A Terrifying Universe, Class: For Tonight We Might Die, Reviews, 25/10/2016

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• • •
Media studies is easier. That’s the last of many lampshaded moments in the first episode of Class. But it’s probably the most important one. 

That line follows a conversation among the teenage regulars where they drop the names of all the television shows that have guided them on how to handle a weird spacetime wormhole under a high school. From Buffy onward. Though discussing those references will constitute 

Rachel is a sadly textbook case of a refrigerator character. All she does
in this episode is look lovingly at Ram, remind him of what a kind
person he is under his footballer douche self-image, then get brutally
killed by a Shadowkin right in front of him.

But it isn’t enough to know the rules that govern your show. That’s the message from the Doctor, the most metafictionally complicated character in television today – probably in the whole history of television. You can throw in as many references as you want – like Tanya’s joke about the Bechdel Test – it won’t be enough to save you from actual invading aliens from a wormhole in the depths of your high school.

That said, this kind of trope awareness is needed. If only to highlight that the viewer should be wary when characters like Rachel are so clearly fridged to provide motivation for our footballer-with-a-good-heart Ram.

The real meat of “For Tonight We Might Die” lies in two issues. One is the nature of sacrifice – asking what you’re willing to give up to save another or (at the scale of the conflicts in Class), to save your entire civilization and world. The other is an extremely sticky engagement with the nature of genocide.

The Strength to Give It Away

I have a distinct feeling that I’ll be returning to questions of sacrifice throughout my reviews of this series. It seems to be the major philosophical theme of April’s long-term character arc. Consider that she’s been tapped as the heart of resilience in the Coal Hill team from the end of “For Tonight We Might Die.”

Rachel's death scene even sprays Ram with her blood in a moment
that I think was a riff on the mass shooting flashback sequence in
The Fisher King.
Consider how we understand her family background. Raised by her mother, seemingly without a father figure, April describes her family’s situation to Charlie as the grounding she has for dealing with the immensely dangerous life she’ll lead from here on. Paralyzed in a car accident she never should have survived in the first place, April’s mother continued on, raising her daughter alone.

Likewise, April now carries a burden and a duty in the face of a physical disability. She has the weirdest heart condition in Britain, as it disappears in and out of phase with our reality whenever Corakinus the leader of the Shadowkin appears in our world. 

Knowing her fatal link to this monstrous invader, she’s actually prepared to stab herself in the heart to stop him. The ethical strength to take that drastic step upon yourself is at the heart of April as a character in this show. 

And I think we’ll see that strength as a narrative of conflict and growth with Ms Quill. April’s willingness to give of herself to save another is a stark contrast with Quill, whose first act in the show was to trick another student into sacrificing himself without any knowledge of what he was about to do.

Yes, she defended herself and the school from a Shadowkin invader, but the weapon that destroyed it also destroys the one who fires it. That lack of scruples to dispose of another person as a weapon to defend yourself is the real crime that the Doctor is right to label her with.

April and Tanya's first scene in Class, in which a conversation about
decorating for prom turns to April's question about how
available Charlie is. So Tanya delivers the show's first piece of
media studies. April doesn't get it.
Quill was a freedom fighter for her people on the Rhodian homeworld, leading a failed guerrilla campaign against the monarchist government, represented by Prince Charlie. When the Doctor first refers to her punishment, her reflex is to defend herself as a freedom fighter. 

But the Doctor is well-accustomed to overthrowing monarchies – If they had met years earlier on Rhodia, he probably would have helped her in the fight for her minority’s freedom. And Charlie would have been a sympathetic villain instead of a hero with secrets. But the only crime of hers that the Doctor cares about is having tricked that student into his own death in that first scene of the whole show.

Her willingness to give up another’s life for her own without transparency is Quill’s weakness, while April’s openness to give of herself for others is her strength.

To Deserve Genocide

That’s a horrifying concept for most humans – whether anything actually deserves its genocide. We rightfully consider genocide the ultimate evil humans could commit. Even the planetary destruction of a full-on nuclear war would be less evil than a genocide. 

At least in a nuclear war, the perpetrators are just as dead as the victims. In a genuine genocide, there are survivors to profit from the remnants of the dead. Just think about all the Russians, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, and other folks who moved into those fertile farming communities along the old Pale of Settlement in the late 1940s.

Once you know their backstories, you can better appreciate how much
Quill relishes their cover identities, since her job as a math teacher lets
her boss around Charlie, the prince who's essentially her slavemaster.
The original owners were never coming back. They were all dust, ash, worm food, and lampshades. 

So genocide would be the ultimate moral horror. The Shadowkin are monstrous because – as we see from what they do to Rhodia and the casual way they commit violence at the Autumn prom – they literally live by genocide. They stalk entire civilizations interdimensionally, nesting in their shadows until they strike. In a single day, every individual member of the entire civilization is killed.

It’s the Shadowkin’s essence to be the most effective genocide machines in the universe. Speaking in the context of Doctor Who’s monster gallery, they’re more efficient killers than the Daleks. Daleks at least enjoy torturing other creatures enough that they let you live long enough that you might manage to escape or fight back.

The Shadowkin seem beyond pleasure. They are driven by a desire to kill without exception. They are less a sentient or sapient species and more a disease. 

And yet Shadowkin are sapient. They have individual identities like Corakinus, and presumably a society – horrifying though it is. A society of individuals that is simultaneously a plague of fire and smoke. Given the inherently destructive nature of the Shadowkin, would we call their total destruction genocide? Or disease control?

I also can't help but think that Charlie's name is another meta joke,
this time throwing some UK history into the show.
Given their relentlessness, a clear case can be made that their total destruction would be an act of self-defence on the part of your entire civilization. And an act of defence on behalf of all other civilizations in the universe, whose lives are threatened by the mere existence of Shadowkin. If they’re alive, then any of us could very well be next.

We have no guilt about wiping out smallpox or polio. So why the Shadowkin? Charlie explicitly says that he won’t answer a genocide with another genocide, that he won’t take on the burden of destroying the Shadowkin out of revenge for his own people.

Yet if they are more destructive than smallpox, it would be a great good to destroy the Shadowkin. So what makes their death genocide?

I can only conclude – from the narrative evidence I have, at least from the first episode – that it’s because of their self-consciousness. You can destroy an entire species of virus, bacteria, or fungus if their existence threatens your own because it’s the basic civilizational self-defence of disease control.

Yet despite genocidal propaganda, destroying a whole community or species of self-conscious individuals would not be mere pest control. It would be mass murder on the most horrifying scale. It would be genocide. 

Can even a Shadowkin's face summon you to an ethical confrontation?
In the phenomenological ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, he identifies the experience of the stare of another person – particularly another face – as the foundation of ethics itself. The face is itself a plea for recognition, its living presence a call for consideration and an absolute demand on you. 

Experiencing a face, you meet a force that limits your own action by its very existence. Reaching out to it humanizes you as much as the face itself imposes its humanity on you in that first encounter. And to harm or destroy that face is an ethical ruination. The face accuses you as it dies.

To destroy all faces of a particular kind is a genocide – even of something like the ontological plague of the Shadowkin – because they can accuse you as they die.

Kind of heavy stuff for a teenaged-aimed show. See you in a few days with my review of “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” and I’ll see you tomorrow with some more thoughts about Jacques Rancière’s philosophy of radical democracy.

Hating Democracy IV: End Your Traditions, Research Time, 24/10/2016

I haven’t gotten my hands on the first episode of Class by Sunday night, so the first post in that series will come on Tuesday. That’ll be my discussion of the first episode “For Tonight We Might Die.” The post on the second episode, “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” will likely go up Friday – But Patreon backers will get to see it a day earlier.

Posts on Class will probably appear each Tuesday after that. This will probably be how the Doctor Who posts end up going as well.
• • •
Continued from last post . . . You can say democracy is a lot of things. It’s not exactly a simple concept. But here’s what democracy is on today’s post. 

Democracy leaves ever aspect of a community’s social order up for grabs in every moment. It’s the fundamental opposition to social conservatism at all times. 

The unity of a culture is built from the ground up, from such ordinary
things as brief television commercials about noteworthy moments in
your country's history. Like when Drake took those baskets back to save
the Raptors from the Halifax Explosion at the conference to choose the
design of the new Canadian flag. At least that's how I remember it.
This is another part of Jacques Rancière’s account of the democratic attitude, democratic life. If I can name it a little more poetically, it’s the fundamental human yearning for freedom.

I sometimes feel as though a lot of popular political discourse in the West has lost this more profound conception of freedom. Too many of us think freedom is a matter of “money talks.” The kind of freedom that means we shouldn’t care how much a company pollutes if people still love their products because the market will guide our reason. 

The kind of freedom that means I can say whatever I want, even if it’s horrible and racist, because my fundamental freedom is freedom to be a jackass. That freedom is nothing more than the absence of coercion. Or sometimes even the absence of resistance.

In many ways, that kind of very individualist libertarianism doesn’t go far enough. It sticks with the perspective of an individual’s freedom as an isolated unit. But it doesn’t consider how deeply integrated each of us as individuals are with so many others. 

This doesn’t make individuality disappear into some amorphous blob of a society. For one thing, actual societies are way more complicated than that. Nations and communities aren’t homogeneous unities, no matter how many ancient* sociological theories treated them that way. 

* And undeniably fucked up . . . 

Societies don't really have any essence – no identity like an individual. They’re collections of many different individuals. These individuals all affect each other in complex networks. Think of how many different people you interact with half-frequently in a week. Or a month.

Co-workers, neighbours, friends, family members, casual acquaintances, occasional clients, people you see often enough at the grocery store that you remember their faces, that street musician with the steel drums and the cool hat. Now think about all the networks each of those people have. And all the networks that flow out from each person in those networks.

These networks aren't evenly distributed all over the world. They don’t have boundaries, per se, but there are hubs, as well as general tendencies to link in some ways and not in others. 

Though I'd like to meet some people from Kyrgyzstan. It seems like a
really cool place.
I don’t know personally anyone in Kyrgyzstan, for example. Because it’s far away, I’ve never been there, I don’t know any Kyrgyz myself in the city where I live, and I don’t even speak Kyrgyz, Russian, or Uzbek, the country’s most common languages. Physical, social, and institutional obstacles prevent me from direct connections to the networks of people in Kyrgyzstan.

But you could find a path through the networks of my networks (and all their networks) that would eventually lead to Kyrgyzstan. Because I live in immigrant-heavy Toronto, it probably wouldn’t take as long either. 

This is the reality of society. We’re not cells in some kind of big, giant person called Canada. We’re networks of individuals. But all these people affect each other – some a little, some a lot, and some in very subtle ways. Ideas, beliefs, and ways of acting all drift through these networks. 

So the individual people in those networks might share some tendencies, across the population when you survey it. Many of them may share tastes in food, or a peculiar rudeness in the behaviour of a city’s bad drivers. That’s where cultures come from: the integration of networks of individuals.

We’re not made by some omnipowerful essence called our nation. We’re individuals who all affect each other – and have some mild power over each other, in tension with each other. Most of the time, the people who are networked together benefit each other. 

We all do our jobs, keep our city’s infrastructure and businesses running, are generally nice to each other in the streets. But each of us, living our lives in pleasant, productive, peaceful ways, exercises their little bit of power to build and rebuild society every day.

Societies are not giant people who behave according to sarcastic
national stereotypes. But it would be funny if they were.
And that’s why you have no obligations to uphold your traditions if they stop working for you. If the world has changed so that something that you’ve always done before starts causing destructive effects, you can stop it. 

There’s no moral obligation to do something when it starts to hurt you instead of help you as it had for years or decades. Humans work best when we all strive to live so that we make each other’s lives better, or at least keep each other on the right track. The world is largely beyond our individual control, but we can adapt to a changing world.

Democracy is a politics that recognizes that fundamental human power over each other and over the world. It says to everyone who’s networked together and holds that little bit of power over everyone they’re fairly densely connected with: You have that power over each other, and an obligation to use it wisely for all our sakes. 

Democracy says: Each of us has a duty to help each other figure out the best way to survive and prosper. If that means overthrowing an old social habit or institution? If it looks like that’s the best route, heave ho.

Social conservatism in the face of destruction isn’t just foolhardy. It’s rude.

Hating Democracy III: The Rabble Babbles, Research Time, 21/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . In case you think this weird democratic hate on for democracy stops with the end of the Bush years, an intellectual very influential on today’s anti-democratic politics said essentially the same thing.

Yesterday, I described this disgust at real democracy as the belief that people’s freedom is living under and loyalty to democratic state institutions. That democracy isn’t actually the government of the people by the people, but institutions like regular elections of officials and leaders, a free press, and nominal transparency in government.

Rancière sums up the hypocritical anti-democracy like so:
“A good democratic government is one capable of controlling the evil quite simply called democratic life.”
In other words, freedom is little more than unchecked personal desire at the expense of the common good or a higher form of social life. Here’s a thought leader in our own time – even our own moment – saying exactly the same thing: Nick Land.

Another aspect of Land's political philosophy is that our transhumanist
impulses will eventually take humanity's elite in a radical divergence
from humanity itself to survive our ecological crisis. As a slightly
serious joke, he describes the monstrosity to some as "face tentacles."
Land’s The Dark Enlightenment is a founding philosophical text of the alt-right movement, and he’s the closest the alt-right has today to a top philosopher. The barrel isn’t exactly very deep, but he’s still a genuinely intelligent man and sharp writer. 

I personally wish he hadn’t given himself over to a movement of resurgent white nationalism and just stuck to horror philosophy and the attempt to think the abyss. But sometimes, I also think that too much abyssal thinking leads to some very terrifying, violent places.

Anyway, Land’s argument against democracy (at least one aspect of it) goes like this. 

People basically act from self-interest – this could be literal individual interest, or in the interests of your family, clan, circle of close friends, or organization. Maximum, no more than a few hundred people, maybe just a little more than the max number a person can genuinely know as people.

Rulers of democracies are no different. But in a democracy, no individual or faction is ever in power much longer than a decade. So a given set of rulers, affiliates, factions, and sponsors develop a tendency to loot the state and profit as much from their control over the common wealth as they can.

People who know they’ll only be in power for a short while will only ever think in the short term, and never lay down long term plans for their society to accomplish important tasks. Like surviving an onrushing planetary ecological crisis. Only a ruler-for-life will do that, because their self-interest will run over the longest possible term. 

Here’s my take on this argument against democracy. After about a decade, when organizational rot has set in at the seat of power, the people have to kick the rulers out to reset the corruption clock. 

It’s essentially very similar to Land’s argument, but I refuse the additional step of believing that being a CEO-for-life (or until you feel like retiring) makes you a virtuous ruler who always thinks and plans for the long-term health and vibrancy of his national culture.

The most recent long-serving Prime Minister of my country Canada
was tossed out of power after nine years, when plenty of corruption
scandals had already taken root in his office. But even if he'd won
the 2015 election, he would have retired voluntarily one or two
years afterward anyway. Because we're a democracy and you don't
stick around in the top office for life.
From one perspective, I’m actually more pessimistic about human nature than Land, whose argument essentially describes a national chief executive as a benevolent despot. 

As far as I’m concerned, any moderate-term wielding of state power corrupts the office-holder. So rulers and their cliques have to be forcibly retired before the taste for filthy lucre sets in. Despotism is inevitably malevolent – kleptocracy at best, and at worst Stalin. 

Democratic institutions are the framework to keep those forced retirements smooth and peaceful. That insurance against state corruption is the central justification for democratic institutions. But real democracy is a lot more than just the institutions.

But let’s get back to Land and anti-democracy for the rest of the post. Land’s argument returns one of the oldest criticisms of democratic governance in the world – it starts in Plato’s Republic, where he calls democracy the babbling of self-important jerks. I’m paraphrasing, of course. But that’s the idea.

Plato’s critique of democracy has been a touchstone in Western political thinking ever since it was published. Yet Rancière makes a very incisive stab at Plato’s doubts about democracy. It’s so obvious when I read it that I smacked my own head – not quite literally, but it was one of those moments. I wondered why no one had thought of it before.

Why are we taking a self-professed opponent of democracy at his word about the character of people who actually embrace democratic culture and governance? Yes, he had seen a democratic assembly condemn Socrates to death for radical sedition. Which is extremely bogus.

But Plato describes democracy at its worst, as if its worst was its essence. That’s not an argument against democracy per se – it’s an argument against letting your most paranoid, socially conservative, closed-minded passions rule your democracy.

Sounds fine. But I’d seem to be in a bit of a pickle. Given what I’ve said today about how inevitable corruption is, how do I expect to stop people’s most paranoid, conservative, closed-minded passions and prejudices from taking over society? . . . To Be Continued

Hating Democracy II: Freedom As Chaos, Research Time, 20/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . So that's the general setup of the problem. If you take democracy to be democratic institutions alone, you’re going to end up being an opponent of what democracy really is. 

But what would that opposition be like? How would you understand people’s freedom if you were a democrat who thought that freedom was contrary to democracy?

Jacques Rancière is writing Hatred of Democracy in the year 2006, publishing it in 2007. There are few figures in world politics that embody these twisted hypocrisies in the understanding of freedom and democracy than George W Bush. 

The imagery of George W Bush definitely contributed to the disturbing
surreality of the terror experienced by a generally progressive person
living through the global politics of the 2000s.
Understanding the Bush years is part of what I want to do in Utopias. There is a subjective element to this as well. Utopias might get a little experimental as a philosophical text, being very explicit about the book’s nature as a response to the cultural and political problems of our own time. 

I think the best philosophy engages with its world in a very conceptual, abstract way – it can be an expression in concepts and ideas of its time and society. 

Here’s a not-so-coincidental example. Just as the cultural and historical context of the English Civil War helps us better understand Hobbes’ Leviathan, the context of the 21st century should inform ambitious philosophical work of our time and society.

So how does the Bush Administration and the politics of the time inform Rancière? They're the prime example of the terrible danger that comes when you think democracy is solely a matter of institutions. That democratic institutions are not just necessary, but also sufficient conditions of real democratic freedoms.

As Rancière describes, this premise makes you sincerely think you can create a democracy – literally a thriving democratic culture – at the point of a gun. With a military occupation. Because that is literally what they were doing to Iraq.

The Bush Administration were following the ideas they all developed as members of the Project for a New American Century think tank – building an American military empire, but an empire that would travel around the world installing democracies. Democratic, free societies whose governments upheld people’s basic liberties, who would naturally be American partners because of their shared love of freedom.

Alberto Gonzales was ruthless in his ideological devotion to the Bush
Administration, purging the Justice Department of attorneys who
questioned or critiqued the government's anti-terrorism laws. He was
also the most cartoonish failure of those years, dopily telling a
Congressional committee that he couldn't remember any of the
details of major activities in his own office.
Because they all thought that all you needed to do was knock down totalitarian institutions, install democratic ones, and people’s natural freedom would emerge. This is why they thought you could make a democracy with a military invasion. 

Here are some examples Rancière doesn’t bring up, but that I will. It’s why they thought no one would ever vote for Hamas in the Palestinian Territories in 2007 – because an election is a democratic institution and democracies don’t vote for non-democrats.

It’s why they cracked down on civil liberties in America itself, authorizing the mass data collection of the NSA, routinizing torture and secret rendition of terrorism suspects, federally prosecuting political enemies of the administration. They still considered them democrats because they were in democratic institutions, answerable to the press and periodically elected.

So how does Donald Rumsfeld describe free people? People literally having just been liberated from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime? He’s sad for the public disorder after the invasion – people looting state institutions. 

But he’s sure that democratic institutions will channel that energy into the proper freedom. That's why the American military went to Iraq. 

Freedom is the goal of America’s invasion of Iraq, but raw freedom is a sad by-product of liberation. It’s disorder, chaotic, something unfortunate that needs to be brought to heel. 

Rancière doesn't collapse freedom into pure anarchy, but he's aware that
the liberty to do what you want is an essential element of government
by and for the people. My own conclusion is that freedom is only
possible among ethical people. So to build a perfectly free society,
we have to build a society where no one will be driven or desire to
harm others. I have no idea how that can happen, but it's a
wonderful asymptote to approach.
That understanding of freedom isn’t the freedom to live as you want and do as you like. It isn’t even genuine government of the people by the people. It’s the freedom of living under a particular set of institutions. The institutions are constraints, but they will shape people into their highest, most proper freedom. 

Yet even democratic institutions are still constraints. They ultimately involve coercion – police, armies, state violence whether by gun, jail cell, or fine. Institutions that punish malicious behaviour. 

Any punishment is constraining behaviour – it’s an ill done to you, which means that it takes away from what you can do. Just having to obey an institution’s rules does ill to you, even if it’s a nice institution that materially improves your life, as most democratic institutions do.

If you disobey the institution, you’re punished. And so for the threat of punishment, you conform your behaviour to the institution’s rules. You constrain yourself. The material freedom the institution may give you comes at a price of a degree of your liberty. 

Institutions are needed to constrain the chaos of real liberty. Democratic institutions are, accordingly, what transforms chaos into the ordered movement of a higher freedom – democracy. But what happens to a democratic society when they see freedom and liberty as an excess? . . . To Be Continued

Hating Democracy I: In Our House, Research Time, 18/10/2016

Reading Jacques Rancière is a lot of fun. He’s efficient – writing short, dense books. But he’s also fun to read – those books steer clear of over-technical jargon and they get straight to the point. There's nothing ambiguous about Rancière’s writing. You see it, it confronts you, and you deal with it.

Because it’s nothing if not confrontational. You don’t write a book called Hatred of Democracy and expect to avoid upsetting people.

Who hates democracy here? Certainly not Rancière, though he does hate a lot of what gets called democracy. Though he doesn’t name the individuals, the introduction to Hatred of Democracy expresses nothing but bile toward the racist nationalism and enforced secularism that's near-universal to his country France.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, recently said that
she would ban all conspicuous religious symbols in all public places, if
she becomes President. In the name of France's liberal secularism.
When he wrote about that, my first instinct was to think of Marine Le Pen and Bernard Henri-Lévy as examples of each. 

It made sense to me at first glance. Maybe that’s because, while Rancière was writing in 2006, I was reading in 2016 so could see more obviously (and unfortunately) how Le Pen’s socialist nationalism* and Henri-Lévy’s secular liberalism dance together.

* Where have I heard of a formula like that before? It sounds weirdly familiar.

It's a peculiarly European problem. Even more peculiar than European – a Western European problem and very much a French problem as well. That singular kind of opposition to freedom in the name of democracy. Perhaps it’s Dutch too

A devotion to liberal secularism and tolerance turns you against freedom

You can split democracy in two ways, you see. One side, you focus on democratic institutions – parliaments, courts, political parties, bureaucracies, welfare services, public utilities, police, and so on. Call that, just for the sake of the argument we’ll be having over the next few posts, civic democracy.

Now look at the other side of what we call democracy in this split. This is the freedom to do whatever you want with your life as long as you don't hurt anyone. I often joke with my friends and co-workers, when they float the idea of doing something harmless that they haven’t before – “Of course! Why wouldn’t you? We live in a democracy. You can do whatever you want!”

Maybe just call that liberty. 

The problem is that you can very easily confuse civic democracy with liberty. As if conformity to the institutions of your country was the same as being free to live as you wish, as long as those institutions were governed by democratic norms like representation, management transparency, and the freedom to criticize them.

Patriotic French citizens demonstrate for their religious freedoms.
But institutions don't free you. At least not entirely. They can certainly provide you with benefits you need to secure your material freedom – like subsidized or not-for-profit utilities, welfare payments, or the protection of your civic freedoms. 

Institutions demand something of you that constrains your freedom – loyalty. Conformity. Since the institutions of a state are closely entwined with a country’s culture, conformity takes on a powerful moral imperative as well as a political command to be loyal.

Look at the example of France. Racist nationalism has grown there (and throughout Europe) in response to large waves of Muslim migrants. Public suspicion of migrants and Islam’s association with terrorism drives the alienation of that minority community. And that alienation tends to swing more members to embrace the fanaticism of terrorism in Islam’s name. The cycle continues.

The response is all too often to push Muslim migrants to conform to secular French life. The freedom of secularism becomes a freedom of fealty, turning away from how you want to live. 

Even though a headscarf doesn't hurt anybody and the moralities of those who choose to wear it are far more diverse than the garment’s opponents believe. And the secularism of the French constitution is rooted in its cultural Catholicism to begin with.

The French case, which Rancière writes about, is a very clear example of a common mistake people make about politics – taking civic democracy to be material liberty. As though loyalty to democratically governed institutions was the same as freedom.

This is just one of many ways you can call yourself a democrat while hating freedom. . . . To Be Continued

Desire Creates Us, A History Boy, 16/10/2016

I'm one of those people who always reads a bunch of books at the same time. A little while ago, I finished reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I came to the book in a very simple way, but came to the author in a bit of a roundabout path.

Not the cover of my edition, but I think it's my
favourite. The smoke is the sign of the productive
energy that unites the steamship that united the
narrator's grandparents, the city where she
lived, and the relationship that helped her
fully understand his identity and nature.
Turning From Small Worlds

Eugenides is typically lumped in with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen – sensitive white male chroniclers of the angst and narratives of the suburban American culture heading for an existential crisis through the 1990s and early 2000s. 

They were the most prominent writers in a clique of American authors that were called a coherent cohort in New York Magazine in 2011, their society and wider meaning unified by in how their culture made sense of Wallace’s suicide a few years earlier. 

Eugenides never had much meaning to me when I first discovered these writers. I bought Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest practically by impulse in a mall bookstore when I was 16. 

When I first read it, I was overwhelmed, bowled over by the massive scope of his literary creation, which was wedded to a narrow focus on his characters’ deep, personal, singular pain. I’d later think of Wallace as prefiguring the drive to sincerity. That cultural drive jacked up seriously after Sept 11, as the ironic reflexes of late 20th century popular culture* weren’t adequate to process America’s intense societal trauma.

* Key example: the cool, smirking, distance of authors like Thomas Pynchon from the interiors of his characters, the postmodern focus on technical and formal experimentation, characters as plays of tropes and pure ideas instead of personalities.

I grew tired over the last decade of both postmodern experimentation and the insular interiority of the Wallace-influenced approach. The deal on Wallace was sealed when I read D. T. Max’s biography of him last year – Wallace spent his life tortured by mental illness, frequently unable to escape his own head and most often a mess. 

His characters fell into such deep and detailed pits of interiority in their depression because that was the arc that kept repeating in Wallace’s own life. His research on settings would be comprehensive. I was especially impressed by how much he learned about tax accountancy for The Pale King, but the story was always the same. A subject's fall into their own sadness. Usually never to emerge.

Eugenides has become my favourite of that cohort of
white novelists of the midwestern suburban
American subjective interior. He breaks their
crushing sameness.
I felt the same about Franzen's work, except on a social level. Wallace and Franzen had convinced me that this crew of writers couldn’t escape their heads and their own, socially isolated worlds. The precious interiority of the middle and upper class white American male of the mid-sized town.

Writing Difference – Imagination at Last!

That article I linked earlier, describing Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot as an adaptation of the sick relationship Wallace developed with Mary Karr, made me think he was little different than the others. But with a little reflection, I thought differently.

I remembered The Virgin Suicides. Not the book itself, which I still haven’t read, but the film. I often thought of it primarily as a Sofia Coppola film – her personality was all over the film. But so much of Eugenides’ narrative voice survived her adaptation. Literally, in the film's narration.

That voice expressed a mind that sought to understand difference. The Virgin Suicides could sound like a journey that never leaves a skull at first sight, because it remains the voice of the boys who followed the Lisbon girls. Boys who follow girls. Say it, and you can hear how easily it can fall into the unseemly.

Yet the voice in that film preserved the love that always disappeared from the true solipsists. Wallace’s writing never escaped the black pits, though he depicted the abyss brilliantly. Whenever I try to read Franzen, I have to stop for the choking odour of mothballs. Eugenides seemed different.

The Virgin Suicides was an attempt to narrate the radically different from the outside. That little boys’ choir narrator wanted to explore this world that was so close to their own, but diverged so radically. 

The steel oppression of social conservatism, even for such a basic, insular neighbourhood society as theirs – and the silent howls of pain as they clawed into a familial coffin – the desperation of the realization that an actual coffin is the only escape. 

A story of the relentless drive of love to uncover an alien neighbour.
The film is a masterpiece you can never watch twice, its violent
sadness overcomes your guts.
The entire narrative was an exercise in the refusal to understand what’s different from you on your own terms. The beginning of the ethical imagination that I know now is the purpose of art. If that was Eugenides’ first novel, then how far would he go afterward?

Thousands of Stories in Each of Us

So one day, I saw Middlesex on sale for $1 at a United Way fundraiser table at my local liquor store. The story and its narrator intrigued me – a young girl grows up in 1960s and becomes a man after realizing that she’s intersex with interior testes. And it also flowed through the story of hir grandparents fleeing war in Greek Turkey to settle in Detroit.

After I bought the book, I looked through reviews. Some of the negative reviews thought that a novel was too unwieldy to contain a Greek immigrant story and an intersex awakening story at the same time. 

But that overstuffed excess of narrative was a selling point for me – real life is always intersectional. Every actual person has multiple heritages and stories within them. I look among my own old and new friends in Toronto for examples. 

A young artist leaves the “new world” for the country of his parents’ birth and sees it undergoing a renaissance, while he also works through the complex heritage of a deceased parent and another whose work sometimes exposes him to the poorest of the poor.

In the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari
write that they wrote the book together and each of them were several
people themselves already. It made their room very crowded. Each of
us is just as crowded as they were.
A woman climbs out of poverty while also growing distant from her earlier religious awakening thanks to hypocrisies in the community, grows alienated from family, and lives through the tension of her own trauma and the mental health issues of her partner.

A man finds financial success and builds a new multicultural family while living the precarious neighbourhoods of a gentrifying city.

A man leaves a dictatorship for a democracy, where he finds love. Only a few years later, he finds himself at the forefront of activism to democratize his old country and bring victims of war to safe shores.

All these overflow the simple narratives that a straightforward literary treatment would make of them. That’s life. It’s what art should depict – the beautiful excess and diversity of human life on its own terms. 

Desire Creates Us From Sludge and Rock

The Greek-American immigrant story of Middlesex blends with the intersex-awakening story of Middlesex even better than simply through an embrace of life’s excessive meaning. I’d actually call it a very Deleuzian book (some relative spoilers coming, though, maybe, depending on your definition).

At many times in the book, Eugenides’ narrator describes himself and his family as assemblages. Particularly, assemblages of genes, phenotypes, hormones, and proteins. We’re chemical as well as psychological and narrative. That doesn’t detract from our humanity – it's part of what constitutes humanity.

Life is physical, an assemblage of forces, imperatives, and tendencies. They all run actively under our intentions and personalities, shaping who we are. We aren’t passive before them, because we’re the actors of our own desire. But those drives and forces, channelled through the personalities they constitute, become desire.

Eugenides depicts a Detroit that becomes a vibrant centre of industry
and a hollowed-out husk within a generation. The Detroit that really
exists. This is Central Michigan Railway Station, abandoned to rot
by 1988.
That's the desire that the narrator’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty have for each other. Their desire is the vehicle for the proliferation of intersex people, in the deep physicality of their metabolisms and cell nuclei. Their intense sexual desire and deep love for each other drives them to their incestuous marriage. 

It’s kept secret from everyone around them because they’re the only survivors of their home village, destroyed by the nationalist Turkish army. That same desire appears in their son Milton, who seduces his cousin by playing clarinet against her skin. Jazz has rarely been so properly erotic. 

The narrator, faced with the prospect of genital surgery that would destroy her capacity for pleasure, flees and begins living as a man. He’s already been awakened to sexuality through falling in love with a female classmate, and understands that his nature can’t fit in the strict definitions of life in mid 20th century middle America.

That’s another beautiful line of Eugenides’ story – the tension of real human difference with the conservative determination for simplicity and conformity. That’s another way that the immigrant and intersex stories blend together. 

The grandparents flee massacre by a nationalist army – their city Smyrna is burned to the ground and rebuilt as Turkish Izmir. Lefty faces constant company propaganda to abandon his Greek culture and assimilate to WASP Americanism while working at Ford Motors. Desdemona runs an indoor silk farm for a clothing business of the early Nation of Islam.

They give birth to a son who joins the army, takes over his dad’s restaurant, becomes an Eisenhower Republican, and moves his family out to the suburbs when too many blacks settle his neighbourhood. Then that son has a precocious little daughter who grows into a young man by age 15. Every drive to conformity and conservatism is ultimately shot to hell by life itself.

Humans are constructs of desire – made from forces that are prior to our individualities, and always roil beneath our identities and everyday thoughts. That desire pushes us in singular directions, uniquenesses that can’t be tied down to a single code or conform to a unified nature. No matter how much you might believe in the morality that says you must.

That's the story of Eugenides’ Middlesex. Depicting such singular existence is the point of art.

Obsolete Democracy IV: Democracy in Motion, Composing, 15/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . After a very difficult week (and in the face of what could be an even more difficult week starting in a few days), I want to get a moment of real creativity on this blog. After about three years of research on it, I’m about ready to say for sure what the outline of the third part of Utopias will be.

Yesterday, I asked a question that I’ll say, provisionally, is the central question of any democratic thinking. What kind of community is ideal for human life? In that post, I gave a list of examples of how nationalism and ideas of nationhood stand in the way of realizing that ideal.

A protestor at a Trump rally speaks a democracy that blows up
borders and nationhood.
But the ideal itself is pretty simple. An ideal human community is a place where we can all be free to live as we wish and live with dignity

This isn’t a tough question. Yet very rarely can any of our political leaders say that this is the goal of democracy, let alone build policies to push our communities in that direction.

Utopias is going to be a very weird book, but I hope it’ll also be fun. Fun in that model of a thought puzzle. A work of philosophy that’s also a game. And the conclusion of the game will be a justification of enlightenment, a way of thinking about society that’s both the ideal and the next step forward in our democratic tradition. Integrating the democratic tradition with a wider metaphysics and history of human becoming itself.

It’ll be some heavy shit.

So here’s basically how it looks. That last section anyway, flowing from a conclusion that nationalism and the very concepts of nation and nationhood now stand in the way of human freedom. The nation was once a vehicle of freedom, but it’s made itself obsolete today. 

Historical influences will come from the radical democratic tradition. Some of them were communists back in the day, but I'm no communist. That's another obsolete idea – an impossibility in a globalized world. 

Start with the ideals of Mikhail Bakunin – that free people must govern themselves, and live under no kings, dictators, or oligarchs, whether they achieve their power through state control or riches. And yes, one important ideal of Karl Marx – that a wage slave is still a slave, that exhaustion merely for a knife-edge escape from poverty is still a raw deal.

A lesson from Emma Goldman – that civic freedoms are useless if you're too poor or otherwise disadvantaged to have any material freedom of choice in your life. Or the words of Antonio Gramsci – that activists can’t trust the global-level conditions of the world to induce change for the better. Building a better community is a shared project.

Once a long-standing bastion of fascist nationalism in Europe, Spain
is now the home of a thriving radical democratic movement of the
left. Hope never dies as long as there's life.
That shared project needs communication, platform-building, common spaces of conversation, public relations and lobbying. All the means of marshalling and organizing social forces so powerful that they can't be ignored. 

And contemporary influences. Antonio Negri’s theories of globalization* demonstrate that the real progressive path is to finish embracing a global society, not shutting it down just because only the few wealthy have benefited so far. Jacques Rancière’s fiery critiques of those who think civic nationalism and legitimate state authority is all a democracy needs. The deceptively steely pragmatism of Etienne Balibar. And most importantly, the insight into the nature and ease of human terror that Hannah Arendt brought to us through her books on totalitarianism and democracy – the social wills to uniformity and diversity.

* And his philosophies of time will be pretty important to developing the ideas in the first half of Utopias too.

Two thinkers that I think I should still draw on from that Western liberatory tradition are Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, who integrated their philosophical thinking with the progressive and idealist social movements of Europe.

Thinkers from outside the Western sphere will be needed too, though I’m only at the beginning of this research. There’s the classics like Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, of course. But also Partha Chatterjee, Amartya Sen, Pheng Cheah, and indigenous thinkers like Wab Kinew and Glen Sean Coulthard.

The picture isn’t complete by far and it isn’t meant to be. But Utopias will be my own contribution to what Mouffe calls the radicalization of democracy – visions of human society that reconcile civic and material freedoms, where people can live as they wish in communities of strong bonds and vibrant, singular differences.

Where human creativity keeps driving ourselves forward – new ways of life, new thoughts, new societies. Always adapting to changing times and worlds, and changing those worlds as we act. Social becoming. Democracy in motion.