Mapping Thought IV: But You Can’t Live in a Tornado, Research Time, 27/04/2018

A book that I just started reading recently is Andrew Culp’s Dark Deleuze. I won’t be getting into it in more detail, but a few of his words are relevant to a final thought I want to get out of my head about that concept of becoming.

As you can tell after five years of writing this mad experiment in blogging, I think our universe is fundamentally a matter of processes and transformations. Existence is contingent, all will change, nothing is ever permanent.

Everything is temporary, just sticks around for a little longer or a little less.

From a very visceral perspective, that is genuinely frightening. As I express it here, I’m aiming for the tone of a smirking sage for the 21st century. Think of it as a persona I’m trying out as a voice for writing approachable philosophical texts.* But accepting mortality is seriously frightening.

Talk all you want about the potential of a revolution to transform
society – When the riots and police actions are tearing your home
and your business apart, utopia isn't the first thing on your mind. It's
whether you and your family will survive this chaos. Radical
change is a fact of life, but you can't live for long in the chaos of a
* It would be a little more inspiring than the hectoring didactic tone of Jordan Peterson. If there’s anything I hope he inspires, it’ll be a generation of philosophical self-help writers who’ll at least be a little bit nicer than he is.

Culp sets his book at that self-satisfied clique of secondary material writers specializing in Deleuze Studies™. There’s a conventional way of writing about Deleuze as an author who celebrated existence with joy. Now, these people are all university-based scholars, so they aren’t that simple. But that’s the theme running through a lot of mainstream academic Deleuze criticism.

Culp sets himself in his introduction as a total radical breaking new ground among academics. This is because that’s what every academic has to do – with so much pressure to publish, we hype up our works more than they might deserve.

Because Paul Patton was writing about the more terrifying aspects of that kind of thinking about becoming years ago. He wasn’t emphasizing it, because his book was about another issue. But it was a component of his own thinking.

There’s a passage where Patton discusses what happens to a society in a revolution. All the structures break down in a society – that’s why terror and violence so frequently arrive. A society brought to an intensity of energy high enough to shatter everything that’s stable in it has incredible transformative potential.

If you only want to emphasize the joyful aspects of the ontology, you’ll focus on that potential of a society agitated until it’s pure flow – glowing white hot, glaciers become raging rapids. The potential for the purely new in that moment of practically total destabilization is awe-inspiring.

It’s also horrifying for anyone actually swept up in it. The institutions, routines, and moralities you could always rely on fall away or are smashed beyond recognition. You see your society tearing itself apart because that’s what a social-political revolution really is.

Every moment of genesis is a moment of destruction too. And if you’re caught up in it, you’ll do whatever you can to avoid being destroyed.

Mapping Thought III: Basic Ingredients of Becoming, Research Time, 26/04/2018

So I mentioned yesterday that I was going to use the third entry in Mapping Thought to talk about virtual multiplicities. That’s a deep cut technical term in Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, and it’s really not worth the time getting into the meaning of the words themselves.

If you decide to explore Deleuze’s work, you’ll come to understand what that term is all about. It might take you a long time, because it’s dense with the acquired learning of many different research and writing projects over the years.

It is genuinely radical, especially for a Westerner, with our
heritage of Platonist* ideas about existence and truth, baked
into so much everyday and high-level Christian philosophy
and theology, to accept that change is really primary in
the universe.
* Not necessarily Plato's own ideas, which were much more
strange than even the weirdness of his reputation.
That’s probably the most difficult part of Deleuze’s work – he’ll develop technical terms in slow, painstaking progress over early works, then use them in the later works with little to no explanation. He makes completism almost required. It can get frustrating if you aren’t already super-into his work.

It helped that I was already super-into his work, so I had no problem playing ‘gotta-catch-em-all’ with the Gilles Deleuze / Félix Guattari collected works.

Here’s what the term amounts to in more straightforward language. It’s the central concept in the ontology of becoming that Deleuze develops, free of any reactionary thinking trying to negate ontologies of being.

Here’s some actual straightforward language to explain that not-at-all straightforward language. Western philosophy, as well as a lot of popular Western thinking after the philosophical ideas burbled through to regular folks, privileges permanence and the eternal. We fear change. Change being inevitable means that death is inevitable, and that’s damn scary.

But reality changes – everything changes. Everything collapses and everything comes to be. Impermanence and mortality is something we have to accept because it is the nature of reality.

A lot of the time, when a thinker wants to build a system that accepts and understands change as the fundamental nature of reality, they’re too reactive. All of their terms and concepts aren’t real ideas about becoming – they just take the ideas of being-centred, permanence-focussed philosophical systems and turn them upside down and inside out. It’s not a genuine philosophy of becoming – it’s a negative image of a philosophy of being.

What are the components of a genuine philosophy of becoming? Here’s how Paul Patton lays them out, and I rather like his thinking on this.

When an act of creation is an act of destruction, it's like hearing that
love is simultaneously hate. It doesn't seem to make sense, but that's
only because of the limits of your thought. If you really think
differently, you'll find joy in life and death. Even your own.
1) All the unity among complex bodies and processes in the world emerge from the relationships among components. Those components aren’t necessarily simpler in one of a few specific ways than what they make up. Those relationships are dynamic, fluctuating feedback loops.

You can use the basic relationship of differentials to describe, in very basic form, those material relationships that compose our world – dx/dy. A change in one causes, and is the cause of a change in the other. This holds among all relations at once, how they’re all connected together.

2) The world is fundamentally a matter of processes. Even objects we perceive and interact with as solid, permanent bodies are unfolding processes.

3) Understand possibility as potential. A process, in its moment of genesis, doesn’t somehow contain all that it can become. But a feature of its unique identity is that it can change in relationship with all the changes that it interacts with, within particular limits.

Every process has limits of its possible changes, but doesn’t contain each of those possibilities in its first moment. The past is memory, not the present. The present is movement.

4) All relationships create new assemblages and processes, even if other relationships, assemblages, and processes are destroyed in the process.

5) Just as everything is constituted through relationships, our identities – at the fundamental level of the existence of all processes and bodies themselves – are entirely relational.

Ambition to Change the World, Composing, 25/04/2018

So I’m going to take a quick break from going through Paul Patton today. The note that I want to follow up yesterday’s “Mapping Thought” post with, it has a lot to do with the ontology of virtual multiplicities. And I don’t really have the energy tonight to translate that out of mad crazy technical language.

So I thought I’d post a few thoughts about another project I’m working on, which will help me wrap my head around the shape of what I need to write.

This month, I officially joined the team at Ghubril Ltd, a startup think tank specializing in program evaluation for the global NGO and United Nations sector. We produce regular publications – policy papers and white papers – and sell subscriptions to receive them direct.

Explore the website, which I’ll link here again for the second time, and you’ll see the kind of subject matters we work on. We push progressive policy – we do research on different pathways to create a healthier, stronger, freer human civilization that lives in greater harmony with the ecologies of Earth.

This month, our papers all revolve around climate change and related ecological issues. In a way, I have it very easy this month, because I already wrote a book about all this.

My own paper for this month revolves around how you actually make a sustainable society permanent. It needs a complete transformation of the culture. And the best route there is activism. It’s also the slowest-moving of all the methods you could use.

President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic embraced by
Richard Nixon, who was Vice-President of the United States at the
time. Trujillo was one of the many brutal dictators the US
government supported as part of anti-communist geopolitical
strategy. He was responsible for brutal repression of dissidents, the
mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Haitians and other black
people from Dominican territory, and on a personal level,
regular sexual assaults against young Dominican women as if
the country's population were his own personal harem.
Trujillo was also a dedicated environmentalist, expanding
protected natural lands in his country and ordering a large-scale
reforestation campaign.
You can use the laws of your country, of course. But that runs into the problem that countries only have jurisdiction over limited amounts of territory. If Canada becomes the greenest* country on Earth, we’re still in a lot of trouble if the United States’ government grows more indifferent to ecological sanity.

* Political and economically.

And law is an inherently coercive tool as well. It encourages resistance, as part of the natural human instinct to rebel – against authority, against some perceived popular consensus. We’re all punks at heart. It’s just the content that varies. It’s why Paul Ryan can love Rage Against the Machine, and listen to the songs as if they’re about him.

The only way to guarantee that a society will change in a particular direction is the transformation of people’s very moralities. What Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values.

Now, I’ve known plenty of Nietzsche scholars in my time. And many philosophers who’ve followed in the tradition that Nietzsche began. But it’s very difficult to find concrete policy prescriptions for the transformation of popular morality. So I feel like I’m standing on my own here.

So where I’m still trying to punch through as a writer of a policy paper here is this. How do you explain the difficulty of activism as a strategy, while also making clear that activism is the only strategy that can be genuinely successful at all?

It means explaining the ontology of society. It’s not that sociological-scale events and bodies are entirely determined by the psychological and individual-scale. That would reduce the social causally to functions of the individual, which won’t work at all.

But the social is constituted through the relationships among individuals, across all the channels that humans use to communicate with each other. There’s a constant feedback loop of influence across the two scales, each individual being a quantum constituting the entire social field in action together.

From another angle, the difference between the social and the individual is epistemic, a matter of knowledge and investigation. The specific scientific techniques that investigate individual-scale events can’t work to investigate social-scale events. Same goes for techniques for social investigation and the individual scale.

So here’s where I stand. The concept that I’m working with is explaining how the individual / psychological functions as the quantum constituent of a social field. Meanwhile, the phase difference from individual to social – from quantum to field – requires different sciences to deal with each.

Which is fine. Now how do I explain this as a matter of policy prescriptions for process models?

I’m writing this at 23.00. I need to sleep on this.

Mapping Thought II: Can the Ideal Save Us? Research Time, 24/04/2018

So that's a look at the history of philosophy. What about the philosophy of history? A concept develops in response to a particular, singular problem as it arises in human society. The concept itself then develops historical power.

We don’t often think of concepts as having historical, material power. It’s an unfortunate tendency of the way the Western tradition of thought has separated thinking and the mental from the material, physical world of institutions and acts. But concepts do have material power.

Concepts are the components of people’s education and socialization. Let’s go back to our example from yesterday, the concept of the social contract.* It’s a concept, and so a matter of thought. But it’s thought that guides action in a very complex, profound way.

Does the violence of revolution overcome our ideals of freedom,
even as it overcomes whether we can actually use that revolution
to achieve anything like freedom in our own lives?
* There’s going to be a pretty intense interrogation of the concept of social contract, particularly its authoritarian characters, in Utopias. Not sure where in the book I’ll put it.

As a concept that sits at the heart of so many approaches to political thinking throughout the Western tradition, the different iterations of and approaches to the concept affect how we think about our relations to each other and to our state institutions.

Those thoughts inspire our actions. More than that, they drive our actions from central locations in our understanding of our social world.

Now I want to ask one more question – Do our concepts still have value when the events and movements they inspire become violent, corrupt, or self-destructive?

I’m going to step my example away from the social contract, and toward the more general concept of freedom. Freedom is a concept that means a lot of things to a lot of people, and has over centuries – And I’m just restricting my thinking in this case to my general knowledge of the Western tradition, what I know best.

Horrifying things have been done in the name of freedom. A contemporary example is Operation Iraqi Freedom. A classic example is the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was the subject of speculation by some of the leading philosophers of the time, who became some of the most influential philosophers down to the present day. So those complex examinations and investigations of the French Revolution have incredible influence on the Western tradition of philosophy as it stands today.

Because the truth is, just like the absurdity of a popular heartthrob like
1950s Marlon Brando playing Napoleon, the political events that saw
imperialism and wars of conquest emerge from the French Revolution
were contingent events. It need not have happened that way. Every
material event need not have happened that way, and only did
because of a complex interplay of events and relationships. The
slightest disturbance in this networks can have massive effects. So
should we resign ourselves to the fragility of our ideals? Or hold
onto them because that possibility of real success always remains?
The problem is that the event itself betrayed its motivating concept. The French Revolution was the successful overthrow of an absolutist monarchy in favour of a system of government that was more accountable to ordinary people. But the revolution itself quickly descended into the first major purge of modernism. The Terror was the assembly line of execution that continued for years after the overthrow of the monarchy.

Beyond this, within a decade, France was ruled again by a dictator. Napoleon was something of an improvement over the decadent, incompetent monarchy of Louis XVI, in that he actually introduced a system of law that governed even the practice of the state. Civil law was an improvement. The attempt to conquer Europe and the Mediterranean coast of Africa, not so much.

The same is true for so many other revolutions and revolutionary periods in politics. Civil war and Stalin’s system of governance by secret police destroyed any potential for genuine freedom to come from the Russian revolution, for example.

Same goes for the absolute dictatorship of Fidel Castro, the corruption of the United States with slavery and its cultural legacy, the revolutions of Simón Bolívar, José de San Martin, and Bernardo O’Higgins that descended into squabbles among warlords, and the deranged mass mobilization schemes of Mao Zedong, among many others. Revolutions in the name of freedom either fell into corruption or were quickly overcome by revanchist reactions.

So what’s the good of revolution? Paul Patton’s answer, riffing on the concepts of Gilles Deleuze, was the preservation of the idea of freedom. The total realization of the ideal freedom in the world is impossible, just as no one ever really signs a social contract. But the idea, the concept itself, is its own reason for existing – to inspire us to fight the reactionary forces that would take even our partial freedom away from us.

Is that alone worth it? I don’t know.

Mapping Thought I: Evolution of Political Concepts, Research Time, 23/04/2018

Now that’s definitely the weirdest title I’ve written in a while. I want to get back to weirdness in the philosophical entries on this blog.

My new apartment has come together, finally. What needed to be built is built. What needed to be unpacked is unpacked. I’m not sure where my iPad charger went, but I’ll figure it out.

But the weirdness. So I made some really complicated notes as I was going through Paul Patton’s books on Gilles Deleuze’s works and ideas. Patton has a pretty good rep among the Deleuze scene in academia. He’s co-translated key works, and has been a main figure among the secondary material for a long time.

It isn't just "the" political theory. For every concept, there can be many
theories. And there are plenty of concepts too.
His book Deleuze and the Political begins in a place appropriately strange for a book about someone whose ideas were as strange as Gilles’. He starts by talking about the nature of the concept, in a philosophical sense.

Deleuze himself developed a complex concept of the concept, and wrote about it in detail in his last major book What Is Philosophy?. I wrote about that theory of how philosophy worked when I was going through that book myself, and over the next few posts, I want to talk about some of the ways Patton explores that theory.

It’s called meta-philosophy in the field, literally asking “What is philosophy?”. Of all the writing I’ve come across openly discussing meta-philosophy, only Deleuze really grappled with the ideas in a genuinely thorough and deep sense. I sometimes think that most philosophers are afraid to talk about the real conceptual foundations of philosophy.

Maybe they really are afraid. Do they worry that there’s nothing behind the curtain? Or are they afraid of just seeing a man behind the curtain?

The world doesn’t need gods. Reality does a good enough job.

Anyway, back to the nature of philosophical concepts. So every philosophical concept has its own logic. By this, I mean that when you’re guided by a particular concept in your thinking, some possibilities and potentials are more easily understood than others. That’s pretty simple to start with.

Now think about how concepts change over time. Concerns shift, historical contexts change. All the reasons why people think with that concept change. Patton mentions the concept of the social contract as an example, and I think it’s a great one.

For me, Hobbes as a person and a philosopher embodies
the uncomfortable tension that's always existed in
Western political thought between the belief in freedom
of democratic thinking, and the authoritarianism of the
institutions of the modern state, colonial imperialism,
and police institutions.
The concept of the social contract, in Western philosophy, began in its modern form with Thomas Hobbes. The social contract in this original form is resolutely authoritarian.

It’s the expression of someone whose life was upended by a civil war and military government that executed a king. That revolutionary government plunged his country England into political and economic instability for twenty years, until the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

So stability and the sanctity of authority was of central importance to Hobbes as he was developing this concept of the social contract. It was a concept that saw freedom as utterly secondary to stability and peace – a concept that saw freedom as practically indistinguishable from chaotic civil war.

Is Hobbes concept of the social contract the same as contemporary Western theories of it? Patton is, in particular, thinking of John Rawls. Rawls was the paradigm liberal democrat of 20th century American philosophy.

His concept of the social contract was a careful balance of freedom and individual desire. It’s a balance of freedom and commitment to the general welfare. Peace is a part of that welfare, but only a small part. Hobbes’ Leviathan put little thought into economic matters like social welfare, which was at the centre of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, as well as many of his other major works.

So the concepts differ in many ways. Yet we understand more about both concepts by exploring the subtle and massive differences between them, as well as the points where these concepts converge despite their differences. Tracing continuity and change in the development of concepts is how the history of philosophy should be done.

What Does It Mean to Be an Anarchist? Research Time, 19/04/2018

When I started the research for Utopias a few years ago, one of the first traditions of political thinking I looked into was anarchism.

I wanted to explore a tradition that I thought was a clear alternative to many of the political systems and concepts we take for granted. You ask what it means to live without a state. You investigate what relationships can constitute a strong community.

Thinking about anarchism also encourages you to rethink how many institutions you need in your society to hold it together. It encourages you to analyze the real powers of brotherhood in a community. You wonder how much we really need coercive authority to keep a community from becoming violent.

Anarchist thinking often works better as a guide for resistance to an
unjust and violent state apparatus than as a concrete political
program. There's just so much work we have to do on ourselves
as people before anarchism can become a viable framework for
organizing our lives as communities.
You wonder if we really need the police? The army? Any institution of the state that we typically think we have a duty to obey. You come to doubt the truth of our entire heritage of political thinking that has an ancestor in Thomas Hobbes.

So you come to doubt pretty much every principle taken for granted in Western political philosophy – the social contract, the authority of the state, the obligations of citizens to police and military authority. That’s the value of looking into thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Emma Goldman.

Yet I have my doubts about the power of a straight-ahead anarchism to provide actionable values for human society. Frankly, anarchist values like mutual aid and intuitive social solidarity are too difficult for most humans to live by.

Paul Patton makes this point in one of his books about Gilles Deleuze. He writes about how people often take Deleuze and Guattari to have been anarchists. It’s true that their political thinking was very critical of state authority. And they were involved as thought leaders and activists with real anarchist and communist political movements in Europe during their lives.

But Patton makes one very insightful point in the early stages of that book – anarchism requires an optimism about humanity’s inherent goodness and kindness to each other that Deleuze and Guattari didn’t really share.

Humans are too terrible to each other. We resent each other. We make aliens of each other. We hate each other for no real reason, both as individuals and as groups. We need a long period of education and moral training to be as kind to each other as the mutual aid principles of an anarchist society would require.

And it would be even more difficult to prevent the xenophobia that can so easily arise when we let communitarian values drive our us vs them cultural imagery. Humans are, for the most part, simply not good or kind enough creatures to live according to a thoroughly anarchist political morality.

Anarchism’s most important contribution to practical political thinking in the 21st century, I think, is its spirit. Rebellion against taking coercive authority, the power of the state over society’s development, for granted. Critiquing the institutions that we’ve been taught almost all our lives are beyond reproach.

That spirit – maybe you could call it punk philosophy – should inspire any approach to political thinking that takes seriously the possibility of change. Demands for political, social, moral, and ethical change requires conceiving of the radically different. Maybe it’s achievable. Or maybe we’ll always fall short of our ideal.

What matters is the image of a different path.

The Whole Point of Politics, Composing, 16/04/2018

I’ve moved. It’s been a huge pain in the ass, but I’ve finally moved apartments. Close to everything I own is still in boxes, but that’s fine. I’ll unfold it all eventually. But I need to get back to writing, because I’ve been all over the place. And I’ll still be all over the place for the next few days.

Things are still being installed in my new place, I have to buy new furniture because this is the first time in ten years that I’ve lived in a place without a closet. It’s all getting to be a bit chaotic. Not in a bad way, because I actually feel more relaxed now than I have in a long while.

Spinoza articulated in the rationalist philosophy of his time
the foundational principle of Kabbalah that all existence is
an expression of God, and ontologically is God itself.
I just really want to be able to hang up my damn clothes.
• • •
Benedict Spinoza’s work had a very profound influence on my own thinking. I rediscovered him through reading Gilles Deleuze, and he supplied a way of reading Spinoza that cut through a lot of the austere worshipfulness that you see in more conventional Spinozists.

I think the most important element of this uptake of Spinoza is reading the Ethics as an ethical and political text. You wouldn’t think this would be difficult, if the title of the book is anything to go by. But because the book starts with a long argument about the existence and nature of God and material reality, the presumption is that it’s primarily about God and reality.

But the Ethics is, frankly, a book about ethics. More than that, it’s a book about the ethics of many bodies interacting together. The Ethics is a book about relationships, how we can manage our relationships with everything in the world around us to live better, more joyfully, without suffering, terror, or pain.

That principle – laid out in books four and five of the Ethics – is the foundation of the most radical Spinozist politics. I’m following Michael Hardt’s book on Deleuze’s early philosophical searching.

Here’s the principle that emerges from the Ethics when you emphasize the end instead of the beginning. The purpose of politics is to arrange our society so that all our encounters with each other and our institutions – or at least as many encounters as possible – are for the mutual benefit of everyone involved.

Universal harmony becomes the foundational principle of political science and practice. That should be the goal of our political work as people, neighbours, and members of communities that stretch across the Earth.
• • •
I’m also looking forward to getting back to work on my novel again, a version of You Were My Friend that I think will have the most legs. It’s interesting how the story is changing.

Madison’s character is, in just the first few sections that I’ve written so far, much more bubbly and energetic than I originally conceived of her. I think that’s going to give her arc – becoming overcome by cynicism – more of a kick than we saw of her in the theatre.

As I add more detail to the story, I think some of the good ideas that emerged when I was planning a You Were My Friend film project will get even more space to explore.

I haven’t gotten to the scenes with Madison's co-worker Jenna Chen, who inadvertently inspires her more mercenary sides. And I think there’s a lot more comedy potential to come out of Madison’s relationship with her on-off boyfriend Wesley the hipster with the stupid moustache.

I want to expand this story, this world, and these people. I think in my new place, I’m going to have more time and energy to do it.

To Act Means to Think, Jamming, 13/04/2018

Some more notes reflecting on Deleuze’s broad ideas. This time about politics, activism. Particularly the relationship between theory and practice.

Gilles Deleuze’s politics operated in a marxist tradition, or at least a tradition of social, political, and economic critique that began with the work of Marx. He was far from an orthodox marxist – anyone in the marxist tradition worth reading is never an orthodox marxist.

Economic, political, technological, and ecological circumstances are too different from Marx’s own time and place to be uncritical about his own theories and social science concepts. But the relationship between theory and practice – between philosophy and politics – is a recurring question in the tradition.

Above, an act of practice to change the world, impossible without the
theories and thinking that guides them.
Marx himself put the relationship of theory and practice at the forefront of his work. Philosophically speaking, it was one of the most reaction-inspired parts of his thinking – his need, as the saying goes, to stand Hegel on his feet instead of his head.

One of Marx’s most tweet-worthy sayings was about the theory-practice relationship. From the Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

So you’d think someone working in the marxist tradition would follow a strict separation of theory and practice. Interpreting and understanding the world is separate from changing the world.

But of course, it’s not that simple. Not in Marx’s own work and certainly not in Deleuze’s. Most of Deleuze’s energy was spent crafting philosophical concepts. He attended his fair share of protests and demonstrations, and regularly advocated for greater social justice in western Europe during his lifetime. But first and foremost, he was a writer and thinker.

Theory and practice exist in a feedback loop. You can’t have a sensible or even coherent theory if it isn’t developed through understanding the world, and doesn’t include a purpose of helping you understand the world. Theory is a guide for practical action, because the most wise practical action is driven by theory.

Theory without input from practice is intellectual masturbation. Practice without input from theory is flailing your arms like a crazy person. The problems of practice need theoretical work to come up with solutions. Theory has no order or direction without application in practice.

Don’t Expect the Writing to Be As Clean As the Written, Composing, 12/04/2018

In his book about Deleuze’s early development as a thinker, Michael Hardt discusses an insightful comment Gilles makes. It’s a notion that a lot of folks in academic university culture need to remember, especially in the humanities where rhetoric and argument is so much a part of our methods.

There's a distinction between inquiry and presentation. Inquiry is the process of conceiving, researching, and composing a project or some other piece of work. Presentation is the finished product.

Preparing a massive research and writing project is, oddly enough, a
difficult task that isn't perfectly conceived at the beginning. You'd
think that would make sense to people. Maybe it does, but they
don't actually care.
Presentation is a polished, detailed, clear expression of a complex research program and argument. The inferences have been ordered so that each step in the argument flows sensibly from what’s come previously. All the empirical studies supplement and ground the more conceptual parts in an elegant structure.

Inquiry is a great bloody chaotic mess. You redefine the scope, aims, and likely conclusions of the project several times over as you do research. Some angles and sources are thrown out entirely as irrelevant in the light of other discoveries. An argument that you think is going to flow in one direction ends up utterly rearranged. Inquiry is a state of flux.

It sounds so sensible. It sounds so obviously true. It makes perfect sense. So why do so many academics, in my experience and in the experience of many other people, ignore it?

I’m speaking to my experience mostly in philosophy circles, where a bit more emphasis is put on argument than in other disciplines. But I move in pretty interdisciplinary circles today, and what I’m about to describe is pretty common across the humanities and social sciences.

A younger student comes to a more experienced professor, or to a group of her peers, for advice about a project in progress. She lays out the skeleton of an argument, what some of her main sources are so far, what empirical content is coming into play. She asks for advice.

Throwing around thousands of ideas – about research, examples,
empirical evidence, inference, argument structure, order of
presentation, concepts themselves – is part of writing. So why don't
people criticize an ongoing project as if it were actually an ongoing
project? Why do people not see the mess?
But she gets hit with verbal axes. Her messy, still-uncertain project that still has plenty of loose ends get hit with ruthless criticism. None of it is helpful. It’s all phrased to make her project seem inadequate, like a waste of her time. Instead of helping her to understand a difficult landscape, her superiors and colleagues berate and belittle her for not understanding her project.

They’re treating an inquiry as if it was the presentation. A messy project in progress as if it was a polished final product. This even though she introduces her material with countless qualifiers – it’s a work in progress, she’s looking for advice, looking for any blind spots she may have, any research directions that may turn out to be blind alleys for her priorities.

Instead, her colleagues and superiors are more concerned with scoring points. Making themselves look good by making her look bad. Feeling better about themselves by cutting someone else down.

All too often, this is how academicians treat each other. I described it in self-consciously gendered terms because it does – on balance – happen to women much more often than to men. But it happens to men too. It happens to anyone who looks vulnerable in a research community where knowledge is seen as a battleground for prestige.

Do you do it for the letters after your name? For the professional designations to list after your email signature? We should be doing it for the progress of human knowledge. Typical humanity, we so often fall short of what we claim we’re doing because we aren’t really doing what we claim.

Being Is Primary Over Knowledge, Jamming, 10/04/2018

Being is primary over knowledge. That’s the fundamental principle of empiricism, that human knowledge and thinking always has something to learn from the world. The world can surprise a human thinker easily, ordinarily. Or maybe rarely. But it always can.

I’m keeping it short tonight. I’ve had a super-long day. I’m going to have a lot of super-long days moving apartments, and I’m only moving up the road.

Pictured: The logic of colonialism expressed in mass murder.
Knowledge doesn’t exist to determine being. Knowledge is a means of exploring existence. We contribute to building the world, but it’s a dynamic process of feedback – far from the determination of logic.

The refusal to be surprised is a refusal to take what’s different from you as something to learn from. It rejects the dignity of the different. The logic of colonialism is expressed ontologically.

This doesn’t reduce that complex ontology of high modernism – the kind Deleuze found in Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel – to a colonial ideology. One is the expression of the other. Neither is primary absolutely. Ontological vocab works to develop the idea in one context. Political vocab in another.

Michael Hardt’s book about Gilles Deleuze’s early years describes the older man as a young thinker. Not about his daily life, of course, which was unexciting – teaching secondary school, mostly in Lyon, raising his young family, bored out of his mind.

A man who’d lost his brother to a Gestapo prison cell might wish for an unexciting life, I suppose. Though he applied all the time for jobs back in Paris.

Deleuze saw the influence of that ontological chauvinism – that human reason determined the fundamental structure of reality – as something that desperately needed to be overcome. It had led to disaster politically, and increasingly insular navel-gazing among the philosophers of his country.

He sought to overcome it not by arguing against it, but my articulating a philosophical vision so alien to it that it didn’t even need to refer to the hubris and ego of ontological rationalism. In doing so, he set a model for the most thorough empiricism to come yet from the Western tradition.

And he argued for that empiricism by showing all the amazing things you could do with that approach to thinking that you simply couldn’t with hubristic rationalism.

That, to me, is the most interesting part of his career because it’s the most creative part, especially after he junked his Freudian influences through collaborating with Félix Guattari and wrote some explicitly political philosophy.

Having read Hardt’s book, I’m not sure that it really does Deleuze’s thinking justice to frame all of his creative later developments in this early, reactionary phase of his thinking. He’s still running away. Not yet able to stand on his own (and with his friends) to articulate a real philosophical alternative to the modernist model.

The Full Implications of Empiricism, Research Time, 08/04/2018

Follow the logic of a position through to its natural conclusion. This isn’t always done. Usually, when you’re talking to other philosophers, it never gets done because someone sidetracks the story with a question, interrupts, and swings things in a totally different direction.

Usually the direction of their own work. I’ve been there. I’ve done it before, unfortunately for my trying to avoid hypocrisy. But I don’t want to do it anymore.

What seems like ordinary beauty in art to us today, was a revolution
that enraged people with its provocative smashing of aesthetic rules
taught as universals. Could art be beautiful if it wasn't faithfully
realistic? We don't ask that question now.
Henri Matisse, Still Life With Lemons
So the other day, I wrote a few quick remarks about Gilles Deleuze’s critique of Hegel. Well, not Hegel per se. But the idea that was at the core of Hegel’s work, and which so profoundly influenced so many thinkers in the society where Deleuze lived – mid-20th century France.

The real is the rational. Reality has the same fundamental structure as human rationality. Begin by understanding the simple and arrive at the complex, until at last you’re able to comprehend all the complexity the world can possibly offer you.

There’s another aspect of this way of thinking as well – your attitude to universal knowledge. When I say universal knowledge, I mean questions, answers, and inquiries to questions like “What is beauty?”

Plato’s most famous dialogues are prime examples. I’ve met enough students and professors who see philosophy as a discipline to be about discovering the answers to the questions that Plato never could discover.

Let’s leave aside the most obvious critique of this idea – that aporia was the point of any inquiry into a universal question like “What is beauty?” and “What is justice?” Questions that aren’t supposed to have answers, that aren’t built to be answers, but to encourage thinking.

So that's aporia. You want to explore more of that, go read some Jacques Derrida. I’d recommend starting with a really short book he wrote called Aporias. Surprise surprise.

Deleuze explores a different aspect of these universal questions. Universal questions are fundamentally general – You search for a concept that holds across all cases. The problem with such a project is that it presumes the structure of human rationality as it is will extend legitimately over all of existence.

You want to buy Plato to wear on your chest?
If I can use some insider’s imagery to describe the attitude – you presume that a thinker doesn’t have to leave his armchair to figure out all the great truths of existence.

What does that presumption mean? That the powers of human rationality are already complete. And that’s a very presumptuous presumption.

Empiricism is a perspective of epistemic humility – we’re humble about the powers of human knowledge. Acknowledge that we’re contingent creatures whose power to think is pretty remarkable and kind of amazing, but that arose from conditions that resulted in some biases and blindnesses.

Humans aren’t perfect. Humans have a lot to learn about how our knowledge can develop, a lot of new powers that can help us live better in our world. What are those powers? I have a few ideas, and I’ve talked about them before. But you can only figure out what those powers are or can be if you investigate the world.

I’m going to go back to Plato for this illustration, because of the power Plato holds over philosophical thought for the Western tradition. I mean, Plato is the only person of whom the entire tradition has been described as a series of footnotes to his work. I love a lot of the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead, but I think his Oxbridge cultural conservatism was showing a little too much here.

A lot of Plato’s dialogues start with Socrates challenging the adequacy of everyday thinking about complex concepts – beauty, justice, piety, love, etc. Somebody frames their thinking in terms of asking, for example, what things are beautiful.

Socrates’ character is right to call these questions inadequate to the task. The question “What things are beautiful?” doesn’t explore why we think those things are beautiful in the first place. So you have to explore “What is beauty?” before you can figure out what things truly are beautiful. You have to understand the general categories before you can start building your taxonomy.

Marcel Duchamp was one of the most progressive
artists of the last century because of how he
purposely challenged the notion of what could
even count as art, let alone what counts as
beautiful. His work didn't even try to be beautiful,
and so ended up redefining whole new ways to
think about art and beauty.
This aspect of Plato’s influence has severely limited how empiricism could develop in the Western tradition, because it frames any investigation of the world as requiring complete general knowledge to get off the ground and guide itself.

But this critique doesn’t kill empiricism, as too many over the last 2500 years have thought. It forces empiricism to get serious. Let’s lay out how the model questions should go.

Uncritical Empiricism: “What things are beautiful?”
General Questions: “What is beauty?”
Contingent Empiricism: “What can this show me about beauty?”

The general question is how rationalism can inform empiricism. But having been so informed, an empiricism that follows this more nuanced logic to its endpoint will understand the contingency of its questions.

Ask what the world can show you about your concepts, your terms, your categories. A contingent approach to empiricism is how knowledge can progress. Our knowledge can become more complete, can approach completeness.

But total completeness isn’t an achievable goal – it’s an asymptote, an attractor. We improve by using progress toward completion as our guide, but understand that only God can ever be complete. We, in contrast, can be better.

Always Already Complex, Research Time, 06/04/2018

It’s been a rough few days, as you can tell when I can’t squeeze out even a short therapeutic blog post in the middle of the week. But I’m feeling better, though I’m still wrangling together all the details of moving apartments – I hope to one I'm working on just around the corner.

But I want to get back to some conceptual stuff. Once I move apartments and I’m better organized, I can give some more detailed updates on professional developments. I’ve had some, and they’re pretty alright. That’s as far as I’m going for now.

So earlier this week, I was talking a bit about Gilles Deleuze and Georg Hegel. Plenty of people have too, and one of them was Michael Hardt. He makes Deleuze’s conceptual wrestling match with Hegel the pivot of his book.

What's the problem Deleuze had with Hegel? It’s the same one I have with Hegel. And I admit that it was Deleuze’s criticisms that made me realize what a big problem this is for thinking. It’s over the nature of what kind of difference is the most fundamental, ontologically speaking.

Art by Everett Patterson
Put in really, really, really simple terms – Hegel prioritizes stark contradiction. A or not-A. Or as he lays it out in the Logic, Being or Nothingness. What makes this kind of contradiction so stark is its simplicity and its abstractness.

And yes, by the time you work through the Logic, you’ve reached a state of knowledge that can be adequate to all the material complexity of the world. But complexity is the end product of a long conceptual development.

It prioritizes simplicity from a fundamental ontological perspective. Human reason tends to work from simplicity to complexity. We’re at first only able to understand really simple concepts, and eventually figure out greater complexity, nuance, the world’s messiness, multiplicity, and chaos.

That last part is the big problem Deleuze had with the Hegel-influenced and Hegelian way of thinking. Humans have to learn complexity. But existence is already complex. We have to adjust ourselves to the world.

The real is not rational – well, I shouldn’t quite say that. More like, the real can generate many rationalities. Reality pretty frequently generates new orders of being, new kinds of existence. The profound chauvinism of Hegel’s thinking was to consider the structure of human reason* to be the structure of existence.

* And not just human reason either. After all, humanity has many models of rationality, all of which can communicate with each other, even if they might be mutually contrary or contradictory. Hegel’s was a particular kind of human reason that he and the imperialist culture of his time took to be the only one that counted as reason.

Hegel’s philosophy, in that way, was very much of its time and place. Industrial, imperialist Europe of the early 1800s, setting out to conquer the world and build autocratic state machines.

A democratic way of thinking couldn’t thrive in a Hegelian framework because pluralism was where you arrived – you started at a unified, simple universal. Democracy is about fostering the singular, the different, the unique. So a democratic mind starts there.

How Many Ways Are There to Read Someone? Composing, 03/04/2018

Since I was 25, I’ve worked in different capacities – and different pay as well – as a researcher in the humanities. My orientation was always through philosophy, which has been a solid set of frameworks to guide a trip through material from a lot of different domains of human knowledge.

My work has always had that trans-disciplinary, practical orientation from the first time I got seriously serious about it. When I was a much younger person,* I had my problems that interested me most, yes. But it was only ten years ago that I started thinking about philosophical writing as a vocation as well as part of my career.

* And my early 20s feels like I was a very, very much younger person. Not always in a good way, either.

A while ago, I was talking about starting a YouTube project with a
friend of mine whose philosophical perspective is solidly rooted
in the concepts of Georg Hegel, and I know after five years of
friendship that he isn't going to budge. No matter how much I might
try. I haven't been able to put much energy into it because I'm in
the middle of moving apartments, and it's a bit of a mess right now.
I think that orientation, which I found really productive for my creative sensibilities, caused me some problems in the search for work in universities. It was difficult to fit my work in established labels and sub-disciplines.

I’ve seen friends with more conventional research orientations land tenure-track positions that are secure, prestigious, and pretty well-paid. Granted, I’ve also seen those friends find those positions in smaller or more homogeneous cities and towns where I would have been uncomfortable.

My strangeness would have made me very lonely in some of the places where my friends found work.
• • •
These days, I can pretty easily say that most of my philosophical work is in political theory and political economy. My research and concepts stretch across different domains, but that’s their locus.

Bringing different theories and thinkers into a philosophical project means figuring out how the central concepts fit the trajectory of your thinking, and where they stand in the territory of relations among all the other concepts, influences, and empirical research material that make up your own project.

That was a long sentence, but I’m not sure how to split it up just yet to make it more readable. Maybe just read it slowly again if you find it weird. This is a Composing post, so I’m experimenting a little bit more.

Another of the books I read to mine for concepts in the territory of thinkers around Gilles Deleuze was Deleuze’s Philosophical Apprenticeship. Michael Hardt wrote it. While I like his work with Antonio Negri, there’s a reason I never tag him in my posts on the books they wrote together.

Hardt is a keen thinker and a solid writer. But his ideas are too normal. Negri is the strange one, and Hardt keeps him grounded. That’s great for a big, messy project like their Empire quadrilogy, because it needs to stay connected to the gritty reality of political economy.

Just because I think many fundamental elements of the way
we each think are utterly incompatible, that doesn't mean I can't
run a good YouTube show with him. See, I disagree with the
premise of Hardt's book pretty clearly. Yes, you can engage
with a dominant thinker as an antagonist, try to find a model
for your own thinking that doesn't even coincidentally touch
on concepts that are even like his. I'm pretty sure he's right
that Deleuze actually did think this way about Hegel. But I
don't think that "the primary antagonism" is the necessary
seed of great philosophical work.
But he also needs Negri if his work is going to fly in a direction more creative than fairly straightforward scholarship or investigative fact-gathering.

Let me put it to you this way. Hardt opens the book with a description of how he’s going to interpret Deleuze’s development as a philosopher – “recognize the object and terms of the primary antagonism.”

An original thinker develops creatively by starting from reaction – there’s a mainstream set of presumptions or damn-near-omnipresent influence that she rebels against. In Deleuze’s case, so says Hardt, that philosophical enemy is Hegel.

He spends the book exploring many different directions Deleuze tried out in his early career to overcome the pervasive influence of Hegel-inspired thinking in France’s intellectual scene.

While that is one of the many things Deleuze was doing in his earlier, difficult years, that’s only one thing. Yeah, it’s a really important trajectory of Deleuze’s thinking. But it wasn’t the only thing going on. When I read Hardt’s book, it felt reductive – like he was pulling back the curtain to say, “This is what’s been going on all along!”

I'm always hesitant about that method. It smacks of intellectual territorial pissing, of Hardt claiming that this is what the thought of Gilles Deleuze is really all about.

But one of Deleuze’s main messages to philosophers was he wanted his work to contain multiplicities – that there were many, many different strands to analyze and directions to explore along with him, with the concepts he worked on for us. Don’t try to fit his ideas in one definition. Stay strange.

How Do You Stop a Doomsday Machine? Research Time, 01/04/2018

There are a lot of popular misconceptions about progressive politics and generally left-wing people. Most of those misconceptions spread through a feedback loop of edgelord culture with mainstream alt-right and white nationalist press.

This stock image used to represent work in the stock market looks
benevolent on its own, but the practices of the global financial
industry can be terribly dangerous.
One of those stereotypes is that progressive people are anti-market, that we want an entirely centrally-planned economy. Now, that’s ridiculous, but one of the main purposes of far-right messaging is to make everyone who thinks there should be state-provided health insurance out to be a full-on Stalinist out to send us all to labour camps and collective farms.

Look at the contemporary left with a little more focus and forethought, and you’ll see a lot of complexity. For instance, anti-capitalism – broadly speaking – today is a critique of the culture of profiteering. Not any act of commerce for profit – starting a business and using its profit to reinvest in its activities or save for your own retirement is one of the best ways to run a business.

When I say profiteering, I mean outright financial piracy. Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Ian Buchanan spoke in different works about the financial mechanics of profiteering capitalism – in particular, the short sell. An investment fund ploughs a ton of money into share purchases of a company, which inflates its stock price.

Remember, that higher stock price isn't a function of the company's own activity – it’s the effect of a large share purchase. Investing a lot of money in a company’s stock makes the company appear to be worth more than it is. When the fund sells the company’s shares at that higher price, the overall value plummets. The fund’s clients make a huge profits, and the folks still holding the rest of those shares have lost a ton.

Don't blame the retail apocalypse on online sales platforms, which
still only accounted for less than ten percent of all purchases of
goods in the United States for the last couple of years. The
doomsday machine is large-scale financial capitalism.
There are even more insidious methods of profiteering that lays waste to the lives of thousands, even millions of people. The best illustration is the destruction of Sears, but pretty much any of the financial explosions of the retail apocalypse will do.

So Eddie Lampert’s hedge fund buys Sears. He orders the company to accept millions of dollars in loans it doesn’t need. But now Sears has to pay it back, as well as all kinds of interest and service fees that go to Lampert.

He also forces Sears to split its real estate holdings – the physical store locations – with his own real estate company. So now Sears also has massive rent bills of US$200-million to pay to Lampert’s company, which it’s also paying back the loans Lampert forced it to take. Once the company’s debt service overcame its operating costs, bankruptcy and restructuring was the only way to go, and Lampert collected a ton of money from those asset sales.

This is the capitalism folks on the progressive side are talking about when we say we’re anti-capitalism. You want to start an actual business that sells people things they need and want – like everything you could find in department stores like Sears – that’s awesome.

We want you to make profits from your sales. Reinvest them in your company – pay your workers well, open more locations or warehouses, import products from around the world. Take some of that corporate income to save for your retirement. Start another business. Give a starting entrepreneur some seed money to start her own company. Build a charity.

Do something productive with it, that will enrich the communities from which your wealth grows. This is the model of investment banking that a progressive person believes in. The basic philosophy has only been around for a few thousand years.

Stopping the doomsday machine of investment fund piracy – the
machine that powers the life of Eddie Lampert – will take more than
just blowing up a damaged starship inside it. We need a complete
ethical transformation of humanity – a revaluation of values.
What about that destructive profiteering? Frankly, it’s wrong. Each investment firm holds millions and billions of dollars in assets. The entire industry holds trillions in all the stocks, bonds, derivatives, and futures throughout the Earth.

A few people leading all those firms control all those funds. Chance and circumstance alone prevents those investment industry leaders from shorting or bleeding every company on Earth.

The most unscrupulous will destroy whatever they can get their hands on to squirrel away more wealth. Working people from minimum wage earners to upper management will have their careers upended or ended altogether.

Laws can be written to prevent or impede this kind of predatory investment. But ultimately, it’s a matter of ethics.

Do you want to be a pirate leaving economic destruction and the personal misery of thousands as your legacy? Then there are extremely high-paying jobs for you, that will leave you so obscenely wealthy that you’ll have more power over others than ancient emperors could barely imagine.

Do you want to build businesses that uplift thousands of people through their material success? Indirectly and systematically, those successful ventures will contribute to community and global economies that uplift millions and bring them happiness. You probably won’t end up as insanely wealthy as that other guy, but you’ll still do pretty alright.

What kind of person do you want to be?