An Engineer Has No Use for Relativism, Research Time, 23/11/2017

Back in my academy days, I’d sometimes get into insufferable conversations about the truth. “What is true?” “What does it mean to be true?” “Truth is all important.” “The purpose of philosophy is to find out the truth.”

By the time I started my doctorate, I had about settled into my approach to philosophy – as conceptual engineering, the creation and exploration of frameworks to understand the world. When I’d talk about this approach with people, I’d often – not that often, but often enough – get questions from other scholars about what that had to do with the search for truth.

Well, it has nothing to do with the search for truth. Truth doesn’t really play an essential role in this activity. If you were learning about a philosophical concept – René Descartes’ cogito, for example – accuracy is important.

Accuracy is a kind of truth – you have to make sure that you weren’t making errors, that your interpretation of the relevant words doesn't run roughshod over the page. But if you were to ask me if I thought the cogito was true? Back in 2009, I’d tell you that I didn’t think it mattered.

I’ve met some philosophy scholars who believe that the ideas of their focal primary material are true. I’ve known people who think Descartes was right. Straight-up philosophically correct about the nature of the mind, world, and existence. Same goes for Spinoza, Kant, Hegel – I’ve met people who genuinely believe that these writers were right. Full stop.

I find that attitude tends to get in the way of understanding other thinkers. You always judge them inferior to the object of your faith. And it is faith. Ultimately, we’re not investigating the real world when we study great works of philosophy. We’re reading books.

So that was 2009. These days, I’m even more radical about this. Ask me now about whether the cogito or any other particular philosophical concept is true – in 2017, I’ll tell you that the question isn’t even proper to ask. Like asking a geologist about the diet and exercise habits of sedimentary rock formations.

I've been in some cramped seminar rooms before, but this is ridiculous.
Does this make my way of thinking philosophy relativist? No, because I’m indifferent to truth in philosophical thinking. You don’t ask if a concept is true in the same sense that you don’t ask if a computer program, or a lamp, or an engine, or a shoe is true. You ask what it does and how it works.

Logic – should I say logics? – still applies to concepts. But that’s because logic isn’t about the truth of any of its propositions, only about how to infer among propositions.

Concepts can contradict each other – you can’t include some concepts together in the same big apparatus of understanding. Deleuze gives a beautiful example, the kind of simple yet comprehensive statement about the field that a long-practicing expert can make.

He says that you can’t build a philosophical system that combines a Descartes-style cogito with a Plato-style ontology of Ideas. For the Platonic Form or Idea to exist, being must be primary – but the cogito’s purpose is to provide a foundation for being and exists in each subject.

Ideas – thought comes to be because Ideas exist. Cogito – thought provides the guarantee of existence. They contradict, so they can’t both be part of the same philosophical framework, the same thought machine.

The logic of conceptual engineering is that of conditions and creations. Such logic maps compossibility.

What to Do With a Real Problem, Research Time, 22/11/2017

So yesterday, I was riffing on the nature of the concept. Concept – an expression in thought of a transformative collision of forces and processes. If you think a concept is just another word for a general idea, Gilles Deleuze is very particular to describe the concept in mathematical terms – vectors and relations.

A mathematical formula expresses a relation in thought – we’ve developed a very good notation for writing mathematical formulas, so we can put a very complicated relation in a single line of writing that way.

Concepts have the same precision, but they don’t function mathematically – Concepts are frameworks for everyday human thought, the schema of our how we understand our nature, everyday life, values, and place in the universe. Philosophy is the practice of developing new concepts – new frameworks for understanding experience.

That’s about where we are now. You know, this is why you could plausibly call me a Deleuzian. Because when he explains the nature of concepts and the purpose of philosophy like this, to me, this is incredibly obvious and makes perfect sense.

Storytime. A few years ago, I was at a philosophy conference in Oregon
and many of the attendees were pragmatist thinkers and scholars. In an
off-handed, but very sincere, comment to the conference organizer, I
said that many of the philosophical problems that the pragmatists were
stuck on found their solutions – or at least their next steps – in the
work of Deleuze and Guattari. It's those solutions – about the nature
and purpose of philosophical thinking – that I'm talking about in my
posts about What Is Philosophy?
It’s the only mission statement for “What philosophy is” that doesn’t sound empty, dissatisfying, and ultimately leave you shrugging your shoulders.* It’s the only one that actually can be a mission statement for the discipline going forward.

* The question that I find most insufferably annoying in all the philosophical traditions I've studied has to be, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" My response – Fuck! Who cares?! If there wasn't anything, it wouldn't matter, so neither does the question. There clearly is, so start there.

Given the absurd pressure that exists on humanities and social science departments today, the disciplines should at least fight back instead of retreating inward. Take on an active role in public life – bring your knowledge skills to the problems of our time.

That itself – what research disciplines that have been stuck in ivory towers so long that the disciplines themselves are under attack – is a philosophical problem.

Problem – a situation, whether in thought or practice or more often both, that constitutes obstacles, dangers, puzzles, mysteries to us. A concept is a framework for our understanding that lets us act such that the obstacles aren’t really in our way. Like someone who moves to a cold, wintery region and has to learn to walk well on snowshoes.

Eric Weber is a philosopher I know in the United States, who co-hosts a podcast called Philosophy Bakes Bread. One of the questions he always asks guests is whether philosophy can bake bread – whether and how it has a practical dimension.

As for me, I think it’s only worth calling philosophy if it has a practical dimension. Philosophy creates conceptual tools for solving problems in action with thought. Components of those concepts can include versions of all the traditional topics of philosophy – God, cosmos, being, the good, truth. But those tools are always there.

Conceptual engineers – designers and testers of guides for thinking.

Thought: An Uncanny Precision, Research Time, 21/11/2017

Gilles Deleuze has an awful reputation as an impenetrable writer. And I mean fucking impenetrable. Not like it isn’t his fault. Some of Deleuze’s sentences – especially in his super-dense late 1960s works – are the kind of language you grind your teeth on.

Working with Félix Guattari made his words more poetic, more like a teacher than a researcher. But the flow of this jazz was sometimes a little too out-there. Deleuze’s language was looser in his solo works during his last decade alive, though he never met the fever pitches of those collaborative works again.

I do sometimes think of their collaborative style like jazz musicians
riffing on each other's improvisations, or rappers freestyling in tandem.
Deleuze and Guattari's collaborations do have a very musical feeling
to their language.
But he doesn’t have a reputation for precision. Mostly stereotypes about being either immensely difficult or bizarrely weird. Which is too bad, because he’s actually a very precise writer.

When you read What Is Philosophy?, it isn’t just a book of philosophy – it’s also a look at Deleuze’s own method of philosophical thought.* Start by describing what it is he makes. Concepts.

* Why not Guattari too, even though his name is on the cover? A reference to the history. Their collaboration was pretty light on this one, nowhere near the intensity of their work in the 1970s. They were old by then, Guattari deep in a years-long depression. He’d die of a heart attack at 62 the year after it was published. Félix didn’t do too much.

A philosophical concept is an account – in thought and as best you can in words – of the full range of possible variations when several different processes collide and interact. It’s like a mathematical description, but without variables or constants, using only the ranges of all the relevant vectors.

A concept has no X, Y, and Z; no e or π. A concept has maximum and minimum ranges of development from a decisive, transformative point. There’s a collision of forces, a moment of change constitutes from its complex dynamics and turbulence a new system of those forces. The range of possibilities that event sets in motion is its concept.

Let's be honest with ourselves, however. They'd never be as cool as
actual jazz musicians.
A concept is an expression of this knowledge of the ranges of potentials, but in thought. When you ask what these thoughts make possible, you’re doing practical philosophy. Exploring what a particular way of thinking – a framework for understanding the world – enables you to do.

What does such a framework – the ability to understand the world using these ranges – open our minds toward? Practical philosophy – philosophical thinking and analysis going to work in the world.

But in this book, Deleuze is thinking only of the nature of concepts. He’d written enough about their development and use. What Is Philosophy? is Deleuze doing meta-philosophy. Trying to describe what philosophical thinking actually is, and what philosophers do when they’re actually doing philosophy and not just writing about it.**

** The occupation of way too many people who call themselves philosophers.

Studying a concept means examining how that concept is expressed, how it’s written, other explorations of it in different philosophical (or philosophically-inclined) literature.

Once you understand the writing, you can mull over its mechanics – its processes, the activities it suits, what it makes visible and invisible, the relationships and dynamics of all its components, how its structure can affect how someone would think through it.

You survey it, like a drone flight over a mountain range. It has to be a very careful survey, because of its complexity. Incredibly precise knowledge, but only after careful, attentive study. A survey to map thoughts themselves.

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.

The Limits of Your Universe, Research Time, 09/11/2017

Philosophical thinking sometimes puts you in a tricky place. For example, I’m doing the research for a big book of political philosophy. That research comes mostly from Western traditions of thinking. But it’s going to discuss ideas and concepts that are universal in scope – applying to people no matter their civilization or culture.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Now put a bunch of philosophers in the room and see if any discussion of universality can make it out alive. Cultural relativism is a common foil here, especially for Westerners like me who know the Western tradition best.

Thanks to the conceptual framework of colonialism that polluted Western thinking for a good few centuries, it’s dangerous for any Western person to apply their writing on a universal scale. Let me give you an example.

Hannah Arendt focussed her energy on understand the core concepts
of Western thought. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Actually, I’ll just link back to the example I gave yesterday when I was writing about something different. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition examines how a set of cultural presumptions about humanity’s relationship with the world and our place in it developed over time.

She talks about it on the terms of those presumptions’ core concepts themselves. Really anal but important thing I want to call attention to – I don’t say ‘in terms of,’ but ‘on terms of.’ In the same sense that, when you ask someone for an eyewitness account, you say they described the incident on their terms.

Her historical references for this analysis are entirely Western – from Polis Greece through Medieval Christian Europe to the Scientific Revolutions and their growing intensity until the Nuclear Age. But the philosophical problems that all these cultural dynamics influence and change refer to existential questions about humanity itself.

Here we have a culture speaking for all of humanity – the West. And it sounds for a second like the argument we’ve all heard before.

European navies and armies spent a few centuries ruthlessly conquering every other civilization on Earth. Our education systems and most of our cultural traditions have trained and raised* most of us Westerners to think as if we deserved to conquer them. Western ideas were universal – everyone else’s were local. Westerners were Man – everybody else were just a bunch of people.

One of the first great thinkers to see the real end
point of decolonization was Frantz Fanon. In The
Wretched of the Earth, the revolution throwing
the colonizers out is only the beginning. A society
can stay on a war footing for much too long. It
has to begin its own cultural renaissance of
creativity and freedom. Only then can they truly
be equals with the bastards who once conquered
them. Rub that freedom to develop your culture
as you want in their face. That's the real victory.
* Respectively.

The typical reaction is to declare this whole pretence to the Western way of thinking being the true universal a general crock of shit. I’m speaking, of course, about the 20th century left. This is the set of progressive attitudes that the paranoid nationalist right believes is the only left.

That old-fashioned progressive attitude is over – in the 21st century generation anyway. The attitude that appears to be shaking out from our culture right now is what I’m about to describe. Basically, it’s the endpoint of cultural decolonization.

At the end of the day, The Human Condition describes one way to think about humanity. It’s a continuous cultural development – a general trend among many different communities.

But those communities grew similar in this broad set of problems – over humanity’s place in the world – that they all developed similar responses at similar times. They shared a lot among each other. Enough to become Europe.

There are other densely integrated communities throughout the world that interacted much more intensely among each other than beyond for long periods of time. They developed their own traditions of thinking about these broad problems – over humanity’s place in the world.

The Western way of thinking is not the one way, standing apart from the many.

The Western way of thinking is one way among many.

In the 21st century, these many civilizational traditions of thought are now interacting more intensely than they ever have before. Let’s all bring our ideas to each other and see what new thinking results.

The Shock of Your Own Emptiness, Jamming, 08/11/2017

Sorry I never updated yesterday. It’s just been busy, hectic, a little stressful at times, and a long Facetime conversation with my colleague on the horror film project got away from me.

I was originally going to make another pass at the idea I was talking about over the weekend. How Medieval Christian Europeans* found themselves adrift and alone in the universe, once they understood how much they needed technologies to pry open the world.

Christian European culture experienced a profound culture shock as
people slowly began to realize that the only friends humanity
could have in the world were the friends we made ourselves.
* Arendt, in The Human Condition, talks about mankind and humanity here. But she’s only ever referring to a Western and European cultural transition – tracing conceptual continuity from Polis-era Greeks to Medieval Christian Europeans to Industrial Capitalist Europeans. That was her area of expertise, but it’s important to keep the concepts’ limits in mind.

Our intuitions and perceptions weren’t adequate to the way the world really was. The guarantee that the world was God’s creation and so was made for us disappeared. Culturally, Westerners came to a terrible realization – God was not looking out for them. They were on their own.

This is what proper atheists mean when we say that God is dead. These aren’t the reductive, arrogant, idiotic r/atheism crowd who thinks Stefan Molyneux is a genius. I'm talking about the atheists who understand that there could be and likely is a divine presence in the world, but admits to herself that God is indifferent to us.

That’s a much more profound atheism than the more popular, “Religion is stupid! And you’re stupid!” style of atheism. An atheism that God herself would respect. Atheism as a challenge to God – Why do we matter nothing to you?

Here’s another idea that Arendt traces from this shock – technophilia. Here’s how she does it. When we could think of the world as creation, our intuitive ways of exploring it – everyday experience and contemplative meditation – were adequate to that world.

An artist's rendition of Isaac Asimov's Trantor – a planet whose entire
surface was covered in a vast urban cityscape. A world made
wholly into a human creation.
Throw that out, and you realize that our only grip on the world is with our technology. It’s a tentative, desperate grip, but it’s better than nothing. When God is dead (to you), you can’t rely on any kind of natural harmony between humanity and the world. When you realize that there never was any harmony at all, your senses and thoughts feel very unreliable.

Here is where you understand that René Descartes’ thought experiment of radical doubt wasn’t arising in a cultural vacuum.

The image of radical doubt – a conception of our world as a fundamentally mysterious place, where we’re at a deep and serious disadvantage even for survival – was the beginning of existentialism. It was an empty world, where we had no friends but the ones we made ourselves.

Worse yet, if we were alone in the world, then we owed no one in the world our loyalty or trust but ourselves. So instead of looking after a creation that was made for us, we came to think of ourselves as masters of Earth. Chew up the world and build a human creation from it all.

If the world as it appeared on its own wasn’t really made for us, we’d make the world for us ourselves. Yeah, that’s working out well.

The Shock of Your Own Inadequacy, Research Time, 06/11/2017

No, this post isn’t about the first time you experienced erectile dysfunction and get your minds out of the gutter.

Really, I’m taking a second pass at the idea I was talking about earlier this weekend. That idea of alienation coming up in The Human Condition. It’s useful and intriguing, and I want to make sure I have a good handle on how to express it. I think I have a better grasp on the how right now.

When I was a young boy, I read Steven Hawking's A Brief History of
Time
. There, I read that the ultimate goal of science was to develop
a theory of everything, a mathematical system that could explain
and predict every phenomenon in the universe in simple formulae.
Hawking should be ashamed of writing such propaganda.
Mathematics are, in some context, important to all sciences. Calculus, geometry, statistics, plain old arithmetic – whatever. If you want to give a quick and dirty one-sentence* definition of science, call it ‘Systematic knowledge emerging from understanding mathematical descriptions of things, systems, and processes.’

* Inevitably inadequate, but making an accurate-enough gesture for us to say that, yeah, it’s true I suppose.

Put that in your introductory-level philosophy of science textbook and smoke it.

Okay, that was the last joke. So Hannah Arendt tries to explain how a profound alienation from nature, the world, and our experience can arise from how central mathematics is to our knowledge.

The mathematical tools of the different sciences give us a better ability to understand natural processes – atomic energy fields, cellular and organic processes, ecological development, cosmological events – than we can get from our ordinary observation of the world.

Go to the typical grade school example – which I don’t think ever gets unpacked the way it really deserves – of geocentric vs heliocentric models of the solar system. We look up in the sky and we see the sun and other heavenly bodies circling us.

But describing their actual motion in our sky takes some convoluted math. So Copernicus, Erasmus, and others developed a heliocentric model with simpler math. It was always an as-if hypothesis just to ease up on the headaches astronomers suffered.

If I could focus on one of the many philosophical and metaphysical
screwups of Christian thought, it's that the common interpretation of
Noah's myth in this tradition is that creation exists for us as we are.
The meaning of the rainbow is that everything is illuminated already.
I much prefer the Jewish tradition, which is much more honest about
how we still have to work for our knowledge.
Mathematics is a technological creation – it’s a human tool, a complex assemblage of symbols and rules. So any knowledge that we produce with mathematical tools isn’t a direct encounter with the world – mathematics mediates our knowledge of the world.

That was fine when we were just coming up with imaginary models to simplify our models of a more complex world – the migraine-inducing calculations of planetary paths in the geocentric model. But then it turned out that the mediated abstract models of visceral experience were true, and our ordinary experience of the world distorted how nature really was.

Arendt talks about Galileo and the astronomical tradition that followed him, but Robert Boyle and the Royal Society’s development of the experimental laboratory was equally important. Mathematics was the symbolism, and the laboratory was the institution and site, of mediated knowledge.

Mediated knowledge was much more effective, more powerful, than knowledge through direct experience of the world. Necessary conditions of humanity’s industrial revolution included that mediated knowledge.

Our own tools, techniques, and technology were the medium of that knowledge. This was a profound cultural shock to the Europeans who developed the modern epoch of mathematics and the institution of the laboratory. My debt here is to my SERRC colleague Steve Fuller’s philosophical history of knowledge.

The power of mediated knowledge over direct experience of the world
was such a shock to Medieval Christian European society that its
success felt like falling back into the Cave. A God whose nature
requires complex mathematics and wrangling results out of a
laboratory to understand isn't nearly as kind and close to us as
Medieval Christian thinking held. All the philosophical attempts
to overcome mediation in knowledge – I think of Hegel's Absolute
and popular evangelical literalist disdain for science – you can
understand as desperate refusals to accept a distant God.
Before this cultural realization of the power of mediated knowledge, Europeans had a view of the world in which every moment of ordinary wandering through the world brought you closer to God.

The medieval Christian conception of worldly knowledge was that our world was creation. Creation was God’s expression, and humanity was the element of creation who God made creation for.

Creation’s purpose was for humans to understand it and live harmoniously in nature. So the popular conception of nature in European Christian culture was as an open book. Creation was something through which we understood God and our relationship to Him. We’re built to understand creation intuitively because creation was made for us.

The success of mediated knowledge demonstrates that creation wasn’t made for us. The most accurate knowledge of the world emerges from using these complicated tools, technology that requires years of training and education to use properly. The world is much more opaque than an entire sub-continent’s culture of our ancestors understood.

People in Medieval Christian European culture thought of themselves as Fallen, that they had to work to understand God and creation again. The success of technology – mathematical symbols and the laboratory – in understanding the world demonstrates to a Medieval European Christian that we’re Fallen much farther than we thought.

We may as well have Fallen into hell.

Is Alienation Inevitable or Escapable? Jamming, 05/11/2017

Alienation is a word with many different meanings. We use it – the ideas and images it evokes – to unpack a lot of fairly different concepts. That versatility makes the word very useful, but also very dangerous because it’s so easily misunderstood.

Here are a few examples.

What we take to be a hallucination, an illusion, is in fact the real.
What appears solid is a practical instinct that more careful
observation shows has very limited scope and application.
Real knowledge shows us that everything is connected,
interdependent, flows into each other, can sense each other.
When I brought Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity to Palgrave a few years ago, one of the proposal reviewers kept talking about marxism. Now, I was using the word ‘alienation’ in an environmental philosophy context.

It’s a book on environmental ethics. But some folks, they see a word that has some deep marxist associations and they fly straight to marxism. The conversation with the reviewer turned out fine.

A lot of academics are surprised when I write back to journal and book line editors telling them their reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. But it’s surprisingly effective.

So what’s underneath all those different definitions of alienation – the orthodox marxist, the popular lefty, the environmentalist / ecological, and other philosophical approaches? Think about it this way – What’s the experience or the state of mind that all these technical conceptions of alienation describe different aspects of?

There’s a passage in The Human Condition that, as far as I can tell, nails this description. Arendt talks about the peculiarly modern chasm between the nature of the world and our experience of it.

The last few centuries of research institutions have discovered more about the universe than we’ve ever known before. We’re able to observe planets orbiting stars all over our galaxy. We’re investigating the smallest, most elusive particles in our universe.

We’ve developed such comprehensive knowledge of how life works on a molecular level. We’re on our way toward a similarly comprehensive knowledge of life ecologically. All of that builds our medical knowledge. We understand the processes and flows by which our planet holds itself together and pulls itself apart.

Confronted by the ALie Nation
The subjects and the citizens
See the material religions through trauma and numb
Nothing is related
All the things of the earth and in the sky
Have energy to be exploited
Even themselves, mining their spirits into souls sold
Into nothing is sacred, not even their self
And I’m being way too quick about these different venues of knowledge. Only listing them to blow your minds a little by reminding you of how powerful our knowledge has become.

We’re learned an enormous amount about the universe. But it’s put pretty much all our experience to the lie. When we walk on the Earth, it feels solid to us. But our ground floats on a globe of molten rock – liquid. Objects feel solid, but they’re composed mostly of empty space, kept separate by electromagnetic fields.

Really, it would be more accurate to describe reality as the interaction – integration, interpenetration – of fields instead of objects. That we’re a dynamic reality where everything is constantly in flux. Alienation rises in us because our reality feels different to us.

We experience solid bodies. We experience stability, not flux. Flux, change, dynamism all tends to disturb us. But that’s the way the world really is.

So we’re left with another example of the traditional distinction in Western philosophy. Really, it’s the distinction that defines Western philosophy – one problem running through the entire tradition. Appearance and reality.

That chasm is our fundamental alienation. Something that we’re supposed to or actually do experience as a harmony turns out to be a chaotic discord. The solidity of the world is an illusion. No, not an illusion – a lie that we tell ourselves and convince ourselves from our earliest experiences.

A lie into which we’re socialized from birth. Our knowledge that gives us so much power also shows that the harmony we felt with the world is utterly unreal. As Arendt quotes Werner Heisenberg, all we have are our instruments and ourselves.

Expecting the world to be one way, we discover that it’s totally different. The ways we understood the world – so common that it feels intuitive, that we raise our children instinctively to believe in the world this way – are actually nonsense. Our subjectivities schizz from the world.

How do you heal this wound in our knowledge and self-conception? It may be as easy and as difficult as throwing that false instinct away. Understand the world as energy, flux, flow, and interdependence, multiplicity without hierarchy or rank. See what you can become then.

And We Could Move the Earth, Research Time, 03/11/2017

Archimedes is a part of the Western cultural imaginary about the nature of science, knowledge, and scientific power. Get me a lever long and strong enough, find me the right place to stand, and I can move the world. That’s the image.

Now, I’m about to take over as Digital Editor of Social Epistemology. So it’s not like I actually believe this is the way science and scientific knowledge actually works.

Human knowledge, technology, and power have definitely moved the world. It’s moved the world into a distinct geological epoch – the Holocene era, blip in the planet’s history that it is. It’s moved the world into remarkable extinction event as well, as we drown so much of the Earth’s creatures in our toxic waste.

But scientific knowledge doesn’t need to understand the world from some point of perfect objectivity to do its work. The view from nowhere not only doesn’t exist, but it was never necessary in the first place.

I write this so that I can draw out of Hannah Arendt’s writing about this idea something that I can use in my own philosophical work. She talks about an “Archimedean moment” in the history of Western science, from which we realized that view from nowhere.

Yet I think she also understands that this “Archimedes” image doesn’t refer to scientific practice itself. Scientific practice and technological development is far more complex than the popular image of it all.

That’s where I pick up Arendt’s thread on this image of Archimedes. The popular image of science remains this ludicrous, inaccurate one of the view from nowhere. The point of pure objectivity where our knowledge is pure in its truth.

Even that popular image misunderstands Archimedes’ words,* ignoring their directly practical character. Knowledge is how he moves and changes the world, not simply understanding it in some purely abstract sense.

* I doubt Archimedes himself ever said anything precisely like that. Same with the Eureka! moment. The idea, the image, the cartoon that appears in our popular culture is most important. 

No, what matters is the image of the Archimedean point or moment. The image that fixes our belief in human knowledge as aiming for pure objectivity is part of our popular culture. It isn’t true about the nature of knowledge, but it’s popularly believed to be true. We shouldn’t confuse the two.

Arendt writes about how that popular belief has informed popular attitudes about science and knowledge for centuries. She cites a philosophical explanation of Galileo’s experiments. But she could just as easily be talking about the public relations campaign of Robert Boyle and the Royal Society to keep their research from being swept up in the violence of England’s politics at the time.

I also want to keep an eye on Arendt’s explanation for what Galileo’s experiments actually did, her philosophical account of it. Copernicus’ sun-centric model of Earth’s system was conceived and used simply as a mathematical tool. It was a way to simplify planetary mathematics.

Only when Galileo made his telescopic observations of the planets did Copernicus’ model turn out to be so inconveniently true. He didn’t prove it true like a demonstration of logic. He discovered facts which established heliocentrism as a fact.

His telescopes were the long and strong levers that, in popular consciousness at least, moved the world. Which seems to be where it really counts.

The Unexpectedness of Editorships, A History Boy, 02/11/2017

A short post today. I took the first of this month off, because instead of composing Wednesday’s post Tuesday evening, as I usually do, I was tired. A few things in my professional life are unexpectedly in flux at the moment, and I needed to take Halloween night to relax watching Cult of Chucky with my fiancée.

One of the nice changes happening in my professional life is that I’m taking over editorship of the Reply Collective. I’ve been part of this group pretty much from its inception, and I was pretty surprised when I got the offer to be the Patrick Troughton to Jim Collier’s William Hartnell.

I ended up as an early member of SERRC – I was talking with Jim in 2011 about coming to Virginia Tech’s Science and Technology Studies department for a post-doc. When I didn’t get the funding, I thought that would be the end of it.

But at the same time, Jim was rolling out this open-access companion website to the journal Social Epistemology. It seemed like a really cool thing to be part of, especially because I wasn’t within spitting distance of a teaching or research job on my own.

Since then, SERRC has been my intellectual home more than any other institution. I’ve regularly published there, contributing original essays and reviews, replies, conversations, collaborations. They’ve been better than any regular old journal would have been when it comes to my more experimental pieces.

Knowledge can't just stay in university desks and archives anymore.
We have work to do.
Here’s a story about how much SERRC means to me. When I attended the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in Victoria a few years ago, I did so to present a panel on my book Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. At the time, I wasn’t working in a university or a college.

Honestly, I was working at IKEA. $13/hour. Booking and processing furniture deliveries for people. Had a couple of contingent communications contracts, but that was actually my main source of income at the time.

But I’d seen how people are ostracized when they write “Independent Scholar” on their nametags at academic conferences. I wasn’t about to do that. So I put on my nametag the name of the institution my name was most associated with.

“Adam Riggio. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.”

I got a few “What the hell is that?” comments. But I’ve always loved breaking people’s brains, much more than I could ever enjoy being treated like shit on the bottom of a tenured professor’s boot.

Let me take an institutional view. SERRC is open access. It’s free for everyone to read. Sometimes, our articles can get really technical. But for the most part, we encourage contributors to write in a style that any half-intelligent person will be able to follow. Platforms like SERRC are, if you ask me,* is the future of research.

* And it’s my blog, so I’m just going to tell you.

The heavily paywalled model is dying. The academic publishing companies may still be profitable, but that’s only because their massive subscription prices practically hold university libraries hostage.

More and more libraries are turning down journal subscriptions – there are too many journals, and universities face too many funding cuts to maintain subscriptions. As a researcher, I always wanted to have my work read by the general public as well as colleagues in my fields.

So it never suited me to spend hundreds of hours of work on article submissions to elite journals that few people could even access. Today, higher education is under threat from politicians and revanchist social movements who consider their research either useless or actively hostile.

We aren’t going to defend critical knowledge production institutions and networks from radical reactionary politicians and governments by publishing technical papers in journals no one can access. That makes us elitists, and everyone hates those people.

I’m not going to say in detail what I plan to do with the SERRC once I take over the editorship. That’s going to be one very contentious email thread.** But we live in very difficult, dangerous, contentious times.

** Mind you, first thing I have to do is get updated emails from everyone. The number of bouncebacks I got tonight kind of ruined my emotionally-loaded tribute to my William Hartnell.

Through a platform like SERRC, it’s possible for intellectuals who believe in freedom of knowledge to take a public stand. So necessary.

Do We See the World or Our Maps of It? Research Time, 31/10/2017

I’ve had a pretty tough day this week, and as I’m writing this post, it’s only Monday. Monday night while I compose a quick Tuesday morning post.

But while I have a lot of work to do for tomorrow for different projects, I need to get some thoughts down here today. If only to collect my thoughts at the end of that long day.

Spoiler for the Edgar Wright film The World’s End – when the body-snatching aliens leave Earth at the end of the movie, they send a planet-wide EM pulse that fries every piece of electronics in the world.

Every hard drive, phone, appliance, and presumably also all the machines keeping people alive in hospitals. Millions die, and the world collapses into a dystopian nightmare. Nick Frost’s ending narration describes his little farming community in England, where they know nothing about the rest of the world.

Nowhere in the world knows anything about anywhere else. How could they? They couldn’t communicate with anyone. In my business communications classes, I talk about the different norms and possibility spaces for web conference conversations, global phone calls, and emails that can cross the Pacific in minutes.

At the end of the movie, that world is all over. The whole world is a mystery again.

A map of the Earth drawn in 1570. We've come a long way since then.
In one of the later chapters of The Human Condition – chapter 35, if you want me to be exact – Hannah Arendt talks about how the world has been made less mysterious. Exploration, settlement, globalization, the simple act of mapping – global cartography with more and more detailed measurement.

Yet those maps are still maps. They’re representations, abstractions. They cut away so many details of living experience to achieve that crystal clarity of the map. Anyone who’s lived anywhere can point you to the clear difference between the experience of wandering around somewhere and studying it by a map.

No matter how detailed that map is – doesn’t matter if the Google Street View car is leading the way and feeding all its new data to your phone in real time – it’s never as detailed as real experience.

Yet the map has incredible power. All our scientific representations have remarkable power to change our world – any reckoning with modernity, the all-too-brief Holocene Era, the Holocene extinction, has to develop an adequate concept of that power.

It’s a paradoxical power – incomplete, inadequate to the complexity and visceral nature of real experience, yet able to encompass such a more comprehensive grasp of the world’s real complexity. Consider for a moment how difficult it is for a single human to wrap their head around all the content – let alone the implications and broader meanings – of our data sets about the world.

We need our computers to interpret these massive amounts of data, to sort them and organize them so we can create our graphs and illustrations. The raw statistical data of our measurements of the world are, on their own, too much for a human consciousness to process. We need our tools.

Those tools – maps, data sets, interpretive algorithms – are how we squeeze meaning from all the information that’s beyond the powers of human consciousness to experience.

Arendt calls it the view from nowhere. Thomas Nagel did too, and wrote a book about it. But what it really is, is the view from the machine – a computer and its software programs is obviously a machine, but even a simple map is a machine. It returns to a fundamental tension in human existence.

Our experience is the most intense way we have of engaging with the world – plunging forward, arms out, grappling with the complex mess of this web of events. But our power in the world only comes from stepping back from that complexity, letting our machines wrestle with reality and shape it into a form that our consciousness can wrap itself around.

Our most powerful actions are a result of delegating our own powers to machines.

The Terror of Men, Composing, 30/10/2017

So I haven't written a post about my artistic work in a while, and I really should. I’m getting to the point where my Patreon’s getting hungry for more content. And if you’ll allow me to get a little crassly commercial here, I’m getting close to a point where the activities of Adam Writes Everything are going to get a bit more commercial.

Let me start at the current moment. I’m working on a new film project with a collaborator who I met as a colleague at my current teaching job. Right now, we’re putting the script together in tandem.

No, I'm not actually working with Ghostface Killah. But the privacy-
screen name for the blog works well for his personality.
We’ve opened up a Google Doc where Ghost throws up ideas, key lines, descriptions of scenes; then I refine all that into a shooting script. When we have the script together, Ghost gets a small crew together from the folks he’s made weird-ass short films before, and we get to work.

Did I mention I’ve ended up cast in this? I play a slightly deranged criminal psychiatrist. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve written anything to perform myself. It’s been bracing to get back into that – you approach the writing differently when you know you’ll be saying the lines yourself.

Mainly, you know your own acting talent, and definitely its limits.

I can’t tell you too much about the story, because it’s actually a little complex and I want to keep it secret. But it’s a horror film. A horror film that revolves around identity-cracking psychosis and violence against women.

An obsession-turned-tragedy sublimated into a split personality that’s carried out a serial killer’s campaign. Satanic-cum-Freudian rituals executed on IKEA furniture in a disused suburban basement.

I’m going all in here. I’m just going to throw every image of self-deluding misogyny on screen in the most intensely horrific, terrifying, icky, pathetic way possible. An exorcism.

An impossible exorcism, of course. A reasonably self-conscious man knows that possibility to intimidate just by being in the room is present in his whole life. We’re never getting rid of the desires.

Tamping it down because we’re realized that a just society is one where – at minimum – men fear the repercussions of offending any woman as much as a woman now fears the repercussions of offending a powerful man.

So that’s the kind of film I want to make here. I’d also like to do it with virtually no money, which I think we can manage. It’s the perfect kind of film to make a killing on the horror festival circuit.
• • •
I’ll be sharing this post on my Patreon page this week, since I haven’t posted there in a while. But after Ghost gets over his flu, we’re going to record our first YouTube channel video. Mostly talking about the ideas behind the film.

Later this year, I’ll finally transition Adam Writes Everything into a proper website. Much of the same will be going on, but I’ll just create more of a brand around it.

I said a week or so ago that I started this blog as therapy. That was true, back in 2013. Since then, I’ve grown more into my ambitions, and I’m in a position where their possibility is actually in sight. Not just a dream.

Being in Toronto is part of that, thanks to the extra connections you can make in this city. Reestablishing a foundation for teaching work, with a decent salary that can easily become more decent over time. Building the artistic side of my philosophical work is my own ideal for the rest of my life.

It’s been years, but I’m ready at last to begin that work. Took me long enough. Fucking economy.