Despotism as Over-Writing and Overriding Thought, Jamming, 31/03/2018

A couple of days ago, I finished a white paper for a Toronto-based think tank / consulting firm on democratic governance. I’m not going to get into the details of it right now, because it’s pretty dense.

Happily, the firm’s research supervisor enjoyed what I wrote and had some great recommendations for the second draft. A lot of his suggestions had to do with signposting – letting a reader know explicitly why you’re making a particular inference or reference.

If we understand the world according to only a single set of ideas,
we'll do serious injustice to people who think differently, and
impoverish our thinking and our civilization. Spirits must become
more than ideas and practices.
I always need an editor’s hand with signposting in a lot of my non-fiction work. I immerse myself so deeply in the research material and the concepts that what appears clear to me needs to be made more explicit. The connection is there – I just sometimes have to be reminded to say it blatantly. I can be too subtle for my own good when I write.

The paper explores the chaotic and dangerous nature of online social media platforms. They can encourage democratic movements – the Arab Spring, Idle No More, Stoneman Douglas – or revanchist, reactionary movements among all ideologies – the alt-Right, left-wing Putin boosting.

One of the best comments I got from my editor was that I should add, in the final section of recommendations, a brief response on whether these platforms should be nationalized to control them in the public interest.

I think this would be disastrous. Because while the rapid chaos of barely restrained social media can encourage dangerous extremism, nationalization would put media that can also encourage democratic revolution in the authoritative hands of the state.

In most of our political conversations today, talk about the danger of state authority is a libertarian idea. I take a different tack, following the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – along with the philosophical current in which they were major players. Their conception of the state’s dangers is rooted in their concept of despotism.

As much as we fear Trumpism – and there's plenty to fear in his regime
of egotism, corruption, and validation of racism – his politics merely
makes explicit the inherent oppressive danger of state institutions.
We associate despotism typically with despots – dictators or authoritarian rulers whose power falls short of the Führer ideal, while still moving along that trajectory. But Deleuze and Guattari talk about the despotic machine – this is the state itself.

When the material power of a state institution is barely or not at all restrained, it overcodes everything in the territory it’s responsible for. What do I mean by overcoding? It’s a technical term, referring to institutions that orient more and more (and eventually all) of people’s activity to the state.

In a despotic machine, if you want to do anything in your life, you have to run that activity through some kind of state machinery. State institutions, regulations, and rules determine every aspect of life. Not simply in terms of conditions – like laws, safety or environmental rules.

I mean state institutions and machinery determine and actively shape cultural and social development. Diversity and indigeneity are wiped away by state mandates for uniformity.

Here’s a simple example. It comes from touchstones in Deleuze and Guattari’s own work. Franz Kafka was a Czech Jew living for most of his life in the Austro-Hungarian empire, whose thinking and work was informed by his sardonic attitude toward the bureaucratic drudgery of his day job, as well as his personal engagement with Jewish mysticism.

As useful as state institutions can be for supplying common goods to
huge populations, the institutions are very dangerous. They can all
too easily be used to oppress people, and force the many ways of
living across a population into a single, uniform character. That's the
power that Deleuze and Guattari called overcoding.
Kafka had a complex identity and set of ideas, whose linguistic influence was Czech, Hebrew, and Yiddish. But the language of his fiction writing and daily business life was German. This was a state imposition on his identity, which was more complex than the monarchist political morality and subtle German supremacism that the Austrian state imposed on all its citizens. It didn’t matter whether you were in Vienna, Prague, Ljubljana, or Timisoara.

Here’s a more complex example. Last year, there was a very strange court decision in British Columbia. The Ktunaxa people sued the provincial government to stop the development of a huge ski resort on their sacred mountain in the Jumbo Valley, where their religion holds that a grizzly bear spirit lives.

The court mandated that an area of the mountain be set aside from development for Ktunaxa worship. According to the laws of the state of Canada, freedom of religion requires that the Ktunaxa have a place set aside on the mountain to practice their faith.

But the Ktunaxa’s ontology of the divine has nothing to do with having a place on the mountain to worship. The mountain itself is the material manifestation of the bear spirit. So any resort development would be an act of violence against their divinity. Full stop.

Ktunaxa thinking sees the mountain as the manifestation of divinity. Canadian law sees the mountain as a place where the Ktunaxa need some accommodation to practice their religious beliefs. What is a matter of existence for the Ktunaxa is a matter of cultural practice for the Canadian state.

The court judgment couldn’t even comprehend Ktunaxa ontology, let alone acknowledge it as valid. Their entire way of existence was invalidated, overcoded by the state’s systems of meaning. That’s the despotic character of even the most democratic states.

Cracking at the Paradox of Fascism, Composing, 29/03/2018

Sorry it's been a while. I was actually in hospital for a few days since the weekend, but I’m back in reasonable health now. And as of yesterday, I have a new position as an instructor at a new college in Toronto. So the past few days have been really disorienting.

So getting back to this blog today is very much an exercise in grounding myself again. Returning to a regular research and writing routine, as a habitual part of my day, making sure that even on the messiest days, I’ve got a calm space.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said that philosophy had a therapeutic purpose – He wasn’t the first one to say so, of course, but he was the first one I happened to come across who did. Therapy wasn’t the only purpose, of course. But it could serve that function if you needed it – a minimum expression.

By Brunhilda
Meditation. Focus the mind. Think. An activity that sometimes is much too difficult.
• • •
Here’s a paradox for you. It’s a political and conceptual paradox. Call it the paradox of totalitarianism. Those who are most afraid of losing their individuality will shed it themselves.

It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it. But it’s an old problem in political philosophy – not always phrased explicitly, but quite old. Spinoza was the first to ask it.

Why would a person fight so strongly for their slavery as if it were their freedom?

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari tackle that problem themselves, thinking of the political context of their own time. It was dominated by the same currents as ours. Globalized liberal capitalism was kicking into gear. Ecological pollution was reaching crisis points. States, corporations, and other institutions were developing far-reaching control into the everyday lives of citizens.

In the 1970s, what did people in the heart of capitalist countries fear? Communism. The creeping embrace of an ideology that fused us into a unified, undifferentiated mass. The state and related institutions had total control over your life, down to the smallest details. Individuality becomes forgotten. Conformity is all that matters.

Not all people, of course. But it was a cultural tendency, which the right-wing politicians of many generations opposed violently and intensely. The North American examples are clearest to me, because this is where I live and this continent is the epicentre of the current movement in this direction.

Joseph McCarthy, William F. Buckley, Andrew Breitbart. These are just a few prominent people who aggressively advocated against any political or social ideas that would reject or curtail our individual freedom.

Above is a perfectly reasoned argument.
Not about individual cases, of course, like criminals.* I mean in the sense of the civic contract, the way all citizens of a community regard each other – as individuals, free to pursue their own lives as they wish.

* Heavens to Betsy, we must never think of treating criminals with dignity! If we did, they wouldn’t be criminals. I kid, but sometimes I hear of something so sickening that sarcasm is my only way to keep from breaking down.

Here’s Ian Buchanan’s take on how Anti-Œdipus expresses the paradox of totalitarianism today. You become so afraid of an authority stripping you of your individuality that you suspect all political, ideological, or moral difference from your own individualist thinking.

If people have communitarian beliefs – like a notion that making a promise binds you to keep it – stamp it out as a betrayal. It’s taking advantage of your freedom to give yourself over to the enemy.

And in enforcing total discipline to defend yourselves against the enemy that would rob you of your individualities? There’s your answer.

We Prohibited It Because It’s Illegal!, Research Time, 23/03/2018

I haven’t been in the best headspace this week. All I’ve managed to do is get myself together enough to work on my paying gig at the moment, that think tank paper. Even the last few blog entries were exercises in getting through a conceptual block in the paper’s main argument.

It’s been difficult for me to summon energy beyond that, which has caused me to fall behind on some other commitments. And I’m sorry – but depression can be a pain in the ass. A pain in everything else too, which is why they call it depression.

This weekend will be catchup weekend, I’m just going to get tonight’s post finished – actually a short one this time – get a solid night’s sleep, and get back on track.

A long and unnerving shadow.
Art by Marcelo Neira
My thoughts about the nature of law are kind of funny and sometimes too simple. I knew a lot of legal theorists at McMaster, but I shared very different premises about the nature of law than a lot of that research community.

I don’t see law as something you have a moral obligation to obey. I think the law done right encourages ethical activity, encourages people to treat each other with kindness as individuals and with justice through institutions.

Now, that hardly ever happens in real life, so I actually don’t think we have much obligation beyond fear of punishment to follow the law – insofar as it’s the law. If the law happens to coincide with what’s ethically right, we’re obligated morally to follow it – not because it’s the law, but because the law actually encourages justice.

Examples of laws that encourage justice – laws against theft, assault, killing, fraud; regulating acceptable practices for health care, education delivery, utilities provision, record-keeping, ecological protection.

Still rolling through some of my notes on Ian Buchanan’s book about Anti-Œdipus. Bringing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concepts into my projects that involve politics, law, and the institutions of the state means understanding the conceptions of law that they reacted against in their own theoretical development.

What were the concepts that cast the longest shadow?

The Freudian and Lacanian models that dominated French psychiatry around the time of the Paris Uprising was probably the biggest single shadow. Except probably for Marx. That way of thinking had a disturbing concept of law.

Law, on this model, is prohibition. Law exists as one side of a yin-yang complex with desire – each can’t exist without the other. The manifestation of desire simultaneously manifests the law prohibiting it.

Desire can only develop through being continually stamped down.
What kind of political and social philosophy can come from a
premise like this?
Art by Ashley Montague
That law could be institutional if you live in a bureaucratic state, or cultural if you live in what Lacan and the mainstream Parisian intellectual community called a primitive society. But the law is the prohibition of desire which develops along with and in dialectic with that desire.

Deleuze and Guattari’s solution to this was surprisingly practical. You can’t argue against the concept on its own terms, because the concept rests at the premise of the whole discourse. You can’t talk a Freudian out of Freudian thinking by arguing entirely on Freudian terms.

So you stake out an entirely different way of thinking, and show how well those concepts deal with real-life problems the mainstream can’t handle. Psychiatrically, Freudian rationality can’t deal with schizophrenics.

In the legal-institutional context, Freudian rationality understands desire as something that needs its own prohibition to develop at all. It legitimates law as a necessary repression. Law is legitimate because it represses. Politics that considers repression necessary is fascism.*

* Thinking back to Snyder’s essay again. He also lists Freud as a major influence on Ivan Ilyin, the Russian fascist. Ilyin's conclusion that a civilization develops through the collective suppression of our drives as individuals. He seems to be a profound thinker against democracy. Terrifying.

Paradoxes of Democracy II: Deeper Truths than Facts, Research Time, 22/03/2018

The research I’ve been doing this month for the democratic governance white paper dovetails with interests for my larger projects on political philosophy. I’m also writing today’s post to get through a sharp turn in my paper’s argument.

Let’s start with my example from yesterday – the dedicated movement Trumpist. Let’s call him TD. He watches FOX, reads Breitbart, listens to talk radio no his commute, enthusiastically follows The Donald’s Twitter feed.

How dare you, TJ? How very dare you?! Do not use the Satan image
from a much under-appreciated but a personal favourite Doctor Who
of mine from the Russell T Davies era. This is not for you!
TD considers Barack Obama an authoritarian socialist, the climate justice movement a hoax to enrich Al Gore and other investors connected to the Democratic Party, and the Clinton Global Initiative a money laundering and influence peddling scheme for Democratic Party interests around the world.

Given all this, TD is actually a very virtuous person. He believes that a culture of corruption and kleptocracy has grown around the Democratic Party, and that Donald Trump’s Republicans are the crew to drain the swamp.

The problem is, these are conspiracy theories, propaganda, and extremist lies. They have just enough basis in reality to be believable, or at least plausible, even though it’s become nearly impossible to tell whether the suspicion of corruption or actual corruption came first to justify the investigation.

TD lives in a media ecology in which these ideas about the moneyed progressive left are explored and repeated regularly as if they were true. The ethical centre of his heart isn’t the problem – it’s the input he uses to guide it.

The question becomes how you orient a person to recognize the greater corruption – that Trump’s family and administration is the real kleptocracy. TD’s entire thinking is informed by messaging that constructs a pretty comprehensive understanding of the world. It’s just that they’re based on alternative facts – alternative facts with enough rootedness in real history to be plausible.

I think I've found my new favourite image of Vladimir
Putin. Art by Pete Kirill
I'm not sure how to break into the worldview of people like TD. A basic principle of TD’s political thinking is that any progressive message is the idiocy of liberals or the lies of the corrupt (or communist) Democratic Party.

One article I found in my research helped me situate where such people sit as ideological objects. Timothy Snyder is a historian/philosopher of the culture and politics of eastern Europe and Russia. He wrote about Ivan Ilyin, one of the most innovative and complete fascist political philosophers.

Ilyin was a new name to me, and one I’d like to explore more of. Especially since several of his principles of governance have become explicit policies and approaches of Vladimir Putin’s government.

What stood out to me was Ilyin’s idea of how a fascist leader treats history. I think I’m safe saying that folks with progressive politics have a specific understanding of history. Orienting politics toward justice means identifying, understanding, and healing after old crimes.

So the past is a field for investigation, exploring all the gritty detail of history as you can. You must understand precisely what was done and how if any of us can have a profound enough cultural conversation to overcome our mutual hatreds, break the social/racial castes that make global human civilization so hateful.

But if you don’t want to do any of that awesome shit, then history becomes something else. You don’t have to investigate the real unfolding of history – if anything, you want to obscure, bury, and deny it. Repackage history as a lost golden age that only our fearless leader’s will and power can restore.

An image to illuminate your ideal. A utopia.
• • •
Ilyin’s work seems like the most multidimensional exploration of fascism as a political philosophy – in Snyder’s telling, makes me want to get hold of Snyder’s new book to ground myself in Ilyin’s thought before seeing if I want to engage it in any detail for Utopias.

Maybe a more sustained engagement with Russian fascism is for another project. I’m doing enough with Utopias already. I don’t want to add more and more to it.

Paradoxes of Democracy I: Undermining Trust, Research Time, 21/03/2018

So I’m working on a white paper on democratic governance for a small Toronto think tank this week. It’s a format I’m still getting accustomed to, but I’m hammering out the first draft right now to get my ideas and arguments clear. Then I’ll wrangle it into the step-by-step format the group needs.

The bulk of the paper is a discussion of the reasons why popular mobilization is both central to democracy and an incredible danger to it. Since online social media is a powerful facilitator of revolutionary mobilization, I’m going to propose a brief policy framework to make sure such mobilization doesn’t too easily get hijacked by reactionary or fascist ideas.

A little late, I know. But all policy ultimately becomes catchup in a contingent world.

See, when I’m talking about revolutionary mobilization, I’m not just talking about the Arab Spring, or Black Lives Matter, or the Stoneman Douglas movement for gun control. I’m also talking about pro-Russian conspiracy mongering about Ukraine, and Pizzagate.

The fascists of kleptocracy. One successful for nearly a decade in that
mode. One is still getting started, so might actually be stopped.
You typically can’t equivocate these. My own sympathies are clear. I’m no fan of Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, but if you’re going to understand the mobilizations on their behalf, you have to do something that a lot of us on the progressive side are uncomfortable with.

You have to understand why a fanatical Trumpist believes themselves on the morally right and just side of America’s political conflict.

Get yourself into the headspace of someone who really believes that Barack Obama installed authoritarian communist loyalists throughout the United States government, which Hillary Clinton systematically looted, and that Donald Trump is the saviour of American virtue fighting corruption at all levels of society.

No one is mobilized without believing their own mission to be the right one. In this example, they’re part of the group of Americans defending Donald Trump while he cleans up the corruption of the Democratic Party.

I think completely differently. But I share faith in a virtue – that democratic society demands governance based on trust. Trumpists have seen a betrayal of that trust, and are fighting to restore it.

The framework of their revolution is admirable. It’s the content I have a problem with, but the content has its own problems.

Too Much Reality, Research Time, 20/03/2018

When I was first reading Anti-Œdipus and really getting into it, I didn’t fully understand all the book’s arguments about psychiatry. I could follow the political philosophy well, but a more experienced researcher on Gilles Deleuze’s thought told me I needed some more background knowledge on the psychiatry before I could really dig into its concepts.

It’s been about 12 years since then. I think I’ve got this down reasonably.

Now, quite a lot of academic philosophy departments don’t consider Deleuze and Félix Guattari credible voices on scientific or medical issues. This is because they’re French philosophers whose major works dropped in the 1970s, so are associated with dreaded postmodernism.

Flying from reality? An excess of reality? By Mathieu Laca
Many university philosophy departments have characters more like Petersonian reaction than popular stereotypes about the discipline would have you believe.

As I’ve said before, Guattari was a groundbreaking psychiatrist, whose clinic La Borde was at the leading edge of creative new ways to treat psychotics and schizophrenics. The reason is because of his thorough materialism.

Under the influence of Freud – as well as Jung and pretty much the whole psychoanalytic model of thinking – you conceive of psychiatry as a rationalist practice. Your paradigm is what was literally called “the talking cure.”

So psychiatric practice is about the patient themselves analyzing themselves – the actual analyst acts as a guide so the patient learns the tools and understands the arguments and inferences to cure themselves. The patient understands the causes, conditions, nature, and the steps to follow in their daily lives to overcome their mental health problems.

That works for some mental health issues, but when Freud himself dealt with schizophrenics, he could do nothing. He described such patients as falling away from reality. Reality on his thinking was a material order of things and processes which you understood with rational human thought, language, and discourse.

Figure out the nature of a problem in clear thinking, after self-consciously exploring it. You can always fix your own mind if you understand its mechanics. Schizophrenics fall or fly from this because they can’t understand the world’s mechanics – empiricism is impossible.

Guattari had a totally different way to describe the schizophrenic state of mind – an excess of reality. Functioning people perceived and understood with a powerful focus. We cut away so much of a chaotic, messy environment.

Everyone is a machine. How fine is your tuning?
By Nychos
We sit on a busy bus without being overwhelmed by the activity around us – people moving back and forth, weaving through crowds in all directions, fumbling with bags and boxes, announcements of the next stop or slow stretches, cute puppies poking out of purses. We can keep our eye on a couple of things at a time.

We’re also doing this actively – making sense of all this mess on the damn bus. We remember who sat where, when our stop is, waddle to the door two or three stops in advance, stick our gloves deeper in our pockets so we don’t lose them, keeping an eye out for seated riders about to move. We can use this focussed attention as a basis to understand what’s going on and what we should do.

Schizophrenia explodes our focus. We can’t discriminate among possibilities because we spontaneously understand more causal processes than really exist. The imagination flies radically from the most trivial details. A passenger on the bus snorts out a sneeze, and it means that he’s part of the clandestine CIA plot to replace citizens with plastic machines.

We generate an excess of reality – an explosion of causes, explanations, and conditions. Unable to cut away any of our thought in perceiving or understanding, we overwhelm ourselves.

Funny part is, neurological research has a good angle on the causes of schizophrenia. It’s a destabilization of inhibitory signalling processes in the brain’s neural transmission. Destabilizing a process that should be in a proper range of inhibition.

Unable to regulate our reality – our thinking and world.

Feeding Off Its Own Destruction, Research Time, 19/03/2018

I live in Toronto. It’s a vibrant economy and culture, but there’s plenty of simmering conflict here. The tech, finance, and film/tv industry are the major drivers of the city’s economy, but there are plenty of people left behind.

Rent control and housing affordability is a crushing pressure on people all over the city. There’s pressure on the middle classes. People now able to afford a condo’s mortgage are locked out of a townhouse market with not enough supply, and a detached home market whose value has ballooned ridiculously.

I have plenty of bias – my New Democrat affiliation is in my Twitter
bio. What amazed me was, when my part association posted this
image, how quickly we got our first racist comment about Muslims.
Far from our last, too. The real irony is that, the more shit-posters
we get on this image – and the comment thread is ridiculously long
without my having to do a thing – the more visible Facebook's
algorithm will make it in news feeds all over the networks of the
There’s pressure on the lower classes. High demand entices building owners and property managers to raise rents beyond what many in already run-down buildings can afford. Elected political leaders in city and provincial offices are no longer interested in subsidizing low-income housing directly, which pushes more disadvantaged people out of housing and into cars or parking garages with few security cameras.

Both Ford brothers – alive and dead – have given lip service to affordable housing. Former mayor Rob would visit the city’s public housing to highlight its unsavoury character.

For the most part, the Ford brother who has a good chance of becoming Ontario’s next premier has taken a Not-In-My-Neighbourhood attitude toward disadvantaged people.
• • •
Toronto’s housing pressure is a function of a very basic process of capitalism, one Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explored in Anti-Œdipus. It’s a social / economic system that’s remarkably durable, which is strange.

There have been plenty of economic crises in capitalism – 47 major recessions in the history of the United States alone. The system was unstable enough that a union activist turned social scientist could write an analysis of capitalist economics describing it as a system heading inevitably for self-destruction.

The contemporary left doesn’t take Marx’s ideas at face value anymore. At least the intelligent ones don’t. Anti-Œdipus was another generation’s updating the basic idea of Capital to unexpected, contingent, new conditions.

Parkdale has been a source of artistic creativity in Toronto for a while,
and a big part of that was how many affordable – if kind of scuzzy –
homes were available in the region. It's been a poor neighbourhood
for a while, which means artists and new Canadians often end up
living here. The Tibean and Roma communities have made serious
impacts here for a while. But they're also squeezed by condo
developers putting pressure on property owners to seek bigger
profits. All those poor and weird people who made the place
interesting and drew people to the area will have to leave so the
boring people with fat wallets can live in this interesting place.
Capitalism’s promise is prosperity and freedom – growth of the whole economy is good for everyone.* But capitalist economic systems drive these cycles of expansion and collapse. Usually, a key commodity’s value is inflated beyond sustainable price ranges by wider economic conditions, and there’s a lot of direct and collateral financial damage in the crash.

* As long as the size of some people’s shares of the pie grows at a greater rate than the size of the pie. That’s how an oligarch’s class is created.
• • •
Toronto’s high-pressure real estate market is one of those systems squeezed by affordability crunches. Profiteering people and organizations – property owners, investors in new condo developments – build these massive structures for middle class and professional class renters and homeowners.

Protests of these developments happen when people worry that they’ll be squeezed out of their homes – squeezed out of any homes at all – by the pressure of ubiquitous development that leaves them behind. That’s the injustice of property development – growing supply of middle class housing can stabilize the pressurized prices, but force those of more modest means away.

Gentrification’s irony. We all know it. A neighbourhood is filled with people of modest means who are all somehow marginalized from the mainstream. Working class. Artists. New immigrants. Marginalized people, whether by ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or some other racial or caste marker. Home of the minorities of a society.

Even the far-right nutters who think Trudeau and Bill Morneau are
communists just help drive our messaging to 
more people. Don't
tell them that. Hell, even if you do, they'll probably just keep trying
to start flame wars to own us socialists and libtards. Resentment and
cruelty seem to be the only things keeping North America's
conservative coalitions together these days.
Minorities in Deleuze and Guattari’s conception. People whose existence, identity, way of life separates them from the mainstream, others them. Their central example was Franz Kafka – a Czech man working and writing in German; an intellectual, curious, deeply spiritual Jew living in a Christian, rather anti-Semitic culture. It often puts them at a disadvantage.

Contemporary Toronto has its equivalents. Refugees from all over the world live in the Toronto area, as well as immigrants who come to Canada having to rebuild their entire lives. They’re the disadvantaged of our economic system, where we most value people who are already rich.

Yet a culture of entirely rich people is boring. It’s dull. It’s creatively dead. All this class knows how to do is commodify – invest for a higher return. But if you need sources outside your own class to invest in, you need to find difference-makers – new trends, new businesses, new ideas.

The minorities of our societies are the creative classes – they’re already mixing and realigning cultural codes and traditions in their own identities as they adapt to their new social worlds. Capitalism as a social system needs such people – hustlers, artists, new people – because the elite of a capitalist system don’t have the capacity to think anymore.

The margins of a society bring the energy to the next growth and creative process in a capitalist economy. Yet the very success of those processes force marginalized people out of a society, since the prosperity of an unrestrained capitalist system tends to cluster in oligarchical shapes.

Oligarchs hate those filthy poor people, and they aren’t smart of worldly enough to know how profoundly they depend on them.

Searching for Desire on Google, Jamming, 16/03/2018

Don't necessarily take that title as a recommendation. You can probably tell what you’ll probably end up finding within a few minutes – it’s a search on the internet for content related to desire. You’ll inevitably – and sadly faster than you expect – end up with a results page full of what starts with the letter P and rhymes with ‘horn.’

For the past couple of days, I've been trying to figure out a framework for how you’d change a person’s desires – a whole culture’s desires. But I’ve mostly been talking around it.

And I’m going to keep talking around it for a while, because this is frankly a difficult topic to figure out. This is a five-ish times per week blog – I’m going to be taking a lot of passes at this.

Given the motivating example of Noble's inquiry was the awful
search results for phrases like "Black girls," I thought I'd start this
post with an image of Ava Duvernay, one of the best film
directors working in America today.
One of the other projects I’ve been working on is a policy paper for a small think tank about democratic governance and online organizing in social movements. Most of the theoretical material I already had as part of my personal library, but I grabbed some more recent articles and studies too.

There's been some recent sociological work on the feedback loops between different online platforms and the social change it’s set off. The most hype has gone to Facebook, I’d say. Its immensely detailed databases on its users’ activity drives the most powerful advertising outreach engine that’s ever existed.

Without Facebook’s platform – the peculiar and comprehensive data mining its structure makes possible – Donald Trump would probably not be President of the United States. We know this. Nothing more nefarious than his digital campaign manager Brad Parscale negotiating a really shrewd and sweet ad buy.

A much more subtle feedback loop between a web platform and society is Google Search. I got myself a copy of Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble’s look at how the psychology of racism and sexism appears in the complex internal structures of search algorithms.

It’s a book-long analysis, and I’m still going through all the examples and the basic breakdown of them that she offers. But I can see some themes emerge in my own thinking as I go through them.

Pictured is Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's digital chief for his 2016
and 2020 Presidential campaigns. Pictures also is his beard.
Search and PageRank seem to be failures of rationality. The engineers design a search algorithm that responds to the aggregate of all the queries people give it. So of course the top hits for the phrase “Black girls” are all pornographic.

Because when you aggregate all the searches of the most hideous, grotesque people out there, you end up with the dregs of humanity guiding the leading edge of search engine results. Of course you end up with the most racist, hypersexualized, stereotyped images emerging from the top hits of your search.

Humans can be wonderful, and we have a lot of potential. But a lot of us are scum. Search is going to reflect that.

In that, Search achieves its goal perfectly. It’s used the aggregation of knowledge to organize the world for us, optimized perfectly to line the bank accounts of Alphabet Inc. I mean, answer to our every desire. Yes, that’s it.

That's the epitome of rationality – you work out the optimal path to achieve a goal. But rationality falls short of real reason.

The algorithm needs an ad hoc tweak every time someone reminds Google that an image search for “doctors” brings a first page of pictures of men. There’s nothing about the algorithm that can catch itself. There’s no consciousness of the material affects and psychological or emotional effects of its results, how it expresses vile stereotypes and cruel prejudices. Why would it? It’s an algorithm.

Here’s the disaster that Google has put us all in. Our main everyday source of information has no conscience.

Desire Makes Sales and Sales Make Desires, Research Time, 15/03/2018

You can’t understand how capitalism works without understand the economic power and role of desire. It’s an inherently transdisciplinary inquiry.

Your first instinct might be to look to economics for comprehensive analyses of capitalism. It’s an economic system, after all. But economic models have a hard time dealing with desire.

Psychology has a lot to say about desire, but nothing to say about economics. So it’s really hard to wrangle a psychological concept or principle into economics. One route that I think is promising is political economy, the return of economics as a field to its roots in the pre-disciplinary studies of writers like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.

Pictured: The Rational Man
The problem is, economics shouldn’t make a straightforward return to its origins. An enormously destructive idea emerged from the origin of economic science. The Rational Man.

The concept has grounded their models and analyses for almost the entire history of the discipline. The idea makes perfect sense on the face of it. It's the presumption that people intrinsically act in their best interest, given their knowledge at the time.

It’s perfectly believable because we all believe this about ourselves, don't we? It’s definitely how most of us portray ourselves to others. If someone interviewing me for a job asks me how I make decisions, I’m going to describe a methodical, rational process. I’m not going to admit that I sometimes act from emotional or unreflective gut reactions. I mean, I could – but not without expecting that I’ll never see that office again.

The field of behavioural economics has overcome the reliance on human rationality. But aside from a Nobel Prize for its innovators, economics as a whole has yet to accept its basic idea – humans are a-rational actors.

We make decisions – including those relevant to economics – by a combination of reason and emotions, as well as cultural, class, and racialized biases. Our entire assembly of desire feeds into our actions. Behavioural economics understands this, but hasn’t yet followed the logic through to its conclusion.

You see this short stop when you look at the proposals for political and institutional change that emerge from behavioural economic analyses. Nudges, they’re called. Small, but consequential changes to people’s physical, social, and media environment that makes the more reasonable choice in different situations appear more sensible or easier. Even if that choice is actually more obscure, complicated, or difficult.

Not that kind of nudge, no. Too bad, really.
It’s a very effective policy approach. The problem is that it’s difficult to reconcile democratic values with a governance style of secretly modifying the physical environment of your entire society to condition people’s choices. I’ve written about the troubling character of government through nudges before.

The most obvious problem with the concept of the nudge is that it’s inevitably anti-democratic. The democratic relationship* depends on transparency and trust – they’re the norms of mutual respect among and across people, families, groups, cultures, companies, governments, institutions.

* Whether that relationship is among individual people, families, groups, cultures, companies, governments, institutions; among and across all those scales.

Here’s a nudge procedure that I read about in Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 a few years ago. Detergent caps are designed to deceive you about how much you need – they’re too big, and the volume markers too faint to see. So the solution is a law regulating the size of laundry detergent caps.

Apply this generally, and you have a legal system enforcing fractally detailed rules to condition people to behave rationally without any self-knowledge of it. All transparency between people and their institutions disappears.

That’s one problem with the political economy of some approaches I’ve seen to behavioural economics. I have one more. The nudge goes too far to control humanity, but it was conceived as a way of freeing humanity – free us from our own inadequacies and ways the powerful use those shortcomings against us.

The nudge still manipulates the human power of desire, but real freedom lies in changing the character of that power. Don’t presume our enlightenment – enlighten us.

New Boss and New Boss and New Boss, Research Time, 14/03/2018

In these days of Jordan Peterson’s ascent into his popular campaign to save Western civilization from ourselves, I miss Zizek.

Slavoj Zizek was a ton of fun. I disagree with a ton of his philosophical ideas – the vanguard-style Leninist (or Lenin-ish) political philosophy, his more faithful Freudian heritage, the Hegelian framework of all his thinking.

Some of his ideas I can’t really be bothered with – like his returns to the ethical and political meanings of Jesus and Christ. Just not my thing.

Let's take that philosophical riff on "Won't Get Fooled Again" a little
literally. When Roger sings that we won't be fooled once more by a
hypocritical leader promising revolution but delivering more of the
same injustice, it could mean two things. The hopeful reading is
that he's dedicating himself to getting revolution right next time.
The pessimistic reading is that he'll no longer believe that real
change is possible – he won't let a leader fool him into believing
that genuine revolution is really here.
His ideas about the possibility of building a perfect, or at least progressing-toward-perfect society are generally fascinating. He explores those issues explicitly from a lot of angles in a lot of different books – Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, In Defence of Lost Causes, Living in the End Times.

He has great concepts on the utopian issue. So his works can help people understand the issue and explore it. That’s what philosophy is for.

But he hates Anti-Œdipus. I can understand, because he’s so much a Lacanian, and that book pretty much trashes a lot of the fundamental concepts of Lacan’s psychological, psychiatric, and social-political thought. That’s a shame. Because I’m on Deleuze and Guattari’s side in this.

I’m not going to get into the full purpose of Anti-Œdipus. For that, you can read Ian Buchanan’s book on it, which walks you through the core background context and the most straightforward account of their ideas.

Today, I just want to talk about one key argument of Anti-Œdipus, one that I’ve discussed in different contexts before, but which I want to focus on again now. What would a genuine political revolution be?

We all know the jaded attitude toward political leaders describing themselves as an agent of change. “You gotta have hope!” “This will be Our Revolution™,” “I’m gonna drain the swamp!” The answer is in the lyrics to the greatest Who song ever – “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

What does that lyric mean? A leader is always embedded in a huge network of institutions and relationships. Those are the relationships that give him power over others. State military, police, and bureaucratic institutions, of course, are an incredible form of legal and sometimes potentially violent control.

Because Presidents have to do President shit. Wisdom from a brave voice.
The absurdly rich are immensely powerful too, especially if they control corporations or large investment funds – their decisions can plunge the livelihood of many thousands of people into despair. Or they can become horrifying predators.

One of the stereotypical rallying cries of democracy is “Throw the bums out!” When you’re sick of how the current group of powerful people is handling things, you can rise up and fire them. Democratic institutions are about building peaceful procedures for doing this so you don’t have to risk death to help overthrow a government – you just leave work early to vote or volunteer on a campaign.

But throwing the bums out a few years isn’t how you build virtuous institutions. You make the institutions virtuous for another while. But eventually, the corruption of access to huge amounts of material power and control over others sets in. And you have to throw them out too.

Frantz Fanon warned of these problems in The Wretched of the Earth when he described the dimensions of liberation needed for a genuinely free society. Simply occupying the same institutional place as a corrupt autocrat doesn’t restore virtue to those institutions. It just changes who sits in the positions that have the power to dominate people.

Real revolution changes all the institutions of domination – military, police, law, riches, racism – so that they no longer dominate. But Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Œdipus look past institutions to an even deeper ground for the will to dominate.

As long as the desires to dominate, control, and oppress others still exists, we’ll never be able to build institutions that can’t be corrupted to become oppressive. We literally have to destroy our desire to have power over others at all. Free your mind, your heart, your spirit – and your ass will follow.

Under the Paving Stones II: Horror of the Nameless Dead!, Research Time, 13/03/2018

Here’s how I knew I was on the right track by using Ian Buchanan’s commentary to help me through this historical investigation. He’s up-front about the role the Algerian War played in conditioning the Paris Uprising a decade later.

Yesterday, I talked about how the popular perceptions of the Paris Uprising is that it was a unified movement of radical socialist and communist students in the city’s public sector universities. But if you learn about how it really developed, you realize how laughable that is. Trouble is, you have to deep-dive.

You often conceive of the year 1968 as the beginning of the new
progressive politics. But like all socially transformative events, it was
also the end and culmination of long-running social tensions, a
unique intersection of tensions and interests that's as remarkable as
it was improbable.
The conditions of the Paris Uprising of 1968 lay in the Algerian War. This was a brutal, decade-long conflict that lasted nearly a decade. The French government had conquered Algeria in the early 1830s, and by the end of the 1840s reformed its administration of the region to become part of France. The provinces of Oran, Alger, and Constantine were just as French as Rouen and Bordeaux.

Pretty much all the Algerians disagreed, but their voices didn’t matter. After the Second World War, France re-established their government in Algeria fairly easily, but the Front de Libération Nationale began a guerrilla war in 1954, which was more effective than any of the last century of independence struggles.

FLN combat against French rule was brutal, frequently using terrorist attacks against French government and military institutions that killed many Arab and European civilians. The French government frequently carried out mass arrests, mass detentions, and massacres.

Despite a vigorous eight-year campaign of borderline war crimes, Algeria won independence from France in 1962. It’s gone through periodic civil war among different factions since then, and settled into an unpleasant but fairly stable one-party dictatorship.

French society – especially in the more urbane, cosmopolitan culture of Paris – experienced anything but stability thanks to the war. The general consensus of Paris’ citizens on politics was an inoffensive liberal social democracy. France’s political party leaders kept up a fitting line on domestic policy.

But there was a general consensus among Parisians that their government was run – no matter which party or coalition of parties was in charge at a given time – by hypocritical war criminals.

Everyone knew that the French army massacres thousands of Algerian civilians – it was collective punishment for the insurgency. The same kind of thing the Germans did throughout France during their occupation and under the Vichy regime. Just what the British was doing in Kenya fighting the Mau Mau insurgency.

Most of us remember the Arab Spring uprisings against the
authoritarian governments of the region. We democrats supported
those revolutions, but it was a very different story 60 years ago
when Europeans were the autocratic governments Arab people
were demonstrating to overthrow.
The French government, throughout the Algerian revolution, publicized their massacres of civilians as victories against terrorists. So far, so familiar.

The brutality of the French in Algeria was bad enough. But France’s leaders made the situation worse by promoting themselves as the champions of the country’s social democratic welfare state.

The government supported French workers organizing for collective bargaining and improved labour conditions while massacring Algerian workers organizing for independence. They were proud democrats in Europe and proud leaders of a military regime in Africa. They were humane architects of the welfare state who happily killed Arabs by the hundreds for a decade.

Yet the government line was that Algeria was France. So by the government’s own words, they were massacring French citizens. Quite a lot of French citizens in France saw that a state military apparatus that had no problem massacring Algerians would have no problem massacring European French if people turned against them.

So radical communist students, socialist factory and trade union activists, and liberal business people all came to the same conclusion. No more. This was the common interest uniting these groups that – in pretty much all other social and political situations – can’t agree on lunch, let alone a common political program.

But they were all united in the desire to overthrow a French government that demonstrated, in their treatment of Algerians, that they were willing to commit mass military violence against their own citizens if the citizens wanted something they didn’t like.

That’s Buchanan's account of how the uncommon alliance of the Paris Uprising developed. Works for me.

Under the Paving Stones I: Sadly High Probability, A History Boy, 12/03/2018

I’m Canadian, not French. So Utopias isn’t going to wade into all the different interpretations, causes, conditions, effects, and affects of the Paris revolutionary riots of May 1968. But I have to bring in a little history.

Because my own political thinking uses a lot of the concepts that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari developed in the 1970s, May ’68 is a touchstone, a material condition. Anti-Œdipus was a product of the Paris popular uprising, so the social dynamics that brought it about conditioned the creation of the book and its concepts.

Paris’ May uprising was a unique event. Its uniqueness was in how remarkably unlikely the movement’s coalition was – not only the radical communist activists, but also business management students and all the factory workers in the city.

Growing up in Canada, the American narrative of 1960s protests
dominated cultural discussion of that era. The cultures of Europe
were so different that they didn't get much airtime.
That massive improbability was a product of unique and complex conditions that are practically unrepeatable in their exact form. Activists – a primer in two parts on how to learn from history.
• • •
I first learned about May ’68 in an undergraduate political science course – specifically about political behaviour, an introduction to how political scientists investigate how people vote, protest, and get involved with government. It was introduced to me entirely in its dimension as a student movement.

At the time, I worked for a campus newspaper. So part of my job was to report on the activities of the university student union. I found the whole institution* a mess of hypocrisy and self-delusion.

* Yes, that is seriously still their website. It's really sad.

I couldn’t take seriously the idea that a student movement could organize anything sanely, let alone offer up a genuinely inspirational new form of politics. Here was the environment where I was building my first fully self-conscious political conscience, at least regarding student movements.

It’s 2003, 2004. The Iraq War has mobilized a lot of people to fight the myopic imperialism of the W Bush Administration. Among my student union is a sizeable plurality of folks who are dedicated social activists, for whom the campus activists of the 1960s – Abbie Hoffmann, Angela Davis, Daniel Cohn-Bendit – were role models.

Unfortunately, the sudden end of the oil boom three years ago returned
austerity politics to the governance of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Tuition rose again, as rural Newfoundland returned to mass
unemployment, making those CFS messages about increasingly
inaccessible education or unsustainable student debt levels
finally relevant to people's real concerns there. Not exactly how
I would have liked to see the CFS and Newfoundland harmonize.
They worked to put the student union on the progressive side of a revolution against empire and militarism. They did organize some quality anti-war activism. But most of their economic activism was hamstrung by having to stick to a strict script provided by the Canadian Federation of Students – “Students are hurting from high tuition rates! Grants, not loans! Lower tuition!”

Fine for Ontario, reeling from public service cuts after a decade of Mike Harris’ austerity policies. Ridiculous in Newfoundland.

Newfoundland was kicking into an oil-driven economic boom, and Roger Grimes’ governing Liberal Party was reversing its own austerity policies from the Brian Tobin years. My tuition rates went down 25% in the first three years of the century and stayed frozen for a decade.

Social conditions like this couldn’t even unify a students’ union. The dedicated revolutionaries were a vocal minority in a union dominated by residence hall party planners, and middle-of-the-road nerds who wanted to make sure the food court and convenience store kept running smoothly. Plus a couple of man-children and one or two hyper-conservative extremists.

This taught me that there was nothing special about the student movement. So I thought that the paradigm Student Movements™ – France’s May ’68 and the USA’s protests against the Vietnam War – were similar chaotic messes and failures.

The idea of “the student movement” in popular culture is that universities are inherently subversive spaces originates from the Paris Uprising and Antiwar Movement’s model example in Western culture today.

But in real life, the circumstances that made those remarkable movements possible were unique and improbable processes.

The Paris Uprisings of 1968, for example, were made possible by the Algerian War. Ian Buchanan taught me that.

What Commentary Is For, Composing, 11/03/2018

When I gave up on a conventional career in the university sector – prof hustling the tenure and paywalled journal circuit – I also realized that I’d have to change how I wrote philosophy.*

* Some of the comments are going to be part of my next book review at the Reply Collective. Still not sure precisely how I’ll lay it out, because it’s my biggest critical point.

When we write our dissertations, they have several different functions. Some of those functions can make you a generally good writer, but others can cause some bad habits.

One of the first people who ever taught me about Jewish philosophy
told me about how Talmud works – commentary upon commentary.
But unlike too many humanities academics, the goal of commentary
isn't to demonstrate who among commentators is perfectly correct.
It's to return again and again to the Torah and commentary to work
out how best to apply the old thoughts to new situations.
An example of a dissertation habit that makes you a good writer – You’re able to analyze, synthesize, and explain with reasonable clarity some incredibly complicated ideas, concepts, and discussions. Transdisciplinary projects like my Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity are especially good for this.

An example of a dissertation habit that makes you a worse writer – You have to demonstrate to a committee of elders how much you know. Doesn’t sound like a problem, but let me explain.

Of course, any big research project, no matter the discipline(s), requires you to learn and come to know a lot. But on the dissertation, you have to put all those references and arguments in detail, as explicitly as possible – because the work itself has to demonstrate to the committee members that you actually did all the research.

They’re obligated to go through your work with a fine tooth comb, if they want, to catch you out. Wider audiences can largely take an author on a bit more faith.

Say you’re a non-fiction author writing a passage that you want to make a specific argument to your audience. You don’t want to fill that passage with so many details that a reader loses track of the point, and so many references that a reader can’t even tell what your own idea is.

A related, but different, example of a dissertation habit that makes you a worse writer – Having to include as much commentary, interpretation, and disputation as you can. This is part of the dissertation’s function to demonstrate a writer’s expertise.

See, there are a lot of side effects to academic overproduction. One, as I’m very familiar with, is creating a class of well-educated researchers and writers who have to hustle their way into second careers in a corporate environment that devalues education.

Talmudic commentary offers a better model for knowledge production
than conventional academic norms in the humanities. Its purpose is
to adapt and update the application of abstract laws and implicit
commandments to the unforeseeable changes of human life as we
create history. Originalism is an obscenity; life is dynamism.
The most important side effect for what I’m writing about today is that commentary proliferates. Because there are so many outlets in academic publishing for historical work and battling interpretations – secondary material – it’s an incentive against an early-career researcher trying for ambitious projects.

By the time you’ve earned an institutional place secure enough for more ambitious work, you’ve been producing commentary for so long that it’s difficult to do new stuff.

This is my long-winded way of talking about why I approach the research for Utopias differently than a standard academician’s project. I’m focussing the manuscript on discussions about ideas and concepts themselves – unpacking the process of engaging ideologies and moralities in our daily lives.

So I don’t need to prove to a reader how much I’ve learned of the proliferating commentary from an always-expanding group of interpreters. I’m not writing a book of commentary myself, so I have no imperative to argue about other people’s commentaries. That’s just not the message or purpose of what I’m writing.

It’s why I chose Ian Buchanan’s book on Anti-Œdipus as one of the few commentaries I’ll rely on. He’s already produced some excellent primary material – a book applying concepts and insights from ethology and animal behaviour to ontological questions about the nature of perception and thought.

Since I’ve already seen him write high-quality primary philosophical work, I know that a commentary he writes won’t get bogged down in interpretive squabbles. Exegetical and practical all at once. That’s the best way to use philosophy – as the explicit raw material to make more philosophy.

Becoming Memorable by Becoming a Landmark, Research Time, 09/03/2018

There are moments, when you’re researching a big project, when a few key ideas all come together. I’m having a moment like that now, looking back at some notes on an essay about Félix Guattari.

Stephen Zepke wrote it – he’s a scholar of Guattari and Gilles Deleuze’s work, who focusses a lot on their aesthetic theories. It has a mouthful of a title – “From Aesthetic Autonomy to Autonomist Aesthetics: Art and Life in Guattari.” Despite that in-your-face blast of technical vocab, it’s actually quite an interesting study.

Arinze Stanley with my favourite of his drawings.
Zepke talks about how Guattari explored art as a revolutionary process. Start from one key fact – if you want to start a successful art movement, you have to run against the mainstream.

You could bring up lots of examples from history. But most of the historical examples I know are Western, and in the spirit of my iconoclastic colleagues, I want to talk about a more global example.

Contemporary installation art, over the last few decades, has been dominated by the overtly shocking – blasphemous, stomach-churning, deranged. Photographs like Andres Serrano’s Piss-Christ, or installations like Damien Hirst’s famous The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Back in the 20th century, this kind of provocative sublime surreality was a sufficient shock to mainstream European visual and installation art that it ushered in a whole new way of thinking about what art was acceptable. It reminded popular culture that art is supposed to push boundaries.

As Zepke follows Guattari – art is a deterritorializing medium. The most remarkable art movements are the ones that forcefully reject the norms of an ossified mainstream. They create a whole new set of common principles for thinking about what art is.

Yes, it's a zebra in formaldehyde. But is it art?
The conceptual and social territory of – in the most extreme cases like Hirst, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Kenneth Anger, or Henri Matisse – what counts as art at all. In most cases of historically remarkable art, you’ve at least helped create an exciting new movement that sweeps away a redundant mainstream. Or at least gives people the impetus to see how redundant and stale the mainstream had become under their noses.

Here’s the wider lesson for any social revolution. Every deterritorializalization ends up reterritorializing. It’s a fundamental aspect of life. Every departure has to set itself down somewhere, unless it just wants to fly to pieces. Maybe you want to fly to pieces. But you don’t have to.

What was once a provocative new artistic movement becomes a staid, drab mainstream. In the example I’ve been talking about, the once-shocking sculptures and installations of the Young British Artists are now old hat. Damien Hirst was becoming a punchline before the last century was even finished. Now, his new work is dismissed as “a showroom for oligarchs.”

What do I contrast to the bizarre shock of surreal that’s Hirst limping aesthetic? Hyperrealism. Massive canvases of charcoal and pencil still-life drawings with more detail than a photograph.

Chiamonwu Joy and her remarkable images.
Hyperrealism is a global scene as well. Notable figures are Nigeria’s Arinze Stanley and Chiamonwu Joy, Germany’s Dirk Dzimirski, Canada’s Jeannette Sirois, and plenty of others. Hyperrealist images are more emotionally powerful than Hirst-ian provocations could ever be.

The best of them, of which I count Stanley, creates images of faces that tear you from your complacency – human drama rooted in the individuality of real people. An image of reality hand-crafted in such detail that the devotion to completed, perfected art impresses you almost as much as the faces that root you from your self-interested museum-goer’s detachment.

Don’t think hyperrealism developed purely in reaction to the decadent excess and greed of Hirst-ian installation art. I chose those two art movements because I’ve been looking into hyperrealism over the last six months or so. I’m late to the party, but that was only when I discovered Arinze’s work.

Hyperrealism is a global movement, and the artists who are part of it each have their own motivations and techniques. Deterritorialization – ripping a mainstream out of its prominence to pursue utterly different directions in creativity – isn’t about taking the “opposite” of that mainstream.

What would be the opposite of a cow suspended in formaldehyde? Does it even make sense to talk about opposites of artworks? No, only different artworks. If a cultural movement is influential enough to spawn a ton of mediocre imitators, then eventually some other movement will gather enough energy to blast the old corpse out of social prominence.