Case Studies in Open and Closed Minds, Advocate, 20/11/2017

I was originally going to talk some more about Gilles Deleuze’s conceptual engineering today. But a fairly viral article in my social network of Newfoundlanders inspired a few new insights about the culture of my home province and the mess it faces.


The wreck of the Charcot in Conception Harbour, Newfoundland.
Certainly not a metaphor for the island's current economic position.
I swear.
James McLeod – who for the last eight years has been a stalwart reporter for The Telegram, the major newspaper for St John’s – probably doesn’t remember meeting me. We shared a few beers in Toronto when I first moved to Ontario, and I was visiting an old friend.

McLeod was just about to move to Newfoundland, a Torontonian going to work in St John’s. He did fantastic work at The Telegram and loved living in St John’s, but he couldn’t stay in the city following its economic downturn.

Newfoundland’s entire economy depended on high oil prices – government revenues depended on stupidly low offshore petroleum well royalty rates, and much of the rural workforce commuted to the Alberta tar sands. As the island has traditionally done, its leaders put all their economic eggs in one volatile, risky basket.

Right now, Newfoundland and Labrador is on the threshold of an even bigger economic crisis than the cod moratorium and the end of much of the inshore fishing industry. And those crises – the oil crash, the massive government debt burden of Muskrat Falls, the massively aging population – will drive a huge migration from NL to the rest of Canada.

What I find most illuminating were the different reactions to McLeod’s article in my social networks. It’s anecdotal evidence of wide social trends, but it displays a depressingly common cross-section of the attitudes about the future of my birthplace.

Solid headshot. The bow tie is pretty cool too.
One friend, when he posted the article, agreed with McLeod that the province was heading for an economic disaster – he was depressed that there seemed to be no way out, but resigned to another outflux of population. He has plenty of experience working around Canada and the rest of the globe, an open, progressive point of view.

Another friend was resigned to the disaster as well, but also expressed an incredible bitterness that any of Newfoundland’s leaders could ever handle it. This friend is a very perceptive man – I remember through the Williams years of the mid-2000s, he was very skeptical of his leadership.

He showed very little of the sad worship of Danny that swept Newfoundland’s culture in those years. There’s a kind of disgust at the province’s leadership – a combination of bitterness, resentfulness, and hopelessness. A loss of faith in any hope or optimism at all. I worry about that.

And another friend – a Facebook connection from having shared some friends and some conferences in the New Democratic Party back in the early 2010s – who expressed what I find to be a very sad and all-too-common attitude.

Go on back to the mainland. No matter all the time you spent here, no matter how much you came to love Newfoundland, no matter how much the island shaped you – if you’re leaving, then good riddance. You were never our friend.

It’s an inward turning. When resentment boils into contempt. When it’s in triumph, it’s the attitude of the Williams partisan – “How does it feel now, mainlander?” When it’s under a weight, it’s the spite of disgust – “Fuck off back to the mainland!”

The rocks will outlast the people.
Turning away, no matter what’s on offer. Whether it’s multiculturalism, true economic diversity, business and trade links, or even just inter-community friendship. Turn away. They’re not one of us. They don’t count – and they never did.

No matter how much McLeod contributed to my home province over the last decade, it’s the feeling that the province owes him nothing. No mainlander is worth respect.

I’m not a mainlander. I live in Toronto, and my spouse is Torontonian. I grew up in Newfoundland. But being Italian, I never really fit in – my name and the fact that I had a large extended family in Quebec made me a foreigner. Even though I was born at the old Grace Hospital in St John’s and lived there until I was 25.

The irony is that I’ve actually written for Cleary’s paper about the political and cultural insularity of Newfoundland’s culture. It wasn't the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador that drove me to build a life elsewhere. It was the insularity of so many popular attitudes that made my more open perspective feel unwelcome.

There was also the feeling that, despite having been born and grown up in St John's, that I never truly belonged, that my Italian heritage and my connections to Quebec kept me from being a real Newfoundlander. Well, if you don't want me, I won't come . . . .

Where We Can Stare the Madness in the Face, Jamming, 17/11/2017

So the horror film project is coming together way faster than I thought. The Ghost actually wants to get this all done before the end of the year. He’d shot about half the footage already, but I’m now part of the project writing the scenes that deliver the context.

It’s a five minutes into the future scenario, but I still think of its themes primarily as a horror film. As I assemble the ideas, I’m thinking philosophically too. Not in a pretentious way – just about the broad themes that are holding the piece together.

Orson Welles directs Anthony Perkins in his adaptation of The Trial.
In the philosophical discussions I've had about absurdity, few ever
touch on how useful absurdity is to depict truth in societies where
no one is allowed to speak.
I was talking about existentialism the other day. That’s definitely a big part of my ideas here. But I always found one important limitation in the traditional existentialist writing. The best ones are deep, satirical attacks on the real danger of a hostile world and hostile institutions.

Ever since I first came across the storyline and read it, I found it clear that a book like Kafka’s The Trial is a depiction of how ridiculous the law, police, and justice institutions truly are – the arbitrariness of the application of the law, and of the law itself. This was all clear to me as soon as I read it.

But I’ve long been a bit of an anarchist at heart. So the idea that the law’s content is pretty damn arbitrary and the police have a horrifying tendency to let the power go to their heads, growing abusive and corrupt?

I've known this to some degree since I first watched Serpico as a kid. So Kafka’s point was clear to me from the start.

But the popular reception of Kafka’s stories is that they’re pure absurdities. Their depiction of our world is so strange that we disconnect them from reality. The Trial’s K goes through an obviously absurd justice system. Yet it was just an intensified, comically cartoonish version of real institutions.

At the end of the day, K’s story is of a man who’s arbitrarily detained on charges whose content he never knows, his arguments to defend himself are utterly disregarded on the flimsiest of contexts, authorities order him around arbitrarily. Then he’s just taken out to an alley and summarily shot.

Who stole the soul from black folk?
Same man that stole the land from Chief Black Smoke
And made the whip crackle on our back slow
And made us go through the back door
And raffle black bodies on the slave blocks
The new plantation, mass incarceration
It unfolds like a cartoon, but that’s daily life for anyone who grew up under the authoritarian states of Europe – like Kafka’s Austria, or Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Assad’s Syria. But in those countries themselves, you couldn’t say so directly.

That’s why Kafka’s books were received so weirdly in the West – with our democratic institutions, we didn’t know to recognize the reality they depicted. Westerners saw the cartoons only as absurdities. Not the absurdity as the only way to depict the truth.

We’re in the middle of something very different now. You can make a pretty strong case – and many do – that the police, military, and justice systems of the United States and many other democratic countries are not focussed on true justice.

Mass incarceration is the absurd system of modern criminal justice in the democratic West. The United States is at the leading edge of developing this system, and it’s most intense there, but most Western democracies have developed terrible incarceration rates, and even more terrible racial disparities in prison populations.

My country Canada has a mass incarceration problem of its own, mostly focussed on Indigenous people. It’s the latest phase of the Indigenous genocide that the Canadian state was designed to facilitate and complete.

Here’s the difference between what we can say and what Kafka – or whatever Kafka will emerge from the haunted dust of Syria’s revolution – could say. We can call it what it is.

Democratic states of the West currently live out a terrible conflict of conscience – we have free speech and free press rights and laws built into our constitutions. It’s immensely difficult to prevent a journalistic outlet or a social media forum from talking about whatever embarrassing fact of state violence they want to discuss.

More than that, we all generally stand by their right to talk about it. A 1910s Czech living under Austrian dictatorship or a 2010s Syrian living under Assad’s dictatorship could never say in public the horrible things their government did. Everyone knew, but no one could say so where they could be heard – the public square was happy, patriotic, living as if nothing at all was wrong.

We can still defend our rights to call a genocide a genocide, and accuse the icons of our nation of mass murder. No one comes to arrest us for it.

In a way, it’s even more absurd. We can keep calling attention to it, and show how ridiculous the defenders of genocide are whenever they speak. We can mock them in public. Yet the genocides and enslavement continue. It’s like they aren’t afraid of us.

In Syria, at least the government was scared enough of people who spoke the truth to put them in prison. Here, they just laugh at the SJW libtard.

Wondering About Books That Don’t Exist, Jamming, 16/11/2017

So I’ve been reading an old book by a kind of obscure author these days. A totally serendipitous find. I grabbed The Fall of a Titan when McMaster’s Philosophy Department library was clearing out a lot of old books.

I’m not going to get into the storyline or the themes of it today. I want to talk about a curious little feeling that you get as a reader when a book surprises you – a sensible decision for the story that still shocks you.

So, no serious spoilers. I won’t be too specific. But there’s a character who’s been acting as a petty bully all the way through the first half of the book. He’s a teenaged jackass – Biff Tannen, but in 1930s Russia instead of 1950s California.

Whether or not the photo is real, Stalin could laugh.
But he's 19 years old, a student at the local university. He’s coasted by his whole life on just pushing people around. Now, he tries to do the same thing to the protagonist, rough him up and intimidate him into doing what he wants. On top of that, he has stupid, short-sighted, damned idiotic reasons for wanting to push the main character around.

This history professor is a veteran of the Russian civil war – when he was 19, he was sneaking up on Menshevik soldiers in the woods and slicing their throats open. Of course, you know what’s going to happen as soon as the kid starts a fight with this guy.

Yet the narrative has set this character up as a major foil to the novel’s female lead. So we expect him to follow her through the entire narrative, tormenting her. The sudden end to that relationship is a shock, given the expectations we had through watching their story.

Perfectly logical, yet utterly shocking. It’s a beautiful moment.

The Fall of a Titan is definitely not a perfect book. Some of his descriptions are a little too straightforward. Sometimes, Gouzenko strains to find the best image. But the careful logic of how his characters build his narrative is beautifully assembled.

Igor Gouzenko only wrote one book of fiction, this one. Other than that, he lived a quiet life in Mississauga, in a modest apartment. He had the remarkable distinction of being the first Soviet defector to the West. Three days after the final surrender of the Second World War, he marched from the Soviet embassy to RCMP headquarters with a pile of evidence of Russian espionage.

Yet The Fall of a Titan was his only book of fiction. I would have liked to see him pen more stories of the Stalinist era, or develop some dramatic novel about life in an immigrant community in the grey years of mid-20th century Ontario. Those don’t exist.

But what beautiful, fine-tuned books they’d be. Maybe I’ll imagine them.

Visceral Horror Is Good for You, Composing, 15/11/2017

I spent today talking with my collaborator The Ghost about this horror / sci-fi film project we’re starting work on. I don’t really want to talk about specific story or plot ideas today.

We’re still assembling the details of the script, and until we have the order of events and all the relationships among the five characters straight, I’m not going to talk about any  details.*

* Not entirely true – I’m probably going to describe this in more detail to my Patreon sponsors this week.

I want to talk a little about the themes this film is going to explore. Call it materialist existentialist, if you want to sound pretentious. What does that actually mean?

Look at some of the major works of classic existentialist literature. Books by Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and of course Franz Kafka.

When we are reduced to the shriek alone.
For Sartre and Beckett, I’m particularly thinking of Nausea and Molloy. They tell stories of men who grow isolated from their surroundings, turning inward in their alienation until they collapse into pure affect – usually rage and depression.

But Roquintin and Molloy become alienated from society thanks to some very general problems. Sartre’s protagonist becomes depressed, enraged, feeling powerless as his intellect and wit is inadequate to all the problems he experiences. Molloy is a man whose existence as an itinerant grows increasingly incoherent that he eventually disappears from sense itself.

We can very easily take these characters as existentialist stereotypes – existence itself, the burden of life alone, brings them to collapse. Life itself is so absurd! But that’s not quite the case. Hell, even in the stereotypical book of these stereotypes, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the existentialist stereotype is inadequate to what’s really going on.

I’ve come to think lately that the concept of ‘the absurd’ is a method of willful blindness from how existence really does become an empty terror.

Roquintin, for one, is clearly a parody of the empty existence – his existence really is empty, as he doesn’t really have to struggle for anything. He becomes disgusted with his life out of boredom, the emptiness of a life where everything comes easily.

Existentialist readings of Molloy, to me, miss the most important point about Molloy the character – he’s a desperately poor homeless man whose elderly body is breaking down. He sleeps in ditches, scrounges for food, shivers in a downpour with no shelter. Of course his life is absurd – it’s the absurdity of extreme poverty.

Where does the absurdity of my story come from? It’s a five-minutes-into-the-future premise – all the paranoia and state police crackdowns against immigrants and migrants have become universal.

Images of ICE prison camps, Guantanamo and terrorism paranoia, the vile hatred of migrants and refugees, the proud resurgence of ethnic violence and nationalist racism, the bureaucratic slavery of mass incarceration.

Trapped in so many chains. The chains of border police against migrants. The chains of an authoritarian police and court system. The chains of dehumanizing scientific experiment. These are the chains that make his life absurd.

To Be Free and Natural, A History Boy, 14/11/2017

I started this blog when I’d already developed quite a lot as a writer – especially in philosophy. A good chunk of that development came from reading Gilles Deleuze and using a bunch of his concepts and ideas in my own projects, particularly in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.

That book isn’t a book about Deleuze – the book is about what the title says. But I use Deleuze’s concepts often in how I research and explore problems in environmental ethics and activism. Even – especially – when I’m not quoting or referring directly to any of his work.

If you’re going to give me a label based on any legendary philosopher’s name turned into an adjective, you could plausibly call me only a Deleuzian.

Influence is an agony.
Of course, given how most folks in academia use adjectival names, I’d prefer that you didn’t. Because when you’re in an academic context with philosophers and you call yourself a Deleuzian, they think that all your writing is commentary on Deleuze. And that your professional communication is advocating for a single interpretation of Deleuze that you hold to be the true, right one.

Replace the name Deleuze and its adjectives with the name and adjective of any primary material philosopher and you have a significant chunk of the entire field.

This is the closest thing possible to the opposite of what Deleuze would have wanted his follower philosophers to do. The man wrote it himself. If you want to follow in the footsteps of your heroes, don’t just repeat what they said, but do what they did.

What does a philosopher do? In the broadest possible and most essential sense, a philosopher creates concepts. What is a concept? That can take a while to answer. Answering and exploring that question is the major point of Deleuze’s last big book, What Is Philosophy? So you can go into plenty of detail, and discussion too.

But you can also say it very simply, and let the details do the work that details do – get technical, intricate, profound, meaningful in a professional sense. You can understand how a computer works without being a computer scientist. In the same way, you can understand what a philosophical concept is without being a professional philosopher.

Something else that too many academic philosophers tend to forget.

You can make a strong case that we're quite a lot
dumber than some of our ancestors. They lived at
least long enough to become us, and it's become a
conceivable possibility that humanity will end up
cockroach food.
I can give you a really quick and easy-to-remember account of what a concept is. It’s the one I see when I read What Is Philosophy? A concept is a framework for us to understand the world – how we order our thoughts and perceptions from our daily lives to the cosmos.

Here’s what I think is the most important part of how Deleuze understands this – the most important lesson he has for us. It’s why I realized his ideas were so important to building a genuinely progressive environmentalist ethics.

Frameworks to order our thoughts and perceptions is more than just a human thing. All organisms have to make sense of a chaotic world of perception – moving so that they stay alive. Hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution has produced some pretty complex ways to perceive and act. We’re one of those ways.

We can build a tradition – many traditions, actually – of conceptual craftspeople. We develop new abstract frameworks of making sense out of chaos that are much more complex and have many different powers than those of an australopithecus.

Any tradition centred on developing new concepts is properly called philosophical. Plural all the way down. That’s what I love about thinking in a way you could – if you really must – call Deleuzian.

It’s a wonderful framework for environmentalist thinking – a vision of humanity as an expression of nature. No essence. No immutability. No hierarchies. Contingency, change, and diversity. Environmentalist, ecological, and democrat to the core.

The Power of Reality and Over Reality, Composing, 13/11/2017

Originally, I was going to write a quite little post about philosophy again tonight, probably anticipating my takeover this week at SERRC. Or maybe talking a little about Gilles Deleuze before I dive into a few ideas I dredged out of What Is Philosophy? for my next big book.

Then something happened that gave me one remarkable, inspiring thought about Syria. It has some deeper meaning as well, but I don’t feel much like getting into that right now explicitly. It started when I gave the Ghost a comp ticket to the last night of the Syria Film Festival.

He showed up pretty late and couldn’t stay too long. He left about two-thirds of the way through the longest documentary Lost in Lebanon, but saw all of One Day in Aleppo.

Skyping in Ali Alibrahim, director of One Day
in Aleppo
, at the end of SYFF 2017. My
favourite feedback about this film came from
the Ghost. He said, about that moment where
the camera crew's car was shelled, "Are you
sure that wasn't faked? It looked too real!"
The real looks so real that we can't tell if it's real.
This was the first time the Ghost had experienced real footage directly from the ground of a war zone. There is a moment in One Day in Aleppo where the car the camera crew is driving in gets caught in an explosion. They have to carry their driver out of the car because he’s been badly wounded by shrapnel.

All of these were actual events that happened, and of course the crew never stopped filming any of this, they’re professionals!

Soon after festival weekend, the SYFF crew meets up to discuss ideas for next year. I mean, we’re also patting each other on the back, and usually having a big potluck. But we’re also talking about ideas for next year.

We have plenty, too. An approach for a rebranding as we head in to our fourth year, for one. We’re generating ideas to do that, new vectors of the Syrian experience to explore. For so long, we’ve focussed on the war, which is necessary, but has its limitations.

That’s why I mentioned my friend the Ghost. After watching One Day in Aleppo, he wasn’t able to speak again until three hours later. This was exactly the effect the filmmakers wanted people to have.

Here’s the rub. As the Ghost was driving home in a state of shock, I was talking business with people, congratulating volunteers, and chatting about our final attendance numbers. I’m not about to say we’re a little desensitized, but it does show a detail that we can’t see from being too close to the machine.

We play some damn heavy shit. Now, heavy shit certainly does continue in Syria and the entire Persian, Arab, and Southern Mediterranean world. But as an artistic approach, heavy shit brings diminishing returns.

My favourite film this year included a note of hope, even if it was only symbolic. The oldest daughter of a disappeared Free Syrian Army fighter develops a new identity for herself – no longer as a revolutionary Syrian’s daughter, but as a hopeful Syrian-German. Watani: My Homeland.

A lot of the most hopeless people I saw in these films were the ones who were so pessimistic that they’d ever rebuild their country. We need to find more stories of rebuilding – whether we discover them or tell them ourselves. If only to awaken the possibility.

Cinema From the Edge of the World, A History Boy, 10/11/2017

Giving the blog a break from philosophy for a little while. I was basically wandering through some highlights of how Hannah Arendt has been informing my philosophical thinking and research for nearly a month. It’s time to move on.

Right now, I’m moving on to the Third Syria Film Festival. I’m proud to have worked on this one – I’m proud to have worked on all of them, but especially this. This year is the festival I’ve felt most in control of my tasks in marketing and promotion.

In the first year, I was freshly graduated from my communications program and didn’t have enough confidence in myself. We ended up doing a fantastic job, attracted a lot of media attention, and I did solid work coordinating reporters from several different outlets – Toronto Star, Metro News, a few local publications, and the English-language services of the two big Arab networks Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera.

The crew of volunteers and organizers for SYFF 2016. Some of them
aren't really with us anymore, but I'll never forget them.
Don't worry, they're not dead. They just moved on to other things.
Only one of them was stuck moving to America, poor bastard.
We even did a segment for Al-Jazeera English walking around at the Distillery District talking about the festival with Jay Abdo.

All credit to me when it came to keeping everything straight and making all the media folks happy. But I didn’t really work much magic of my own attracting all those people. The First Syria Film Festival was in November 2015. The world discovered Aylan Kurdi two months before.

The Syrian war(s) and their refugees were at the top of the news cycle for months. It captivated Canada. More than 40,000 Syrians have come to Canada as refugees – many, but not exactly a whole lot in a country of 36-million people. Why haven’t we taken in more? There’s no reason why not.

As for the film festival, we never got the same intensity of media coverage in that first year. It was a perfect storm that let us build a strong fanbase that’s been steadily growing ever since.

At the same time, I feel like I let SYFF down a little bit in its second year. I was working a pretty hectic, low-paying job and it took a lot of my energy and attention away from the public relations work for good causes that I actually enjoy doing.

This year, I could put a little more effort into our outreach and branding strategy. We haven't gotten the most media attention, but I think we’ve built our fandom deeply enough that we can get folks out during the snow tonight.

We have some beautiful stories on the screen this weekend. Get some tickets. Come down to Hot Docs and say hello. You’ll never see another set of nights quite like them.