A Poetry of Ideas, Composing, 30/10/2015

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of posts about increasingly odd philosophy. Well, and Doctor Who reviews. But most of my posts are about odd philosophy. 

The last few weeks of posts sort through ideas I had while reading Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss, Spectres of Marx by Jacques Derrida, and relating many of the ideas in Derrida's book to the philosophical meaning of the Arab Spring. This is all reading related to my Utopias manuscript, and this book is going to be weird.

Why I'm writing a book so weird has to do with my position as a writer right now. Since I no longer work in the academy, I have nothing to lose. No tenure & promotion committee to disappoint, no editors forcing my work to fit a dull style for publication in locked-access journals.

My personal assistant Philthy
helps me write the blog.
I can do whatever I want. And I want to push philosophy as a writing style in new directions. There are two dominant styles of writing philosophy, generally speaking. 1) The academic style of the university-based research discipline. 2) The accessible but lightweight style of pop philosophy books.

If you see some of my work at the Review and Reply Collective, you can see that I'm working on a style that fits neither of these categories. Utopias is going to be a heavy book, dense with ideas. It’ll build those ideas from detailed arguments and illustrate them with allusions to historical events, political movements and events, works of philosophy, art, literature, television, cinema. 

At the same time, it’ll be written in a tone that invites the reader along for a strange ride. In a style that any reasonably intelligent person can follow. Kind of what I try to do on the blog.*

* I know I don't always succeed. That's the nice thing about a blog. You can try one style, it doesn't work, and then move on to another.

So what will these ideas turn into once they end up in the Utopias manuscript? The third and final part of the book will apply the first two sections’ trippy ideas about time, progress, revolution, and political ideals to several major problems in Western thinking today. 

A major task of this last third will be a critique of neoliberalism, liberal political philosophy more generally, modern Marxism, the injustices of capitalism, inequality, and libertarianism. And from that critique, it’ll build a positive program for social progrss. Needless to say, the style I’m working on for this book will do a lot of things at once.

For instance, here’s one chain of that critique of libertarianism that is springing from my reading these Derrida lectures. 

Derrida often writes creative philosophy around interpretive riffs several layers deep. In chapter five of Spectres of Marx, he builds a philosophical engine around Marx’s critique in The German Ideology of Max Stirner’s masterwork The Ego and His Own. Stirner’s philosophy revolves around the power of self-assertion. The force of the individual’s egoistic influence on the world is the essence of the human.

Marx offers a political critique of this hardcore individualism, a twisted reflection of the modern libertarian’s individualism. The assertion of irreducible selfhood as the primary force of meaning in the universe isn’t enough to get rid of the ghosts.

Ghosts, spectres. These are the primary forces in political activity. This is how Derrida reads Marx.** They’re the ghosts of the dead, lingering traces of injustice. In societies that haven’t known political violence on a mass scale in a while, these traces may be hard to understand.

** One of the many spectres of Marx, and one which is important to what I want to write.

That’s where the Arab Spring comes in. Not because it’s the central people’s revolution of my generation of humans, though that’s one reason why I’m including it in the book. 

The struggles of people rising up against their autocratic rulers. Those traces are the screams that will always escape the prison walls, that filter through cracks in the doors to become louder than ever.

Who Can Determine a Whole Culture? Research Time, 29/10/2015

Let’s look at this problem of fate again. Who we are depends on where and when we were born and raised. It’s not controversial to say that a wealthy man from Kolkata will have a different personality (and positionality) than a poor woman from Namibia or a working-class trans man from Toronto.

The problem of fate for our moral thinking goes deeper than personality. Leo Strauss gets so steamed with the social sciences because he sees what its historicism implies for thinking. 

Our place in culture and history determines the limits of our cognition. They make up the horizon of what we can even conceive. Historicism, as he understands it, means that what each of us can think about coherently is beyond our control. 

Is a world without absolute universals really a world
with nothing to believe in? I don't think the contingency
of reality needs to make us nihilists.
Because our culture determines the horizon of our thinking without any input from us, Strauss worries that total cultural relativism about moral and political values will result. It’s a nihilist’s world.

But there’s a limit to Strauss’ influential conception of historicism. It comes out of his own writing – against what Strauss himself believes – when he starts a long discussion of Max Weber.

Weber is one of the Big Three of the foundation of sociology.* Strauss was delivering the lectures that became Natural Right and History in the 1950s. You engage the fundamentals of Weber’s thinking, it means you’re engaging the fundamentals of the whole social science field.

* Say it with me everybody: Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber.

So Strauss talks about Weber’s key idea that social actions and changes are all constituted by individual agency alone. A society isn’t an entity with its own agency, but the accumulated acts of everyone in it.

Today, we know what that sounds like. It’s a chaotic system where a lot of individual units behave in ways that look unified, controlled as a whole. But they’re the much more complex causes of an aggregate.

When the whole is a culture, individuals determine what happens at the social level. Yet textbook cultural relativism implies that the society as a whole has all the agency over an individual. 

But this still works with Strauss’ worst notions of historicism, relativism, nihilism. Not some monolith like Society™, but all your ancestors’ and community members’ thoughts and actions make the fixed limit to your own thinking.

I’m not yet sure where Strauss is going with this. I’ve only read a little bit into this chapter so far, so I’m just explaining the idea and where I stand in relation to it. But this is how my ideas on it are shaping up. 

A philosophical inspiration to us all.
The real counterweight to this picture of historicism as nihilism comes from a simple fact. Social change is real. It takes time for the change to become comprehensive, but a culture’s attitudes and ideas change over time. If the horizons of our thinking are fixed by our ancestors and community, then each of us would be copies of the past. Social change would be impossible.

And social change clearly comes from individuals. Just roll with Weber’s idea that only individuals – acting in unplanned, messy aggregate – have agency in society. So individual activity prompts and leads social change. 

Each of us has the power, as individuals, to change how we think and understand the world. We can change those limits of our conception, figure out new possibilities for existence itself. 

Strauss says that philosophy is the search for wisdom, and he considers that wisdom the correct answers to universal metaphysical and moral questions. I say philosophy is the tradition of thinking of new ways to think. Social change in the mind before it proliferates through the world. Free your mind and your ass will follow.

Our motivations for agitating for social change might include fidelity to some moral value you consider universal. It might not. Unlike what Strauss believes, you don’t need a universal truth to motivate changing your society in a more just direction.

The quest for justice comes from a realization that anyone can have at anytime. Something is wrong. Something has gone wrong. Something is not working. We must repair it.

What Will the Revolution Be in 2030? Jamming, 28/10/2015

I remember when the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 happened, and the crackdown came down, I heard a lot of commentary. Chatter. The historical allusions were flying fast. 

Only one of them really made sense. As a Westerner, the hope for these revolutionary movements was that it would be 1776 or 1789 for Arab peoples rising up against their dictators and kings. It turned out to be more like 1848.

The Egyptian Spring was especially disheartening, as
the people ended up stuck between an Islamist
government who won an election but was building
a new autocracy, and the return of an openly
autocratic military dictatorship.
Every basic history class in high school (at least in Canada) covers the American and French Revolutions. But there was nothing about 1848. No one really expects education in high school to be complete, comprehensive, or even adequate.*

* It damn well should be, though.

I can only speak for myself in this post, because I haven’t done any comprehensive research into history curriculums across Canada. But I didn’t really learn much about Europe’s autocratic traditions, or how long they survived past the dates of democracy’s supposed victories.

In 2011, millions of people across the Arab world – first in Tunisia, but then Syria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, Oman, and Yemen – organized popular demonstrations against autocratic rule. 

Their goal was to force a transition from autocracy – military governments, police states, monarchies – to more democratic forms. The goals included civil liberties, social and economic freedom, and a change in governance culture from dictators to public servants. 

Only Tunisia and Morocco are functioning new democracies today. Libya and Syria have been torn apart by war ever since. The Libyans are lucky that their war has only two sides – the heirs of Gaddafi based out of Tripoli and the revolutionary government based in Benghazi. Almost all the other autocrats have succeeded in crushing the democratic movements, Egypt and Saudi Arabia being particularly horrifying.

Syria has devolved into a multi-front war. The Free Syrian Army and other revolutionary groups are at war with the Assad government. ISIS** builds their brutal state on violence and sex slavery across eastern Syria and northern Iraq. The Kurds fight ISIS, but their attacks inside Turkey have forced Erdogan’s hand, even though they should be allies for a democratic Syria. The Russians and Americans support their allies with air strikes and subversive forces, Putin for Assad and the White House against ISIS.

Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. What
philosophy and literature will emerge from the wails
of mourning for Arab democracy?
** I prefer its Arabic derogatory term daesh, but their official name is most widely recognized.

My work with the Syria Film Festival plays a small part in advocating for peace in the region, and a warm reception for people fleeing this violence.

Germans, Hungarians, and many other central European people (and peoples) once fled their homes in the same way. Prussian kings, the Habsburg emperors of Austria, and French reactionaries cracked down on their democratic movements in the years after 1848. 

France had the most ironic result of the crackdown: its new emperor was Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the man who tried to conquer all of Europe a generation before.

Only in Denmark and Holland did the democrats win concessions from their kings. Like Tunisia and Morocco over the last four years, they were the relatively marginal countries where autocrats and reactionaries were overthrown.

Running from the oppression of their home countries, people dedicated to democracy went to more secure democracies away from continental Europe. Many came to the United States, Canada, and Britain. 

One of them was Karl Marx.

He was a democratic revolutionary, one of the radical socialists, but part of the alliance of forces opposed to autocratic governance in Europe. The other night, I read some of Derrida’s speeches about the meaning of Marx’s fire-spitting tribute to Louis Napoleon, 18th Brumaire

French Emperor Louis Napoleon. Military rulers have
more in common with each other than with the people
they rule.
I couldn’t help but imagine some Egyptian or Syrian democrat, in a run-down apartment in Manchester, Chicago, or Mississauga, writing a similar book or blog about Abdel Al-Sisi or Bashar Assad. I can’t wait to read her work.

Marxist literature is enormous – the creative philosophy that continues Marx’s tradition in new political and social contexts, as well as the historical studies of his own works. Its sheer size means I can’t include the picture of the whole thing in the Utopias manuscript. 

I’m only one person, and I work for a living, so I can’t spend all my days reading two centuries of scholarship. A few spectres of Marx is all I can really handle. I just have to make sure that I pick the right ones. 

So imagine young Karl, deported from multiple countries in Europe as an agitator, finally able to settle with his family in Britain where he still couldn’t gain an income. Having lost the revolution to overthrow dictators, his view is hardened. 

There’d be no more compromises with democracy, no alliances with groups that were anything less than radical. No risk of betrayal to the autocrat classes. 

Even in democratic Britain, he was cast out, a radical who gained no public support. If we leave today’s revolutionaries of the Arab world to rot, as we left Marx, we’ll only create more of the destructive, jaded, violent kind of radicals. 

The revolutions of 1848 were democratic in spirit, but the crackdown and abandonment of those revolutionaries made the survivors the forerunners of the 20th century’s totalitarianism.

Democrats must be allies across the world, especially to those that are in exile. The central Europeans had to wait another 60 years and a devastating world war for Austria’s autocrats to fall. Democracy in continental Europe wouldn’t be secure for a century after the failed revolutions, thanks to wars that killed nearly 100 million people.

We mustn't abandon the idealists of the Arab world, whether to geopolitical games or pessimism. We all want to build a better world.

A Science of Humanity III: Only the Eternal, Research Time, 27/10/2015

When I was a grad student, I'd meet people who thought
philosophers came up with trippy, strange ideas. That
we were essentially professionalized hippies who
could explore the astral plane in thought. They were
always a little disappointed when I'd tell them how
sober, technical, and reserved most writing in
academic philosophy was.
Continued from last post . . . What is truth? It’s a question that can only be taken seriously when you mock it. “What is truth, man?” he said between puffs on his joint. Ask this question in a serious tone and you don’t sound like a reasonable person. You sound like a pretentious philosophy student.

I say student because, as I worked my way through the academy of university philosophy, you never heard the experienced, long-tenured profs speak this way. Their questions were always about Thinker X’s conception of truth, or comparing different isms about the nature of truth. It was good scholarship, but not innovative philosophy.

The students were no better. I’m counting myself among them, the kids who asked profound questions that they didn’t even know how to think about. After ten years of studying the tradition and writing books and articles that contribute to this tradition, I’ve still only just figured out how to ask the question thoughtfully.

You’ve got to know your way around that question – What is truth? – if you want to understand the most profound way Strauss got his hate on for sociology. Same with the rest of modern conservatism. 

Theirs is a very old-fashioned concept of truth that roots the true in the eternal. If a principle is true, it must be true eternally. Or else it’s meaningless.

The question gets appropriately profound when Leo Strauss asks about the truth of political principles – questions of natural human rights. The first major chapter of his Natural Right and History confronts historicism about political rights. 

His description of historicism: Because different cultures and eras hold different political principles, there’s no true natural right aside from these contingent shared beliefs. No universal standard of human rights. 
“There cannot be natural rights if there are no immutable principles of justice, but history shows us that all principles of justice are mutable.”
Strauss doesn’t say their names, but it’s clear to someone who knows their ideas that when he’s talking about the endgame of historicism, he’s talking about existentialism.

If Martin Heidegger is one of your
philosophical enemies, then you have
good taste in villains.
Mostly Heidegger, because of the brutal results of having your existence entirely determined by a fate beyond your control. You can’t control where and when you pop into being. So you can’t control what culture you’ll have. 

If you can’t control what culture you’ll have, then you can’t control what rights and principles will be universal truths to you. There were only two possible reactions to realizing this fact of your existence.

1) Embrace your contingent, happenstance existence for all it’s worth and dive in to whatever set of ideas drives your culture in your era.

2) Fight against the happenstance nature of your life, and live in angst trying to find space for genuine, meaningful choice. Individually, maybe through trying to live your life on your own terms. As a group or a society, building networks and friendships that resist mainstream trends. 

Strauss mostly talks about option one. Martin Heidegger was his most profound opponent, philosophically. I’m not sure how much Jean-Paul Sartre, who gets the most credit for option two, figured on his radar.

Embracing your contingent fate means that you entirely give in to whatever beliefs about rights and justice your culture finds intuitive. You don’t believe in a standard of justice that transcends what a given culture finds instinctual at a given time. 

If you believe in a universal standard of justice at all, it’s because you’ve uncritically accepted your culture’s intuitive beliefs. If you’re lucky, as Heidegger believed himself to be, you’re born in a culture whose intuitive philosophical orientations let him conceive of the contingent nature of human fate at all. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to conceive of the emptiness of universal concepts of justice. Strauss won’t stand for this. He won’t give up on the philosophical tradition’s quest to discover universal standards of justice. 

It's not to Strauss' credit that he seems to ignore Jean-Paul
Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir. Their existentialism
foregrounded human freedom and political action,
whether for his anti-capitalist social justice vision, or
her critical feminist priorities.
Existentialist philosophy is, for Strauss, only the most extreme and clear form of the historicist beliefs that dominated philosophy after Hegel and the social sciences that developed in the second half of the 19th century. The historicist frameworks of social sciences make them a factor that will inevitably obscure the search for universal justice.

But you don’t have to get stuck in the Strauss-Heidegger impasse. Believe in transcendent eternal truths of morality, justice, and politics. Believe in the historical contingency of all human existence, thought, and ideals. With all their problems. 

Or choose another way.

I think about the truths of justice ecologically instead of humanistically. We don’t need a set of rights that applies eternally, because no set of human rights claims will make sense in a world without humans. 

Human cultures have a lot of variant principles, and figuring out which principles of justice we should hold is a matter of figuring out which principles and demands for justice define our time. 

Underneath all that variation are some invariant truths about the human need to be happy, sheltered, joyful, and loved. In all the variety of human culture, we should strive to achieve that one common ground.

A Science of Humanity II: Living Without Purpose, Research Time, 26/10/2015

Continued from last post . . . So there’s something weird about this idea that all natural motion is a strict mechanism. Yes, it’s wrong. But it was still pervasive in the culture, since mechanism – A causes B always and forever – was the dominant way of thinking about scientific law in the 19th century.

Probability was an innovative concept, and really weird to people. Normally, we only see one event at a time, so we think of the bat hitting the ball in a particular way that the ball has this arc. Only when that event repeats itself a few hundred times can its variations become visible. Our perception doesn’t really work that way.*

Leo Strauss and a lot of others who distrust modern
science never understood the revolution in scientific
thinking where we realized that probability and
variation weren't failures of knowledge, but the way
the world really works. Every pitch is unique.
* A note on my sci-fi ideas. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were some creature that did see every motion unfolding in its actuality and its possibility at once? That would be a weird kind of creature to describe. Very difficult to imagine their thoughts.

Mechanism had an incredibly easy metaphor that anyone could easily turn to. Clocks. Each part of the universe fits together as if it were the gear of a clock, and we each move with complete necessity and rigidity.

Leo Strauss clearly thought about science this way. Because he describes the social sciences as describing humanity in a totally unfree way. The sociologist’s guiding presumption was that every aspect of human society and thought could be explained with mathematical laws of the same necessity as a clock’s gears.

If you want to read more on how the 19th century prominence of the clockwork metaphor messed with people’s attitudes about knowledge, go read The Taming of Chance by Ian Hacking. I don’t really have much more to say that isn’t just a riff on that.

What he pulls out of that image of man as pure mechanism more interesting. The idea that the social sciences all presume that Man is not free.** A science of humanity means complete mechanistic knowledge of humanity. 

** I hate these old-fashioned, patriarcho-normative turns of speech. But it’s good to remind ourselves that they were common currency in intellectual circles not too long ago. It’s also a good marker for a perspective I find obsolete.

Plenty about humanity is mechanistic. But our knowledge
of our mechanisms is power over them.
So if all of reality – even human existence and thought – runs according to a mechanism, then we have no responsibility for our actions. This is true whether we’re individuals or the whole cosmos. 

In philosophy, the individual scale of this idea is the moral argument against determinism. Because a totally mechanistic humanity would make morality nonsense, it can’t be true. 

But Strauss is looking at this conclusion from the cosmos, and seeing more cosmic meaning in it. If everything in the universe is a mechanism, then the universe – humans included – has no purpose. It’s simply a mechanism that runs as it does because there’s no other way to move. 

The universe, being entirely a mechanism, has no inherent purpose. Nothing in it has any inherent purpose either, including humanity. We’re all just mechanisms, after all. So there’s no true right or wrong – no natural human rights, no should, must, or ought. Only mechanistic machinery moving as it must.

Must and is become the same thing.

This is what Strauss believes science does. He’s not the only one. He’s the tail end of a long tradition of people who think scientific knowledge narrows the sphere of morality until it winks out of existence. Again, read The Taming of Chance. But follow his false belief to get to the heart of this argument against the benefit or truth of social science.

Human reason needs some minimal amount of purpose to the universe, something that escapes blind mechanism deceiving itself with delusions of grandeur. Human reason’s moral investigations are about discovering natural human rights, the universal and necessary political rights for human societies. 

If no such rights exist, then all moral thinking is absurd, meaningless, nonsense. Strauss thinks that a science(s) of humanity would narrow the field of human thinking to nothing by making all human thought and action a product of mechanism. Without choice and agency, there can be no rights, no good, and no justice. Only stuff that happens.

But that’s not the only reason why Strauss hates the social sciences. And so it’s not the only reason floating around modern conservative politics why sociology has become something you commit like a crime.

There’s also the matter of history. . . . To Be Continued.

Making Monstrousness, Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived, Reviews, 25/10/2015

Catherine Tregenna was such a good writer on Torchwood that I had high hopes for her episode of Doctor Who. For the first half of The Woman Who Lived, she lived up to those hopes. Then things started to get silly. And not in the good way.

Doctor Who has never been able to pull off special effects-driven space battles to the same success as Star Wars, the Alien films, Battlestar Galactica, or the Marvel universe. That was true in the classic series, of course, but it’s also true now. 

The relationship of the Doctor and the 800 year old
Ashildir is the centrepiece of The Woman Who Lived.
So the show depends on its writing to survive – the inventiveness of its stories’ central concepts and the quality of its characters and dialogue. Doctor Who at its best can create riveting sci-fi adventure from two people talking in a well-decorated set. 

That’s what Steven Moffat did with The Witch’s Familiar this year. The Doctor and Davros talk in an evil space science lab, while Clara and The Master talk in a series of successively weirder corridors. Catherine Tregenna similarly succeeded in The Woman Who Lived, as The Doctor and Ashildir talk in a series of scenic locations in Cromwell-era England.

Why do I call her Ashildir in this episode? To explain why requires a 


warning. Ashildir has lived for 800 years since The Girl Who Died, and at some point decided to give up her name. That’s to be expected. Anyone who’s familiar with the Highlander franchise knows that immortals who are stuck on the same planet often need a series of fake identities to live.

But Ashildir has purposely forgotten her name. She knows it, but has put it to the side. Instead, she calls herself only Me. Her hundreds of years of immortality has exposed her to such incredible loss that she’s turned away from the world, from society, from friendship, and empathy.

Calling yourself by the third person usually makes you
a comedic figure, but it's a compliment to Tregenna that
she could find serious drama and philosophical heft in
this conceit.
She’s fallen in love countless times and seen them age to death. She’s raised children and watched them grow old and die while she remains. After seeing her entire family, including three children, die in the Black Death, she determined never to have children again. 

She couldn’t take the strain anymore. There are pages in her diaries – they cover walls and walls in her manor – that are stained with tears or ripped out to forget the pain.

We’ve always wondered what it’s like to be immortal. Especially if you were never supposed to be immortal in the first place. I remember reading Douglas Adams’ character Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. He’s filled with so much rage at the world for having made him accidentally immortal that he dedicates himself to travelling the universe insulting every individual he can find, with a personalized diatribe. 

Wowbagger is also hilariously contemptuous of naturally immortal beings – “Bloody serene bastards!” Ashildir speaks that contempt as well, when she begs the Doctor, with increasing anger, to take her with him so they can be two immortal beings exploring the universe together. 

I also remember the more conventional idea of what would happen to an immortal person as they got used to it. Disengagement, indifference, coldness. That’s what Ashildir tries to make herself when the pain gets too much. 

That’s the core conflict of The Women Who Lived, that the Doctor tries to get Ashildir to re-engage with the world, whether by argument or by shock. Ashildir persists in turning away, arguing that the pain of so much of her life has made her tired of Earth. 

I like that it's becoming a recurring part of his character
that Capaldi's Doctor plays a mournful electric guitar
when he's feeling meditative. It's a piece of Peter Capaldi's
real personality and history that appears in the character.
That's how each Doctor becomes singular.
If you’re going to be immortal, you should live among the stars like the Doctor, not tread through the dirt of Earth. The Doctor refuses to take her with him precisely because he knows that friendship with the universe’s mortals is necessary to keep his conscience.

He tells Ashildir that “It wouldn’t be good” if they travelled together. The Doctor knows that he’s at risk of becoming like Ashildir, jaded and insular, without empathy or joy. This is especially true now that he’s a genuine immortal, with no known upper limit on his regenerations. 

That’s why their last conversation in the episode is about keeping yourself attached to the mayflies. Mortals love life because they know it’s finite. They always remember that every moment counts, even tortuous ones like the death of your loved ones. Ashildir has forgotten that. It’s why she cut herself off from humanity. And leaving behind her name is the most important part of that isolation.

A name is used for others to address you. That’s why your name is a third-person term. To speak of yourself in the third person is kind of silly. So when you cut yourself off from connections with others, you turn away from names entirely. You become only an indexical, your only reference is self-reference – I and me.

That’s why it’s so ridiculous when other people start appearing in the story and referring to her in the third person as Lady Me, as if that was her name. This is also when Rufus Hound the comedy highwayman appears. And when the generic alien invasion plot with Lion-O* kicks into gear.

As the ridiculous intrudes on The Woman Who Lived,
it's clear that Tregenna has either lost the plot or has
stopped caring about the story, or both.
* Credit to a commenter at Phil Sandifer’s review of this episode, Citizen Alan, for calling the monster of this story Lion-O.

It’s a ridiculous plot, which only works in those moments when the specific plan to open a portal off the Earth calls attention to Ashildir’s callous attitude to mortal humans. But all this brings down the quality of the episode. It’s a generic runaround whose only highlight is when Hound delivers a series of desperate jokes from the gallows to delay his execution. 

But aside from showing how much less sophisticated humour was in the 1650s compared to today, this action sequence doesn’t really do much for the story. So what’s it doing here?

Apparently, getting Catherine Tregenna to write Doctor Who was like Moffat convincing her to let him yank out one of her molars with a set of pliers. After the worthy criticism of last year’s all-male writing roster, getting quality female writers on the show is necessary. 

I’ve never met Tregenna, so I couldn’t say for sure why she didn’t want to write Doctor Who. But I can hypothesize, based on what I saw in The Woman Who Lived, that Tregenna likes writing conversations between characters more than she likes writing sci-fi action-adventure with evil alien monsters. 

I’d say she doesn’t like writing monster adventures at all. But I’d also say, given the forced, awkward mismatch of the adventure sequence of The Woman Who Lived with its philosophical drama, that Tregenna thinks a mandatory feature of a Doctor Who story is an evil alien monster invasion plot.

Lion-O is the second monster so far this season who's
totally unremarkable. It feels more disappointing
because I had such high expectations for Tregenna.
Traditionally, Doctor Who has had four essential pillars: The Doctor, the TARDIS, the Companion(s), and Monsters. 

But the monsters are falling into irrelevance. They’ve been a problem for a long time. The evil alien invasion stories of the Patrick Troughton era often had an uncomfortably xenophobic tone. And Robert Holmes was poking holes in the traditional conception of the monster as generic evil alien in 1985.

Monsters and villains in the Moffat years work best when they subvert the format of monster adventures, or when they’re red herrings for the trailers that are entirely incidental to the actual story. 

The best Doctor Who today focusses on drawing drama, comedy, tension, and ideas from the interaction of characters and high-concept settings and narratives. The best Doctor Who with monsters individualizes them, or reveals that they ultimately aren’t monstrous at all. 

Last week, we had a generic monster whose purpose was blatantly a comedic foil to reach the real point of the story. Monsters for the sake of having monsters creates a serious problem for the story. 

As with the Fisher King in Before the Flood, Lion-O being a generic alien invader without a personality or even anything remarkable about his villainy only detracts from the story, taking us away from the ideas and drama it’s really about.

The Woman Who Lived is about how the growing
weight of loss over years, decades, and centuries can
make a character who was once joyful into something
more monstrous.
The iconic monsters will always remain basically as they are. Daleks, Cybermen, the Master – there will always be heroes and villains. But we have Rusty the good Dalek, a charismatic and chaotic Master, and Cybermen naturally have a humanizing element. 

The other classic monsters have similarly complex backgrounds – Silurians, Zygons, the Ood. A generic monster race is never as good as a monstrous character.

Catherine Tregenna should write more Doctor Who, and she should have this story note pinned to her computer the entire time.


Doctor Who has grown beyond what used to be one of its basic pillars. It’ll be the better for it.

A Science of Humanity I: In The Classical Era, Research Time, 23/10/2015

I’ve written before about the right-wing heritage of hating sociology. I’ve written about it coming from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and from one of the ur-texts of modern conservatism, Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

The more I look into the roots of modern conservatism, the more evidence I find of how widespread this contempt, hatred, and fear of the social sciences was even then. It really makes me aware of the pickle that sociology as a discipline finds itself in.

Systematic knowledge is a more recent revolution in the
sciences that's taking unfortunate time to trickle into
accurate and clear popular imagery. I think one of
the epistemic goals I'm going to shoot for in Utopias
(or more likely a follow-up) is figuring out a good
popular metaphor for systemic causation.
One reason why hardcore conservatives today have a hate on for the social sciences is that these sciences usually uncover facts that are very inconvenient to the right-wing agenda. 

I mean evidence like the persistent poverty of many people, despite the certainty that free-market deregulation would improve their lives. Or evidence of how systematic racism and unconscious biases about people actually work. Or how disastrous public health trends result from an inaccessible medical system and environmental destruction.

All that is simple stuff. I’m more interested in the stranger ideas that are rooted in the historical influencers of modern conservatism. One argument came from Leo Strauss, a protozoan progenitor of the movement. He has very different philosophical priorities than my chosen Big Four, and his writing was never embraced by a wider population.

Strauss was a professor for his entire life, and engaged the philosophical tradition alone. He developed ideas that influenced many in the neoconservative movement. According to Wikipedia at least, Paul Wolfowitz attended some of his lectures when he was a student. But at best that’s an indirect effect on the new conservatives.

I’m turning to his work for this part of my Utopias project research because of his philosophical influence on the concept of human rights that inspires much of that movement. Liberty above all.

But you’ll always discover surprises. I didn’t expect to find such harsh remarks about social sciences. It makes my infamous ex-PM seem one prominent sign of a larger trend in the right wing. 

Talking about Leo Strauss may not be very visually
interesting. Old dusty academic dudes. Yet I can't just
write Strauss off as a pure Dead White Guy,™ because
he was a German Jew who left the country in 1932
and never returned. That positionality counts.
Actually, I found a couple of profound and weird ideas among this era of conservative thinking.* Strauss’ is that social science denies the freedom – and so the moral agency – of humanity.

* What should I call this group of thinkers that I’m looping together by my own priorities? I don’t want to give them some generic name like the classical pre-neocons. Too ordinary. Maybe conservatives in the shadow of Stalin and the Holocaust. Haunted conservatism. There’s a desperate terror to their fears. I remember that from reading Hayek.

So that’s a pretty intense idea. But it makes sense. It’s rooted in the popular intellectual conception of science that was pervasive in the 19th century: if science could deal with it, it was a deterministic mechanism. 

Statistical and probability science threw all ideas about strict mechanism out the window. But those ideas were so complicated, it’s taken decades to develop a good pop science set of metaphors to explain what they actually mean. 

So when Strauss saw a rapidly developing science of using mathematics to describe human behaviour, he thought it was about determining the unthinking mechanisms of humanity. They aimed to measure human thought and action with the same accuracy of falling balls in inertial physics. 

It sounds kind of ridiculous today, but outside the disciplines themselves, that was still the mainstream conception of what scientific knowledge was. Strauss was an academic philosopher, an interpreter of the classical works of Western political theory.

He had no idea what was going on in the real world. To Be Continued . . . 
• • •
Editor’s Note. A quick thought about composing my Utopias book. I’ll probably include a passage about the roots of hating sociology, since I’ve found such ideas in two early influential Haunted Conservatives. Three fairly disconnected occurrences and it’ll definitely have a spot.

Escaping the Inevitable Boredom, Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died, Reviews, 22/10/2015

This weekend was so busy with the election, my work with the Syria Film Festival, and a pile of other things that I never even got the time to watch Doctor Who until Tuesday night. But at least the episode itself was pretty brilliant. And packed once again with fascinating ideas and stories.

The story itself is a wonderful idea, and one so well-suited to how the Doctor as a character is understood today that I’m surprised no one had done it yet. The Magnificent Seven with aliens instead of bandits. I don't want to continue the discussion without warning you of 


even though it's been nearly a week since broadcast. It’s only polite.

Doctor Who stories are basically about tricking and
cheating your way out of danger. He basically is a
sci-fi Trickster god, like Loki, Hermes, or Raven.
Wait a second . . . 
The driving concept of this week's monsters, The Mire, feeds into the story’s central theme. At first it seems to be just a cheeky joke that The Mire distills adrenaline and testosterone from male warriors and mainlines that shit like crack rocks to get high.

And it is a good joke. Clara even gets the follow-up line, as she’s trying to talk them into leaving Earth, that there's plenty of excess testosterone in the universe. But her bargaining with the Mire’s leader gets tripped up precisely because of a mistake from Maisie Williams’ Ashildir that’s more usually associated with testosterone. 

After seeing her clan's warriors vaporized and turned into speed for The Mire, she's spoiling for a fight. When she hears Clara convince The Mire that this is a fight they don’t want to have, she thinks it's a real threat, and amps it up.

The Girl Who Died is fundamentally about the Doctor’s generally non-violent approach to conflict. I say generally because the Doctor is no absolute pacifist. But he doesn’t become a warrior on behalf of another. He’s a travelling wizard who teaches otherwise vulnerable people and communities how to protect themselves. 

Only when he's dealing with galactic-scale threats like Daleks and Cybermen does he take a truly aggressive stance. In situations like The Mire raiding this Norwegian village, he can’t outright blow them up because an entire Mire battlefleet would return to blow all of Earth to smithereens. 

The Girl Who Died is the first piece of entertainment that's
so casually understood the nature of social media shaming,
even though it's such an ordinary thing today. And the
story took place in a medieval Viking village. That's
what I love about Doctor Who.
The plan he develops forces The Mire to leave and forget that their raid on this little Earth village ever happened. And with such a meta-textual edge as well. The Doctor literally hijacks the storytelling agency of his situation so The Mire can do nothing else. 

This is the essence of the Doctor's non-violent conflict resolution: he changes the situation so that the aggressors are no longer in control of how events unfold. He lets the powerless take the power to write the story.

This leads to another fantastic idea in this story: social media shame as a weapon, used for the sake of protecting the vulnerable from aggression instead of the sadly common reverse

With a little technobabbly setup, the Doctor creates an illusion for The Mire: they see a reasonably decent CGI dragon attacking them, but really it's just a villager riding a shit-looking prop dragon made from a disused longboat. 

As someone commented at Phil Sandifer’s review, they were essentially attacked by a Doctor Who special effect from both the classic and the 21st century series at the same time. Then the Doctor, Clara, and the rest of the village blackmail the villains into ignoring Earth and imagining this never happened. Or else they’ll post the video of them looking like morons to the Galactic Facebook.

It’s Ashildir's skill as a storyteller that lets her so effectively hijack the Mire’s perceptions. But it's also depressingly fitting that the effort of controlling the alien technology kills her. After all, she wouldn't have had to do this if she hadn't lost her temper on The Mire's ship and ruined Clara's attempt to talk them into leaving.

Ashildir's death could have been very conventional,
the complex female character reduced to a moment of
dramatic irony: sacrificing herself as the only casualty
of the fight she mistakenly started. But Doctor Who had
something much more interesting in store for her.
Ashildir's death is the moment when The Girl Who Died turns on a dime from comedic romp to tragedy. The Doctor knows how unjust it is for his friend to have had to sacrifice herself. He came up with this whole plan so he could keep them from paying for Ashildir's mistake with their lives. Same with Ashildir herself. 

The Doctor's idealism – that there are other ways to handle even the most terrible conflicts than resorting to violence and death – is an essential part of his heroism. He’s driven by the urge to help, to leave the places he visits in better condition than when he arrived. 

The question hanging at the cliffhanger of The Girl Who Died is whether his intervention really saved Ashildir or condemned her. She spoke about how she could never leave her home village, because this one place is where she is unconditionally loved. 

Yet this last sequence – as years, decades, and centuries pass by an unchanging Ashildir – shows the truth. She's outlived her village, her clan, her culture, everything that made her what she was. She faces the greatest torture of immortality: everyone around her has died and she’s alone.

I’m impressed with how Jamie Mathieson could change tone so expertly. I'd say he's one of the best storytellers that Doctor Who has right now. 

He can even find a new angle to explore the dark side of the Doctor's character. The tragic section of The Girl Who Died gives Peter Capaldi his best heart-rending scene as the Doctor so far, as he reflects on the inevitable loneliness of his own immortality. 

He’s tired of the wearing repetition of his friends leaving and disappearing. Free of the rage and guilt of the Time War, the Doctor's primal internal conflict now seems to be fighting the constant drag of depression in the face of the impermanent, fleeting quality of his life.

The Mire do exactly what this story needs them for and
nothing more: to be a cartoonish, over-the-top, pure
camp Doctor Who villain. They are exemplary at it.
Yet there's also a hypocrisy to this as well. His drive to save the people he cares about, in Ashildir's case, seems to condemn her to the same tortured never-ending existence from which he's suffering. 

I’m not going to continue long in this vein. This post is long enough, and The Woman Who Lived is probably going to give me plenty more to chew on about the nature of immortality. 

To close, I'd say that The Girl Who Died is definitely the best single episode of Doctor Who this season. With Catherine Tregenna writing its second part on Saturday, the story as a whole should be brilliant. But it does more than simply be good.

The Girl Who Died pushes Doctor Who forward, which no other story has really done. Apprentice/Familiar was a well-executed standard story format of the Davies and Moffat aesthetic. Lake/Flood was a depressingly retrograde throwback to the worst superficiality of 1960s Doctor Who and Frank Miller style themes of angst and violence. 

Died/Lived is the first Doctor Who story to live up to Steven Moffat’s mandate this season that the multi-part stories would radically shift in style and tone between episodes. 

It also pushes the Doctor as a character into new territory. Instead of returning to the same conflicts of the Time War era or floundering around without knowing what to do otherwise, Mathieson explores the ethical and personal consequences of his current state as a potentially immortal time traveller.

Someone else commented at Phil’s review that Mathieson seems to be in a similar relationship to Moffat as a younger Moffat was to Russell T Davies. Moffat is now the longest-running producer in Doctor Who’s history, except for John Nathan-Turner. 

He’s perceptive enough to realize that his own creative well for Doctor Who is beginning to run dry. Between this more experimental year and the new side project Class under Patrick Ness, he appears to be working on a succession plan.

Leading into the Capaldi years, Moffat talked about how Doctor Who is driven by change. It's remained so inventive because it doesn't stick with an approach long enough to get complacent. There's always the itch to try something new. 

So far, the only writer who's really doing new things with Doctor Who and The Doctor is Jamie Mathieson. Maybe he deserves a shot at the leader’s chair.

Always Coming So Never Shows Up, Research Time, 21/10/2015

These disconnected posts about Canada's federal election on Monday ended up having a pretty clear common theme. Catch up on what I hate essentially about Harper, and my biggest disappointment in #elxn42.
• • •
Coming out of the Canadian election that saw Stephen Harper kicked out of the Prime Minister’s Office* is an appropriate time to write a book about the utopian in politics. The way I saw people celebrating the end of Harper – if only through online communities – it was as though we emerged from a long, national nightmare.

* I only hope that all the juiciest evidence of misconduct avoided the shredder on the way out. M. Trudeau II, I expect a full inventory of Harper regime archaeology of how our now-ex-PM ran his government. 

This man is now Canada's Prime Minister.
In a way, we did. In a way, that nightmare is inescapable. Even though the biggest and most obvious symbol of the world’s iniquities in my country is gone, it’s not like everything is roses and daisies. We all have a lot more work to do.

The global economy is still frighteningly fragile, wealth is still concentrated in the hands of the super-elite, we still face serious climate changes and ecological destruction, and Syria has undeniably grown into the Third World War.

I don’t think this statement is all that radical. I’m not saying anything that Bernie Sanders isn’t. Then again, some even suggest that Bernie Sanders is no radical. That he uses inspiring words to round people up so they’ll vote for the same old corrupt leaders.

We all want someone who can save us. We love heroes. My favourite show is Doctor Who. I love stories about an awesome hero who inspires people to transform their world for the better. So many of us are waiting for that hero to lead us to a world that, compared to what we have now, is utopia.

But I know it’s a story. Stories aren’t about telling us explicitly what the world is really like. The value of Doctor Who is as a model for each of us to be ourselves. Each of us – privately and publicly – we work and figure out individually and together how to live better lives.

Don’t wait for someone to lead you to utopia. Figure out how to make one yourself. All of us. 

That’s how I think when I look at TrudeauMania 2015, unfolding in all those shirtless pics of Canada’s new PM. Yes, Harper is gone and Justin Trudeau has a level of sexiness that has approached the apex of Ghost-Swayze.

One election doesn’t make a perfectly just world. Let’s not kid ourselves. 

Other sexiness vectors include Vampire-
Pitt, Jurassic-Pratt, Hamm-hock, and 
That’s the problem with real politics. You can set concrete goals – enact this policy, redistribute this oligarchical wealth, pass this law, elect this leader – but there’s always more to do after each act. There remains injustice that we have to work against. No matter how much we succeed, the world isn’t quite perfect.

We want the struggle to end, but in the end, there’s always the next struggle. Our visions of a utopia inspire us to act, but even success leaves the need for more action.

This is the messianic experience of time. It’s an idea that I’d never really understood until I read it in a bus stop. I know his books from the 1970s are absolutely ape-shit, but by 1992, Jacques Derrida wrote pretty clearly. Even if he still had sentences that were half a page long. They actually had rhythm.

The messianic is when we experience our lives as though we were marching toward some radical transformation. Some of us think we’ll be led there no matter what we do individually. Some thing we’ll only achieve it if we actively work together. That’s the difference between a follower and a social movement.

Earlier this week, I said that politics at its purest is people organizing themselves to change their world. Even in the everyday moments of kindness we show to each other. These small acts still have some small role in making humanity better. We all contribute to each other’s lives every moment of every day.

If these times are teaching me – and all of us – anything about the perfect worlds we dream of, it’s that they won’t be achieved with a big event that everyone sees. It’s achieved in the small moments of life, one act of kindness at a time. So it can eventually scale up to the level of nations.

Courage Can Win But It Didn't Show Up, Jamming, 20/10/2015

I actually said the main point today at Rabble last month. Thomas Mulcair has committed the same mistake that I was afraid he was going to make. The same one Olivia Chow and Andrea Horwath made last year.

They ran talking like conservatives. Even Chow and Mulcair, who were serious contenders to win because of who they already always were, talked like conservatives. They spoke in language suited for the right-wing, individualism-to-the-point-of-cruelty. Chow and Horwath rarely spoke of Ontarians as people or citizens, but of taxpayers, like a populist right-wing politician.

Mulcair's failure has cost the NDP their only shot at
running an actually just Canadian government. And he's
cost the federal caucus some of their best MPs. Yet after
this humiliating defeat that's squarely on the shoulders of
him and his campaign strategists, he won't resign.
Mulcair has done the same thing. Every progressive person who’s reasonably plugged in to politics could follow the European debt crisis. The people of Greece voted overwhelmingly to give the Tsipras government a mandate to fight the further imposition of austerity measures from the European Central Bank. 

But the ECB responded to the vote with the harshest austerity package at all. Their message: Balance your budget.

That was a central piece of Mulcair’s messaging during the campaign. The NDP will prioritize balancing the budget. I spoke to people on Twitter, in my riding when I was campaigning with Phil Trotter, and talking to friends around Toronto and Hamilton. I kept hearing the same thing. 

Mulcair isn’t left-wing, they said. Mulcair won’t repair the damage Harper did to the public services of Canada. He’ll only balance the budget. 

Balanced budgets above all is the message of austerity. The popular progressive movement today is against austerity, against the line that ordinary people must suffer in the global recession.

Tom Mulcair let the Liberal Party take ownership of the anti-austerity banner. The same Liberal Party that welcomed former Conservative MP Eve Adams into their ranks when even Harper ejected her for corruption. Don’t forget that the Liberals are the traditional party of the establishment in Canada, of Bay Street.

Harper is finally gone, but the Liberal Party will not roll
back any of his destructive changes to the Canadian
state and society.
It seems that in the wave of Canadians’ anger that ousted Stephen Harper last night (a good thing), most of us have forgotten the old Liberal trick. Campaign from the left; govern from the right.

I don’t believe that a Trudeau government will follow through on any of its promises to restore federal funding to the health care system, or restore any of our environmental protections. They’ll never end marijuana prohibitions. 

They won't end the iron-fisted Cabinet control of all government communications. It's too powerful a tool for Canada's natural party of power to give up.

They'll happily ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the name of solidarity with the USA in trade policy. They'll further slash Canadian public services when that treaty's full effects hit: a globally mobile labour market driven by lowest-common-denominator wages and the ability of foreign companies to override another country's democratically enacted laws.

They won’t restore the census or begin the radical change that’s needed in Canada’s relationship with its indigenous people and peoples. They’ll have a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry. 

But they’ll never take action on its findings, just file it away to gather dust while our indigenous people remain marginalized. The Canadian cultural mainstream will continue to treat them as a bunch of drunk fucking Natives instead of people who’ve suffered a literal genocide under the Canadian state.

I supported Nathan Cullen for NDP leader in 2012
because of his strong ties with the environmentalist
and indigenous movements of Canada.
And we’ll all keep voting Liberal because they’re the real progressives. Not those hypocritical New Democrats. 

I worry that the last three years of campaigning with rhetoric designed to appeal to right-wing, economically conservative, austerity-leaning people have killed the NDP brand. Does the NDP leadership think this is the mainstream? 

Because it isn’t. 

The growth in New Democrat support came in the years after 2008, when many of its politicians and workers on the ground liaised between the party and social movements. In Quebec, Jack Layton made the NDP the national voice for the concerns that drove the student protests, and a progressive alternative to the sovereignty movement.*

* This election, we also saw more proof of the Quebec sovereignty movement’s basis in racism. The BQ gained seats in reaction to Mulcair’s stance against the niqab ban and for accepting more refugees from the Syrian war.

In the west, Nathan Cullen carried the environmentalist banner of Idle No More to the halls of state power. He and Romeo Saganash did the same for the indigenous empowerment movement.

New Democrats under Mulcair have had the strongest support when they didn’t play triangulation politics, when they stood on their principles. Mulcair should have played the entire campaign on the same book as his C51 opposition. 

Have you ever read Transmetropolitan? It's about a
journalist in a semi-dystopian future (like our world) who
fights an openly corrupt, vile leader. This obvious
monster loses an election to a young, charismatic
opposition leader whose policies are even worse, and
who's even more brutal to opposition. And he gets away
with it because it's not an obvious monster.
Don’t cave because it sounds like it would play with the conservative social consensus. Use a principled stand to bring in new supporters. Courage can win. The social consensus must be dragged in progressive directions by people of principle. People strong enough to stand by their ethics.

The New Democrats won’t be viable any longer if they maintain this course of being a squishy centre-left party. We already have the Liberals, who can go squishy centre-left by instinct. The party was successful when it embraces progressive currents in Canada and brings cult-level social movements to mainstream prominence.

That’s the outcome that I hope a period of soul-searching among the New Democratic rank, file, and upper echelons brings.