Why Does Anyone Do Anything For Anybody? Research Time, 31/07/2018

Here’s the thing about revolutionizing your entire culture’s values. It’s much easy to think about than to achieve. That gap is even more frustrating because so many of those values already exist in society – it’s just that they don’t predominate.

You see, this appears to be a pretty common theme in all my philosophical writing. At least the big projects. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity started with problems of environmental ethics, moral philosophy, and ontology. It ended with an imperative to develop better methods of changing people’s moralities and self-conceptions.

Knockoffs do have some merits on their own terms.
Utopias is a sequel of sorts, in that it revolves around the methods, tendencies, and directions for revolutions in moralities and self-conceptions throughout a culture. And I think I’m just about ready to start diving into the manuscript now that I know how that book is going to end.

Once you’ve worked out the mechanics of how to revolutionize moralities and ethics, you have to ask what your endpoint is. For me, that endpoint is an anarchist-flavoured communitarianism.

It makes Raphael Sassower something of a fellow traveller, since he's also exploring the potentials of communitarian political economy and morality. His work will probably be quite influential in how I come to think about how communitarian values work in a civilization like ours – industrial, high-technological, in a state of global ecological reorientation (if not outright collapse).

Here's one example of how communitarian values end up creating quite a lot of prosperity. Sassower discusses the knockoff economy, particularly China’s dominance of trade in knockoff goods. He argues that the knockoff business sector offers an empirical rebuke to one of the unquestioned presumptions justifying intellectual property rights.

Not all forms of intellectual property need be respected to encourage innovation. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about art – I’m a writer and I like to be paid for my work. At the same time, I don’t exactly need every payday to be $5-million. It wouldn’t even be all that nice – it’d be too much.

Not this Gucci, no. Although he is my favourite Gucci.
But I’m talking about product designs – fashion products like clothing and handbags, personal appliances like dvd players and watches. Knockoffs don’t detract from the sales of the top label products because of the social status of actually having the proper product.* Knockoff economy businesses, meanwhile, are creating fashionable goods and appliances that working class people can afford.

* It’s a doubly elite status. Not only do you have the status of owning the proper product, but in a knockoff-dominated economy, the only ones who can tell on sight that you have the genuine article are connoisseurs of the product. Cash and hipster cred.

Preventing knockoffs actually harms the prestige of the brand, especially in the fashion retail sector, where the prevalence of knockoffs is a sign of the brand’s prestige. In all these ways, the knockoff and elite markets support each other.

This is a context where a supposedly universal principle – that innovation can only occur when patents and intellectual property amount to a practical monopoly. At least temporarily, to incentivize them with exclusive profit from that property.

Knockoff symbiosis shows how the prestige economy can thrive and fuel popular trends in fashion. It also shows that thirst for the maximum profits is not the only driver of economic activity. A demonstration for communitarian values.

Teaching Prosperity in the Underground, Composing, 29/07/2018

So it’s been almost a week since the last post. I didn’t mean to do this on purpose – it’s just been a busy week. Thankfully, it’s mostly been busy with some promising business opportunities starting to come together.

And sometimes, just some incredibly long days. So long that I’d run out of energy before getting down to write. At least to write this, as I’ve mostly been working on other things that I actually get paid for. The blog is meta – a writing project about my writing projects – meta takes a back seat to actual.

I'm one person, not a mechanical writing machine. I'm powered by
food, coffee, and serotonin.
I’ve started work on a small media project that will involve interviews, and I’m starting to line those up for later in August. More updates to come.

But there are some other interesting developments in my teaching job as well. As you might remember, I published my review of Raphael Sassower’s book The Quest for Prosperity last week. I read it months ago, and only got around to writing it all now.

But that means I’ve had a few months to stew over its arguments and ideas. I think the book does come up short in some areas. But its critical chapters on the political economy of the 21st century global economy are wonderfully insightful.

There's a lot going on in those early chapters of The Quest for Prosperity that I couldn’t fit in all their detail into the main review. I only had so much space and so much time to write the thing. But in working over the ideas, I've begun incorporating them into my teaching work.

To give you an update, I’m the head of a program in Business Administration at a small private college. We’re using a standard set of textbooks, but I’m working on lecture content that itself goes beyond just those lines.

For example, I’m not about to present uncritically a map from Freedom House ranking the economic freedom of different countries around the world. I’m not going full communism in there. I’m just asking students questions about what economic freedom means to them, whether they ultimately agree with Freedom House’s terms, and how to articulate their differences.

The marketplace should be a friendly place.
Actually criticizing some aspects of business school orthodoxy as part of the program is turning into a pretty effective value proposition for the place. Unfortunately for the rest of North American civilization, this is how we stand out from the crowd.

One idea of Sassower’s that I’ve incorporated into my program’s business lectures is how he distinguishes between markets and capitalism. Markets are a matter of what Adam Smith called “truck and barter,” small exchanges among community members that add up to mutual benefit.

Capitalism as an ethical attitude is a spirit of competition, where you can all too easily see another person’s benefit as a potential loss for you. Worse yet, you expect others to see your benefits the same way you see theirs. So you become paranoid, aggressive, and suspicious.

Solidarity is broken. Friendship is impossible.

Manuel DeLanda covered the differences of markets and capitalism in a book published more than 20 years ago. But he had an ontological focus on the macroeconomics of the massive capital flows that industrialization and colonialism powered.

Sassower’s emphasis on political economy foregrounds moral principles and ethical attitudes, so we can see the transformation of a society’s values along with their economic system. Good is no longer giving benefits to your community, but leading your community as a function of your wealth. You don’t want to be part of a community – you want to own it.

Conceiving Prosperity Again, Composing, 23/07/2018

If all goes well, this is going to be a very different kind of website in a few months. It’s why I might not post here as frequently as I have before. It will be the first good reason behind any sustained pauses in blog updates I’ve had in nearly a year.

So I came home from the gf’s place Sunday afternoon and after I unwound, I started work on my review of Raphael Sassower’s book, The Quest for Prosperity. It’s not quite finished yet, though I wanted to get it done by now. But I don’t have much longer, and it should still go live by Thursday at SERRC.

A key idea I’m writing about in that review is the notion that civic institutions aren’t sufficient to prevent the rapacious activities of oligarchs. I think our current political moment seems to be demonstrating that. What American Trumpism shows is that institutions – despite all the structural precautions that may exist – can always be corrupted somehow.

Shepard Fairey drew this image of Ronald
Reagan on a wall in the Little Tokyo
neighbourhood of Los Angeles in 2011, as
part of a public art initiative called the
Freewalls Project. He had the support of
the city's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr /
Creative Commons
I think it’s a bit of shortcoming in Sassower’s analysis. But only in the sense that landing a crew on Luna is a shortcoming in that we eventually need to get to Mars.

Sassower, in the latter chapters of his book, asks what kinds of civic institutions can best guide people to socialize each other into communitarian moralities, where oligarchical personal greed is less likely to develop. He identifies several key ethical principles, and a few very intriguing examples among existing institutions and organizations.

I can probably add to his list of example institutions, given what I’ve been reading lately as well. I’m thinking of how Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes the ethics and socialization paths of Ontario’s Indigenous societies.

It’s a life that’s called Nishnaabewin, and I’m going to talk about my own engagements with these ideas, including how I want to use them in my own work, later on. As you can imagine, it’s probably going to get awkward.

So we have our guidelines and we have our models. But those guidelines and models aren’t enough because institutions alone can’t do anything when power imbalances grow.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I’m trying to say. Because I’m at the point in the review where this is what I’m trying to say, and I’m having a tough time articulating it.

Let’s say you’re a claimant in a civil case. Doesn’t matter if you’re technically in the plaintiff’s or defendant’s chair. All that matters is that you’re making a claim with the help of your legal defence, and the other side is making their claim too.

In terms of your civil rights, you’re both equal. That’s what equality before the law means – the institutions regard you as equal claimants whose dispute will be settled according to reason. But in terms of your material resources, you aren’t equal.

You can tell how unequal you are when you see your opponent walk in with Alan Dershowitz as his counsel, and you’re sitting next to a snot-nosed, freshly graduated, already-drunk part-timer.

Material power dynamics overcome nominal equality in the context of civic institutions. This fact is a powerful reason why it’s so difficult to overcome greed – no matter the law, money is always power. Now what do you do about that?

Demonstrating Any Alternative At All, Composing, 19/07/2018

Another quick meditation. I polished off about half of my official review of The Quest for Prosperity over the last couple of days (as well as the draft of a policy paper I’m writing for the think tank). That’s why I didn’t have time to write a blog entry for Wednesday.

One of the leftover ideas from Raphael Sassower’s dense yet accessible book regards the different ways we try to create new forms of life. Now, this is a major concept in my own political philosophy – the utopian drive to build a new society.

The Occupation left Wall Street, but it never failed. It's still
succeeding, because Occupy was the uprising that generated the
ethical energy of anti-oligarchical politics in the 2010s.
Art by Eric Drooker
I’ve mostly been concentrating my historical eye on those creative revolutionary processes that have had real success. Maybe they’ve overthrown a government or two, like the Arab Spring or the Maidan protests. Maybe they’ve inspired an entire generation – on average – to reorient their deepest ethical and moral beliefs about what kind of political economy we want in our society.

Sassower, in a few remarks late in chapter one, makes me wonder what I can learn from the unsuccessful cases.

We’ve got to be careful about how we understand success and failure here, though. Remember that success is more complicated than having a succinct list of demands that are fulfilled. That was the complaint I often remember levied at Occupy – how to make change without specific demands.

But we’re talking about a social movement – not an election campaign or a collective bargaining session. So a utopian uprising’s focus must be general as it generates. The uprising is the social movement in embryo – the flurry of energy that focusses people’s thought and minds, and dedicates their lives, to the hard work of actually changing society.

The hard work of transitioning Tunisia to democracy, or overthrowing Bashar Assad. The hard work of restoring social democratic principles to governance in a globalized civilization and economy.

Actual material success in a specific task isn’t necessary to whether a particular utopian impulse is a success. It’s also difficult to tell when such a project is a material success. The Tunisian democratic government, for example, is still only a few years old and still embattled. Is a democratic Tunisia that lasts only a few more years a success?

Let me put this to you, to demonstrate that asking about persistence of an institution isn’t the right question here. Would you consider the Abbasid Caliphate a failure as a pluralistic society because it lasted only 800 years?

The energy of the uprising is not the same as the institutions people create with that energy. What remains when you bracket the material achievements of a social movement is the energy of the movement itself.

From one of the few long-term successful hippie commune farms.
The Stephen Gaskin Farm began as a community of radical utopian
Americans, who moved to Tennessee to drop out of industrialized
society. It still exists today as a scientific and political research
centre and charity. Its energy, creativity, and practical intelligence
continues to renew itself for more than four decades now.
If the energy of the movement, the revolutionary dedication and drive in a society – or at least a fairly significant number of people in it – is what matters, then we know what success and failure of a social movement is.

A social movement succeeds when the energy of its uprising is sustaining and renewing itself – when people join and contribute to its creative processes, as different contexts to do so appear. There is no point when a social movement has succeeded – that would imply that the movement is finished, and so no longer sustaining itself.

So the death of a social movement is its stoppage. Once people’s creative drive dies, the institutions that movement built immediately ossify and become authoritarian. Their only justification is their existence, which is no justification at all.

Now we have a conception of how to know the success or failure of a social movement on any scale. Success is sustaining its vibrance. Failure is dissipation.

I worked this out Wednesday night as I wrote this post, thinking about Sassower’s example of a failed, small-scale social movement – an experimental agrarian community. These are the farming communes to which frustrated Vancouver office workers retreat when the alienation of their corporate lives becomes too much for them.

That they go is a demonstration of their creative drive to develop a new way of life – a living demonstration that their old lives were obsolete. Not many get too far, though.

The utopian energy of their small group’s social uprising against the constraints and blandness of corporate life isn’t strong enough to overcome even their first challenge. When everyone arrives at the experimental farming commune and they realize that none of them know how to grow food.

Rising Tides Lift Only Boats That Can Pay for Maintenance, Research Time, 17/07/2018

So yes, the conception of prosperity as abundance has all those problems I talked about yesterday. Ultimately, the concept can’t escape the perennial problem in human history – the conflict of the powerful and powerless.

I'm wondering – Do they all have to wear the shirts?
Lords and peasants. Nouveau riche and factory boys. Oligarchs and Taskrabbits.

Society is always much more complex in all the dynamic processes and knit us all together, of course. But this question of distribution always comes up because of the disastrous results of extreme inequality. When so much of a civilization’s wealth is locked up and never returned to the market, there’s a mass slide into poverty.

When the bulk of a population slides into penury while a small elite become earthly gods from their extreme wealth, you have a potential revolution on your hands. Oligarchy’s survival mechanism is to bring all the counter-revolutionary powers of the state – both military and messaging – to bear.

The counter-revolutionary state is a fascist one, because its purpose is to suppress and deceive the desires of its people. That’s why such an important message in democratic organizing is “fight the real enemy.”

I was lecturing in my Business class today about how inadequate general measures of a country’s wealth – like Gross Domestic Product – are to understand how that economy actually functions. Pure aggregates of economic measurement collapse too many distinctions to make the world comprehensible. They measure nothing about how many people in that society are comfortable and who is not.

So what does the concept of prosperity as abundance show us? It does lead us, productively, to focus on the phenomenology of economic anxiety. Abundance is the image of the world’s perfection for the economically insecure.

It’s what you dream of as you weigh how much you can fill up your car today against how many groceries you can buy that week. Progressive political philosophy could use a few more phenomenological accounts of that state of consciousness.

“He Was the God of Abundance,” Research Time, 16/07/2018

Here’s a really interesting idea about how the concept of prosperity has developed in Western thinking. It’s an idea that I really wanted to work into my review of The Quest For Prosperity,* but that couldn’t quite fit the general direction.

* Forthcoming in about a couple of weeks.

A prominent idea in one concept of prosperity that you can perceive in Western culture over the last few centuries is to define prosperity as abundance.

There's a complex relation of our visions of abundance with our anxieties and fears. To live in abundance is to never want again – more than that, it’s the security of never having to worry that you’ll want again. Not only do you live in a situation where you’ll always have comfort, but you know that this comfort will continue – that it won’t end.

Pictured: A succinct expression of ethical, psychological, and cultural
economic anxiety.
This is the dream of abundance. But it was popularly believed, and as a popular image still exists in our culture.** The image functions as a response to individual anxiety, showing that anxiety is a central component of the concept.

** Probably also in a bunch of other cultures as well. The title is a way-too-layered joke about how abundance imagery operates in many non-Western contexts. Sassower sticks with the Western context, because that’s the tradition he knows best.

The concept of prosperity as abundance expresses anxiety – depending on the context where we analyze how the concept plays out in thought, it’s an individual anxiety, or a cultural anxiety. Anxiety is your motivation to achieve prosperity, and abundance is the dream of an end to the torture of daily life.

The anxiety of poverty – whether you live it or have to avoid it – fuels the intensity of how a person or a public discourse conceives of prosperity’s abundance.

This image of abundance has painted the goals of socialist movements from the 19th century to today. Raphael Sassower draws from the recurring image to understand this driving concept of abundance – prosperity as the achievement of comfort. As a political movement, socialism aims for the basic dignity of comfort for all, that no one need live in poverty, penury, misery.

It’s admirable. But I can’t roll with this concept in my own approaches to progressive activism anymore. Basically, it’s because the concept turns out to be more destructive when it animates our current political priorities. When you make universal prosperity your political goal, and you understand prosperity as abundance, then you presume that your world can be made to create that abundance.

Is this really all that matters to you? The temptations of consumerism are
pretty intense, but the question remains of whether this is even
something you can achieve without facilitating a disaster.
Karl Marx himself thought this way about the ultimate goal of socialism. As he conceived the material achievement of communism, it was a world where technological industry would produce prosperity and comfort for everyone. But we have to move beyond the thought of the 19th century.

Environmentalist political movements being as mainstream and powerful as they are, we largely have. If we think of prosperity as everlasting abundance for all people, then we rapidly run up against the carrying capacity of the Earth.

I don’t mean this in some cheap Malthusian sense – no simple ratio of resources to population to consumption intensity. I mean it in the larger sense that the exploitation of material resources for economic prosperity will destroy the means of physical comfort. We may relieve our monetary anxieties, but our health and quality of life anxieties will be worse.

If the ecological side effects of the technology to create abundance makes life a torture, that’s no prosperity. Just look at the water quality in cities that prosper economically from the high-paying secure jobs of oil or metal extraction, or steel foundries and oil refineries.

This continues to be a conflict in our society. Obviously from the extremist extraction politics of state leaders like Hugo Chavez, Stephen Harper, and Vladimir Putin. These people who’d build an entire economy around spreading the wealth of oil money inevitably and quickly come into conflict with environmentalists.

But the most telling – and depressing – such conflict among priorities of extraction and ecology is among the progressive set. Take the Canadian case.

Right now, the provincial leadership and membership of the New Democratic Party in Alberta and Saskatchewan support prosperity-by-extraction with similar zeal as Chavez. In each case, they’ve come into conflict with Indigenous activists and their settler environmentalist allies, who refuse to accept the bargain of the land’s utter destruction for the economic abundance of consumerist values.

Two Utopian Visions of a 1600 Year Civilization in One Page, Research Time, 13/07/2018

One of the reasons I wanted to review Raphael Sassower’s new book formally* was that it’s relevant to my own major book of political philosophy – the messianically in-progress Utopias.

Few images of Jesus better communicate the essential idea of the
Incarnation better than Buddy Christ – He really is one of us.
* Which these blog posts are most definitely not. I’ve already outlined the review formally speaking, and know which points I’ll be covering. No specific critiques or interpretations that I’ll be throwing down in the review at the end of this month will be included in these blogs. It’s a compliment to Raphael that I consider his book complex enough to sustain more than one take. As all books should if they’re worth the paper or the hard drive space.

Concepts of prosperity all tend to focus on building a more perfect society. This refers at least to concepts in the Western tradition, in which I grew up and which until recently dominated the popular imaginary of most of Earth. To prosper is a joyful wealth, joy in wealth. Prosperity is a wealth about which you need no longer worry, a secure wealth.

How individualistically you read those last couple of sentences tells me a lot about your ethics and personality. The progressive political movements of contemporary Westerners share a common ground in their economic philosophy – we no longer believe that the prosperity of individuals in a community is the same as the community’s prosperity.

We ask how many individuals are prospering. We measure highest achievements, averages, create ranks, tax brackets. But if those prosperous individuals become wealthy from dynamics that keep others poor and suffering – whether intentional, systemic, or both – you don’t have a prosperous community.

Never mistake the prosperous man for a sign of a prosperous
In a single page from his introduction, Sassower lays out the religious and ontological framework that – broadly speaking** – Christian civilization has centred in thinking. Put very broadly, the Christian engagement with time is a sublime and terrifying teleology.

** This is based on a note from page 6. Literally the first chapter of The Quest for Prosperity. We’re still talking in broad strokes before more detailed examinations of the concepts. It always annoys me to meet academics who’d quibble over the details of clearly broad ideas to accuse an author of sloppiness. People with enormous institutional authority acting as if their research was to poke needless holes in the work of their colleagues. It’s called contributing to the current debates.

The Christian Bible is organized as the history of existence, and so conceives of the passage of time itself in human, Biblical terms. Christianity’s foundational and focal idea is the event of the Incarnation – when God literally becomes a creature, and that creature is human. Given that, you conceive all of existence as being for the sake of humanity.

Humanity’s existence and development is the purpose of the universe. How is that purpose framed? By utopias.

When the first skyscrapers of the United States
were built, popular culture conceived them as a
great achievement of human (and Western)
culture – the towers of our living paradise. Now
they're a sign of gentrification, condo crises, the
marginalization of poor people to distant suburbs,
the longest commutes, stress, misery.
Time begins with Eden – the pure presence of God with humanity on Earth. Time ends with Heaven – Earth’s corruption is cleansed and God now lives with humanity on Earth as one of us in this newly pure world. God the Creator is now God the Neighbour.

Jesus built my hot rod. Literally.

It’s not only time that happens in the middle of those two utopias – perfect existence at the beginning and perfected existence at the end. A Christian framework of thinking understands that middle temporality as purposeful suffering. We suffer now so that we can live in the utopia of Heaven.

Time becomes a process toward perfection, and the suffering of the present is an investment in achieving that perfection. You can secularize*** Christian utopian time, ending up with a teleology of technological progress. Human scientific, technological, industrial, and capitalist endeavour end with achieving paradise on Earth.

*** That’s how I want to understand secularity when I’m examining the religious aspects of Utopia’s argument. I may not engage with this too much, but it’ll be in the background. Faith: dogmatic religious belief. Atheism: pushing the logic of materialism to its limit (like Spinoza, or some readings of Kabbalah). Agnostic: Fucked if I know. Secular: retaining the concepts, the frameworks for understanding, of faith, but dropping reference to the dogma.


Challenges for a Globalizing Philosophy and a Globalizing Writer, Composing, 12/07/2018

Back in March, I published a review at SERRC of Bryan Van Norden’s book Taking Back Philosophy. I thought it was a pretty good review, and that Van Norden had written a pretty good book.

It’s a straight-up polemic – a political pamphlet for the university sector. The language is direct, but you can tell how deep the knowledge roiling in the background of this fascinating book goes. Van Norden has some of the most comprehensive knowledge of ancient and contemporary Chinese and other East Asian philosophical works as anyone I've encountered in my professional life.

When there are always too many things to read.
Only my old supervisor Barry Allen has knowledge that rivals Van Norden’s. His two recent books on Chinese philosophy, Vanishing Into Things and Striking Beauty, provide a history of the philosophical vectors of development across Chinese and Indian cultures.

Of course, I say this because I myself haven’t gotten to know very many Asian people who themselves are experts in the history of Asian traditions of philosophy. Or any, really.

My own review offered a few directions to anyone who has any expertise or experience in the Western tradition of philosophy – and no others. I gave a summary of my own knowledge of Asian philosophy, and the ideas in Chinese traditions that offers some crackling synergies with my own work.

The process-focussed ontologies and ethics of Daoist traditions offer a lot of profundity and depth to Western process thinking. Western traditions tend to keep process thinking in a minoritarian, obscured position. So a tradition where process thinking is mainstream and a subject of centuries of commentary can offer Western process thinking a lot.

I’m working now on another review for SERRC, on my colleague Raphael Sassower’s book The Quest for Prosperity. It’s a complex argument on behalf of communitarian approaches to economic, moral, political, and ethical matters.

A Chinese Daoist funeral service. Complex philosophies that have
grown out of thousands of years of culture, intellectual work,
religion, and engagement with the world.
I took a lot of notes on Sassower’s book, so I’ll be rolling through a few of those ideas as riffs on the blog for the next while. This is going to be a bit weird because I haven’t written the actual review yet.

I have the outline, which is based on a bunch of those notes that I took as I was reading the book. So I was of two minds for a while about whether I’d even mention Sassower’s book on the blog at all.

Ultimately, I decided that I would. Two reasons why.

First reason. The review is going to be a unified 2,000-word composition discussing a core concept of Sassower’s book – his communitarian vision of prosperity as a network of friendship.

The blog doesn’t do that. My cousin Hulk Stuart MacLean has described my blog as a profound act of improvisation, like the improvisations he plays with his colleagues as jazz musicians. He’s right. I’ve written blog posts where I haven’t even known where it was going to end, and ended in a totally different place than it began. That’s in less than 500 words.

Second reason. When I was reading The Quest For Prosperity, I had no idea what I was going to write about in this review. So I was taking notes on everything I found interesting as I was reading it. That’s what you’re going to see over the next while. Much more weird than what you’ll see at SERRC in a couple of weeks.

More Than Mere Images, Composing, 11/07/2018

Over the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about different ways I’ve seen philosophical writers push themselves into more ambitious expressions. The results are beautiful and inspiring. The quality of the results are mixed, but that’s true of any attempt to overcome limits.

You’d be right to ask what limits I’m talking about, for a start. Well, these limits are based in the norms of academic writing, which tend to the self-destructive. Let me take a paragraph or six to explain how.

Academic training in the university sector tends to cause a lot of impostor syndrome. There are many causes for this, but I want to focus today on two causes.

One cause is that there’s no generally acceptable upper limit on how comprehensive a paper must be to appear credible. A writer must always prepare to face someone who calls their work inadequate because it doesn’t refer to a particular writer that critic is familiar with.

A powerful mystical experience can be had here, but only if you're
already open to it. If you aren't open to that phenomenological
communion, you might just see some potentially valuable
minerals that this damn National Parks act prevents you from
accessing, for the economic good of the people.
Image by Jorge Lascar via Flickr / Creative Commons
But research overproduction has made this impossible, especially combined with how long peer review takes. In the sometimes two years or longer between submission and publication, a study might become obsolete or out of date. If an article for a research journal was written in 2015, it won’t be able to include references to relevant stuff published in 2017, even though it didn’t come out until 2018.

So academic writers are brutally scrutinized by journal authorities through a process that makes their submissions irrelevant because publication takes so long.

Another, related cause, is how the training and publication peer review processes are so rigorous about the form of academic research writing. An essay must use a particularly narrow range of writing styles, tones, and ways of explaining ideas, if it’s going to pass the muster of a peer review process for a publication whose credits count toward tenure and job security.

Little to no experimentation is allowed, until you’re so deep into your career that you’ve likely lost your zeal for experimentation in writing at all.

So I have a lot of respect for writers like Jussi Parikka, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Jane Bennett, who base so much of their philosophical positions on imagery as a starting point. It’s a method that breaks with the dry prose style where bloodless argumentation and obsolete rationalist attitudes dominate.

Now the question is, like I said a few days ago – Can you open up the evocation of the image to find something philosophically experimental and innovative?

When I was researching Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, I found a lot of academically-written environmentalist philosophy that depended on the power of the image alone for the strength of their argument. I did read one author, Scott Aikin, who dismissed the style of this argument in an insightful, if cruel way – He called it seeing a big rock and having an experience.

The lands where the different nations of the Nishnaabeg lived before
they were driven from their lands by the violent dispossession of
Canadian and American state institutions.
Map by DarrenBaker - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Thinking about this more mystical philosophical method now, I think the point was well-made, but without giving credit to a failed attempt to write philosophy differently than the academy typically trains you.

The naive environmentalist argument is that these experiences – farming, hiking, naturalistic observation, among others – is that there’s only one correct response to them in thought. But they made no argument as to why that one response is the correct one.

A few days ago, I started reading Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done. She produces a strong argument for why a reverent, respectful attitude to the ecological networks in which we live is the proper response to experiences of Indigenous ways of life.

That argument is rooted in the philosophical concept of grounded normativity, a central framework principle of many Indigenous North American philosophical traditions, particularly in her own culture, the Nishnaabeg of what is now called the Great Lakes region.

Simpson is building a remarkable philosophical edifice. It’s one of the most conceptually ambitious works I’ve come across in a long time. I don’t want to talk much more about this book right now, because I only just started reading it, and there’s already enough philosophical density to sustain centuries of commentary and uptake. It deserves such devotion.

As for Parikka, his reliance on images to express philosophical concepts is still vulnerable to the Aikin critique. More respectfully, it means that an image underdetermines its meaning. The Geology of Media does interesting things with media theory, and along with allied works like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, pushes against the tired restrictions of academic style. Reading Parikka, I want his next book to try even harder.

Data Thieves Seed Clouds to Rain Then Get Big Buckets, Jamming, 10/07/2018

That title is ridiculous. But it reflects how ridiculous a lot of popular imagery of the internet unfortunately is.

Virtual Reality!
Even worse is that I don’t just mean popular imagery. It’d be a lot more sane, frankly if we were only talking about how Tron and similar stories across many films, television shows, books, and other media popularized this silly conception of “cyberspace.”

It was another plane of reality, where we could live inside the computer and an entire world of energy opened up before us. The world of . . . Virtual Reality!

The leaders of the business sector really do talk about using VR technology to create parallel planes of existence – technologies that bring direct physical presence to distance. Palmer Luckey genuinely refers to the imagery of fanciful science-fiction to describe what virtual reality does.

Nothing about the internet exists on any other plane of reality. The same goes for the hard drives. The data of the entire internet is all coded onto physical disks somewhere. They are massive server farms.

Virtual Reality!
There’s nothing that distinguishes a VR interface communicating between Toronto and Shanghai from this reality. We’re learning how to communicate more aspects of our own presence to others without actually being in the same room, until there’s no real difference from our being in the same room.

Reading Jussi Parikka, I was chuckling at the passages where he tries to knock some sense back into us. Let’s not think any of this is really virtual in an ontological sense. Only our presence to each other is simulated – the physical things that we run our communication through still sits around us.

Wires. Wires everywhere. Where there aren’t wires, there are wifi and cellular data projectors. But it really is mostly all wires. The wires all thread together and connect into massive cables. The massive cables all connect to massive server farms. The server farms need electricity all the time – enormous amounts of electricity.

Virtual Reality!
Even more if you start earning money from Bitcoin and other blockchain-based currencies. Because cryptocurrency mining is probably the dumbest lucrative business in the world. You build a massive server farm, and dedicate its processing power to verifying cryptocurrency transactions. Your human workers sit around maintaining the server farm. Your company collects commissions on each transaction.

Providing you can afford the massive power bills it takes to run and cool a server farm huge enough to verify as many cryptocurrency transactions to make this profitable, you can make thousands of dollars a day by sitting around and making sure a computer doesn’t break.

Why aren’t I doing this right now?

My burgeoning entrepreneurial career aside, I want to make one last ontological point about virtual reality and the internet. We’ve become accustomed to thinking of cyberspace as a realm apart. Parikka’s point is that cyberspace is just as massive, heavy, smoky, and grimy as the old steam engines and coal-fired boot factories are.

Its by-products poison us differently, but they still poison us. There’s just not as much smog as there was a century ago. More pollution of water and soil, as lead, barium, and all those rare earth metals leak into the ground and rivers.

Waste never truly goes away.

Earth As Its Own Memory, Composing, 08/07/2018

Philosophical writing at its best walks a dangerous wire. Well, several such wires, really. The more wires you walk in your writing, the better your writing can be when you pull everything off. Of course, the more wires you walk, the riskier it is that you’ll succeed.

Acknowledging a truth doesn’t make it any easier to handle.

There's a curious image that appears in Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media – the Earth as its own memory. It’s an evocative image, and would be an impressive, brilliant image and metaphor when used in a literary context. If I ever write a sequel to Under the Trees, Eaten, I might use such a metaphor myself.

It's one thing to imagine walking in the earliest days of Earth. It's
another entirely to know walking in those days, living as much as
you can the real ancient past.
But in a philosophical context, such an evocative metaphor can be dangerous. The literary power of metaphorical imagery rests in its ambiguity. Metaphors can create an atmosphere for thinking and contemplation, expose a relationship that a write wants to examine.

But a metaphor resists any attempt to pin down its specific meaning for good. Its purpose is to open a spiral of interpretation – you’re meant, as a reader, to lose yourself in it. Metaphor paints thought, gives it a character or a general direction, a tendency. Yet it strays too far from the concrete to be philosophically productive.

Philosophical writing needs specificity – a philosophical concept is widely applicable, but very precise. Like a blueprint or a plan. Or an OS designed with intricate detail, which can then do a huge variety of different things – but a different sort of variety that you’d get with another OS.

No, those are all metaphors, similies. Images and comparisons, not the actual conceptual structures.

And there you have a demonstration of why metaphor isn’t very philosophically useful.

So does Parikka’s image succeed? Is it a philosophically interesting component of a planetary-centric way of thinking? Or does it only evoke?

I think it succeeds, anyway. For one thing, it relies on a conception of memory as a form of consciousness of history. You experience knowledge when you learn something for the first time, of review it, cementing it in your memory. So memory itself is an experience of learning and engaging with history.

This isn’t a purely discursive history – this concept of history leaves no risk of reduction to current human discussions. You aren’t left open to that juvenile interpretation of history as discourse about the past. You aren’t left wondering if history is only talk about the past, with the grittier, complex accounts no better than the empty exaltations.

Here is a concept of history as the material reality of the entire past, the persistence of past presents, events, and processes into the current time.

A piece of Earth, flying through space.
The material reality of the past is, geologically speaking, the crust of the Earth itself. Geological strata and the transitions between them reveal the actual development of Earth, the planet itself over time.

We can analyze rocks to reveal chemical, atmospheric, and geological conditions of the planet up to 4.4-billion years ago. The literal preservation of the most ancient past of this planet. Becoming conscious of this history, investigating and learning about these astronomically ancient conditions is an act of memory.

We are part of the same 4.4-billion year process of development of the giant ball of matter that we call Earth. We’re very strange, innovative parts – even sending little pieces of Earth far into the vastness of interstellar space.

We think of ourselves as separate from the planet. The planet is a giant thing that I live on. I personally pay a sum of money every month for the right to reside on a particular patch of the planet Earth.*

* When you explain rent and mortgages this way, it makes our entire civilization’s economy sound absurd and ridiculous. I think we should each do this regularly, to give ourselves a sense of perspective.

Now think about the history of your development. The web of causes that have produced your life so far. Causally, we’re part of Earth because the same processes of growth and decay continue as we’re born, eat, shit, die, and are eaten by bacteria, insects, and worms.

A few traces of the earliest days of Earth exist as they once were. All the other traces of the earliest days of Earth exist as they are now.

Becoming Is the Alchemical Ontology, Jamming, 05/07/2018

The other day, I was revisiting a short book by my colleague Elizabeth Sandifer. Recursive Occlusion is a little book about the mysticism of Kabbalah and Tarot, in a framework of exploring the Doctor Who story Logopolis.

Her work has always been a bit strange, which is one of the reasons I like her work.

Anyway, it reminded me of one of the original thematic images of her ongoing epic work of commentary, TARDIS Eruditorum – the solution to alchemy as material social progress.

The vision of progress we’re talking about here is fundamentally rooted in freedom – overcoming the bullying authoritarian attitude of social, political, and moral conservatism. Fundamentally, it’s the freedom to transform – to live differently than others, experiment with different kinds of relationships and identities. A constructively queer identity – opposed to nothing but the refusal to accept difference.

Against the Day is a beautiful book. It
depicts, a tad fancifully, a time in human
history that amounted to a technological
and ethical crossroads. The years between
the 1889 World's Fair and the outbreak of
the First World War was a moment where,
but for a few contingencies, we could
have ended up living in a very different
world. Would it have been better? I
have no idea, and I don't think Pynchon
does either. But given where we've
ended up, any possibility is worth
trying. Or at least imagining.
To jump from this to ontological thinking seems utterly barmy, but it can be done. Jussi Parikka gives it a very good shot when he weaves his concepts for a geological philosophy using, among other tools, artistic criticism and commentary.

Alchemical thinking is an attitude of awe, fascination, and love for the powers of substances to transform into one another.

Parikka illustrates this with images from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which is one of my favourite novels. He chooses images that show a transition in society that’s ethical at its core, but also political, moral, economic, and ecological. It’s the transformation of alchemy as our attitude to the world, into chemistry.

He interprets these images to mourn how contemporary attitudes that embrace industrial technology refuse the need for magic. The transformation of one substance into another now requires no mysticism, no ethical consideration at all. You routinize it, regularize it, and industrialize it.

The shorthand that’s often used for this is the transition to full capitalism. But that’s not quite accurate. Parikka describes a transition that I think has already changed by now.

Alchemy was a research discipline that included mysticism and ontological philosophy alongside its empirical studies of how to transform substances. Chemistry – and the capitalist economics that fuelled the institutions of industrial chemistry – stripped the divine and philosophical from its research discipline, replacing it with a techno-industrial framework of understanding and practice.

Parikka gives us a quick description that offers a shade of Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt. As work became labour, alchemy became chemistry, and a practice of mysticism becomes an assembly line.

Yet care wasn’t entirely stripped from chemistry. You could argue that ethics was transformed, but that the ethical still emerged from the practice. We were offered “Better living through chemistry,” after all. The goal of industrial chemistry was to build a better life for people, to build some kind of material social progress.

There are different capitalist economics in place now. Ask the folks who used to work at Dupont Labs, until a few years ago. We might need other concepts.

Geology's Founding Lie, Research Time, 04/07/2018

One pleasant piece of history I learned from Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media was the founding of the science of geology itself. It’s not too old, after all.

James Hutton developed the basic concepts, essential theories, and analytic methods of the science of the composition and dynamics of rocky planets over the late 18th century. Hutton wasn’t too well-known for most of his own lifetime, but his legacy is pretty well staked these days.

Charles Lyell brought geological science to the mainstream by the mid 19th century. The explosion of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory certainly helped. It was a beautiful moment of synergy.

Perhaps the greatest achievement humanity will ever manage is
destroying ourselves. We're making the planet we live on utterly
unfit for us to live on it. One oil slick can cover thousands of
square kilometres and destroy billions of living creatures,
countless ecosystems decaying into dust. One stupid accident
among thousands. We've made ourselves epochal, burning
ourselves to death in a fire that consumes a whole planet.
See, one of the reasons why Hutton’s scientific work wasn’t widely accepted was because most people* couldn’t conceive of the Earth being billions of years old. This is a very strange kind of mind-set to get into, because such a thing is taken for granted now.

* In Western cultures, anyway. This scientific work happened at the heart of the globe’s colonial economy at the time, in Europe.

Even if you’re a dedicated Young Earth Creationist, you live in the influence of the conception of Earth and the cosmos as billions of years old. It’s the consensus view of your enemy, the secular culture of science.** You may not believe in the billions-year-old Earth, but you live in a society where that’s the common sense view of most people.

** I don’t use terms like these – “secular culture of science” – as actual elements of how I understand scientific practice and institutions myself. I’ve studied science philosophically and sociologically for too long to accept such a broad term as that. But vague terms like this are, to my knowledge, how extremist Biblical Creationists think of science.

When James Hutton was alive, things were totally different. The notion that the Earth was billions of years old was strange and terrifying. There also seemed to be no need for it. No other process on Earth required millions and billions of years to unfold.

Hence, why Lyell had a much easier time promoting this idea when The Origin of Species hit, and as Darwin himself followed this up with the rest of his works exploring the processes and implications of life being an evolutionary process. The geological concept of the billions-year-old Earth was the physical companion to Darwin’s biological work.

When I was a kid, I used to hear the old Christian ditty, "He's got the
whole world in his hands!" It's a beautiful thing to believe in, but it's
a lie too.
The Terror

Why do I title this “Geology’s Founding Lie,” then? The lie isn’t that the Earth is billions of years old. That’s true, no matter what some other folks want you to believe. The lie isn’t a matter of straight fact, but of scalability.

When you think of Earth as only a few thousand years old – maybe six to seven thousand like the Biblical Literalists, maybe a few thousand more – human existence is of massive consequence. If Earth is so young, then most of the planet’s history is humanity’s history too.

Human significance is obvious on a young Earth because we’ve pretty much always been here, as dominant over the planet as we are. We can very easily believe that the planet is here for us. If Earth is the same age or only a little older as civilizational humanity, then it’s easy to believe that we’re at the centre of Earth’s story.

Geological science introduced a conception of deep time. Accepting geology as valid meant that we had to accept human insignificance on Earth. Earth was no longer for us – its existence was now alien to human needs and histories. You have to learn to let yourself be dwarfed in all aspects.

The lie was that the immense vastness of the planet in time dwarfed humanity in all aspects. You see where I’m going with this. The popular and intellectual conception of humanity, as the Victorian concepts of secularism dominated the reflexive thinking of Western cultures, was that the Earth dwarfed our powers as well.

Earth was so vast that human activity – even the industry driving unprecedented technological development – could never cause the planet real harm. Vastness meant resilience, movement and change so slow as to approach eternity. At least relative to human activity.

This is Parikka’s conclusion on researching this idea in the popular and intellectual culture of the first years of the Holocene era – comparing human existence to the depth of planetary time made us appear entirely insignificant. But that appearance was false in one awful aspect.

The terrible truth of our ecological crisis is that our powers can radically transform the Earth. This aspect of human existence really does achieve geological vastness. And we’re completely unprepared to reach that planetary level of power.

The Enchanting Falsenesses of True Romance, Jamming, 02/07/2018

When I was researching what would become Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, I found a lot of very frustrating environmentalist literature and philosophy. Not that it was insufficiently environmentalist – oh no.

These were works that romanticized the non-human world. For one thing, such philosophical writing collapsed all the diversity of everything-that-isn’t-human-or-industrial into a single category – Nature.

This Nature had a single essence, which was inevitably described with images of goodness, purity, harmony, and love. Wading through this dreck was intellectual torture.

It's an old trope of dehumanizing indigenous people to consider
them part of a non-human nature. Just because you want to conserve
them instead of raze them like a forest in the way of a condo tower,
doesn't make the concept any less racist.
Worst of all were the works that conceived of the indigenous peoples of Australasia and the Americas as conduits of this pure Nature, vehicles for an ethic of harmony and balance. They perpetuated the same division of the world into cowboys and indians, but made sure the cowboys were evil and the indians were good.

Some of that stuff was so racist, I wanted to puke a little as I read it. The worst racism of all – validation through valorization. You just switch the valuation around on the old racism of colonial genocide.

Virtuous missionaries and brave settlers become the crushers of indigenous spirituality and prosperity, which is a very good first step. But the ignorant indians now become enlightened mystics. Problem is, you still treat them like savages. Now, you just think it’s good to be a savage.

Jussi Parikka does a solid job of quickly and clearly identifying the roots of this angelic racism in the first chapter of The Geology of Media. The central concepts that are used in this destructive, falsifying, idealizing understanding of nature come from the Romantic tradition of literature and philosophy.

I’m not going to go into it. Just read his book. Or mine. Whichever you prefer to buy or steal. If stealing, why not both?

Millions of years lie before your eyes, present for you.
An alternative – and I think the best one – is in materialist thinking. Just remember to be as thorough as you can – a materialism that subtracts nothing from the world. Account for everything that you always felt you needed the non-material for, by material means.

Parikka finds a means for people to engage with profoundly deep times, for example, by a thoroughly materialist analysis.

Romantic dualism about nature and technology can only conceive of nature as eternal, while technology is the force that introduces change and the flow of time into existence. That change is inherently destructive, just as a return to the eternal nature is good, the restoration of harmony.

But an eye on the geological roots of technology show how the material of our civilization has always been part of the Earth. Technology is a product of nature – geological flows lasting millions of years and ecological flows lasting hundreds of thousands. Our technology is the exploration and rearrangement of metals that exist on planetary scales of time.

Nature is a process billions of years long. Our ecological catastrophe of a few centuries is a relative instant.