimes and horrors humanity can produce. None of these struck my soul in quite the same way as the declaration that we should discard an idea as conceptually rich as the metaphorical power of words. To be continued. . . . 

Corporate Lifestyle and the Limits of Conception, Research Time, 19/01/2015

Part of my research in my Communications program involves hunting down actual corporate communications plans, to study their structures and how they set out actionable steps in abstract terms. My jobs will eventually involve writing and preparing these documents and putting them into action, so I should learn about them.

However, corporate communications plans are confidential documents. Firms or employees produce them for their clients or bosses. So you don’t exactly find professional-quality communications plans just lying around online to be found on the front page of a simple google search.

Until you find the communications plan that Edelman & Assoc. wrote for one of their top clients, TransCanada, lying around online to be found on the front page of a simple google search. My thanks to Greenpeace for finding me such excellent educational material. I don’t actually want to work for a firm like Edelman or Hill & Knowlton, in the long run, precisely because their major clients are often petroleum companies or monarchist governments. I’d like to work for a company whose business I have no moral qualms with, like most businesses that exist.

Satires of corporate culture are often cartoonish. The Kids
in the Hall were some of the best, and the craziest. But
even the most exaggerated parody, at its best, is
brilliantly insightful about the essence of what it mocks.
But a plan like this makes an excellent template, if not for its content, then for its quality as a communications plan alone. This was clearly produced by a group of the best people at one of the world’s top public relations firms. They’ve done excellent research in identifying the stakeholders in the Energy East bitumen pipeline project, the communities most likely to support the pipeline, and a variety of strategies and tools to reach and mobilize those people.

Yet there is still one area of the plan that strikes me as a blind spot. It occurs in a late section, where they talk about how to react to messages from opposition groups, particularly environmentalist non-governmental organizations. These are groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Quebec’s Équiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Environmental Network. 

There’s an innocuous, but telling line in a discussion of how well groups like this have incorporated technology and social media to organizing their activism. The report says they “long ago adopted grassroots as part of their organizational DNA.” I could be making far too much of a single line, but sometimes, some very insightful philosophical thinking comes from focus on innocuous, throwaway comments.*

* An example in the recent history of philosophy. Both Peter Singer and Jacques Derrida began their landmark works on animal rights from a reflection on a single footnote in the works of Jeremy Bentham about the moral imperative of acknowledging suffering.

The authors of the communications plan refer to grassroots organizing as something that Edelman and its client TransCanada still need to work on. And it refers to grassroots organizing a tool that environmentalist organizations adopted to spread their messages and accomplish their goals. It refers to the environmentalist organizations themselves as the prime movers of environmentalist campaigns against oil pipelines in ecologically sensitive areas.**

** Seriously, I could not work on a project that would take on the interests of a major petroleum company. Their major seaport in Quebec for tanker ships at the town of Cacouna also hosts a major beluga whale sanctuary. And their job is to work toward making people okay with this. And I’m not okay with any of that.

It’s as if environmentalist lobbying and publicity organizations were the mobilizers of the environmentalist social movement, in the same manner as Edelman and TransCanada aim to mobilize a movement of people to support the construction of pipelines. That vision of organizations’ relationship to the environmentalist movement is, quite simply, false.

Environmentalism began as a social movement of individual activists communicating with each other as they mobilized their local communities and connected across a variety of different local interests. The organizations were a product of the local movements as they raised funds and built the communications and lobbying infrastructure to coordinate action on national and global scales. The best environmental organizations still take their agendas from local movements throughout their national, continental, and global constituencies.

It’s quite speculative of me to make this last point, but what better place is there for speculation than a blog. Environmentalist activists don’t typically interact with the people who go to work for the world’s largest public relations firms. Their working cultures are likewise extremely different. 

Local activists meet each other wherever they go, building connections among disparate groups and funnelling their concerns to advocacy organizations. Employees of a public relations agency follow the orders of their superiors in the company, and the general directives of the company itself. Activists mobilize from the bottom upward. Public relations strategists mobilize from the top downward, and this communications plan is a strategy document for such a mobilization.

I wonder, if you work long enough in the latter kind of organization, and immerse yourself in its culture for so long and so deeply, that other ways of mobilizing become difficult to conceive. That Edelman communications plan is the strategy for an organization to mobilize an otherwise passive populace on behalf of a client company, TransCanada. 

Perhaps Edelman’s strategists imagine their client’s opponents in an environmentalist advocacy organization as having parallel practices. They imagine that, like TransCanada, an organization like Équiterre has its own interests that its own public relations staff mobilizes an otherwise passive populace to promote. Do they even believe that it’s possible for the people to mobilize the organization to advocate for their interests?

A Life in Shelves, A History Boy, 16/01/2015

I’ve been packing up a lot of my books over the last week, as we prepare to move to Toronto at the end of the month. It’ll be easier this time, even though we’re moving to an entirely different city and last year we were moving across the street. We actually acted like reasonable adults with real jobs and responsibilities and hired a moving company from Brampton. Reviews will follow.

Not only is this very much a new beginning for me, with the bright new town of Toronto laid before me, a vibrant and promising while also risky and extremely unknown new career to start, and all the other stereotypical bullcrap phrases and clichéd descriptions of looking optimistically toward the future that I could barely allow myself to type even in a sarcastic context. I’m also thinking a lot about my past, and how that’s taken me here.

And the part of the deep and nuanced reflection on my own idiosyncratic history that’s led me to this delicate point of regeneration is that I’m noting what books I want to re-read. That’s all I’m going to talk about this post.

I think that if I'd studied more sociology in courses,
I would have had more casual encounters with
Bourdieu, but I don't know how effective a casual
encounter alone would be.
I have a Pierre Bourdieu book that I bought a couple of years ago, but that I never got around to finishing. Pascalian Meditations was one of his last books, and a summation of many of the deeper philosophical influences and ideas that underlay his straightforwardly sociological studies. I actually find his dense writing style quite fascinating, and his ideas about society and human nature converge a lot with my own, but from very different perspectives and priorities.

I packed up Soul Mountain the other day, Gao Xingjian’s masterpiece. Inspired by his own solitary walks through the interior of China, existentially renewing himself after a mistaken cancer diagnosis, a victim of the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Gao writes the story of a man whose own subjecthood tears itself apart as a beautiful drama of mental mirrors. I’ve been meaning to re-read this for so long. It’s been almost a decade. 

There’s a massive Oscar Wilde collection that I’ve had with me ever since I moved out of my mother’s house, but I haven't cracked it open since I lived there. And a biography of Japanese Emperor Hirohito that I once bought for $2. And an old copy of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. One of those antique softcovers small enough to fit in your pants or purse pocket.

As two good friends moved at different points over the last few years, one to Toronto and one to Chicago (who has since moved to Toronto), they each gave me a couple of different books by Jürgen Habermas. Apart from a few essays scattered here and there around courses and reading groups, I’ve never just sat down for a while and read Habermas. 

Because our apartment will be bigger than this one, I’m eventually going to get more bookshelves. So I’ll need more books, of course. I want finally to complete my collection of Douglas Adams fiction with the second Dirk Gently book and The Salmon of Doubt, the blend of Gently and Hitchhikers that was unfinished at his death. And Gareth Roberts’ adaptation of Adams’ old Doctor Who story Shada. I’d listened to the audio reconstruction with Paul McGann and it still holds up. Roberts is in a lot of ways an artistic child of Adams. 

There are still a few books by Gilles Deleuze that I don’t have. I want the Francis Bacon (the artist) book, the Clinical and Critical (or is it the other way around) essay collection, his book on Foucault. And when I’m making more money, hard copies of my favourite ebooks: Rosi Braidotti’s The PostHuman, anything by Clarice Lispector, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (if only to shake my fist at it in the morning), Ralph Ellison. Definitely more J. G. Ballard. 

I like to read long, difficult, ambitious books. So what?
And to start reading the Jewish traditions as well. I want to start with Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, because those were favourite authors of my old friend Arnold. Then more hardcore theology and philosophy. Along with more Emmanuel Levinas, who Arnold always said was more deeply influenced by Jewish ethical philosophy than official academic consensus would ever say.

I also want to slowly complete my Thomas Pynchon. I bought Against the Day first, because I’m a crazy person, and McMaster’s bookstore was selling it for only $6.50 in a 2008 clearance. Two years ago, I read Gravity’s Rainbow because if not now, when? And I’ve started Inherent Vice because the movie is out, and I’d like to absorb both concurrently. Maybe I’ll get Bleeding Edge next. Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49 after that. Then V because his first one isn’t really supposed to be his greatest or anything. Last would be Mason and Dixon, because it’s supposed to be the maddest, and I want to build my anticipation as long as possible.

I’m in it for the long game.

Embedded Critical Thought III: Entangling Our Knowledge and Critique, 15/01/2015

Continued from last post . . . Marshall McLuhan’s work was revolutionary because, at least in part, of how he studied the media in terms of its affectivity. This is literally how the physicality of the medium itself engaged us as consumers. Particular forms of media required corresponding specific activity on the consumer’s part. How we have to engage physically with a medium of information transmission conditions is a separate issue from how we can engage mentally with its content. 

The problem of engaging with media through an acoustic epistemic space is that it enraptures us. The McLuhans’ central example in these first sections of Laws of Media is the poetic recitation. Recitation is how ancient Greeks learned their culture’s history, the founding myths of their nations, and the most profound ontological insights of their philosophical mysticism.

Alphabetic writing is the gateway to abstraction in thinking, to detachment from the flow of spoken and sung words. This is the transition from worshipful reflection on the spoken words of sages to the quiet, thoughtful meditation on the written words of philosophers.* Public performance is replaced by private reading. Not entirely at once, of course, but the transition begins with the adoption of alphabetic writing. Then the first great artists of the silent written art emerge. We can read the dialogues of Plato, brilliant enough compositions that they are. The dialogues of Aristotle are lost, and we are left only with his dry, meticulous lecture notes. 

* Socrates, as fits his nature, is an aberration. His philosophizing was an oral practice, but he demanded that his audience be his partners, accosting people on the street and asking them profound questions about the nature of justice, truth, piety, etc. Think of him as the first person (at least in our familiar story of ancient Greek philosophy, if not its messier truth) to push abstract thought into public life. Reactions were so hostile because his medium, speech and sound, assaulted people with his words instead of seducing them, as words do when they're sung, as well as on pages and screens.

The Socrates most of us know is a creature of pure myth.
McLuhan calls the abstract, detached engagement with the world an epistemically visual character. The world is laid before you in your thinking as a field from which you’re distant, a step back. The trajectory of its development leads to what Thomas Nagel called the view from nowhere, the God’s eye view of the world.

The problem with this is that we’re not gods. The notion of total objectivity in human knowledge is a lie. We can map partial perspectives and views in context, always improving how we understand their relations to each other. A metallurgist can’t really think the same way a physicist does, and certainly not how a historian of literature or a medical doctor would. 

But we can understand how each of these knowledge disciplines approach the world, find their areas of overlap, or at least relate the ideas and guiding notions of each to the other. There is no overarching theory of everything, as the cliché goes. Knowledge is multifaceted. Our ability to abstract and theorize helps us investigate and systematize all the subjects, facts, and ideas in our different knowledge disciplines. The objectivity of knowledge required to build these disciplines and practices is an important advantage to the visual mode of experience and thought.

The McLuhans examine the new media of the 20th century in terms of its return to the acoustic character that defines most of our transmission-based audio-visual media. We now encounter phone calls and radio broadcasts, movies and television, all unfolding before us through voice. The television is a recitation, spilling out word by word and sound by sound. Although we haven’t exactly stopped reading, the new media is shifting the character of our experiences.

So they consider seriously the possibility that our senses of individuality and subjectivity will begin to melt away as our media takes on a more acoustic character. But even if I grant them (which I’m hesitant to do) the notion that abstraction itself is a Greek invention, a by-product of alphabetic thinking, the growing immediacy of our media experiences won’t return us to the Greek model.

The power to abstract your thinking doesn’t go away once it’s been developed. Marshall McLuhan’s originality lay in how he analyzed the media for its physical affects, literally how language, sounds, and images hit us as a function of the physical possible movements of their media. But thought plays an equal role in our experience of media. Content runs parallel to affect, but content itself is still an affect. It’s just cognitive rather than visceral.

An image that I feel inspired David Cronenberg's Brian O'Blivion.
Here’s where the lesson for professional communicators appears, days after I first teased it. How we understand our media products and how media affect us viscerally and cognitively is now part of those affects and experiences. McLuhan’s own role as a media educator helps open acoustically experienced media to abstract analysis simply by having written educational books about the media. We absorb those ideas, and they become part of the mental frameworks for our experience of all media.

So there will always be some kernel of truth to McLuhan’s analysis. People will be more disposed to believe a charismatic speech or performance in front of them or on video than they will to read an email or argument to convince them of the same thing. The spoken word will always have the power to enrapture, and the written word will always permit the reader to stand in critical detachment.

But I feel as though McLuhan has partially invalidated some of his own conclusions by having been such a popular and effective media educator. We can bring the habits of thinking that we learn in an abstract perspective to understand what engaging media that unfolds verbally and viscerally in real time does to us. 

Becoming self-conscious of our consciousnesses, which McLuhan in considerable part has taught our civilization to do, disrupts us from falling into the easy habits of passive rapture. Communicators must write to the form of their media, and write for an audience of potential media critics. That’s what we all are now.

Embedded Critical Thought II: You Become a Mere Spectator, Research Time, 14/01/2015

Continued from last post . . . Philosophy romanticizes ancient Greek civilization. Anyone who’s been exposed to the discipline on a casual basis has seen this in some form. Myself, I’ve seen the romantic attitude toward the life of Socrates as a role model for philosophy, I’ve seen Plato described as having defined the core, eternal problems of the discipline. I’ve also read a good chunk of Heidegger, who considered the pre-Socratic ancient Greek sages as the paradigm philosophers. 

I find the McLuhans’ engagement with Greek culture and modes of experience more enlightening than a lot of what I’ve read in philosophy proper* because they’re critical of its shortcomings while also aware of its advantages. Their particular focus is on ancient Greek culture before the development of alphabetic writing, a form of abstraction in linguistic thought that they analyze as having begun a process of abstraction in how Western cultures approached knowledge.

My old philosophy department at McMaster taught a
communications course, but it was the ethics of
communications, discussing truthfulness, lying, privacy
rights, and the one-per-week discussion of general ethical
theories over the first five weeks. Not one hint of actual
ontological philosophy of communications media itself.
* I say philosophy proper because, even though McLuhan is widely regarded as a philosopher, especially in public discussion of his work, I was never actually taught his work in a philosophy department. This was the case for all the departments where I was a student, and any department that hosted a philosophy conference. The only academic conference I ever attended in my time as a university worker that dealt with McLuhan at all was the International Conference on the Book 2012. It was an interdisciplinary conference, with a hefty dose of media history and theory, that changed its location every year. The 2012 conference happened at University of Toronto, and in honour of its host, a couple of keynotes discussed the work of its favourite son. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at any of the research concentrations of its philosophy professors.

Alphabetic writing and its accompanying abstraction in thought was, in McLuhan’s account, the genesis of true self-consciousness. Its abstraction detached you from the visceral qualities of your encounters with language. I should say, linguistic affects; literally how spoken and written words smacked you around in the course of your daily life, and how the changing character of those constant smacks transformed how you thought about yourself.

While I find a lot of useful concepts and ideas in Laws of Media, their discussion of alphabetic abstraction as the literal foundation of self-consciousness has a little too much essentialism for my liking. Let me put it this way: they explain this idea, in chapter two of the book, through a contrast of Western modes of subjective experience with Asian ones. 

Yeah, it sounds a little racist. Now, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt (the McLuhans are Torontonians, after all, which is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, even in the 1980s when Eric McLuhan finished this book), interpreting their discussion of this as referring to the streak of individualism in Western morality and conscious self-conceptions that isn’t really present in East Asian moralities.**

So about Ge'ez script, you guys?
** They make no mention of individualism in African or indigenous American moralities and self-conceptions. The cultures of those continents have a variety of writing systems: alphabets, syllabaries, pictographs, hieroglyphs, or no writing at all. And there doesn’t seem to be any analysis of any individualism that arises in Indian culture, which has used a popular alphabetic writing system for centuries. This is on top of the absence of Hebrew culture as the true origin of alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean.

But they actually write that Chinese people aren’t truly conscious of themselves as individuals, and that the Taiwan government’s state-administered mass adoption of an alphabetic shorthand script in the 1980s would transform their entire subjectivities within a couple of generations.

I work with a very different conception of the foundation of subjectivity in Ecology, Ethics, and The Future of Humanity, which is the autopoietic system generated from metabolic chemical reactions. It’s the simplest form of a physical membrane demarcating an inside and an outside, minimal physical discreteness. Being physically discrete and moving in the world as such a body is a more primal form of individuality than the McLuhans consider here. So as a physical phenomenon, individuality is fundamental to organic life.

So while McLuhan doesn’t always sound as if he’s talking about epistemic concepts, how we understand what we are, that’s what he’s talking about. Otherwise, he wouldn’t really make sense.*** Because there are epistemic advantages to our individualistic attitudes and the abstraction of our alphabetic thought processes. 

*** I sometimes think that this is why the more petty and dogmatic analytic philosophers I’ve encountered genuinely believe that Continental philosophy is nonsense and charlatanism. They presume that a discussion about knowledge which wouldn’t make sense if it were about reality is actually about reality.

The recitation media of the ancient Greek world required such constant attention as part of its engagement that you put so much effort into memorizing the words in real time and lose all your objectivity. You aren’t really able to judge or critique what’s told through recitation. 

This is why Plato’s vision of reason banned poets from the rational society. This is the kind of poetry he was talking about, epic recitation that sucked its audience in so deeply that it destroyed any ability to question or critique. The distance that abstract thought affords lets us question and investigate our cultural chroniclers. The McLuhans and I differ on whether electronic real-time media degrades our objectivity in the same way. To be continued. . . .