Sunday, May 17, 2009

Barack Obama Is Still a Brilliant Political Leader and Thinker, But I Think He Might Be a Jerk

So I read an article on Slate the other day called "Notes Toward a Theory of Obama." It consists of Jacob Weisberg working through a series of observations of Barack Obama, trying to assemble a coherent picture of the man. I still admire him as a brilliant political thinker, and one of the few genuinely smart people who has the charisma and eye for opportunity put their complex philosophical ideas into practice. And there are signs that he might succeed to some reasonable degree in his plans to transform the American economy into a sustainable framework with a more comprehensive social safety net.

However, Weisberg makes some cutting observations that I've noticed about the man himself. Even though he's notoriously cool and continually depicts himself as a calm, tactful, caring man, there's a razor sharp edge to many of his off the cuff remarks, even to his friends and family. I first noticed this during his joke at a press conference during the transition. Regarding his consultation with past presidents, he mentioned that he wouldn't try to contact Nancy Reagan for a séance, and apologized the next day for his insensitivity. As he was boarding the train with his family to the inauguration ceremony, he told his daughter Sasha to mind the gap. "We wouldn't want you to fall underneath the train," he said. "That would really mess up our whole inauguration."

I first listened to those jokes, and felt quite amused. Finally, a politician with as black a sense of humour as mine. I was sure people wouldn't understand, but fortunately his critics are focussing on his actual policies instead of his knife-edge jokes. Then when I listened to his monologue at the Correspondents' Association Dinner, I observed what Weisberg would later write about in his piece.

All Obama's jokes about his cabinet and fellow politicians were insulting, sometimes cruelly personal. He never went as explicitly far as Wanda Sykes' jokes later, but he carried an implicit sting. The only one spared from his wit was himself, who he played up to be the most awesome human being alive.

His comments, his style of policy production, and his relations with political friends, opponents, and co-workers in cabinet has let me put together an even more nuanced picture of Obama than comes across in his two books. Dreams from My Father depicted Obama as an uncertain youth, adrift without a place in the world. The Audacity of Hope saw Obama in a stable place, articulating his vision for society.

Now that he has the validation of the presidential election and his high popularity throughout the country, he now sees himself as a Great Man of History. He makes the policy, forms the philosophies, and no one is above him. The problem is that he knows it, and acts like he knows it. An even bigger problem is what will happen if he makes a serious mistake. Men convinced of their own superiority can lose sight of their ability to stumble, and become unable to tell when they're falling. That denial can seriously exacerbate an error, compounding it into a disaster.

Monday, May 11, 2009

An Alien in London, Overweight as an American

A few days ago, I decided I'd watch the revived Doctor Who over again on dvd, one episode a day, or thereabouts. I've been watching a few of my classic series dvds like this while I ate dinner for the past couple of weeks, and it's a damn good improvement over most of what else is on tv at 5.00 in the afternoon. I think it actually has been well over a year at least since I watched any of the Christopher Eccleston year, so it makes for a good visit to an old friend.

Saturday afternoon, I watched "Aliens of London," the fourth episode of Eccleston's season, and the first part of one of its least-liked stories. The premise of the main plot, as we're introduced to it, is that a group of aliens called the Slitheen have disguised themselves as humans in the British government and security services, and faked an alien invasion. The Slitheen disguise was that they killed people and turned the humans' skins into pressurized suits that they squeezed their large bodies inside, and removed by opening zippers concealed on the forehead and wriggling out.

The main problem people had when the episode first aired in 2005 was that the aliens were more laughable than menacing. They always had to release excess pressure within their suits, and did so by farting, which often led to a barrage of immature jokes that the aliens made themselves. And that immaturity was present in their personalities, vanishing only when they were out of their skin-suits actively snapping necks, which was not often enough to make them genuinely frightening as Doctor Who can make an enemy. Overall, they were quite underwhelming, completely incapable of generating any gravitas, usually coming off as childish alien jerks.

It was only after several years of watching the new show regularly that I realized that this was the idea. Chief producer Russell T Davies has worked out quite a few ideas through the stories of Doctor Who while he was in charge, and the Slitheen was the first iteration of what was actually a quite intellectually interesting villainous motivation: money. The Slitheen were actually an extended family of cash-strapped alien criminals. Their plan was to blow up a planet with a bombardment of nuclear weapons and sell the radioactive pieces on the black market as fuel. But they didn't have the money to buy a planet's worth of nuclear weapons and blow up a lifeless Earth-sized rock. So, after a little research, they discovered Earth, a planet with many antagonistic governments with enormous nuclear arsenals. All they could afford were a couple of transport ships, pressurized skin-suits, and some surgical equipment for a quickie operation on their fake alien, a pig. And with this cheap equipment, they enacted a plan to fake an alien invasion, gain the launch codes for one of the country's arsenals, and attack the other nuclear powers under the pretext of defending from an invading vessel in orbit. The retaliatory strikes would destroy the planet.

The Slitheen were a band of rather ingenious petty criminals, the Fat Tony of Doctor Who. Russell was interested in exploring how petty crime and greed on a galactic scale can cause civilization-ending destruction. It's an interesting idea that such a cataclysm could be inspired by petty greed, but ultimately it makes for a let-down in the drama. As we watch a story unfold, we see a world-destroying catastrophe being precipitated, and we expect a similar sense of majesty in the motivations of the villains. This is why I was so dissatisfied when I first saw the Slitheen acting like immature school bullies. These people are planning to destroy an entire inhabited planet! Could we at least make them aware of the scale of their actions?

It may be fascinating to consider the extreme selfishness that a character could have destroyed a civilization for some quick cash. I think Russell might have been trying to work through a banality of evil concept in a Doctor Who story, which is intellectually interesting, and morally terrifying. The problem is that while the concept is morally frightening, it's a dramatic letdown. Immense plans are being carried out by pathetic, petty morons. I respect Russell's ambition in trying to make this dynamic work, but the mismatch is just too great for anything but an intellectual consideration. As drama, it just doesn't work.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dreams Are Not For Sleeping, They're For Flying

A few days ago, I finished reading a semi-autobiography of Federico Fellini, a book I picked up in a bookstore in Windsor last month, one of the best impulsive literature purchases I've ever made. Everything in the book except the forward and afterword are transcripts of interviews the author, Charlotte Chandler, had with Fellini talking about his life during their fourteen years of friendship. All you read, though, are Fellini's rants, and none of the questions he was asked that inspired those rants. They cover recollections of his entire life, and while you don't discover much trivia about the production of his individual films, you learn a great deal about the conceptions of the films, the thoughts, philosophies, and imaginations that went into them. It was like reading Fellini's blog entries, as if this loud, huge, joyous man were in the room with you telling these stories.

For the sake of full disclosure I will tell you that I have only ever seen one Fellini film, 8&1/2, and nothing more. But now I want to see them all. Intervista especially seems fascinating. It's his second last film, a meta-film about filmmaking itself. A Japanese documentary crew is making a film about Fellini while Fellini himself is directing an adaptation of Franz Kafka's Amerika. And at one point, Fellini begins to fly over the studio sets he's built in Cinecittá. It's a recurring image throughout the book, that Fellini flies in his dreams.

Listening to Fellini's voice, I've reconsidered the importance of dreams and dreamlike images in the works I'm planning to write in the future. A Small Man's Town is a very realistic book, its narratives all taking place in solidly ordinary life. And my Undesireables project fits my realist leanings neatly as well. But my untitled cyberpunk project has considerable room for this kind of perceptual bending.

I imagine realistic conversations shifting seamlessly into frightening dream logic, as the protagonist Gina is confronted by a novel idea and sets off exploring her psyche and her memories. She has a dark past of which she knows nothing, and her rediscovery of that past is terrifying, a great shock to her suburban sensibilities. Her fugues of rediscovery are to be explorations of a strange place in her brain and in the past of which she knows nothing, yet are disturbingly familiar. She eventually becomes comfortable in her strange surroundings, though what surrounds her is no less strange, and she is just as alienated from her dry dull life at the end of the story as she was from the terrifying dreamscapes at the beginning.

The story has changed quite a bit since its original conception, introducing the dreamscapes and science fiction elements, as it now takes place in a community I think of as cyberpunk suburbs. I'm not yet sure what they'll look like. There is a character of a detective who becomes Gina's unwitting guide to her past, who in my initial conception of the story was a regular jaded ex-cop. But now, I see him as a cross between Nick Fury and Dirk Gently. See if that makes any damn sense.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Problems of Philosophical Argument

As part of my research, I've been working my way through an old anthology of essays under the title Deep Ecology. I'm discovering the name is something of a vague term, which I enjoy philosophically, but will make some of my philosophical writing more difficult. I had originally conceived of two projects in environmental philosophy: the extension of political/judicial rights to non-humans, which I think is a philosophical misstep; and re-systematizing our metaphysical and ethical understanding to understand the integration of all auto-assembling patterns with each other.

I thought of this more radical philosophical work as deep ecology, and the more conservative rights extension as deep ecology. Reading through the history of the field, I've discovered that all 'deeper' thinking about the environment has been referred to as 'deep ecology,' and there's no solid definition for the term. This is the kind of grey area of philosophy I enjoy working in, and think is the most fruitful. Unfortunately, it means any reviewers will likely say my account doesn't treat the concepts simply. It wouldn't matter that the concepts are nowhere near simple anyway. Perhaps I'm being too pessimistic.

Today, I found an essay in that anthology call "Discriminating Altruism" by Garrett Hardin. Hardin, an American, is a fascinating figure, one whose ideas for shaping a sustainable contemporary society through population control alienated both rightists and leftists. His endorsement of abortion as a suitable means for population control took care of conservatives, while his critiques of immigration as being a detrimental public policy and altruism as a laughably silly morality took care of liberals.

While I'm intrigued by the unsuitability of universal altruism (the "brotherhood of man," as John Lennon and a ton of others have said) as an attribute that would be naturally selected, the way he writes about it irks me. It's no more than an irk, a formal issue of philosophy. But the way one writes philosophy is at the centre of what precisely you think philosophy is. And the first important question you can ask anyone is what exactly it is they do.

Strict philosophical argument is a technique of writing suitable to start debates over increasingly small issues, but is unsuitable for a genuinely radical philosophical engagement. Hardin's argument in that paper begins from a series of premises setting up a network of definitions. The definitions are then analyzed so that you're led to infer step by step to his conclusions. The conclusions are elaborations on the definitions. This is very good for working out the results of a set of definitions, but I don't think it works so well for approaching what is normally called the Truth™, or for creating radical or transformative new ways of thinking.

An argument is always an argument for something, something that you believe in and want to convince other people. Your targeted belief can be a premise in your argument, and you would convince readers by showing how your premise leads to a widely accepted idea as a conclusion. Or your targeted belief can be a conclusion, and your argument would be structured on showing how widely accepted ideas are premises that support your conclusion. A reader's expectations about what is possible in thought are restricted, so any opposition or doubt of that which is argued for becomes silly, rejected, wrong. Relations between ideas may be worked out by examining arguments, and this is very valuable, because we can see how ideas can be made to fit together, or how they are incompatible. But truth is discovered by investigating the world, not by demonstrating compatibilities among ideas.

The most difficult task of philosophy is to create a new way of thinking, a new way of life. This has been done very rarely. Plato, Confucius, Friedrich Nietzsche are some names that come to mind. Perhaps the revolutionaries in logic at the start of the twentieth century as well. Gilles Deleuze made a living writing books that examined other philosophers to work out new ways of life that they inadvertently created within their investigations and arguments. This is creative philosophy, radical philosophy. This is done by an opening of thinking.

As yet, I'm not sure how to explain this beyond my vague gestures and invocations to read Deleuze and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But creative philosophy is the generation of a worldview, a break with traditions in understanding. This kind of philosophy requires an opening of thought, even embracing systems of thinking that contradict each other blatantly, if the mashing together of paradox is to create a new logic where such inferences are perfectly normal. The rhetorical arguments of philosophy – and to argue is rhetorical – narrows the possibilities of thought. Creative philosophy throws those possibilities wider than previously imaginable.

It is far more difficult to orient oneself in a groundless process of thinking, and the vast majority of people are scared shitless by this prospect. I've met philosophers who dismiss this way of thinking about philosophy as the techniques of a charlatan, creating excuses to get away with bullshit. But a creative philosopher only makes bullshit when he fails. When she crafts a worldview that intrigues, that offers useful re-creations of old premises, new approaches for the challenges of new times, then brilliant work has been done. And if the successful creative philosopher is lucky, that work will last longer than even the tightest, most comforting argument.

Is this a well-written defense of philosophical egomania? If you think so, I can't convince you otherwise. After all, an argument is only persuasive if some premise, or some conclusion, was acceptable beforehand. If you approach an argument and think it's all wrong, that it contains nothing of value, then you will pass it by, because it doesn't matter to you.