Do We See the World or Our Maps of It? Research Time, 31/10/2017

I’ve had a pretty tough day this week, and as I’m writing this post, it’s only Monday. Monday night while I compose a quick Tuesday morning post.

But while I have a lot of work to do for tomorrow for different projects, I need to get some thoughts down here today. If only to collect my thoughts at the end of that long day.

Spoiler for the Edgar Wright film The World’s End – when the body-snatching aliens leave Earth at the end of the movie, they send a planet-wide EM pulse that fries every piece of electronics in the world.

Every hard drive, phone, appliance, and presumably also all the machines keeping people alive in hospitals. Millions die, and the world collapses into a dystopian nightmare. Nick Frost’s ending narration describes his little farming community in England, where they know nothing about the rest of the world.

Nowhere in the world knows anything about anywhere else. How could they? They couldn’t communicate with anyone. In my business communications classes, I talk about the different norms and possibility spaces for web conference conversations, global phone calls, and emails that can cross the Pacific in minutes.

At the end of the movie, that world is all over. The whole world is a mystery again.

A map of the Earth drawn in 1570. We've come a long way since then.
In one of the later chapters of The Human Condition – chapter 35, if you want me to be exact – Hannah Arendt talks about how the world has been made less mysterious. Exploration, settlement, globalization, the simple act of mapping – global cartography with more and more detailed measurement.

Yet those maps are still maps. They’re representations, abstractions. They cut away so many details of living experience to achieve that crystal clarity of the map. Anyone who’s lived anywhere can point you to the clear difference between the experience of wandering around somewhere and studying it by a map.

No matter how detailed that map is – doesn’t matter if the Google Street View car is leading the way and feeding all its new data to your phone in real time – it’s never as detailed as real experience.

Yet the map has incredible power. All our scientific representations have remarkable power to change our world – any reckoning with modernity, the all-too-brief Holocene Era, the Holocene extinction, has to develop an adequate concept of that power.

It’s a paradoxical power – incomplete, inadequate to the complexity and visceral nature of real experience, yet able to encompass such a more comprehensive grasp of the world’s real complexity. Consider for a moment how difficult it is for a single human to wrap their head around all the content – let alone the implications and broader meanings – of our data sets about the world.

We need our computers to interpret these massive amounts of data, to sort them and organize them so we can create our graphs and illustrations. The raw statistical data of our measurements of the world are, on their own, too much for a human consciousness to process. We need our tools.

Those tools – maps, data sets, interpretive algorithms – are how we squeeze meaning from all the information that’s beyond the powers of human consciousness to experience.

Arendt calls it the view from nowhere. Thomas Nagel did too, and wrote a book about it. But what it really is, is the view from the machine – a computer and its software programs is obviously a machine, but even a simple map is a machine. It returns to a fundamental tension in human existence.

Our experience is the most intense way we have of engaging with the world – plunging forward, arms out, grappling with the complex mess of this web of events. But our power in the world only comes from stepping back from that complexity, letting our machines wrestle with reality and shape it into a form that our consciousness can wrap itself around.

Our most powerful actions are a result of delegating our own powers to machines.

The Terror of Men, Composing, 30/10/2017

So I haven't written a post about my artistic work in a while, and I really should. I’m getting to the point where my Patreon’s getting hungry for more content. And if you’ll allow me to get a little crassly commercial here, I’m getting close to a point where the activities of Adam Writes Everything are going to get a bit more commercial.

Let me start at the current moment. I’m working on a new film project with a collaborator who I met as a colleague at my current teaching job. Right now, we’re putting the script together in tandem.

No, I'm not actually working with Ghostface Killah. But the privacy-
screen name for the blog works well for his personality.
We’ve opened up a Google Doc where Ghost throws up ideas, key lines, descriptions of scenes; then I refine all that into a shooting script. When we have the script together, Ghost gets a small crew together from the folks he’s made weird-ass short films before, and we get to work.

Did I mention I’ve ended up cast in this? I play a slightly deranged criminal psychiatrist. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve written anything to perform myself. It’s been bracing to get back into that – you approach the writing differently when you know you’ll be saying the lines yourself.

Mainly, you know your own acting talent, and definitely its limits.

I can’t tell you too much about the story, because it’s actually a little complex and I want to keep it secret. But it’s a horror film. A horror film that revolves around identity-cracking psychosis and violence against women.

An obsession-turned-tragedy sublimated into a split personality that’s carried out a serial killer’s campaign. Satanic-cum-Freudian rituals executed on IKEA furniture in a disused suburban basement.

I’m going all in here. I’m just going to throw every image of self-deluding misogyny on screen in the most intensely horrific, terrifying, icky, pathetic way possible. An exorcism.

An impossible exorcism, of course. A reasonably self-conscious man knows that possibility to intimidate just by being in the room is present in his whole life. We’re never getting rid of the desires.

Tamping it down because we’re realized that a just society is one where – at minimum – men fear the repercussions of offending any woman as much as a woman now fears the repercussions of offending a powerful man.

So that’s the kind of film I want to make here. I’d also like to do it with virtually no money, which I think we can manage. It’s the perfect kind of film to make a killing on the horror festival circuit.
• • •
I’ll be sharing this post on my Patreon page this week, since I haven’t posted there in a while. But after Ghost gets over his flu, we’re going to record our first YouTube channel video. Mostly talking about the ideas behind the film.

Later this year, I’ll finally transition Adam Writes Everything into a proper website. Much of the same will be going on, but I’ll just create more of a brand around it.

I said a week or so ago that I started this blog as therapy. That was true, back in 2013. Since then, I’ve grown more into my ambitions, and I’m in a position where their possibility is actually in sight. Not just a dream.

Being in Toronto is part of that, thanks to the extra connections you can make in this city. Reestablishing a foundation for teaching work, with a decent salary that can easily become more decent over time. Building the artistic side of my philosophical work is my own ideal for the rest of my life.

It’s been years, but I’m ready at last to begin that work. Took me long enough. Fucking economy.

Stretching Our Intentions Through Time, Research Time, 26/10/2017

Here’s an interesting argument that I found in The Human Condition. It’s another example of how Hannah Arendt’s thinking blends ontological and ethical matters in ways that work.

She describes a foundational aspect of our experience of time – how we develop our most visceral conceptions and feelings for the time beyond the present. This goes beyond just remembering and imagining. Both of those are acts carried out in the present.

Remembering refers to the past and imagining can refer to the future, but these acts don’t connect our intentions and worldly activity beyond the present. These acts remain in the present – they don’t extend our action beyond the moment.

So we aren’t really experiencing the past and the future, only calling possibilities and memories before our thoughts. We can experience the past and the future, but it takes a much more intense act than speculation.

When I was partying in my early 20s, I had a
friend who, at the height of his drunkenness,
would scream, "I can see through time!"
Experiencing time beyond the hazy boundaries of the moment is a matter of physical reach there, spreading ourselves four-dimensionally.

Forgiveness and promising. These are the acts by which we physically reach into the past and future – essentially moral and social acts.

Forgiveness is to free someone from the consequences of a past act. It erases that old action from your relationship with that person. An action whose direct intention reaches into the past and changes it.

It may just be in the context of this one relationship between a few people, but it’s still changing the past – nullifying an event, deadening its consequences.

Promising is, parallel to forgiveness, the act of changing the future. Now, the future doesn’t yet exist – it literally hasn’t happened yet* – so you aren’t changing some pre-existing future.

* Please do not bring general relativity or any of the implied conceptions of time – block time, timeless time – into this conversation. I’m just talking about the human experience of time in the flow of our movement.

No, you're changing what would be into what can be. A promise is a reach into the future to create it – an act of manipulating existence into a particular shape. Our intentions in our promises push our actions forward in time as the promise becomes a goal, an attractor for our action.

These actions are possible only through social relationships – building bonds of trust, reliability, and obligation. Communities are constituted here.

But the constitution of communities and friendships are bound up with the extension of our experience beyond the present moment and into a smeared duration of practical awareness. Building our social bonds requires stretching our intentionality into the past the future – extending our presence from the present into a long stretch of time.

Self-conscious creatures become social through stretching their intentionality along entirely new vectors. Promising and forgiving makes us four-dimensional creatures. These acts make us more than timely – becoming temporal.

Law Is Too Powerful to Follow the Truth, Advocate, 25/10/2017

At this moment, at least, powerful conceptual and emotional spasms are pounding through our society. The long-awaited acknowledgement that Harvey Weinstein was a serial sexual predator throughout his entire career as a Hollywood mogul has caused a media exorcism of horror and shame.

Yet everyone knew about it. There were rumours swirling about Weinstein for decades. Actresses at every level of power and fame would whisper to each other, warning each other to be careful around him. Everyone knew.

It was just one feature of a climate of abuse throughout the entertainment industry. Allegations continue to confirm what everyone already knew about performers, photographers, directors.

Here's one profoundly depressing – I think because it feels so
inevitable – of Harvey Weinstein's explosion. He doesn't think he did
anything wrong, and that it was all consensual. I think he actually
believes that all the horrible, icky things we read in the accounts of
so many women are ordinary, legitimate ways to obtain consent.
In some of the long, exploding mess of discussion in the media and among more ordinary folks on the internet, a friend of mine got into a huge amount of trouble. Most of the rage directed at him was the result of his natural sarcasm being not quite appropriate for the context at the time.

But aside from putting his foot in his mouth (allowing so much of Twitter to bash it in deeper), my friend made an intriguing point. I still think he was wrong about it, but he was wrong in a way that helped me clarify some ideas about how we rely on the law.

Particularly the wrong ways we rely on the law. Legal theorist friends – shoot me some feedback if you see this.

My friend’s idea was that if Harvey Weinstein was brought to trial, we’d be able to figure out the truth. Now, I think that’s incredibly wrong-headed and ridiculous. And I’m going to tell you why.

But I’m going to say why without any more reference to patriarchal social structures, or any other concepts about systemic inequality or discrimination. Because I want to write something that will be believed by people who already don’t believe in all that.

It has to do with different standards of truth for different purposes. See, I’ve already seen this dynamic play out in Canada, and it went very badly. That was Jian Ghomeshi’s trial for sexual assault.

The film producer and his second wife, Georgina Chapman, in 2011.

Harvey Weinstein made himself out to be different from the predatory
Hollywood moguls of the past because the Weinstein Company was
cool in a way those stuffy hokey old-fashioned images could never
manage. But he showed every sign of being just another one of
those old men who used money and power to control much
younger, vulnerable women. If it looks, walks, and quacks like
a duck . . . Do I need to finish that?
Ghomeshi was found not guilty. One reason was because his defence lawyer was very good at discrediting the witnesses. Another reason was because the crown prosecutors built their case around incidents that happened about a decade before the trial, and human memory can’t remember events from so long ago with consistency, accuracy, and detail.

But his not-guilty verdict was taken, by some folks who yelled at me on Twitter about it, as proof that he was actually totally innocent of everything. There’s a popular perception that a criminal trial unveils the truth. Well, it doesn’t quite do that.

Criminal trials do not have the goal of uncovering the truth. The goal of a criminal trial is sending someone to prison . A prison sentence is the end, and the criminal trial is – in a democratic state’s legal system – the only possible means. Truth is related to this process, but only instrumentally.

Instrumentally to two degrees of abstraction. One – the trial is an instrument to inflict a prison sentence. Two – establishing the truth to a particular standard of certainty is an instrument to a successful criminal trial.

Now, sending someone to prison is a pretty serious thing. Prisons are not nice places, and they probably never will be, no matter how dedicated to restorative justice a society becomes. Prison is the most terrible place a democratic society can send someone without the death penalty.*

When OJ Simpson went to prison for robbery in 2008, I don't think
anyone commented on the irony that after being falsely brought to
trial for murder, he went to prison for this. No, we all know OJ
killed his ex-wife and her boyfriend, and we saw him beat the rap.
Yet MRA types today will never accept that Ghomeshi actually
sexually assaulted and harassed a bunch of women, because being
found not-guilty proved his total innocence.
* Itself kind of a debatable question.

So if you want to take prison as seriously as you say you do, as a democratic society, you’ll make the standard of proof to send someone there enormously high. I’m not just talking about the reasonable doubt standard, though that’s one very high standard.

In the Western legal system, we define our crimes according to specific acts carried out at specific times. You apply your standard of reasonable doubt to whether the prosecution can prove whether a particular event unfolded exactly as their account said it was.

A prosecutor has to describe and prove true a narrative of that event so detailed that very, very few humans’ memories can provide it. No one remembers the exact time and precise order of events of everything that happens in our lives.

An assault victim must consider every detail of the assault – “You’re certain that it was his right hand coming for your jaw? Your jaw first?” – as it happens, timing it at least to the minute. Human memory can’t function that way in the adrenaline of facing aggressive physical assault.

To avoid inflicting prison on those who don’t deserve it, the standard of evidence to convict someone for a sentence is monstrously high. But a not-guilty verdict only means that no one could meet quite that standard of evidence.

It’s perfectly consistent to know that someone did it – for everybody to know they did it – and for him to get a not-guilty verdict. The phrase is, “That asshole got off.” Remember?

Freedom Is a Funny Thing, Composing, 24/10/2017

One way you can think of Utopias – a book about what freedom can be.

Freedom is a word that lots* of people say with incredible conviction. But there are so many different ideas of what a state of freedom actually is.

* Too many. Much, much too many.

This is not how I’m going to examine this in the finished book. I’m on a blog post. This is the early days of figuring out how to approach a big, complex, damn dense, and properly climactic passage in a book that I’ve barely written yet.**

** Am I writing commentary on my own book before it’s written? Sort of. I’m also providing so much paratext and background notes that if my work ever does have the impact of someone that a historian of ideas would study, I’d punk them all. If this goes on long enough,*** I’d give academic historians of the future something that makes the Husserliana look like a kid’s storybook.

What do you become when you lose your connections with other
people? When the world really is yourself alone? You often think
of solipsism as a void or a prison. But such a person still exists
in a society – They still travel, work, move, and have relationships
even though they feel all these relationships like steel vices on
your joints.
A lot of contemporary literature and art explores what happens
to a personality that turns away from obligation, responsibilities,
and basic caring. Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho are two
stories that come to mind at first. Becoming-tornado.
*** Remember that I also started this blog as self-therapy.

Too many diversions. So here’s the roughest draft of what will probably be a central passage in the next big book of philosophy I’m planning. With significant props to Hannah Arendt (for the politics) and Gilles Deleuze (for the science).

We think of freedom in terms of personal sovereignty, and that results in a vicious paradox. Society itself becomes an oppressive force – its obligations constrain our sovereignty, our ability to do as we wish.

Remember – the desire to do what we wish is powerful and good. It’s the engine and fuel of political transformation, of organizing revolutions against tyrants and police states. But doing what we wish isn’t an end in itself because of how easily it’s corrupted.

I mean, it’s not a difficult concept to grasp here. People who can do what they wish, but have the personal ethics and character of a sentient sewage pipe, are monsters. Insert photo of Donald Trump Jr holding up pieces of an African elephant he just shot.

Plus, there’s the ontological dimension of it all – humans are built to be social creatures. Our personalities are heavily and irreparably damaged by cruelty and neglect during infancy and childhood. Humans need love, close social bonding, and the physical and mental forces of responsibility and obligation to function properly.

That’s the vicious paradox of conceiving freedom as personal sovereignty. To be truly sovereign as a person is to break yourself. How can we achieve the same practical effects – liberation from actual tyranny – of the sovereignty conception of freedom, but maintain the social solidarity we need to live decently?

I Guess Stronger Together Was It, Jamming, 23/10/2017

A story first, then some philosophy.
• • •
Sometimes, a politician hits on the right idea at a time when she can never do anything about it. Hillary Clinton had led a political life of equal parts naiveté and the most awful ethical compromises for state power.

I think there's a good heart and an ethical soul in Hillary Clinton. I
firmly believe this. But I'm also sure that she no longer knows how
to express that soul. She had to hide her values as First Lady of
Arkansas and the USA under vicious attacks that made her out to
be some feminazi monster. Now, her quite reasonable
feminism is actually mainstream.
But she spent so long and in such intense circumstances training
herself to speak in euphemism to placate millions of sexists and
racists, she can't sound believable about what she truly and
deeply believes.
But then she put a fundamental truth about human nature on her campaign signs – that we are stronger together. It’s as if she knew she’d go down in flames – never consciously, only as a last moment of ethical instinct from the most ancient parts of her brain.

Everything about her political career was rooted in noble, true instincts, but she and her husband both were the worst judges of which compromises were worth making. Believe deeply all your life in the power to heal racism in America, then pass the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform packages in the name of compromise across the aisle.

Newt Gingrich’s Republican Party was just as revanchist as Donald Trump’s. Gingrich just had some tact, so he could trick naive kind people into thinking that he didn’t wish we could just have Jim Crow back.

It’s the same about this mess with Uranium One blowing up on right-wing media. FOX began talking about this complex web of business deals, as if it shows the fundamental corruption of the Clintons. But to me, the centre of the story lies here.

Bill Clinton walked into a meeting with Nursultan Nasarbaev – President For Life of that bastion of liberal freedoms and government transparency Kazakhstan – while Hillary Clinton was US Secretary of State. Bill sincerely believed that he was arranging nothing more than a contribution to a public health project somewhere impoverished.

Bill and Hillary Clinton would never have imagined such a meeting as a pay-for-play. Corruption was the worst thing a powerful person connected with government could do – it would break the people’s trust in you to do the right thing by them. Surely, no leader of a country would take on such a burden solely to enrich themselves.

Nasarbaev lives in a world where every meeting is a pay-for-play, a corrupt deal to enrich yourself. Enriching yourself was the reason you joined the government.

Some people are raised believing that joining government means becoming a public servant – that you have a duty to your constituents. If you take that so much for granted that you can't conceive of people who join government for very different reasons, you should stay home. You won't be able to deal with these people.
• • •
Hannah Arendt wrote about a particular concept of freedom – freedom from interference, self reliance, autarky. Freedom as the ability to turn away from our obligations.

This is a freedom we all have. But it isn’t a freedom we should want. It’s the freedom to turn away from your friends and neighbours. We’re all free to decide that we should live only to enrich ourselves.

But living that way leaves us bankrupt. Humans are fundamentally social creatures – our personalities are inherently inadequate and broken if we don’t get enough contact with other humans as infants and small children. We’re each deeply interdependent on everyone else in society for our mental and cultural health.

To have a morality that turns away from everyone else – when freedom is freedom from obligation – embraces the withering of a human organ as a great ethical good.

It sounds absolutely mad. Of course we’re stronger together than we are acting only on our own. Someone who’d gladly turn his back on everyone around him would be a monster of a person.

Don’t forget that another way of life as possible – never forget that humans are very good at making ourselves monsters.

The Utopia of the Mass Grave, Research Time, 19/10/2017

There’s a common right-wing argument against utopian thinking, which is rooted in the libertarian impulse for small government. The emotional ground of that argument is an appeal to the horrors of totalitarianism.

Stalinist* Russia and Nazi Germany are the real-life outcome of what the modern libertarian (and generally conservative) right-wing considers socialist utopias. Now, for my purpose at the moment, I don’t want to argue over the facts of whether secret police states are the logical, conscious, or unintentional end-points of socialism. I want to talk about the structure of the argument itself.

Rick Sanchez, hero to those who don't know that he's actually
there to be laughed at.
* That is, Russia when it was run by the NKVD in the 1930s-40s.

You can see the structure very clearly in a straightforward reading of Plato’s Republic. Put all the metafictional and metaphilosophical readings of Plato’s work to the side. They don’t matter for the sake of this argument.
• • •
The most straightforward reading of any book is usually the most popular, if only because it’s the easiest to make. Same reason why The Catcher in the Rye inspires so many jerks** – Holden Caulfield’s voice dominates the narrative. Literally, because he’s the first-person narrator of the whole thing.

** And at least one murderer.

The easiest way to read the book is to let the dominant, most charismatic perspective – and the perspective that’s always justifying his actions in his own moral terms – dominate your own thinking with its charisma.

I sympathize with pragmatic libertarians who are careful and complex
in their justified criticisms of state power. But the more dogmatic folks
– and yes, I'm mostly thinking of the Rand disciples – are surprisingly
dim planners of the most obvious failures.
Same reason why so many misogynist, immature jerks love Rick and Morty – you hear Rick justifying all your worst inclinations, but you don’t realize that his words are meant to indict themselves. You have to step back from the text – get metafictional about it – to get the point. But that’s a step beyond just going with the flow.

The same problem happens with The Republic. Going with the flow of the text, without getting meta about it, it’s Plato arguing for the ideal structure of a community and its institutions. Its content is absolutely horrifying – rigid caste system and community-wide family structures. Now think about the book as a model for your own political action.

How do you build a better society? Sit around with your friends and colleagues, figure out a hypothetical structure for society that you think would be perfectly harmonious. Then, when you control your state’s military, police, nationalized corporations, bureaucracy, tax authority, organize the entire society according to that exact plan.

Change the entire country – from law to culture to thought – in a generation.

What a paradise it was.
Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. You’ve conceived of politics as a craftsman or engineer conceives of a problem to be solved. Conceive of the best possible end state, and move your society toward that state using the quickest and most intense means.***

*** Of course, the quickest means is rarely the quickest possible means.

Thinking of politics that way – as a pre-planned organizational structure to which you want all of society to conform – enables massive state violence. Consider the end, and its perfection justifies all means to achieve it.

That was Pol Pot’s revolution. The plan was the purest communism, stripped even of basic identity, and the action was to impose that structure with brute force of arms.

You don’t keep the means-end calculation out of political thinking just by declaring a few methods – like mass murder, forced starvation – beyond the pale. You’ve just drawn a limit on the same sociopathic concept to mark where you start to feel nauseous.

If you want your audience to understand the actual ethics that you
threaded into your show, you have to make your most charismatic,
interesting character its voice.
The answer is to avoid means-end thinking in politics altogether, because to conceive of a balance between the virtue of goals and the force of methods is inherently unethical. It nudges us to believe in sacrifice or contribution to common goals as a burden – the limit marks what burdens we consider too much to bear.

The calculation itself of what goals justify which methods is totally perverse because it makes you think of your neighbours, friends, and community members as raw material to build a masterminded social machine.

Making resources of those you should respect.
• • •
Now, for this post, I’ve been following an argument Hannah Arendt makes in The Human Condition. Chapter 31, if you want me to be specific. When she's talking about Plato in this way, she isn’t talking about what Plato actually intended, or her genuine account of The Republic’s meaning.

She's talking about how most people received it. Students who read maybe a chapter in an elective survey course where they got a C+. Media provocateurs who take their straightforward or half-cocked reading way too seriously.

Arendt is talking about the popular reception of Plato – an example to give insight and structure to a popular concept that creating a perfect society is the same as creating a building. Make a plan, bend some resources into shape. To draw attention to how perverse this everyday way of thinking is.

To demonstrate the need for change in human thought itself.

Fear Makes Snitches of Us All, Research Time, 17/10/2017

When I was in my last year of undergrad, I took a graduate course about Hannah Arendt. It was a beautiful course, with a professor who’s still a valued colleague and a friend.* It was my first exposure to her work, and to work about her work.

* Who I don’t talk to often enough. Nobody talks to anyone as often as they should, but maybe that’s what people who don’t talk enough say.

Human social solidarity is broken by tyranny, when your government
forces the people into paranoia, fear of each other, incentivizing
betrayal over friendship.
One of Arendt’s concepts was the centre of complex debates in the commentary – common sense. What exactly was this concept of Arendt’s? I think I read more about the concept than Arendt’s own writing on it in that course.

That was only one of many ideas in commentary, when the course itself focussed on understanding modern international human rights law and responsibilities with Arendt’s concepts. So the course never made time for the whole of The Human Condition.

When I read her discussion of common sense in the context of reading that book, I had what I think is a good handle on it. Not enough to end all dispute in Arendt commentary, of course. That’s not my goal, thank God.

No, I just want a concept whose structure and mechanics I can understand and use well enough for my own argument on the same broader question – How can we live together in peace.

So you have my take on Arendt’s concept of common sense. Literally the style of life of self-conscious social creatures – we live in the world as if that world is shared. Not only that, we need to live in a shared world for the sake of our mental health. Social life is exercise for an essential part of the human organism – our minds and personalities.

In one of the first climactic moments of Doctor Who, he said, "Fear
makes companions of us all." Only fear of what's outside. When you
fear the ones who are trapped with you in the cave of skulls, you'll
never get out alive.
Daily life includes camaraderie, friendship, the exchange of meaningful, significant conversation. Humans need the act of bonding, the constitution of solidarity, to be our complete selves.

Our highest state as a society will be when all 7.4-billion of us are open to becoming a single, global community. Humanity’s most complete selves. Between us would be a literal common sense – the sense of living in common, as friends, as part of the same society, in all our differences.**

** Excepting, of course, the paradox of tolerance – not really a paradox, because this utopia would be a society not of tolerance, but acceptance. The refusal to be friends must never be accepted.

This utopian asymptote – universal solidarity and friendship – was how Arendt saw totalitarian structures of government and society extending back thousands of years. We’re accustomed to seeing totalitarianism as a new invention – that’s how Hannah Arendt saw things in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Totalitarian governments like Hitler’s, Stalin’s, and Mao’s was the most intense form of it in history. But the fundamental principle is the same as in the time of the ancient Greek tyrannies. Break solidarity, isolate people with fear.

The Soviet Union's NKVD, the secret police institution that ran the
government with Josef Stalin at its head, I think of as the best
example of totalitarian and tyrannical government for my ideas in
The institution of the secret police was how the modern administrative state did tyranny. Short of full-on totalitarianism, that’s the modern form of tyranny. But the basic function is the same as in the smaller communities of Polis Greece.

The tyrant is isolated from the people – they fear him, and hide from being noticed by him. The people hide from each other, avoid being noticed even by their friends. Any friend could become an informer on you, even if you hadn’t done anything. To inform is a weapon, to bring down the tyrant’s police on someone you want out of the way.

Democracies are practically the inversion. Ideally, leaders should fear the people, because the votes of the people can cost them their jobs. At the least, citizens want to be seen by their leaders – we lobby them, complain to them, yell at them that they’re doing a crap job.

In a democracy, where we can bring our institutions to our heel, we can create the space in our society to build bonds of friendship. Our interactions along these bonds create common sense – our intuitive sense of common ground with our neighbours. Near and far.

When these bonds are broken, we become weak. We’re less than what we could be. That’s the destructive power of paranoia, of the secret police.

Social Matter as Memory, Research Time, 16/10/2017

This weekend turned into a longer gap than I thought. I didn’t expect Friday to be so mental, but it ended up so full of stuff and so generally stressful that I couldn’t get much thinking done at all.

And while the weekend itself has been pretty packed full of stuff to do – catching up on marking, attending a conference on refugee integration, getting a bunch of work done for SERRC, and a pile of personal correspondence – I did at least manage to relax while doing all that.

Humanity's tendency to clear forests, I sometimes think, is rooted in
how bloody scary they are in the middle of the night. We've fought
against the prospect of our fragility with such success that we could
very well end up killing ourselves in the next few generations.
Thinking at least needs a moment. Just a moment.
• • •
The Polis was more than a city. It was more than the first democracy in the West, whatever democracy must mean if it includes modern parliaments, presidents, and these strange town assemblies.

Talking about the Polis as a primordial democracy is very inadequate to the deeper meanings of how Polis-era Greeks lived. That is, how they understood their lives, the nature of their society, their place in the world, and their relationship to time and history as individuals and societies.

The metaphysics of their societies, in other words.

A Polis Greek person’s relationship to nature. It’s about fear, really. People knew how fragile humans were compared to the power of natural forces, the forces of the Earth.

Powerful storms could wash away their homes. A few too many dry seasons, and your whole community starves. Even just getting lost in the woods would be enough to kill someone – dying of exposure, fatal injury, drowning, or even attack by predators.

All of this is still true, but the development and omnipresence of our industrial civilization has complicated our relationship with the Earth. And made it much more violent.

Most of our record keeping about history is totally unreliable. Danny
DeVito's character in Hoffa, a movie I loved as a teenager, never
existed. Bobby Ciaro was an amalgam of two different people
who couldn't work separately in the narrative.
Leave that to the side. Think about that relationship. The Greeks conceived of nature as immortal, cyclical as the entire universe. Even individual plants and animals were thought of as immortal because they understood such non-human organisms as interchangeable. Individually unremarkable, both in their existence and how they understood themselves.

Only humans were mortal – we had distinct, singular, unique identities and we knew we were going to die one day. That’s the condition of mortality.

The Polis was an institutional means to fight our mortality. The continuity of the Polis itself maintained the records and famous stories of debates, speeches, and displays in the assembly. The leaders of the community – those who were able to leave the hard labour of maintaining their lives and households to families and servants – had a shot at immortality.

Glory and fame in your community – the display of virtue in debate, speech, and leadership – was how a mortal could survive their own death.

How real can our modern myths ever really be?
The social institution itself was a form of memory, a way of making memory collective. Societies have always had oral histories, tales of the community’s past and remarkable leaders. The stories mutate over time, though, and become mythical. Real people morph and blend into different characters.

Hell, most Hollywood studios can’t even make a biopic without merging real-life characters and smoothing out their subjects’ messy lives into straightforward narratives. That’s just a matter of a few years of production. Think about the kind of mutation that happens to a society’s narrative memory over centuries of retelling.

Achilles wasn’t simply “brave and bold.” He was a person, with all the complications involved. But by the time he got into the song, brave and bold was all he was.

The Polis was an institution that kept the histories of its leaders – their remarkable speeches, their thundering arguments, their theatrical acts in the public square – rooted. The gathering of Polis leaders was a place of governance, but most people wanted to go there for the chance of mythmaking.

Myths that would preserve their memory without transforming them. Their great acts in public leadership would be preserved as the acts of men, not becoming literature or image. The stone of the city and the square made their memory material.

Slowing History Down, Research Time, 12/10/2017

Here I am continuing the short but dense post I wrote yesterday. The real unfolding of history – the complex web of interconnecting events and processes – is too chaotic for us to understand it as a whole.

Our histories simplify the world. Look at how we discuss history over centuries at a time. We focus on a few great leaders, the activities of governments, business leaders, and massive economic interests. Zoom in or zoom out from the village to the globe, and it's the same structure to the story of the place.

Human spaces are carved into simple patterns and clear paths. All
other creatures are driven from the space. Co-existence – even
though ecological co-existence is always kind of dangerous and
rarely peaceful – becomes impossible, or at least rare.
We can contain much of the immense detail of history, but only if we either stick to a single phenomenon, or a very short period of time.

I once knew a professor of history who concentrated almost all the research articles of his multi-decade career on a few key decades of industrial development in early 19th century Montreal.

It’s immensely impressive, but I’m reminded of an image I came across once. You can achieve incredible things in a narrow specialization, but ultimately you have to put it to use. But now you have to wonder if you need more than narrow or broad knowledge to act best.

If you do need that level of knowledge, you’re screwed because that knowledge is practically impossible at the speed of human life. We can build datasets that big, but comprehensively understanding that dataset takes way longer than any time we’d have to act on what it can tell us.

Here’s a place where Hannah Arendt’s discussions of Greek culture turn out to be pretty enlightening for folks living in the nuclear age. You can – with reasonable accuracy for such a big, complicated, chaotic assemblage – describe modern civilization as an attempt to grasp hold of the world by paring it down to the human story.

Raccoons are called human-adapted species because they've done so
well adjusting to life in human urban spaces. They're one of very few
success stories in humanity's industrial age.
Human geography is simple – like a European park, we shape our world into simple structures. Boxes with clear boundaries. Specific lanes segregated for different kinds of vehicles and directions of traffic. We build our cities in grids and circular patterns – simple shapes.

We bulldoze the complex patterns of multifaceted ecologies. To see the chaotic mess of wilderness disgusts many of us – unsanctioned plants are weeds. So we reduce the world to human structures – cities, highways, farms, parks – to simplify this complexity.

Then we’ll at least have a better chance of grasping hold of the world. It won’t be so chaotic, and it will have a pattern of entirely human design. The world won’t change so fast because there won’t be so many ways for it to change. In paving the world, we’ll slow it down enough to grasp it in our knowledge.

When we shape our society to make it last forever, we finally have a world that we can understand. It won’t escape from us.

Arendt finds this idea in the political thinking of Plato and Aristotle. They saw the greatness of humanity in building a world that lasted – a permanent world. It would be a world built by craftsmen, designers. That’s the image of the legislator, the mythical founder-leader who builds a city and a society just as an architect and team of masons builds a temple.

Laws and institutions exist to constrain human behaviour and
channel it in directions where it can be understood. If you
understand it, then you know how to control it without the
chafing violence of constraint.
Can we even achieve that level of constraint in human societies?
Why on Earth would we want to?
The designed order of institutions and laws would make the desperation of human action unnecessary. We wouldn’t need to fight with chaos to catch up with reality itself as it steamrolls us. Durable institutions are reliable, and human institutions are comprehensible.

We associate Plato and Aristotle with how the Greeks thought. They’re often the only Greek thinkers popular culture pays attention to. But they were rebels in their society – while they created concepts at the heart of our culture, they had little direct influence on their own for a long time after their own lives.

Most Greeks were creatures of the polis – the one durable institution in Greek society, built to hold the hurricane force of contingent, improvised action. These were the debates and duels of Greek politics.

The culture as a whole most valued fleeting glory than vain dreams of permanence. Instead of grasping for comprehensive knowledge, they were content to become the brightest light in the chaos for a moment.

Who do you think was most wise?

What Does It Take to Control History Itself? Research Time, 11/10/2017

When I come up with titles like that, you can tell I grew up watching a lot of Doctor Who. But I’m actually going there by the end of this few hundred words, I think.

I noticed a curious passage in The Human Condition, where Hannah Arendt – in her abstract conceptual approach and her historian’s style of evocative writing – starts talking about network effects.

Even something as ordinary as a timely trip to the bathroom can have
amazing consequences that are impossible to predict.
Not in any technical sense, of course. The Human Condition came long before Bruno Latour and his sociological actor-network theory, or the popular knowledge of neural networks in artificial intelligence research, or any of the networked communications infrastructure our civilization depends on today.

Arendt is talking about the capacity for a small act in any human society to have outsized effects. Consequences spiral outwards from any action, always expanding their power well beyond an actor’s intention.

What do we think of before we make any relatively significant action in our lives? I don’t necessarily mean only the obvious decisions about whether I should marry this person or bomb this country. Those are events with clear meaning and many unintended consequences.

She’s talking about events like conversations about important topics with a friend. Politics, love, business, family – anything that you’d share with someone you trust.

She's even talking about utterly trivial events like picking up a package from the post office, bumming a ride home from work with a friend, going to the bathroom.

Any event can have unintended consequences because we can’t perceive – in the moment of our action – all the indirect and systematic affects that can flow from it. We can’t see the entire web of causality – forward and backward, molecular and molar – at once.

That’s the power and gravity of human action, according to Arendt. Any one of our actions could occur at what turns out to be a critical juncture of causes and processes. Even our most trivial action can have knock-on consequences that transform the world.

That would be a fantastic novel to write, actually. Also reminds me of what I’ve read about Laozi.

What would it take to grab hold of chaos? To bend chaos to your will and make sure that only what you planned would happen.

Confronting History as Chaos, Composing, 10/10/2017

So a lot of my research so far for Utopias has been about political philosophy and thinking. Here’s another look at how I’ve approached the research for it.

Like I’ve said, there are three parts. The first one is about the human relationship with time, how we understand and engage it in our daily lives and in our larger self-conceptions of society and history.

The second is about how we can use the different aspects of that relationship to understand the dynamic processes of reality – the constructive, productive power of time.

Just around the corner, the limit.
The third figures out what ways to understand time best harness humanity’s most constructive, sustainably productive powers. Doing that also identifies what those powers are – the powers of enthusiastic, free solidarity in all sectors of human society.

I’ve been researching the third part mostly for two reasons. One is that the political philosophy concepts are where I needed the most work. I wanted to improve my knowledge about a particular direction in democratic theory.

A processual way of thinking about the development of communities, states, and societies, skeptical of all dominations, hopeful about the power of pluralism and freedom.

I’d already developed my concepts for part two writing Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. We understand ecological matters – and the general development of the universe – best when we think in terms of processes and dynamics.

My expertise on part one’s subject – humanity’s relationship with time – is a blend of the two positions. I’ve done a lot of the research about process already, but not yet about how we come to (mis)understand ourselves – historical, narrative humanity.

Analyzing how we understand history and humanity's development
through asking What Happened? is also a pleasant chunk of Gilles
Deleuze's writing. I actually see many similarities between his and
Arendt's concepts, even though there seems to have been no
influence between them.
Reading Hannah Arendt’s work is very enlightening, given that this is the setup of the project. I consider her a predecessor – in my pretentious moments – because The Human Condition is simultaneously about how humanity really develops over time, and the different ways we understand that development.

We understand our development by asking What Happened? Then we figure out the best ways to get answers. Once we have enough facts, we make a story – great actors, pivotal events, the power of humanity acting together. That’s our history.

History is what we tell ourselves when we answer the question What Happened? But that’s a retroactively written history – history with themes, great characters, running currents, a kind of unity. Whether it was a secular unity, or a Providence, Zeitgeist, Invisible Hand – it's still unity. Events as they’re unfolding have no such unity.

Events are chaos – maelstroms of colliding processes and forces. Military institutions like states smacking into each other. Terrifyingly complex economic and industrial systems span the globe, but emerge from thousands and millions of individual acts.

The system transforms those acts, but this feedback loop between a huge system and its constituents physically constitutes human civilization. There’s incredible variety here, a huge diversity of powers, processes, stories, lives. The history of humanity as it actually unfolds is an authorless history.

Despite the convergence I see in their concepts, Arendt and Deleuze
had utterly different philosophical approaches, styles, and thinking.
I think part of that is rooted in Deleuze's relative privilege compared
to her. Deleuze rode out the Second World War in relative safety,
losing only his brother, a resistance fighter. He was 20 by the war's
end. Arendt escaped the Holocaust and was a political refugee for
many years in her life.
Arendt makes very clear how utterly terrifying it is for human history to be truly authorless. Those metaphors about maelstroms are appropriate. We tell ourselves coherent histories – whether in scholarly books, or popular films and novels, or epic poems and myths in Athenian squares thousands of years ago.

It’s meant to give us a means to grapple with the chaos of time – to turn events into history through understanding. Sometimes, it works, and we understand the world in the best way to thrive.

Often, we lose track of how the world develops, clinging to old certainties out of inertia, or because we’ve culturally bathed in them for so long that it becomes difficult to conceive of anything different.

A complete conception of the real development of events is totally incoherent because of that chaos. Every simple story is too simple to be true – in the real complexity of history, all contraries are compossible.

But it’s seriously difficult to conceive of that kind of world. It takes complexity in thinking, and the ability to confront the terror of a rudderless reality.

Out of a Depression Into a Flood, Composing, 06/10/2017

I've been thinking of a particular argument I want to include in Utopias. As I research different concepts – especially because my writing is so transdisciplinary* – I develop more details of a broad outline.

* Even when I write fiction, it’s transdisciplinary. I made it part of the latest small sci-fi project I’m part of. Now, I can’t tell anyone a damn thing about until December. But I’ll periodically tease this with ironic jokes about how I have to keep my mouth shut for months.

There's only over so much to consume. Earth isn't infinite; it only felt
that way when our powers to transform it were very small, or else
worked only on a very slow pace when they grew large. Not anymore.
Different parts of my research focus my ideas more, and I can expand different parts of the outline until the details are so fine that I may as well start writing draft passages. I feel like I’m about there now with a passage about consumerism’s conditions and causes.

Call this gathering my thoughts.

Do you remember a post I wrote earlier this summer about Hungary’s inflation crisis during the Second World War? The seeds of the argument start there, the most ludicrous crisis of economic over-intensity seen yet.

So to finance their total war production, the Hungarian government printed so much currency that the value of its currency ballooned from US$33.50 in 1943 to US$460,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in 1946.

Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, offered (among many things) that this fate of catastrophic hyper-inflation was inevitable unless industrial production slowed to a comparative crawl. His prescription to do so was to shut down state-financed industries and massively lower wages to take as much money supply out of the economy as possible.

Both paths, he said, involved terrifying human suffering. Millions would be reduced to poverty. But those were the only two futures he could conceive of – a world of hyper-inflated currency or a world with almost no money at all.

Keep building and building and building. Even highways wear away
and need replacing. Build it all on top of the ruins of the old. But in
just a couple of decades instead of centuries.
The actual solution was totally different, of course. All the free-market industrialized countries gave themselves a massive Marshall Plan. In Europe, Japan, and South Korea, American government and industry gave them huge investments to rebuild their countries from rubble.

In America, their whole economy was one massive Marshall Plan. They didn’t have anything to rebuild, so a culture of consumerism developed. This is when Arendt saw American economic life changing its focus from the value of work to the value of labour.

Ironically – or maybe intentionally – this was during the McCarthyite crackdown against socialists and the labour movement. But we’re talking concepts here.

So Arendt identifies how American industrial production – to prevent the disaster of over-production and hyper-inflation Hayek predicted – encouraged consumerism, planned obsolescence, and the culture of disposability to keep the economy moving.

She never mentions Hayek by name of course. These are the arguments I’ll set against each other to make a more general point.

Production that lasts – what Arendt, in her trilogy of concepts at the heart of The Human Condition’s analysis, calls work – is what made the world human in the first place. The infrastructure – buildings, roads, cities, warehouse districts, oil refineries – that stands for decades and reconfigures massive landscapes.

You eat to live. Something's always
going to eat you eventually.
Work** is the creation of the world as it exists for the sake of humanity – converting the ecologies of Earth into fully human environments. Naturally developing ecologies exist for the sake of all its constituents – this is why they’re so violent, because a lot of those creatures consume each other to survive.

** Arendt’s philosophical concept of work.

Arendt depicts work – the creation of a lasting human world – as an activity of great dignity. It is, as far as it’s powerful. And it’s impressive. When I was visiting the Louvre last week, what I found most impressive were the Babylonian and Mesopotamian ruins. After thousands of years, these massive stone building fragments – three-story-tall doorframe columns! – were even more awesome simply for having lasted so long.

The Burj Dubai, Taipei 101, and CN Tower would envy such luck of lasting for literally thousands of years.

Yet to build our permanent home, we have to carve it out of the ecosystems that actually keep us alive. For many thousands of years, human civilization never got that intense. There have been ecological crises that brought down major empires – soil exhaustion, water pollution.

But only in the last couple of centuries have we been able to clearcut entire countries. We’ve built dams so huge that the weight of their reservoirs’ water causes earthquakes. All the water on Earth is threaded with plastic molecules, heavy metals, sewage, oil slicks, radioactive waste.

This is what comes from valuing work that lasts. You produce work that destroys itself and takes you with it.

She Did Kind of Expect the End of Everything, Research Time, 05/10/2017

My musings yesterday got a little disconnected. Kind of went beyond “rough draft” and into “jottings on the asylum wall.” Okay, maybe not that bad. But it didn’t turn out to be as systematic as I wanted.

Here are some thoughts in reaction to Hannah Arendt’s longer discussion of human labour and industry. Even though she earlier wrote that humanity seemed far from maxing out our planet’s carrying capacity, she can see the danger coming.

Can we eat our whole civilization alive? When Hannah Arendt was
writing, that was almost literally the guiding principle of the entire
economy of industrial civilization in both capitalist and communist
Her concepts that she uses to analyze our society’s predicament come from Polis Greek culture, but she expresses them in universal terms. They become three categories of human production on a societal and global level.

Labour is the production of what we consume – human metabolism at work in the world. Work is the production of machines, infrastructure, and institutions that are built to last. Action is the production of acts themselves – deeds that leave no legacy except their memory and example.

Arendt’s analysis of how labour functions in 20th century industrial society – both in American-dominated and Russian-dominated societies – is the lynchpin of her critique of consumerism.

For the sake of maintaining such massive industrial productivity that we built to overcome the Great Depression, we were producing goods to consume them for our pleasure with the same speed as we’d consume weapons, ammunition, and human lives in war.

The problem was that consumption became the pinnacle purpose for production. So much of our production power was devoted to making things that we’d consume. They had high value in their use, but using them would also destroy them, so we had to make more constantly.

We were all, for our livelihoods, so dependent on the relentless pace of Western industry’s production that the system itself was becoming automatic. Its activity, as Arendt put it, was beyond the power of human decision-makers to stop.

Even an advertising man can have moments of profound insight and
a life remarkable enough to preserve in our community's historical
No matter how many people might decide that such an ephemeral, superficial lifestyle wasn’t for them, the machine couldn’t stop. The productivity of our economy was built around disposability.

However ethically empty economic life might have been under this arrangement, it did make for a great job creation plan. That was one aspect of the high-quality manufacturing sector jobs that drove the expansion of the middle class in the mid-20th century. We had to keep making those things to consume and destroy them.

The problem with our contemporary economy is much worse in particular ways. Now, so much of the extra value of our work goes to virtual sectors – banking, insurance, and stock investment.

A lot of the stuff we consume – games, information, media – is free or extremely cheap to buy. So there just isn’t as much money flowing through the production process as there used to be when Arendt was alive and writing.

And although she doesn’t say it directly, the economic cycle of ballooning over-production and over-consumption still has the effects of ecological destruction. Eating the planet alive.

In so many ways, our economies are unsustainable because nothing is built to last. We labour and enjoy, but we don’t build and act.

No One Expects the End of Everything, Jamming, 04/10/2017

As I was reading through The Human Condition, I made quite a few notes. I always make notes when I read philosophy, of course. Most of the time, they’re pretty trippy reactions to concepts. Elaborations. Arguments. Questions. Comments. Links.

Sometimes, it’s a joke. A meaningful, significant joke. A cruel joke. Definitely a cruel joke. The worst way to have an idea go out of date.

Much of human civilization is passing the point where industrial
life has more benefits than drawbacks.
Hannah Arendt writes, “Mankind as a whole is still very far from having reached the limit of abundance.” Chapter 16, page 124 of my English edition.

This is from the late 1950s, when human industry was kicking into its highest gear yet. This was the decade when we started pumping enough carbon gases into the atmosphere that we were kick-starting the sixth Great Extinction.

Here’s a thought that comes to me when I read this sentence of hers. Here we were, so close as a civilization to reaching the carrying capacity of our planet. Yet no one could see it.

Only 60 years after Arendt wrote The Human Condition, we were pushing up against the carrying capacity of our planet for an industrial civilization of more than seven billion people.

In 1960, the Earth’s human population had only recently passed three billion. The problem wasn’t nearly at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We all knew the danger of nuclear weapons. The Cold War loomed starkly enough that it was called the nuclear age.

Nuclear weapons no longer have that solemn dignity, as if we could control the finger of God with a big red button. Now, they’re the apocalyptic toys wielded by boy-emperors and man-children. What was humanity’s great achievement of divine wrath is now our grotesque stumble into drunken mass suicide.

None of this is predictable. Donald Trump is the President of the
United States of America. What the fuck?
Arendt could never have seen Donald Trump. If she had, she’d probably have dismissed it as a night terror. Even four years ago, the prospect of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States was an unbelievable proposition.

Humanity is dissonant when we try to tell the future. All we can do to anticipate the future is follow present situations and trends along their current dimension of progress. When we believed that every home would have an atomic oven. Or that passenger rockets would take us on trips around the world in less than an hour.

Maybe we can imagine some much more intense version of the present moment. Cyberpunk imagination brought us that.

Even when the predictions are accurate, they’re limited. Elon Musk is talking about doing rocket-based commuter flights from San Francisco to Japan in 25 minutes. But I think he just feels cheated that we never got the moon colony by now, like we all thought 60 years ago.

We’re living in a generally less intense cyberpunk future right now. Yet who in Larry Niven’s generation could have dreamt up cyberpunk? Let alone Jules Verne’s generation.

In this passage of The Human Condition where Arendt drops this line, she’s continuing her long analysis of how Western values have transformed from Polis Greece to the Atomic Age.

She can see some kind of radical transformation ramping into gear because her eye is on industrial production and the processes that enable it. Because she’s tracking the development of Western values, she has her eye on the growing frenzy of consumerism in the United States and the other free market industrialized regions.

Arendt had lived through the Second World War, and catalogued the many thresholds humanity crossed in those years. We know the most about what she wrote about its terror threshold. But she was also watching our economic thresholds.

The Second World War was the period of humanity’s most aggressive, intense, and massive industrial production yet. Fifteen years after its end, none of that industry had scaled back its powers and processes. War wasn’t eating it up – people were.

This was consumerism. The dignity of building goods to last was replaced by the relentless push to consume. Buy, wear out, and replace. That’s why my grandparents’ sewing machine could keep working for decades, but most everyday machines like that now have lifespans of a few years.

We’re supposed to throw them out and replace them. It’s the only way our industry could keep pace with the capacity we developed through total war. At the time, the buildup of consumerism was necessary – only the intense industry of the Second World War could bring human civilization back from the Great Depression.

The price was dignity in so many ways. Arendt follows the grotesquerie of consumerist morality. My work – and that of many others – has followed the grotesquerie of ecological destruction.

Humanity drowns in our own shit, and does so in D&G shades.