Why Futurism Matters Today IV: Why Imagine At All? Composing, 31/07/2015

Continued from last post . . . The utopian thinkers – whether they use that term or something like it or generally imagine or work toward a vision of a better society – all have a kind of optimism. Minimally, a utopian believes that human nature can be changed for the better. 

This is why transhumanists are usually thought of as utopians. This is why Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is a utopian book. It's why philosophy, when it's carried out as a creative art, is an essentially utopian discipline. It’s an activity that tries to change human nature for the better. 

Modern utopia lies in the visions of networked social
movements, as in this moment from a Black Lives
Matter protest in north Toronto this week.
I’ve sometimes heard rhetorical talk about libertarian utopias, usually as a means of dismissing libertarians as cranks and crazies. Utopian visionaries are often considered kind of crazy in a lot of popular discourse, mostly because the term can all too often evoke images of madmen in a desert or a forest calling their followers to build a new society in the wilderness. 

All too often, these kinds of visionaries are would-be prophets whose megalomania has interfered with their planning faculties. Quite regularly, ordinary office workers quit their unfulfilling jobs to build a self-sufficient community in the wilderness, where they'll commune with nature, a utopia that escapes the evils of technology. However, with no scientific or practical knowledge of farming, plumbing, or any basic survival skills, most of these communities end up collapsing. 

Yet Henri Bergson took seriously the concept of prophesy as a progressive force for humanity and human nature. An engagement with his Two Sources of Morality and Religion will be a centrepiece of the Utopias manuscript. 

The last third of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia describes a utopian community where everyone is free or organize along their own vision of perfection a society of themselves and whoever agrees with that vision. He calls freedom to choose and experiment with different ways of life to see what works and what doesn’t is a large-scale argument for the libertarian way of life. If freedom to choose is paradise, then restricting that freedom is to fall.

This give and take between a movement pushing for social progress and the ethical necessity of freedom is a significant aspect of modern politics. You can see it in the social media discussions that define so much of the politics of our era. On one side, you have the social justice warriors, whose campaigns call attention to dangerous, violent, and vile inequities of class, gender, and race in our society, and push for material change in our institutions and in our cultures and minds to address those inequities in profound ways. 

As with every discussion of politics lately, it comes
back again to Donald Trump.
On the other side,* you have the conservatives who wish to preserve their freedom to think in the racist, sexist, and uncritically capitalistic ways that are simultaneously embodied in the greasy jackassery of both Donald Trump and Travis Kalanick.

* Where I am manifestly not, as you can probably tell by now.

The libertarian critique of modern movement-based progressivism is that they accuse the social justice warrior of wishing to use the state to force their ideas on everyone with or without consent or deliberation. 

This manifestly isn’t true, because the essential framework of social movement activism is about changing minds. You expose people to different lives and experiences, talk with them about the systematic causes of the injustices in those experiences, and build solidarity to change the destructive relationships we’re all caught in. 

Some of those exposures are confrontational, but movement politics ultimately has to understand that every encounter is an opportunity for education, for changing minds.

But progressive politics is always going to be subject to this fear of the libertarians until we can acknowledge that, in figures like Marinetti and Italian Futurism most intensely and purely, the engine of progress is the tyranny of the state crushing all resistance to the new program of a perfect society. That’s what my Utopias project is all about.

Ultimately, I think my conclusion will be that progressive politics can only avoid the hypocrisy of tyranny and violence when it learns what Hayek and his new liberal followers get right: avoid the state and top-down enforcement of ideology as an engine of the social progress we want. 

My libertarian friend G once asked me why I believed that it was possible to improve humanity. “Don’t you believe in human nature?” he asked. I wanted to know what he meant, and he told me that humans were essentially self-interested, egotistical creatures who cared only about themselves and would be inherently violent to each other.

That was the root of our disagreement. I believe that people can change, and change for the better, if they open their minds to the possibility of difference and a systematic view of the world. That’s why I still write philosophy. It’s the tradition of developing new concepts, and those concepts can, conversation by conversation, change the world.

Why Futurism Matters Today III: Power From the People, Jamming, 30/07/2015

So that was an inflammatory way to end the last post. Understanding exactly what this means takes a few minutes of pretty deep philosophy, but the idea is actually pretty easy to understand. It’s about following individualism in all contexts to its farthest possible conclusions.

If you’re a pure individualist, as the general libertarian perspective is, you believe that all human processes are entirely a matter of individual thinking. All group, national, social, institutional activities reduce without remainder to the thoughts and actions of the individuals that compose all these things. 

We shouldn't raise our children to trust the state or the
police uncritically because they're institutions that use
the threat of lethal force (whether through guns or
prison) to control a population. The proper role of the
police is as our servants; the people's servants.
One implication of this reductive individualism is that there are no social phenomena aside from the sum total of individuals’ beliefs and actions. So the constant mutual antagonism and hostility of black people and police officers across the United States doesn’t have anything to do with some cause that exists at a social level of analysis. There is no social to analyze, so you’ll just chase a bunch of fictions.

The problem of police violence against blacks and other minorities in the United States (or anywhere), for a reductive individualist, is in the individual beliefs of each black civilian and each police officer in each confrontation in isolation. You have to consider each singular confrontation in isolation because generalizing across confrontations for common trends and causes is nonsense, because it refers to social causes and social causes don’t exist.

Reductive individualist thinking is the fundamental reason behind, for one example close to my patriotic heart, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s gutting of our national census’ ability to gather workable information about the population, and his wider ideological hostility to sociology as a science. 

Sociology is the science of social causes. Reductive individualism says these causes don’t exist because there are no social causes beyond individuals’ actions and beliefs. So a reductive individualist believes that sociology is a junk science, a con job, a waste of money chasing after non-existent entities. Like society.

There’s also a political motivation to the refusal to believe in social causes. It has to do with the politics of the 19th and early 20th centuries, where progressives saw the state as the means to achieve a perfect society as fast as possible. This is why the libertarian right equates communism and socialism with Nazism. 

Before the Second World War, both communist and conservative fascist political movements advanced a vision of the perfect society, and wanted to use the state to achieve it. The state was the means by which a higher consciousness came to exist: the nation, as a unified whole. This concept of the nation overwrote individual identity* with a collective.

* An idea that finds its roots in Georg Hegel’s political philosophy, which saw the development of the European nation-state as a progressive evolution in humanity’s consciousness, an evolution grounded in the universal structure of rationality itself. I don’t think a lot of people fully understand just how weird the 19th century was.

The individualists are right that these collectives don’t exist. Every decision made in the name of a collective’s progress results in terror or fatal sacrifice for too many individuals to be a just path for politics. Physically, the concept of the social collective simply doesn’t fly. 

The morality of a genuinely collective creature would
be terrifying to humans, though I do explore some of
its implications in my sci-fi work.
Consciousness of yourself as a self at the individual level of action is too integral a part of human cognition, psychologically, neurologically, and biologically speaking, that it’s genuinely impossible for us to subsume our desires and personalities into a collective entity. That kind of self-consciousness is for ants. In humans, it takes so much authoritarian discipline that we essentially become broken organisms. 

Yet society does exist. It’s not a collective, but an aggregate. A social movement is the combined physical force of individuals communicating with each other to act together as communities. A social movement is an enormous community, a lobby group organized from person to person in a huge network. 

A social movement works to achieve systematic changes in society, because institutions and social systems are aggregates of individual actions and histories. Statist and collective politics take the power of individuals to flow from an origin in states and institutions, higher unities. Social movement politics is literally a flow from the ground, from networks. 

Solidarity comes from material relationships between people who mutually understand that they share interests and desires, or that some material condition will benefit them all. Hayek never conceived of this kind of solidarity, even though he used these very techniques to build the international community of think tanks that promote his vision of economics and politics. 

The solidarity of aggregates is much more volatile than the solidarity of a true collective would be, though. You don’t see ants striking for higher wages in the fungus farm. Treating humans as a collective breeds resistance and rebellion, but organizing humans as a united aggregate takes constant negotiation and alliance building. 

Scratch that last – friendship building.

But there’s an inherent optimism, or at least hope, to the politics of social movements – solidarity, friendship, and the dedication to achieving justice for all from each of us. That optimism isn’t present in collective or statist politics because authoritarian control is always the default method to move people.

And that optimism is, ironically it might seem at first, nowhere in the libertarian right. It’s because of, no matter what a modern liberal will tell you, libertarianism’s thick roots in the liberal philosophy of politics. . . To be continued.

Why Futurism Matters Today II: It’s Not Just the Economy, Research Time, 29/07/2015

Continued from last post . . . Some of my friends who also knew them like to dismiss my old libertarian trolls C & G as cranks and weirdos. Freaks, basically. 

But the last few years of politics convinced me that my two years of friendship with them was a case study in new liberal thinking at the everyday level. This is especially true for the conservative and economic right-wing forces that mobilized against the Obama Presidency in the United States and to crush the resurgence of progressive values in Occupy.

Edward Snowden is a hero to libertarians and social
progressives, but that's as far as the alliance between
modern right and left social movements go.
New liberalism and the libertarian values that underlie and endorse neoliberalism as a popular movement are fundamentally about shrinking the role of the state in people’s everyday lives. And I feel like I should be with them for that reason. One topic that has the most potential to bring the libertarians and progressives together (and in some places, has already) is in opposition to aggressive state police, mass intelligence gathering, and destructive overseas military adventurism. 

While it helped a little when Snowden’s revelations first broke, I don’t know how the two opposed Western social movements of our era can achieve genuinely peaceful co-existence. Progressives and libertarians agree on one very specific, if materially massive, political problem: government mass data collection and spying has to stop.

Our disagreement is a much more fundamental matter, which means that thinking through and solving this problem is a task for philosophy. 

Those fundamental matters revolve around individualism and economics. I’ll talk about the economics first, with the caveat that I have mostly an average intelligent person’s understanding of the more detailed economic concepts.* I can tell you about the field’s basic concepts, the difference between Keynes and Hayek’s influences in the field, and why austerity politics are generally disastrous but people believe in them anyway. Ask me to build you a mathematical economic model and I’ll politely decline.

* Something I’d like to do for some later writing project is figure out how to build a non-capitalist, non-state economic system that would actually work in an ecologically stable context and avoid systematic injustices. Just to see if we can! The problem is that I’d need to work with a professional economist, and I haven’t yet found one who would even entertain these ideas.

I've said before that I think a severe deficiency in the
education of many university students is that few
political science or philosophy teachers give a critical
introduction to Hayek, because he's the single most
influential political thinker and activist of the last
In the shadow of Hayek’s ideas, particularly as they were expressed in his epoch-making popular book The Road to Serfdom, libertarians have become just as economically determinist as the orthodox Marxists** they despise. For Hayek, and for all the members of the libertarian social movement that followed in his wake, what makes a state totalitarian is who controls the economy. That’s it.

** Are there even any of these left?

I worked this out from reading the movement’s foundational philosophical works, conversations with individual libertarians like C, G, and others across the internet, and examining the journalistic and think tank discussions. The sole measure of freedom is how much control the state has over the economy, either as a whole or sector by sector.

Suggest that some restrictions on gun and other weapons sales would help encourage peaceful conflict resolution in everyday life? Absolutely not! When the state takes guns from its citizens or impedes their access to guns, it prevents them from resisting police and military crackdowns.

Have you considered the implications of Frantz Fanon’s descriptions of post-colonial paranoia? That civil conflict can all-too-easily emerge when people (and a local elite) hang onto an attitude that searches for enemies, maintaining solidarity through struggle instead of building culture? Fanon was an idiot! Post-colonial countries collapse into civil war because the state takes too much control over the economy and different interest groups will fight for that power.

Consider Hannah Arendt’s analyses of the racist aspects of totalitarian social and state movements, that they essentially bring colonial conquest home? Nonsense! Appeal to racist beliefs is an incidental piece of propaganda, nothing but a means to get people behind the state takeover of the economy. Besides, correcting racial injustice is just a scam for socialists to take from the rich to build a new upper class of state-funded minorities!

This last part is explicitly in Hayek’s analysis of Nazi politics, and where I think he seriously falls on his face. Unfortunately, since Road to Serfdom became gospel to the libertarian movement, his actual blindness is interpreted as insight into the essence of the problem.

What’s more, the libertarian perspective is so individualist that they don’t believe race exists. And not always in the good way, like understanding how race is a social category that first developed as a function of the trade in African slaves, and so can be overcome through political activism. It’s an individualism so strong that it doesn’t even permit you to acknowledge that RACISM exists . . . To be continued.

Why Futurism Matters Today I: As Fast As Possible, Composing, 28/07/2015

I first came up with the idea for my Utopias book from reading After the Future, a book about how the way we think of our future and human progress shapes our politics. The trippier concepts in that project will eventually revolve around these ideas of time, and how concepts of time affect what we believe about the inevitability of a better world.

Building a better world is, as far as I’m concerned, the primary goal of philosophical writing. Philosophy develops the ideas and concepts with which we can think about our potentials and ambitions for what our society, civilization, and planet can become.* This is the central mission of my upcoming book, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.

* I know a fair number of folks in philosophy who believe that it's about uncovering fundamental truths. Well, that may have been true when philosophy was the discipline that included all the fundamental sciences, but that's not the case anymore. If you want truth, you do some good science or good journalism. Philosophical thinking has been left to its creative possibilities, which I argue is the better for it, because it foregrounds philosophy as an engine of social and planetary progress.

The images of Fritz Lang's Metropolis articulated the desires and fears of all modernity.
Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity builds a conception of what an individual human subject is, which is better suited to living an ecologically sustainable lifestyle. When you think of yourself in the way it describes, your presumptions and instincts about how to live and what’s best will better articulate a more ecologically conscious lifestyle, and you’ll drive yourself harder to fight and change ecologically harmful systems, social & economic structures, and institutions.

Utopias will be a book that grapples with this project through a central question that’s more about method: What’s the precise power of these self-conceptions that open and close so many possibilities without our even needing to be aware of them?

Utopias will also be a very critical book about our current politics. The self-conceptions that drive contemporary Western politics are that we conceive of ourselves as technological and as free individuals in the liberal sense. 

Because it’s a philosophical book, I’m developing a peculiarly philosophical way of criticizing these aspects of current politics. I’m looking for the purest expressions of the self-conception of Technological Man and the self-conception of the Individual. I’ve found those expressions in, respectively, Italian Futurism (particularly the manifestos of Filippo Marinetti) and modern libertarianism (the trifecta of Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, and Ayn Rand). 

These visions are linked in some very complex ways. Untangling them has been the task of many different writers in many different disciplines and subject areas. I’m not about to pretend that my books are the definitive word, or offer a totally comprehensive guide – only that they’re a contribution worth having, and remarkable on their individual insights and merits. 

The modern libertarian movement is based on the idea
that almost all state services, even the ones that bring
direct material benefits to people in need, are
inescapably totalitarian and must be destroyed to
protect our individual freedoms.
I think one of those insights is that my approach to criticizing destructive politics and economics targets one of the most insidious ideas of modern politics: that progressivism in all its stripes is fascist and totalitarian. 

I think it’s important that we take this seriously because millions of people actually believe that simple government-based means of trying to make society more fair – public transit, state health insurance plans, daycare subsidies, restrictions on weapon ownership and trade, regulations on investment banking, legalizing unions, even simply having a public pension fund – brings state control over the lives of free individuals, which is essentially totalitarian.

It sounds ridiculous, but these are the bedrock values of many in the American Tea Party movement, in libertarian-influenced popular thinking across the West, and the official ideology of all the think tanks that grew from the original meetings of the Mt. Pelerin Society. The freaky part is, there is a legitimate truth behind this paranoia.

Marinetti’s writing and political activism provides the clearest expression of that truth, which all progressives have to confront if we’re going to defeat new liberal conservatism for good. Marinetti was a progressive in many ways. 

His manifestos crusaded against injustices that would make him admirable to a modern progressive, and I found myself enthused and amped by his writing, even against my better judgment. 

Marinetti was against Church power and control over people’s lives, against the social infantilization and economic subjection of women, against pre-WWI Italy’s crony politics and servitude of the rich and powerful. He wanted to empower working people to control his country’s industry, largely through trade unions. He advocated for universal education, constant progress and innovation in the arts and sciences.

But Marinetti also wanted Italy to wage colonial wars to conquer huge swaths of Africa in the name of national glory. He was a deep racist who thought lesser people should be crushed under superior Italian culture. His universal education would have included regimented military training – every young boy was a stormtrooper in training. He dreamed of clearing all the forests and swamps in Europe to build superhighways, mega-cities, and factory complexes the size of Naples.

All in the name of progress. And the engine of this change would be the authoritarian hand of the state because only the state could achieve the ends of progress to a perfect society as fast as physically possible, steamrolling all resistance and even mild critics. . . . To be continued.

Announcing the World’s Slowest Radical Book Tour, Composing, 27/07/2015

Today is a simple post. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is out in about three weeks, and I've already started outreach to some places to promote it. That’s why the world's slowest radical book tour has begun to take shape.

When you convince your university's
library to carry my book, you'll be
able to read it for free (as long as
you're a student). By the time you
graduate, the softcover should be out.
I should clarify this obviously premature release to start. I have yet to book a single promotional event. I’ve only just begun outreach to some folks I know who work at different universities around the world about ordering some copies for their campus libraries and departments. 

I’m also preparing a presentation on the book, specifically its key political ideas, that I’d present. I plan to give talks at campuses as a guest speaker of departments and classes, as well as less formal locations like public meeting spaces or galleries, around Toronto and the wider region. And I’ll also arrange remote presentations at locations farther away to promote the book without spending too much of my travel budget.*

* Which at the moment, are passes for the TTC and GO Transit, as well as an internet connection.

All these talks, whether remote or in the same room, however long they'll eventually proceed, add up to the World’s Slowest Radical Book Tour.

I have no idea whether it's actually the slowest book tour in the world, but I can claim the label if only as a matter of branding. 

Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is for people who like books that make them think, who care about environmental issues, and are fascinated by science, philosophy, politics, and social movements. It helps you draw connections between all these different areas of human knowledge in a way that helps you understand our collective condition. 

What must humanity be to have landed ourselves in this ecological mess we've turned the Earth into? What must humanity become to crawl ourselves out in one piece?

These promotions focus on universities right now because EEFH is being published in Palgrave's academic stream, their series labelled Studies on the Future of Humanity and Its Successors. It’s a series on transhumanism, and my peculiarly ecological take is sure to make the series stand out in the field. 

Transhumanism has been dominated by visions of technology transforming humanity into a form that overcomes all its problems, an escape from the messy reality of life as biological beings. We'll live forever in worlds of absolute pleasure and fulfillment and never go hungry again. Literally, that’s what typical transhumanists write.

Not that there aren’t more sensible transhumanists in the West’s intellectual world. The most sensible one I know is my formidable opponent who introduced me to Palgrave in the first place. Despite that, transhumanist discourse needs a firm kick up the rhetorical backside.

And the best foot for it is a Green one.

More than that, the World Slowest Radical Book Tour is my first tentative step to bring creative philosophy out of the academy and into a popular space. This is why the book tour will take so long. The university-based phase over the 2015-6 academic year will promote Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity to the academic markets that can afford its launch price. 

After that comes the softcover, which will be more accessible and ride on some of the initial buzz around campuses that the university phase of the tour will create. Philosophy is, and always was, a tradition of thought and discussion as well as an academic discipline. It was a tradition long before it was in the academy, and philosophy will continue long after the academy changes so much that there's no longer a place for it there.

It won’t continue, however, unless all of us who care about it put some effort and ingenuity into taking a few of the tradition's eggs out of the campus basket. Some have started it, but the movement can grow. One person's efforts at a time.
• • •
Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity will be available from Palgrave MacMillan on August 19. Philosophy students, graduate workers, temporary and permanent faculty, ask your departments and libraries to carry a copy or three. The tradition isn’t over.

Truth Is the Egg that Splats on Your Face, Jamming, 24/07/2015

I was always planning to write about something in the news for Friday. After a few more philosophical and historical posts about my research, I thought I was due. But one of my Twitter friends linked an article this week that made me want to explore a problem in public relations.

Yes, it was about Ashley Madison.*

* Probably better than my original idea, a rant about the Iran deal and the exhaustion of global American power.

And yes, the popular reception of the Ashley Madison hack was immensely hypocritical coming in the same week as Gawker's outing of a high-ranking Condé Nast editor who no one is now naming out of contrition.** Dan Savage said it well enough that I can simply link to it. Shaming one rich person for an affair is terrible, but humiliating and compromising 37 million regular people is fine.

** This even though we all know who it is from having read the original Gawker story. I can say it because, not only do we know who it is, I’m one guy with kind of an anti-authoritarian streak. It’s David Geithner. Tim Geithner’s brother. Who is married to a woman and has sex with men. Soap opera country.

So incredibly cheesy.
That’s a moment of popular hypocrisy that I can acknowledge and move on. Because I’m most interested in exploring an analysis at PR News about how Ashley Madison’s public relations department was caught flat-footed by the hack. Well, as anyone would be with such a catastrophic compromise in your company’s confidential data.

The brief set of solutions that the article’s author, Matthew Schwartz, recommended have to do with maintaining a solid relationship between the PR and IT department. Ashley Madison’s major PR messages were that their information was absolutely secure from any hack, attack, or thievery. They promoted themselves as “the last truly secure space on the internet.”

If the PR folks had interacted with the IT department, they would have known that there is no truly absolute security on the internet. Every security system has its vulnerabilities, simply because of the complexity of software architecture, and the rigid nature of the logic of computer programs.

A company’s level of internet security is only as strong as its attackers are weak. If your data is secure, it’s only because no one has thought of how they can steal it – yet. 

Always, there is yet.

This is true. It’s a basic truth of internet security that you can glean from an afternoon chatting with your company’s IT folks over coffee, or reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I don’t think the problem was that Ashley Madison PR was somehow not knowledgeable about how internet security works.

The problem was that the priority of Ashley Madison’s PR department was not set to respect the company’s duty to be honest with their clients about the limits of internet security. Their priority was to disseminate messages that would encourage people to gravitate to Ashley Madison when they wanted adulterous services.

That’s a marketing priority. And it’s very easy for marketing priorities to leave out information that complicates how someone understands a company’s business, if that information would make them skeptical. 

“Ashley Madison is perfectly secure” is a simple message that encourages people to use the website for their secret sex transactions. “Ashley Madison does a generally very good job with security and we hire the best people, but at a particular level, we’re still constantly playing catch-up to the innovations of cyber-criminals and web malignants, just like every other business and government on Earth,” not so much.

The troubling part about PR is that it can be in the department’s best interests to obscure information that would make people think twice about becoming customers or clients. It’s the company’s best interests too, at least in the immediate frame of reference. 

Ultimately, PR is caught between the need to draw people to their business and the need to be open and honest with the people who’ve trusted their business. 

It isn’t a lie to omit a truth, but trust requires openness.

The Meaning of a Meaningless Coincidence II: Who I Am, Composing, 23/07/2015

Continued from last post . . . One concept, the subject as field. Merleau-Ponty developed this idea through philosophical work on the phenomenology of tactile perception. I picked up this concept and adapted it into my ecological conception of the subject, the heart of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity's program of philosophical eco-activism. 

Violence was central to so many of the metaphors and
images that Marinetti would use to explain his art,
politics, philosophy, and the whole of existence.
Marinetti developed the concept through his artistic reflections and experiments on tactile sensation. What’s more, he conceived those sensations as playing out in experience through metaphors of fistfighting. Marinetti always comes back to violence.

Writing traditional philosophy, I would have to dismiss this as a simple coincidence. Marinetti had no historical influence on Merleau-Ponty, so there's nothing here to learn about the history of philosophy.

But I’ve given up writing philosophy according to the conventions and rules of academic practice. EEFH was assembled according to the old rules (though I did push them a little), but Utopias will be a much more experimental text. So we can approach these coincidences as something to learn from. What can we learn?

We can learn something about human nature. The same concept of how the world is, the subject as field, arises in two thinkers independently, through two different means. Marinetti was always a fiercely patriotic soldier, he believed in the power of violence as an expression of strength and nobility, and he understood the field in terms of its power for violence.

Merleau-Ponty was a professor, always rather sedate. Much of his career was spent teaching philosophy, researching philosophy in libraries, or investigating neurological and perceptual science with France’s leading medical scientists and doctors. He died of a heart attack after writing only a few chapters of The Visible and the Invisible, the book where he would have explained in detail his concept of the subject as a dynamic field. 

His scattered, yet detailed, notes suggest that he would explain one important aspect of his touch-centric phenomenology as a worldly eros. We experience the world by touching it, commingling with it, everything literally penetrates everything else. 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was in many ways a
very peaceful man who lived a very peaceful,
contemplative life. Would that we all could.
This integration fuels the dynamic processes of existence. If Husserl’s vision-centric phenomenology was haunted by solipsism, the separation of the subject from the world, then Merleau's focus on touch conceived of the subject as intimately integrated with the world. 

The entire life of existence – its dynamisms, processes, generations, becomings, changes, natality, creativity, whatever you want to call it – is driven by the blending of objects as their fields touch and mingle.

So two very different conceptions of what a subject is sit at the centre of these philosophies, even though they share the same starting concept, that touch is the primary way in which bodies interact. 

Marinetti prioritizes violence and the power of industrial technology to crush all other orders of existence. So he develops an ethical and political philosophy of conquest, empire, and domination. Ecological sustainability and diversity is my priority, so in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, physical contact integrates us with the world, so that we come to love it as we love ourselves. 

We understand and conceive of our desires, hopes, fears, and dreams in universal form by building philosophical systems out of the concepts we use to understand the world. Our individual desires, hopes, fears, and dreams condition what concepts will occur most readily to us. We study the accidental common ground of two unrelated and very different thinkers so that we can better understand the machinery of human thought and ethics. Contrasting the coincidence, we understand better who and what we are.

The Meaning of a Meaningless Coincidence I: Questions, Composing, 22/07/2015

In the early days of Adam Writes Everything, when I was still very uncertain what precisely this blog was going to be, especially its content and tone, I wrote a couple of posts under a category called “Triangulation.” They were essentially comparisons of different thinkers and ideas.

Eventually, I decided not to write these anymore, because they didn’t actually seem very fertile for developing ideas. And they didn't seem all that engaging for readers. These are the two questions that I ask myself about whatever I post here. 1) Will writing a post push a vague idea in a creative direction or otherwise help me figure out something that puzzles me? 2) Would someone actually enjoy reading it?

Those early posts just plunked two coincidentally similar ideas next to each other. Sometimes, two or more writers discussed the same topic, and sometimes, one writer actually influenced the other and I wanted to think about how. But coincidences don’t really make good philosophy.

The influence of Marinetti's Tactilist art appears in a
decadent and depraved American Hollywood film.
Here’s an example. I noticed an odd coincidence reading an old Marinetti essay the other night. He was discussing the framework of a new approach to art that he called Tactilism. It was artwork that you were supposed to experience not by looking at it or listening to it, but by rubbing your hands over it. They were panels whose material was designed to the smallest detail to provoke a particular tactile sensation.

Marinetti described how he first thought of this idea when he was a soldier in the Great War, serving in the battles against Austria. He was stumbling through a trench in total darkness trying to find a place to sleep, his hand passing over dirt, metal, clothing, flesh. He realized that this was a whole new way of seeing the world, through touch. 

We hardly ever think about just how detailed our tactile sensations can be. So he developed a form of art that would emphasize tactility, let us develop our hands to higher capacities of perceptivity than we typically do.

As Marinetti thought about what touch actually was, he came to understand it as the fundamental sense. All other perceptions – visual, auditory, olfactory, proprioception, and so on – were derived from the basic nature of touch. All perception is detection of objects around us and moving through them. Touch and avoidance of touch.

It occurred to me that Marinetti’s insight, which he developed in the context of his artwork, was fundamentally the same as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s when, in the last years of his life, he developed a philosophy of perception that saw touch and physical contact as foundational to all experience. 

Merleau-Ponty was working in the sub-discipline of phenomenology, particularly the tradition of Edmund Husserl. Merleau’s work during and shortly after the Second World War built on and expanded many of Husserl’s ideas, rooting them in a scientific context as research on brain injuries* discovered the complexity and depth of perception’s interdependence with neural architecture. 

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of opportunities
to study the effects of shrapnel head injuries on
human perception.
* The Second World War, particularly its flying shrapnel, produced many examples of traumatic brain injuries that were quite valuable for the growth of humanity's knowledge, even as their sufferers struggled to return to a worthwhile life.

I remember one professor I had as an undergraduate, who thought Merleau did little beyond expanding Husserl’s yet-unpublished papers. Merleau's mid-career work often ran into the same fundamental problem that Husserl did: how to get out of the subjective perspective. 

Merleau overcame this through a simple shift in focus from analyzing vision as essential perception, to touch. From there, he developed the conception of the subject not as a viewer, but as a field constantly interacting with other fields and bodies around her. This concept of the subject as a field of affects integrated in a huge complex of overlapping fields is the lynchpin for the conception of the subject at the heart of my ecological philosophy writing.**

** I’m in the process of booking my in-person and virtual speaking tour to promote Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. So more details coming to a campus near you.

Marinetti mentions this concept of the subject as a field as a logical derivation from his own reflections on the perceptual primacy of touch and tactility. He arrived at this profound, revolutionary philosophical concept through thinking about art. 

Here, we have two solitary figures with no actual historical relationship where Marinetti could have influenced Merleau philosophically at all. We only have their coincidental development of the same concept. Why bother thinking about it at all? To be continued . . . 

The Intense Political Power of Art, Research Time, 21/07/2015

The content of Italian Futurism’s political philosophy is abhorrent and terrifying. Many people today would consider it obscene. I don’t know how well the average contemporary Western person could understand a style of patriotism that’s so dedicated to freedom while also being so nakedly and proudly militarist and imperialist. Today, we at least lie so well to ourselves that we aren’t our own brand of conquerors.

My greatest hope for the Trump campaign is that it's
actually a brilliant, long-game piece of performance art
that would put Stephen Colbert and Joaquin Phoenix to
Yet the spirit of Marinetti’s philosophy is the same spirit central to the most inspiring progressive movements throughout the last hundred or so years. I snuck back yesterday afternoon to After the Future, the slim book by Bifo that first drew me to Futurism for philosophical inspiration, and read again his description of their vision.

Futurism is the purest expression of the Modernist era, the faith that the development of human culture, knowledge, and technology brings liberation and freedom, that development was inherently progress. Utopia was coming, and we would build it ourselves.

The particulars change, but the movement remains the same. Bifo wrote that the end of Modernity* came in 1977, when the last breath of a political movement that imagined the future as a brighter place was finally crushed. He saw it simultaneously as the violent government crackdown on the autonomist movement and the cry of England’s punks. A fetish store advertisement in disguise as a rock band screams “No Future!!!!”

* With a capital M, so as not to confuse Modernity the cultural era for modernity the contemporary cultural era of the moment.

This reveals a curious convergence that I see in Bifo and many other cultural theorists, with Marinetti and his noxiously seductive ideology and aesthetic of techno-violence. They all, and increasingly myself, understand art as an inherently political phenomenon.

Now, it’s generally accepted that you can make art with an explicitly political message. In its most sedate form, it can be the simple graphic design of a campaign for state office, or the shining expressiveness of an image like Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama portrait. Or it can be a more pointed, critical form. Consider Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the visceral and empathic terror of arial bombardment. Think about the protest song, whether it emerges from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Reagan Youth, Rage Against the Machine, Run the Jewels, or Buffy Sainte Marie.

For a moment, he was the voice of an entire
continent's culture. But I still prefer the PiL albums.
Or consider what I hope the Donald Trump 2016 Presidential campaign will turn out to be in the United States. A months-long work of performance art that systematically attacks and destroys forever the credibility and collective sanity of the Republican Party, forcing entirely different social forces to come to dominate the American state. 

Art can have a more profound power than this, because of its expressive power. An artist creates a work, whether in collaboration with others (as in film and theatre) or on her own (as in painting, sculpture, or fiction writing) as an expression of will through technical means. The content of this expression comes from the ideas and occupations of the artist, what thoughts and problems she wants her artwork to explore.

An artist who pays attention to the political and social conflicts of her time will express those conflicts in the content of her work. This is true even for oblique forms of art like music or more explicit, conscious forms of art like drama. 

The mood, form, or motivating concepts of an artwork will express a political mood of the entire country, a cultural shift. The nihilism of “No Future” was the culture of Europe itself crashing into dystopia. The aggression of the art that emerged from Italian Futurism was the will to technological power demanding its domination over the Earth. 

Know the Danger of Your Own Times, Research Time, 20/07/2015

You might wonder what exactly I find so interesting in Filippo Marinetti and the Italian Futurists, why I keep writing them, and why I decided that Marinetti’s ideas would make such an interesting focus point for my next book. There are a lot of ways I came to the decision, but here’s one aspect of that, based on what I was reading a little while ago.

Marinetti is describing the sickness of his culture, Italy in the years on either side of the First World War. The moneyed political classes spend most of their time accumulating wealth with little effort, or else arguing in parliament with an insomniac intensity about different versions of laws that all amount to the same oppressive foolishness.

I'm not the first person to say the economic pressures
working people face today are of similar calibre as
during the Great Depression. From a pro-unionization
protest among Walmart employees, December 2014.
The working classes, meanwhile, are put under deeper and heavier stress by an economy where the labour of most people is valued less and less every day. People can’t apply their intelligence to anything creative, socially valuable, or even mentally stimulating and interesting for very long. They have to spend all their energy hustling for enough income that barely covers their basic subsistence. 

His Italy’s mass cultural products are juvenile, pandering entertainment based on cheap jokes and tired stereotypes. So many people’s artistic tastes are decaying into idiocy, while it becomes increasingly difficult to produce and distribute genuinely progressive, radical art. This is despite an explosion of new forms and channels of media.

Described in these terms, the circumstances sound pretty familiar to most of us. Most of us in Western countries find an unstable work environment, where many have to hustle between internships, freelance work, and their actual jobs just to sustain enough income that we can live comfortably. It’s difficult to find the time to contribute to larger projects in society between all the work many of us have to do just to make a decent living.

Marinetti was talking about a society whose unemployment rate was skyrocketing, and where many war veterans returning from the Alpine front found themselves adrift.

Our own cultural products are increasingly fragmented, with many of the most popular things amounting to little more than humour at stereotypes, though I admit I’ve been falling behind some aspects of mainstream entertainment simply because I can’t be bothered to care. Is Duck Dynasty still on TV?

A modern Marinetti, pushing an avant-garde movement across the arts, would probably have a better shot at finding an audience, simply because of the extra reach of the internet. Where the Marinetti of the 1900s wrote plays and manifestos, a Marinetti of the 2010s could write and direct films or web series, and what else is a blog but a space for a constantly updating manifesto.

Political ideas that are not considered absolutely
horrifying were once totally mainstream, to the point
of becoming mundane, so boring that a Royal would
parrot their images.
It’s ridiculous to say that Marinetti’s world is the same as ours. Not only are the actual political systems of the world incredibly different, but even what’s politically conceivable is alien to a 2010s sensibility. I may write tomorrow about some of Marinetti’s Futurist proposals in economics that sound like walking contradictions to a modern ear. But his era and ours share a commonality in important ways.

His people and so many in the modern West face an impasse between a world of conflict, cultural fragmentation, and economic depression, and a world where we’re crawling out of these disasters. The problem is that we can’t tell which path will truly be successful, or which paths will require us to pay prices for our progress that are much too high. 

His was an era of genuine fascism and totalitarianism, after all. Those politics were so mainstream that even royals would play around with the imagery. But we have our own mainstream horrors. It could be the reach of violent religious ideologies so far that people will murder through these imageries in places as random as Chattanooga. Or it’s the sadly successful everyday racism and bigotry of Dylann Roof or the Trump campaign.

There’s a multi-front conflict the size of the First World War ongoing right now, only instead of Europe (for now), it’s across the Middle East. Instead of the French side of the Rhineland, the Italian Alps, the Russian Front, and the Bolshevik-Menshevik civil war, there’s instead the Syrian revolutionary war, the ISIS insurgency, the Houthi uprising, and the Libyan civil war. 

Marinetti is a spectre of that old era that serves as a warning to us. Reading him, you feel his punk spirit. However much he inveighs against his Europe’s radical left for their utopias of perfect equality and material abundance in communist paradise, he’s a utopian with a bizarre vision that can be eerily seductive. A society whose politics and education system are designed to build artistic geniuses who are also heroic warriors dedicated to expand their nation’s empire.

He’s the demonstration that even within the most admirable and exciting ideas, there’s a kernel of political poison that can destroy everything you loved.

Philosophical Creativity v. Political Action, Composing, 17/07/2015

My upcoming book, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, has a simple message: that the ultimate solution to our global ecological crisis lies in transforming our thought at a fundamental level. We must conceive of ourselves as ecological, interdependent and integrated with the processes and creatures that make up all the ecosystems of the Earth.

Yet a court case unfolding in the Netherlands seems to suggest that I ask too much, and that we can solve the climate crisis with only our human concerns and laws in mind. 

Urgenda is a not-for-profit organization in the Netherlands that advocates for environmental sustainability and combatting climate change. The organization brought a legal suit against the Dutch government that its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets were insufficient to contribute to Holland’s proper share in mitigating ongoing climate change processes.

A publicity still from the documentary Climate Refugees,
of which there are many today, though they're rarely
called such in most reporting of their crises.
The reason Urgenda brought the grievance forward, however, didn’t involve direct harm to the environment at all. The organization argued that such a failure would constitute a human rights abuse on a massive scale, because of the destruction through rising sea levels and extreme weather events that warming the Earth’s climate greater than 2ºC would cause.

And the argument worked! The high court of the Netherlands decided against the government, demanding that they bring their emission reductions targets in line with the international standard to stabilize the planet’s global average temperature. 

The government couldn’t even resort to the usual defence that it was too small to be effective on its own, as the court said that the Dutch government (and by implication, every government) had an obligation to take the lead on emissions. Passing the buck is not only illegal, but also immoral.

A possible corollary of this ruling is that other environmental harms can be ruled illegal on human rights grounds, if they can be proven to constitute similar affronts to human rights. 

So if appeal to human rights is all that’s necessary to force the hand of governments and corporations on combatting climate change and other environmental destruction, then my book’s framework for activism – transforming the self-conception of each human along ecological lines – seems to be over the top. Simply appealing to the harm ecological destruction and planet-wide climate change would cause humans alone is all you need.

Gilles Deleuze thought that what mattered
for an idea was not that it was correct and
its contraries wrong, but that it was
interesting. And a lot of different ideas
can be interesting.
But I’m not arguing that this ethical transformation of humanity is the only possible way forward. I’m certainly not arguing that it’s the only immediately effective method. Arguing that I’m right and correct, and that all alternatives are wrong, is not how I approach philosophical thinking.

Ethical transformation of human civilization, the activism framework of my book, is actually incredibly difficult. It requires starting a thought process in every individual alive that would see them overturn many of their foundational beliefs about the nature of humanity, Earth, existence generally, and their own purpose in life. 

Overturning these bedrock beliefs would replace them with a general conception of their own life and existence as ecological. Each of us would understand ourselves and everything else in the universe as integrated in its existence and interdependent in maintaining all our lives and happiness. 

Each of our perspectives would be unique to our own proclivities and circumstances. Just as are the beliefs of every, for example, democrat, even though they all have their individual opinions and ideas. Yet each individual vision would understand prosperity no longer as individual enrichment, but as mutually beneficial symbiosis.

The purpose of this new vision of humanity, and the activism that would transform people’s vision of themselves along its general framework, isn’t in short-term legislative victories to force immediate action on ecological health and climate change. It’s to solidify in humanity an attitude that would prevent us from making the same mistakes again in industry and technology that got us into this mess, once enough time had passed since the crisis to forget it.

We can fight climate change in the name of human rights, safety, and prosperity now. We can redefine humanity’s self-conception and relationship with our ecologies to make sure that, if we survive it, we’ll never precipitate another Great Extinction again.

My book is literally about how, beyond the ecological crisis, we secure the future of humanity.

Wondering If I Missed Something, Research Time, 16/07/2015

When I wander into a bookstore or across a bookstore’s outdoor bins of bargain books, I believe in good fortune. Sometimes, I pass by a book and it literally calls to me, and if I don’t buy it at that moment, I put it on my list to buy later, either when I have the money or its price drops. 

I had one of these moments last month when I was visiting Hamilton. As I was walking around James North, I paused by the bargain bin of a bookstore, and found Toward a Transpersonal Ecology by Warwick Fox for only $7. I just finished reading it last week, and I’m glad I did. 

I bought it with a sense of trepidation. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity draws significantly on the transpersonal, ecological conception of subjectivity that Arne Næss developed in his writings. 

I build on that concept to create a template for an ecological transhumanism, a self-conception that can overcome humanity’s selfish, hubristic, ecologically destructive behaviour by becoming profoundly aware of our interdependence and integration with the rest of the world. And I explain how to use that self-conception in a model of political activism through personal inspiration and person-to-person social networking.

Seriously, buy my book. The hardcover is still very expensive, however, but I'm working on getting cheaper alternatives available.
Ecological conceptions of selfhood understand yourself as primarily one
dynamic element of your ecosystem, planet, and universe.
You see, I only saw Fox’s book for the first time as I passed by that bargain bin, when the EEFH manuscript had already been approved and was going through its final pre-press checks. It was much too late to add any new content to the book, aside from minor typesetting corrections. So if Fox was saying something that anticipated or invalidated what I had developed, I’d have a serious credibility problem.

Why hadn’t I read this book, when EEFH’s bibliography is already nearly 30 pages long already? Surely, I would never have been able to pass my dissertation without building a totally comprehensive knowledge of my fields? Well, just what constitutes comprehensive knowledge varies wildly, depending on who you ask.

In an age where university libraries face financial and budgetary pressures of their own, a university’s own holdings will be less comprehensive than the entire archive of relevant research for a project or field. Some universities that have had to cut their journal subscriptions or book purchases can still expand beyond what they’ve acquired themselves through inter-library loans. 

But not all universities can, and something will always escape even the most networked library loan agreements. And as an individual researcher, there’s simply too much potentially relevant material for every research project for a single person to find, read, digest, and synthesize into a manuscript in a reasonable amount of time. 

You have to draw a line somewhere, and drawing that line is often a serious source of anxiety for a researcher at any age, but particularly one in the vulnerable position of a student at the start of her writing career.

This is one of the many problems that universities face today, the growth of the archive of relevant material beyond the ability of any one person, or even one university, to access it all. 

Arne Næss, Norway's greatest philosopher and a major
influence on Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.
My research for EEFH includes Næss’ own writings throughout his career, secondary material on his work largely drawn from journals, selected works to give the reader a sense of how environmental moral philosophy has developed over the last century (and in more detail on the last 30 years) in North America, and a variety of other materials that have related Deleuze and Guattari’s process philosophy and scientific fields like biology, systems theory, and ethology to environmentalist thinking. 

And that’s not a complete description of the literature I drew on to shape my ideas. For our era, when absolute comprehensiveness is physically impossible, you have to draw a line not with an objective, universal measure of comprehensiveness, but instead with a limit: When a reasonable person will say that you’ve done enough research to back up your points.

So I was relieved that Fox’s Transpersonal Ecology, despite appearing at first glance like a book that anticipated me, was actually very modest. It suffered from several unfortunate academic conventions that prevented it from being more progressive when it was released in 1990 than it could have been.

Its writing style was too conventionally academic, filled with those phrases that expand verbiage while saying nothing. Whole paragraphs and sections would be spent describing what he was about to discuss before he even started discussing anything. 

What Transpersonal Ecology ultimately achieves is limited by another unfortunate tendency of academic writing: demonstrating his own knowledge rather than progressing our knowledge. 

Fox spends almost all of the book summarizing and arguing against established arguments in European and North American environmental moral philosophy, else explaining and critiquing Næss’ own philosophy, and giving some background in psychological research on what makes a transpersonal conception of yourself possible. 

By the end of the book, he only ever describes in general terms what a transpersonal conception of the human subject would be, and includes long sections of quotations from allied writers who describe the same in their own general terms. He doesn’t develop that concept in any detail beyond broad gestures. 

Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity spends more than half its space working out how a person would understand her subjectivity in a transpersonal sense, what scientific concepts would ground that self-understanding, and how to spread that self-conception through political activism and daily life.

I guess that makes another reason why I’m glad I’m pursuing my writing career outside the university sector.