The Frustration of a Blind Audience, A History Boy, 26/09/2016

In the early days of the blog, I wrote a long post about how Edward Said changed my mind radically about the masterwork of one of my favourite authors, Albert Camus. This week, I came across a couple of books that made me reconsider his work again.

Algerian writer Kamel Daoud wrote The Merseault Investigation, retelling the Arab’s side of the story of The Stranger. In short, it’s the narrative of the brother of the man Merseault killed on that beach – his own life as a Muslim African Algerian, marginalized in his own country.

My first exposure to Camus' work was when I bought a copy of The Plague
as a kid, knowing that its author was among my father's favourites.
And Ryu Speath’s piece also reviews Alice Kaplan’s book of literary history Looking for The Stranger, a research work that tries to reconcile the two competing views of Camus’ most legendary achievement.

When I first wrote a long-ish post about Camus, I discussed what Said brought to my understanding of The Stranger that I hadn’t thought of before – Its context as a work by a white Franco-Algerian. 

I’d always dealt with discussions of The Stranger in classrooms, instead of with how any artwork should be read. You should discover a work through a friend’s referral, or your own research because you like affiliated stuff, or it seems interesting when you stumble across it.

The Stranger’s reception when it first dropped was as the narrative statement of French existentialism – the most profound intensities of philosophical confrontation of humanity’s pretences with our finitude, pettiness, and mortality. And that was how its ideas were always discussed when I was in school.

There's "the absurd man" as the universal – reflected and described in the surreal imagery of Franz Kafka, the conceptual profundity of Jean-Paul Sartre, and the stark narrative of Albert Camus. 

One of the reasons my original post got so many pageviews was that I posted a link on a philosophy board at Reddit. This was long before I’d really discovered the depths of Reddit’s white supremacist and misogynist tendencies as a community – I was only ever a casual visitor. 

The Algerian War of Independence saw countless massacres, and was the
first major guerilla-terrorist uprising of a Muslim country against a
Western power. And under Charles DeGaulle's imperialist, nationalist
policies, the French government had it coming.
One commenter told me I simply didn’t understand the concept of the Absurd Man, because I was bringing all this information about real countries, histories, and populations to Camus’ abstract universal. 

So the two receptions of Camus over the 20th century were as a literary prophet of existentialism’s universality, or as a permanently compromised apologist for colonialism whose work continually erased the presence and lives of his Arab neighbours. How would we decide which was the right vision? Did it matter?

Is this basically just restating the basic idea behind “The Death of the Author”? Well, of course it is! But it’s an important enough idea that it still needs to be said. Our reception of Camus literally determines who he is – who he is in the whole world of humanity. How other people receive and understand us is central to all our roles in the wider human world.

It’s especially important for Camus, now that he can’t even get into fights with people over what his work could mean. This author is literally dead.*

* And part of why I find car crashes so interesting as narrative events. 

But just because who an author (or anyone) is depends on how we receive her, that doesn’t make the author entirely passive in this relationship. In this case, we can still uncover elements of Camus’ personality and positionality that can guide us to his intentions. 

And that’s what Kaplan’s book apparently does. When I read Said’s essay – both the general rejection of Camus in post-colonial literary studies and his own more nuanced take on The Stranger and other of the Algerian’s works – Camus was described as a white Algerian. His poverty was acknowledged, but he was still taken as someone who lived separately from the Arab population.

The war of independence brutalized Algerian culture and politics ever
since, with the newly liberated government consolidating a
military dictatorship and the only opposition being radical Islamist.
But that wasn’t actually true – among the very poor, which Camus was, there was a lot more social mixing with the local Arab population. The poor Franco-Algerian communities where Camus was raised suffered most during the war of independence and the ejection of French-speaking white people from free Algeria. They weren’t accepted as legitimate Algerians, despite having lived there for centuries, but they weren’t able to leave the country in mass because they were too poor. 

Said also depicted Camus’ opposition to Algerian independence and the anti-colonial rebellion in simple nationalist-colonial terms. But in Camus’ own correspondence and discussions, he wanted a more utopian achievement for Algeria and France. He wanted the two countries united in a post-national state where Arab Algerians, Franco-Algerians, white Europeans, and French Muslims could live together as neighbours. 

And it becomes clear what Merseault was originally supposed to be. When I finally got around to reading The Stranger, what struck me most – what I was never expecting from all the glowing depictions of the narrator as a literary voice of existentialism – was what an asshole Merseault was. 

Camus made him an asshole from the start. He didn’t want us to sympathize with Merseault – The Stranger’s narrator was a condemnation of French self-absorption and refusal to see people with any sympathy. 

Algeria's political environment today has no place for
secular-leaning, liberal intellectuals like Kamel Daoud,
who's risked his life to criticize the military regime and
Islamist opposition. In The Merseault Investigation he
writes of his country, "the beast fattened on seven years
of war had become voracious and refused to go back
underground."
The problem with its reception was that too many readers bought into Merseault’s self-lionization. They saw all Merseault’s dignity in absurdity, but were blind to the ethical (and political) implications of his actions – the only thing that could get the colonial French authorities to punish a white man for murdering an Arab was if he were already a pariah in the community.

So that’s the most recent serious reconsideration I’ve given to the point of view and ethics of this writer who’s been so important to me since I was a teenager. And this doesn’t diminish him in my eyes, no. 

All this complication, my picture of Camus, his work, all the meanings in his words, only makes the experience of reading him more rich and satisfying than it ever was before. I’m thankful to everyone who’s contributed to the complexity and the strangeness of this legendary writer.

A Refreshing Refusal of Universality, A History Boy, 23/09/2016

Years ago, when I was doing my Master’s degree, my supervisor* was giving a presentation on philosophy of language. This was the first moment in my education when I was just completely confounded by the reaction of a fellow student. 

* His avatar in this post will be Artie Shaw. Similar enough for people who know us to know who he is, but still doing the duty of a pseudonym. Also, he’d find it funny.

Shaking my head thinking, “Why would you even ask that?” Not at anything aggressive or offensive, but at such cross-purposes to the lecture that no one really knew how to react.

A universe of infinite variety and difference.
It was about a conception of counter-factual propositions as a synthetic a priori – knowledge that you learned entirely through thinking, but which involved reasoning beyond just logical implications of definitions. You had to think through imaginary empirical situations, what could have been.

This lecture was ten years ago, and I largely never again touched the Kripke-inspired philosophy of language that Artie Shaw was ploughing through at the time. So I’m probably messing up the substance of the talk entirely. 

But the point is – this use of the term ‘a priori’ referred entirely to counter-factual reasoning and modal logic, the quantification of possibility. In the Q&A, my colleague The Cartesian asked:

“But what about the universal?”

It was a sensible question from his perspective – The Cartesian was literally a Cartesian. He was steeped in terminology and tradition that conceived of the realm of pure thought as where you discover universal truths. And that’s not what philosophy really does anymore.

I mean, I’ve met plenty of working philosophy professors who still think this way about the discipline. But they tend to produce very unremarkable work on topics that are far removed from the concerns or our day. 

Either the write entirely scholarly material on the works of great philosophers from centuries ago. Or they write on the same problems those earlier philosophers did as if they were still vibrant topics whose answers could grip a society.

I had been leaning this way for a while, even at that young age. But that moment very suddenly pushed me to realize something very important. Problems of universal truth don’t really matter very much, aren’t interesting, and aren’t even productive. They just distract you from the really fascinating issues and ideas of the world.

So I had a wonderful chuckle at Anthony Appiah’s casual rejection of any possibility of truly universal knowledge in human societies. Can we say anything universally true of all humans? In the moral or ethical realm? Probably not. At least not in that traditional sense of the universal as essence, as applying without exception.

This does amount to a blanket declaration, but after more than a century of poking gaping materialist holes of contingency in all those old pretensions to the universal, I think it’s safe to declare it simply. Appiah writes from a solidly pragmatist perspective, and so do I.

There is no universal in human nature. 

Where we think there are universals, there are really just tendencies common enough that we haven’t run into any counter-examples. 

What’s more, we don’t even need shared universals to build empathy between different people. We’re used to the appeals to a shared humanity to encourage peace building. At least in the rhetoric. “Ain’t we all kin?” I sometimes think the idea of a humanity bound by what we have in common comes from spending too long swimming in the conformist language of the nation.

Differences are what fascinates us. If we meet people who are exactly the same as we are, they bore us quickly. Variety and surprise is the basis of our strongest relationships – they challenge us as we come to know them, and open our world to new possibilities.

Even in the most tense and violent places, exploring difference is the foundation of real peace. We’re diverse and unique, and that universal of no universality – the singularity of the world – brings us together.

Our Morals Live on Our Exchanged Breath, Composing, 22/09/2016

A short post tonight, as I’ve just been quite busy today and don’t have much time to write something long. Also, what I want to write about, I’ve covered a fair bit already. At a lot of points along the last few years of blogging my research and writing, I’ve talked about the fact/value distinction.

The most interesting things I read about it are arguments and explorations that make a problem out of this. But that’s always the most interesting thing to do with anything that most people in a field (or a society) believe obviously true – blow it up.

You can't just deny that some long-accepted principle is true. That would be the philosophical equivalent of just telling someone you dislike to go fuck himself. If you really want people compelled to take up your alternative, you almost have to write like a roast.

Develop reasons why a principle doesn’t work, or show how the world is more complex than the principle can allow for. I think one of the ways academic philosophy has been running out of steam is that we accept roasting a particular argument or some particular writer’s account of a core framework concept, with the same enthusiasm as we should reserve for the most fundamental critiques. 

They've been aiming too low, shrinking expectations. 

A highlight of Cosmopolitanism is Appiah’s critique of the fact-value distinction. He gives a concise account of how the distinction splits our propositions, and then shows how inadequate it is to everything that humanity does. 

To summarize, facts are one type of thing, according to the mainstream Western conception,* and values are another. Fact: A state of affairs in the world. Value: An individual’s moral/political wishes, preferences, and desires. 

* Always an abstraction that is never quite what each person in particular thinks, but abstract enough that it applies to the overall tendency of the community, and most reasonably smart people in the community will recognize it as pretty much what they believe.

There's nothing wrong with this basic conception of what facts are. But Appiah’s criticism is that concept of value – essentially, values are themselves a kind of fact. This is because values aren’t only the beliefs of individuals, which we can lock away from the world in our heads, most of the time safely.

Values are themselves a kind of fact. Social facts. Values are communicative concepts. Our discussions about values are themselves facts, and the discussions constitute the values themselves. 

Whether we agree or disagree, all that matters is the ongoing conversation – our communities bind together through our shared investment in the same process of developing and adapting our values. Riffing on his colleague Hilary Putnam,** our values aren’t just in the head.

** In another very sly radical argument. Concepts and meanings exist in thought and in constant communication between thinkers and actors, which includes moral and political concepts. From a conclusion about the nature of knowledge to a principle about the frameworks and foundations of our social moralities.

Values are held at the level of community. I don’t find anything inherently strange about a conclusion that knowledge and morality exist as social phenomena. It’s very difficult to wrap your head around if you still have the baggage of individualistic conceptions of concepts as possessions. “I am thinking this.” Hence some very long debates by very intelligent people.

But I don't find that individualistic conception of thought very difficult to discard. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Deleuze and Guattari over the years and I just think of everything in terms of fields. Maybe I had enough critical engagement with phenomenology over the years that I don't see a firm separation between mind and world anymore. 

People accustomed to traditions of thinking that don’t really engage with these topics (whether or not they’re stereotypically ‘continental’) seem to have the most trouble accepting that it makes sense to say knowledge, thought, and morality are all social phenomena.

Either way, it blows a lot of traditional Western philosophy and philosophical discussions to pieces once you accept it. It feels like you’re writing from a new beginning for a whole tradition.

It's About What Gets the Job Done – And the Job, Research Time, 21/09/2016

When I first read Cosmopolitanism, I wasn't impressed
by its very casual, seemingly superficial treatment of its
concepts. But underneath those long, almost nostalgic
fables of a casually multicultural world are some
very radical conceptual moves.
Despite my problems with Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, his book is filled with genuinely fascinating and useful ideas. They’re dealt with at a barely introductory level, but they're still very interesting.

One of these is Appiah’s pragmatism. I mean this referring to the tradition of philosophical thinking that began with that usual trinity of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey.* Appiah applies a pragmatism about the use of knowledge and frameworks of understanding the world to a globalist problem.

* Here’s another issue I have with academic philosophy in the English-speaking West. The widespread presumption that pragmatism isn’t a living tradition of thought, but that if you call yourself a philosophical pragmatist, all it means is that you write secondary material about James, Peirce, and Dewey. This irks me.

That problem is in one of the few directly useful examples in Cosmopolitanism. The encounter of a person familiar with scientific knowledge about infection and disease with a society of people who  believe primarily in witchcraft and evil spirits. 

It's an example that plays to just about every racist stereotype about indigenous people you can think of. That’s why, I think, Appiah chose it. I’ve heard quite a few well-educated, quite wealthy people use just these stereotypes to dismiss the validity of indigenous knowledge. 

Even what we think of as enlightened
progressive corners – like environmental
activists – indulge in such ridiculous
racist stereotypes of indigenous people
as "mystically in touch with the land."
As if they were magical spirit people
instead of people. It erases the real human
complexity of indigenous cultures as
the old horrifying adage about savages.
They say we have nothing to learn, for example, from indigenous medicinal practices because they’re based in oral tradition and inherited folklore instead of “the scientific method.” Of course, any basic reading in the history and philosophy is science shows that there is no such single “scientific method” applying to everything we call science. Apart maybe from “Pay attention!”

I came across this debate pretty frequently when I was researching for Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, because a major eco-activist narrative** is rediscovering indigenous American connections to the land that were overwritten and erased by America’s history of genocide.

** Crass oversimplification that it still is. . . . 

So Appiah’s example sets up a problem – a group of indigenous stereotypes*** believe that illness is caused by spirits and witchcraft. They also live near a polluted water source. They essentially need a boil advisory, but don’t know any of the science behind why you should boil polluted water before using it. So they still get preventable diseases.

*** Seriously, I don't think people like this have ever existed outside thought experiments like these.

Appiah's thoughtful Westerner explains, in as clear a format as he can, the germ theory of disease, and that boiling water can kill the bacteria that causes their sicknesses. None of this fits with any of the framework ideas of the community’s worldview, so they don’t understand it and don’t follow his good advice.

Then the thoughtful Westerner explains that the community’s water source has been infested with evil spirits that cause illness, and that boiling the water sends them away – see, the bubbles of boiling water are the spirits escaping. So the community is healthy again.

Above: The only person who deserves to be called a
savage. Jokes aside, Appiah smuggles into this very
light writing style an argument that makes an
audacious and brazenly unorthodox inference. He
reasons from a fact about the nature of knowledge
to an implication about ethics and politics. In this, he's
a real metaphysician.
You know, Appiah’s example doesn’t sound nearly so racist when he writes it in Cosmopolitanism. Ironic that a book whose purpose is explaining a political philosophy about embracing the infinite variety of humanity could fall into an example that trades in such condescendingly racist imagery.

The conceptual point is sound, though. We can solve most of the problems that constitute human life with a ton of different and incompatible frameworks for understanding the world.

Accept as fact that – following the research and concept-building of Claude Duhem and Willard Quine – reality under-determines how we understand it. It’s not a relativism, where there are many different truths. 

Now let your political and moral stances flow from this truth about reality. Even dealing with the types of people that confirm everyone of your racist stereotypes ignorant savages, they can still be your intellectual equals. They will look at the world differently, but their way of looking remains valid and practically sound.

Wonderful Ideas Drowning in a Shallow Pond, Composing, 20/09/2016

So last week, I said that I’d read through Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism to figure out the details of precisely how such a cosmopolitan morality and politics would work. Etienne Balibar and I both see that general approach as the best alternative to the extreme nationalism that’s consuming European and American politics.

That nationalism is even creeping into Canada, through the dog-whistle racism and terrorism paranoia that’s already slipped into our Conservative Party.

As interesting a thinker as Appiah is, reading Cosmopolitanism left so
many blanks in the implications and deeper content of his ideas.
I’d had a copy of Cosmopolitanism for years, but never got around to reading it. I knew it was a book that helped establish Appiah as one of the leading political philosophers of the English-speaking world. So I thought I’d find a short, but dense and challenging book of interesting political and moral concepts. 

Well, the book was interesting and short. But Appiah’s presentation wasn’t ultimately very challenging at all. And it was actually very superficial. Most of the text was taken up by accounts of historical, social, and personal examples showing how complex and plural human societies have always been and always will be.

The entire book Cosmopolitanism was essentially an introduction, when I was expecting some deeper conceptual probing and analysis. 

I found plenty to think about, and I’ll write a few posts over the rest of the week detailing what I have been thinking about among Appiah’s ideas. But they'll be at a more basic level that I shouldn't have had to think about. 

Or at least, I don't think I should have had to keep my thoughts at such a basic level, given the reputation of Cosmopolitanism as a book. I’m not sure why Appiah kept his analysis at such a simple level here. I’d like my friends who are still more closely embedded in professional scholarly networks to get back to me about this, because I do feel at kind of a loss. 

Here are my hypotheses. 1) Cosmopolitanism was always intended for the mass market. So it would be read and cited by a professional scholarly audience, but it would also serve as a popular reference guide for Appiah’s thought. So he scaled back the complexity of his analysis, presuming that it would be too dense or dry for a casual reader.

One of the many elements of my disenchantment with the world of
academic scholarship was that their world of books has become
so disconnected from the concerns of the real world, while
simultaneously losing the profundity that's supposed to come
with deep thinking. So much academic discourse has devolved
into a debater's club that it's incapable of real progress.
In that case, I’d ask my friends with access to paywalled scholarly journals to send me some of the material where Appiah actually gets into the meat of his concept and its implications. But the scholarly-popular distinction may not be all that’s going on here.

2) The state of the moral-political debates among philosophy scholars actually didn’t get that deep. Most of the debates among scholars at the time revolved around particular duties individuals and governments would have to other individuals and governments around the world. 

Subjects included the nature, amount, and conditions of foreign aid delivery from rich to poor countries; which countries had the rights to control the movement and sale of ancient art and artifacts around the world; the proper structure of international forums.

The more profound ideas about the construction of cultures and culture itself, the nature of nationhood, how communication and exposure to differences shapes moral principles and ethical development – all these seem to have been black boxes in the debates.

In this case, I’d come at my university-connected friends with another request. Let me know what people were really talking about in this era, tell me what I may have missed at the time. 

I was only briefly introduced to these scenes at the end of my undergraduate education. I wasn’t yet an insider able to get the more detailed dope on these discussions. The fact that I don’t have access to paywalled scholarly publications anymore means that I can’t easily look this stuff up.

One more hypothesis.

3) Scholarly philosophy (at least in the English speaking world) has a very poor idea of what it means to elaborate a concept. They mistake replying to others’ objections for improving your understanding of the ideas.

It's like falling into the deepest catacombs of Borges'
Library of Babel and never even understanding that
you're stuck anywhere.
Here’s what I mean. After nine chapters, Appiah acknowledges that he’s really only introduced his concept of cosmopolitanism, but hasn’t really gotten that detailed. He opens Chapter 10, the last of the book, with a promise to do just that.

Instead, we get an extended treatment of Appiah’s reply to the Shallow Pond problem in utilitarian moral philosophy. In short, the Shallow Pond problem was, in 2006, often used to critique cosmopolitan moral ideas. It starts from a thought experiment.

You walk by a muddy shallow pond, wearing an expensive suit. You see a child drowning in the pond and you’re the only other person around. Even though your suit gets wrecked, you have a moral obligation to wade in and rescue the child. 

This gets abstracted to the principle that, no matter how much inconvenience and pain may come to you in the process, if you’re a rich person (or a rich society), you have a moral obligation to give all that you can – even to the point of destitution – to uplift the destitute and desperate. 

The Shallow Pond problem becomes an objection to cosmopolitanism when a writer takes it as a demonstration that all charity is ridiculous, especially charity to people who have very little attachment to you and your society. See, the Shallow Pond problem is inherently ridiculous because, as Appiah says and I agree, you can't reduce the complexity of today’s global economic system to have such a simple solution as rich people sending money to poor people.

A cosmopolitan’s obligations to people around the world is more like advocating for a better economic system. An end to pollution, authoritarian regimes and the kleptocracy they encourage, and all the horrible aspects of oligarchy that freezes enormous amounts of wealth in the private accounts of a few thousand people.

That's a lot more than just emptying your pockets to give to charities that feed hungry children or deliver them free water. That’s what the Shallow Pond problem makes economic justice look like, when it’s really a band-aid.

Falling helplessly into a shallow pond sounds like a
pretty good metaphor to describe a moribund academic
conversation, now that I think about it.
You’ll notice my summary of this Shallow Pond discussion doesn’t actually talk much about cosmopolitanism as a concept. It just responds to an objection, and ends up talking more about the objection than the concept itself.

And I noticed this mistake was widespread when I was in the academy. I’d regularly encounter professors who thought they improved a philosophical work by making objections to its ideas that shared pretty much no conceptual ground. They thought progress in philosophy was to become better and better at winning and defeating arguments. 

In which case, I’d ask my academy friends two questions. One is, like in the other hypotheses, if they could confirm that this really was the scholarly debate unfolding behind the paywalls. 

The other is whether I’d be able to convince any publishers – academic or popular – whether there’s a market for actually profound engagements with political ideas about how community building and social idealism is bound into essential human nature.

“Show Me Your Papers, Boy!” Composing, 19/09/2016

The past few posts on the blog have been me running over the horrors of nationalism from different angles and vectors. It’s not like I'm the only one. All the political instability the West is experiencing now – Trump and Trumpism, the rise of Russia as the globe’s worst meddler, Brexit and the wave of racism across Europe – has a nationalist expression, and is rooted in nationalism’s core concepts. 

Just yesterday, I was talking about Trump with some
friends who still find it hard to take him seriously. But
we have to – not taking him seriously led to his getting
the Republican nomination. If we don't take seriously the
threat of Trump and the American white nationalist
movement he leads, we'll have a kleptocratic
authoritarian regime in the White House.
When I eventually write and publish my second big non-fiction book Utopias, there will be some grappling with nationalism. The book will examine what moralities best facilitate community formation while optimizing human freedom – the tensions between individual freedoms and responsibilities to the neighbourhood. 

Here’s a walk-though of my thought process about one part of that moral investigation.

An important part of community formation is the exclusion-inclusion dynamic – who’s part of the community and who isn’t. When we say our society is a democracy (and try to build our institutions to make it one too), we mean that anyone who’s part of the community can access the levers of power.

Anyone in the community has the right to run for government office. In a technologically advanced, large society, you need a lot of money to run for office, which is why you need the backing of a political party. But anyone has the right to join a party where they fit in, and work that society to become a candidate for them. 

Or raise the money to run as an individual. Or however else you want to approach getting voted for a position. The point is, no one will say that a citizen of a democratic country doesn’t have the right to run for office.*

* Footnote. There are situations where you can disqualify yourself for that right, like a law invalidating you from standing for office if you’ve been convicted for some crimes. But even if you’ve lost that right, you still started with it by default, then messed up.

No member of a democratic state is illegitimate in her attempt to seek office or their holding the office. Now, one recent real-world example makes for an erosion of democracy.

The premise of Birtherism was that Barack Obama was illegitimately holding the President’s office – his lack of legitimacy was because he was black. 

Though he's no stranger to controversy for how he
expresses his ideas on race and black exclusion, Touré
has some illuminating insights about currents of
thought in Black American communities.
No birther – not even the movement’s chief cheerleader Donald Trump – ever openly said that a black person can't legitimately be United States President. But it was still a black President with an African name who faced this unique challenge. 

No matter how successful you are at denying that race was ever a factor in the extreme opposition Obama faced from the Republican Party – and even the most infamous manage something like a case – to oppose Obama by delegitimizing him as birtherism does inevitably makes race a factor.

As Touré explains in this clip discussing the birther movement, whether a birther has a racist intent doesn’t affect birtherism’s racial affects. Black American communities tended to see Obama’s election as a culmination of their finally gaining full citizenship. With all the work that remains to be done, having a black President is an institutional recognition of black citizenship.

Then Trump spearheads this movement that declares that black President illegitimate – taking advantage of his ethnically diverse heritage to sow suspicion about Obama’s identity and beliefs. “I want to see your papers, boy!”

Birtherism introduces a standard of legitimacy’s proof that only came up regarding a black person. It’s impossible to disentangle racism from this, even if racism isn’t even in every birther’s intents. Birtherism is a refusal to accept black citizenry. It’s the assertion of black exclusion from the community of citizens. 

Nationalist ideologies in action create internal minorities of the disenfranchised, the internally excluded. For all its ideals, America has long been an ethnically restricted democracy, a national community and a nation-state institution that excludes within it.

Introduced as "tough on crime" measures, it's no longer
a new idea to call restrictive drug laws in the United
States a new Jim Crow.
This exclusion’s most horrific and institutionalized form was slavery. But in those early days of the state, exclusion also functioned externally, through restricting migration to northern Europeans only, and ethnically cleansing indigenous people from land the government would annex.

Exclusion continued after the Civil War and the failures of reconstruction. Internally through Jim Crow and externally through continued migration restriction, though the latter eventually opened up to Europeans more generally.

Now exclusion continues internally through the carceral state and systematic police violence against dark-skinned minorities. The marginalization of the indigenous continues, though the territorial integration of the American continent means it’s become another internal exclusion. 

In the 21st century, systematic discrimination against Arab Muslim Americans has become a new internal exclusion. Popular paranoia and hostility to immigrants and refugees has become a new external exclusion.

Yet there remains a paradox in all these exclusionary vectors that American white nationalism powers. America remains the city on a hill, the shining beacon of democracy. But for the white nationalist, the democratic potential of America is only for whites. 

Nationalists say you can’t have democracy without limits, that you have to restrict membership in a community to safeguard the community’s freedom. But the whole spirit of democracy is about the collapse of borders between the privileged and underclass. 

That's why Barack Obama’s election was a victory for democracy – it was an erosion of privilege by a member of the underclass. He may speak and carry himself like an elite, but Obama’s skin marks him as part of America’s historical underclass. 

Oppose his policy, fine. But if you delegitimize his claim to the Presidency itself, you continue to exclude black people from the community of American democracy.

Even Stranger Things Than Netflix Managed, Jamming, 18/09/2016

A while ago, I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A couple of days later, I finally got around to finishing Stranger Things. It’s an interesting pairing, a coincidence that actually reveals a lot of what I like about genre fiction, and how I approach writing it myself.

To start, I loved The Ocean. It’s a deft insertion of a traditional English fairy story – an ordinary child discovers an enchanting but dangerous land under the surface of his world – into a contemporary setting. The story is set as the narrator returning to his childhood home and remembering, as if he had forgotten for a long time, an adventure from his seventh year – 1974.

As evocative as the imagery of Stranger Things can be, there doesn't seem to
be much to those images than the images themselves. Their meanings and
suggestions stay at the superficial, and open no thought to anything
deeper or stranger.
It’s told with a depth of detail and forethought that’s typical of Gaiman’s world-building powers – He’s worked out a complex machinery for the physics and nature of this hidden world. But we don’t get it laid out explicitly, as such pummelling exposition would be torture to read. 

Instead, the story plays out according to its mechanics, and we see it as the seven-year-old narrator would have. There are enough allusions to the popular understanding of ideas in modern physics – the multiverse, dark matter, speculative alien ecology –  that the story is woven from science-fictional entities into a more traditional fantastic* narrative style.

* I say ‘fantastic’ instead of ‘fantasy’ because of how ‘fantasy’ as a term has been popularly co-opted by a very specific genre – dense, continuity-heavy, multiple-volume book cycles with narrowly Tolkien-esque building blocks. Frankly, it’s become a very boring genre. So much so that even a purposely subversive series like Game of Thrones has buckled into the stereotypes it once tried to explode.

Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the propulsion of exploring this world for the first time, seeing it in only glimpses. But every detail of the narrator’s experience in this fantastic world depends on some specific aspect of this world. As readers, it takes an act of thinking, memory as we read, to figure out how that world works. 

It’s never explained to you explicitly, but it’s revealed through the acts of the story itself. I built the storyline of Under the Trees, Eaten according to the same principle. And the few people who’ve read it tell me it was quite a success. I just wish I had managed a publisher for it who actually had a marketing budget.

Gaiman suggests his parallel world in The Ocean at the End of the Lane
is genuinely alien to our own, and that there are a multitude of totally
alien ecologies and worlds in the vastness of the universe. But
Stranger Things' Upside-Down seems to be a straight-up
parasitical version of our world, making it really quite familiar.
Going through Stranger Things at the same time as I read Gaiman’s book only made the Duffer Brothers’ series feel more paltry in comparison. The world Joyce, Mike and the boys, Jonathan, Nancy, and Hopper discover underneath our own is far more menacing and openly violent than Gaiman’s.**

** Though the ecology of Gaiman’s hidden world is, if anything, more merciless in its brutal logic than anything in Netflix’s extended Stephen King riff.

But it isn’t really thought through as an ecology. At one point, the characters settle on “The Upside-Down” as their name for the parallel world where Will is trapped. It’s based on a moment where Elle turns a D&D board upside-down, and places a monster figure in the centre of its blankness.

When we go to the Upside-Down, we see everything in our own world – houses, cars, forests, and roads – but coated in grotesque webbing and with constantly flurrying toxic snowflakes in the air. How was this parallel universe created? What’s its relationship with our own? Because there’s clearly a relationship.

And why is there a horrifying monster in this world? What does it eat in its own ecology?

We don’t need to have any of this explained to us openly. That would hurt the story, just like any extended riff of exposition divorced from any character or narrative development. But reading Gaiman at the same time led me to focus on this problem. 

Gaiman’s story was of an ordinary person slowly discovering a world whose nature the author had conceived to the small cosmological details. The Duffers never developed their parallel universe beyond scary shit and the basic metaphor of ‘upside-down.’ 

In this darkness, there's vastness, multiplicity, and wonder.
Gaiman told a very simple, beautiful story. It was about one young boy, his family, his friend the immortal pan-dimensional being from the dawn of time, and his evil babysitter a shapeshifting flea-demon from parallel universe. But he really thought through the world of that story as a world. Not only did it improve the story itself, but it gave him (and maybe others) the ability to tell more stories with those worldly mechanics.

I think the next (and any future) seasons of Stranger Things will run into a problem, precisely because their science-fictional world isn’t really complete. It’s still suggestions, but I don’t think there’s any world beyond the suggestions. 

There are more characters, and a realist tone and style pioneered by Stephen King and very popular. Its characters – sometimes for critically important reasons and sometimes inexplicably – have connected with many people. But I think it’s going to drift into aimlessness because there just isn’t enough substance to its world.

There's a moment in The Ocean when the narrator steps into an ocean that's carried to him in a bucket. Submerged, he communes with existence itself, and understands all the fundamental principles of reality's complex, ongoing assemblage. 

It's a beautiful moment, and when it's over, he steps back onto land and his knowledge disappears. But that comprehensive vision runs under the whole story, creating a stimulating enchantment of human imagination in the experience of reading. At its best, that's what science-fiction and all art can do.