Third Format’s a Charm, Composing, 25/02/2018

I’ve had a super-stressful week, and I’ve dealt with it as best I can in a few ways. Most of those involve writing about Félix Guattari, getting some research work done where I can, and lots of coffee.

I’ve also taken another artistic decision. I’ve laid my project of Doctor Who essays to the side – I still want to write philosophical reviews of the new series on the blog as episodes come out later this year, but I don’t think my energies will work best on major statements about the show.

Reasonably accurate depiction of myself. Once I get into a groove
anyway.
On Saturday, I outlined how the novel version of You Were My Friend will go. And I made a symbolic gesture for myself – I wrote its first sentence.
She wasn't doing much of anything at all when the knocking came from the door.
I’ve been trying to do justice to this story since I first developed it – it’s been about four years since I first pitched the idea. I hoped that You Were My Friend could be the ground of work as a theatre writer.

But we had virtually no box office – we were swamped by audiences flocking to see Billy Bishop Goes to War at the higher-budget theatre down the road from our production in Hamilton. They had a higher promotional budget – and more experience marketing theatre. Hamilton was consumed by mournful patriotism after Nathan Cirillo’s murder – which happened less than two weeks before our debut.

The director and crew I worked with on the play You Were My Friend returned to the more sure bets of bigger-budget productions of established content. It suited them well – I approached Mel and Jeannette because I’d seen their brilliant production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal the year before, and she was already a friend.

Beyond the poor luck of our debut, I also think the story was still incomplete. Its presentation was powerful, but having to stick to one set and two actors may have been too much constraint. When I adapted You Were My Friend into a film script, I expanded its world.

You saw key background events that were only described in the theatre. You met other characters at the supporting or bit level who I could flesh out in more detail than I could when their only existence was as a name in someone else’s dialogue.

You can only do so much on a stage. I mean, you can do so much on
a stage, but not all stories are suited to it – at least not without some
serious changes in expression. Could you do a stage adaptation of,
for example, War and Peace on minimal budget and with only four
or five actors? Maybe. But a lot would have to change.
I hoped to ground the abstract quality of the play in the material reality of Toronto as a city. You Were My Friend began with a single set that became surreal nightclubs and Albertan mountains.

But I wanted to shoot in Trinity-Bellwoods, the streets of Kensington Market and Chinatown, surreptitiously in the back of city buses. It never worked out, though.

In nearly three years, I could never get the damn thing shot. Shooting a film takes equipment, crew, and actors. Acquiring all those takes money and time. I didn’t have the money, so I didn’t have the time as I was too busy trying to make sure I had enough money.

I first started working on the project with Sam, the lead actress from the first version in the theatre. We had a few conversations, but eventually we decided to part ways on the project. I think it was largely down to me – Looking back, I think I appeared dismissive and argumentative when we would critique each other’s work and ideas. I didn’t mean to, but I did.

Oddly, it's the lowest-investment and most isolating form of art that I think lets me create the most expansive world. You Were My Friend the novel can let me fill out the characters’ minds and memories as well as the world they move in. The labyrinths of the narrative can wind deeper into time, space, and thought.

All thanks to being able to string the whole world together with words alone. As for publishing, I’ll soon start reaching out to small publishers in Toronto, but may ultimately publish and promote independently.

This story began as an artistic inspiration from some of the struggles the GF went through earlier in her life, when she was underemployed and had little to no family support – just like my lead character Vicki.

I want You Were My Friend to be reasonably successful not just to honour her in this powerful figurative way, but also to share that struggle with other people who’ve experienced it in my society. It's a work of artistic and ethical solidarity. I want it to breathe and live beyond those nine forgotten performances in a Hamilton indie theatre.

Let the pages fly.

Could Resistance Ever Have Won? Composing, 23/02/2018

I have two very profound* goals for Utopias. I want the book to capture and examine fundamental concepts in the material relationships of humanity in the world today. The unfolding ecological and social disaster of voracious consumption to the point of disintegrating the conditions of our civilization.

* Equally very pretentious.

What any half-ambitious work of philosophy should shoot for, really. That was one goal. What’s the other?

You can figure out the general frameworks of how events will go,
but the actual events are always surprising. And ickily perverse.
Motherfucker was a celebrity billionaire and game show host.
I want the book to explore some alternatives to that way of life, conceptually. I want to consider new conceptions of what humanity is, what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, that can hold off this disaster. Or at least provide us a dignified end trying to resist our self-extinction.

Those aren't as rare in philosophical writing as you might think. I mean, if you’re thick in the most anxiety-producing conditions of grad school, you might think so. If I can say there’s a common image across all students’ personal crises, it’s understanding yourself as perennially not good enough.

That’s impostor syndrome – I’m not good enough. If you’re creating anything under those psychological conditions, you’ll be sapped dry. Able to bring yourself to write only commentaries on commentaries, narrowing arguments to the smallest points. No ambition.

Most philosophical works are written with ambition – I have a couple of them on my list to review for Social Epistemology. My research for Utopias consists almost exclusively of those kinds of books. Books with ambition don’t just argue over words – they use words to show readers pivotal framework principles of the universe.

Félix Guattari was one of those writers. Gary Genosko’s work combines high-quality scholarly care for Guattari with creative philosophical works that use the older man’s words with ambition.

Guattari died pretty young, at only 62. It wasn't his first heart attack.
Stress and smokes will do that do you, or at least make it way more
likely. But at least he never lived to see Donald Trump become
President of the United States. Hell, he didn't even see much of the
career of Silvio Berlusconi. The real absurdity came too late.
Genosko has written essays that carry Guattari’s concept of semio-capitalism to the 21st century. The term applies still, more intensely than ever. What does it mean? Just unpack the word.

First word – word. That’s the semio part – semiotics. So what’s the capitalism of words and ideas? It’s an economy that’s figured out how to monetize intellectual property and acts of communication themselves.

Communications infrastructure and activity used to be a means of creating wealth – orders flowing through a factory floor, or from a head office to a far-off mine. That kind of wealth generation still happens. But there are now equally powerful economies on the globe that generate wealth from communication actions themselves, as if messages were a mine.

That’s basically the Silicon Valley economy – social networks, web search algorithms. Guattari understood the semio-capital economy in the 1970s and 80s, when it wasn’t nearly as in our faces as it is now. By the time Genosko was writing this essay for The Guattari Effect, it was in full swing.

Bitcoin and blockchain were far in the future still when Genosko was writing. Oy.

But when the knowledge economy was still very nascent, Guattari was one of the folks who saw its potential. He came to understand that potential largely through philosophical thinking – identifying pivotal concepts and following their logic through to the end. Then try to articulate that logic as best you can.

Now you can create wealth just by feeding huge amounts of
electricity into servers running algorithms. It's the most perversely
transparent semio-capitalism you could imagine. Fuck.
It reads like an atheist’s description of a prophet. Well, philosophy has slid into and out of prophecy over the millennia. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, as long as you don’t get too pretentious about it. For one, it would simply be gauche.

For another – Here’s the big question for a political philosopher** today. You can identify core concepts that may drive the disasters of our future. But how can you affect material change in our society to keep the logic of those concepts from spilling out in the world, not just in your thought?

** Me included.

Guattari did his best. He was a revolutionary medical doctor and political militant fighting state control and corporate power. All that while he was writing such insightful and difficult books. And I don’t just mean difficult to read.*** Difficult to write.

*** Though Félix, you test me sometimes.

Yet he couldn’t hold back the tides. He died long before the resurgence of the utopian politics of freedom in the 21st century. We’re far from guaranteed to succeed either.

At least there’s some dignity.

The Emptiness of Meaning in an Exploded Life, Research Time, 22/02/2018

Jean-Claude Polack once wrote a wonderful essay about Félix Guattari. Polack is a French psychiatrist who worked with Guattari at La Borde for more than a decade. His essay in The Guattari Effect volume blends philosophy, psychiatric theory, medical practice, and memoir of an old friend.

My personal favourite in the volume, even more than the essays by Guattari himself. I love Guattari, but I can never expect him to write in a straightforward way.

For that reason, Polack explains a bit better than Guattari what the core principles of their practice were, and why they constituted such a major break from Freudianism.

We are material assemblages all functioning together, and sometimes
those functions can break down or overheat.
Polack describes in very clear terms the experience of working in an indefinite-term, in-patient, live-in communal facility for the most intense psychotics in France. Their patients literally were totally unable to control their minds.

The mainstream schools of psychiatry in France in the 1960s and 70s were shot through with a rationalism that was utterly inadequate to deal with such people as psychotics.

Polack describes Freudian rationalism as the quest for the one true meaning of all the deranged and delusional behaviour a person expresses. If I can put it in the language common to semiotic and postmodern philosophy of the time – because Polack did – it’s a quest for the signifier.

This is why, from this important epistemic perspective, I find a lot of postmodernist philosophy a bit tiring compared to the concepts of Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. The emptiness of the signifier as necessary ground of meaning was a serious philosophical issue to so many – Jacques Lacan, Jean Beaudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze.

Hang on. Yes, I did just say Gilles Deleuze. The Logic of Sense included a lot of inquiry about the signifier-signified relationship, how solid meaning in language and communication always slips away. In his creative philosophy, I consider Deleuze to have been in danger of slipping into the same lostness that so much postmodernism fell into.

We shouldn't be so afraid to conceive of ourselves as machines. No
matter how scary the prospect might be to us sometimes.
Not much danger, but a danger nonetheless. Then Guattari showed up to demonstrate that none of this signifier stuff was really all that important to the human mind and thought. It fit well with another set of concepts in Deleuze’s work – expression.

Each body has a range of potential activity that you can explore. Some of that activity is productive, helps augment and strengthen a body. But that kind of productive activity depends on restraint – channelling, controlling activity.

A seriously schizophrenic psychotic isn't able to channel her activity at all – she can only act, or follow an obsessive central idea to its endpoint. When that’s the kind of mental illness you're dealing with, a narrative explanatory technique like psychoanalysis isn’t going to work as therapy.

Guattari and Polack – and never forget the contribution of La Borde’s chief, Jean Oury – designed therapy regimens that literally retrained psychotics to control their thoughts, moods, and actions.

The stroll through the clinic gardens built relaxed spaces in experience. The grid – a communally-managed timetable of chores – reintroduced patients to performing tasks, focussing on the practical world, and responsibility to others.

It didn't work for everyone, of course. Some people’s neural systems were too damaged. Guattari often combined these re-socialization therapies with anti-psychotic drug regimens to keep people physically on an even-enough keel to function. But they worked far better on schizophrenics than the “talking cure.”

It was therapy that repaired the machine.

Knowing the Causes of Power, Research Time, 21/02/2018

There were a lot of reasons Félix Guattari broke with Jacques Lacan and the whole rest of the Freudian-influenced schools of French psychiatry. I talked about a couple last time.

How one point of unquestioned rationalism survived into the science of psychiatry – to understand the causes of the condition is itself part of the cure. How the images arising from singular cases were taken for universal symbol structures of human personalities. Both thanks to the influence of Freud.

Here’s a third issue that constituted such a radical break – the image of the therapist’s authority.

I don’t mean this in the sense of practical, institutional authority. Guattari understood that therapists, clinicians, and those who are responsible for the care and cure of the severely mentally ill required authority to do their jobs. They needed to prescribe drugs, coordinate clinical activities, design a therapy regime.

You don't really want anyone to be authorized only by themselves, do you?
All those required legal authority – the power of a signature. Your decisions had weight, and so needed to be taken with responsibility. That responsibility required thought and devotion, an ethical weight of obligation to act in the patient’s best interest – to let their good guide you.

I read an essay by Guattari a while ago that described the dominant culture of psychiatry and mental health care practice drifting from that ideal. He gives us Lacan’s words, “The analyst is authorized only by himself.”

There are two ways to read this. One is ontologically. The cause of some practicing psychoanalyst in some little town – call him Jack from Paris* – having his authority doesn’t come from Jack himself.

* Paris, Ontario.

Jack has to earn degrees and certifications in the fields you need to be expert as an analyst and therapist. He’s cultivated deep technical and philosophical medical knowledge. His legal powers are enabled by a complex web of institutions, laws, and regulations.

Another way you can read it is ethically. Jack’s authority flows from the trust people put in him – those who hired him, administer his certification renewals, maintain the laws that give him the right to prescribe drugs and therapies, and enforce those laws when they're broken.

Both are correct, of course. And not mutually exclusive. Just looking at different features of the world. The conclusion from both sides of that argument is that the statement “The analyst is authorized only by himself” isn’t adequate to empirical reality. Such an attitude isn’t going to fit properly with the real circumstances of an analyst’s working life.

What happens when a guiding philosophical element of training conflicts so brutally with the reality of practice? Breakdown. You end up with a body of professional analysts who tick the institutional boxes, but practice with none of the respect for the mentally ill that you need to practice properly.

Certainly not enough to transform respect into mutual respect. That’s the authority of expertise, an inescapably ethical relationship. Guattari understood that a philosophical principle of considering the analyst an absolute power – the revealer, prober, curer – undermines the possibility of ethical relationships among therapists and patients.

You can't really hold such a principle and practice medicine at the same time. Thought conditions reality when the reality is our actions and relationships.

Chaos Is the Natural State of Your Mind, Research Time, 20/02/2018

Researching Utopias, it's a book of ethics as well as politics and political theory. As it should be. Any political inquiry mixes questions of ethics and morality – Who are we? and What do we owe each other? respectively.

Any comprehensive book of ethics will need a conception of the subject underneath, an ontological one. If I’m going to explore questions of character, I’ll need to know what the limits and potentials of the human character are. Or at least, I’ll need a solid, dependable picture of those limits and potentials that will – at minimum – be a decent set of premises someone can consider for the sake of the wider argument.

This post comes from some notes I took on an old essay by Félix
Guattari called "Schizo Chaosmosis."
So where did I develop my general conception of the subject, of selfhood? Well, in my case, I’m picking up what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari threw down.* It’s a fairly complex concept, but holding it doesn’t prevent me from engaging with anything else in philosophy or broader human science.

* Not wholesale, but with a suitable grounding in the basics of medical, neurological, and psychological science, as well as some input from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological thinking. But those converge more closely than you might think from stereotypes about the field.

If anything, it gives me a better grounding than researchers in the humanities whose knowledge is more discipline-bound. Guattari has a reputation among the more closed-minded majority of North American scholars as a freak opposed to real scientific inquiry.

But that’s a ridiculous stereotype – Guattari wrote like a freak, but he was a dedicated medical scientist.** He was a psychiatrist who worked with near-permanent in-patient schizophrenics. Severe schizophrenics.

** See, Merleau-Ponty researched The Phenomenology of Perception with detailed help from cutting-edge neuroscience research in the major research hospitals of Paris. He built his materialist phenomenology from some of the most influential studies of brain injury in the 20th century.

What did Guattari learn about the nature of human subjectivity from working with schizophrenics? He understood the chaos that’s always roiling inside each of our supposedly rational minds.

Learning the scientific knowledge and skill of so many thinkers
who too many mainstream North American philosophy departments
consider anti-scientific helped me realize something in my own
writing. I can be as experimental as I want in my own philosophical
work, and how I express myself. But not all the time. And carefully.
This isn't a matter of Freudian sub-conscious. The Freudian model of the mind is inherently rational – the talking cure is cure by understanding the origins. As soon as you figure out the root cause of your neuroses – the driving principle of your personal narrative – you’re cured.

Add to that, the whole point of Anti-Œdipus. Freud and the Freudians mistook the images that arose from Sigmund’s contingent practices – these patients from this city at this time in history – for universal organizing principles of human consciousness.

At La Borde, Guattari saw something much more obviously visceral, animal, dangerous, and fascinating than symbols and arguments. Schizophrenia – especially in the midst of a serious, intense breakdown – is the removal of all restraint on thought. It’s the closest humanity can get to pure chaos.

Guattari worked this out from studying his patients’ actions – how they thought and lived. Contemporary neuroscience has uncovered an appropriately literal cause of the condition – schizophrenics have a severe shortage of the neurotransmitter that inhibits our thoughts.

He saw the raw, unfettered force of the human personality. It was the liberation of a person from every constraint they had – everything they learned through enculturation and education was inconsequential. The schizophrenic was totally free.

Guattari also saw that the schizophrenic was a total basket case, unable to function in the world at all. His therapy – aside from stabilizing drugs – was accustoming them to social life through routine involvement in the operations of the clinic. Doing laundry, cleaning up, playing games, helping make meals.

Literally re-socializing them. That’s why it’s always a mistake to read Deleuze and Guattari as saying that to deterritorialize is freedom itself. Being totally deterritorialized is to become chaos – pure high-energy entropy with no limits. That’s no life. It’s an explosion.***

*** The cutting-edge neuroscience research at the heart of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy couldn’t have happened without so many patients with so many different brain injuries. France had plenty – war veterans who had shrapnel slicing up different parts of their brains. No need for a dubious ethics board application to study serious brain injuries – the Second World War gave them all the patients needed and then some.

Guattari's was an ethical and political medical practice. He treated schizophrenia by re-socializing people – rebuilding their characters as better versions of themselves. Versions less likely to fly apart again.

Rejecting the Core of Your Own Identity, Research Time, 16/02/2018

The funny thing about reading up on the influences of contemporary thinkers is how much baggage you have to sort through and throw away. And I’m not just talking about the poorly-written essays.*

* But there are a lot of poorly-written essays. I won’t name names, but I really want to.

I mean the concepts that create intractable, insoluble problems. These are the problems that define philosophical and metaphysical inquiries for literally centuries. Thousands of people across the tradition search for solutions – major, minor, underground, and utterly unremarkable thinkers.

But the most success they have is remixing the problem into new contexts. They can never solve these problems because the terms of the problem are set up in such a way that it is insoluble.

In particular, I’m talking about the mind-world problem. There are a few essays in Deleuze’s Philosophical Legacy that talk about this – which I find hilarious, because Gilles Deleuze never considered it an issue.

You could say – because I don't want to say it
definitively, but I still find it fascinating – that
Deleuze's most important idea for any thinker
to understand is his notion of philosophy as
the exploration and mapping of conceptual
terrain, rather than finding definitive answers
to questions.
I used to consider it an issue. It was the main concept I latched onto when I was first studying philosophy of mind in my early 20s. And it was one of the first philosophical concepts I ever studied, because my first ever philosophy course started with a month studying Descartes’ Meditations.

The mind-world problem has persisted through centuries of Western thought. The main reason it did was because it’s literally an insoluble problem – you can’t repair it on its own terms. You always end up in some terrible situation.

A big one is the problem of other minds – when you separate mind from world, you end up threatened by a solipsistic prison. In the essay in that volume about Edmund Husserl’s influence on Deleuze, they discuss how Husserl’s thinking floundered and even crashed on the problem of other minds.

He theorized endlessly – especially in the unpublished draft manuscripts, of which there are horrifyingly large amounts – about the encounter between yourself and others. But he could never really get past conceiving it as an encounter with the Other.

At most, other people become abstract. They’re the harbingers of an encounter with the Other. But the actual identities and existence of those other people can’t break through.

So when Deleuze engaged this problem, what did he do to get around it? Well, seeing how Deleuze repaired the mind-body problem was a big part of what first turned me on to his thought.

He didn’t. He just didn’t care about it.

That’s all you need to do! The mind-world problem arose from a few key works that engaged with the philosophical problems of their own times, and were influential enough to change the orientations of whole fields of philosophical questioning.

What the mind-world problem ends up doing is creating an empirically senseless dualism. There’s the individual mind of a single creature on one side – on the other side there’s all the other variety and diversity in the world. But its core framework reduces all that variety in our actual experiences to an abstraction – the encounter with the Other.

Understand this, and it isn’t a problem to be solved. You understand the mind-world problem as a breakdown in thought – an obsessive focus on a problem that takes you away from the problems of real existence.

The problem breaks thought because it keeps you from thinking of anything else and can’t actually be solved. So get rid of it.

Returning to Pages in a Dank Tunnel, Composing, 14/02/2018

Taking a break from philosophy today, because I came home last night after a long day at work. I want to make a legitimately short post today, to talk about some of my artistic work.

Some good news on the artistic front. I have an audio-play coming out in The Twelfth Doctor Adventures, an independently produced series in Britain. Quite a fun fan production that explores a trans companion character.

The series producer JR sent me her script for the first episode, which portrayed their companion, Toni Perkins.* It made a good guide for the character when I was writing my episode, “The Walls Are Alive.” At her best, Toni has a strength with two foundations – her empathy and knowledge of her own fragility.

Books are my home.
* JR tells me the name Antonia Perkins was not an intentional reference. I will never be capable of believing this.

As you can probably tell from the title, I took a crack at another Lovecraftian horror story of the underground spaces that defy human comprehension. I even had some input on the sound design, so JR knows how I want the creepiness of the story to flow from the setting.

Most importantly for the sound, we talked about different ways to make the normal spaces of human existence become disturbing, weird, shocking. The territory that you think is safe actually startles and destabilizes you as a listener. It’ll be a subtle aspect of the story that messes with listeners.

“The Walls Are Alive” is set in a country estate on a human colony world in the far future. Underneath the mansion is a network of tunnels curving through spaces that are typically impossible for humans to traverse.

It was a good use of the Digger aliens I developed for Under the Trees, Eaten a few years ago. I wasn't done exploring the potential of those creatures for fiction, so I was happy to get another opportunity to set a story with them.

The opportunity to contribute to the project came along at a time when I was feeling stressed in my life. My old teaching job was getting tough – I was beginning to suffer from what I realized was improper training and a workplace culture that encouraged instructors to let each other fail as small errors snowballed into serious problems.

Some of my favourite spaces in the Doctor Who fan community
are the queer ones. Not necessarily the gay ones, which have
their own unavoidable problems at the moment. But the queer.
So I was glad to get an offer – even if it was for free – to contribute to a project built in making explicit the values of liberation and queerness that so many fans saw in Capaldi-era Doctor Who.

I think it’s time I focussed more on smaller projects like this for my writing. The last couple of years, I’ve been trying to produce a film version of my play from four years ago, You Were My Friend. But I’ve frankly had a lot of trouble raising the money for it and getting a crew together before I had the money to make it.

Now that I’m working full-time as Anderson College’s Director of Education, I have more money and don’t have to hustle all the time. But I’m also no longer in a position to devote three or four weeks of my life to eight hours of shooting a film on no notice.

But I do have time to devote every week to writing another short-ish novel. Which the latest version of You Were My Friend can be. It’s the kind of work where my talents can work best. And developing connections in the Toronto art and publishing world over the next year can make for a respectable indie author career.

So I’ll be getting back to pages. It’s where I belong.