A Land of Multiplicities, Jamming, 30/06/2016

I’m sorry there was no update yesterday, but I was ludicrously sick. Having bludgeoned this cold mostly out of me within a day, however, I’ve gotten back to some work.

My most urgent business is preparing for my workshop that I’m giving for the New Democratic Party next Saturday. The time will be 12.30 in the afternoon, and the place will be under the big tree just a few steps away from the corner of Kipling and Lakeshore, in Colonel Sam Smith park.

It's sort of a coincidence, but there can be quite a
significance for our environmental conscience and
awareness that our national symbol is a tree leaf.
I want to host all of these workshops in parks.

Because I’ve taken a lead in hosting discussions of the LEAP Manifesto. Being Vice-President of my district association, I have a little cachet to do this sort of thing. It’s one way that I can have a direct voice in the environmentalist movement of Canada. 

The LEAPing Beyond* workshops are putting into practice the theory of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. My ultimate goal is to lead a conversation across several different electoral districts in Toronto, where participants explore together Toronto’s key ecological networks and relationships.

* Is the title a little too much? I feel like it could be a bit much.

As I assembled my notes for the discussion this afternoon, I thought about what workshops like these would produce all across the country. If you described the most important ecological issues of any group of random electoral districts, it would sound as though they were totally different nations.

Canada is large enough that it has an incredible range of diversity – geographical, ecological, and cultural. That wonderful diversity and size** genuinely makes me proud to be a Canadian. As a Canadian citizen, I have a responsibility to do what I can to protect all these physical and cultural ecologies, and help them all thrive.

** I’m about to sound corny as all hell.

Within a single country – with just as contingent a history and creation as any other – we have such a remarkable multiplicity. Maritime, mountains, tundra, the rocky shield, fertile farmland, dense forests, and sublime prairie. 

The most intense multiplicity of the country is cultural, though. There’s so much wealth and beauty in the interaction of literally hundreds of cultures from around the world in our major cities. Unlike in a lot of other multicultural cities, neighbourhoods are less segregated by ethnicity, so we all interact more often than in lands with more stark separations between cultures and ethnicities.

Canadian identity over the last few decades has drifted
away from a ground in ethnic heritage. Right now, what
makes our identity is indeterminate, mostly to do with a
general ethical attitude. It means the time to begin
building a literally new society is now.
I remember a friend of mine once reflecting that Canada wasn’t even really a country, because it didn’t have a single, unified vision of its own nationhood. There was no pure Canadian race.***

*** Before you ask me about indigenous people, how about I remind you that there are more than 100 distinct nations of people indigenous to Canada. And when we heal the damage we've done to our indigenous people in the name of nationalism and racism, we'll have brought real utopia to the country.

But that’s no reason not to call Canada a real country. Maybe by 19th or 20th century concepts of what a country should be. But we know the kind of violence nationalism and visions of racial purity get you.

That comes down to another reason I’m proud to be Canadian. Because we’re a single country that contains such vast multiplicity, and we don’t lie to ourselves about that anymore, we have the remarkable opportunity to build a new conception of country that goes beyond nationalism.

In that sense, Canada can literally become a beacon for a new concept of country. We can be a leader in overcoming the exclusionary nationalism / racism that’s torn our species apart for centuries. 

And we’re still early enough in the process that we’re still figuring out what that new concept will be. A process I’m glad to join, and push in a direction of progress, prosperity, and peace.

Happy Canada Day, everyone.

Sick of the Old Stories, Composing, 28/06/2016

You know what’s been taking up my creative energy lately? My actual creative writing. Work has been busy, and I try to devote as much spare time as I can to getting the You Were My Friend script ready to hit the indie fundraising circuit of Toronto. 

Today, I wanted to talk a little more about some of the motives I had for telling the story that I chose for this film project. From an ethical and political sense, I think it’s important to tell the stories of people who are genuinely struggling in the urban economy of the 2010s. 

An intense mixture of smog, stress, and enthusiasm.
A lot of the hype that comes from the leadership of my current home base city of Toronto is about the wonders of our dynamic business sector. It’s true that the startup / tech sector of Toronto is growing. But there are some severe problems with it. 

Toronto’s tech sector suffers from a similar problem as Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of investment capital chasing a lot of business development plans. And those plans themselves are chasing trends that are already dying out in Silicon Valley itself. 

A lot like the Toronto hipster culture that dominates the aesthetics and fashion of the Toronto startup scene, its business culture isn’t an organic development of Toronto’s own people and potential. It’s an emulation – maybe you could call it a simulacra – of a business culture that organically arose in northern California. 

There's a devotion to the image of libertarian Silicon Valley business culture – just read some of the job ads if you want to be disheartened – without really understanding or embracing the philosophy behind it. Contingent, insecure working lives are celebrated for their freedom without taking seriously their risk and danger.

You Were My Friend is the story of one person who suffers the fallout from that risk, but accepts that the ‘every one for herself’ attitude is ordinary. Even as it causes a horrible result. 

It’s not a story that’s told enough. At least not yet.

The Killing Joke was a story of angst-ridden men battling
each other while a woman is brutally tortured to make
out brooding male hero brood even more. Apparently,
Alan Moore can't stand this book now.
That’s really the motivation behind the kind of stories I’ve been writing in the last few years. When I started my first major writing project, A Small Man’s Town, I thought a novel with an uncritically self-absorbed male protagonist was still worth telling. And it isn’t that the story isn’t valuable, or can be told well. It’s that we already have enough.

I want to take those kinds of characters and just lay them in the background for the next couple of decades. Then we’ll see what stories can come from other characters. Maybe we’ll pick the self-absorbed male up again when our literary and creative conventions have had a good, strong muckabout. They’ll be quite different in such a new world.

It’s why I'm so glad to see so many vibrant stories in the mainstream comics scene, even though I rarely get a chance to read them. But I follow them and their artists, at least looking at their personalities and the ideas they promote while they promote their work.

When the graphic novel version of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ first volume of Black Panther comes out, that’s going on my list. Maybe a Comixology download of G. Willow Wilson’s best stories with Ms Marvel. Miles Morales seems to be the one Spider-Man I’ll never want to punch in the face. And I really want to get my hands on Chris Hastings’ Gwenpool, not just because I’ve loved his Dr McNinja for more than a decade.

I’d like my plucky little indie film about the friendship between a girl struggling to survive and a woman on the verge of losing hope to contribute something to that.

And I’ll sometimes dream of even more ridiculous stories. Especially when I look at comic book culture. If only because the last decade of films about these archetypal characters* have so closely followed the aesthetics and trends of the 1980s.

* And they are archetypes. One of my co-workers was arguing that my weird idea for a Batman story wouldn’t work because Batman has never been quite that way. I like the guy, but I don’t think he’s right. There is no one realistic Batman character to whom all the events of the comics lines happen. He’s been the same age for almost a century, except those stories where he isn’t. Comics archetypes are characters in the public storehouse we can play with – even though we can’t get permission to make money from our play without approval from corporate.

I think what I love most about Chris Hastings' work is his
innocent and enthusiastic embrace of the absolutely
demented, surreal, deranged, and unapologetically happy.
I’ll be blunt. Frank Miller is old hat. Even Alan Moore has come to hate the grimdark effects his own masterpieces from the 1980s have had on culture. That’s why I like the vibrance coming out of these new comics. 

It resurrects the joy of mid-century mainstream camp, but having learned the lessons about complex character development and ethically evocative storylines. I feel like it could only culminate in a gay Batman.

Remember how, in the paranoid days of the Comics Code Authority, ignorant, insular, rich white advocates for moral purity read so much homosexuality into the Batman-Robin relationship. They saw it as a way Batman was disgusting, morally evil, and corrupting.

So take the aesthetics of the flashy and bright Ms Marvel, Gwenpool, and Morales’ Spider-Man, and unite them with a relationship between Batman and Robin that is openly that of an older male taking on a younger trainee as a vigilante crimefighter and as a lover at the same time. And write a story that explores that relationship of deep, abiding love for exactly the joy that it is.

It'd sell, you know.

The Organization of Freedom, Jamming, 27/06/2016

I had quite a long day at work yesterday, so as I write this up last night, I’m not planning to structure any effusively brilliant or tightly reasoned arguments. If you want one of those, check out my first few thoughts on Brexit that I published late Friday (and dated Saturday).

This weekend, I’ve mostly been thinking. A little Althusser reading, but a lot of thinking about Brexit and how it will affect my friends who live in Britain. The ones who are there for a little while, the ones who moved there permanently, and the ones who were born, raised, and live there.

European Union leaders have talked about the pain Britain will cause itself when it leaves. And they’ve demanded that Britain invoke Article 50 and negotiate its exit from the EU immediately. I don’t think there’s much of a veil behind their threats.

David Cameron will probably be remembered as the
biggest fuckup of a prime minister in the history of
modern Britain.
Here's what Martin Schulz, leader of the European Parliament, said in The Guardian just the other day after the referendum result. “Britain has just cut its ties with that market. That’ll have consequences, and I don’t believe other countries will be encouraged to follow that dangerous path.

Look at Greece for an indication of what European Union leadership does to governments and member countries who refuse to follow orders. After the OXI vote, Greece received only an offer of even more punishing debt relief terms and austerity programs than the package people voted on in that referendum. 

People spoke in a democratic voting process, with a group of national leaders carrying the flag forward. They disagreed with the way the EU bureaucracy and leadership was doing things. For voicing that disagreement, they were punished severely.

Many of my friends in the UK who I’ve had a chance to speak with think that nothing too serious will ultimately occur. But I’m not hopeful for any mercy from an EU leadership that sees itself as having received an even bigger middle finger than the Greeks sent. 

The EU and its related institutions sent Greece into a hideous poverty from which its economy may not fully recover for generations. That was over a debt relief deal. There was talk of leaving the common currency, but not the common market or the union itself. Brexit was an open separation referendum which the independistes won.

I'm also revealing my inner Ian Levine, but the spectre of
economic ruin post-Brexit leaves me worried about
whether Britain's most important institutions will survive.
That includes the ones of immediate material importance
to people's physical well-being like the National Health
Service, and also its great cultural institutions like the
BBC. Most important to me about that is whether the
BBC will be able to keep producing Doctor Who.
What do you seriously think people so vindictive as to do that to Greece will do to Britain? I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit it with sanctions the intensity of what Saddam Hussein’s Iraq received through the 1990s.

Did you know that Britain imports just over a quarter of its food from continental Europe? Imagine if that were to stop all of a sudden. Wouldn’t want something to happen to those imports, now, would we?

The European Union is not an enlightened institution. It is run by petty, vindictive, almost power-mad politicians and technocrats. 

But it could have been an enlightened institution. The EU was supposed to be a trade federation that facilitates cultural exchanges around Europe as well as economic. It was supposed to get all Europeans working together on a common project. That common project was literally continental brotherhood.

Like a lot of institutions around the world today, it builds communication links between people from communities otherwise separate. It lets people work together, encounter each other, get to know each other. People who would never have interacted without those institutions. Who’d know each other only through stereotypes and news reports.

People who seem like aliens. The European Union was supposed to forge a single community out of the poly-linguistic massively multicultural collection of millions of people. It was supposed to keep those people from going to war with each other ever again – to stop literally nearly a thousand years of history and change Europe for the better forever.

Antonio Negri writes about the potential of human society
and institutions for freedom, democracy, and brotherhood
with an idealism and optimism that seems horribly out of
place in today's politics. But its being so strange is why
holding that idealism in our time is so important.
Those communication links that facilitate everyday interactivity all over the globe are the foundations of global democracy. Not the global acceptance of elections for government. That’s a foundation of a democratic state. Not democracy.

Democracy is the brotherhood of people themselves. That doesn’t need any boundaries. The fewer boundaries there are between people, and the more people actually interact with each other, the more democratic the world becomes. 

Any institution that builds regular, complex, frequently-travelled connections among disparate communities encourages democracy. Because that relationship of friendship – on a mass scale – constitutes the cultural spirit of democracy.

Those relationships make us more flexible, adaptable, powerful, and peaceful. We can solve our problems best when we all do so together. We’ll combine the maximum amount of intelligence around the globe to solve our problems, and build solutions where no one will be left behind because we won’t have any cause to leave anyone behind.

As Antonio Negri said, institutions that build a global community are best suited to achieve and maintain freedom. The most profound freedom, the freedom of being part of a community where everyone cares for everyone and does their best to help them.

Global democracy is global brotherhood. If we all understand that, we’ll live in a world at peace.

The Death of a Dream, Advocate, 25/06/2016

Yesterday, I wrote a quote of Louis Althusser, talking about human knowledge, intention, and the flow of time. “To imagine life in advance is beyond human intelligence.” Today, these are words that should give us hope.

Watching the Brexit victory this week, it was pretty clear that the leading edge of anti-EU activism was Nigel Farage. Yes, Boris Johnson was its mainstream face, but the key message of the Leave campaign was “Take Back Control!” a message that’s been at the centre of Farage and UKIP’s program for years already.

As my Twitter mate @meakoopa pointed out, this blonde guy from that
Donald Trump campaign ad basically is a slightly older version of the
Nazi singing kid from Cabaret.
There are progressive elements in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, like trade union and labour activists. But theirs weren’t the messages that drove people. Those messages were instead the ideas of nationalism and racism. Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point!” poster demonizing war refugees. 

And never forget “Death to traitors! Freedom for Britain!”

A few times in media consumption around Brexit, a curious idea appeared. That we were seeing a new iteration of the nationalism that fuelled the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. That idea was in an image, of the proud Nazi child from Cabaret singing “Tomorrow belongs to me!

While we should keep this danger – and it’s a real danger – in mind, our situation isn’t quite the same. It might be better. It might also be much worse. Our current situation won’t exactly repeat the 1930s, if for no other reason than one simple difference – that rise to fascism already happened.

Each time horror has risen in Western politics over the last century or so, we’ve built new institutions to repair the problems that caused the previous collapse. The problem is that problems in those new institutions cause a new, different collapse. 

Think about it like this. Aggressive imperialism of the great European powers caused the horror of the First World War – millions killed in an industrialized death machine of mass-scale artillery. The League of Nations was built as a forum for peaceful discussion among the elites of imperialist states.

Alexis Tsipras could have made Greece a leader in a new
approach to social democracy for the 21st century,
capable of standing up to new liberal dogma. But
instead he gave in, and nationalism has the upper hand.
But the League of Nations took for granted the existence of imperialism and the power of elites to control their populations. Italian, German, and Spanish nationalism were mass popular movements that co-opted and overthrew elites. 

So the United Nations was about channelling nationalism constructively. Its greatest achievement was overseeing the dismantling of Europe’s colonial empires and creating a forum where peoples and leaders who were once controlled and commodified in imperialism could speak on equal terms with their former military governors. 

The ecology of international and non-governmental organizations developed in the space the UN opened. All these networks where people can organize globally and work for economic empowerment and political freedom are all due to institutions like the United Nations.

And the European Union. 

The United Nations is slowly losing its power. The decline, I think, became permanent when the United States invaded Iraq and destroyed its society with its incompetent occupation. They proved that the multilateral institutions that were supposed to ensure a trajectory of peace and prosperity for humanity couldn’t handle a superpower truly dedicated to unilateral aggression.

So that's the political destabilization. What about the economic? The other solution to the rise of fascism 80 years ago was building state institutions that would prevent mass poverty and deprivation. The welfare state was a material check on the mass scale desperation that drives a population to embrace a death machine.

The true colours of the Murdoch-influenced
press in Britain. There were certainly
shots fired, though not in revolution
against some European military.
MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in
the street while campaigning for
Remain, blasted in the chest with a
sawed-off shotgun, then mutilated
with multiple stabbings. "Death to
traitors – Freedom for Britain!"
Well, the new liberal economic policies of the 1980s destroyed that institution in the name of freedom. Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom has become probably the single most influential book of economic and political theory in the contemporary world. 

It justifies the destruction of institutions that prevent mass poverty and the accumulation of wealth in an oligarchy. That justification is in the name of freedom, because of Hayek’s argument that all forms of reliance on the state and government for any kind of material well-being or even mild support opens society on a slippery slope to totalitarianism. 

Give a government even an inch, says Hayek, and your society will grow more comfortable with bureaucratic state control. Now, this argument does make sense for societies where government is conceived only as a national command structure. And a government can very easily slip into becoming an institution of pure authoritarianism.

But a population that maintains a constant pressure on government institutions and leaders to remember that they aren’t a people’s leaders, but their servants? That population keeps itself free. 

That was the social movement that began in Greece with OXI. OXI offered an institutional framework to the values and imperative of Occupy. 

The relief of national debt, cutting the hedge funds loose to cut their losses – which Argentines and Puerto Ricans could certainly use right now. The autonomy to adjust the value of a region’s currency to its own macro-economic needs. A basic income strategy to hold off poverty and desperation, and provide enough aggregate demand to keep local production running.

All of these were sound ideas that the European Central Bank killed in the name of paying off the hedge funds and keeping the continental currency in a region whose economic needs were no longer suited to using the same currency as powerhouse Germany. The result was humiliation and poverty.

The Greek crisis resulted in the one time Nigel Farage ever made sense, when he made a speech in the European Parliament calling on Alexis Tsipras to leave the EU. It was the only way Greece and its people could regain any control over their economy. But they got the pro-oligarchy policy instead.

So now radical nationalism holds momentum throughout Europe, as the only program that opposes the new liberal oligarchy program of the European Union. That nationalism would shut down immigration, deport ethnic minorities, and holds such violent contempt for refugees from the horrifying wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

I would not be surprised if the nationalist movements’ ultimate solution to the refugee crisis in Europe is a patchwork of concentration camps. 

The institutions of multilateralism and trade interdependence were intended to ward off future explosions of nationalist violence. But the corruption of trade with oligarchy and the destruction of multilateralism with war has given nationalism space to explode anew. 

We owe it to humanity to oppose this violent nationalism and hatred. We can still fight these currents if we understand that oligarchy, war, and nationalism are all our enemy. And they can be stopped by building institutions that entrench brotherhood, economic security, and freedom. 

The writers of Cabaret could only say "Tomorrow belongs to me!" long after it had become yesterday. That Nazi kid's tomorrow was already yesterday, because his song was written in 1966. We in 2016, however, still have the power to stop the new Western nationalism.

Tomorrow belongs to no one. We fight for control of today.

Seeing the End in the Beginning III: The Point Is Always the Present, Research Time, 24/06/2016

Continued from last post . . . Or the post before, because you can skip the middle. Because here’s the real cliffhanger of this series. 
“The human relationship with time. That relationship is a matter of how we understand the way we relate to our own history, and how our history relates to us.Althusser made his reputation as a philosophy scholar with a series of essays that changed how people read Marx. It used to be there were two general takes on how Marx’s ideas developed. One camp saw a radical break between more idealist early works and a purely materialistic approach after the 1840s. Another read the early books and essays as preparatory material for his real culmination in CapitalNeither is right. The reason why lies in the nature of time, development, and change. . . .”
Here's a sketch of that reason, a schizz* between our conceptions of history as a narrative and the real nature of history as contingent collisions of processes. This example of Louis Althusser’s argument on how to read Marx will be one important illustration of this schizz and the problems it creates.

* What’s a schizz? Aside from an underrated Alan Moore project, it’s a term I’m taking from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work. When two or more processes that seem as though they should go together smoothly, but actually jar and grate into an intense tension – when an expected harmony becomes a cruel juxtaposition and possibly even an explosion – that’s a schizz.

Choosing one story in all of history erases billions of
Those two camps of Marxist scholarship seem quite different. The Breakers saw the early works as defined by a heavy Hegel influence – the early Marx was an idealist Marx, in other words, and they talked among themselves about how much and how quickly Marx’s more materialist way of seeing the world manifested in his early life.

The Culmination interpretation was compatible with the Break perspective, but not necessarily. To the Break interpretation, a serious phase transition in Marx’s thinking occurred after the 1840s happened, but those early works are still part of a continuum of development.

All the works of Marx were laying the groundwork for Capital. That was the masterwork. Not just the masterwork, but the cumulative achievement of everything that had come before. And the general attitude in the scholarship community was that the literal purpose of each of those earlier books was to make the writing of Capital possible.

Althusser deflated that attitude like a popped balloon. It was by making a very simple point: understanding a writer’s entire body of work as leading up to a single ending capstone is only possible retroactively. Only by looking back after the fact can you understand a life as a narrative.

Aristotle made this point back in ancient Greece. It was the idea that you can only know the value of a life, whether a person achieved a worthwhile existence, once that person has passed and you can examine it as a whole. 

Narrative concepts are, on this view, the central ethical tools to understand people. It’s a judgement of what purpose our lives have, and how successful we are in achieving that purpose. Or how far we’ve fallen short.

But narratives aren’t how we actually live. Our actual lives are much messier. We have many purposes, much smaller than our whole lives. From achieving success in a decade-long career plan, producing some project, raising a family, buying a home and selling it later for a general profit, or just getting through the day without losing your temper.

Karl Marx wasn't always old.
Or in this case, Marx didn’t publish The German Ideology or write any of the articles and manuscripts he produced in the 1840s so they’d be building blocks for the epic masterpiece he’d compose decades later. 

Althusser wrote, "To imagine life in advance is beyond human intelligence."

Karl Marx was a poor labour activist and anti-monarchist revolutionary in the mid-19th century. He might not have considered it possible that he’d live nearly as long as he did. He wouldn’t have acted with these plans.

Marx’s works – each of them, individually – were conceived as being worth producing on their own terms. Each one had its own purpose at the time. 

That they contributed to a decades-long progression of thinking to produce one big career-summarizing work was a matter of Marx himself perhaps thinking back over all he’d done as he developed this massive work Capital in the last years of his own life.

His revisionist narrative of his own history. All narrative is revisionist, as the perspective of the current moment papers over what was immanent to the past as you lived it. So the narrative meaning of a history isn’t true – It erases whatever contingent elements of in a given moment don't contribute or actively schizz with what you want to make of that history.

The open question is whether truth is all we want from history.

Seeing the End in the Beginning II: His Time Not Ours, Research Time, 23/06/2016

Continued from last post . . . Yesterday, I wrote about why I’ve always hesitated about using Marx in the central argument of Utopias. When you use Marx openly as a basis for any of your ideas, you risk being ghettoized as Marxist literature. 

So the only people who read you with any charity are the ones who are already going to pretty much agree with you. There’s one problem for the marketing of the book, that leaning too heavily on Marx will keep it from reaching the potentially larger audience I want for it.

Also, there’s the core problem of Marx’s philosophy: it’s very much of its time. The most common mistake that people throughout the field of scholarship and activism make about Marx’s work is that they take his categories for universals. The structure of class conflict, the nature of industrial capitalism, the engine of history. 

I’ve read people and met people who think that Marx hit on the universal essence of capitalism in Capital. And that’s just not the case at all. I’m largely echoing Antonio Negri and Louis Althusser here when I say that Marx was a man of his time. 

This isn't the universal model for the world of work
anymore. The factory floor is no longer the common
ground for the lives of working people. So one
fundamental aspect of textbook Marxist political
organizing no longer exists.
There have been serious changes in the global structure of our economy since the 1870s. The primacy of the knowledge and communication economy being the most important. Related to that is the primary of online communication networks for commerce and political organizing. 

There’s also the end of states as the massively dominant political actors in the world. And also the creation of real international organizations and NGOs. Plus mass decolonization. 

And global ecological catastrophe. And the advent of nuclear weapons. You can’t just graft analytic categories from the height of the British Empire and the ascent of industrialization onto our very different time.

You can use the analytic frameworks Marx did to learn more about your global economy. That’s what Negri and Michael Hardt did with the decade-long research and writing project of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth

But I’m going to get meta with my use of Marx in Utopias. I’ve literally made an example out of him. And I think this example will probably make it into the book itself. I’m actually pretty sure by now – after only four years of thinking and researching about it – that I know pretty much what the major steps of Utopias’ argument will be.

The example is simple. I might go into it a little bit more tomorrow, because I didn’t get much time to write or think through it today. The example isn’t even Marx himself, but how people have tended to read Marx.

Whether they’re scholars or activists, Marx is read as if he’s a complete work. Scratch that. As if he’s always been a complete work. The culmination – the gospel, as the mediocre readers take it – is Capital. So all of his prior books and manuscripts are understood in the light of Capital.

How far a given work approaches the core ideas of Capital. How much groundwork a particular work lays for Capital. How it falls short of Capital. How this particular dry run at Capital came up just a little bit short. 

The thing is, that's not how any of those early works like The German Ideology, The 18th Brumaire, the Critique of the Philosophy of Right, or any of those essays and books that came out before Capital were written. They were written to stand alone on their own rights, for their own reasons. 

Understanding a person's entire life’s work as leading up to some culmination in a late-period masterpiece is always a mistake. You don’t write the masterpiece until it’s been written. So there’s no way it could be the point of all your other writing until you actually get there.

That way, the present, even in the moment, becomes the past. . . . To be continued

Seeing the End in the Beginning I: Assembling Ideas, Composing, 22/06/2016

When I worked full-time in the academy, I met a lot of people who were trapped in very insular worlds of thought. They were worlds of scholarship. 

Academia is a profession where you have to establish yourself by building expertise. I tried a strategy of breadth – building networks across universities, across disciplines, across countries, and developing multiple research projects that draw on related research fields. That’s one way.

It's all too easy to vanish into the library
of babel called academic scholarship and
end up never writing anything of real
cultural importance again.
Others choose specialization. You pick a particular sub-discipline or debate within your field and develop complete knowledge of this narrowly focussed region. 

Nietzsche poked fun at this attitude in Zarathustra with his image of the biologist who knew everything there was to know about the brains of leeches, but nothing else. Not even anything about other leech body parts.

In humanities fields, there are some key figures where, if you want to be known as a specialist on the work of this particular person, simply putting in the required effort makes you a narrowly focussed hyper-specialist. There’s so much secondary material, so much commentary, that it’s barely possible to find any time to focus on anything else.

But the professional culture, especially in philosophy, could get so combative that the least gap in your knowledge of commentary could disqualify you from expertise and damage your professional reputation. 

When it comes to figures who have the most overwhelming commentary volume, I can think of a few easily. There’s Plato and Aristotle. Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel. Martin Heidegger. Wittgenstein is one. Nietzsche, ironically, is another. Then there’s Marx.

I think Marx is worst of all. Two reasons. There an enormous amount of commentary on the works of Marx by both professional academics and equally respected intellectual revolutionaries from the past. But there’s also that weird hypocrisy of dedicating yourself to advancing Marxist ideas and politics from the position of a tenured professorship in a largely corporate-controlled university.

Now, I plan on using a little bit of Marxist thinking in Utopias. Not a lot. Just a few ideas about the material nature of history and what drives social change. I draw it mostly from Louis Althusser’s interpretation of his work. 

Maybe a little from Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas about social change and group formation in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. Some critical remarks from Antonio Gramsci. A lot of ideas from the anarchist end of the tradition, like Mikhail Bakunin, Colin Ward, and Emma Goldman. I may head for some of Rosa Luxemberg’s ideas later on. 

And, as you can tell from the last couple of months, a hefty portion of Antonio Negri’s uptake of Marx-inspired philosophical tools into the era of the knowledge economy.

You have to be careful with any project involving Karl Marx’s thought because of the immense gravity of the whole corpus. The strength of vitriol and intensity of emotions that Marx’s work inspires in the wider political field only contributes to that gravity. 

German actor August Diehl played the young
Karl Marx in a European television film of his
early years as a scholar and labour organizer,
which was released only this year. I have no
idea if it's actually any good.
If you’re going to use any ideas or references of Marx in any project, you have to be very careful not to get sucked into the maelstrom of the Marxist tradition. Use a pinch, and the next thing you know, your entire project becomes about Marx and Marxism. 

Let’s not do that.

See, Utopias the book isn’t just going to talk about political principles and arguments, though that will happen throughout the manuscript. I’ll frame those political principles in an account of how people understand and interact with history and memory. 

The living human experience of time, basically. Experiencing the present moment or era in terms of the real or imagined past, or an ideal, dystopian, or conservative future. Understanding the past in terms of its future, either as a journey or a purpose. Understanding the future in terms of our past or our present.

And I’m beginning to notice – as I read Althusser’s For Marx, remembering some interpretations from Negri and critical points from Gramsci’s essays – a set of ideas about the human relationship with time. That relationship is a matter of how we understand the way we relate to our own history, and how our history relates to us.

Althusser made his reputation as a philosophy scholar with a series of essays that changed how people read Marx. It used to be there were two general takes on how Marx’s ideas developed. 

One camp saw a radical break between more idealist early works and a purely materialistic approach after the 1840s. Another read the early books and essays as preparatory material for his real culmination in Capital

Neither is right. The reason why lies in the nature of time, development, and change. . . . To be continued

Why Be So Ambitious About a Chatbot, Really? Research Time, 21/06/2016

You know, even though I spent yesterday’s post talking about the global mass fragmentation of online space, most of that actual post Brian Honigman published last week was about chatbots.

Now, chatbots are weirdly fascinating creatures. I mean this in a strictly intellectual sense. Because every time I encounter a chatbot in my actual life, they irritate the hell out of me. And this is a very important point for my argument that you should remember as I go through a more complex reaction to Brian’s ideas.

Hal, I asked you to open the pod bay doors. Why are you
asking me to do your survey about my satisfaction with
Discovery Space Systems before you'll let me back on
board the ship?
In a broad sense, artificial intelligence has a profound hold on the Western popular imagination. This is true for two worlds that I’ve worked in over the last decade – science fiction and philosophy.

Philosophically, I’ve studied cognitive science and the theory of mind in my younger days. Contemporary philosophy of mind developed from the community of scientists and thinkers that were part of the cybernetics community in the mid-20th century. 

This was the community whose ultimate goal was the creation of artificial intelligence. In its original sense, this was the replication of a human-style mind in a machine. Among the philosophical community (at least in academia), artificial intelligence is still largely focussed on this goal.

It’s the same goal and ideal that animates so much of science-fiction, from the first imaginings of mechanical men, through the creation of the term ‘robot,’ the innovations of Golden Age writers like Asimov, the more nuanced explorations of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar: Galactica, and so many other stories across so many other media.

It’s a focus of some of my own creative work, like the development of my Alice character for the film project Here Is a Man, and my plans for future short stories and novellas imagining the far future of humanity. 

Having survived multiple ecological crises and dystopias to live spread among stars hundreds of light years apart. A species of robotic sages who we created drift from world to world, the mirrors of our best natures, to whom we always fall short.

Dream casting for Here Is a Man: June Diane Raphael as
Alice. She plays the same basic sarcasm and sense of
superiority she does so well on Grace and Frankie, but
where her character also has the genuine wisdom,
perceptiveness, and martial skill of the master sage
described in the Zhuangzi.
The human imagination has developed profound imaginaries of our most hopeful, optimistic alternative futures. And the most visible manifestation of artificial intelligence in our real lives are bloody chatbots.

That says a lot about human nature right there. 

Honigman discusses the potential of chatbots to improve consumer experiences, inquiries, and marketing techniques. Which is genuinely interesting territory – it’s fascinating and sometimes horrifying to develop algorithmic entities that can become creative and innovative thanks to continuing relationships with humans. Intelligence literally manifests through experience with an intelligence.

But our abilities at turning an algorithm heuristic* are still very limited. A chatbot can develop a very detailed and comprehensive power to respond to human needs and inquiries. But only within a very limited conceptual space.

* If I can borrow a phrase from Arthur C Clarke.

AI engineers can’t yet program a chatbot intelligence that can truly learn and adapt with the same flexibility that humans can with our uncommonly plastic, malleable brains. All the parameters of a chatbot’s interactions have to be pre-programmed into it. 

They can learn and improve within those parameters, so the best chatbots are the ones that perform very specific customer service functions. They're the front lines for a business to answer consumer questions in real time about specific product lines and company activities. 

With so much contemporary research showing how rooted
intelligence is in our embodiment and interactions with
our environment, building a truly human-like artificial
intelligence would mean literally building an artificial
human, down to our own neural plasticity and
developmental interaction with our environment.
The only AI we know how to build right now is one in which we can anticipate the boundaries of everything it will be asked to do. Life, taken on the whole, is too complex for anyone to anticipate. To imagine life in advance is beyond human intelligence.

So instead, we build computer programs to interact with people in messenger apps about consumer products. The first crack at help lines and customer complaint logs. A cheaper replacement for human operators.

With a little more flexibility, they can spam us with unsolicited and obviously fake conversations about a company’s products. In just the same way as I get generic emails to “try our progressive new product” from hotmail addresses that contain more numbers than anything like someone’s actual name, alias, or avatar. 

And I’ll pass over those open marketing messages in the same way I pass over those spam emails that slip through my filters and clutter my feed some mornings. Only I'll be more irritated, because I may not be able to get the chatbot to shut up.

Then I’ll go back to writing my story of the robotic sage who wants to save us from ourselves. Or watching an adventure with Geordi, Deanna, and Mr Data. Chatbots might be the future of a lot of marketing channels and consumer-company interaction, but I remain skeptical that they'll ever stop being annoying.

When a Medium Is Literally Messages, Research Time, 20/06/2016

Regarding the title: Look, I couldn’t help myself. Okay? And I’m sorry. Not sorry enough to come up with a better title, but I’m still a little sorry.

I'm still a communications professional, on top of everything else I do at the blog, even the more esoteric stuff like all the philosophical talk. At the end of the day, I feel like communications is an intellectual pursuit that I do for money. And so I’ll periodically read some of the blog posts and open source research of the latest figures in the field.

I think I bring an original angle to this world, especially when it comes to asking critical questions. One of my main principles, as someone who’s been trained in the practice and science of business communications, is not to automatically believe the hype about any new trend in the industry. 

Honigman mainly explored the development of chatbots
for marketing on messaging apps like WhatsApp. My
own critique is a skepticism that anyone will want to
talk to any chatbot. Not because it's a chatbot, but
because they know a chatbot will only want to sell
them shit. And we don't always want to have somebody
trying to sell us shit.
That means looking for ways that hot new trends could fizzle out, corrupt themselves, or otherwise go wrong. One of the marketers who I’ve interacted with before on social media, Brian Honigman, wrote an interesting post a couple of weeks ago that I’ve been thinking about since. Now I’m finally able to get my thoughts down in my own online space.

Here's the short version of Honigman's idea, at least the idea that I want to discuss here. He talks about the future of messaging apps as online social spaces. He thinks they’ll be a very significant future, and so do I. But I want to go beyond what he writes because I see a bit of a problem developing in messaging app social space.

There’s a key comparison behind his argument for what will make a messaging app into the primary social space for a worldwide community. Smartphones. In particular, what made a particular line of smartphones grow a massive community of its own. 

A smartphone doesn’t catch on to a dominant market segment through technical superiority. The iPhone, in his comparison, caught on because of the enormous and diverse ecology of apps for the device. Users had a huge garden of apps to choose from, so they could customize their smartphones to their needs and take part in the global communities of app users.

The same, he says, will be true for messaging apps. WeChat is the Chinese messaging app that is innovating in facilitating its own garden of independently grown apps, specially for use within WeChat itself. That garden of apps within the app transforms a simple messaging app into a platform.

Did I say the word ‘app’ enough in that last sentence? I hope so.

But when an app becomes a platform, it transforms into a whole other order of online spaces. It’s no longer something you use, but is a place where you exist and explore. 

And am I the only one who finds these WeChat logos to
be incredibly creepy? I think it's those eyes, and the
fact that there are only eyes.
The problem I see, if it comes to pass, will be rooted in the limits on our time. I feel my own voice creaking with age when I say it, but I see the creation of more online platforms as contributing to the fragmentation of our online society. 

There are only so many people, and each person only has so much time. So everyone will either end up on very few platforms, or so many platforms that few, if any, will be reliable.

People rarely use redundant apps – if someone uses Snapchat for video messaging, they usually won’t use one or two additional video messaging apps. So one app or platform easily becomes dominant, since maintaining your social networks as a person means getting on all the same platforms.

Online communities are in something of a bind. They’re stronger when we’re all there together, literally all of us. A community that’s too small can’t sustain itself. But a community that becomes massively large gains too much power over its users. 

Think of how Facebook controls so many people’s online experiences. Usually it steps back from decisions that the community considers too dictatorial. But that’s ultimately a matter of discretion. If one single messaging app ever captures a similar proportion of the world’s internet users, it will face the same problems of a practical monopoly.

Now let’s make another analogy to explore my idea. Honigman analogized from messaging apps to smartphones to explain the importance of app stores in building a community of users big enough to become a dominant player. My analogy, from messaging apps to social media networks, is more clear. Both would have practically the same function.

We often talk about Facebook as a monopoly on social networks. Yet when we look at the globe, we can see more fragmentation than a true monopoly. Facebook is certainly dominant, but Twitter and LinkedIn remain a close runners-up in popular use throughout the world. 

VKontakte feels like an alien world to me. As a
communications professional, I'm obligated to have
some passing familiarity, at least, with all the major
social networks. Yet the more I learn about this Russian
wilderness, the more intimidated I become.
And national boundaries – along with the powers of states to control online accessibility and spaces – matter immensely. China and Russia are the major examples, with QZone and Weibo dominating Chinese online space, and VKontakte achieving primacy in Russia.

The whole reason WeChat is developing such a complex and diverse internal app ecology is rooted in escaping the limitations of the conventional social networks that dominate China. I think one of the major reasons behind the social insularity of Russian popular culture is that so many people’s online presence is isolated behind Russian borders thanks to VKontakte.

That geographic and political fragmentation of communities even results in different risks. For example, because VKontakte doesn’t police its groups with the same zeal as Facebook, online ISIS support communities can thrive in Russia and Eastern Europe much longer than on the American (and European, African, Latin, and Southeast Asian) platform.

So how will the chat apps live once they too become self-sustaining community ecologies themselves? If national boundaries continue to have the force they do, then the global fragmentation of the online public will continue. But if they don’t, we risk the dangers of a total monopoly of an entire online public space.

The most important political question of any new massively-lived online platform: Who controls that monopolized space?

How I’ll Do What I Do, Composing, 17/06/2016

So this week ended up being occupied by a controversy instead of the more philosophical stuff that I initially wanted to talk about this week. I wanted to sort through some of my ideas about history, cultural memory, and how we think about ideas. And I still will. But that’ll be largely next week.

Views in parallel, different expressions of the same
Yet there’s a lot about the past couple of posts that I want to discuss. Not so much about the content, as I can’t really add anything to that without getting redundant. But when I look at what I wrote, I see an approach to writing about ideas that animates a lot of my philosophical writing.

Call it parallelism. The term riffs on an idea that Gilles Deleuze developed in his works about Spinoza. In my context, it’s an approach to ideas where all the discussions revolve around a central concept or conclusion – but it’s impossible to explain every aspect and context of that concept in one go. 

Some ideas are too complex, with too many different contexts and manifestations to lay them all out at once without confusing everyone involved. Including yourself. So you have to explore it. Like the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant. 

What people forget about that analogy is that once the blind men know they’re gathered around the same animal, they can use their different explorations of the animal – of the tail, the legs, the trunk, the belly, the back – to build a comprehensive picture together. 

So what was I doing on Wednesday, when I was thinking through Udoka Okafor’s account of her conflicts at McMaster Philosophy? There was one idea that underlay everything I wrote – that high-minded advocacy for justice is undercut by the advocate’s backroom hypocrisy.

That’s the explicitly political, moral, and ethical expression of the concept. You can strive for justice and equality in all the professional aspects of your life, but all that is undercut if you contradict those values in your private life. 

The best example that comes to mind is Thomas Pogge, who I spoke about the other day. The advocate for egalitarianism between wealthy and poor countries of the world, who exploited his position in a wealthy university to sexually exploit young women from poorer regions of the world.

It seemed like kind of a diversion to me at the time. But I tried writing it anyway because diversions can be acceptable in a blog. I’m in a more relaxed mode here.

Why wouldn't a Western university's classes on introduction
to philosophy introduce Confucius as an equal to Plato?
Without the professor doing it being regarded as weird.
But maybe I shouldn’t be. Because what might look like a diversion from a work’s major point is just a quick shift to a different point of view on the same concept. 

The sordid details are about how personal behaviour undercuts the ethical force of your virtuous arguments that you ground in universal goods – justice, peace, equality, fairness. Now think about the details of this same idea – the hypocrisy of the material contradicting the ideal – in the history of ideas itself.

This is the problem of the Western canon in the humanities disciplines. The primary focus of many disciplines sees their own history of ideas as the playing field of true universal concepts. But they’re the ideas of a single civilization, one among several in humanity. 

Making the history of ideas in non-Western civilizations into sub-disciplines (regional studies, race studies, etc) denigrates them as niche traditions, instead of the equals to the philosophies of the West. We speak in the name of universal right and goodness, but we’re really just expressing our sense of superiority.

That’s the real indignation behind calls for diversity in humanities curriculums. And it’s one expression of that fundamental hypocrisy in so much human conduct.

An Overdose of Academic Shenanigans, Composing Corrections, 16/06/2016

Call this a correction, of a sort, to yesterday’s post. Because in the last day, I’ve learned a lot more about on the on-the-ground situation around Udoka Okafor’s mess at my old department. Mostly, I learned some of the details behind why she ended up on the wrong side of so many of my former colleagues. 

So I’m going to explain how I came to believe what I believed by the time I wrote that post to go up yesterday. Call it an apology if anyone thought I blamed them for something as individuals. Because I think we can still get the most good out of Okafor's story if we take it as an expression of institutional problems that exist regardless of the intentions of people in it.

Here's how I first discovered this whole mess. A couple of friends of mine who are currently grad students at McMaster’s Philosophy Department posted a link to Brian Leiter’s blog. The post on Leiter’s blog was only a couple of sentences long, and contained a downloadable .rtf file.*

* Whose idea was it to make this post an rtf file? What is this? 1997?

That file was Jorge Sanchez Perez’s harsh, short, condescending, and virtually evidence-free rebuttal to a piece Okafor had published on Huffington Post a few days prior. Sanchez’s piece included little actual argument and mostly just repeated conservative buzzwords like ‘political correctness’ and denounced calls for ‘diversity.’ 

This was the first I’d heard from Sanchez Perez or Okafor, because they joined the department’s community well after I left. So I had no idea of their personalities. All I knew of Sanchez was these cruel, dismissive words filled with the messages of those opposed to the democratic movements of our time. 

Having read this statement, I wanted to find out what provoked them. And this condescending short essay made me very sympathetic to the position of whoever provoked it. This was before I had read it. The response was so cruel and empty of reason that I could no longer consider its perspective reasonable.

So I read Okafor’s HuffPo piece, I found a lot of points that were true – when we were speaking on the scale of academic institutions as a whole. 

Yes, the humanities’ academic canons concentrate too much on the ideas of the West alone. Yes, many prominent humanities academics abuse their institutional positions for selfish ends. Yes, universities as a whole face a financial crisis – starved of funding while overloaded with administrators, passing all the costs to students with high tuition and researchers with low pay and insecure work.

And to be frank, I’ve seen many former colleagues at McMaster – student and faculty – carry on as if all of this is somehow fine. They’d say there were problems. They’d make gestures at fighting for small improvements in the face of universal disaster. 

But they’d behave – in small, innocuous, but telling ways – in the same hierarchical, conservative ways that got us in all this mess in the first place. But it’s not morally blameworthy – it’s just acting according to what your institution affords you to act. We can easily get so ingrained in a place that we can’t even conceive of how to move in other worlds. Even if those other places are more free.

So I could see how a student could find themselves on the wrong end of those institutions. Even as they had great ambitions to contribute to the field from inside those institutions. 

When I learned that Okafor’s situation involved a collision of egos as well as a disagreement over principles and ambition, I changed my sympathies a little. There are no perfect victims, after all. But in how they chose to express themselves, both could engage sympathies well.

Maybe Okafor had more base motives than the appeal to principle. But that didn’t ultimately matter.

Yes, she was rightfully upset about the hypocrisy of a thinker’s sordid life professing and advocating a compelling vision of real justice. Yes, she was rightfully upset about the continuing cultural insularity of the humanities – closing their eyes to the riches of the whole globe.

McMaster’s faculty aren’t villains here. At most, they’re ordinary professionals doing their best with what they’re given. Institutionally speaking, they aren’t responsible as individuals for the systems in which they’re embedded. They do literally what they can. Only what they can.

And Okafor’s piece was a clear description of the institutional issues the humanities faces. Worst case, she’s manipulating a popular view of the department for her own gain (somehow). Best case, she feels genuinely wronged by an academic situation that went south, and has reasoned how it happened from an institutional perspective.

Sanchez, stuck in the department where all this was way too personal, wrote a direct defence, as if she had truly written a direct attack. He issues a clumsy rebuttal to her points. But he doesn’t use the terms and ideas of modern activist politics to let his writing express a truth and legitimacy beyond whatever spite actually motivates her. Like she did.

He uses the insults of the reactionary conservative movement Okafor’s themes oppose, in a simple essay that’s nothing but assertion. Sanchez’s 300 words contain no reasons why her situation doesn’t truly express these righteous themes. He just asserts that she’s “crying wolf.” 

You know who "cries wolf?" Insolent little children who end up getting mauled to death by predators at the end of the story. Okafor – legitimately or otherwise – effectively linked her story to the major issues facing the university system today. Sanchez responded by essentially calling her a spoiled brat and offering no counter-evidence to her narrative.

Sanchez should have spun us a narrative of colliding egos. He should have revealed enough of the real relationships between Okafor the ordinary flawed young woman and her ordinary flawed middle-aged professors to show how ordinary and flawed they all were. How those ordinary flaws provoked accidental alienation. Okafor made her story an activist opera. Sanchez should have made it into a farce.

But he didn’t. He just made himself sound like a fuming, grumpy old man. Okafor made her story sound like the future realization of our dreams for a world of justice.

Not only would Okafor make an excellent lawyer, as is her ambition – she’d also be a great activist, philosopher, and public relations specialist.