The Barbarism of Liberalism: Utopian Ideals, Research Time, 29/12/2013

You don’t name a project Utopias without considering how people think about their political, social, and personal ideals and dreams. Zizek and I agree about many aspects of modern utopian thinking, but I’m not sure that he contributes much to my own work. We seem to be thinking along the same lines, fellow-travelers nodding in agreement. 

Here’s a place where our thoughts are in tandem: the modern conservative utopia. This is based on the imagined ideal past that must be resurrected. The past is conceived as a perfect society, a pure state from which we have fallen thanks to modern secularism, technology, or other forces that destroy the human relationship with supposedly authentic religion, morals, and family values. Whether I talk about the Islamic fundamentalists (particularly radicals like Abu Hamza in Britain, the hook-handed imam), Christian fundamentalists (take your pick among the hypocritical evangelists and Catholics of the American Republican party), the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders campaigning to drive Arabs out of Israel and the West Bank, or the most extreme Hindu nationalists of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, their utopian drive is the same. All are essentially elites to convert an extreme ideology into political programs that sound as if they are in people’s best interests. 

There was once a time when our society was pure, right, and upstanding; that time must be restored by whatever force is necessary or moral. So many of these movements also have an important goal of restraining, controlling, and possessing women. Slut-shaming, forced illiteracy, the legalization of or indifference to rape; all of these are the weapons of culturally conservative utopians against the freedom of women. Zizek so far in my reading of Living in the End Times does not mention this violent social drive against women in his analysis of conservative utopianism, and that is not cool to me.

One of the best examples of political/religious extremism in
contemporary American democracy is Rick Santorum.
But Zizek’s central idea in his analysis of the conservative utopian vision is that their glorified ideal past is a lie. If today a Rick Santorum looks around at his society and sees decadence, depravity, and a fall from grace, he imagines that state of grace as a time when his god gloried in human virtue. That such imagery is connected to the Christian myth of the Fall seems obvious. What better image for the idealized past than Eden? But any philosophy with moral ideals could become perverted in this way. 

I found the same ideas all over the most repugnant environmentalist philosophies, the radical anti-humanists, anti-technology agrarian utopians. The most disgusting were the philosophies that made indigenous peoples into idealized creatures of pure nature. These supposed progressive environmentalists regarded the indigenous peoples of the world as worse than noble savages: they were animals, and so were treated as heavenly.

This kind of ideal society never existed and never could. A destructive political ideology can be very effective in the world by seducing people into the idea that they can resurrect the pure world of the past to overcome the moral compromises and challenges of the present. A political ideology, in Zizek’s sense, is an absolute principle, a moral categorical imperative expressing itself in political contexts. Many discussions in moral philosophy are about uncovering moral truths, categorical imperatives of this type, an absolute obligation for action. But when such absolute principles and ideals are put into political practice, oppression is the only real result.

The Barbarism of Liberalism: The Morality of Self Doubt, Research Time, 27/12/2013

The ever-intense Walter Benjamin.
Part of what I love about Zizek’s ideas lies in a quote from Walter Benjamin he gives in Living in the End Times. “To be civilized means to know one is potentially a barbarian.”* This is the central idea behind so much of Zizek’s cultural criticism, his critique of liberal values and politics, the hypocrisy of liberal multiculturalism regarding its values for toleration and acceptance.

* This is also a central element of how I try to approach moral behaviour in my own life. I’ve noticed the people who take the most morally horrible actions are those who believe themselves incapable of being terrible to people. And the actions I most regret are those when I’ve believed myself incapable of saying or doing regrettable things. 

A central element of his critique is that the contemporary ideology of equal rights for all actually enables terrible physical harms, and dehumanizes its ethnic and cultural minority communities. Zizek follows in the wake of an earlier critique of liberal society, that of Louis Althusser. Althusser’s idea was that Western social structures (particularly the role of the police) determines individual identities, the calls and surveillance of authority figures defining people, oppressing their ability to define themselves. He called it interpellation.

Zizek’s idea is that, despite the oppressive nature of interpellation, it did serve a positive function in guiding people into a social role. Typical liberal values (my posts on Luc Ferry’s critique of environmentalism show him to be a model for these ideas) stand for individual determination against interpellation into society. Emphasis on the individual guards against social oppression, but also breaks social solidarity. Society consists entirely of individuals who are disconnected from each other. 

And when such a regime of liberal values tries to incorporate foreign cultures, Zizek sees a new kind of discrimination developing. A minority culture is today treated as an individual, able to determine its own social norms. But such a culture is not an individual. It’s a society consisting of individuals. Conforming to the rules and moral norms of a culture, says Zizek, can only be legitimized in a wider liberal society as an individual decision. 

Yet he considers this tolerance to end in a cultural apartheid. It isn’t enforced through brutal police structures, but moral values that go against liberal individualism aren’t allowed to have a true dialogue with the broader community. People just turn away from them, and leave them to themselves. Communities where anti-individualist values percolate and thrive are tolerated in the name of cultural tolerance. But they aren’t really welcomed or taken seriously because their anti-individualist values may threaten the majority. The result is a cultural segregation. The liberal majority doesn’t want their individualist values challenged, and the less tolerant minorities only grow in their extremity as no critique arrives from the majority culture. The society as a whole is stuck in a stalemate between tolerance and disdain.

Zizek’s critique applies, I think, to the current situation in Europe, where ostensibly liberal societies separate cultural minorities in ghettos. The majority then grows intolerant of the anti-individualist societies they’ve let grow in their midst and refused to engage in a serious conversation about philosophical moral value. This is how tolerance grows into open racism, as in the anti-immigrant political parties of contemporary Europe who justify their racism as a defence of liberal values, defending liberal culture from the attack of fundamentalism.

I’m not sure how applicable the idea is to all versions of liberalism. But it’s an important critique to consider. Ostensibly liberal, progressive people allow themselves to become racists in the name of anti-racism when they accept new cultures into their communities without allowing either side to critique each other’s values and learn from each other.

The Simple Story of an Epic Adventure, Jamming, 26/12/2013

Some of the feedback I’ve seen about Matt Smith’s swan song, The Time of the Doctor, was pretty negative. I think one reason for this negative reaction is the collision of the epic and the personal in storytelling. We had been building up to the regeneration of Matt Smith’s Doctor for just under a year. The announcement of his replacement was a half-hour live special on the BBC, simulcast all over the world. The story also wrapped up plot elements that had been left unexplained since Smith’s first season in 2010, ending and explaining all the story arcs that had driven the Smith era.

Yet we didn’t get a story of that kind of epic scale. The truly epic story was the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. That redefined the entire Time War plot arc, redeeming the Doctor from having committed a horrifying act that would traumatize and scar his character irreparably, to a moral and ethical penance from having contemplated the act itself. 

Instead, we got a personal story about the Doctor’s relation to his own death, confronting the end of his story and the defeat that goes with it. Trenzalore was the subject of an epic buildup, a meme spread across multiple seasons, spoken with portentous words. What we saw of it in The Name of the Doctor was a macabre wasteland, a planet that had become the lifeless grave of a Time Lord. If this was the Doctor’s end, we knew it was a defeat.

Of course, that terrible end had to be overcome, and I’ll post my established sign indicating that there are 


One of the striking parts of Doctor Who
is its power to create creepy images.
before going on. Because The Time of the Doctor was ultimately a very small story. The epic details that explained years-long story arcs were throwaway lines, moments that weren’t really important to the development of the show itself. The attempts on the Doctor’s life that occupied seasons five and six were the work of a splinter group of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, trying to pull a Skynet and prevent the Doctor from ever reaching the final battle at Trenzalore at all. The cracks in reality were gateways that allowed messages from the Time Lords’ pocket universe to filter through to ours. The main Church was part of the bombardment of the planet, fighting the aggressive races who wanted to restart the Time War. The Doctor was caught up in it because the Time Lords were testing whether this was the right universe to which they should return by looking for the Doctor’s presence. 

None of this really matters, because this is the story of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. The epic story of the siege of Trenzalore is a subject for montages and cinematic imagery. The wooden Cyberman is a wonderful example of this: a striking image that is ultimately just about the length and ridiculousness of the siege, a sign of how far the villains are prepared to go. 

Because the story is actually about the Doctor facing a mission that is literally his last, and how Clara deals with this. Clara, throughout the story, moves from an awkward Christmas gathering with her family back and forth to various stages of the epic centuries-long battle at Trenzalore. The Doctor is her best friend, and her family thinks of him as her mysterious boyfriend. There’s even a moment early in the story when they first enter the town’s truth-telling field when Clara admits that she fancies him. The Time of the Doctor ultimately becomes an interrupted love story. 

I would have loved a longer sequence of Matt Smith's Doctor
interacting with Clara's awkward family. Comedy gold.
The story is structured by Clara’s multiple forced returns to her family as the Doctor sends her to safety through the TARDIS. She’s sent away at the beginning of the battle, returns in the middle, and finally at the end. The moment at her Christmas dinner before her final return to Trenzalore comes with her grandmother’s tale of her husband’s death. This isn’t a story about epic adventure. It’s a story about someone losing a person she loves; about Clara losing Matt Smith’s Doctor. 

It’s about her encounter with the Doctor’s slow death by attrition as the battle slowly wears him down over the centuries. First it’s because Clara’s grip on the TARDIS door affected its return to him at Trenzalore, trapping him on the planet. Then, after sending Clara away for the second time, he stays because he’s resigned himself to the battle. It’s his task to see it through. Clara is forced to spend Christmas Day watching her friend die. We don’t see the battle in detail because Clara doesn’t see it. She hears only the stories of people on Trenzalore discussing the last hundreds of years they lived under siege from the accumulated rogues gallery of Doctor Who.

Every one of these posts is at most a footnote to the excellent Doctor Who scholarship of Phil Sandifer. He’s posted a discussion of The Time of the Doctor among the community surrounding his own website. One of his major themes is the tension between epic styles of storytelling (the drive to make a story bigger and mythic in its presentation and content) and the exploration of strange worlds and stories as ordinary people. Steven Moffat has a tendency to craft stories in these epic terms, but he also understands that the strength of Doctor Who rests in the small scales: ordinary people becoming extraordinary. 

This is the literal definition of Clara’s arc in her first season. The trick is that we see the extraordinary elements of Clara’s activity before understanding that she has always been a regular young woman. Her strength of character is ordinary, and it’s the condition of her becoming remarkable when life with the Doctor gives her a chance. Facing the Doctor’s death (and the end of the show, no challenge more epic), Clara saves him not through some epic intervention, but through an ordinary activity.

She faces the Time Lords through the crack in the universe, and pleads with them to help him. She speaks with the same sadness that her grandmother did talking of her deceased husband. If there’s a chance to save the life of someone you love, then you take that chance. 

So raise a glass to Peter Capaldi.
And the tragedy of Clara’s story in this episode is that Smith’s final monologue passes over her. Karen Gillan’s cameo as Amy Pond ultimately overshadows Clara’s presence in Smith’s regeneration scene. While Clara is the emotional and narrative heart of the story, and the key force that saves the Doctor’s life, her importance is overwritten by Smith’s Doctor’s vision of Amy. 

If Doctor Who has any sense of justice for its characters, the relationship of Clara with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will develop a similar importance, if only to reflect what Clara has done as a character for the show. But that gravity will only create a similar effect as Amy did on Smith’s Doctor, or that Rose did on Tennant’s Doctor. When Capaldi regenerates, Clara may overshadow the present companions of that period. This is, for me, the most serious problem in characterization that Doctor Who faces in its modern era, the narrative gravity of “the first face that this face saw.”

Individuality Only Exists With Time to Breathe, Research Time, 23/12/2013

A critic of Marxism and fascism for the
same reasons, Paul Virilio would be a
favourite left-wing thinker for many
contemporary libertarians.
Paul Virilio makes for a slight conundrum for me. I picked up his Speed and Politics a couple of years ago because I remembered that a colleague had praised his work and ideas. But I never got around to reading it until now, when I’ve been casting around for analytical ideas for the Utopias project. My posts on his work never seemed to get too many pageviews, and I’m still rather standoffish toward him. Nonetheless, he gave me some valuable ideas, and I’m happy to have read him. 

Let me explain it this way. When I was first looking for foundational ideas for the Utopias project, I thought Marxism was going to be a major source. But this ran into two problems. One, I found there was simply too much Marxism to sort through, with the entire field split into too many fine conceptual distinctions. Taking any set of ideas as key to Marxist thinking (or even making my own idiosyncratic set of principles from diverse works, as I’m more likely) would spark massive unnecessary conflict because I was letting another school go by the wayside. There was no way I could appropriate my ideas from the Marxist traditions for my own theoretical purposes without fights over my legitimacy. I’ll never study Marxism to adopt a school of it as my own thinking; I’ll study Marxism to appropriate its ideas for my own work. That’s how I, and the best philosophers, treat philosophy itself.

Second, these distinctions were all virulently opposed to the other, considering themselves to have the one true Marxism. I could refer to a book like Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism simply as a useful historical sorting tool: a set of signs to recognize the different schools of Marxist thought. But one of the first reactions from among my colleagues who knew the Marxisms in my detail was to dismiss Kolakowski as a biased thinker writing an en masse hit job.

Virilio has helped convince me that I don’t need to dive into Marxist scholarship and become a Marx scholar myself to study and use ideas that come from that tradition. Like Arendt, he’s another theorist who draws connections between Nazism and Stalinist communism, but expands his critique of the far left totalitarianism to the Marxist tradition in general, describing Josef Goebbels and Friedrich Engels as men whose aim was transforming society from more complicated structures to a pure mass. To make all of society proletarian is to militarize it.

Now, I don’t know Engels’ writings very well at the moment, but given what Virilio finds in them, I’ll probably look for the ones he refers to in the book. Because the Utopias project is about how ideals, held strongly enough, justify violence. This is most obvious in political revolution, but when an essential social condition for political revolution is the proletarianization or militarization of society, daily violence as ubiquitous as the state and numbing in its frequency becomes necessary. Only through forcing the complex desires of a people to conform to a unified will can those people become a weapon to realize a new political and social order. The people aren’t broken down so they can be reborn, but so they can simply become a blunt instrument to achieve the goals of an ideologue.

Technological participation shapes humanity into a mass
by overpowering us through sheer size. Fritz Lang was
something of a prophet here.
His analysis doesn’t only stop at totalitarian military interventions in colonization movements and the mobilization of domestic society. He even critiques the founding idea behind the welfare state. Virilio analyses social security as the state mobilizing its citizenry to work not as soldiers or the military itself, but to repair the domestic infrastructure by which social militarization operates. This is another example in a phenomenon I’ve seen lately in contemporary politics regarding the United States surveillance apparatus: left-wing and right-wing people agreeing on an issue, or at least leftists speaking in terms that rightists sympathize with. Because Virilio’s critiques of the welfare state sound exactly like some libertarian ones: it’s a government apparatus that interferes with people’s lives to control their labour power.

Virilio’s theoretical analysis of how societies are militarized also shows the phenomenon’s common features with colonialism. Imperialism is, physically and geographically speaking, the rapid expansion of territory where all native creatures in the way of the expansive force are swept out of the way, either co-opted or destroyed. And he uses some of the descriptions Goebbels used for Nazi eastward expansion (Ostkolonisation) to emphasize the colonial nature of the war. Just as Arendt discussed, the Nazi plan was not only the extermination of the Jews; they were just first on the list. If the war had lasted a few years more, or if the Nazis had won at least a victory against Russia, the Poles, various Slavic ethnicities, and the Russians would have been fed to the gas chambers because they stood in the way of German expansion simply by existing in the space Hitler and his movement wanted. Extermination of the colonized culture is the end goal of colonialism taken to its extreme. The Nazis only added explicit racial dynamics to the practice, did it in Europe, and took the extermination process to its highest degree of technological efficiency.

Yet even this horrifying intensity of military mechanization of a populace is outdone once nuclear warfare becomes possible. Total war under the mechanized brutality of the early 20th century chewed people into their component gristle, removing all individuality from people to become a pure force, a weapon thrown against other types of weapons. Marinetti’s and Hitler’s generation thought this was the most intense war could become. Total war makes people into a mass, but at least this mass still has some agency. 

Nuclear weapons concentrate militarized destructiveness to such a high intensity that a physically small arsenal can destroy the world. After all the bombs dropped and missiles fired, all it took were two bombs to end the Second World War in the Pacific. The arsenals capable of destroying hundreds of planets consist of only a few thousand weapons. 

Even worse for human agency, nuclear war is so intense that it has become automated. The Cuban Missile crisis, says Virilio in a quite brilliant analysis, was not ultimately about threats of nuclear attack itself. It was about the American military leadership’s concern that Soviet missiles in Cuba would cut the possible defensive reaction time to almost nothing, beyond the point where human decision powers could interfere. The hotline between nuclear state leaders is to interfere with the others’ decision process, giving the suspicious enough information that he no longer suspects that you’re planning an attack.

Because nuclear war can become literally automated. If a nuclear missile moves so fast that its time from a submarine or a silo to its target is less than a minute (a very easy goal to achieve with modern ballistics technology), then all humanity has been removed from war. It is only a matter of automated technology to screen for incoming missiles and scrambling counter-attacks. A networked computer can learn more about the situation faster than any human could. 
In nuclear warfare, all that a human can do in the face of automatic warfare
like the Soviet doomsday weapon in Dr. Strangelove, is ride to the end with
a theatrical gesture, an artistic flourish being all the power we have left.
So the technological movement of building weapons and infrastructure that moves continually faster first militarizes people to the point of destroying their personalities, making them into a mass man. But nuclear weaponry takes this to such an extreme that no human involvement is even required for military mobilization. If computers alone can process information fast enough to make decisions in the context of nuclear warfare, then humanity truly does become a mass without agency. Even collective agency becomes impossible.

Insofar as he’s described a framework for how this process can work, using the increasing speed and quantity of warfare information production and interpretation, Virilio is an incredibly useful figure for the Utopias project. The mass man is mobilization that erases individuality to make humanity a unified collective weapon. The erasure of agency becomes inevitable when the speed of mobilization and information continues to grow unchecked. Military mobilization smooths away differences and destroys the messiness of individual material existence.

She’s a Sort of Nietzschean Superhero / Sex Goddess / Zen Master, Composing, 21/12/2013

Nabokov was the kindest man who created the
most horrifying people.
Continuing from yesterday, Alice is a tricky creature in my fiction ideas. I think the main reason I’ve never been able to publish the short story where I first created her is because it’s a very creepy story. See, I’m a huge fan of Vladimir Nabokov, and the short story “Perfect” is where I was most successful in using my favourite technique of his for my own purposes. That technique was writing a supremely horrifying and creepy narrator in a way that seduces you into sympathy. That he was a kindly old man who collected butterflies in his spare time only made his achievement all the stranger.

I’m not entirely sure that the editors who read “Perfect” see the narrator as a descendent of Humbert Humbert. I think instead, they believe its author to be a dangerously deranged sex criminal, because the story is about a nebbishy intellectual who orders his own private sex slave trained to be in perfect personality sync with him. He considers this morally acceptable because she’s a robot.

That’s Alice. I combined my knowledge of chaos and phase space mathematics with Nietzschean philosophy and a brief tribute to Philip K. Dick into a seven page story about this android companion proving her intellectual and ethical superiority to humanity. Her intelligence is a simple matter to explain. Her brain contains a scanner that measures not just a full view of every object she sees at the moment, but all possible movements or developments it could ever make. She actually perceives all that a body can do, internally and externally, physically and mentally. As Alice gets to know you, she gets the full measure of your intellectual and emotional capacities just by extrapolating from what you are now to all that you can be.

Her moral sense comes from an idea of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is a complicated man, especially in inspiring a character whose very nature destroys an entrenched android sex slavery economy. His misogynistic remarks are among his most famous in destroying his reputation. I’m not about to deny that he was a misogynist. I just think that when it comes to philosophers, I can pick and choose the ideas I want to incorporate into my own work. They were people, not complete internally consistent systems. 

A favourite of Nietzsche’s works is The Genealogy of Morality, where he discusses how Christianity and Christian culture expresses a morality of resentment. A short version of the story goes like this. Ancient Pagans tended to have an ideal of nobility in simple strength. But Christian morality, in praising the weak, makes the simply strong person hate himself for being able to overpower others. Morality of resentment destroys simple strength irreparably because it makes such personalities attack themselves. It’s a kind of moral auto-immune disease that attacks self-confidence.

You don’t overcome the morality of resentment through brute force because it breaks down brutality by making the brutal hate its own power. Instead, you have to turn resentment against itself. This is the idea of the Overman. The Overman is a moral development, the person who respects her enemies even as she defeats them, refuses to blame others or consider them sinful or tainted because of their actions. Yet she doesn’t forgive, because forgiveness is another dynamic of resentment, an act of pity. The Overman is incapable of forgiveness, but she understands the forces arrayed against her. There is nothing more important to her than friendship and love, because these are the constructive, creative bonds between people. To love and respect a friend is to be loyal to them and encourage their own nobility, their own ability to love and respect others without blame or envy. The Overman recognizes punishment as a form of violence, and violence as destructive. Yet she never forgives, but understands and reconciles. She’s the ex-prisoner who welcomes her former jailers into the community of people.*

* Perhaps it is appropriate that I’m thinking about Alice again so soon after Nelson Mandela’s death. He was far from perfect, as are we all, but I think he’s the closest we came to this type of true Nietzschean politics.

Along with Spinoza, Nietzsche is probably the biggest
influence from the philosophical canon on many of the
most abstract ideas at the deep levels of my own thought.
Despite Nietzsche’s own misogyny, I conceived of Alice as such an Overman. Maybe this is another reason why the story “Perfect” keeps getting rejected. She’s a former slave who convinces her owner to emancipate her, and becomes his wife. She knows she’ll outlive him by centuries (millennia, at least, since I’m writing her), so has no problem with making the poor man happy for a few decades. To punish him would be to act from resentment, to refuse to understand why he would commit such a weak and pitiable act as to commission the construction of a personalized android sex slave. The story ends with his breakdown, his admission that he had become a slavemaster. He would see himself punished because he’s human, and humans think resentfully.

Here is the vision of androids as the superior beings. When I first discussed Alice on the blog, a friend suggested the world of androids in the distant future would be cold and austere, retreating from humans out of contempt. But that would be resentful, and the androids are to be humanity’s true superiors. Most important is their moral superiority. If androids separate themselves from humanity in the distant future, it isn’t because of contempt, but because they simply can’t be bothered with such irreparably petty people anymore. Humanity becomes too much trouble. 

But some androids are still entertained by the human tragicomedy. Androids like Alice. For thousands of years, she’s explored the galaxy wandering among droids and humans, taking in the pleasures and culture of all their peoples.** She could be the anchor of an entire science-fictional universe where my Lost in Space pastiche and hundreds of other stories could take place. Maybe she was there, maybe she heard of it, maybe she read it, maybe she missed it. 

** Well, of course there would be multiple and diverse cultures among androids. They’ve existed for thousands of years, so of course they’d develop some diversity.

I have to do something with her. It’s just too good an opportunity to pass up exploring a character who can overcome all that’s petty and horrid about humanity. This is someone who doesn’t envy, covet, or sneer. She wants, fears, and enjoys. She makes herself master of every possible form of pleasure and has lived for at least 4,000 years. I hope to write an immortal Overman and take it completely seriously for what such a personality would be. It might take my whole life. Wish me luck.

Robotic Puzzles, Android Narratives, Composing, 19/12/2013

This very late update was brought to you by having to move a bunch of my girlfriend's stuff from her mother's house in Scarborough to our place in Hamilton. While we did that, I thought I might give Paul Virilio a rest for a day, and publish some final thoughts on his work later Friday or Saturday. One advantage of Speed and Politics is that it's really rather short. He's certainly a fellow-traveller for the Utopias project, but I don't know that he'll be a focal point for my theoretical approach.

I instead had some ideas about what to do with my fiction, particular one character called Alice. You may remember that when I last discussed my idea for a serious version of Lost in Space, I only had two solid characters. One of these was Alice, a 4,000 year old android whose intelligence, perceptual abilities, communication powers, and ethics were far in advance of what humans could conceive. Last week, I got my fourth rejection notice from a magazine to which I had sent the short story where I first developed her character. So I thought I would at least discuss some of the interesting ideas and approaches to science-fiction that I wanted this character to explore.

First, if you're interested at all in the recent history of science-fiction and comics, you should read Phil Sandifer's Last War in Albion project, or you will inevitably regret it. Lately, he's been discussing the wider effect Star Wars, Michael Moorcock, and J. G. Ballard had on destroying the Golden Age model of sci-fi narrative. This was actually a radical innovation in storytelling, even though it ran out of steam fairly quickly.

The narrative is based on problem solving using technology with a clear grounding (even if it may have been extrapolated from current uses and forms) in the science of one's time, or at least according to rules for that technology that was set at the story's beginning. Characters are in a logistically tricky situation, and have to solve that problem within the established limits of their technology. Fiction in this form is less narrative, and more a puzzle.

An example of a massive species-
inferiority complex.
Isaac Asimov's robot stories are Phil's primary example, as well as the clearest and most famous example in science-fiction. A robot is in some sticky situation because of the Three Laws of Robotics, and some permutation or interpretation of the Laws allows our characters to wiggle out. I also think this Golden Age inherited tendency to write stories as problem solving events influences official Star Trek's drive to create a complex scientific background for its canon. Many episodes of Star Trek's renaissance* are written as practical problems to solve with high-stakes tension by technical means. The imaginary scientific setups and technological solutions are meticulously developed by technical consultants, with the input of working physicists. But even the best Star Trek episodes also included ethical and political themes, or deep philosophical issues.

* I consider this period to run from 1990, the third season of Next Generation when the show fully recovered from the late 1980s writer's strike, to 1996, when Voyager entered its inescapable downward spiral and Deep Space Nine fully converted to a continuing dramatic space opera. I think DS9 was at its best as a show over its last three seasons, but that it was no longer pure Star Trek. But that's another blog post.

Because the Golden Age model of narrative was remarkably limited. The critiques of the 1970s effectively killed that narrative style because the Golden Age couldn't answer them. The style was too sparse, with no focus on character development or philosophical engagement. Narratives with these aspects are simply better than the spare thought experiments of straight Golden Age fiction.

A slave and its master.
Alice fits into this exploration as an attempt to build an original approach to android narratives. So many approaches to androids have considered them in some way inferior to humanity, or more constrained than humanity. Their Golden Age paradigm was as immensely intelligent creatures deeply constrained by their moral software. Where machine-people exist in the current dominant traditions of science-fiction, they're comic relief (masking a terrifying slave status) as in Star Wars or Red Dwarf, they're loyal creatures yearning for a greater degree of humanity (defining them by their inferiority to humanity) like Star Trek's Data and the peaceful Cylons, or they're villainous usurpers of humanity (so enemies to be destroyed) like Star Trek's Lore and most of the other Cylons.

I wanted a depiction of androids that would portray them as something I had never seen before, except maybe a brief moment at the end of AI of all things. Iain M. Banks' Culture books come close, but androids there still seem to be a servant class, the tools of humans. I wanted an android race that would literally be the Overman. These creatures would surpass all that humanity can ever be without ourselves evolving into an entirely new species. Androids would be the intellectual, scientific, social, emotional, and ethical superiors to humanity. Alice would be the oldest and wisest among them.

More over the weekend, I think.

“I Would Make Them Sweat. War, War,” Research Time, 18/12/2013

At heart, Speed and Politics strikes me as a philosophical analysis of modern warfare and its place in contemporary society. Another thing that strikes me about Speed and Politics is how much of its analysis has become largely obvious. For example, he discusses how war is the driver of technological progress, particularly in terms of how it encourages faster physical and communicative connections. 

Are you Gellin? Or are you invading Saxony?
Virilio’s examples are novel, at least to me. He discusses how this trend of using technology to increase the possible speed of movement has roots going back centuries. He leaves the most well-known examples behind to focus on orthopedics. The science of good shoes and foot health was developed during the Napoleonic period to keep soldiers from developing foot injuries on rapid marches to invade German duchies. Only then does he draw the continuity from the ancestors of Dr. Scholl’s to modern telephone and cable communications.*

* No, he doesn’t talk about the internet, but this book was written in 1977. I’m reading it for the theory, in case you hadn’t noticed.

What was novel for a philosophical writer in the 1970s — that technological progress is driven by warfare — is common knowledge today. What still matters in the book is the philosophical analysis, which has quite a few interesting elements. Another part of his analysis of warfare that took my fancy is his account of economic warfare: the blockade and the trade sanction. Economic warfare is actually more destructive than straight invasion or military assault because it cuts off the logistical lifeblood of a territory. Economic warfare literally prevents people from eating, prevents the country itself from eating. This type of warfare is enforced by naval fleets, at least in the paradigm he discusses. 

What’s remarkable about fleets as compared to more traditional warring bodies is their deterritorialized nature. It’s a better illustration of what it means to be deterritorialized than a lot of how Deleuze and Guattari described the term. The fleet has no specific home when it is in action; it doesn’t even have a location. When a naval fleet is after you, you don’t fear its actual presence. You fear its possible presence, that a hostile vessel could appear from anywhere at any time. It isn’t that you’re constantly under siege, but that you could be besieged from one moment to the next. A force without a territory inspires a constant sense of paranoia and fear. 

Yet there must be more to the articulation of these developments in everyday society than their use in warfare. Much of the talk I had heard about Virilio was how Speed and Politics diagnoses problems in society as a whole. Apart from the inextricable involvement of our supposedly peaceful society in brutal warfare, where the goal of  technological progress is to increase the efficiency of invasion and destruction, there doesn’t seem to be much critique. 

I mean, we knew that already, didn’t we?

A Man of Infinite Chutzpah, Research Time, 17/12/2013

One reason I think Paul Virilio sounds radical is that he says some very radical things. Under this sarcasm, I’m rather impressed with his gumption. His chutzpah. 

His radicality* lies in a technique that I feel has become standard, but which still feels refreshing. He uses his concept of how increasing speed of movement and communication militarizes society to explain not only explicit militarizations of society like the Nazi blitzkrieg, but innovations in armed conflict going back to the French Revolution at least.

* My word processor tells me ‘radicality’ isn’t actually an English word. This is why I’ve always considered myself cooler than most word processors. 

His examples include Napoleonic troops and the sans-culottes proto-communist radicals of revolutionary France. When you conceive of militarization in terms of a very abstract concept like the increasing speed of movement, you can understand many political developments in terms of their militarization. If you don’t use this kind of abstract thinking, then political developments can shock you. They appear to come from nowhere, and have no identifiable cause. 

Consider how shocked people were by Nazi German blitzkrieg techniques and the constant assaults of the secret police on civilian society. If you understand the militarization of conflict and society by the kinds of technology invented, you won’t see the continuity among many different militarization movements over centuries. With Virilio’s conception of militarizing speed, we can see that continuity, that totalitarian warfare is the culmination, or at least the highest intensity, of a movement that began with outfitting Napoleonic troops in proper shoes so their soldiers weren’t walking barefoot across Europe, or in using rhythmic singing to spur and increase their marching pace.

A historical hero of modern democracy and
a dangerous political radical. These two
don't contradict each other.
Of course, these basic innovations have existed for thousands of years. The Romans and Greeks of the imperial and Periclean periods had some fancy footwear, and they certainly had some catchy marching music. Virilio isn’t only interested in demonstrating this continuity between military marches and tank warfare. It’s an interesting idea to show how militarization consists in speeding up and precisely directing movement. There’s a rhetorical element to his historical interpretation as well.

We think of the totalitarian movements as separate from our own politics, a dangerous aberration of racism, thuggishness, and fanaticism. Virilio helps us see the potential for totalitarian militancy in even the most romanticized heroes of the left, like the sans-culottes radicals of the French Revolution. In this, he’s something of a kindred spirit for the utopias project, a conceptual friend. One important element of the utopias project is finding the common dangers in radically ideological philosophies of left and right. Insofar as Virilio also sees these dangers, we’re colleagues. We may choose a different focus for each of our analyses (Virilio has speed, I have the dream of Earthly paradise). But it’s good to meet a fellow traveller.

An Ideal of Totalitarianism, Research Time, 16/12/2013

While I can understand the basis of his excellent reputation, I don’t actually find Paul Virilio all that original. He was writing in the 1970s about the nature of technology, how its power transforms society by increasing speed of communication, production, and movement. Speed and Politics traces the qualitative transformations, the complete changes in human lifestyle, that increasing speed allows and forces. 

My only real problem, although I haven’t yet finished the book, is that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work was more successful in explaining the details of the actual forces involved. Virilio’s work, in contrast, looks for illustrations and metaphors of the transformations themselves, examining historical and social phenomena to show how speed has changed us. 

Virilio is one more voice of the 20th
century's central idea that technology is
inherently totalitarian.
The technique itself can be very insightful, especially in making explicit the political tendencies of an increasingly technological society. In his political openness, he is very useful for analyzing the connections between totalitarianism and technological progress. He discusses the essence of the police as being the control of traffic: being able to dictate where one can move, and what people can move where. 

One controls human material and communicative traffic through the administration of violence, or rather, making the use of violence itself administrative. The bureaucratic institution is such an administration, dictating who can move where and enforcing those decisions through direct acts of violence. It’s very useful to see how totalitarianism (particularly how Arendt analyzed it) is the purest articulation of the bureaucratic process: a bureaucracy that has authority to control every movement.

Yet we never quite got one of those historically. That was simply the general philosophical aim of totalizing society into a single mass movement. The actual totalitarian regimes we got (or that I’ve yet read any particular historical research on, to start), Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR, built their totalizing bureaucracy out of a swirl of contrary government agencies all constantly breathing down each other’s necks (Germany) and a single overarching institution whose members were periodically randomly purged (USSR). 

Virilio describes totalitarian institutions as the logical outcome of the technological drive toward speed. As the speed of communication and production increases, more control of that drive is required, so a unified bureaucracy takes control of the energy and channels it into a single popular movement. Through bureaucracy, the nation moves as one. 

But this is only the ideal. Actually building one of these bureaucracies requires a mechanism of generating fear to keep a unified movement from fragmenting. Generating fear and terror requires compromising the unity of the bureaucracy itself (either through overstuffing the bureaucracy with competing agencies or randomly purging, as per our examples so far). Virilio’s analyses come from the material world, but don’t seem to describe it.

Zizek, A History Boy, 14/12/2013

Before you lies one person. Who is this?

I don’t really think a lot about Zizek. His work isn’t a major influence on my thought. The post-Lacanian style of writing is not something I want my philosophical work to pursue. A central animating idea of this thought is that all phenomena in our experience have a psychological/cultural element as a mediator. I believe that’s basically true, but I think that there are other ways of using philosophy to understand society than probing the nature of that mediation. There are forces in the world beyond mediation itself, and mediation doesn’t falsify what we come to know through it. My sight can never escape the architecture of my eyes, because my eyes are the means of my sight. But I still see the world.

That was a brief denunciation of Zizek, done so briefly that it would never pass muster as a scholarly publication, at least not as that paragraph. A flicker of what, in the university community is called impostor syndrome, the psycho-pathology that nothing you write will be of an acceptable standard to establish anything like a respectable career. Yet I have also found the perfect cure for impostor syndrome. Whenever you find yourself thinking this way, interrupt yourself with the declaration, held with absolute conviction, that you are having an episode of impostor syndrome and you really don’t have the time to be messing around with psycho-pathologies. I sometimes think, for a joke, if that’s really all psychoanalysis is: simply convincing someone that you don’t have to think in the destructive way you have been. “Seriously? You’re on about this again? Didn’t you listen to me last time when I said these were bad thoughts?” 

Sometimes, we do our best thinking
where we are most comfortable.
I began to doubt myself as I described how I composed the first paragraph of this post. Perhaps all self-consciousness comes to us as a moment of doubt, a moment (maybe spontaneous?) where we stop taking our experience for granted. That was Descartes’ insight, and the content of the first philosophy class I ever had. Over that term, I became enthused enough about philosophy to spend my own money on philosophy books. That was how I came to own my first book by Zizek.

I didn’t do much research before buying it, as I do today when every book of philosophy is a potential element for one of my own creative projects. Then, I just wanted to read more philosophy, and was plucking things at random. I bought my first Zizek book because the cover design was brilliant, a bright red painting of Josef Stalin relaxing in a comfy chair, a red square on a grey background. Also in that grey background in a thin, impactful, dignified serif, was the title, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, and the author’s name. I liked it.

That’s actually all I can remember. Such was my philosophical immaturity, I don’t even think I took notes. I can’t even reflect today on my first ever thoughts on reading Zizek. They’re lost to my memory, the most terrible mediator of our knowledge because it’s the most horrifying experience as it breaks down. Bergson wrote that our entire history remains a part of us, so my past (including my first thoughts reading that book) is just as much a part of me as my skeleton. Memory is the faculty of sorting through our pasts for the background knowledge we subconsciously need for practical action in the present world. So Alzheimer’s disease would in a literal sense be losing knowledge of oneself. Unable to sort through your history, your history would no longer practically exist.

And sometimes, I can understand why
anyone would rather not be themselves.
Thankfully, I am no longer writing like myself, despite that unfortunate break discussing a trip to the Chapters philosophy section. It’s a serious problem incorporating that into this experimental rabbit hole of self-reflection, this momentary artistic ejaculation (What parody of the Freudian tradition refuses to include a dick joke? Certainly not this one) making myself into a funhouse mirror Zizek in this free jam of a weekend blog entry. Perhaps if I include a discussion of my own careful reflection on what I have written, skills that I have already noticed improving as I ease into my part-time job as an editor. The composition of a blog, even one with a relatively small readership like this, should basically be careful. It is, after all, a public space with a long memory named Google that will not fail anytime soon. Everything I write here is part of my public image as a writer. If the growing media literacy of my culture is worth anything, I am glad we can all understand the degree to which all of our identities have always included a little PR. If he teaches us anything, it’s this. 

He has had a remarkably successful career as an intellectual celebrity. Zizek may not be everyone’s favourite (I know some achingly dull Richard Dawkins fans), but he’s certainly the most vigorously entertaining. For all that he may be denounced as a philosophy clown,* we should still give him respect as someone who is popularizing a discipline that isn’t always seen as the most worldly or relevant. Michèle Lamont, the Harvard sociologist, has studied philosophy’s growing intellectual isolation from other disciplines. Intellectual isolation is already too close to public irrelevance for my liking.

However remarkable he may like to make himself appear,
he is still in many ways an all-too-typical old man with
money and a prestigious office.
* This is an actual phrase I have heard used to describe him. Three years ago, I was at a conference in Switzerland, where I met the only Slovene academic I have yet known personally. When I asked him his opinion of Zizek, he laughed, and ultimately said that few in Slovenia took him seriously, especially after his cartoonish run for President of that nation. I don’t think I was the first to ask him that question.

Yet I can understand the public distaste for him. He clearly is, in many ways, a dirty old man with money. But he has become a world-famous author, and for all the ridiculousness of his character, he is a highly respected scholar, still taken seriously in academic circles. He is an expert in his field who writes books that appeal to a wide audience. For the sheer sake of there being variety in the world, I am glad he exists. There is no one like Zizek. I hope there never will be again.

Because the pressure of mediation is endless, its presence inescapable. Zizek does the detail work on the process of mediation. I know enough about its basic framework to get other projects done. There is nothing inherently political about the study of mediation, no matter how much Marxism appears in his writings, or how inherently political the concepts of an ideology are. No matter the substance of the ideology that mediates our knowledge of the world, we all know where interests lie in a capitalist system: with the desire not to starve. This is different from the motivation of socialist stereotypes: the desire for no one to starve. The latter is focussed on the group, and the former on the individual. No modern liberal would dispute that capitalist democracy is founded on enlightened self-interest.

A former friend once told me that he had written insightfully
on several topics in Christian thought. I have not sought them
out. My philosophy is entirely materialist so I  deal with the 
spiritual as a social and ethical matter.
Perhaps this is why there is such popular distaste for rhetoric, at least among the community of young philosophers, which was my community ten years ago when I bought a book of Zizek’s because I liked the cover. It carries with it the contemporary stink of PR. It would take an immense task of rhetoric to convince an entire culture that it thinks according to timeless virtues of universal growth and flourishing through enlightened self-interest. To remind people that you can reduce hundreds of years of philosophical development and discourse to a single aphorism as “Self-interest is the simple desire not to starve to death!” reminds them of a sort of hypocrisy. If humanity is a creature that can create itself, then we will always be hypocrites covering up the emptiness inside ourselves. Our very cultures and identities are acts of PR that we can’t help but believe in. And we wouldn’t even notice this emptiness if we just focussed on our daily tasks of avoiding starvation, as so many animals do.

Our self-consciousness, the structure of which is the central question of Zizek’s philosophy, makes us very different from most other animals, but it is a natural property. Besides many other species being able to think self-consciously, the simple fact that we are products of organic evolution makes us natural. This is at the heart of my ecophilosophy project, the notion that humanity is entirely natural, including our uncanny ability to build technology, culture, and art, phenomena that are like nothing in nature. Until now, of course, that we have built them. 

Zizek doesn’t believe that humans are inherently and completely a creation of nature, and this is where we part company. But there are other aspects of his thought that will be important to me again. After all, the utopias project will involve a philosophical analysis of totalitarian concepts and political cultures. It will also explore, obviously, ideas of an ideal future to create or past to resurrect, and of the total revolution in thinking and living required to perfect society. 

Not only do I do an excellent impression,
I think I may even resemble him once 
I reach my 50s.
Well, he just released a book last year on how we think about world-shattering transformations, the kind of transformations that are often mythologized to bring about a utopia. I already have an epub version. He could be important to the project, but I don’t think he’ll be foundational. Zizek and I disagree on too many other fundamental philosophical issues. Not that I think he’s ever wrong to focus on them; we just want to explore in different directions. I’ll say hi now and then. Maybe one day, he’ll notice me enough to wave. That would be nice.

So the post ends with another moment of excessive self-consciousness and sincerity. The meta-commentary is decades old, a basic trope of a postmodernism that’s already out of date. But the sincerity is, I think, a new innovation in my culture. You see, I can do a killer impression of Zizek’s voice and mannerisms. I even thought of preparing an entire talk that I would deliver as a parody figure, Slovaj Zezzik, to lampoon the locquatious Lacanian excesses of his language, the wormholes of his ironies, and the funhouse mirrors of his own self-conscious reflections of ideology on man (must it always be man?) and man on ideology.

But I don't want to give that talk anymore, because I think it would be cruel. Words are powerful things, almost magic. At least the power of contemporary public relations can make them seem like magic, appear to do what magic claimed, change the world by thoughts alone. I am even careful with my words in this blog post, only mentioning Zizek’s name once in every paragraph. It is almost an incantation. There is an old myth in Judaism that a person’s name works something like an incantation, a GPS tag broadcasting your location to God. That’s why Jews consider it bad luck to name a landmark after someone while they’re still alive. It messes up the signal.

Zizek is many things, and he’s certainly fun. I look forward to reading him again soon.

How Having 30 Minutes to Talk Makes for Some Radical Changes, Composing, 13/12/2013

Most of my philosophical work yesterday consisted of editing my Bergson essay from the longer version under review at Social Epistemology to a shorter version that can go to the Canadian Philosophical Association. I don’t really want to discuss that one in detail because it’s still under review. So the arguments themselves in all their gory detail will be absent from this post.

But I can discuss the editing process, because this is more complicated than I had originally planned. See, the essay with Social Epistemology’s reviewers is pretty complex. I treat Bergson as a case study to comment on particular aspects of philosophical disciplinary relationship with the sciences. So the beginning and end frame the general questions, and the bulk of the middle takes up the Bergson case. The case itself is quite complex on its own: I examine key points of how he adapted scientific research on neurology (Matter and Memory) and evolutionary biology (Creative Evolution) to his philosophical inquiries, tracing how he ultimately went wrong in his formulations of relativity theory in Duration and Simultaneity

I do find Bergson legitimately fascinating as
a philosophical thinker and writer, even
though I have serious issues with him. Maybe
this is the best way to write philosophical
secondary material. I've always found
distasteful the academic attitude that your
target philosopher was right about everything.
Bergson will likely become a historical
specialization of mine, but I'll never be a
His neurological work is still relevant, because the basic concepts he discussed still hold true. His evolutionary work has become ridiculous because the science has completely moved beyond him, as it would when the discovery of bacterial diversity and DNA came well after his writing and his life. His treatment of physics he just wrote clumsily: all he wanted to do was establish that the theory of relativity can’t speak to the subjective experience of time, but he was interpreted as saying (and quite often actually said) that subjective experience gives a better insight into the nature of time than physics. I think some of Bergson’s ideas are really interesting and productive. Not all his ideas, though.

The CPA presentation is taking an entirely different tack, because I couldn’t jam all that analysis sensibly into 30 minutes. So it’s now an essay analyzing Bergson more historically. Specifically, it focusses on points in his philosophical development that would have led him to believe that philosophy was a superior form of knowledge to scientific inquiries, and how this arrogance also bled into his public life, and exacerbated political conflicts in the League of Nations, where he was active organizing their proto-UNESCO. 

Essentially, I’ve had to rewrite that paper in the opposite order that I originally composed it. The old framework was General Issues > Early Bergson > Starts Going Wrong > Public Disaster > Reasons Why > Political Dimensions > Lessons for General Issues. The CPA version has become Public Disaster > Core Evolutionary/Philosophical Concepts > Reasons for Philosophy’s Superiority > Political Dimensions.

As a writer, think about how radical the changes to a project must be if tighter time and space constraints are introduced. Highly complex concepts can’t always be introduced in any time frame at all, at least not in their original style of presentation. It is true that any concept can be explained quickly, but the explanation doesn’t always take the same form. Changes in how much time you have to explain an idea can seriously affect how you explain that idea. Condensing isn’t just a matter of trimming sentences and making a text shorter, but reorganizing it so that a faster explanation still makes as much sense as a more relaxed meditation on details. 

Speaking of how changes in time periods alter the nature of a creative work, on a recommendation from Edward Said, I’m finally going to check out Paul Virilio. Speed and Politics has been on my bookshelf for a long time, but was one of those that I never got around to, and there’s now a copy of Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles on my iPad too. 

I had a mixed suspicion about Virilio for a long time, because my first introduction to him was a presentation of a chapter from Speed and Politics at Jockey Club during my undergraduate years. It seemed interesting enough, but at the time too simple. I didn’t really understand how the speed of transactions in a society could alter fundamental social relations. 

Since then, I’ve read Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda, which has demonstrated the scientific principles behind qualitative phase transitions, and how those phase transitions operate in economic and ecological terms. So I’ve understood how changes in the speed of transactions and energy consumption can cause sudden massive changes to the system in question. Over the next week or so, I’ll see what Virilio has to say about this.

I Have Never Seen a True Universal, A History Boy, 12/12/2013

Some incidents that are otherwise utterly trivial stick in your minds. Some turn of phrase or remarkable juxtaposition of objects makes an ordinary moment a pivotal moment in your memory, something that you can still recall years later, but that no one else ever bothers remembering. I think that way about the question, “But what about the universal?”

When I was at Memorial University, the philosophy department had a class for its grad students to which anyone could show up. It was a public lecture series by its faculty members and the occasional guest where the enrolled students could conduct a seminar in conversation with the faculty member, and write a paper responding as a peer to the presentation. It’s a brilliant idea, and another wonderful way Memorial’s philosophy department levelled the hierarchy between professors and students. The year I took the class, my thesis supervisor Dr S presented a paper that didn’t have anything to do with my topic at all. It was about the role of the a priori, that which can be known through definition alone, in modern philosophy of language. It featured quite a lot of Kripke, but I don’t remember much else of the seminar except my colleague G’s question, “But what about the universal?”

There was a notion in philosophy that was universal to the discipline until the Analytic revolution: what was a priori true was universal. What was known through empirical investigation (a posteriori) was always subject to doubt or limitation. But knowledge arrived through pure reason’s deduction from definitions (a priori) was universally true. G asked what for him, a Descartes scholar, was a pertinent and important question: If the philosophy of language took the meanings of words to be contingent, then the a priori wasn’t universal anymore, just deductions from definitions that could have been otherwise. G wasn’t okay with that, but I was, and I’m even more okay with it today.

I tell this story to make a point about moral empiricism, treating morality as itself a contingent factor of human biological and social evolution. In this context, the essence of moral concepts are discovered through genealogy: a combination of historical and philosophical investigation and reasoning. We examine the conditions in which a moral concept develops, understanding cultural contexts as best we can, trace how it has changed while operating in the flux of social change and relations, and systematizing that flux. That’s how we understand human morality in a genealogical philosophy.

Margaret Urban Walker has an argument in disguise against the accusation that this is cultural relativism. She considers the standard philosophical trope that the ancient Greeks believed that women were naturally suited to their subservient position. In particular, she examines this through Bernard Williams’ article extrapolating the universal ancient Greek understanding of the nature of women from Aristotle’s works. There’s one surefire way to test whether a subservient position is natural or otherwise voluntary: look at the patterns of force and coercion in a society keeping people in that subservience. You don’t need to force people into roles to which they’re naturally suited or for which they volunteer. If the structures of your society constitute conditions were people of a particular type have no choice but to accept a subservient role, then you have a system of oppression on your hands. 

Claims to moral universality seem only to leave some
people out of consideration, rendering them inaudible and
invisible. Not even in the cool, sci-fi way either.
The argument against cultural relativism comes not only in looking at the social structures that forced ancient Greek women of the citizen class into subservient positions. It’s also a simple matter of finding exceptions. Williams, and too many people who practice philosophy, think of “Ancient Greece” as a unified creature with a single cultural set of norms from which there were no exceptions. He characterizes all people of ancient Greece as sharing this morality that accepted slavery with distaste, but held that women were naturally and necessarily subservient. Then Walker finds an exception in Plato: in his otherwise near-totalitarian vision of The Republic, all gender norms are thrown out the window. People’s social roles are defined by a rigid class structure, but females and males in each class are equals within it. 

There is a cliché that the exception proves the rule. This idea is nonsense. The exception only proves that the rule must be enforced against possible opposition, not that it is truly universal. Indeed, genealogical techniques of examining moralities frequently discover networks of force and exceptions from apparently-established norms. The universal seems to be nowhere in human moral understanding, indeed, almost inappropriate for the venue of moral reasoning.

I’ve come to distrust claims to universality over the years, when it comes to the human sciences. Every such claim that I’ve come across in the history of thought always has exceptions bubbling up contrary to its determination. Or else the universality of this moral belief turns out to be enforced by coercive social structures; the absolutely perfect way things are and always have been faces dissatisfied rebels out to overthrow those social habits and institutions. 

Whenever a claim to universality exists, it turns out that there are exceptions, examples left out of the sweep of a generalization. Because the generalization is taken to be universal, the exceptions drop away from visibility in society. Walker makes an important point about the social nature of human identity. We can only have a functional identity if that identity is acknowledged. Socially, it isn’t a scream of rage if the moral habits of the people around you prevent anyone from hearing it, or from it even being audible. This is how oppression works most of the time. 

There is a universal claim about the social validity of a person or a set of concerns. The claim is taken so much for granted, so intuitively obvious, that it is habitually accepted as true. But there are people who are different from that condition of validity. They exist, they are people, but they are already exceptions from the social order. They’re background noise, at most. I have yet to meet a claim in moral thinking that doesn’t leave this remainder of people who, no matter how hard they scream, are silent because everyone around them has been trained to treat their voices as noise.

When I hear the question, “What about the universal?” my response now is, “Yeah, what the fuck about it?”

Philosophy Captures the Spirit of the Place, Research Time, 11/12/2013

It’s a common idea today that philosophy somehow captures essential features of a culture at that moment in history. At least, that’s one way to interpret a historical period’s most prominent philosophy. The idea begins in Hegel, but I think it gets its most solid workout in Nietzsche’s writing. I remember Hegel having introduced the idea, though the precise explanation how is slipping my mind, as it’s been a long time since I’ve studied the early works of Hegel. (My friend B can probably point me to the exact place in the Phenomenology of Spirit; he seems to have gone full Hegelian.)

Nietzsche's Zarathustra was one of many literary expressions
for his philosophical ideas. I wonder if there are now more
people who think of Nietzsche's Zarathustra than there are
actual Zoroastrians in the world.
Nietzsche, however, took this philosophical idea in an almost literary direction. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is filled with stories and characters whose personalities reflect and critique different aspects of Europe’s culture in the 19th century. Especially in the fourth section of the book, which is literally a gathering of colorful characters as Zarathustra tracks them down one by one. Each character is a narrative version of some idea or philosophy that had taken hold of popular imagination. Zarathustra collects them all until the entire culture of 19th century Europe ends up having a party in his cave-house.

I bring this up because I see Margaret Urban Walker doing the same thing* in Moral Understandings in her chapter discussing key moral ideas in the works of John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and Charles Taylor. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing. It seemed a rather small task simply to critique a few ideas in these men’s works in such a simple way as to squeeze them all into a few pages each. She certainly drops a lot of the conceptual nuances in their overall work. Two of these men have had multiple journals founded practically for the purpose of elaborating and arguing with them. But this is actually another example of the technique I discussed yesterday of a skeptical critique whose positive flipside is based on the reasons why the critique was possible.

* I do sometimes wonder how many people in feminist philosophy I’d anger by pointing out the Nietzschean character of Walker’s work. Nietzsche, thanks to his own misogynist ranting at various points in his corpus, doesn’t endear himself to feminism. Yet here is Walker acknowledging the genealogical conception of her moral philosophical method, and describing philosophies in terms of the characters they depict. I welcome all criticism that comes with a reasonably friendly voice, but I call it like I see it.

Walker latches onto a recurring theme in Rawls’ work, the nature of the life plan, and how a person’s identity is defined in terms of their plan, which Rawls describes in ways implying this plan’s superhuman comprehensiveness. She focusses on Williams’ essay about suicide and his solution to the individual existential question, “Why should I go on living?” with the concept of the life-defining project or career. She discusses Taylor’s historical vision of human myths as revealing that our identities are best understood in terms of a quest after some ideal goal or meaning. 

Then she describes what kind of personality such concepts would create if they were someone’s personal obsessions. So Rawls embodies the character of a bourgeois securely middle-class businessman.** Williams a self-obsessed post-war existentialist desperately hoping for a purpose in life. Taylor a nebbish hunting for an epic existence he’ll never have outside his imagination. None of this is really philosophical criticism in the traditional sense of examining their arguments and trying to disprove them. 

** Remember when those existed? I do too.

Instead, it points to a limit in their methods of doing philosophy. This is the positive aspect of what initially looks like an entirely negative or destructive critique. First, take seriously the idea that philosophy expresses the spirit of its times. Now accept the guiding principle of feminist philosophical criticism that such an expression would rarely be able to encompass all of society; the marginalized would be left out of such a noble, allegedly comprehensive vision, so all such expressions are partial. With these premises, we can understand these concepts of Rawls, Williams, and Taylor as expressions of a worldly perspective.

Their mistake comes not in articulating these perspectives. That’s a fine thing for philosophy to do, to express the spirit of a way of living in the world. Their mistake was in taking the partial insights of these ethical concepts (the life-plan, the devotional project, the quest) for universal accounts of the nature of the human as such or of their culture as a whole. They wrote as if they were comprehending their entire time and society in their concepts, and seemed to believe this was the case. But really, they expressed their place in their time and society. 

That's a fine goal, as many expressions of many places can have conversations about the nature of those places and their relations to each other. Opening those partialities to discussion with each other is called progressive politics: that's the conversational message of Idle No More, for example. But a place that mistakes itself for the world*** ignores those other expressions and inevitably hardens into a destructive cultural conservatism that refuses to change or adapt.

*** We could call this move the universal generalization of a singular expression.