I Can Extend Myself Over the Whole Planet, Research Time, 30/06/2015

Something I’ve always found fascinating about ideas is how they seem to take on a life of their own. I didn’t always believe that ideas could live disconnected from their thinkers, and even now, I’m still very unsure of how the process would work. What is an idea? I can't bring myself to believe in ideas as eternal Platonic Forms. Ideas change, just as matter does.

Venice is loved for its ancient architecture, but
Marinetti hated Venice for the same reason.
Ideas drift around societies of thinkers, and recur in different places. One thinker focusses on an aspect of a particular idea that another may never notice at all. Back when I was working full-time in academic philosophy, I thought I’d research influence: how one set of ideas occurred in the works of another.

But in terms of the evidence I could summon up from research into the social networks, relationships, and what a given writer had actually read and studied, there weren't nearly enough chains of influence to make any direct claims outside established chains – who read whom, who studied under whom and where. So if I’m going to write about the recurrence of ideas among different writers and disciplines, I’ll have to find something more poetic and figurative than direct influence. 

Here's an example that just occurred to me. I’ve been reading some old essays of Filippo Marinetti. Marinetti and his crew of Italian punk artists, poets, and playwrights at the start of the 20th century wanted a revolution in theatre and society. They created art inspired by the lines of machine production, the regimentation and power of industry.

Marinetti wrote about a wonderful dream he once had, that the ancient historic buildings of Venice would be torn to rubble, and that rubble would fill the city’s canals to build roads to factories. The embrace of technology – the economic expression of a cultural embrace of the future – would make Italy a great world power, a centre of manufacturing and military might.

Humanity extends itself over the entire world with its
technology. This is the future, our world.
His central image was the Extended Man. Human ingenuity created technologies that can enormously increase the speed and intensity of material production. We can keep making more stuff, endlessly. All that production was organized in a massive system over the entire world: industrial states built massive armies to conquer foreign territory, enslave or co-opt their residents, and funnel their resources to the homeland, where domestic industries would build equipment to sell to their people and around the world.

I learned how it works in high school. It was called the history of the colonial era. We don't conquer territory with armies anymore – there’s no movement in England to make India British again. But the economic relations are there. We all know that most of our goods are made in overseas factories. Instead of the plantation with its open slavery, we now have Foxconn with its anti-suicide nets between the compound’s buildings to prevent employee turnover.

Technology was the extension of the human will, our thoughts, plans, and dreams extending all over Earth. In Marinetti's time, we did it with armies and navies, openly. In our time, we do it a little more secretly, with free trade agreements negotiated behind closed doors until the final texts hit our legislatures for ratification. At least we’re skeptical that these agreements are always in the best interests of the people, and talk about it on our social networks and in our coffeeshops.

Back when I was still an enthusiastic academic-in-training, I was interested in philosophy of mind.* I discovered a curious idea in the work of a University of Edinburgh professor, Andy Clark: that technology extends the human mind.

* I still am. I just find the ways you can legitimately talk about it in North American philosophy departments to be a little limited.

Andy Clark, I discovered through a friend who went to
school at University of Edinburgh, is notorious for his
loud shirts. This is not Andy Clark, but Colin Baker's
similarly notorious Doctor Who.
Clark's vision was much more modest than Marinetti’s imperial conception of the technological man. Here’s a key example in Clark's work. Normally, we think of one function of the human mind as memory – memory happens inside our brains, where our minds are. But when I use technology to make a list of my day's tasks at work or a grocery list – maybe a pen and paper, maybe my phone – my mind is in the paper and the phone just as much as it’s in my skull. 

Technology extends the human mind and will beyond its body. But there are no political or social implications to this. Clark specializes in philosophy of mind, in cognitive theory. He's only interested in how human thought works. His way of thinking doesn’t have anything to do with politics. Philosophy of mind has nothing to do with political philosophy; they're different disciplines. Ask any professor.

Marinetti and Clark, across generations and countries, share an idea: technology extends the human mind. I doubt Clark ever read Marinetti's work. What would a cognitive theorist have to do with an artist, and an artist who had such repugnant politics as well? Yet the idea connects them, strangely. 

When we’re used to our assumptions about what kind of knowledge our knowledge is, we don't always make the connections that perhaps we should. Maybe we forget what once seemed obvious to us, and that forgetfulness leaves us vulnerable somehow.

Maybe good writing about ideas reminds us of the connections we should see, if we're to understand the real consequences of our thoughts. The full material implications of how creatures with our powers understand what we are.

Human Dignity Is a Call to Fight, Advocate, 27/06/2015

It’s Pride Weekend in Toronto, and the insanity will have a special kick to it, thanks to the ruling at the United States’ Supreme Court that, throughout the country, marriage should be open to all people regardless of the gender of their partner.

The hypocrisy of Antonin Scalia isn't the most troubling
idea that the dissenters in the gay marriage case expressed.

But aside from the good news, and there was a lot of it, one part of the ruling really bugged me. It was the dissents, of course. Most people, if Twitter is anything to judge by, are most upset about Scalia’s dissent. But that’s mostly just his usual originalism incendiary filtered through incendiary and insulting language. He really can be dismissed with that photo circling around social media of Abe Simpson yelling at a cloud.

I’m most interested in what Clarence Thomas had to say, because he actually made a philosophical statement that’s much more profoundly offensive than Antonin Scalia yelling at us to get off his lawn. The core of his argument against nationally outlawing marriage discrimination against gay couples goes like this:

The proponents of marriage equality say that restriction of this institution and its material benefits from non-straight couples is an assault on their dignity. But Thomas says that nothing can harm human dignity, because dignity is inherent to humanity by natural law. We’re all human, and therefore we all have human dignity. So no government action can bestow, grant, bolster, erode, harm, or destroy essential human dignity. Not even slavery, internment, torture, or the relegation to second-class citizenship. 

In case you think I’m misreading it, I’m not. From Thomas’ dissent, on page 17 of the whole Supreme Court ruling:
“Human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”
Elsewhere in his dissent, he refers to this principle of the natural inherent dignity of humans as John Locke articulated it. Locke’s political philosophy, and the broader conception of what personhood is that lies behind it, was one of the primary influences on the activism and ideals of Washington and Franklin’s generation. 

I don't think Clarence Thomas understands that his
dissent doesn't respect human dignity, but laughs at it.
Justice Thomas may think he’s being loyal to the memories and intentions of the original Founding Fathers, but it’s actually a profound affront to the revolutionary ideals that drove the initial development of liberalism. Liberal political philosophy was developed, in the era from Locke to John Stuart Mill (England from the 1680s to the 1830s-70s), as a means to free people from control by state armies that acted as tools of monarchist dictatorship.

Liberalism, when it was first developed, was a philosophy of anti-monarchist activism at its core. This is true even as the philosophy’s believers continued to think the existence of the crown legitimate. It was a political thought that encouraged popular political participation and representation, and the freedom to think and believe according to your own conscience. 

Today, it seems to have met its limits, but we should praise liberalism for what it accomplished. The concept of humanity in which each individual has an inherent dignity means that we all have a duty to build a society where all aspects of that dignity are respected. 

Justice Thomas says that a slave still has her inherent dignity as a human person, the same for an interned migrant, or a person who’s unable to extend the same civil benefits as his neighbour to a life-long partner because of his partner’s gender. He says there is no need to stop someone from suffering institutionalized indignities because such discrimination and material harm can never take away their inherent dignity.

Thomas interprets liberalism as an injunction for quietism: we have no obligation to correct injustices when it’s in our power, because human dignity survives whatever injustice is done to it. 

The slave retains her dignity even when being raped and murdered for attempting to escape her plantation. 

The black man retains his dignity even when hanging, blood-soaked and broken, from a tree. 

The Japanese-American retains her dignity even when military police uproot her family from their home to live in a prison camp. 

The gay man retains his dignity even when dying alone in his hospital bed, as his family screams insults at him and the love of his life is sent home because he isn’t family, but only some man.

Yes, in the liberal tradition, these people retain their inherent dignity as people, despite their unjust suffering. That unyielding dignity is the reason we change our societies and laws, to respect it.

Locke and the other philosophers of the liberal tradition wanted to change their societies to recognize and respect the dignity they saw inherent in all people. When Thomas says the opposite, he betrays all that was good in liberal political thought.

Can There Be Social Revolution Without Blood? Research Time, 26/06/2015

We live in a violent world. There was a video circulating around my Facebook friends a while ago that analyzed the data of all the killings and deaths during the Second World War, which was making the point that, by economy of scale, we live in a remarkably peaceful world.

But even though we’re far from the constant mass slaughter of the Second World War, we still live in a world where organized crime, civil conflicts, and wars between states kill many every day. I wrote yesterday, in part, about how I think we should all honestly admit that the multi-front war in the Middle East – interconnected conflicts in Libya, Syria and Iraq, and Yemen with participants and bankrollers from overseas – is the Third World War.

Today's American face of conservatism, reaction,
and racism.
Slowly working on a giant book of philosophy about political and social revolution means I have to confront the problem of justifying violence. My ultimate conclusion will be very anti-violence and anti-war, but I know I’ll have to accept that there’ll inevitably be some violence in any serious political change. 

Think about the most obvious example, given events of the last week in Charleston. #BlackLivesMatter and the affiliated mass protests in Ferguson, New York City, Boston, Cleveland, and elsewhere throughout North America, in the most optimistic case, can radically transform society in the United States. 

If American society truly learns the lessons that these demonstrations and conversation offer, then the movement will have produced genuine and transformative social progress. But the cost in murdered people is already so high. One of the major questions underlying my Utopias manuscript is whether social progress is worth that violence and death, and whether a cost-benefit analysis is even appropriate. My thoughts right now on the subject are that it’s more of a perversion.

The problem of violence in social change is why I’m going back to Marinetti and the Italian Futurists as a central philosophical source. They express an admirable energy to smash the conservative, mothballed social structure and elite that hold society back. Read Marinetti’s manifestos, and you can see clearly why I call the Futurists proto-punks.

But their ideology is terrifying. It calls for humanity and the entire Earth to be remade through industrial technology, literally the mechanization of man. It calls for the totalitarian governance of society to mobilize people for constant industrial production. A world without forests; a paved world, every road a highway. His dream of a greater Italy is an Italian colonial empire that stretches farther than the greatest reach of the Caesars’ Rome. 

Marinetti calls for permanent revolution, the constant production and flow of “courage, power, and energy” to overcome the old before they become entrenched in positions of power and calcify a culture. And his revolution is violent: bloodletting and war. It’s a combination of rebellion and patriotism, because the revolution’s purpose would be to inject your society with the courage and energy to make it a great power. 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, another face
of conservatism, reaction, and repression sitting at
the heart of the Third World War.
Dealing with this contention will require a lot of thought about what violence can achieve, and when it’s unfortunately necessary. The only response to many of the tyrants in the Middle East, the site of the Third World War, is organized violence. Bashar Assad would never leave office through the peaceful demands of demonstrations. Same with the Saudi and Jordanian monarchy, the Hamas government of Gaza, and the repressive military dictatorship of Abdel al-Sisi in Egypt.

Yet the best hope for peace in Israel is the voice of groups like Meretz, who call for reconciliation and sacrifice in the name of building a peaceful nation of two states. They’ve chosen the most difficult path, which is also the most admirable one. 

The central theme of Utopias is the tension between violence and social revolution. How we achieve our dreams of a better world and the substance of those dreams.
• • •
Reading list, to supplement this. Hannah Arendt’s voice will be enormously important to working through this problem. After mulling over Marinetti, I realized I should look into some of the writings of Vladimir Lenin on revolution, and Mao Zedong on the concept of permanent revolution. And Alain Badiou’s elaborations on Mao’s philosophy.

Playing the ideas of Antonio Negri and Etienne Balibar off each other will be very productive too. Negri has already been very influential on my political thinking over the last few years. 

Building a World Through a News Ticker, Composing, 25/06/2015

There’s a scene in my Alice film script where my protagonist Elias watches the news. He’s in a pub with his friend Harris Exposition watching a cable news panel show (like Crossfire, only with more shouting), where the topic of the segment is the rights of intelligent androids. 

Thankfully, it isn't. But it could be.
I want the sequence to appear in the film exactly as it would on television, so there’ll be ID captions underneath each character on the panel and a standard news ticker on the bottom of the screen. Because this is a film that takes place twenty minutes into the future, the news ticker would describe events that could plausibly happen, if not in our own present, then quite soon.

The cool part was, I got to imagine what the international news in the wider world of my story would be like. I thought about current trends, and my hopes for the future of humanity, as well as some of the seriously bad stuff that will probably go down. What will change for the better, the worst, and what won’t change much at all. And some of the generally silly.

Here’s what I came up with (including some commentary) in about 15 minutes of thinking. 


I keep my eye on the Third World War, because that’s what the current multi-front, multi-actor conflict raging across the Middle East from Iran to Libya is. It’s probably the most complex war in recent human history, with several actors supporting military actions that frequently contradict each other. Since Saudi Arabia is a major actor in this war, internal rebellion there will probably grow over the next few years, though the regime can probably play a long game of repression to survive.


I’m not a total pessimist. Back in the 1970s, Northern Ireland looked like an insoluble civil war zone, but peace did break out eventually with the Good Friday agreement. The next ten years will be very rough in the Middle East, even for the Middle East, but I think the war will eventually lead to Turkey and the Kurds finding common ground. Plus, I got to imagine a very unlikely future Secretary-General of the UN and a reasonably likely future Prime Minister of Turkey.


Let’s face it. America’s in a lot of trouble. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is spurring positive revolutionary change in communities all over the country, but it’s also encouraging horrifically violent resistance, as we learned last week. And I think this is going to get worse before it gets better.

I'm not saying California will become a post-apocalyptic
wasteland in my lifetime. But it's plausible.

I feel sorry for my friends in California. I think they’re in a lot of trouble.


I feel really sorry for my friends in California. I’m just getting purely apocalyptic here.


Because screw you Stephen Harper and the Northern Gateway Pipeline. I hope you never exist, pipeline; Prime Minister Harper, I hope by the end of this year, you’re back to teach economics at University of Calgary where you belong.


Because corruption in American politics is just a matter of where and when.

I won't say for sure that he was Toronto's worst mayor,
but he's definitely its most legendary.

Rob Ford is still funny and still on Toronto City Council.


I just think LeBron James is a twat. There’s nothing wrong with believing that.


Every news ticker needs some sports, and the truth is that I know very little about sports. I do, however, know what’s funny. And grown men running around on broomsticks in an Olympic stadium is fucking hilarious. 


It would be either terrible, or awesome. And even if it was terrible, it’d be terrible in an awesome way. You know it and I know it.


He will never die. 

So Consider Phlebas II: Can't Leave Well Enough Alone, Research Time, 24/06/2015

Continued from last post . . . It might sound paradoxical or contradictory at first to talk about the imperial tendency of liberalism. How could a moral and political philosophy whose primary imperative is leaving people alone to do what they want also encourage imperial behaviour?

Well, one answer to that question is in Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, particularly an appendix at the end of the novel that describes, in a few pages, the fundamentals of the galaxy-spanning war that provides the novel’s setting. It’s a war between two galactic powers, The Culture and the Idiran Empire, which both exist somewhere between Type II and Type III of the Kardashev Scale.

Banks really is good at creating freaky images. He didn't
draw this; he just described an Idiran. The fan art did
the rest.
The Idirans are a species of 12-foot-tall tripedal religious fundamentalists, whose most ideologically extreme members hold all other species as mere animals. Their empire is a theocracy, with a mission of universally expanding its religion to all intelligent species in existence, and it uses military conquest for its missionary task.

The Culture is the liberal utopia that I described yesterday, and you’d think their civilization was a recipe for insularity and indifference to the wider world. Every organic member of The Culture can pursue their interests and dreams to the fullest degree as long as they don’t harm the pursuits or life of another. The advanced machine intelligences who manage The Culture maintain the universal material abundance that make such a life possible. You’d think they’d maintain a defensive war at best, fending off the attacks of the Idiran regime. 

But Banks has thought through how a liberal paradise would act, given its existence in a galactic society of non-liberal civilizations like authoritarian or theocratic regimes. These others are societies where individuals don’t have the freedom to pursue their own goods, desires, dreams, and ambitions in life. These societies prescribe what kind of lives its members should lead.

As far as a liberal is concerned, a society that uses some organization of authority to impose a particular mission on the personal lives of its members, is oppressive. Its people would be better off if they were free. In other words, if they joined The Culture or changed their own societies to put themselves on a path more like The Culture.

This is the paradox of liberalism’s imperial drive that I want to explore in Utopias. In the name of creating universal access to a society where each individual is left alone to live as they wish, a liberal political power inevitably refuses to leave its non-liberal neighbours alone. 

In Banks’ science-fictional universe, the Idirans fail to understand that The Culture has an expansionist drive just as fanatical as their own. The Culture’s society lacks ideological unity at the individual level – everyone pursues their own desires in life, believes generally what they want to believe, and is only limited by the rights of all their fellows to pursue their desires as well. But its premise is the belief that everyone should be free in this sense.

He genuinely believes that people everywhere in the
world should be free, and the scary thing is that this
belief is good, and can encourage good work.
I remember . . . Among the justifications of W’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the one that stuck around the longest, that held out after the claims of Iraq’s links with al Qaeda and WMD development were proven utterly false, was that the United States would bring freedom and democracy to Iraq. It was the justification that had gestated in American politics for the longest time, the strategy of the think tank Project for a New American Century to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. The heart of a liberal democrat yearns for all individuals to be free to pursue their own hopes and dreams. The job of the United States, as leader of the free world, is to export freedom.

At the end of the Second World War, progressive people around the world believed in the United States as the liberator of people, a leading force for freedom. When I read the essays and books of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, they speak lovingly of America’s role in the world, bringing peace and freedom to all humanity. They had good reason to think this way: the United States was a liberal democracy that had just destroyed two totalitarian military states with genuine designs on world conquest.

The Vietnam War and the CIA-facilitated military coups and civil wars across Latin America shattered that faith in almost everyone. Except, for one significant example, the United States’ neo-conservative movement, which founded a think tank whose purpose was to make a case to export liberal democracy and secular individual freedom around the world by the barrel of a gun.

Banks seems to have understood this in 1987, and long before, because Consider Phlebas had existed in draft form since before his first published novel, from at least the early 1980s. When a society’s highest value is individual freedom, they can’t leave the unfree alone.

So Consider Phlebas I: Iain Banks the Liberal, Research Time, 23/06/2015

The word ‘liberal’ occupies a funny place in our society. Its meaning is slippery, difficult, and weird. That’s odd for a word that so many of us use so regularly, whether in disdain or praise. When I was young, I rarely questioned what liberalism was, but I knew that being liberal was a good thing. It meant giving people the space to be who they were, and using public services to give people the opportunities they needed to become who they wanted to be. 

I remember . . . At the height of W-era cultural insanity, when the United States, Britain, and its cobbled coalition was invading Iraq – which turned out so very well – I heard a story. It was a story my friend L told me about a conversation he had in a bar with an old union activist. The old man was amazed that “you can’t even say you're a liberal anymore.”

If I could say that philosophical writing has a general purpose, it would be to investigate ideas and concepts that we find confusing. It doesn’t necessarily clarify the true meaning of the concept, but it does investigate the concept and how we understand and use it. At the least, by the end of our philosophizing, we might know more about why and how the idea confuses us than we did before.

Would someone who has more experience working in
literature studies as a discipline tell me whether people
have written about the political ideas underlying Iain
Banks' Culture novels. I'm certain they have. It's too
obvious an angle for analysis to ignore.
Liberalism is one of these ideas that we’re very confused about on a cultural level, and the Utopias project will explore what’s so confusing about it. As far as I understand the thread of Utopias at this stage of planning its composition, the madness of liberalism is a schizoid split between ideal and execution.

Iain Banks can actually be pretty enlightening about this split, now that I’ve finished reading Consider Phlebas. I’m probably going back over territory that science-fiction scholars have discussed before, and if anyone reading has any references, please send them to me. The actual pdfs would be better, though.

Anyway, Iain Banks and liberalism. The key tension I see in the concept of liberalism is about freedom. Liberal conceptions of freedom is that it lies in your ability as an individual to think, say, and do what you want, and you have a corresponding obligation to give others the space for the same. 

This is an incredibly simplified way of thinking about this concept of freedom,* but it gets to the concept at its most basic. I always thought that central liberal idea embodied some serious tensions. Probably the biggest one is that a liberal utopia can probably only come true in a world of total abundance.

* The first complicating idea that came to me was John Stuart Mill’s image of the marketplace of ideas. Notions and opinions don’t just sit suspended in the vacuum of someone’s mind; they go to work in the world. And sometimes, an idea will cause more harm than good, or turn out to be silly, useless, or inspire discord and violence. They encounter other, different ideas, and compete with them on their truth, power, risk, harmfulness, and what they make more and less possible. 

Imagine a society where everyone is able to do what they want, free from the interference of other individuals and even larger economic and social forces. You can run whatever business, take up whatever trade or hobby you want, whatever you can to avoid feeling useless. This is Banks’ Culture.

One character in Consider Phlebas calls it communism, but it’s really a liberal paradise. It gets to be a paradise because it’s free from the compromises with material reality – that no one has enough money to be independently wealthy and so has to work for a living – so everyone can really live in pursuit of their higher pleasures in life. 

It’s another notion we owe to prototypical liberal John Stuart Mill: that we should rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied . . . But the best possible scenario would be a satisfied genius. Which we could become in a world of universal wealth where everyone shared the basic moral and political value of letting everyone get on with their life as long as they don’t hurt anybody.

So many of the injustices of liberalism come from its compromises with reality, and the cynical embrace of inequality and exploitation that come when a society’s economic system means that a gain for one may be a loss for many others. Freedom to be left alone in all spheres can make it easier to ignore a plea for help.

The other tricky situation in liberalism is that awkward imperial tendency . . . To be continued.

Beyond Futurism to Ecological Humanity, Research Time, 22/06/2015

This weekend, I had a sudden moment where so much of what I hated in university culture became clear, an insight where I realized that I won’t really miss working there. What I loved were the good people in that system, the friendly spirit and inquisitive minds that made them good, and the thick, constant flow of new ideas. But that spirit and atmosphere can continue in my life while I walk away from the sneering classism and hypocrisy.

So I can come back to writing about my research for my next big book, and reading Filippo Marinetti. I’ve rarely read a writer so dense – there’s so much in these quick little essays. I sometimes wonder if social media are the right places to publish incendiary manifestos today, but I feel like there are already so many that they’d be lost in the din.

Giacomo Balla's 1909 depiction
of moonlight's death at human
Here’s one idea that’s meaningful in the light of this week’s official declaration that we are now living in Earth's sixth Great Extinction. Among Marinetti’s Futurist rhetoric was the phrase “Kill the moonlight!” It referred to fellow Futurist Giacomo Balla’s painting of Alessandro Volta’s first arc lamp, its flickering explosions of electricity a violent rupture in the darkness.*

* Reading Marinetti can sometimes rub off on you, and all of a sudden every sentence you write (and sometimes say) is delivered with this weird tone of apocalyptic intensity.

Every great punk movement has a decadent society to rebel against. The actual London punk scene of the late 1970s had snooty prog rock and the rise of Thatcher. The Italian Futurists had Romantic art. A huge target of their rebellion against Romanticism was the way Romantic poets wrote such rapturous poetry about nature.

Now, this nature fetish — actually, I should say Nature fetish, because their style was so reifying that it deserved a capital letter. This Nature fetish caused enough problems of its own. When I was first researching Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity at McMaster, I discovered some essays that made a solid case that the Romantic love of nature actually helped American deforestation. 

The irony is delightful, if also incredibly depressing. Romantic poetry tended to idolize Nature as a living Eden, and often treated humanity as inherently corrupt and debased. The Christian cultural legacy was all over Romanticism, as they continued to play up the hyper-separated duality of the Fallen humanity and the pure, divine Nature. 

We were so alienated from Nature, so goes the Romantic image, that we needn’t even acknowledge it as anything we owed. So a colonial settler could cut down as much forest as needed to build his new city. Nature exists so far outside our order of being that we don’t even need to acknowledge it, except to exalt it in poetry.

Marinetti and the Futurists rebelled against Romanticism, but not the alienation of humanity from nature. They wished for a world where human technology would completely annihilate nature, like the triangular blades of artificial light pushing against the borders of night-time, overpowering the soft light of the moon. Marinetti wrote the philosophy that accompanied Balla’s painting.

I imagine that if Marinetti could have read Isaac Asimov’s descriptions of Trantor, the world that was entirely encased in an enormous, planet-wide, multi-story city, he would have wept with joy at the image.

The world of nature and humanity’s cultural worship of it, says Marinetti, was growing decadent, putrefying so that it can regenerate into a fully technological world. The triumphal new epoch of Earth would be the anthropocene. Look where that got us.

Marinetti thought that being the vanguard of pushing the world to a total embrace of technological power and innovation would introduce a glorious new era. That unrestrained development seems instead to have put us solidly in a category of greatness: as the creators of a literal planetary catastrophe. 

The real challenge is to adapt our technology so that we can keep the benefits of improved health care and nutrition, scientific investigation, communication, transportation, and media (delivered in as egalitarian a mission as possible), while leaving behind the parts of our civilization that destroy the ecologies we need to survive.

We don’t need the violent, dominating technology that was Marinetti’s reified fetish. We need a technology of negotiation and compromise. If we can even manage it.

One More Reason Why I Left, A History Boy, 20/06/2015

There are a lot of reasons why I left the university system. Most of that has to do with the fact that I was never able to secure even entry-level, low-paying work as an adjunct-sessional lecturer. As I spent longer building an already-impressive research and publication record, I fell farther behind on collecting teaching experience until I realized that there was no way I’d be taken credibly by a hiring committee.

It didn’t help that my first visit to Versatile PhD, a web community for networking among former academics looking for new careers outside universities, discovered a forum of people proudly throwing away all the books they had bought for their research, setting fire to copies of articles, purging their hard drives of any pdfs or ebooks related to the field to which they had devoted years of their life.

I still care about philosophy – I love reading it, I still write and publish philosophy, and I take part in communities of researchers – and it disgusted me to see so many people throwing that part of their lives away. It made me feel like I had wasted my entire 20s professionally. It’s taken a long time for my mental health to recover from that experience of constantly feeling hopeless and worthless.

I do feel some healthy contempt for some aspects of my previous career, but I still love philosophy, and think it’s a valuable tradition that should survive its marginalization in an increasingly corporate university sector. I came across an article this week that made me think of one particular reason why I don’t think progressive thought and research (at least in the humanities) can happen in the university sector anymore.

Peter Ludlow has been politely asked to leave Northwestern
University in the wake of his misconduct trial and barrage
of lawsuits. He's resettling in Mexico.
The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long feature on the saga of the deservedly disgraced Peter Ludlow. The short version is that Ludlow was in a very sticky and emotionally weird relationship with a graduate student in his department when he was a research chair at Northwestern University in Chicago. There was fallout.

A level of fallout so huge in American academia that it’s spread beyond the scandal itself. Laura Kipnis’ essay in Chronicle applied “lessons” about Ludlow’s case to the wider student movement on campuses around North America: if students have the right to accuse their professors of sexual misconduct, it would “have a chilling effect” on academic free speech. 

Those thinkpieces which disparage campus left-wingers as destroying education with trigger warnings, and which turn underemployed teachers against over-indebted students? They began with Kipnis’ conservative reaction to the Ludlow case

But I’m not here to add to this general discussion. I don’t really have much to add, other than reminding people that the truly destructive force in modern education is the management model of raising institutional debt levels and promoting prestige projects at the expense of accessibility and any sense of public service. It’s not students who demand respectful education at less life-crushing debt levels or the burning out precarious professors whose chronic underemployment has turned idealistic teachers and writers into embittered defenders of their poverty-level contracts. 

I want to add my own story. It's minor compared to the disaster in Chicago, but it illustrates an important part of what I think is incurably sick about the modern university system. Because I met Peter Ludlow once, when he was a prestigious invited speaker of McMaster University and its philosophy department in November 2013. 

This was just a few months before the lawsuits that destroyed his credibility and career. He gave three talks over a week, all of which I attended and found fascinating. But he did something that, before I discovered the full extent of his sexual misconduct, tainted him already in my eyes.

Earlier that year, I had been turned down for the only university position I managed to score an interview for in the entire three years I spent on the faculty labour market. Despite living in a region with ten large university campuses within inter-city bus range of my Hamilton home, I was locked out of eligibility for adjunct teaching positions through union rules prioritizing seniority. I was just about to start work at an editing company as a contractual telecommuter.

I was speaking with Ludlow after his Monday talk, and we were having a very deep conversation, the kind of talk with an experienced, knowledgeable, and intelligent older philosopher that has always animated me. But then he asked me how far along I was in my PhD. I told him honestly that I had finished, but had not found a teaching position for that academic year.

This was my old philosophy department at McMaster
University. I had some wonderful times there, but that's
all over now.
He immediately turned away from me, and ignored me for the rest of the gathering.

At the time, I was upset. Here was someone who had achieved incredible success in the field that I had just finished my training to enter, but who presumed me to be not worth talking to because of bad luck in a hiring cycle. 

I’ve met public relations and communications professionals who earn a couple of times Ludlow’s Northwestern salary, which itself was extravagant by most faculty standards. When I tell them about my difficulties in the labour market, these people respond with collegiality and sympathy. They’re impressed by what I’d achieved in my university career, and what I continue to achieve in my artistic career, even though it isn’t really that much yet. 

University researchers are supposed to be public servants speaking truth to power in the name of lifting up the downtrodden through education and public critique. Indeed, Ludlow’s talks at McMaster included harsh words for the surveillance state and the new liberal attitude to intellectual property that drove the American prosecutors who hounded Aaron Swartz to suicide.

But the man who came to McMaster in 2013 to speak those truths also regularly abused his position at Northwestern to take sexual advantage of younger female students. He betrayed his egalitarian politics by discounting the contributions of people to philosophy because they hadn’t gained a foothold in the university institution. 

Perhaps I wouldn’t be as upset as I am with the university system if it hadn’t become clear to me that opinions like Ludlow’s are widespread throughout it. When I was last at the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in 2014 at Brock University, the professors from McMaster, Memorial, and others who knew me well would stop and chat with me as a colleague. I'm happy to know all those people, especially those I've spoken with since starting my new career who are glad that, even though I won't make my career in the university sector, I'm not giving up on writing philosophy.

But there was also a professor from my old department who refused even to look at me, continually blanking me in the corridors as if I didn’t deserve to be there because I didn’t have a teaching post. This hypocritical attitude – standing up for egalitarianism and the rights of the disadvantaged in all labour markets but their own – is so widespread that it contributed to my conclusion that progressive philosophy can no longer be written in the university system.

Not a bad role model for a writing career if you ask me.
I have more faith in online communities of philosophers from many disciplines (not just the ones that took their degrees or work in philosophy departments) like SERRC as sites to keep the vibrant character of philosophy alive. These are publicly open venues to hold debates over philosophical issues, develop and promote ideas. It's a truly friendly place for thought.

I'm thankful for their support as well for my future work. I'll make my career in the communications and business sector, but like Harvey Pekar, I'll continue my writing work as well. And I'll publish essays and articles, fiction, philosophy, theatre and film scripts. I think I'll probably write a book on communications theory and practice once I have a few years of experience in the industry. I think it'd be really interesting.

Because I'm not bitter, like too many other people who gave years to a university discipline and couldn't find a place there for themselves. I've felt hopeless before, but I know I'd be even more hopeless if I just gave up on something I loved. I don't think there's much room left in the university system for love of philosophy and writing anymore. There'll be less and less as time goes on.

Ludlow isn’t being punished because it was wrong to have taken advantage of his position of institutional power to control and manipulate those around him. He’s being punished because he overreached and couldn’t control the mess whose conditions he lay himself. He’s being punished because he got caught.

Unfortunately for university philosophy, hypocrisy and classism isn’t a rare thing. It’s only rare that anyone faces real consequences for it. That’s one reason why I left.

Losing Philosophy to History, Research Time, 19/06/2015

One of the pivotal figures in the Utopias project is Filippo Marinetti, an Italian artist, poet, punk provocateur, and dedicated Fascist. Well, he was more of a dedicated fascist than a dedicated Fascist, for reasons I want to talk about today. 

Mussolini's power base wasn't just in the
totalitarian vanguard like the Futurists,
but also the military elite of Italy.
I’ve come across many conflicting accounts of just how much Marinetti supported the actual Fascist party of his country, Italy, and its dictator, Benito Mussolini. Many describe Marinetti as having been a loyal member of the Fascist party until his 1944 death. There are differences between them on the level of his dedication. 

Some describe him as a longtime propagandist, others as a supporter who fell from prominence during the Second World War thanks to his failing health, the failing military campaigns of Fascist Italy, and the paranoia of an authoritarian regime under pressures it couldn’t survive.

Doug Thompson, the translator of my Critical Writings collection of Marinetti’s essays, describes a different story. It’s a more fractious, difficult, relationship of Marinetti and the Futurist art, politics, and culture movement with Mussolini and the Fascist movement. 

It comes down to a single, simple idea. A politician, even such an authoritarian as Mussolini, can only progress through compromise and building difficult alliances. A philosopher need only depend on his own skill as a writer and the power of his concepts.

After the First World War, Marinetti grew involved with Mussolini’s Fascist party as a fellow traveller in building a political culture that would put the entire population of Italy on a constant footing for war and expansion. But for Marinetti, the total mobilization of the population would have a very specific purpose in mind. 

I find it strangely perverse to see the energy for positive social revolution – a vibrant creative spirit in expression, art, and ideas, in revolt against a staid old conservatism – channelled into the totalitarian reorganization of society. The transformative industrial technology emerging at the end of the 19th century – trains, cars, highways, the first airplanes, petroleum’s entire industrial revolution – would forge humanity into its own form. The mass man, person as cog in the machine.

It’s unnerving to understand that this terrifying ideology really existed. But it’s the same revolutionary impulse powering it. It’s a vision of a new kind of society, understanding the social, political, and technological powers that new model of life improves and makes possible. It’s the faith that this vision is superior. 

And the faith is grounded in real, material developments. It isn’t the blind faith of today’s religious right, the faith of the Christian climate change denialist, an assertion of proud ignorance. Rapid transit, mass electrification, the surge in economic productivity that did, in fact, lift literally billions from poverty took place because of the social revolution in thinking that made it possible.

If you ever wondered what punk energy looked like when
it was fascist, it looked like Filippo Marinetti, who
himself looks like a Toronto hipster.
Marinetti’s vision of politics simply said, let’s do it as fast as possible, with a violent wave of conquest that will free all people by mobilizing us as war machines. 

Yet to do it, he had to make allegiances with other powers. With people like Mussolini, whose own allies were old guard nationalists and social conservatives. Even though he adopted the Fascist banner, and Italy incubated the purest ideology of global totalitarianism, Mussolini could never have fully implemented mass mobilization. 

Because Marinetti’s ideas informed the dominant political movement of the time, the new imperialist movement after the First World War was totalitarian. But in the social networks of the Italian elite, not enough people could dig out of their 19th century mind-sets. The old nobility and old bourgeois were too entrenched for Marinetti’s philosophy to uproot. No concept, no matter how terrible, can directly move people who can’t think.

Mussolini built a terrifying authoritarian dictatorship, a military state whose goal was to be the new Rome. Marinetti wanted more than that, a mass mobilization so powerful that Rome itself would have been ruins compared to his triumphant Futurist Italy.

Reading Marinetti can be like staring into an abyss.

A New Version of Homo Superior, Composing, 17/06/2015

Of course, I'm influenced by a poetic phrase of David
Bowie. Who isn't, even indirectly, today?
That won’t be the name of the film. Honestly, I’m having trouble coming up with a name for this project, a screenplay I’m beginning to write for Lee Skinner. I’ve been pretty busy on the job hunting front lately, so I haven’t had time to dive into the script itself, but I have a solid outline together.

From one perspective, it’s a detective movie. Elias Farkas is a university professor whose colleague Herman Klein suddenly appears like a confident human being for the first time in his life, and shows up at a faculty function with an absurdly hot younger wife, Alice. Elias lives his life by the old stereotype, “I keep getting older, but the women always stay the same age.”

So Elias sets out to discover what the deal is, how a man with the personality of a mouse could attract the type of woman that Elias has always wanted. Did I mention that Elias is an asshole?

See, the first we see of him is when he wakes up one Saturday morning with his girlfriend, who is about 20 years younger than he is. Even though it’s clear that they’ve been together for several months at least, he still talks to her like a pick-up artist, casual negs and manipulation. Elias also gets a phone call from his daughter – from his first marriage – who is clearly in the same age bracket as his current girlfriend.

Because this is also a stalker movie, told from the perspective of the stalker. And the stalker is a man, a man who grows increasingly obsessed with the one woman (other than his own daughter) whose confidence he’s never able to break. Every time Elias talks with Alice, he’s amazed that he can’t control this one incredible woman.

The practice of men jockeying for dominance and control over women is so ingrained in human gender relations across the planet that it’s practically become our essence. Alice signifies such a radical departure from that behaviour that I felt it was more plausible to make her a literally inhuman creature. 

It’s just one of the ways that I’m thinking through the character right now. Before I sit down to write a script (or any other kind of story), scene to scene, line to line, I have to find an idea to be its core. It’s my target, the attractor point for the entire narrative, all the plots, characters, and settings, to reflect.

All I need do to explain the character of
Elias Farkas is to tell you what I'd say to a
casting director: get me someone who could
conceivably do Charlie Sheen, after the
There can be plenty of other ideas floating around in the film. There usually are in all the best art. 

The best art, to me, is the kind that can become a person’s favourite art, a particular kind of favourite art. Across media, in whatever format you find it. It could be painting, literature, philosophy, film or television drama, comic, Twitter personality. I think the best art are the works that reveal or inspire something new about it in every experience of it. The best art is inexhaustible art.

Maybe that’s just all my favourite art.

Anyway, the film will be good. The viewers can put whatever other meanings they want into their experience of it, and they’ll be perfectly valid. But when I’m writing this thing, here’s the idea that’ll keep me on the straight and narrow. It’ll keep me from drifting the scenes themselves away from an immediate purpose.

Here’s that idea. The demands necessary for complete and total equality among genders call for such radical cultural change that success would transform us philosophically into what might as well be a different species. And it would be a better species than the one we have now.

Homo Superior as Feminist.

Into the Mystic III: Freedom, Research Time, 16/06/2015

Continued from last post . . . Yes, I know it’s the next day, but honestly, I think I’ll just guarantee an MWF series of posts, and if I have the time, I’ll blast a T or R or weekend post on Twitter. 

Oddly enough, I was at a networking session with the International Association of Business Communicators, and one of the more experienced folks there told me how generally impressive just maintaining a regular blog was. I may even volunteer for IABC’s newsletter and blog over the next while, adapting some of my communications theory ideas to their forum. It’d be good practice in maintaining my tone of an accessible intellectual. I think I keep a good tone balance on this blog, but I could do with the challenge of a bigger, more diverse audience than I get here.

So back to prophecy, my last post in this series. This is another concept that I think I’ll use in the Utopias manuscript, but only as a metaphor. Why has to do with the limits of my own expertise. The philosophy of religion has always been pretty tangential to my own interests – what fascinated me most were ideas in political thought and trippy metaphysics that adapt progressive ideas in science to everyday life (like determinism, chance, time, relation, and selfhood). 

Vox Day and the flaming
sword of devotion to God.
But religion is one of the most important aspects of modern politics, particularly what violence people will do in the name of their devotion. The stereotypical example is Islamic terrorism, becoming a suicide bomber or waging a war across most of Iraq and Syria to live out the dictates of your devotion to your god. And that happens.

But I could just as easily mention blowing an abortion provider’s brains out in the name of Christ. You get the idea.

Ultimately, it rests on the notion that the only genuine expression of faith is following the orders of your divinity without question – faith as submission. It’s weird that a dorky little fundamentalist sci-fi editor like Vox Day could call up such a terrifying spectre behind his discussions about pretentious Naria riff novels. But there you go.

Henri Bergson wrote one of the best books of philosophy about religion that I’ve ever came across, and which I and a few others whose perspectives I trust would say that it’s among the best that’s ever been. Two Sources of Morality and Religion. It examines religion as a phenomenon in the world, particularly its social and political power.

Religion and religious belief has two modes, says Bergson. One is the institutional. This is religion as a worldly authority that uses a common moral and theological belief system to maintain the social stability of a community. We needed this method of social control in the early days of our species, when we were first beginning to speculate about the nature of the world as well as live in it.

This is the religion of Vox Day, John C. Wright, and many others who commit much more violent and horrifying acts of devotion than writing pretentious sci-fi literature and hijacking awards shows. I look at religious extremism around the world and I wish they were all satisfied with Day and Wright’s level of general dickishness.

That conception of religion as social control is a primal aspect of the totalitarian impulse. After all, few other things govern human behaviour as comprehensively as a set of religious duties. Applied in the name of control alone, to the fullest extent of its powers, and you have a totally universal form of social control. A militarized theocracy. A literal sun king who’s worshipped as a god.

Utopias will confront this drive for total, comprehensive control of an entire human personality, life, and mind as its central enemy, along with the authoritarian impulse wherever it appears. 

Another aspect of Utopias will be
exploring the complex and weird
philosophical legacy of Henri
Bergson himself, as well as his
concepts on their own.
Bergson’s second function of religion in human society is the antidote to this authoritarian drive, the mystic. Bergson has a complicated ontology, where there’s a vital force in the universe itself driving complexification and progress toward higher and higher powers of mind, a drive within matter to make itself energy again. At the end of his philosophical career,* Bergson conceived of the human as the highest articulation of this force in the universe so far, and mystic prophecy was this force’s way of progressing humanity.

* That is, near the end of his life.

Not quite where I’m going with it, of course. In my own conception, as this metaphor will play out in the Utopias manuscript, the mystic is the agent of freedom, the one who calls upon a higher power than the richest, most vile and corrupt factions of his society can summon, to end their regime of injustice. It’s the ragged, old woman who calls on a king to cower before her. 

Ezekiel against the theocracy. Jesus against Rome. Luther against Rome. Bonhoeffer against the Leader. King against Wallace. That sort of thing.

It’s interesting (in that existentially unsettling way) to see the Christian tradition Vox Day described in his interview with Phil Sandifer as mysticism that urges you to follow, submit to authority. It’s an aspect of the mystic that I’ll have to think about.

Into the Mystic II: Dangerous Everyday Prophets, Research Time, 15/06/2015

Continued from last post . . . I wasn’t raised in what most people would call a Christian environment, so when I call myself an atheist – Well, I actually don’t call myself an atheist in most public forums. Unless it’s this blog, and I’m always able to attach all my qualifiers to it without being interrupted. 

New Atheism ruined skepticism and non-authoritarian ways of thinking about God and divinity for everyone. Atheism has historically been about challenging authority and institutions. It’s a form of heresy, the rejection that there is a God whose divine will – sorry, Will – we must follow. 

The Hebrew Prophet Ezekiel, a radical anti-authoritarian
revolutionary who denounced the corruption of his
country's authorities.
Rebellion against voices of authority, whether they’re priests, kings, wealthy elites, militaries, or bureaucracies, is a process of liberating people. It’s a process because, as it keeps rolling along, generation to generation, each one should be more free in their thinking and actions than their predecessors.

Here’s a personal story to illustrate. I wasn't raised in a particularly Christian household. My mother’s generation was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic schools. But she and her brothers and sisters largely turned against the Church itself for principled reasons: they rejected its authoritarian way of treating its members, the corruption of the institutions, and the ongoing conspiracy to hide decades of constant sexual violence against children that happened at Mt Cashel, the major Church-run orphanage in Newfoundland.

I was raised in an a-religious environment as a result of their rejection. When I talk to my mother’s generation in my family, I still detect their simmering rage at the institution that betrayed the faith they put in it, and that the entire people of Newfoundland put in the Church. But I never had any faith to betray.

So when I look at the horrors of institutionalized and authoritarian religion (which played a significant role in Canada’s officially-recognized genocide, the residential schools for indigenous children), I see organizations that harm a lot of people, and moral beliefs that condition cultural schizophrenias of all sorts – patriarchies, racism, economic oppression, slavery in all but name, the suppression of queer sexualities and gender identities.

But I also see valuable ideas in religious beliefs, like some of what I find attractive in Judaism. I was talking Saturday morning about the Jewish conception of hell, which isn’t a place of Bosch-like punishments and theatrical beasts (though I do love the artistic traditions that began with Hieronymus Bosch and found recent expressions in H. R. Giger and Alejandro Jodorowski). 

Instead, the Jewish concept of hell is much more existentially terrifying. Hell is an insight of perfect systemic knowledge of your entire life: you immediately perceive and understand everything you ever did in your life, all the benefits and harms your actions directly caused, indirectly precipitated, or systematically conditioned. Your life’s affects throughout the full network of causality.

The site of Newfoundland's highest concentration of
institutionalized child rape is now a shopping mall
and townhouse subdivision.
This prospect is terrifying. 

It’s also a very enlightened idea, because it understands the highest knowledge as worldly knowledge, understanding the entire system of existence and how you affected that system as a part. What you did, the possibilities you opened and closed, the cascading processes that you contributed to. The highest knowledge is systematic knowledge.

It’s utterly opposed, in that sense, to the type of knowledge that Vox Day and other Christians of his and John C. Wright’s sort hold as highest: prophetic knowledge. This is the direct, entirely private, subjective in the worst possible sense of the term, knowledge of prophecy. God has spoken to me, has revealed to me how the world truly is. I know it and you don’t.

This is also different from the prophets in the Jewish tradition. During the time of prophecy, when Jewish thought considers that God did talk to people directly, it was to rebels and outsiders: people who were marginalized in the current political and economic order, who would use their prophetic knowledge to mobilize their community to organize against corrupt institutions. 

This was true whether those institutions were pagan Egyptian monarchs, as in the prophecies of Moses, or Daniel’s prophecies at the end of the era just before 100 BC, when Rome began to conquer the Persian and Aramaic-speaking empires of the region. Prophecy is the voice of God inspiring people to fight material injustice of political and social oppression. 

So a powerful chain of corruption in the Christian tradition has been to encourage people to understand the voice of prophecy as calling for total devotion to the decrees and will of their religious authorities, even if they're called to commit the most terrible violence. The story of Abraham and Isaac, as in the account of Kierkegaard,* becomes about following the orders of God no matter how terrifying. Freedom here lies in enslaving yourself to an authority.

* Who is taught in undergraduate courses as an existentialist, but is actually a dangerously radical Christian.

The energy of prophecy becomes chains that bind instead of hammers that shatter shackles. The individual submits himself to a vast social machine that expresses God’s will in all aspects of life without exception, a totalitarian maintenance of an eternally perfect, ideal order for humanity.

Whether or not it’s given religious justification, this is the utopian impulse to perfect society, but in its authoritarian guise. The perfect society is an unchanging and unchangeable diagram, from which deviation or rebellion is recidivism. Socialist visions of a perfect society were corrupted by the totalitarian management required to suppress dissent and authoritatively organize everyone for collective action. Liberal visions were corrupted by entrenched colonial and oligarchical interests and institutions that twisted ideas of individual freedom to justify their own mass robbery.

One of the major goals of my Utopias project will be figuring out how to adapt the utopian power of rebellion against injustice and authority to a political tradition that has given in to these corruptions of authority for too long. To be continued . . .