What We Think a Mind Can Be, Jamming, 31/08/2015

I had a really interesting conversation on Twitter this weekend, between Steve Fuller, Thomas Basbøll, and Phil Sandifer, as well as a new online acquaintance. We were chatting about the nature of intelligence, mind, and the Turing Test. It got me thinking about my own relationship with philosophy of mind back when I was finishing my undergrad and my master’s. 

Until the end of 2008, I had wanted to specialize in philosophy of mind in my academic career. I eventually decided against it because I found the style of writing and discourse in that sub-discipline unproductive. I've written about why I left philosophy of mind before.

Artificial intelligence is a concept that I find entirely
ordinary, I think because I've grown up around stories
of intelligent robots all my life. That's true of
everyone now.
The way people thought about and discussed the field's problems, it didn’t actually progress their conversation. It would just split a new idea into a new sub-sub-discipline, and the writers who didn't want to go in that direction would continue on as usual.

Come to think of it, that’s a problem with academic humanities in general. You can build a whole career just by declaring and arguing that everyone who's more innovative than you is wrong. I’ve met some old farts in the academic field like that. I never met Jerry Fodor, but I found most of his work had this character.

Complaining aside, it was an interesting conversation, about whether humans could ever develop an artificial intelligence on the same level as humanity, with similar powers. Steve, being the optimistic transhumanist that he is, is sure that we could. Thomas was sure that we can’t, and even doubted whether any machine was intelligent, because of what’s “on the inside.”

I agreed with Steve that it isn't really an argument against the possibility of AI. We don't know what's “on the inside” of other humans either. Philosophy has called this question The Problem of Other Minds™, and no one has ever conclusively solved that either. It’s one of those philosophical problems rising from such a radical skepticism that you can only walk away or let it consume you.

For someone raised on as much science-fiction as I have been, The Problem of Other Minds applies to machines and artificial intelligences (real, imagined, and hypothetical) even more than to humans. I’m sure we’ve all met people of whom we’ve concluded, quite reasonably, that there’s nothing going on in there.

I suppose my own thoughts are agnostic. Most of the attempts to conceive of AI scientifically revolve around computers and the Turing Test. But I don’t think human intelligence works anything like a computer. Human thought is completely different from serial processing, so developing artificial intelligence from computer technology is probably impossible.

I don't think anyone ever developed a Turing
Test scenario where the AI punches you in the
face, steals your wallet, and spends all your
cash on drugs and beer. That's why I think the
creators of Futurama are genuine innovators
in how we conceive of AI in our culture.
But that doesn't mean that I think artificial intelligence is impossible. I’ve always suspected that robotics would develop true machine intelligence on a human parallel, because robots have to perceive and move in the world. Humans have very plastic brains, which develop through worldly perception and interaction. This goes beyond learning. I'm talking about the actual development of our brains and cognitive capacities.

I suspect having a memory capable of narrative formation (and not just factual recall) is also essential to intelligence, because our self-consciousness and self-identity is inherently narrative. Our character is a story we tell about ourselves, and how we became who we are. We change our character when we change that story.

This is why I’m ultimately an agnostic on whether we'll ever develop an artificial intelligence in the greatest sense of the term. I don't know if any of our technology is capable of creating a robot whose brain physically develops through their worldly activity, and a memory that works by forming narratives. 

All of our existing computer and robotics technology, to my knowledge, makes brains (or central processing units) that are complete and don’t develop after activation. And computer memory is entirely about precise functional recall, not the development of narrative and character.

I believe that it’s possible to make something that works this way. I believe this is true because we exist, and we work that way. But there's no reason why making such an artificial intelligence is inevitable, any more than anything that happens is inevitable. As it is, humanity may simply never get around to it in the time we have left, however much or little it may be.

Creativity Is About Art, Not Follower Counts, Jamming, 29/08/2015

I read an insightful article on Slate this week about the downfall of Josh Ostrovsky, the uncomfortably named Fat Jew. The link above tells the Ostrovsky story well, but here's the short version. 

There is clearly nothing at all
ridiculous or stupid about this man.
A ridiculous-looking jackass builds a huge following on Twitter and Instagram by republishing jokes and memes from actual comedians and more faceless joke aggregator sites. He always removes the attributions (if they haven't been removed already) and posts them with his own brand. 

He's built a large following of people who like to laugh for five seconds at juvenile humour. And he’s unashamed about the fact that he never writes his own material, only re-posting jokes. He uses this following to score some sponsorships and personal appearance money from Mike’s Hard Lemonade and a wet T-shirt contest for pregnant women.

All class, I know.

Eventually, a critical mass of comedians piled on him. Patton Oswalt was the most notable, at least in my experience of watching the shit go down. I've been a fan of Oswalt for years as both a stand-up and an actor,* and I always enjoy watching him insult someone who deserves it.

* Seriously, if you spend any time this weekend in front of a screen, watch Oswalt's best starring role, Big Fan.

What inspired this pile-on was that Ostrovsky got an offer from Comedy Central to develop his own show. Executives at the network apparently saw what a huge social media following he had, and because he was just one guy, they thought he was a real comedian. 

Now, on the surface, this is just crap research, and some folks in Comedy Central’s talent development wing deserve whatever discipline they get for not actually looking at the content and sources of Ostrovsky's material. All they saw was an individual with a lot of followers who posted funny stuff. He must be a comedian!

No, he's not. He's a one-person aggregator with a bunch of interns who do most of his actual work of poring through Reddit and 4Chan boards, 9gag, Imgur, and the Twitter feeds of actual comedians to find Ostrovsky more jokes to post. His business is using these generic joke reposts to build followers, sell promoted posts, and get paid for personal appearances. He's even said that he will never actually perform stand-up comedy because he can make more money through product placement on his feeds.

A comedian is someone who writes and produces humorous art, and makes money from performing and selling that art. See the difference? It's the difference between an artist and a listserv.

This is seriously the level of Ostrovsky's humour. Look
at Fry dressed like a Street Fighter cosplayer. Laugh for
maybe six seconds and forget about it. Then FOX and
Nintendo each pay Ostrovsky $5,000.
Thankfully, Comedy Central saw sense, probably because nothing worth putting on television ever came out of development sessions with Ostrovsky, and they dropped his deal long before the recent Twitter blitz against him. But even the comedians who railed against Ostrovsky on social media made the same mistake these dunderheaded execs did: they talked about him as if he was a comedian stealing other people's jokes. But he's not. He's a human 9gag.

The clincher in the article is when they talk to people who follow Ostrovsky’s feeds and enjoy them. They don't care that it’s been recycled through a thousand aggregators, or that the new creative content is published without attribution or royalty to its creators. They just want to laugh for five seconds at a juvenile gag.

Since shifting to a career in communications last year, I’ve a lot of very intelligent people in public relations and marketing who've taught me a lot in a short time. They've shown me that, with my understanding and approach to our media landscape, I can achieve some very good work if given the chance.

But there are also dumb people in the media industry, people who don’t understand online media even though we've had years to learn how things work. All such people see are dollar signs and follower counts, not the content that sets real artists apart from trash. 

If you give a TV show to anyone, you should give it to someone who’s already producing creative, original ideas of their own, and lend your company's marketing muscle to people who can do again what folks like Tina Fey, Kristen Schaal, Andy Samberg, or John Paul Tremblay did. Which is create comedy that isn’t quite like anything that's been done before.

You don't deserve to work in media if you can’t tell the difference between a gag recycler like a one-man (with interns) Imgur and an actual content producer. 

And by content producer, I mean creative worker, I mean artist.

You might work in the media, but you don't know what the hell creativity is.
• • •
If you know what the hell creativity is, then you should consider buying my book if you have a spare $20. Under the Trees, Eaten is a science-fiction novel with one finger in the Lovecraft tradition of weird horror. The middle finger, if you must know.

History Creates Progress; It’s Called Time, Research Time, 28/08/2015

Wednesday was a crazy day. So I took the night off from writing a blog post. Today, we’re back, picking up what I posted on Wednesday about the problem of utopian politics in real life.

I want to get into some of the conceptual machinery behind the idea that turns so many people today against utopia. The entire revolutionary socialist movement, pretty much from Karl Marx onward, was about creating a radical change in human society that would transform its entire character. 

A young Josef Stalin even looks kind of
like he could be a film director.
But the only way to transform a whole society according to a specific program is with totalitarian dictatorship. Stalin as the artist and society as the materiel. This is basically why modern right-wing libertarian activists call all leftists Stalinists: they think the left is about revolutionary state socialism, and they think state socialism is the totalitarian transformation of society along a single program. 

Countering this vision is the core problem of the left in the 21st century. And the solution has to do with the way we think of time. When I eventually write the full Utopias manuscript, thinking about time is the thread running through the whole thing.

Here are some ideas I picked up and ran with in Frederic Jameson’s book on utopian thinking and literature, Archaeologies of the Future

A utopian society is perfect. Because such a society is perfect, we must resist all change. Any change from a perfect society is a degradation, a fall from grace, or at least a chip away from perfection. Therefore, the political imperative in a utopian society is to resist change, to suppress all innovations and discourage any radical change. 

The problem with this kind of politics is that it destroys and suppresses all human creativity. I’ll probably play around with Henri Bergson’s and Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of creativity in the text when I deal with this problem. It’ll explore how essential creativity and innovation is to human thinking. 

Our creative powers as a species are at the core of how successful we’ve become. Humanity has a history of adaptation to ecological changes that would (and did) wipe most other species out. That’s why I’m still a little hopeful that humanity can survive the Holocene Extinction, even though it’s also our fault.

The key here is, human creativity is necessary if we’re to respond to the world’s changes. This is where my influence from the American pragmatist tradition would show up in the manuscript. I’ll play with some of John Dewey’s ideas specifically. So we’re stuck with an explicit problem with utopia: by definition, it’s a human society that’s perfect and so must never change, but humanity is defined by our powers to change.

The end of season 9 of Trailer Park Boys saw Julian
literally transform Sunnyvale Trailer Park into an
anarchist utopia, a perfect community in an enclave
far from the oppressive shadow of Halifax.
Jameson discusses a paradox of utopia, but a different one. He talks about how all the real utopian programs that were developed were responses to concrete political problems that were singular to their authors’ times and cultures. Thomas More confronted English Christian extremism and the early Protestant movements. Karl Marx confronted the development of industrial capitalism and extreme exploitation of working people.

Yet utopias always present themselves as the universal solution to humanity’s ills, the perfect society not as a response to a historical issue, but as a literal heaven on Earth. This makes for an internal contradiction, a collision of the universal and the particular as the collision of Heaven and Earth. Jameson understands this paradox as a Derrida-style contradiction: thought is arrested, we hit the schizz point and can’t go further.

The current way I’m thinking about this is simply to double down on the historical aspect of utopian thinking. The will to universality is a feature of human egotism: we always think our own problems and our own society’s problems are the essential problems of human existence. But we’re wrong, and we don’t understand how different human societies genuinely can become if we give them enough time.

So the achievement of a utopian society inevitably collapses. Even if everyone is on board and there’s no repressive violence to force people to accord with the plan, the world will eventually make the plan obsolete. When the problems the utopia was meant to address are solved, the utopian society itself becomes a problem.

Progress is change.

When You’re Part of an Artwork Without Consent, Research Time, 26/08/2015

When humanity has dreamt of its perfect society, we tend to use art to do it. It might be through fictional stories of a visitor from our culture who tours Utopia, like Thomas More’s original Utopia text (which Frederic Jameson gives an extended treatment early in Archaeologies of the Future) or Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.*

* It was so early in long-form written literature as an art form that a trick as transparent as spelling “Nowhere” backwards counted as clever wordplay. 

Clooney plays a man who discovers utopia on a
planet-wide intelligent ocean.
Over the last hundred or so years, utopian fiction has become more sophisticated. A utopia is a place where a story happens, as in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, about a man who’s grown up on an egalitarian communist bureaucracy planet visits a capitalist world filled with wealth disparities and violent uprisings. 

Or else, utopia appears before a traveller from our world, in an unstable, strange form, like a living hallucination. Jameson’s key example of this more fleeting utopia, with its shakier foundations, is the oceanic life form in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. The cool part about this discussion was that he compared Lem’s original story to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet film to Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation starring George Clooney. They were all weird.

You should expect that art would be a primary focus in probing utopia. Even though philosophy writers have sometimes touched on the subject, that style always has an eye on the real world that art doesn’t always. 

A philosopher will probe what the perfect society could be as a series of arguments, often about things of real material import: moral principles, political and economic institutions, the human relationship with nature. 

You won’t always end up with a list of things that must be done to change this shitty world into that better one. But a philosophical argument is always rooted in the real world. An artwork can fly free of constraint.

The most radical utopian visions have to be imaginary, because when we put them into action in the real world, they rapidly become nightmarish. This is why so much real-world opposition to politics inspired by utopian thinking exists.

Designing a perfect society, says Jameson, is a form of art. Normally, it happens in a literary artwork, so nobody gets hurt when the statue of the body politic needs some rough sanding. But utopian politics has been real. And lots of people get hurt. 

Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris makes you feel how weird
such a utopia would be. He was quite likely killed by
the KGB, I think by surreptitious isotope dose, when
he was planning to defect to Italy in the 1980s.
Josef Stalin often painted himself in Soviet propaganda as the artist whose masterwork was Soviet society itself. Discussing this, Jameson calls back to the philosophical tradition’s best known utopian work, Plato’s Republic, and its ban on artists. Socrates, as the architect of the perfect society, is the only artist allowed.

Artists are people who produce creative works, obviously. But when the society itself is a single, massive creative work, other artworks are little competing visions of what the world could be – whether those other imagined worlds are utopian, dystopian, or just different. The utopia is one, and only one, such vision. 

That’s why autocratic and totalitarian politics follow from the real-world victory of utopian political movements. If utopia is achieved, then society is perfect. If society is genuinely perfect, then no one can legitimately think something would need to change. Anyone who wants to change the perfect society is a danger to everyone around him. He must be taken care of.

Ghost Stories, A History Boy, 25/08/2015

Depending on what I have to accomplish on my grocery runs some days, I’ll walk past a Book City about a block east of Jane subway station. They have a bargain bin outside, and as I pass, I always scan to see what they have. I usually find nothing too interesting to me, so I go on my way. 

But a little while ago, they had D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. I bought it for $8, and I’m reading it now. 

A detail from an article that Max wrote in the New Yorker found its way into Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. Max describes Wallace’s experience in rehab, feeling vastly uncomfortable in a therapy session shared with men who weren’t nearly as ridiculously erudite or overeducated as he was.

I know something like what he felt, because I’ve been in that kind of environment before, where you’re the most educated person in a room. I’m not like those grad students, who can only write in ways that most people can’t understand anymore. Max describes a moment where Wallace sees how his erudition gets in the way of his own thinking.

Wallace finds those cheesy slogans like “One day at a time” do little to help him with his addictions, because he sees through them. But their simplicity lends them a power to become mantras that can help his partners in the therapy session build a new order in their lives. He comes to see his deconstructive intelligence as an obstacle to recovery. The solution isn’t to throw away his brain, but to learn to see the simple with the same depth and detail of understanding that he sees the overly complicated.

Max’s story about Wallace’s rehab session makes for a beautiful illustration of the power of simplicity, a reminder that the most immediately effective idea is one that can be simple. The challenge lies in making sure your simple idea is expressed in just the right way to keep people on the intended path. 
• • •
I’ve always had a complex relationship with Wallace. Or maybe it’s actually very simple. I first bought Infinite Jest because I saw it in a bookstore. I was 16 and had read very little postmodernist literature at this point. I loved Vonnegut, but also enjoyed the simple styles of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I’d grow beyond all these writers, eventually seeing too much that I thought was arid (Arthur), pessimistic (Kurt), or stagnant (Isaac) for them to inspire me.

Wallace was different, or so he was at the time. I bought the book simply because it was enormous – the hefty softcover edition with the calmly clouds all over the cover. The first time I tried to read it, it was too intimidating. Huge, complex, maddening, too much going on. Bloody endnotes. 

Infinite Jest was the first book I read with two bookmarks, one for the main text and the other for the endnotes. It became a regular practice for me whenever I read a book with substantive endnotes. 

The second time, I spent the summer working through its dense sprawl. If the term ‘dense sprawl’ seems to be self-contradictory, then you haven’t read Wallace.

Once I read the book, I admired its depth of detail and research, its wild inventiveness, beautiful imagery, and prose that could bring you inside not just a character’s perspective, but his personality and soul. You could experience the torment for yourself.

I bought Max’s book this month because Wallace as a person has fascinated me for a long time. I found the intensity of his personality intriguing, like watching from orbit a bubbling volcano spread enormous cracks in the Earth’s surface, but slowly, over many years. 

His work affects me strongly when I read it. His life is fascinating. Thinking about him and how he approached his depression and the wider world is an exquisite existential puzzle. I once tried to include a reading of his commencement address “This Is Water” in a set of readings for an introductory philosophy class for which I was a teaching assistant. But the professor in charge wouldn’t allow it because it didn’t have an argument.

Yet for all Wallace has mattered to me over the years, and still matters, I can’t say that his writing style has affected mine at all. Wallace’s maximalism is an amazing achievement, as is his skill at depicting mental illness and the way he weaves biographical details into his fiction. 

But when I read and think about his work, I realize that it’s impossible for anyone but Wallace to write like Wallace. I’m not sure how you can pick up a Wallace-type story and run with it in your own fashion, with your priorities. I could do that with a lot of other writers, like how Under the Trees, Eaten picks up the themes and tropes of a Lovecraft story in a new direction, with new focus.

No one can do a Wallace story like Wallace. He’s wonderful, and I’m glad he existed and his works exist. But his art, no matter how beautiful, is a dead end. There’s nowhere to go from him.

Alienating Labour III: The Better Way to Free Yourself, Research Time, 24/08/2015

So getting back to this question of labour, and what it means to be alienated from it. There have been a couple of tangents, one circumstantial, which was that I had to answer Steve’s question about my thoughts on protest politics. The other tangent, about shitty instruction in humanities, was organic to my writing, if aided by circumstance. 

And once again, Zeppo is erased. Still, it was basically
Zeppo's joke to be eraseable. I'm convinced that Zeppo
Marx was the most revolutionary comic genius
of his era. That's a blog post for another day, I think.
I realized that while I was discussing the mediocre accounts of Karl Marx’s philosophy that I learned as an undergraduate, two friends in the international Doctor Who community were having a ridiculous conversation with a Gamergater troll who, in a fit of misplaced spite, wrote them an incoherent account of Hegel’s philosophy, and why that made all left-wing politics idiotic and stupid.

You see, another thing I don’t like about the dumbed-down content of too many undergraduate courses and textbooks in the humanities is that a student doesn’t have room to experiment with the ideas. They have no opportunities to pull something strange from the text, only learn a standard, simplified reading that they can easily recall in a few sentences.

Humanities education is meant to confuse you, and its core skills should be techniques of thought and analysis to understand your way through confusion. 

So a good humanities education will expose you, not just to a single standardized reading of a historically remarkable work, but an idea that emerges from your thinking on it that will, in turn, make you think in a different way.

Frederic Jameson finds one such idea in the work of another Fred, Friedrich Schiller. In particular, Schiller developed a concept of play, from his reading of the major Critique works of Immanuel Kant. Kant developed a very regimented conception of how human faculties of reasoning were divided: there was the cognitive, the moral, and the aesthetic, which was its own category as well as a function which blurred the division of the other two.

Schiller took this a step farther, and conceived of the power of judgment as a kind of creative play. In Kant’s thinking, the cognitive is our power of recognizing the world around us, the moral is our power of knowing what’s right and acting according to it. The aesthetic is our creative faculty, how we’re able to understand the assembly of the world and change how things fit together. 

I haven't really read much of him myself,
but I do get the distinct feeling that
Friedrich Schiller was an extremely
intense person.
Jameson takes this idea as his template for what non-alienated labour would be. The standard textbook version of non-alienated labour remains reactive: workers instead of an investor class in control of production, working conditions that let people relax and breathe instead of working them to death. These are improvements, but they’re essentially the same economic structures as before, just with the beneficiaries flipped.

Instead, Jameson runs with Schiller’s idea: labour that doesn’t alienate us is creative labour, fun labour. Labour that we can own as a singular product unique to ourselves. It’s the labour of art and artisans. 

It’s a brilliant idea. It’s survived in innovative philosophical systems for the next two hundred years. Friedrich Nietzsche’s figure of the creator as a society’s genuinely revolutionary character. Frantz Fanon’s concept of the creative, multifaceted culture as the one that truly overcomes colonialism. Henri Bergson and and Gilles Deleuze’s concept of creativity and the new as progress. 

The idea that progress isn’t about perfecting some program and living in that social template forever, but about constant reinvention, and flexibility of thought and action to become wholly new kinds of being if the world demands it. 

This is the political centrepiece of my own work too, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. If we have to answer a problem whose causes and conditions lie in our fundamental nature, then the occasion demands that we change our natures, literally change human nature, a directed, creative act of adaptation that practically amounts to revolution.

Jameson, from his Marxist orientation and intellectual history, considers different images of industry transformed into artisanal work, images that depict such a world as perfect, utopian. 

It’s not just some intellectual distraction, the idea does move people in politics. It lies under the environmentalist movement, as I mentioned, as well as Italy’s Autonomia movement, and Occupy. The idea that we could solve many of the world’s problems by reorienting our industrial processes along a model of artisanship.

Well, I’ve heard worse.

Confronting Centuries of Genocide in America, Advocate, 23/08/2015

Vandalism as an act of justice.
Early last week, I tweeted angrily, as a person tends to do on Twitter. It was this image of a defaced Confederate war memorial, Silent Sam. It’s a memorial to 321 alumni of University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, who died fighting for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. It was erected in 1913, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy was a major funder.

On it, graffiti is written “Who is Sandra Bland?”

On July 4 of this year, the same statue was apparently vandalized with “KKK” and “Murderer.”

I’m rather happy about that. 

But my friendly antagonist offered a rejoinder, that my disgust for the Confederacy needed some better justification. I at least should make a more detailed argument for my disgust than the expression of disgust. As well, some of my comments did run together the slave economy with Jim Crow, two materially different social regimes

In DM a while later, Steve and I discussed the genuine complexity of Southern heritage. Our colleague Jim Collier is the descendant of a Confederate general, Tex Rosser. And there was an entire culture of anti-racism in the South as well, particularly expressed in its experimental literature of the twentieth century – Mississippi’s William Faulkner, Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor, Kentucky’s Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee’s John Crowe Ransom.

The biggest such critical Southern literary voice in the news recently was, of course, Harper Lee of Alabama. Americans, and Mockingbird fans generally, felt a strange sense of shock and sometimes even betrayal on learning that she had always conceived the beloved Atticus Finch as a much more complicated character than the simple first story depicted. Both Go Set a Watchman and its cultural reception made a pointed critique of how Americans understand or ignore the racist elements of their culture and history.

So my visceral disgust at Confederate war memorials appeared to have ignored this long tradition of critique. Southern culture is about more than racism. But the question, for me, remains: What precisely in Southern culture does a Confederate war memorial like Silent Sam express?

You don't mess with Harriet Tubman.
The statue's primary funders were a group of propagandists for the Lost Cause, the idealized, whitewashed vision of the Confederacy as a beautiful society that was crushed under Unionist military invasion and cultural oppression. The United Daughters of the Confederacy were slavery apologists.

Because you can't deny how horrifying slavery was. Millions were worked to death in gruelling conditions, or died of disease in trans-Atlantic travel. Families were routinely broken up, slaves were denied the right to practice their religion and culture. Blacks were dehumanized and treated as property as an essential element of the culture for centuries.

And no matter how much groups like United Daughters of the Confederacy tried to say it was about other causes, the secession of the South and the resulting Civil War was their attempt to preserve the slave economy. Yes, it did have to do with state's rights, particularly their right to maintain a slave economy.

So what about my contention that there's continuity between (white settlement-1865) this slow-moving economy of monetized genocide called slave agriculture, (1865-1960s) the brutal, lynching-enforced caste system of Jim Crow, and (present) the culture of underground white supremacists and habitual police violence against blacks?

I don’t deny the obvious differences. I can’t. But there is one important commonality: the concept of race, particularly a conception of the white and black races as divided by essential caste. That would be white supremacy.

It's a philosophical matter, a common presumption underlying the motives of human behaviour in individuals from Christopher Columbus to Jefferson Davis to Dylann Roof. It’s the presumption that another group of people can be set apart from your own by some obvious characteristic and for that reason treated as less worthy of human rights than you.

To answer the graffiti artist's question, this is
Sandra Bland.
So I’ll continue to be disgusted by monuments to Silent Sam or Robert E. Lee because they romanticize and erase a stain on American history as torrid as the Nazi period in Germany, or the many genocides against indigenous peoples in Canada.

I’d much prefer to see more monuments across the United States to genuine heroes in its history who fought against slavery, white supremacy, and racism. There should be more monuments to revolutionaries like the abolitionist John Brown, or Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass should be given honour throughout America's education systems as one of the country’s great heroes.

And I’ll always be happy to see that someone has defaced a memorial whose purpose is to romanticize white supremacy and dilute its terror. Especially when it’s in the name of a contemporary victim of that terror.

Alienating Labour II: What Else Should We Expect If We Teach Like This? Jamming, 21/08/2015

Continued from last post . . . I think the humanities suffered the most from the inflationary expansion of class sizes in universities. In the sciences (and this includes the social sciences) early undergraduate classes teach you about the basic concepts and the history of the discipline. 

But they also teach you mathematical, statistical, laboratory, and real-world research techniques that very clearly require years of practice and expertise before you can do them properly. In the humanities, we only teach concepts as simple, technical terms (usually ending in -ism and defined in two sentences) designed to be easily memorized by rote and spewed back on the exam and in papers we expect to be written at 1.30am the day before deadline. 

Deep, nuanced education is tough in classes this huge.
It’s a function of the time crunch. As classes get bigger, professors have less and less time to spend with more and more students. So depth of analysis has to be sacrificed to maintain the breadth to give students the sense that they’ve learned any content at all. This approach is so widespread, it's become an institutionalized norm. I used to get funny looks from colleagues and superiors for even suggesting that there should be better ways to teach our material.

“Why would you bother? They’re just first-years!”

I saw so many undergrad textbooks when I taught philosophy that included, for example, introductions to Descartes as three-page excerpts from the Meditations that were meant to be taught in a single hour. Expertise in humanities disciplines requires throwing out these simple definitions to examine the ideas, the entire books that developed them, and their histories. 

Humanities disciplines don’t teach our research techniques at low-intensity undergrad levels because they don't have agreed-upon pablum definitions like Dualism or Utilitarianism. So someone who only gets a basic training in the humanities never gets the opportunity to examine the disciplines’ content in detail, or even the suggestion that there’s more detail to the tradition. 

When desperate humanities professors defend their departments from budget-slashing administrators as teachers of critical thinking skills and how to understand the complexity of society, their own course content for first and second year often stand against them.

Humanities educators’ condescending approach to humanities education* results in many people understanding complex concepts, thinkers, and traditional superficially at best and completely arse-backwards at worst. A wonderful example appeared in a Twitter fight between two major figures in the online Doctor Who community on one side, and a right-wing Gamergater type on the other.

* Not all of them, of course. I was lucky enough to have encountered many professors in my education who treated students with the respect that their intelligence deserved. I was especially fortunate that my first philosophy teacher, Jim Bradley, and my doctoral supervisor, Barry Allen, were this type of teacher. I was also fortunate to observe many examples of the worse. 

Whatever is valuable in Karl Marx's
writings and research, the atrocities of
the Soviet Union and People's Republic
of China (combined with the popularity
of Friedrich Hayek's powerful anti-
socialist writing in Road to Serfdom)
has made the philosophy irredeemable
in popular North American culture.
Basically, a sarcastic comment about a technical detail in the writings of Georg Hegel** was taken totally seriously. Then @ThalesLives wrote a completely serious post about why Hegel and everything he wrote – and therefore Marx, Marxists, and everything they wrote – was stupid and wrong. Please take a moment, click the link, read it, skip his invective if you want, then come back.

** A standard go-to when you want to crack a joke about over-complicated philosophy.

If my friends B.Rad and Bull Market, two of the biggest Hegel fans I know, read this, I don't blame you for being upset or for laughing so hard that you start hiccuping. @ThalesLives describes Hegel's thinking as entirely and simply defined by the old stereotype of thesis+antithesis=synthesis. 

It's a gross oversimplification of Hegel’s actual concepts and logical ideas, and he cites the authority of a single professor for the rightness of his argument.

Now, he does point out a solid problem with Hegel’s legacy as a thinker, which is that he designed his system of logic to be the philosophical framework of the entire historical and conceptual development of all human science. And it never bloody worked. 

That’s a problem that a lot of philosophy researchers have grappled with in a lot of books that, given what I currently know about him, I don't think @ThalesLives has read. Now, I haven’t read them either, but that problem isn't really what I'm interested in for my own work. And if I've sounded unfairly dismissive about this in the past, well, I’m sorry and I’ve learned my lesson.

So we have here, at least so it appears from his post and his dialogue with Phil and Jack, a textbook*** case of someone who has taken an oversimplified (mis)understanding of an incredibly complex thinker and tradition as a clear and obvious truth. It illustrates very well how humanities education has institutionally fallen down on the job, teaching dogmatic misconceptions instead of how to think.

*** Hehe.

Because the truth is, humanities education has it backwards. The discipline teaches simplified versions of its content at lower levels, which makes people believe that they understand some of history's most complex thinkers with a few definitions, a three-page excerpt, and a chat with a prof.

Humanities education should concentrate on its content as examples to teach critical thinking, argumentation, and interpretation. How, for example, to juxtapose and relate an idea or a subtle hint from one text with an explicit argument from the same author to see what strange new ideas we can generate. How to expand that idea into other ideas and practical implications, understanding what a concept permits us to think and what it obscures.

So we can end up, even with a thinker like Marx who's been the subject of forests worth of books and articles, like Jameson building an interesting use of his ideas that had never quite been discussed in his context before. What that idea is will come tomorrow or Monday.

That’s how we’d understand humanities expertise if it were taught properly in the first place. . . . To be continued.

Alienating Labour I: The Version I’ve Always Learned, Jamming, 20/08/2015

I have a weird relationship with Marx. I identify with the political left, and right-wingers would (and have) insulted me by calling me a Marxist. But there’s a lot in Marxist thought (and the wider Marxist tradition) that I disagree with, and my political priorities have, for a long time, been driven primarily by environmentalist concerns. Not those of Marxism.

Marxism: A long and proud tradition of t-shirts sold on
the internet.
But one thing I do know about the history of Marxism is that the actual meaning of the term is very slippery. Karl Marx was the first one to say, “I’m no Marxist.” And that’s not apocryphal either. He said it during one of the International conferences late in his life.

It depends on what you want to emphasize in his enormous amount of writings. There was an early, more abstract and directly philosophical thinker. His political and economic research began in the cultural and historical studies that culminated in 1845’s The German Ideology

Within two years, he and Friedrich Engels had written The Communist Manifesto and Marx dove head-first into a life of revolutionary activism trying to overthrow the monarchies of Europe. His masterwork Capital was a product of the 1860s until his death in 1883, the period when he pretty much invented political economy.

And let’s face it. Practically speaking, Marx was the single most influential political philosopher in a very direct sense. You don’t hear too many governments and political parties openly call themselves Humboldtian or Feuerbachian. But at the height of Marxist political parties, billions lived under Marxist regimes.

I don’t think we really appreciate today (at least not among a lot of my generation) just how weird it was that this major trend in global governance just disappeared so fast. It’s difficult today to even think of alternatives to capitalism, and I say this as someone who generally thinks capitalist business principles are decent ideas. But every dominant culture and idea needs its critics.

I learned myself a little Marxist philosophy in school, and one of the most popular (and easily digestible in spoon-fed undergraduate programs that frequently underestimated students’ intelligence) was the concept of alienated labour. It refers to setups where the labour of workers is divorced from the end product of the work, where workers labour in such a way that they can take no ethical ownership of what they do.

The model was the privately-owned factory. So in the obvious sense, the workers were employees of factory owners. The owners didn’t work on the products the factory made, just hired the employees. But the owners got to control the product and profit from it. The workers got paid for their time and labour alone.

But this isn’t the only way a worker can become alienated from her work. Workers laboured in the factory, and in Marx’s time, they worked hours that we’d consider homicidal today, sometimes for 14-16 hour shifts in filthy, pollutant-filled buildings with no thought given to employee safety. They’d earn pittance wages and often have to live on site and become financially dependent on their employers through debts incurred in company stores. 

At the end of the day, they saw no profit from what they made. In the Ford-influenced era of factory production, working conditions and wages improved (not without lobbying and protest action by the trade unions of the day), but a worker’s distance from the end-product was even greater. In a Fordist factory, the assembly line cut up the labour into so many small and repetitive tasks that a worker would spend a full day screwing the same nut into the same bolt on hundreds of different models. 

Frederic Jameson spends a long chapter in Archaeologies of the Future examining Marxist philosophy, since the ideal of communism was a utopian ideal that inspired, and provided even blueprints for, real political revolutions.

The typical solution to alienated labour is non-alienated labour. A worker or a committee of workers controls the factory and profits from its products. The workers labour in good conditions in ways that integrate them with the entire process of production. 

But Jameson understands that this is a reactive concept without a truly original departure from the exploitive way of doing things. He says such a departure is in Marx, which means what I’ve always experienced as the standard way of teaching Marx to undergrads fundamentally gets the philosophy wrong. . . . To be continued

You Can Only Achieve Universal Revolution, Research Time, 19/08/2015

Last week, I talked a little about a favourite book of mine, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. They were two brothers who wrote beautiful science-fiction novels in the late 20th century, and Roadside Picnic came out in 1971. It’s their most famous novel, and it was adapted into a very weird film and a video game series, both called Stalker.

The video games take place in a
wasteland after Chernobyl, which is a
very different setting and set of
implications than the Strugatskys'
novel. But the image is pretty cool.
There’s a curious device that appears in the novel, an alien machine that grants wishes. The problem is that it will only grant your wish if you survive its gauntlet of deadly razor wire that flies absurdly fast at you from all directions, and slices your body into tiny pieces. The alien technology, strewn haphazardly around the site of their three-day landing several years before the action of the story, is all about that hazardous.

Frederic Jameson discusses this novel’s climactic moment to explore an aspect of our concept of the utopia. He starts from an interpretation of the scene in which the protagonist’s wish is actually what saves him.* That wish is a genuine desire for universal human happiness, that no one need ever go without and that everyone is happy.

* Talking about this interpretation isn’t really a spoiler for the book, because the actual ending is incredibly ambiguous. Its ambiguity is part of the point, of course.

He’s wishing for utopia, the perfect society. The best wish you could possibly make if you had the opportunity for a wish to come true. But why is utopia such a perfect desire?

At first impression, this idea sounded like an appeal to a moral truth. The Stalker’s wish for universal happiness was a wish made without selfishness. It wasn’t a self-sacrificing wish, but simply with the happiness of all being just as important in his mind as his own happiness.

But as I read on, I realized that Jameson wasn’t being quite so simplistic. It’s much too easy simply to presume that there’s a moral universal that exists somewhere in reality transcendent to ourselves, determining what’s right and wrong. It’s no different than believing there’s a magic man in the sky who, if we do something he doesn’t like during our lives, will set us on fire for eternity after we die. 

And I’m not making fun of religion here either. Religious ideas and ethics can help a person’s life gain a profound meaning, and make someone a more ethical person. But those fruitful ideas go far beyond the simple moralisms of pedantic religious belief.

Instead, Jameson has a more material cause for why a selfish wish is met with death in this story. Only a wish for universal happiness can work at all. Imagine your greatest selfish desires were granted. For a wish to come true, it has to stay true. 

The Canadian sci-fi film Cube featured a more sedate
version of how I imagined the Strugatskys' death
But we live in society, so everyone else has to be okay with your wish being granted. Otherwise, they’ll de-grant it very quickly. So, says Jameson, you should at least be able to fit with the wishes of everyone else.

But my selfish desires are incompatible with the selfish desires of everyone else. Our most selfish desires usually involve other people suffering. Either we desire it directly, or it’s a side-effect of one of the things we want. So everyone’s selfish desires resist each other. My desire to be happy at your (possible) expense slams into your desire to be happy at my (possible) expense. They can’t both come true at once.

A wish for universal happiness builds this mutual compatibility into one person’s desire. So utopia is the only wish that can even work for a society.

Folks who know the history of philosophy might pipe up and say that this sounds quite a lot like Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. You know what’s good if the desire still makes sense when it’s the desire of everybody all at once.

This is how it tends to be learned in a lot of undergraduate classes where you explore this idea (to which Kant dedicated one of his most complex and dense books, The Critique of Practical Reason). But it isn’t quite the same as Jameson’s. 

Kant’s universalization is literally about testing whether it makes sense. His own most famous example was adultery: if everyone cheated on their marriages, then the promises of fidelity wouldn’t have any actual meaning. So an imperative telling you to cheat on your spouse wouldn’t even make sense: if everyone cheats, there would be no spouses. Cheating as a moral proposition contradicts itself. It’s a matter of logic.

Jameson’s idea is purely practical. There’s nothing about a person’s selfish wish making itself logically incoherent if everyone lives it out. The selfish wish of one person quite often simply meets the fist of another. 

Good enough reason for me not to pursue a desire.

Pure Conceptual Imagination III: Is Philosophy Sci-Fi?, Composing, 18/08/2015

The question is totally rhetorical, of course. Philosophy has historically been written as arguments, and in many cases can become very dry language. Science-fiction is primarily a literary genre of entertainment. 

Really, because it began in publications perceived as being purely and crassly entertainment (the pulp magazines), it’s only relatively recently that science-fiction has even been perceived as a very prestigious form of art at all. As for philosophy, it’s rare that people even understand its artistic and creative dimensions. 

This is one element of my own writing career that I suspect will both be fruitfully fulfilling, and also very difficult: demonstrating that philosophy is a genre of art.

It’s an unusual way to think about philosophy, because most of our experiences with the tradition come in university courses and departments. That can be a great place to learn about and read philosophy, but it can be alienating if you hit a bad teacher or the department teaches the subject in a very dry way. The tradition has been so much more than classroom discussions and academic papers, secondary and tertiary material. 

What I presume is an accurate depiction of
Philip K. Dick's state of mind when
writing VALIS.
The best philosophy can read like the radical inventiveness of the most talented science-fiction author. That was the feeling I had, for example, when I first read Philip K. Dick’s VALIS. The book was amazing, a blur of schizophrenic delusions, political conspiracy, mythmaking on an epic scale, the total breakdown and rebuilding of a subjectivity, and a description of a complex philosophical system of how the social, personal, and neural combine to construct our reality. 

Dick created the most fruitful and strange* metaphysical idealism I think I’ve ever come across. VALIS was as perfect a union of philosophical concept-making and science-fictional drama as I’ve ever seen.

* So fruitful precisely because it was so strange.

Reading Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, as I’ve said before, I see many examples drawn from literature, particularly science-fiction, because of its frequent utopian bent. But with him, it isn’t just a matter of examples and illustrations. 

I find that Jameson has a remarkable skill of drawing a philosophical concept through the explication of some literary work. Yesterday evening, I read a chapter that dwelled for a long time on the implications to update traditional Marxism for the era of modern capitalism, what he accurately called the Walmartization or Waltonist economy.**

** I once called it the Dollarama economy. I do like to follow Canadian content rules. I’m at least that much of a patriot.

His entire framework for this philosophical exploration was the storyline and world-building of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, where each person’s dream is often exploited to hide the most violent rot of a society. It’s a blurring of analytic styles and academic disciplines that I’d like to learn from and apply to writing, eventually, the Utopias manuscript itself.

He doesn’t have the same skill as Dick, of course, because Jameson is still writing philosophy, not the alchemical blend of philosophical argument, post-schizophrenic perversion, religious revelation, autobiography, and sci-fi. But few people can achieve the same level that Dick could when he was at his best.

The Duty of a Female Profession in a Sexist World, Advocate, 17/08/2015

This weekend, I discovered an amusing little thing floating around my Twitter feed. When I thought about it, this image, which seemed pretty inconsequential at first, actually reflects a very deep problem in our society. And speaking as someone at the start of building a career in professional communications, it also reflects an issue at the heart of the ethical practice of public relations.

The Joke Is On You

I discovered this gem on Twitter this weekend. It started as a joke post on the Facebook page Liberty Memes. Liberty Memes is a place where libertarians can go to trade jokes. The image highlights a short quotation from Friedrich Hayek, the grandfather of modern libertarianism and the co-founder of the Mt. Pelerin network of think tanks around the globe that have shaped modern neoliberal economic and political policies. 

Yeah, sure. Misandry. Fuck.
The quote appears on a picture of Salma Hayek, a Mexican-American actress with the same last name. It’s a typical example of the funny misquote, like images of Abraham Lincoln reminding us not to trust everything you read in an internet meme. 

Fake quotes became a cultural joke after a phrase, misattributed to Martin Luther King Jr, blew up online, as one woman’s eloquent response to Osama Bin Laden’s extra-judicial killing by US Navy Seals was attributed to the most famous martyr of the American Civil Rights Movement.

So the combination of a Salma Hayek image with a Friedrich Hayek quote is funny on the face of it, at least good for a chuckle, especially thanks to the extra wink of the attribution, Hayek. 

Then some of the group members took it to a whole other level, which reveals quite a lot about the trend of reactionary Twitter activism that pollutes the internet with sexist, racist, horrifying bile every day.

When a Man Hates and Fears Women

The Friedrich Hayek quote in the image reads, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” He’s talking about his own mission as a philosopher of economics, showing the limits of humans to realize their dreams of a perfect society.

Hayek’s era was dominated by political figures who had visions of the perfect society, utopian dreamers whose political movements hijacked the military and police machinery of the state to erect those societies within a generation. States built complex mechanisms of oppression to force unified, simple visions on society. 

They usually killed and severely oppressed millions of people to do this. And they always failed. Hayek had a sensible core to his critique of using the state to build a perfect society by design: the world is always more complicated than human intelligence can account for, so every human attempt at absolute control of all the economic forces and processes in a country or the world will collapse and cause abject misery on the way. This quote states his philosophical mission of cognitive correction.

But when these folks at Liberty Memes saw the quote apparently coming from Salma Hayek, they presumed she was attacking men as a gender. Not, as Friedrich wrote in the style of the 1940s, referring to humanity in general. They thought this image was another example of a powerful woman in the media using her position to encourage the marginalization and oppression of men.

Why Do People Say Stupid Things?

So we have a moment where the overlap between right-wing arch-individualist conservatism and the rabid, raging sexism and persecution complex of online anti-feminism and the Men’s Rights Movement becomes clear. No matter what conceptual distinctions you can make between libertarian principles considered in abstract, and actual online harassment of women, if you believe one, you likely believe the other.

I was originally going to post a picture of Zoe Quinn,
the woman whose resentful ex-boyfriend started a
massive harassment campaign against her, sparking
one of the largest reactionary movements in the West.
But I was disgusted by how many images I found on
Google of Quinn photoshopped onto horrifyingly
strange and degrading pornographics. So here's a
promo image of her award-winning game
Depression Quest and a link to buy it.
But I’m not here to make a nuanced ideological analysis of how these intersect. I want instead to focus on how dumb these commenters are. When you go back to the photo at Liberty Memes, the most offensive comments have been removed, but I’ll trust that this image captured them faithfully as they appeared.

The commenters seem to have no idea how memes are actually made, talking as though Salma Hayek (or her staff) actually manufactured this meme: “It’s ironic she feels the need to bash men while she shows plenty of cleavage to reel them in.” 

Consider the total lack of logic in the argument: “Dear Selma;* If men designed the world we live in today (which we did as a sex, by the way) and you claim we know so very little it goes to show how absolutely awesome men are . . . you bitch.”

* He also misspells her first name.

Or one commenter’s moronic rage: “Well then she needs to just GIVE UP all the things in her spoiled little existence that she takes so for granted that MEN have DESIGNED!! Otherwise she can just SHUT HER PRETTY LITTLE PIE HOLE and be far more THANKFUL MEN EXIST!! DAMNED FEMINIST BIGOT!!”

These are people writing on a comment thread, but these words are violent. They’re the words of online harassment, creating a web space where women know they will not be allowed to express themselves, or even take part at all. They're representative of one of the largest reactionary activist movements in the world, and many seem to be incredibly stupid.

What This Has to Do With Public Relations

The profession of public relations and corporate communications more generally is already a female-dominated industry, not without controversy. A textbook from my own PR program describes the worries among the top tier of the field that more women working in it would lower the field’s prestige or average incomes. 

Thankfully, these sexist old men have retired or died, and the men who do choose communications for a career are more open to having female superiors at work. Or else they think that a business where more women are in charge makes for genuine social progress. Such men are intelligent, reasonable, and enlightened. 

The exact opposite of the type of men on display in this sad example of pop-libertarian sexist, violent stupidity. So as members of a profession that has prospered as it has become female-dominated, I wonder if public relations as a professional community has an obligation to combat sexism in the public sphere.

One of the recurring ethical problems of public relations is that agencies are client-serving companies, and many of us who choose the agency route for our careers will often work toward solving problems for companies whose own activities we oppose. 

Some potential clients are a bridge too far for anyone.
Imagine an environmentalist working for an agency that assigns her to work on a campaign to build support for a crude pipeline running through ecologically sensitive areas. My own program’s “Ethics of PR” class often examined how best we can “sleep at night,” given how uncomfortable we might be with some of our clients. 

No matter the reputation the public relations industry has for a mercenary attitude (and no matter how much some industry leaders may deserve it), there are limits. Navigator’s mission statement basically is, “No matter how awful you are, we’ll spin for you.” And they still dropped Jian Ghomeshi.

A Duty Beyond the Contract

The truth is, if you’re a woman who holds any kind of position of power, you’re open to having an army of sexist trolls unleashed on you. No matter how many interns you can employ as your anti-cyberbullying army, the fact that you might have to organize one for yourself shouldn’t be tolerated. 

I don’t think PR agencies should choose to work for client organizations or individuals with sexist or racist goals. Ghomeshi didn’t deserve a PR professional’s help. Roosh, the National Coalition for Men, and a Gamergate crowd-fund don’t deserve it either. I at least think it’s an urgent conversation for the industry to have, given the prominence of sexist online harassment in the public sphere today.

Maybe PR professionals should go beyond even this, or at least encourage each other when we do. PR professionals could, in their private lives or their non-billable hours, become online activists. Agencies could lend a few staffers pro bono to work as advocates for equality causes. Agencies led by women or members of other marginalized groups would be especially effective here, because of the rhetorical weight of their identities.

It’s easy for me to say something so provocative and controversial because I’m a recent graduate just starting his career. I have little invested so far in the public relations sector aside from my student loan for taking the program. But it could also be a mistake for me to say what I’ve said because I'm a recent graduate just starting his career.

But I’m still a professional. I have a part-time position and am looking for more permanent work in the communications field. I still have my blog and my public social media accounts. If my personal brand says anything, it’s that I’m dedicated to my beliefs. If anyone wants to hire someone like that, I’d be glad to work with them.