So You Want to Be a Lord of Time? Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World, Reviews, 29/05/2017

"The Pyramid at the End of the World" is a difficult story to get a handle on. On one hand, it’s Peter Harness’ weakest effort since he began writing for Doctor Who at the start of the Capaldi years.

I’d say the main cause of this narrative weakness is Harness’ return to the military techno-thriller tropes of his story last season. Now, "The Zygon Inva/ersion" was a stone-cold classic, and I think the biggest mistake Harness might have made with "Pyramid" is returning to that same well again.

The Doctor takes on his most anarchic role in the Extremis narrative,
largely because he's bounced around the shifts in the story without
any power of his own at all.
With the required warning of

SPOILERS!!

before I get into the details, this is probably the story that most closely apes the style of Michael Crichton. I’m thinking particularly of the experimental agribusiness lab sequences, a man-made* Andromeda Strain whose release would render Earth a near-lifeless world.

* I do love the touch of a character who’s so very much a Man™ almost destroying the Earth through his hungover clumsiness. Humanity nearly killed in a day, thanks to the pig-headedness of one aging dude’s refusal to admit that he can’t party like he could ten years ago.

It’s almost as though Harness’ style was built to age too fast. He’s a one-trick pony whose one trick is so complicated, it’s impressive. But even an awesome trick gets old fast if that’s all you’ve got.

The Empty Myth

Start with a gritty, almost nihilistic, aggressively masculine style of sci-fi. Gender-swap it enough, but keep all the characters’ voices just as masculine. Smash it into a symbolic expression of a controversial, practically unsolvable political issue.

I had an odd thought when writing this that Peter Harness is the
greatest Terry Nation who ever lived. Please don't ask me to
explain this idea right now, though.
Resolve the problem in language so abstract yet inspiring that the solution is inspirationally simple. But it’s still impossible in real life. The world is too much for a story to make us feel good. But the wild shifts, constant action, and perpetually intense tone amp us up so much that the simple yet impossible answer feels somehow right.

We think we’ve had some kind of insight into a universal moral truth. But recognizing such a truth does nothing to solve the real problems that the symbol made so simple.

"Kill the Moon": The Golden Age adventure of solving a complicated science problem. Smash it into a metaphor for abortion on a literally planetary scale. The solution: Every decision is a free choice, but also as momentous as to risk a whole world for it.

Yes, that is the magnitude of any decision to abort, but your decision must always be free. No power above the human race – metaphorically, a pregnant woman – can compel you one way or the other. Absolutely not. Not the law, and not a Lord.

Inspirational. And true. But knowing this truth won’t solve the real conflict. Those who can’t bear to say no will still hunt the ones who, in full knowledge, aren’t saying yes. We’re all free to choose not to take a risk in our lives. Why not a woman?

The Doctor is thrown into an incredibly fast-moving Michael
Crichton novel. He does well with it.
Life isn’t as simple as knowing the truth.

First It Dazzles, Then You See the Gears

I remember how I thought about "Kill the Moon" at the time. Because I just looked it up in my own archive. I found the dialogue clumsy, hokey, too cheesily technocratic. The too-simple Golden Age style that bored me even as a child was tonally incapable of metaphor.

Also this. In 2014, I just thought everybody was too busy being a stupid man to think this crazy mashup could even be conceived as a metaphor for abortion.

But you can see the same trick in "The Zygon Inva/ersion." The Manly™ genre: globetrotting action thriller, with a dash of Philip K. Dick inspired surreal doubled consciousness. James Bond and Total Recall, gender-swapped with Osgood and Clara, respectively.

So we’re definitely entertained. The profound but impossible moral truth: All conflicts can be solved if everyone involved would simply talk it through instead of killing each other.

I don’t have to tell you this doesn’t work. We all wish it would, so it tugs at our sympathies, yearnings, pain, and hopes. After all that action and crazy shit, we’re primed for an emotional shock. We love it for its truth. But knowing that inspiring counterfactual doesn’t make a truth come true!

I had an idea for a post about how to describe the ontology of the Monks'
history simulation computer. But I think I'll leave it for tomorrow. I
can actually tie it in a bit more with my own work too.
Third Time’s a Disappointment

So how does "The Pyramid at the End of the World" go? The pieces are clear, but they get a little touch twisted this time. Genres: Geopolitical military thriller, Crichton-style techno-thriller, and a gothic Independence Day.

The Great Moral Truth: All you need is love. Fuck’s sake.

Zero-dimensional collections of accents in military uniforms uselessly throw weapons around and decide to lay their conflicts aside to fight an enemy that threatens them all. It’s about as straightforward as the climactic montage of Independence Day.

The lab where the all-consuming grey goo first appears is straight out of The Andromeda Strain. The screwup is a decimal error because Doctor Who only has 45 seconds to describe any science, and Michael Crichton has 500 or more pages.

Everything’s nicely diversified. Rachel Denning endows an otherwise generic character with a splash of extra personality that enlivens her contrast to the pathetic lout Douglas. The U.N. Secretary-General is suitably not-quite Ban Ki Moon. I’m sure the others tested very well.

The Doctor is just anarchic enough. Instead of some complicated, techno-fetishist defeat of the goo, he sets it all on fire.

Then the moral comes. That perfect moral truth that real love saves us all. The Doctor gets his sight back and escapes. He pops back to Turmezistan** in the TARDIS as the Monks’ machinery is shaking apart.

Excellent to see them back in Generic Central Asian Desert again.
Another sign of Harness' inescapable retro is his reliance on
fictional countries to mask over the complexities of setting stories a
real country with real people. Things would have to get realistic.
** So lovely to be back!

The Doctor delivers the perfect speech, zipping around the room of time’s threads, explaining inspirationally beautiful gobbledegook about how “Bill’s consent was to my getting my eyesight back! So I could be free! Because she consented to you out of love, yes. But not her love for you.

“It was because I’m fantastic! Because I’m her friend and she didn’t want me to die! But blowing up in a Michael Crichton lab isn’t the only way I could die. No, she knew that I’d die if I had to watch the Earth enslaved. She consented to your invasion only so that you could fall. So she could watch me make you fall!”

Thank You, Steven

Maybe Harness could have pulled it off. He would have had time for a few more drafts at least. I’m writing this the day of – I’m not polishing this for the BBC.

See, that message about the power of love pervades all the way through the Extremis trilogy so far. It’s a whole new approach to the idea of a story that puts the Doctor through a wringer. An increasingly desperate situation. But this isn’t any "Caves of Androzani" world of enemies.

Without any expectation of gain or reward, what do you have that can be a seed of ethics? The Master said it – in her twisted way, she is the Doctor’s friend. Bill says it too – even though she steps headlong into who knows what horror, she saves her friend the Doctor.

In each story, the cliffhanger completely changed the setting, as a reaction to the Doctor’s literal defeat. In the first round, the Doctor was defeated because he wasn’t truly the Doctor, but a simulation. The world had made it impossible for the Doctor to win.

The same happens here. The Monks have won, unequivocally. As Bill says in the trailer, the Monks have always won. This world where the Earth has already been conquered is where the story at last plays out.

The story doesn’t end with Harness’ contribution. So we don’t get his pat, comforting moral truth. We get the impossibility of victory.

Can the person in charge of making the impossible reality actually be Toby Whithouse? This could get weird.
• • •
Check out my previous review essays on the last Peter Capaldi season of Doctor Who.
The Pilot / The Girl With the Star in Her Eye
Smile
Thin Ice
Knock Knock
Oxygen
Extremis

The Poetry of the Mind, Dawg, Composing, 25/05/2017

So what is conceptual writing? I can actually say what it is with pretty reasonable confidence.

It begins with very careful writing. Paying attention to the precise meaning of every single word. But this isn’t the same as adhering to detailed definitions. Because the meaning of every word isn’t universal – it varies by context.

And I don’t mean in the relativist sense either, because I’m not talking about any absolute truth. I’m talking about how we understand facts.

So for the same reason that the terminology and central images of scientific disciplines differ – why a solid to a physicist isn’t the same kind of thing as a solid to a geologist – the meanings of our words will shift with our problems. That doesn’t make what we learn and discover while investigating these problems any less true.

Listen to the Earth, and see what you can find.
A scientific discipline isn’t the same as what it studies. Geology isn’t the same thing as the Earth, after all. But if you ask a geologist what he studies, he might say something different. He’ll have his eye on the Earth, but he’ll possibly say he studies geology.

But that’s the discipline – the framework of knowledge and body of facts. In a way, conceptual writing is about creating new frameworks of knowledge. Start with facts that you already know, knowledge you trust reasonably well. I work in philosophy, so let’s take established facts about the history of philosophy – texts and traditions.

Now experiment. Within reason, of course. Always within reason. But try to understand things in slightly different terms. Play with the ideas, try to make a new tradition. That’s what I’ve been doing when I’ve thought about the tradition that builds a political philosophy out of the ethical materialism of Machiavelli and Spinoza.

Plenty of other folks have done it too. Like Antonio Negri, Chantal Mouffe, Louis Althusser. Find your own way into those ideas, and let them guide your own development in thinking. Write a lot of different drafts, riffs, and reflections. Kind of like a blog that’s updated nearly every day for close to four years.

I’m still deep in the experimental stage – still wandering through different texts looking for more tools. But with each pass around the ideas, you refine them, find more subtlety and nuance, new features and new powers. Then when you feel you’re ready for something definitive, lay out the narrative in a general guide.

Then you fill it all in. Like an outline for a book that literally grows more and more detail as you write. Like it wasn’t written from beginning to end, but as a single block of exponentially expanding detail from every point.

The end product is this massively complicated, weirdly baroque figure. It might be a whole new way of thinking.

Socrates and All the Ladies, Jamming, 24/05/2017

Every now and then, I throw an article up on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. They’re a wonderful global community of social scientists and humanities researchers and writers, which I’m proud to have been part of since its early days in 2011.

I most often write book reviews. These like to get experimental. I most often do odd formal things. I reviewed an against-the-mainstream book about Plato’s political philosophy, in the style of a conversation between myself and Socrates. I think that could have gone through another draft before I submitted it.

Who could forget my review of a Steve Fuller’s book Knowledge a couple of years ago? A months-long chapter-by-chapter walkthrough running as long as a book itself, composed as a conversation with Fuller himself. Probably the most maximalist thing I’ll ever do, except maybe for Adam Writes Everything.

Sometimes it’s their content, like when I reviewed Phil Sandifer’s still-incubating Neoreaction: A Basilisk. That book has only gotten stranger since its publication. Its original draft was composed under the presumption that Donald Trump would lose. It’s apparently had to change radically now that we’re in a political era explicitly dominated by neoreaction.

I got a grey kitty, a white one, and a tabby too
And a big orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes
Mad MC skills, leave you struck
I roll with my kitties and I’m hard as fuck
I’m down with Plato and Socrates
And I love to get busy with all the ladies
So its finished form may eventually be so different from what I read that Phil may have made my review a Borgesian shadow, reviewing a book that not merely no longer exists, but has erased its own existence. Which means – Thank you so much for that, Phil, it’s genuinely awesome of you.

But then there are the replies. One article – either in Social Epistemology the journal or on the SERRC website itself – will spark a chain of replies, rebuttals, defences, addendums, and spiralling conversation. Often, they move too fast for me to throw my hat in the ring, even if I’d like to. The replies expand faster than I can think of my own response.

It’s why I don’t normally throw in, unless I have something of a curveball. Robert Frodeman – anarchist of the ivory tower’s disciplines that he is – is one of my favourite writers to follow in our circle. I have some pretty firm feelings about academia’s state of decadence, but Frodeman has done the empirical research for me to call it a conclusion.

When he writes an article about the lost influence of Socrates as the universal model of a philosopher, I’m going to read it. And be intrigued.

A Socratic thinker is a seeker of wisdom and a critic of false or inadequate pretences to knowledge. Such a thinker is a questioner, exploring and arguing over ideas to gain deeper understanding, but never expecting a univocal, straightforward, totally satisfying answer.

Yet most professional philosophers* are institutionally ratified experts. They have a disciplinarily-bound or influenced body of knowledge – the canon, the history, the primary texts, the current debates – and their job is to pass this knowledge to interested and paying students.

* University professors every one, as if that were the only place to create philosophy at all!

Philosophy, in other words, is now institutionalized as the domain of what Socrates would have called the sophist, the resident expert guide. Having those Socratic punks around is necessary – they provoke the discipline out of its doldrums.

There’s a third alternative, I think. The conceptual writer. For instance, what I did yesterday. You try to build – through argument, analysis and interpretation – a new concept that lets you understand the world differently than before. With this different understanding, you'll be able to act and think in ways you never thought would have been possible before – because you literally aren't able to conceive of it.

I’ll think on this a little more this post.

Politics of People – Not Subjects, Composing, 23/05/2017

There's a politics of the state and a politics of the people. Ironically, politics of the state is a lot more personal than politics of the people, even though the latter is where the people live.

The politics of authority.
This post will be a more literal Composing than usual. I’m literally playing with the ideas and even some of the phrases that will make up the Utopias manuscript. In conceptual writing – you could call it pure philosophy – you often have to take a lot of passes at your argument to find the precise words. So here’s an early pass.

I got started thinking about this in reaction to that essay I came across. Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction method applied to the concept of power that’s fundamental to every analysis of of International Relations theory. Pretty straightforward.

A good challenge to the dogma, but there’s no sense of where to go from there. There’s nowhere to go that doesn’t look suspiciously vulnerable to the same kind of attack. Because there isn’t.

Instead, keep your eye on the real differences. Thomas Mercier asked how Machiavelli could be considered an ontologist, even though he never used the word. It’s because Machiavelli described the human world as the power of the people.

He spoke of ancient and modern politics, but in terms of individuals’ desires living in communities. He analyzed them in terms of how their public moral beliefs, expectations of their leaders, expectations about what share they should have in leadership. The feedback loops among these communities and the institutions through which they govern themselves.

The politics of the people. Symbols, of course.
That’s a politics of force – the material power of a society is in the jostling action of free people all conditioning each other’s activity, as they each slam into walls around them more durable than almost anything they’ve known. Or at least it feels like it when you hit them.

The politics of the people.

So what is the politics of the state? Well, IR seems to provide a great expression. It’s the politics of power, and power as the capacity and ability to command. The politics of law, enforcement, and obedience.

Politics as sovereignty – space where your command is absolute, or at least so unquestioned as to be taken for granted. The state has this space over its borders, enforced with legitimate violence. Authority is violence that has been authorized. The uniform and the badge.

The lawgiver as comprehensive, total command. But not just the state. The individual is a sovereign too – a person’s rights are their absolute powers within the borders of their world. Powers where no other person or authority can legitimately force me to compel, areas where I am the only legitimate compulsion.

I'm inspired quite a lot by Deleuze and Guattari, whose work together
was a groundbreaking masterwork in political ontology. The tradition
shouldn't be loyal to them by following all their terminology. Their
direction to us was clear – "You've read ours. You know how to do it.
Now write your own."
We call them freedom only because we think of them as territory that must be staked, an inviolable border never up for negotiation. When we think of power as sovereignty of command, all politics reduce to competing claims for command. Negotiated to create contracts called constitutions, charters, legislation, and regulations.

Social contracts, by which we subject ourselves to authorities, each among the other.

That’s the politics of the state.

We’re very familiar with that. Now, the task for Utopias – take a really good shot at figuring out what a politics of the people would look like in real life. It'll be a work of political ontology.

When a Legendary Fear Is True, Doctor Who: Extremis, Reviews, 22/05/2017

As a story, “Extremis” is kind of old hat for Steven Moffat, as my senior colleague in Doctor Who criticism Phil Sandifer has said. Yes, there’s metafiction piled on deep in this episode. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

I want to talk about a demon. I want to talk about the most famous demon in the history of Western philosophy. That demon inspired “Extremis.” So

The Doctor decides that he will not give up in the face of his unreality,
his existence as a simulation of whatever the real thing would be. The
most accurate simulation would never give up anyway. That's what
"extremis" means in this story. That your virtue only shows itself in
moments of genuine extremity, in times of great risk and danger.
The refusal to meet your illusory nature with despair is, from an
existential perspective, the bravest thing you can do.
SPOILERS!!

naturally. The most philosophically intriguing part of this story is its central conceit. The evil demon is true. It’s usually one of the first problems that incoming university philosophy students learn. It consumes you when you first hear it – its imagery and implications are so powerful.

The power of that question – What if our entire reality is unreal? An illusion? – is immense. It can be a cornerstone of madness.

The moments of doubt that your existence matters at all can manifest as a dissociation, an all-too-common feeling of emptiness. What does it even mean to say that your existence is unreal?

Live the Revolution

In pop-cultural terms, it’s about living in a simulation. The Matrix is the obvious touchstone. Even when I was first studying René Descartes’ Meditations in my first ever philosophy class, my teacher Jim Bradley compared his evil demon problem to The Matrix. The two scenarios aren’t quite the same, though. But “Extremis” blends them both with a powerful ethical lesson.

The Matrix is a simulation of reality. So is the projected world we uncover in “Extremis.” The difference is that the world of The Matrix is a simulation for the people in it, but the people are real. The people of The Matrix are real people – organisms trapped in a simulated reality.

To realize this prompts revolution. You break out of the machine, build yourself a new life in this messy reality, and prepare to dive back in. Though there’s really no reason why you should dive back in, especially given how poorly the sequels went.

But this isn’t what “Extremis” presents us. Keanu still has one thing to fall back on – his physical body. That remains real, even if its nature is hidden from him in the simulated world. No, Steven Moffat is presenting us with something very different here.

A Prestigious Heritage

“Extremis” is based around the meditation on the evil demon. When you read Descartes, this is probably the most affecting thing he ever wrote. It goes something like this.

Philosophy, as a discipline and as a tradition, tends to make a fetish of
the truth. It's unfortunate, because truth is too important a matter to
demand fidelity to it or its apparent implications. Veritas in this story
is supposed to be the proof that your life is meaningless.
Descartes structures his Meditations on First Philosophy as an attempt to isolate some certain truth about existence. His first two (of six) chapters aim to break down our supposed certainties about reality, what we take for granted.

So he brings up the possibility that what we experience may be an illusion. All our perceptions could be based on mistakes or falsify the real nature of the world. So far, so Matrix. But Descartes goes further.

He goes for a world-shattering image. He asks you to imagine that your entire physical body – everything you know even through your proprioception, your material selfhood itself – is an illusion.

As well, imagine that the fundamental rules of your entire universe are illusions too. I’m not just asking you to imagine that 2 + 2 = 5 or 763. I mean, imagine that even number itself makes no actual sense in the true nature of reality.

So if you can imagine it, then it’s possible. It may not be true, and in fact, it probably isn’t true. But it’s possible.

Cleaving Reality

Possible, but not true. We’re still in a realm of imagination here. It’s a powerful imagination that can revolutionize your way of thinking. Yet that’s always what the meditative tradition was for.

I didn’t always know about Descartes’ influences as a writer and a thinker. I had always been taught a story of Descartes that saw him as a transitional figure between medieval and modern ways of thinking. But that transition was in the form of a radical break.

Descartes was most remarkable for uniting mysticism and the new
discipline of scientific investigation, as it was developing in its
infancy. Mystic science didn't really take, unless that's what you
want to call philosophy.
I learned about Descartes as the inventor of modernity, as much as modernity can be said to have been invented by one man. His thought experiment in The Meditations was, according to the philosophy curriculum I experienced as a young man, the beginning of a distinctly modern idea – the separation of human rationality from nature.

We could call the reality of nature into doubt – even to the fundamental level of mathematical truths. But what we’re never able to doubt is the ongoing action of our own self-conscious minds. Whenever we’re thinking about ourselves, our own act of thinking, we know that this thinking is real.

So reality becomes separate from our minds. Our minds are always certain, are able to justify their own existence. Nature and material reality, on the other hand, is always subject to doubt. Potentially so, anyway. So human thought becomes more real than the world that produces it. At least, that’s how you understand it. Humanity develops one more sophisticated reason to tear our planet indiscriminately to pieces.

How you think that reality is unreal depends on a chilling proposition. What if some omnipowerful evil demon is creating the entire field of reality in which you exist as an illusion, including your body and history?

When Thought Meets Mysticism

But reality’s unreality, and the evil demon that causes it, isn’t supposed to be a terrifying proposition. It was originally, and in Descartes’ hands, supposed to be a foundation for justifying the existence of the divine.

You see, Descartes wasn’t the first one to develop the thought experiment of the evil demon and the unreality of reality. Descartes was the first to develop it in a scientific context, since he was a scientists first and foremost – a mathematician, geometer, and theorist of optics, as well as a philosopher.

In many ways, the monks are an embodiment of living death, the
emptiness of simulated existence. Even their appearance is as the
living dead.
In that sense, Descartes is the beginning of Western modernity. When you’re taught Descartes, he’s presented as the progenitor of modern philosophy. That’s a bit of a stretch when you know the real history. Medieval history.

Descartes didn’t exist in a vacuum. He grew up in a medieval cultural milieu. It’s a world that, in many ways, is very different from our own, obviously. Foremost among medieval European thought was the primacy of religion.

Investigating the world was seen as reading God’s writing and nature in reality itself. The early scientific innovators like Roger Bacon thought they were up to the same thing, developing experimental methods to find different ways of investigating reality, because to know nature is to know the mind of God.

Meditation was one technique to bring a person closer to God as well, to bring them into contact with divinity. The solution to Descartes’ problem was that God – the only source of our concepts of infinity and divinity themselves – guaranteed the reality of reality.

Because we could conceive of God, we couldn’t do it under our own power. Descartes argues this by relying on a medieval rule of metaphysical logic that nothing more perfect – like the concepts of perfection in divinity – could be developed by a less-than-perfect being. They had to come from God, because human being isn’t adequate to generating them.

The thought experiment of the evil demon leading to a communion with God in thought didn’t come from Descartes, though. It was developed by Teresa of Avila, a Jesuit nun who wrote meditative texts.

Because as far as even obvious simulations like Super Mario are
concerned, from their own perspectives, they're as real as Bob Hoskins.
Meditations were popular guides for ordinary people to explore mystical elements of their worlds, and their own minds, through inward contemplation. Being such a heavily Christian culture, the meditative text was a guide to uncovering God in your own thoughts and existence.

Descartes unified that mysticism with a scientific mind-set. That’s why we call him a modern thinker. But we could also call him a medieval man equally accurately.

The Demons Are Real

But I’m not thinking only about Descartes, Teresa, and the Wachowski Sisters. I’m talking about Doctor Who. Particularly the chilling scenario of “Extremis.” Literally, it’s the most extreme place you could take the evil demon problem.

It’s simple, really. The demon is real. He does control your entire reality, having created it as a simulation. Not only are your surroundings illusory, a program running in a massively powerful computer – you are too.

Teresa and Descartes could always rely on the act of meditation itself as the place from which the existence of reality could be justified as a mystic experience. Whether through communion or argument, it didn’t matter. The point was that the evil demon’s trickery could be overcome.

Not so for the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole in this episode. They themselves are also simulations. The horror of their existence is in realizing it. For them, the revolution against the terror of their situations seems to justify the mass suicides we see throughout the episode.

As the Doctor says, if Super Mario realized that he was a character in a video game, he’d delete himself from the whole program so he wouldn’t have to die anymore.

I suppose I should say something about the Master, seeing as "Extremis"
finally reveals that she really is the mysterious creature in the vault.
In a way, this is a return to one of the most sentimental lines in
Russell T Davies' Doctor Who, when the Doctor offers to keep the
Master a prisoner and take care of him, raise him to be a better
person. Faced with this imposition on his life, John Simm's
Master apparently shot himself to escape. Here, Michelle Gomez
answers that quandary: She embraces the possibility of that
change in character as a chance to save her life. The Doctor doesn't
impose that choice, as Tennant's did. He asks, and she says yes.
The Doctor’s solution is brilliant, in its way. Because there is still a material reality that exists. The reality of the actual Earth that the evil alien monks are simulating to aid their invasion. The Doctor of “Extremis” may not be real. But he has a better idea for revolution than simply opting out of the program.

It’s an act of outreach to himself. To speak to himself not by turning inward, as in a meditation, but by turning outward. He communicates to the material Doctor on Earth, as the simulated Doctor from inside the monks’ simulators. A mysticism of materiality.

The Doctor's conclusion about the illusory nature of his own existence in "Extremis" is different than pretty much everyone else in the story. Everyone who reads the Veritas dies by their own hand, having understood that their existence is merely simulated. The Doctor sees the crime and the terror of this idea and fights against that resignation.

To resign is to admit your powerlessness. To admit powerlessness is to forgo power. Not only is his existence illusory, but even the illusion is based on a crime – a simulation as an intelligence exercise before conquest and destruction. The Doctor knows that the response to evil is never to give in to it, but to fight in whatever way you can.

In the battle for justice and good, life is justified. Even a life that was never real.
• • •
My reviews so far of Peter Capaldi's last full season of Doctor Who.
Oxygen
Knock Knock
Thin Ice
Smile
The Pilot / The Girl With the Star in Her Eye

Don’t Forget the Black Jew III: Looking Back, Research Time, 19/05/2017

The last two posts have been cracks at figuring out how to relate what I want to do with Jacques Derrida’s ideas to what I want to do with Machiavelli’s. Derrida developed destructive powers for philosophy, but their aim wasn’t the indiscriminate violence that deconstructionists apply them.

Derrida wanted to destroy, in the most profound way possible, the mainstream tradition of philosophy as the only set of ideas that mattered. He fundamentally concentrated, in the early years of his career, on those destructive powers. This was deconstruction.

He wanted to replace the metaphysics of presence, being, and the sovereign subject with a philosophy focussed around differentiation, change, and becoming. That’s why he developed the concept of differance.

If you know anything about the general shape of Derrida scholarship, then you know that differance was largely a failure as a positive philosophy. Derrida scholars spend their major debates over their complicated and divergent conceptions of what differance could be.

If Derrida could have known how he'd be
received and remembered, would he have
written what he did, the way he did?
Truth is, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were best of that whole school of thinkers surrounding Paris VIII University in the 1970s, when it came to building a positive, complex, useful metaphysics of becoming.

When I read Mercier’s paper, an interesting line stuck out for me (among many). He referred to the recent radical democrats (Antonio Negri, among other lower-profile scholars) creating a tradition of radical materialist politics in the modern period.

That tradition starts with Machiavelli and Spinoza, picks up steam with Marx and Nietzsche, then continues in the explosion of radical democrat ideas among Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Sartre, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Negri, and others in their crew.

Mercier seems to think that the Machiavellian roots of this tradition were a bit of a reach – Niccolò never described himself as an ontologist. But his critique forgets that a tradition is created retroactively. So what does this retroactive tradition achieve?

Here’s the point as I’ve been able to distill it so far. It follows from some of the reflections about subjectivity in the last post.

The politics of sovereignty conceives political activity as a matter of battling subjectivities. You can’t have sovereignty without a sovereign, of course, a law-giving voice. Humanity’s world is a matter of these voices fighting to dominate over each other.

The radical democrat philosophers of the last 60 or so years have picked out Machiavelli as a thinker of the earliest time of modernity, who articulated an alternative.

Machiavelli found a vision of democracy that conceived of politics as a collision of forces. People come together in communities driven by their desires – and those desires are shaped by the moral beliefs flowing around their families and societies.

Human society is fundamentally a product whose shapes emerge from countless collisions and conflicts among people, organizations, institutions, and ecologies. That’s what an ontology of forces is – to answer Mercier’s question in that paper about a complex and concrete concept of force.

More about this next week.

Don’t Forget the Black Jew II: But Why Go to Jacques? Research Time, 18/05/2017

Because Mercier is following a Derrida-inspired track, he ends up with an aporia. Surrounded by conceptual ruins, he’s left the core of IR theory a collection of posits and presumptions that have lost their justifications. The negative, destructive power of Derrida’s concepts have worked their magic.

It’s an interesting essay, and I may use some of his ideas in one part of the argument in Utopias. But I’m going in a different direction, of course, because I’m not satisfied with aporia.

Funnily enough, there’s one quick moment in his essay when Mercier comments how similar an ontology of force is to the ideas of Gilles Deleuze. But then he jumps back to a discussion of Derrida, saying that he’s simply not here to talk about Deleuze. And that’s a shame, because Deleuze (and Félix Guattari, and Deleuze and Guattari) developed a lot of positive content for an ontology of force.

But Derrida constitutes a weirdly special case that I think might be worth meditating on. His popular reception – and the most basic power his own concepts of deconstruction have – is as a destroyer.

He leaves ruin in his wake, as the contradictions of core concepts destroy any capacity you might have had to take those concepts seriously. Any kind of presence, of solidly defined certainty that you were able to stand on is destroyed. This can happen to anything.

But he never wanted to destroy.
All you need to do to let deconstruction destroy something is to turn it loose. It’s a universal solvent – all certainty dissolves. Sometimes, we want this. Sometimes, we don’t. But it can always happen.

Mercier seems happy to land in a relative aporia – the conceptual confusion of a broken system. System relies on certainty, and Mercier is out to break down a certainty that’s growing increasingly problematic in the violence of our crumbling civilization. He wants to throw International Relations theory out of its easy reliance on a transparent concept of power.

Derrida’s early work revolves around a foundational concept of his own:* The metaphysics of presence.

* Because no one, even the master of deconstruction is ultimately immune to it. What would a deconstruction of deconstruction itself look like? Maybe we can ask the older Jacques Derrida.

Lots of people have written a ridiculous amount about what the metaphysics of presence is. But I don’t want to touch on it because I’m coming to dismiss a lot of interpretive academic discourses as nitpicking chatter for the sake of careerism.

As far as I take this concept of the metaphysics of presence, it’s the need to rest your life – and all the meanings that give significance to your life – on a firm foundation. And Derrida was the one source in our era of the blasting caps.

IR Theory fundamentally relies on the concept of power – the play of subjects. It used to be that the key political subjects were states in most mainstream political theory. When Michel Foucault blew up, political philosophy understands institutions, social networks, sexualities, individual and group identity of any kind as power.

Forces of subjectivity, impositions of code. Overwriting differences with similarity to itself. Or at least trying to.

Power is fundamentally a model of force as subjectivity. Even in the very decentralized subjectivity of Foucault’s sociologies. Now think of what alternative it could have. . . . To be continued

Don’t Forget the Black Jew I: When Power Turns Into Force, Research Time, 17/05/2017

I could get really deep and trippy with this post, because it’s about an essay I came across a little while ago about Niccolò Machiavelli and Jacques Derrida, “Political Ontology and the Problem of Force.” Yes, the essay is just as dense as it sounds.

There are a few reasons why I won’t go into much detail tonight. One is that I’ve been super busy this week with my new teaching job, and I don’t have a lot of time to devote to long, involved blog posts during the week. So I’m just tracking some immediate reactions and some broad reflections.

Two is that this essay by Thomas Mercier is an interesting example of a tedious phenomenon in academic philosophy – the bog-standard Derrida.

He was always a little to the side of my research interests, despite my
thinking his work was fascinating. I think because I found so much of
the work written about Derrida completely insufferable.
Mercier’s argument follows a simple Derrida-style line, deconstructing his topic concept in what’s become a pretty standard way in the line of cultural studies he’s influenced. Now, one of the things that Mercier does that’s genuinely interesting is that he’s bringing this critical technique from cultural studies to his background in political science and international relations theory.

That alone is pretty cool, because he’s bringing a purposely destabilizing model of criticism to bear on some of the foundational concepts of a very socially conservative discipline. Remember, IR theory is the discipline where places like the RAND Corporation and the Cato Institute recruits their researchers.

We aren’t dealing with bastions of radical democracy here. If anything, the premises and core concepts of IR theory conform to the traditional uptake of Machiavelli as the proto-cynic of global politics. So the world of IR theory could use a good blast of Derrida-inspired deconstruction.

My only problem with Mercier’s paper is that I’m way ahead of the audience it’s meant to provoke. Straightforward deconstruction is understanding a concept in such a way that your thinking is adequate to it, but that shows its internal paradoxes. And your argument strains those internal paradoxes until it breaks the concept itself.

Using Machiavelli’s work as a springboard, Mercier applies Derrida-style deconstruction to the familiar and ubiquitous IR concept of power. He makes the concept of power’s potential legitimacy collapse under its own contradiction until we’re left with collisions of forces.

That’s ultimately the ontology underlying Machiavelli’s own analyses of politics in the ancient Mediterranean and his contemporary Italy. The ontology of force. It’s his foundational contribution to the retroactively constituted tradition of materialist radical democracy.

And I’m going to leave this here, because I want to keep this blog short today. Plus, I think I’m on an interesting idea, and I want the ability to go long. . . . To be continued

What a People Are Ready For, Research Time, 16/05/2017

Here's another troubling parallel from Machiavelli’s writings to our own time. Late in Book III of the Discourses on Livy, he talks about what kinds of government are best for different cultural characters.

It’s a pretty common refrain in his writing, generally. But I’m thinking of one of his returns to this question produced a very disturbing answer. He asks what kind of leadership is suited to free people, and what’s suited for a subject, beaten-down people.

Free people make up a population who chafe against any authoritarian attempt to control them. Such people live by norms of free expression, free association, mutual respect, and dedication to the public good.

They need a government that respects them. A free people won’t want to be ordered around by authorities – at least not without good reason.

I never want to live in a society where I have to act as though
someone like Bashar Assad would be my potential boss. Worse
even than that is something even more horrible – a mind-set
that takes such a possibility as something utterly ordinary.
Free people won’t revolt against paying any taxes at all, for example. At least not free people who have the robust dedication to the public good that Machiavelli described as the popular attitude of Republican Rome. It’s a very current example today, because there’s such a powerful American movement for a flavour of libertarian philosophy that seeks to shrink the entire state to almost nothing in the name of freedom.

That's not what I mean. I mean that a free people in this sense will gladly go along with the orders of their government if the government is explicitly answerable to them and shares the same zeal for the public good.

So far so wonderful. Naturally, it all teeters on the edge of collapse.

Remember that Machiavelli conceives of human societies as having a life cycle. Societies with the best starting and development conditions for the best human life will be fantastic places. For a while anyway. But all societies grow corrupt – small inequalities interact to magnify each other until we live in an oligarchy.

Machiavelli argues that a subject people are best suited to a tyrannical government. They have no devotion to the public good, to the betterment of their community. They’re power-hungry would-be killers – a subject people are a society of thieves.

Those thieves don’t need a government that answers to them. If the government answered to a society like that, it would turn into a kleptocracy. The seats of government would be occupied by people dedicated to raiding the treasury and enriching themselves through backroom deals with powerful businessmen.

That doesn’t sound familiar to anyone today, does it?

And as far as Machiavelli knows, a society at that point of degradation won’t be able to heal itself from a state like that without a complete renewal. It would be a wholly new society, having transformed itself so radically to change from a corrupt oligarchy to a society of free people. So what’s the hope for us?

There’s a curious comment in that chapter. Machiavelli writes that such oligarchies – dens of hundreds of thousands or even millions and billions of thieves – are prone to revolution as the public grows disgusted with their tyrants.

In that revolution, maybe renewal can be found. You can make a whole new society.

Everything Is for Sale, Doctor Who: Oxygen, Reviews, 14/05/2017

“Oxygen” is a bold story. Not just for its ending, which seems literally to have created a new kind of cliffhanger for Doctor Who. But socially, it’s bold. Brash, even.

It’s a coincidence, in part at least. When “Oxygen” was written and filmed, no one knew that it would air in the middle of an election whose likely result will put Britain on a fast track to mass poverty and servitude to a few powerful corporate actors.

Pictured: A marching force of commerce, indifferent to the needs of
the humans whose desires ostensibly drive and fuel that commercial
system. No obvious symbolism here.
The Doctor’s World

I can’t say for sure how the British election will go. I can’t say for sure what the eventual result of Brexit negotiations will be. It could be that the entire process will collapse when Theresa May can’t get the perfectly sweet-spot of a deal to which she thinks she and Britain are entitled by winning a large election mandate and voting to leave the EU, respectively.

I care about Britain. On an individual level, I have many friends who are British or have immigrated there, or are studying there on an EU passport in a very precarious position. Plus, it produces Doctor Who, the TV show closest to my heart.

I’ve been exposed to British culture through its television and journalism about the country for my entire life. While I haven’t really ever had much desire to go to England, the culture’s art, ideas, and history have been deeply influential on my sense of humour and personality.

So it makes me sad to see the seeds of Britain’s economic destruction falling into place. Brexit will force the country to lurch with almost no transition time from an economy deeply integrated with the globe, to a country with hardly any trade agreements at all.

I'm disappointed with Jeremy Corbyn and the political movement he's
trying to lead. His platform has proposals that would restore the role
of the British state as a support structure for the dignified life of all
people in the country. But I don't think anyone would say it's
implausible that I think he voted Leave. Corbyn is an EU critic for
the right reasons – lately, it's been locking people into an economic
system that prioritizes short-term fiscal balancing acts and service to
financial industry priorities over the material welfare of people. But
if he thinks a media landscape dominated by the Murdoch press is
going to give him an opportunity to run a left-wing Brexit, he's mad.
In barely a year of its exit, the government will still have managed no trade deals as an individual country to replace the massive web where it lived as an EU member. Britain will snap from a densely and multi-vectored integrated member of the global economy to a near-autarky. Its trade relationships will be on par with North Korea.

A rash judgment. But I think it’s a possibility. Given the density and complexity of negotiating any trade agreement, it’s a near-impossible task to renegotiate entirely new ones in two or three years. Britain needs an army of expert marketers / negotiators to scour the globe at breakneck speed.

Instead, they’re having an election, thinking that a stronger parliamentary majority will give them some kind of mandate to negotiate a better deal with the EU. There is no reason why the election result of a foreign country would affect the priorities of one’s own.

To Rage at Last

Britain faces a future that frightens a lot of the people in that country who’ve struggled with deeper and deeper poverty as its Tory government’s brutal austerity program choked away any possibility of a recovery from the 2008 crash. A stress-free subsistence is now nothing but a dream.

Pearl Mackie's performance in "Oxygen" is fantastic. It's been so long in
the show that we've seen a companion who, in such an intense adventure,
gets so clearly in over her head. She loves the adventurousness and can
handle most situations. But "Oxygen" is the most intense and dangerous
situation she's been in yet, the most number of times she's literally
almost died in a single episode. And they are potentially brutal deaths.
This is the Doctor’s world. In a literal sense. It’s the world into which the Doctor is beamed. Britain has always been Doctor Who’s first and primary audience. Even as the last decade has seen the show’s global success on a never-before-seen scale, Britain remains its home.

As Phil Sandifer has built the foundation of his whole career saying, Doctor Who has often been a voice of Britain – its rebellious, utopian spirit. As the tension builds in Britain’s looming disaster, the rage is breaking through the surface.

“Oxygen” is an expression of rage. Jamie Mathieson’s script is a howl of rage. The initial concept from the episode’s publicity is already a campily transparent mockery of capitalist values. The Doctor and company land in a world where even the air has become a commodity to be bought and sold.

A basic enough crime against human decency, and one central to Western politics. One of the most brutal battles in American politics right now is the Republican Party dismantling the health insurance laws and exchanges Barack Obama’s government instituted.

It’s far from a perfect system for delivering health care equitably. But without those institutions, millions will lose their health insurance, ruining their lives. Either you decline far faster without health care, or you bankrupt yourself trying to live. When health care is a commodity, universality is impossible – There’s always someone too poor.

I like watching Matt Lucas in the show too, though he doesn't yet carry
nearly the same dramatic weight as Bill. Right now, he plays an
important role, especially in the more intense and frightening stories
like "Oxygen." He's a needed comic relief. "Some of my best friends
are bluish." Yeah, that's what you say, Nardole.
Who would not be enraged at this?

A Price on Your Life Is Also Its Cost

The central lie of absolutist capitalism as an ideology is that the market and profit motive always promotes the most free and fair society. But when everything is open to commodification, life is horribly profaned.

Now, I’m not talking about some special aura of a being’s essential existence that’s choked away as a commodity. I’m not going the full Walter Benjamin today. Commodification profanes life because a world of total commodification kills people. The people of “Oxygen”s world measure space in breaths because they have to budget their personal oxygen use based on their income.

I don't think there’s been such a transparent condemnation of Britain and the West’s current economic problems since “The Sunmakers.” In that story, Robert Holmes described a world where service fees, charges, and taxes in a corporatized world destroyed every life but that of the officials who administered them.

Jamie Mathieson achieves the same in “Oxygen,” arguably better. Holmes’ story was limited by the semi-censorship Doctor Who faced in 1978 – After the social conservative activism campaign against the show when he and Philip Hinchcliffe were showrunners, Doctor Who had to tone down its frightening imagery. So “The Sunmakers” mostly stuck to broad parody.

The dead crewmembers' scarred nerve pathways and cold, vacuum-
burst eyes makes for the most nightmarish makeup I've seen so far in
this season.
Not so for “Oxygen,” as the TARDIS team and the space station’s survivors are assaulted by the shambling corpses of their co-workers and loved ones. Did I mention that their bodies have been mutilated by the total electronic shutdown of their nervous systems and long-term exposure to the vacuum of space?

No Longer a Viable Investment

Yeah, it’s good and creepy. The makeup is suitably nightmarish. And the central concept of the episode is an even more terrifying indictment of our modern capitalist attitude. I can’t explain it without warning you of

SPOILERS!!!

at last. So here it goes. The space station staff’s survivors, throughout the episode, think that their spacesuits are “deactivating their organic components” because of some malfunction.

But the Doctor figures out the real cause, almost inconceivable even to the characters who live in this perverse world. They’re on a mining station, stripping an asteroid of its copper ore. The problem is, their returns are dropping.

Our heroes enter the system to help destroy it.
Throughout the episode, there are small hints in the dialogue that they’ve had to shut down production. There were errors, issues with their equipment, and repairs were taking a while. Their company’s artificial intelligence and algorithms declared their employees not worth the money.

They were fired. All 40 of the mining station staff were fired. Getting the sack in Mathieson’s imagined future of hyper-capitalist human society doesn’t just mean you could die. It’s literally the axe. Execution on grounds of losing your division’s profit margin.

And I thought some of the contracts I’ve signed for freelance writing and marketing gigs were bad.

It reflects a real fact about our world. Britain today has weakened its safety net terribly over the last decade of Conservative Party rule. People who lose their jobs quite often lose their unemployment benefits because, ever since David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity regime, social welfare administrators have a mandate to remove as many people as possible from the rolls.

Getting fired or being otherwise unable to work in Britain today can often cause extreme poverty and death. Just ask Daniel Blake.

This is the world we live in now. Doctor Who has spoken directly to the indignity and torture of life as a working person in the West today. Call out the powerful. It’s what art is for.
• • •
So yeah, about that cliffhanger. Only a brief note so far – I want to see how it plays out in the next episode, which looks like another terrifying and creepy story. But it does more than simply teasing the next episode.

The last seconds of "Oxygen" showed that, after exposure to the vacuum of space in this story, the Doctor remains blind. And he isn't sure how or when it will ever heal. It completely transforms how the Doctor will have to act in the next adventure (at least).

Doctor Who's tradition of cliffhangers began when it was a more conventional serialized adventure show. The cliffhangers typically foregrounded a threat to the main characters, which is fine at a surface level.

But the best cliffhangers don't actually do this – the threat to the main cast isn't a profound form of tension. When we see names in the opening credits, we can be pretty sure they'll survive story to story. No one reading Superman will ever think Superman will ever die from a generic cliffhanger.

In such a context, a cliffhanger works best when it has nothing to do with threats to the main cast. It's about some revelation that will transform the story. "Oxygen"s cliffhanger, leading into "Extremis," is one of these radical transformations. The Doctor, at least for now, has been radically transformed in his abilities. And I hope for next week, the story takes seriously how a personality like the Doctor's deals with the sudden onset of a real disability.
• • •
Here are my previous philosophical reviews of this season of Doctor Who. I don't plan on ranking them until I see the whole season this Spring. So seven more weeks to go.

Knock Knock
Thin Ice
Smile
The Pilot / The Girl With the Star in Her Eye

A Gift For Monstrous Men, Research Time, 11/05/2017

Here’s an analysis from Machiavelli that has some troubling relevance for 2017, as if we needed to be troubled any more than we are already.

In yesterday’s slightly rambling post, I commented on a couple of chapters from Book II of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. It was about how the growth of oligarchy and the corruption of institutions wrecked the people’s faith in democracy.

Yet their freedoms to speak and organize still existed, allowing the faithless and resentful to organize a full overthrow of the democratic institutions they felt were worthless. That was disturbing enough because of how similar the political and social situation in the United States today is to that five century old description.

This is Donald Trump with his friend and longtime business partner,
Uzbek billionaire Lev Leviev, a diamond magnate who rose to the top
of the business class of an autocratic police state dominated by a single
ruthless man. Donald would be envious.
There's a set of chapters in Book III that I find even more disturbing when I watch the open kleptocracy of the Trump family.

Machiavelli writes that a kind, virtuous person dedicated to the public good in their work and life can only thrive in particular circumstances. So what kind of society lets such a good, generous person rise to the top? Where do the nice folks finish first?

Your society has to be dominated by values of equality, respect for everyone, and the fair submission to the rule of law. Not only must we profess that, we actually have to live by those values.

The most successful businesses are the ones who never cheat or cut corners, and provide services and goods that are primarily benefiting society. We have to live diligently, frugal but with an aesthetic sense to appreciate fine things. No one is greedy and no one cheats.

Police and security forces are never out of line, never too rough, always serving and protecting all people equally. No racial biases (conscious or not), no systematic pressures on minorities, no corruption, no allowing solidarity among cops to defend the violent or greedy. Everyone answers to the law not because it’s powerful, but because it’s just.

As I describe this, I find it very hard to believe that such a society has existed for centuries. Machiavelli describes Republican Rome in those terms, but even there, I doubt such harmony was ever universal.

Such a society is utterly unrealistic, but that near-impossibility is the only kind of community where our ethics would actually be adequate to the world. Where doing the right thing always resulted in your benefit, fame, and wealth.

But even the money didn’t matter! Everyone considers more income than would make you and your family pleasantly comfortable utterly unfair and gauche. We would all actually be satisfied with enough to live a nice life, and spend our excess wealth and power on the public good. That would bring everyone happiness.

As a society corrupts itself, says Machiavelli, such virtuous people dedicated to public good find it more difficult to thrive. It’s a downward spiral from the first misstep to ruin. Virtuous, good people have more trouble in society the more greedy people surround them. The greedy’s name for the good is the sucker.

The more corrupt, monstrous men dominate and hold powerful positions in a society, the more public life will be a gift to the monstrous.

A Problem That’s Gone Unsolved for 500 Years, Research Time, 10/05/2017

Thinking about democracy these days brings up its paradoxes. Try googling the phrase ‘paradox of democracy,’ and you’ll find a ton of different paradoxes. Social and institutional forces in a tension that threatened to pull the whole edifice of the country down around its knees.

Something essential will disappear from human civilization if democratic values and governance disappears again. There are good signs – Canada’s still robust multiculturalism, for example.

Look at South Korea’s election yesterday! Their democracy was under its greatest threat over this year, under Park Geun Hye’s corrupt administration. The daughter of the Republic of Korea’s most brutal dictator, in the thrall of the same family of demented gurus.

The new President of the Republic of Korea on the night of his election
victory. Moon Jae In's victory, to me, signalled the idealism that still
exists in South Korea's people for democracy, freedom, and peace,
despite the deathly serious problems the country faces. Hell, Korea
faces its literal near-extinction as a society and people through the
prospect of a short-range nuclear war. But they weren't so afraid of
this that they turned to authoritarian tactics in the name of security,
like the people of one of the world's oldest democratic societies.
Her impeachment and imprisonment led to an embrace of democratic idealism, a rejection of the ineffective steel eyes of the last ten years of hawkish leadership. Moon Jae In, and the new tradition of Korea’s Democratic Party, have the ideal of peace on the peninsula at heart. They’re pragmatists, but let that ideal govern their approach.

That stance earns the name ‘democratic.’

One paradox that jumped out at me reading Machiavelli is the paradox of tolerance. The snarkiest but sadly in-progress tension ripping at democratic values in the West. We’re facing a youth subculture of disaffected, resentful racist, sexist, gleefully disgusting punks who demand to scream their bile as an expression of absolute free speech.

Milo might have been fired, but taking out a figurehead won’t crush a whole cultural movement.

The question of tolerance is an old one. Must a democracy, in the name of universal freedom and tolerance, also tolerate the free expression of advocacy to end democracy?

Karl Popper’s answer was no. And we lean back on the idea in The Open Society and Its Enemies as a defence. But that reference alone doesn’t stop the subculture. That community continues to fester and grow.

It’s a serious threat to our optimism that this idea has existed since Machiavelli’s time. He deals with this when he talks about some of the reasons why democracies collapse.

A democratic government, even the city-states in Machiavelli’s time, were more vulnerable in some ways than the autocratic cities with their princes and military rulers. Democratic government is open – there is always free speech, freedom of association and thought.

The leaders and influencers in the world's older democracies, in
growing numbers, reject democratic methods and ideals in their
governance and missions. Most disturbing about reading the
Discourses on Livy is Machiavelli's idea that the erosion of
democracy and freedom is a natural process in the development
of human societies. For someone raised in an atmosphere of
modernist optimism, it's difficult to face the fatalism of a more
medieval mind.
So that includes the freedom to advocate the end of democracy, and plot to overthrow it. You will always find discontents with the order of things. Sometimes, those discontents are democrats themselves, wanting a more free society. Those are the good ones.

But you can definitely have discontents and malcontents enraged at the freedom of people around them. That was Machiavelli’s problem just as it seems now to be ours.

Yet Machiavelli’s problem was just a little different. Malcontents against democracy didn’t arise in isolation from wider events. The societies that developed anti-democratic movements arose when wealth and power consolidated enough to turn a government into a practical oligarchy. Only a few powerful people really had effective power over the state.

That betrayal of our institutions was the leading edge. There wasn’t yet enough free speech oppression to shut down all criticism. So a generation arises in the wake of democratic institutions having been corrupted, but which still has their personal freedoms.

But they’ve come to associate their institutions – still democratic in name – with corruption and opposition to the people’s freedom. That hypocrisy of the democratic name and its oligarchical control drives the hatred of democracy.

So, Niccolò, how do we combat this self-destructive social trend? . . . . . . . Oh, you mean we don’t? This is just part of the natural causes of a democratic society’s death?

Okay, you’re a very insightful doctor when it comes to diagnoses. But you’re no help at all with cures. Unless I really am asking to cure a natural cause of death.

Back on the Saddle, Pedagogy, 09/05/2017

Or am I in the saddle? Is that how this metaphor works? I don’t really know because I don’t ride horses. I was on a horse once when I visited a farm near where my uncles live. I was maybe eight years old and it kind of frightened me.

I’m actually writing this while delivering a presentation introducing the basics of English grammar. Or at least that’s how I started writing this. I wrote last week about how much I looked forward to returning to teaching. It’s been fun, and a very different experience from where I worked before.

One interesting thing about my job at Cestar is how much of its student body comes from Asia – literally everyone in my first class yesterday was of Indian descent, Punjabi for the most part. I’ve never had people react to me with such deference before.

I mean, I quickly took care of that. I don’t do authoritarian teaching styles. And since the subject matter of the business communication class is pretty dry moment to moment, I couldn’t just haughtily intone the content.

A pretty good depiction of how I roll in a classroom.
I don’t do haughty anyway. I had what I think is a solid technique for defusing the hierarchical tendency, though. I was actually a little shocked when I came into the classroom for the first time, a few minutes before start time – because all the students who had already shown up stood up as a salute to me. There was only one possible response.

“Shit, guys, sit the fuck back down. I’m just dropping off my stuff before going to the bathroom. Then I’m coming back.”

I don’t do authority. I mean, I am an authority – in the sense of expertise, skill at teaching, knowledge of English grammar, knowledge of philosophy, pedagogy, how to communicate complex and dry ideas. But I’m no authority in the hierarchical sense.

My training at Cestar discussed how, along many vectors, I’d be introducing a lot of my students to the subtleties of Canadian culture as well as the course content itself. An important part of that is the democratic principle – authority is earned, deserved through hard work and achievement. And deference is not the same as supplication.

The first class is always about introducing my teaching style, and my style is an approach that often overcomes the usual dynamic that can bring a teacher’s student evaluations down. I don’t lay down the law. I mock academic dishonesty itself.

My key points. This is not a difficult course,* it's actually more effort to cheat or plagiarize. So why would you waste your time and money on faking your way through the course when you’ll do just as well, if not better, by just showing up and paying a small amount of attention?

* I’m not lying. Yesterday (and every day for the next three weeks) was a business communications course, which focusses mostly on English grammar, editing, and short form composition skills. Emails, memos, letters, article-length writing.

It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Academic dishonesty is a terrible crime in a teaching institution, and comes with severe punishments. You get a zero on the assignment where you cheated. Caught a second time and you fail the whole course. Caught a third time and we kick you out for three years.

I’m not kidding.

But cheating is, more importantly, ridiculous. A disservice to yourself. A person is better than that. Especially at the prices we charge for tuition these days.

That Is One Messed Up Freudian Nightmarescape, Doctor Who: Knock Knock, Reviews, 07/05/2017

The title says it all, honestly. This post is going to explore some images and concepts from different bits of philosophy. Think of it as a little experiment for how I’m going to write some historical riffing passages in Utopias. As well, it’s a good way to makes sense of what is in many ways a well-made but fairly ordinary Doctor Who story.

Doctor Who is built from nightmares, after all. And expert at inspiring them too. “Knock Knock” makes Doctor Who’s relationship with your nightmares very explicit and extremely squirmy.

Hidden Secrets in Twisting Corridors

Another good touch in this episode is how the script combines
terrifying psychologically grotesque narratives with some silly
comedy. Especially seeing Peter Capaldi's run through the classic
routine of the Doctor trying and sort of succeeding at being cool.
In Phil Sandifer’s review of this episode, he was right in many ways. The setting of the haunted house is getting a little old in Doctor Who. It’s played a major or minor role in several stories over the last decade since the release of Steven Moffat’s masterpiece “Blink.”

He’s right that it’s getting tired. You can’t really depend on the trope of the haunted house alone to deliver scares. But I do think Mike Bartlett – in his first contribution to Doctor Who – has written an episode that fits his reputation as one of the better television and theatre writers in Britain today.

“Knock Knock” seems disappointingly straightforward at first glance, but Bartlett has put some thought into just how creepy his scenario is. The haunted house is a good place to put shadows, dank corners, musty cellars, and other corners, alcoves, and cracks that disturb and unsettle a person.

But what is a haunted house? It’s most profoundly a place of secrets – repressed memories, facts, phenomena, and processes. They’re the twisting catacombs of the subconscious articulated as a building where our protagonists live, explore, and risk death trying to understand a terrible mystery.

Of course, I can’t discuss that mystery without warning you of the obvious

SPOILERS!!!

In case you couldn't tell from the section title, I'm totally going there.
“Mother? Mother! Oh God, Mother!!”

The haunted house is part of what the literary theorists call our cultural imaginary. It’s one of the mythic images that gets trotted out because of its signifiers. The haunted house is more than just its TV Tropes list, but is the image common in contemporary global culture for a story of the return of the repressed.

Our myths of a return of ghosts long thought buried take the form of haunted houses. Stephen King’s The Shining depicted the inner spirals and caverns of the haunted house as the repository of echoing energy that centuries of human evil have generated.

The catacombs of the hotel represented in one scene with a hornet’s nest. Not long on subtlety. I hate that book.

But the point here is the sheer ickiness of the Landlord’s nature. The trauma of his mother’s illness and pending death becomes a focus for his entire life, fixating on her to the point of erasing her personality. He speaks of her as his daughter, to justify his aged body.

The Landlord's bargaining in the throes of his trauma began the
process that annihilated any individual subjectivity he could have had.
As well, he communicates with her and the creatures animating her through the mansion itself. The old stone house has merged with his mother and with the creatures. All of it is one entity, which he thinks of only as mother, the duty and love on which he fixed his entire personality and life.

The Landlord needs no name because he’s given it up. He exists only for the sake of his mother, the house.

The son gives himself entirely over to his mother. He sleeps deep inside her every night, rarely leaving the grounds except to find food for her.

I’m just making the sexual nature of the Landlord’s relationship with his mother* as explicit as I can make it. I’m going full Sigmund Freud on this analysis, almost as a riff. On one hand, it’s because I’m not very well-practiced in psychoanalytic writing. On the other hand, I don’t think I need to.

* Who is also a house and who is also a gigantic swarm of alien dryad insects, just so we’ve got all this at the forefront of our minds.

Everything I write in this review, I mean in a very literal sense.
Eaten alive. Eaten and still alive.
To Be Eaten Alive

My own introduction to psychoanalytic thinking largely began with my studies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work. So I learned about it by watching its core ideas being utterly broken apart. Not broken apart, so much as shown to be inadequate.

Even though you can understand a lot about human trauma using the familial Oedipal dynamic that Freud described and popularized, Freudian imagery isn’t a universal set of human psychological laws.

It was one set of images that could help us make sense of some common situations. They didn’t fit all situations, and they weren’t the only images to describe what they were about. So we ran up the wrong way on that tree for a while.

“Knock Knock,” however, is about as Freudian as you can get, clearly. The Landlord is a child Oedipus whose trauma crafted a fixation on his mother to the point where even he erased his own identity in favour of his mission. When his mother became the house, he became the house’s protector, just as he was hers as a human. Landlord.

They are a pure force of becoming, and that's the centre of their horror.
Yet the force animating the House Mother isn’t Freudian at all. It’s a swarm, millions of dryad alien insects that move as one to animate the wood of the house, and feed when they’re hungry. They’re swarms that obey the concentrated power of a self-conscious subject giving them an order.

The dryads are a pure force, remaking the territories they pervade. A wall becomes a mouth. A woman becomes a creaking tree. They wipe the world of one nature and remake it in their own.

That transformation is hidden. The dryads’ reterritorialization of the house and the House Mother is the ontological mystery of “Knock Knock.” That’s the suppressed secret of the house, as to its nature.

Most hauntings are a matter of a ghost, what China Miéville literally called hauntological, in his analysis of horror. It’s the repressed evil that echoes from the past into the present. Morally speaking, it’s the call for justice. That’s the typical image of haunting, the most morally uplifting.

Or else it’s a mutated call, an evil so intense that it’s been perverted into a purely malevolent, hungry energy. That’s the sublimation of genocide and murder of Stephen King’s original Overlook hotel.

"The Rats in the Walls" was the first Lovecraft story I ever read,
and it struck me as I read more of his work how much it stood
out. It was a brilliant story, and a terror that hit me more viscerally
than the more cerebral notes of the Weird for which he's known
best. My own science-fiction work published so far explores
more of what deterritorializing horror can do.
The Dryads in the Walls

The dryads are a more Lovecraftian creature. I don’t mean this in the sense of the Weird, Miéville’s abyssal twin to the comforting humanity of ghosts. There’s another kind of nightmare in Lovecraft that he never really pursued, as he did his eruptions of the Weird, the Absolute Other.

I’m talking about the rats in the walls. It’s a nightmare of deterritorialization. The invasion of a force that consumes you by eradicating your shape – what was once solid is now a gas. What was once a personality becomes a yearning hunger with no sense of selfhood or reflection at all.

That’s what the dryads have done to the house. They’ve turned the mansion and its grounds from an ordinary, if ostentatious, dwelling, into a humming vibration of breathing hunger.

The Oedipal sickness of the Landlord and the House Mother have kept a shred of personality left in that deterritorialization. The child-mother fixation remains as a single thread of self-consciousness, of subjecthood, in what should have been the eradication of human personality in the architecture and the organisms in its rooms.

The House Mother was the only one who could hold her body’s shape after the dryads consumed her into wood. And it was because of the incredible force of the Landlord’s grotesque fixation, his parody of love and devotion, with his mother.

If you think about it long enough, this is one of the more unsettling stories Doctor Who has done in some time.
• • •
My other philosophical reviews in this season, Peter Capaldi's last.
The Pilot / The Girl With a Star in Her Eye
Smile
Thin Ice