Thursday, December 30, 2010

Keep Your Daughters Out of Ballet

Darren Aronofsky and I have a troubled relationship. I think his films are brilliantly constructed, but so viscerally disturbing that I can never watch them more than once. At the same time, there’s a ridiculousness to them that I find funny in those few moments of relief from bodily terror. The Wall Street and Kabbalistic conspirators who hunt the protagonist in Pi are so amateurish that they become fools. If Ellen Burstyn’s character in Requiem for a Dream wasn’t so pathetic, her hallucinations of a jumping and belching fridge would set me cackling. If the endings of these films weren’t so unsettling, they’d be black comedies. Maybe that’s the best way to characterize the general tenor of Aronofsky’s work (The Fountain aside): black comedies for sociopaths.

Dennis Lim at Slate examines the weird sense of humour in Black Swan, which I saw last week and thought was pretty amusing in that ridiculous way. I wasn’t really sure what to make of Natalie Portman’s performance, though. I have a good friend who has gone through the gauntlet of professional ballet, and from what she’s told me, Portman’s psychological breakdown is horrifyingly accurate to the mental state of the average professional ballet dancer.

These are people treated more as machines than humans, driven into anorexia and hideous personal collapse. Nina in Black Swan is a perfect illustration of the double bind of ballet dancers. She’s pressured to stay grotesquely thin, while her work requires tense athleticism. She’s molded into a concept of femininity as innocent childish asexuality, then sexually manipulated by her director and the demands of a role that she has no concept of how to portray.

Her hallucinations as she loses her grip on reality are multifaceted and fascinating, and constitute the character just as much as the actual performance and dialogue. The self-mutilation is a typical Aronofsky stomach-churner, and the autonomous mirror images are typical Aronofsky techniques to unsettle you mentally. Some of her swan transformations are actively hilarious, and the final black swan dance sequence is genuinely beautiful, a triumph of the character, which because this is an Aronofsky film, doesn’t last.

What Lim describes as the biggest aesthetic puzzle to the film is where it lands in the matrix of camp. Everyone in this film is an over the top caricature except Natalie Portman. Mila Kunis plays the less-talented oversexed party girl. Barbara Hershey is the overbearing self-obsessed hyper-possessive mother. Vincent Cassel is a walking cliché of a genius greaseball director. It helps that he’s French. Winona Ryder’s bitter, forcibly retired diva is the most obvious throwback to Showgirls, which I am increasingly convinced is slowly becoming one of the most influential films of the end of the twentieth century.

Now look at Natalie Portman in the middle of all this. Her character has no sense of humour at all: every situation she’s in is heightened to an incredible emotional intensity. Everyone in the film understands, to some degree, the ridiculousness of the world of professional ballet. It’s the most campy, over the top, laughably zany of all the traditionally high arts. Everyone can see, to some degree, the partial silliness of this world. Except Nina.

She takes all this with an immense seriousness, giving weighty significance to everything that happens to her. Her mother, sitting in her studio of mediocre self-portraits, has some sense of what a cartoon she is: that’s what she paints. Her director talks the pretentious talk when he’s wooing investors, but he knows it’s all a matter of kissing ass. Her rival just loves looking good on stage and getting laid. But for Nina, Swan Lake is the culmination of her existence. The tragic dimension of the movie is seeing that such a serious, perfectionist attitude ultimately gains you nothing. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that if you're considering enrolling your four year old daughter in ballet, watch this movie first, and make sure she understands what kind of thinking will turn her into Nina.

The next day, I ended up seeing Tron, which was awesome, and 3D, and had Jeff Bridges in it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Crippled By Moral Sensitivity

A very funny moment happened during my first public reading of my short fiction. A friend was outside stumping for me, trying to get passersby along the Hamilton Art Crawl where I was performing to come inside and listen to me. One person asked my friend who I was, and she said that I was a PhD student in philosophy. This person then walked away faster.

I can understand that reaction. Academics and literature rarely go well together. It’s a very strange development to watch university MFA programs become the thriving new home for American short fiction. But those programs are actual creative writing programs, there to teach people how to write literature itself. They’re more like trade schools than academic institutions. And the MFA creative writing programs I’ve visited myself are free of a lot of the pretention and elitist attitudes of high-level academic institutions. Academics are often taught to keep their language dry, free from controversy, easily understandable, unchallenging, to stay away from ambition or broad scopes of meaning. I’ve never gotten along well with these academics, and I’ve worked best with philosophers who are just as hostile and apathetic toward the boring aspects of academic writing as I am.

But now that I have enough stories for a full set list myself, I’ve actually looked at my completed works so far and noticed an interesting trend. Half (or more, depending on whether you include writing about students and not just academic professionals) of my completed stories so far are about philosophers. Perhaps I’ve internalized the stereotypical adage of ‘Write what you know,’ because I’ve definitely gotten to know university and academic culture pretty well over the last few years. However, I think there’s a larger point that has snuck into my thoughts, which has to do with what kind of stories and what kind of characters I find interesting.

I’m most intrigued, as a writer, with hypocrisy. I’m not against hypocrisy per se; I never explicitly denounce hypocrisy in any of my fiction works – neither the stories or my novel. I’m a hypocrite myself. But I find that hypocrisy and inconsistency of character makes for the most intriguing literature. I’ve never been all that interested in literature about characters who have no internal conflicts and just deal with problems that arise around them. I’m not into plots. I don’t like narratives structured around things happening. I’m far more fascinated by narratives that reveal strange, multifaceted characters. Inconsistency in the beliefs and desires that are most important to your character makes for an amazing literary exploration.

I think this is the more profound reason why my ideas for stories keep coming back to philosophers. We’re the so-called lovers of wisdom. It’s in the etymology of the name of the fucking profession. A wise person is supposed to be a person without serious internal conflict, a person without hypocrisy. We call people wise who can guide people out of personal conflict and into more harmonious lives. Philosophers study ethics itself, so our own ethical beliefs we often hold to a higher standard than those of people outside the profession.

The ethical and personal obligations of a philosopher for consistency in living and freedom from internal conflict are at their highest intensity. A philosopher who becomes aware of his or her own hypocrisy or inconsistency of character is going to have the most intense conflict, because of all professions, philosophers have more skills to analyze these concepts and so understand their own internal conflicts more deeply than others who may not have been trained to be as articulate with ethical concepts. “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” which I just submitted to University of Toronto’s Echolocation fiction journal this afternoon, explores the disconnects from reality that can happen when you firmly believe that knowledge makes one moral. “My Perfect Lover” explores the hypocrisy of a man whose desires and emotions lead him to use his skills of reasoning and argument to defend a regime of slavery that he knows to be wrong. I have an untitled story in draft form about a professor whose drive to discover through philosophical argument the nature of a perfectly benevolent God turns him into a bitter old man incapable of love.

I thought of another idea today about a philosopher, the idea that made me realize that my profession was such a frequent subject for my fiction. This philosopher is so deeply committed to his utilitarian ethical beliefs and arguments, that the rich should give almost all they can to alleviate poverty, that the North is morally obligated to bankrupt themselves to feed the South. But as he comes to this ethical stance, he realizes that the institution of the university is incorrigably inegalitarian: according to his deeply held ethical beliefs, he shouldn’t hold a position that trains upper class elites of affluent North Americans and be paid from the profits gained from forcing thousands of young people each year into crushing student loan debt. But by the time he figures this out, he has his own family to support: children to feed and put through school. By his own philosophical beliefs, he should sacrifice the well-being of his three children to alleviate the pain of suffering millions. But when he goes home to see his own kids, he can’t. So he goes back to a job he hates every day.

Perhaps one day, I’ll publish a collection of stories about philosophers and their conflicts and hypocrisies. I might call it Thinkers. Perhaps it will be valuable.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Arrogance Is Philosophy’s Most Widespread Paradox

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been building myself a tidy little transdisciplinary specialty that I like to call Critical Theory of Knowledge. The essays I’ve presented and published through the Book Conferences in 2010 in Switzerland and 2009 in Edinburgh are my major public efforts in this so far. But a kindly old professor once told me that it’s always good for a philosopher’s career if you can put something to do with knowledge and/or epistemology somewhere prominent on your CV. This suits me pretty well.

My main thrust is, at heart, to take knowledge and rationality off its high horse, without falling into the traps of post-modernism that would keep me from being read by people who still venerate rationality. Preaching to the choir might be an easy way to sell books, but I never took the easy way out. In my two published essays, I examine how peer review works in academic journals, and how attitudes of arrogance on the part of professors, editors, and article reviewers can stifle creative, unorthodox ideas, and render a field of study moribund and stagnant. My critique goes something like this: If someone has worked hard enough, and become widely recognized as an expert in their field, then they tend to take their own ideas as gospel. They’re the expert, after all, so their perspective on their field is the same as the truth. When someone disputes that perspective, the first response of a typical expert, working under this premise, is that the disputer is wrong. I wrote about this last week, so you can just scroll down to 3 December for a more detailed treatment of the argument.

Attitude is far more important to disseminating and taking seriously novel creative approaches to a field than most people generally realize. With this focus on attitude in mind, I remembered a curious commonality in my academic life. Keep in mind that this is entirely anecdotal, but what’s most important to take away from this story is not a certain truth, but an intriguing idea, a particular point of view, a conceptual nudge to the ribs.

Some of the most arrogant, curmudgeonly professors that I’ve ever met, the quickest and most vicious attackers of ideas that didn’t fit with their own established conclusions, were all devotees of Benedict de Spinoza.

A confession: I haven’t read an entire book by Spinoza in its entirety until this past week. Actually, I was emphatically turned off Spinoza’s philosophy by the egotistical and pretentious way it was presented to me in a class I took when I was 19. Spinoza wasn’t even on the class curriculum, but the professor would go on and on about “the divine beauty of Spinoza” in a way that communicated none of the important ideas, and just delayed us from covering the actual course material. With my current doctoral project using many ideas from the ontology of Gilles Deleuze, important background reading has turned out to be Spinoza. Deleuze’s big book on Spinoza, Expressionism, was the first presentation of his philosophy that made me feel good about it. This week, I’ve barrelled through Spinoza’s Ethics. And I’ve found something very intriguing.

Spinoza’s book Ethics is a philosophical guide to living. It’s written as a series of geometry-style proofs about the nature of God, existence, thought, emotion, and reason whose ultimate goal is to indicate how one can live through the guidance of reason, and so live a life of joy and exultation in existence itself. Pretentious? Maybe more than a little. Uplifting? Inspiring? Definitely! How could such a book, written with such sincerity by such a generous, magnanimous, and admirable personality inspire such arrogance among some of its devotees? The picture assembled itself slowly, but I’m convinced that I’ve worked out how it happens.

Spinoza has little time for people who live according to their emotions alone. They’re passive before the fluctuating situations of life, living as slaves to forces beyond their control. Part four of five, on how emotions can wreck someone’s thinking and personality, is actually titled “Of Human Bondage.” And he’s a master of the subtle burn. Reading the Ethics, I find myself laughing at a book laid out like a mathematical proof, because of the cunning ways he inserts light-hearted jabs about people who let their emotions carry them away, or who generally don’t think and live “guided by reason.”

And then it hit me. It was a sudden realization, which one should generally mistrust, but as I thought about it, the idea just made so much sense. Part four (Of Human Bondage), proposition 73, in the elaboration paragraphs labelled Scholium, Spinoza describes how the strong person is a person who lives guided by reason, a person who “hates nobody, is angry with nobody, envies nobody, is indignant with nobody, despises nobody, and is in no way prone to pride.” Yet when my Spinozist professors spoke to any students, colleagues, or even higher-ranked professors who expressed an idea hesitantly, or lacking detail, or fuzzily, or even just experimentally, the self-declard Spinozist would respond with anger, indignation, and spite. Anyone who articulated an idea with any less than the perfect precision with which Spinoza himself wrote and argued, was dismissed and insulted with great condescension and arrogance.

But sometimes, an idea needs to be given a chance to percolate in one’s thoughts, to drift around conversations, displaying roughness, but also promise. A lack of clarity may obscure a bounty of potential. These self-declared Spinozists of my anecdotes attack and dismiss an idea for lacking that perfect clarity of expression that it may not yet have had time to achieve. Spinoza’s burns and jokes are written with no cruelty, but a pleasant wit. His barbs come with the extended hand of friendship, never the spitefully dismissive spirit that I have heard from the self-declared Spinozists who ruthlessly attack all ideas in progress, unfinished, incomplete. But the same words Spinoza wrote, when delivered with a tone of anger, are words of hatred, rage, and dismissal.

In Switzerland, I spoke about humility as the most difficult, but most important task of a thinker. Humility is the ability to wonder sometimes, whether you are on the right track: The expert must sometimes question his own expertise to avoid destroying the vibrancy of the field to which he’s committed his life. Sometimes, if you dedicate yourself to Spinoza, patron saint of a life lived guided by reason, you can say to yourself, “I’m a follower of Spinoza, so I must be guided by reason. If I’m guided by reason, I must be right, and it’s my duty to stop those who are still in bondage to their lesser instincts, who are not yet guided by reason as I am!”

I hope you see the parallel structure of that thought, and my thought at the start of this post. The first sign that you’re no longer guided by reason is that you no longer think it’s required that you check to see if you’re guided by reason. Spinoza wrote that he who is guided by reason lives free from error, strife, or mistake. But the first and easiest mistake to make is to believe yourself incapable of mistake. That mistake is called pride.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

70, 30, 40; 44, 6, 38

John, et al, "Instant Karma," 1972.

I thought of two ways to understand stars today. One is to look at how little of the sun's energy is actually absorbed by the Earth, and how much is wasted, radiating into space, never used by any intelligent creatures. It can feel like an astronomical waste, an entire star burning away to nothingness for no reason. Or you can think about an enormous body that creates a fire of which we only became capable of imagining a few decades ago, a gigantic ball of gas that lives, pulsating energy for billions of years. It's the difference between burning and shining.

Dimebag, et al, "Revolution Is My Name," 2000.

It's easy to be overshadowed, even though Dimebag was shot by what was as conscious a Mark Chapman ripoff as you could become. History creates some strange patterns, the shapes of which are amazingly difficult to figure out. No one could work out satisfying reasons for these killings even if they had infinite time to live.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Publication Diaries: The Problem with Subtlties

So I just sent in the publishing contract for my second essay to come out in the International Journal of the Book, “The Danger of Institutional Conservatism in the Humanities.” It will be available in the 2011 edition of the journal, and I’m quite proud of it. I’m not sure if I’d say it’s the best work I’ve done so far, but it’s definitely my most experimental so far that’s being published in an academic journal.

As I learn more about the peer review process, especially its problems and difficulties (for details, see my article in the Book Journal last year), I think interdisciplinary journals are best suited for a lot of my work writing philosophy articles. I’ve come to this conclusion for reasons that will sound very self-serving, if you want to interpret me maliciously. But I think my reasons are actually very insightful, if you interpret me charitably. I personally think it’s a very self-serving insight, but quite insightful nonetheless. I've noticed in academic culture, that the more specialized one’s knowledge is, the more zealously one tends to guard one’s perspectives from critique. In learning more and more about an increasingly specific subject matter, one tends to acknowledge one’s own expertise: At a particular point, different for everyone, one tends to presume that one’s own perspective on the subject matter is the right perspective. “I am the expert,” says the expert, “so my own knowledge is the standard of my field. If it wasn’t the standard, then I wouldn’t be an expert.” These people are very often submission reviewers for the academic journals in their specialty.

This attitude creates a potentially terrible problem for creative thinkers, especially people who are younger and/or less experienced, still trying to establish themselves in their field. Such a young person, a new entrant, may have ideas that differ from the established experts. Being newer to the field, they don’t yet have the experience or prestige that a long career in a specialized field offers. But they may also have innovative new ideas and approaches to their field, which may not be compatible with the approaches of the experts. And if the established expert has come to identify their own way of thinking as the only way of thinking, then that new writer will be rejected. The expert will hold them to be wrong, when the new writer may just be in disagreement or holding a different approach than the expert. The expert will reject their work, preventing an innovative approach from being disseminated.

At this point, I think it should be clear that the person I’ve been calling a specialized expert is better titled an academic curmudgeon.

I think this attitude becomes more prevalent, or at least more likely to encounter, in highly specialized academic environments. This, right now, is just a matter of anecdotal evidence, but the anecdotal evidence is beginning to stack up. What this has to do with my mutually beneficial relationship with interdisciplinary journals is that one is less likely to encounter this attitude in a less specialized academic environment. So my own strange ideas and approaches are more likely to be given a chance than they would be in a highly specialized journal with a greater probability of curmudgeonliness.

My forthcoming essay is a more experimental in form than any essay I’ve attempted to put in the public view. Read by one of my former professors, he described it as uncategorizable into any typical genre or division of philosophy. I took this to be a compliment. He also called it cranky decades beyond my years, which I considered a backhanded compliment. When I presented it at the Book Conference in Switzerland last month, it was received with gaping mouths, and it took a while for the ideas to sink in to the audience. It’s a very dense essay for 4,000 words, and has some subtlties in its tone and language that may not be noticed.

The essay is a continuation of my critique of how academic knowledge is generated, and contains potential solutions to the ways in which a field of knowledge can become moribund, uncreative, and boring. Key to the solution, which I note – there and here – is much easier to talk about than actually to achieve, is an attitude of humility. One of my reviewers had no critiques of the content of my essay, but often told me to remove what s/he called ‘self-referencing,’ sentences starting with ‘I.’ I will admit that I didn’t follow this direction in every case, because I didn’t want to give the essay a tone of pure objectivity and distance that is one of the signs of the arrogance of the expert. When I describe the attitude of humility, the reviewer annotated that I should re-write my introductory sentences to display more of this attitude. It was cheeky, and I laughed, but s/he also didn’t understand the subtle point I was trying to make with my cranky tone.

The most difficult part about inculcating an attitude of humility into academic professionals is that our personalities, and academic society generally, are shaped to make it immensely difficult to have actual humble attitudes. We’re rewarded for being distinctively smarter than our colleagues, and especially the general public. There’s a casual disdain for undergraduates and ordinary students in academic culture that I never really noticed in universities until I was no longer one of those ordinary students. And I’m still uncomfortable with bragging in a non-professional context. It’s difficult for me to accept compliments about my work in philosophy and literature, because of the conflicts it gives me: I want to be a humble, easily-relatable person, but I also want to produce remarkable, superior, inspiring writing.

I tell my friends in the philosophy department how many different and intriguing ideas I have in the course of a week, and I feel awkward when they tell me they don’t have nearly so active a brain. If there’s one thing I don’t want to become, it’s an insufferable genius, even though I can see myself eventually heading for near complete Rain Man territory as I get older. Academics are not humble people, and our increasingly exclusive social circles of other graduate students and eventually other academics and highly educated professionals only encourage that attitude of superiority to everyday people.

So I wrote my essay about encouraging humility in a very superior, bordering on arrogant, tone. It’s an illustration in the tone of the writing itself of how genuinely difficult the task of humility is. It’s written by an arrogant man who knows, despite his own instincts, that his goal of encouraging innovation and works of brilliance (of which he considers much of his own work), will only be achieved by inculcating widespread attitudes of humility. The paradox unfolds along many different levels of articulation.

Brilliant, isn’t it?
In other news, the new Kanye album is absolutely fantastic, and I don’t use the word absolute in a positive sense very often. It’s a very appropriate clip to end a post that talks about the importance of humility.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Switzerland Diary 4: Computers Exist, So Get Over It

About a month ago, I was talking to my friend Alanda for the first time in over a year. She was visiting her old friends still at McMaster philosophy after having moved to Barrie, gotten a teaching job at a college, and gotten married. One part of our conversation was about a new set of theories floating around educational circles about how to teach Millennials. This was a generation that had an entirely different perceptual understanding of computers, the internet, the temporal structure of the day. Millennials understood privacy, social interaction, how to behave in a classroom, how to learn, entirely differently than the generations before, because of their different relations to computer technology. She described them as a very alien society. It was then that, to her horror, I informed her that, having been born in 1983, I was a Millennial.

Normally, I don’t think this Millennial generational difference is that big a deal. But I saw some stuff at the Book Conference that made me think differently. The Book Conference had a different title when it began eight years ago, The Conference on the Future of the Book. The conference as I’ve come to know it in the last two years has covered many aspects of the phenomenon: literacy, education, book history, publishing business, the analysis of literature itself, intellectual and academic culture, and combinations and convergences of all these disciplines. But among them is a holdover from those early conferences: people who shook in their boots about the destruction of the book.

Their concerns were not Taliban-like anti-literacy movements, which exist and should be taken seriously and combatted. No, they were people scared of ebooks. Any new medium, like the electronic book, is going to have benefits and limitations. One advantage of ebooks is that they can be carried easily in large numbers. A library will be able to fit on an iPad. A limitation is the difficulty of controlling commerce in ebooks. They’ll be easy to download without financial recompense to the writer, so the economy of writers and books will have to change.

But I saw presentations and read essays about the popularization of ebooks that were conservative bordering on hysteria. I saw presentations that sought relevance for the physical book as a figure of fetishized pleasure, the turning of pages and the smell of ink deeply eroticized for the sake of preservation against the onslaught. I reviewed an essay for the journal that used Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts to villify the ebook as destructive of the individual human subject itself.

Every one of these people who were so afraid of ebooks was over thirty years old. They were all pre-Millennial, members of the generation less used to dealing with electronic media, generally less comfortable on the internet, those who find reading from a screen more difficult, an alienating process. It’s such a stupidly hysterical point of view that I can’t really take it seriously. It reminds me of those people who thought the advent of television would destroy cinema. But I’m not going to argue by analogy, because an analogy can be easily argued against: that’s A and B, but this is X and Y, with very different characters.

I still think this point of view, the defense of the paper book against the onslaught of electronic media, is utterly counter-productive to the best thinking on the topics of books and writing. The ebook is a different kind of medium for writing, one that is more mobile, easily distributed, copied, and stored. It will no more destroy literature and publishing than digital video has killed filmmaking. I think, like digital video, the ebook will offer a cheaper distribution method that will allow even more independent writers and presses to flourish, and encourage experimentation with literary techniques and tools. People who don’t understand this, because they’re too old and set in their ways to be comfortable with a new medium of artistic expression, should be quiet and let presentation slots at prestigious conferences go to creative people instead.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Switzerland Diary 3: A Weekend of Stealing Ideas

What I like best about the International Conference on the Book, apart from the fact that they give me awards and take place in interesting places, some of which I can stay in for free (Ray’s apartment in Edinburgh, one of my many expat friends in Toronto next year), is that it’s an interdisciplinary conference that perfectly matches my career. It’s a venue where I can present and discuss my ideas that fall into the category of meta-philosophy, and there are enough people there talking about the publishing industry that I can brainstorm techniques for Crackjaw. Step one of being a web-based publisher: have a functioning website. I’ll get right on that, business seminar leader.

My own presentation impressed everyone who was there to see it, and because I was the award winner for my essay from the Edinburgh conference last year, I had a packed room in the first speaking session that morning. No one could really think of any questions for me at the end, though. I was told it was pretty dense. But later that day, after they had time to think about it, people from my audience came up to me and had some really interesting discussions about how fields of study can become insular and moribund through the processes like peer review and argument that we often think revitalizes us.

I felt a little bad that I was scheduled opposite my new friend Liz, who I’ve referred to in previous entries as the couch surfer. But there just wasn’t enough audience to go around on a Sunday morning. An art historian presenting on genital lack in statuary should at least be solid academic entertainment and a genuinely intriguing essay. However, I will admit that I'm not a fan of Freudian models of desire as lack. But I couldn't actually make her presentation. Christina, a film theory grad student from University of Iowa, presented an intriguing study of Hmong-American literature. It was interesting to see the reactive generation writing about their experiences breaking away from the conservative culture of their immigrant parents. But for me, the really interesting stuff will come from the generation in the Hmong community after this one: right now, their authors are too polarized between being purely American or purely Hmong. It’ll be another couple of decades before there are young authors capable of genuine play.

Corrine, my friend that I met at last year’s Book Conference, presented an ancient (for us, anyway; it was three years old) paper about Charlotte Brontë’s use of writing in her work as a sign of freedom from gender constraint. For me, secret megalomaniac that I am, the best part about her presentation was a single line, which I think she improvised and that I can’t even remember, that spurred me to an idea for a chapter in my planned book about philosophical ethics written through dialogue with Herzog movies. I figured out how to structure a chapter that explained how Herzog crafted his duty to New German Cinema, and through that his duty to rebuild Germany itself as a civilized country, and explained the ethical power of the duties that he demanded of himself and the world. It included his relation to the Silent Expressionists, Lotte Eisner the film critic, his strangely totemic walk from Munich to Paris in the dead of winter, and thematic analyses of Fata Morgana, Heart of Glass, and Nosferatu 1978. So thank you, Corrine, for the inspiration, even if it was utterly unintentional on both our parts.

Mathilde is a very short scholar of ancient Greek philosophy doing a PhD at UQAM, who presented a fascinating essay about the mythologization of Aristotle’s library in ancient Greece, examining different ways to relate to books as physical and mythical objects because of the different ways that books are produced and passed on in that civilization. If I can steal another Herzog phrase, it was about the ecstatic truth of Aristotle’s library rather than the actual facts of the case, which didn’t really matter to her point. The idea is to see what kind of philosophical insights we can take from the historical narrative – the facts of that historical narrative are only incidental, and should serve the philosophy without restraining it from undue fidelity to facts.

Liz, Corrine, Christina, and Mathilde were the other graduate students at the conference who I spent the most time with, and I'm very glad I did. That's all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Switzerland Diary 2: Sausage, Chocolate, and Beer

The title says it all: I finally have my priorities straight in this blog. Now that the negative aspects of the trip are out of the way, there’s the positive, which was considerable.

The only problem I had with the food was that it was too damn expensive. And the only problem I had with the places that served the food was that the entire country of Switzerland apparently closes on Sundays, so there was nowhere I could actually eat for an entire day. I have decided that during this winter, I’m going to learn how to make rosti, a kind of shredded crispy potato, and hope only that it doesn’t require too much labour to prepare myself. This is why I’ll probably never make my own sushi. But the healthy portions of rosti with a large gravy-drenched sausage and a tube of hot mustard sauce from Saturday night was probably the best meal I had while I was there. The waiter was a jerk, and I think I inadvertently insulted him. So I think we were both equally jerks.

The downtown chocolate shop that we were first shown during the terrifyingly punctual walking tour was very good to me, supplying me with glasses of the best hot chocolate I think I’ve ever had, and my souveniers of surprisingly affordable milk chocolate squares. I did purposely seek the cheap stuff that would fit most easily in my suitcase.

The hotel had the best hotel food I think I’ve ever experienced, and it will be difficult for most hotels I can afford to top this display. Hotel Sonne-Rotmonten had freshly baked bread and croissants every morning, with substantial packets of blueberry jam and marmalade to go along with them. There was also a tray of assorted meats, all of which were flavourful and spicy, next to a fruitbowl and a mini-fridge containing carafes of juice and milk for the people. I think conference delegates were the only guests in the hotel that weekend, as we had the entire north dining room to ourselves.

I did not go to the official conference dinner because it cost $US90. But I stopped by at the end to let my friend Corrine know that everything else in Switzerland was closed, so we wouldn’t be going anywhere to drink after dinner. We did, however, finish as much of the wine that was left as possible. There was a very pleasant fellow from the RAND Corporation at the conference who had indulged far more than I had the chance to. We left the restaurant at 10.45, which was just enough time for Corrine to catch the last bus back to her hostel. Yes, it was the last bus coming at only 11.00, because Switzerland closes on Sundays.

My last Swiss dinner was at a fondue restaurant that my couch surfing friend’s host took us to. However, I did not have fondue as that many carbs would combine with that much cheese to constitute a terrible, terrible crime against my hotel room’s toilet that night. So while everyone around me dipped bread in boiling cheese, I ate an enormous breaded pork steak. I also had a pint of Hefeweizen that I genuinely enjoyed for the first time in my life. I think central European water is just better suited to making Hefewiezen.

The default mode of coffee was espresso. It was served at my hotel in the morning, and at multiple times of the day during the conference. I found it making me tired during the withdrawal periods again, the negative impact of regular coffee intake beginning to re-assert itself. At least the hotel’s espresso was actually good. I surmised that the conference services at the university gave us the same espresso that they sold to the students.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Switzerland Diary 1: Unreality Stuck in Time

So even though it’s been two weeks since I returned from Europe, I’ve only gotten the chance to write my experience of Switzerland now. I’m not exactly bound by the constant pressure for timeliness that the internet supposedly demands. My recollections will be slightly fragmentary, because there was no real narrative to my long weekend there. Honestly, it all seems a little surreal, in ways that I hope will become clear. I consider the fragments of my trip to be a reaction to the absurd punctuality of that country. I have never been on a walking tour of a city that ended precisely on time before I went to St Gallen, and I hope I never will again.

The punctuality of the place was quite unnerving to me, and the general perfection of the place was as well. I appreciate the beauty of the city and the country surrounding it, but it all seemed a little too perfect to be real. From my hotel window, I could see the entire city, as my building rested about halfway up a small mountain on the southern side of St Gallen. The entire city stretched out underneath me from my north-facing window. It honestly looked fake. I found it hard to believe that people actually lived there until I was actually in the thick of the city walking around downtown. It was as if the entire city was constructed as a film set, according to directions from a hack producer that consisted entirely of Swiss stereotypes.

The country was genuinely beautiful, however, and the people seemed very pleasant. One of the other graduate students presenting there was couch surfing with one of the locals. The couch’s owner had actually been to Canada, hiking in the Rockies. He was actually quite impressed by our mountain range, and one could consider it superior to the Alps in one important way. Hiking in the Alps, you’re always within sight of some cottage at the very least. The Canadian Rockies had mountain vistas and trails aesthetically equal to the Swiss Alps, but with the advantage that you were genuinely in the wilderness. Humanity in central Europe is inescapable.

There was one aspect of Swiss culture that did deeply disturb me, more than I thought it would, since I knew it existed going in. It’s one thing to think abstractly about culturally pervasive racism, but it’s another thing to see the posters and the physical behaviour of the people. In Zürich’s main train station, there were posters advocating the Yes side of another referendum to remove rights of legal immigrants who commit crimes in Switzerland. And the posters were of a sad-faced black sheep being angrily kicked over a border by a white sheep. My friend André, who comes from French-speaking Switzerland, described the people as not being “tender.” The word seems quite apt, implying a rigid, static, immovable quality to their hostility to foreigners, a congenital lack of empathy for the different.

The station itself was an amazing piece of architecture, an enormous stone framework for archways stretching at least three stories high from the indoor space alone. It was so open to outside breezes that it was no trouble to smoke in the station. The archways were the trains, and the pedestrians came in were so enormous that the station was more like a stone canopy, barely enclosed at all. Even inside, you were outside.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Similarity Is Not a Sign of Intention

After performing a reasonably successful public reading of my short fiction, some misconceptions about my work have arisen in a manner typical of the Ontarian chattering classes. To set the record straight, I’ve spoken with literature and film critic Albert Nikos of Fictional Magazine.

Nikos: I’ll cut right to the chase, Riggio. Your story, “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” contained a central character who was very obviously satirizing your professors.

Riggio: That was most certainly not the case.

Nikos: Come on! The professor in that story runs his class like a dictator, utterly convinced of the power of his own ego. He’s totally condescending to all of his students, especially the women. He’s completely ignorant of any critique of a philosophical idea that isn’t strictly about the argument and its logical structure. He’s a pure ivory tower academic of the worst kind. Now who is he!?

Riggio: Professor Winchester is Professor Winchester. It’s as simple as that. I didn’t even think of a first name for him. He didn’t need one for the story, so I didn’t give him one.

Nikos: Well, where did the name Winchester come from? Surely it’s a reference to the British background of some of your professors at the McMaster philosophy department?

Riggio: He’s named after Dr Charles Emerson Winchester III, who David Ogden Stiers played on MASH. Actually, some of the folks in the audience thought I was making fun of the philosophy of law chair in the department, because the character talked about legal theory, and I read his lines with a deep voice. But I wasn’t making fun of any individual person. I was making fun of an attitude, showing the limitations of a particular way of thinking.

Nikos: And who among your professors demonstrates this way of thinking?

Riggio: You’re not going to catch me so easily, Albert. Everyone does, at some point in their thoughts. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a professor, graduate student, undergrad, secretary, janitor, or whatever. Anyone, when there’s any career path in which they can say that they were more knowledgeable than others, can think that they’re better than others. If we don’t check ourselves, or the outside world doesn’t check ourselves for us, we can all become as arrogant and dismissive as Dr Winchester. It’s the mind set of anyone who’s come to believe their own hype, someone who believes that they’re always right, and obviously right. So anyone who disagrees with them is either just plain wrong, or else they’re talking from a perspective that doesn’t count.

Nikos: What do you mean by that? A perspective that doesn’t count.

Riggio: Well, look at the character of Roshan in “Mobilization of the Oppressed.” She’s actually the central character, by the way, not Winchester.

Nikos: But Winchester has the most lines.

Riggio: But Roshan is the catalyst of the action, the knife that punctures his balloon of hot air.

Nikos: Or in this case, puts a bullet in it.

Riggio: Let’s not spoil the entire story.

Nikos: Sometimes, I can’t resist. It was just so delightfully weird.

Riggio: See, that’s the heart of the conflict right there. Roshan is delightfully weird, an event that shatters the illusions of perfect rationality and security. “Mobilization of the Oppressed” is just as much a critique of philosophy as it is a skewering of that kind of arrogant personality. Roshan is a contrarian, someone who isn’t comfortable kowtowing to authority because she’s seen legitimate authority at its most oppressive and violent. She’s left the oppression of Tehran, which was responsible for the death of her father, as I insinuate in that line where I describe him as having been disappeared.

Nikos: That was a clever touch.

Riggio: Thank you. But philosophy is a tradition that worships reason. That’s why Winchester always refers back to Plato, because we still think of ourselves, still too often in my opinion, as footnotes to Plato. We’re good democrats and liberals today, even the conservatives. So we always disagree with Plato’s Republic when he writes about a totalitarian dictatorship of the wise, Philosopher-Kings as society’s great planners. That’s because we’re uncomfortable with authoritarian political systems. That’s one way in which Roshan’s experience is put into tension. But philosophy as a tradition still believes in reason as being the paramount virtue. We always ask people to be reasonable, we believe that smart people should be in charge, that having the best knowledge results in the best political action when those people with the best knowledge are in charge. What Roshan does is problematize knowledge, call its value into question when she talks about political corruption and abuse of the vulnerable in society. You must have great knowledge of a political and legal system in order to manipulate it to your advantage. It’s that dark side of knowledge that Winchester doesn’t see, even as he’s an agent of it.

Nikos: You’re talking about the way he always talks down to Roshan, how that’s a kind of abuse of his power as a professor to control debate. He cuts her off, puts words in her mouth, even calls her questions nonsense.

Riggio: And it’s not just Winchester! She’s the only girl in that seminar, and I included lines insinuating that the male students in the class are always staring at her, and never sticking up for her or helping defend her against Winchester’s abuse. That’s the more insidious kind of oppression that we have in the West. In Tehran, if you’re undesirable, they come to your house and shoot you. It’s very honest. In Chicago, where the story takes place, or New York, or Toronto, or Dallas, or anywhere, undesirables are slowly worn down. People who are different think they have space to live as they want, think they’re respected and accepted by their neighbours, who are all fellow democrats. But they're wrong, because when they need help, their pleasant and smiling neighbours will often let them drown. Our democratic habits let us convince ourselves that we care about people who are different from us, they force us to hide our disgust at different ethnicities, different genders, different languages, different social classes. We even hide it from ourselves. But no one sticks their neck out for the town freaks. The really singular individuals will always be isolated, on their own. Roshan is different in so many ways. She rebels against her own culture’s traditions for how a woman should dress and behave, and she rebels against her professor’s condescension, and she rebels against the indifference or the objectivizing stares of her classmates. And her rebellion isn’t pure reactivity, pure resentment. She doesn’t rebel against Iranian standards of female dress by slutting it up. She dresses in dark colours, tight jeans, sweaters that show off her shape, but none of her skin. She’s creating her own definitions of modesty and confidence, without fully surrendering to the icons that are her reference points: the modest woman, the American feminist.

Nikos: Did you think of all this as you were planning the story, or did it occur to you after you wrote it? Because most fiction that’s written with those kinds of ideas in mind usually stinks.

Riggio: It does usually stink, because you end up with ciphers for philosophical concepts rather than singular characters. And you end up with a book that’s more like a disguised version of Hegel’s Logic, with characters interacting in ways perfectly determined by their concepts.

Nikos: Now you’re talking like a philosophy doctoral student. I’m going to have to ask you to stop.

Riggio: Yeah, a person walked right on by my reading when my friend told him that I was a PhD student in philosophy. I told her not to mention that again, if she stumps for me. She should say something pretentious about Borges instead.

Nikos: This will be my last question, but where did the story begin? What was the thought?

Riggio: My thought was my indignation about Raz’s idea in philosophy of law, that we defer to legal authorities the same way we defer to experts. Winchester articulates what I think is the natural evolution of that point of view to its extreme. Again, the tradition of philosophy worships reason, makes it into a moral virtue. Socrates said that knowledge makes someone morally good, and that’s just laughable. So I had this idea, that the account of legal authority as expert authority is secretly very fascist, very oppressive. But I also had a suspicion that I couldn’t argue against it as a philosophical essay. I wasn’t expert enough on actual theories of legal authority. And that kind of felt like I was playing into my opponent’s hand. So I decided to demonstrate the blind spots of pure reason, rather than arguing reasonably for them. Roshan was that demonstration.

Nikos: Will we see her again?

Riggio: Maybe one day. I hope so. I think there’s a lot more to her than comes across in this one story. There’s a novella I had an idea for a while ago, where I think she could be very useful. But I have no problem bringing someone back. I brought you back, didn’t I?

Nikos: No fourth wall tonight, sir. Thank you very much for sitting down.

Riggio: Thank you for having me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Have We No Right to Our Sort of Protest Songs?

It took me three weeks instead of one, but I’ve assembled my ideas about the problems of the affluent white person’s gesture of protest. It’s going to sound very cynical, but I actually consider my perspective on this quite optimistic, in a strange sort of way. All will, I hope, become clear by the end of the analysis.

So my loyal readers (or anyone who scrolls down to October 5) will know that I first began this stream of blogging with a saddening critique of an internet-based breast cancer awareness meme. People could put a joke in their statuses, mildly amusing at best, that would raise awareness of breast cancer among those who have already had this very opaque gesture explained to them. Here is the first, and in my view, the most superficial problem with the protest gestures of affluent white people. Quite a few of the things we get angry about – global poverty, disasters, disease, religious extremism, wars – are easily understood. And when people hang out in a public square holding signs that describe how much they hate war and cluster bombs, that’s easily understood. I look at a person with a sign that reads, “Stop the War in Iraq!” and I assume correctly that they very much want to stop that war in Iraq I’ve heard so much about. This is an effective protest because people, while they may not agree with you, will know what you’re talking about.

But some gestures of protest are very symbolic, and difficult to understand at first glance. In my breast cancer example from earlier this month, I found it very hard to understand. Cancer is a terrible disease, and we should raise money to research to cure cancers cheaply and effectively, and encourage people to self-examine and be mindful of their bodies, in case they develop tumours. A great way to spread awareness of this among your facebook friends is to post a status update like, “It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month!” and embed a link to a reputable research charity or a web guide to self-exams. You could sponsor someone in a fundraising marathon, or some other kind of pledge drive. This would be an easily understood way of voicing your opinion and productively aiding the cause through the infrastructures that exist.

A terrible way to achieve a goal like this is to make your status an ambiguous joke about sex, writing “Athena Peterson likes it on the kitchen counter!” Really, you’re talking about ‘where you lay your purse when you come home,’ and in a long, elaborately detailed private message from the friend who’s been spreading this 21st century chain letter, explaining the symbolism that connects women’s sexual exploration, the attention that a kinky-sounding status garners, and the eroticization of the female breast to genuine concern about breast cancer. None of this deep and complicated meaning was at all present in the initial joke, which is the only part of this gesture that 95% of your friends will see! To them, your cause is lost in confusion and opaque symbolism.

I think this kind of protest is dreamt up by well-meaning people who simply have too much time on their hands, so they can ponder oblique connections between gestures, jokes, and political issues, then assemble a convincing pitch for their protest idea. Patton Oswalt has some wonderful jokes about this, his old routines about why hippies annoy him so much. But this kind of protest that defeats itself through its own opacity is the symptom of a much deeper problem with being a socially progressive affluent white person. Most of us in protest movements are affluent enough that we don’t have to work for a living. We do this because we’re bored.

Now, I don’t want to disparage the good intentions of many people, and I certainly don’t want to describe all progressive activists in my country as ivory tower academic types and trust fund kids who haven’t even seen poor people before. Most of the people I’ve known in activist communities have been on student loans, have staggering debt, and worked one or two wretched part-time jobs (fast food, gas stations, tour guides), to put themselves through school. But they could go to school, and university. They’re functionally literate. They have opportunities. They lived in decent neighbourhoods where you couldn’t just walk to the corner one block down to buy coke, meth, oxy, and heroin. They weren’t physically abused or molested. Their families usually had enough money to feed everyone and make the mortgage payments.

The people who actually understand from experience what it means to be poor, are poor, and they stay poor. Not by choice, but because poor people have to stay poor if capitalism is going to work. And communism only works for four or five decades before collapsing from the absurd weight of a bureaucracy big enough to plan (with minimal effectiveness, if that) an economy for an entire nation. We middle class liberals have the time to protest because we don’t have to worry much where our next meal is coming from. But because we aren’t poor, we can easily lose touch with the people we’re trying to help.

This is why moronically opaque, over-intellectual protest events happen: we have enough leisure time to come up with them, but actual poor people are too busy trying to survive to care. An affluent white person lives at a disconnect that the power of conscience alone can’t always bridge. That disconnect makes such a person a cartoon, and it makes the objects of their charity regard them with contempt and resentment. A poor person can legitimately say to the affluent white person who wants to help them, “You are an ignorant fool who understands nothing of my life. My life is hard and I work hard. I don’t need your fucking pity.”

Now for the most profound part of my analysis of the affluent white conscience: expand this scenario to the entire globe. Now colonialism is part of the picture, a massive system of economic exploitation that spread over the entire Earth and lasted centuries. We affluent white people exist because of the enormous effort our ancestors put into creating the massively unequal share of wealth among humanity today. If you think the resentment of a Canadian poor person toward a rich person who doesn’t understand their life can be powerful, imagine how someone who lives on the equivalent of a few Canadian coins each day would feel.

Even if affluent Western governments actually donated all the money in their foreign aid budgets to actual foreign aid, it is still an utter pittance. We live as we do today because for hundreds of years, our ancestors destroyed the economies of entire continents for their own gain. Today, we feel guilty about it. So we pity the poor of the world, and send some pocket change to them so they can buy an extra chicken and we can feel better. But it’s nothing more than our pity, which demeans and dehumanizes the people who are pitied. If an affluent Western person thinks they can restore the world to peace, harmony, and brotherhood with a few gestures of contrition about our society having reduced their societies to mud, she’s in for a rough surprise.

The global economy is an enormous crime against humanity. And I’m not even talking about the ecological destruction. That’s another post, and my PhD thesis.

There’s a beautiful and terrifying film that expresses the emptiness of the affluent’s contrition very succinctly. It’s called Cobra Verde, and it’s about the last gasp of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1880s. There’s a scene, included in the trailer, where Klaus Kinski, playing Cobra Verde, the head of the slave trading port, takes a visitor to choose a slave woman to screw that evening. The women live in cramped quarters, in an underground hole. The chosen woman climbs out of a ladder. The visitor asks who these woman are, and Cobra Verde responds, with clear understanding of everything he’s done, “Our future murderers.”

Kinski plays a slave trader who understands exactly the horrifying criminal nature of the slave trade. He does it anyway because he is a criminal. He doesn’t pity his slaves either. He knows that one day the slave trade will end, and those who are oppressed now will take a place of dominance. He doesn’t call the slave woman an avenger, someone who will bring justice. He calls her a murderer. In this way, he understands that the only way to escape a system built on terror and injustice is not charity or contrition, but destruction.

But that’s not how the movie ends. The movie ends with a song by an African choir of young girls, singing in Akan, dancing in their own style, wearing their own clothes, and smiling. It’s an act of creation and celebration of life. The resentment engendered by pity, the confusion of a desperate conscience, the never-ending guilt of restitution, the ridiculous charity of affluent boredom; these are all forgotten. The scales of justice are thrown away, and we are left with dancing and laughter.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gastronomical Exploration: I Search for Bacon and Cheese Congeals

Tonight, my good friend Jeremy and I ate KFC Double Downs. We will never do so again. But we do know that if we ever have grandchildren, and live long enough to interact with them (having sworn off KFC Double Downs, this is much more likely), we will be able to tell them that we grappled with the most legendary product the fast food industry produced in the early years of this century.

With the amount of hype – no, mythology – already surrounding the Double Down, it was impossible for one aggregate of meat to live up to it. A healthy aura of comedy does surround this edible matter, however. Indeed, aside from the fact that there is protein in chicken, the Double Down is not healthy in any way at all. It is a creation of pure grease, metaphorically speaking. So why am I typing this blog post and not in an ambulance getting my stomach pumped?

Actually, it really isn’t that bad. The entire product was quite hot when it was first delivered. I let it sit in its box for a moment while I ate a few fries. Of course, the grease sticking to the paper wrapper made me very glad to have as many moist towlettes as I did. The chicken itself had a mild spice reminiscent of peppercorn. The bacon, while crisp, was barely noticeable, overpowered by the surrounding chicken. The bacon was too thin, while the chicken was too thick. The something-like-mayonnaise left much to be desired, reacting with the swiftly melting cheese to create an orange-yellow gloop that congealed quickly, and much to my distaste, as the sandwich cooled in my hands. I think the Double Down could be greatly improved if this something-like-mayonnaise sauce was switched for a simple chipotle, or perhaps ranch dressing, if you want it to be even more blatantly unhealthy.

I left one small fragment of the Double Down uneaten. It was a large, rectangular crumb consisting of equal parts, chicken, chicken batter, and congealed cheese. Probably the only unappetizing part of the Double Down was the cheese after it had congealed with the something-like-mayonnaise. If they used a better quality cheese, a different sauce, or had an option for not having cheese at all, the Double Down could be a much better dining experience.

I don’t want my readers to think that the KFC Double Down is an entirely negative experience. It definitely has its flaws, but the chicken itself tastes good, and the cheese is quite pleasurable while it’s in that perfect middle period of melting, when it has melted just enough to liquify onto the surface of the chicken, but before it cools into a congealed gel.

The only genuinely negative aspect of the KFC Double Down arrives long after one eats it. I am not a man with a weak stomach, but as I type, I am taking breaks to pop a couple of antacids, make some tea, and otherwise keep my stomach in proper working order. I am extremely glad that my class schedule this year allows me to take Tuesdays off, because I will likely need to spend the day making sure the Double Down works its way out of my digestive tract without increased discomfort. And I do predict some measure of increased discomfort. If you already have stomach problems, this is assuredly not for you.

I will readily admit that the best part of the KFC Double Down is its inherent ridiculousness. As Jeremy and I were waiting for our food at the neighbourhood KFC, the kitchen employee was preparing three of them in a row on the stove. As she laid them in their cardboard boxes, she clearly spat out the words, “This is fucking ridiculous.” I was eating a bacon, cheese, and something-like-mayonnaise sandwich, with fried chicken instead of bread. And I paid money for this. I paid an extra dollar to an anti-poverty charity. None of this makes any sense.

One of Patton Oswalt’s most legendary comedy routines revolves around the KFC Famous Bowl: chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, fries, and a breadstick piled artlessly into a bowl that you can shovel indiscriminately into your mouth. The creative minds at KFC don’t just inspire utterly unhealthy food that will shorten the collective lifespan of the American people by at least a decade. They also unintentionally inspire some of the greatest comedy of the new century. I’m looking forward to a polished and perfected routine of Patton’s take on this infamous and hilarious sandwich.*

*I should clarify that the KFC Double Down is very much more like a cordon bleu than a sandwich proper.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cover Without a Mother

I had a very curious idea about songwriting that I might eventually turn into some kind of academic article, though at this point, I have no idea how to do that. I may eventually ask my cousin, who is now a tenure-track professor of jazz performance at University of Victoria’s music school. The story of how I came to this idea is just as interesting, or at least funnier, than the idea itself.

Last weekend, I went with several close friends to Oktoberfest in Kitchener, the largest Oktoberfest outside Germany. I was told to expect utter ridiculousness, and I was not disappointed. After an hour of far too rapid pre-drinking, we took a short taxi ride to the auditorium where our Oktoberfest tickets were. Yes, it was an auditorium, with the hockey ice removed and a series of long red tables cris-crossing the cement floor. The auditorium was ringed with drink ticket booths, bars selling mediocre mass-produced beer (Molson Canadian was the lesser of the two evils), and pretzel and sausage stands. I knew my stomach was unable to handle giant sausages at that point in the night, but I spent $3.50 on the best pretzel I have ever eaten in my life.

At the centre of all this ridiculous insanity was a stage where, about an hour after we arrived, a band started to play. The band was composed of middle aged men, some of whom wore the hairstyles of 1980s hair metal bands whose hairspray was confiscated at customs as deadly weapons. The first song they played was Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and as they worked their way through a variety of songs that night, I realized that they were all radio rock from the 1980s, and with few exceptions they were all Bon Jovi songs. I was at an Oktoberfest in Ontario where the best beer was Molson Canadian and the headlining act was a Bon Jovi cover band. I think I spent about a total of almost two hours laughing hysterically.

I’ll forgo the morning after and the car ride back, during which my travelling companions rediscovered their inner Robert Downey Jr circa 1997. The philosophical insight came to me a few days later, as I walked home on a productive evening of thinking. A mediocre song, like most of the songs in the Bon Jovi catalogue, almost always sounds even worse when a cover band plays it. But most Beatles songs still sound excellent when a cover band plays them. As long as they’re competent with their instruments and can sing reasonably well, a genuinely great song will always be covered well. A song that always sounds so good has a greater likelihood of being played by other people, because the quality doesn’t typically degrade, as in Bon Jovi or KISS covers.

Before the invention and mass production of recording technology, almost every song anyone ever heard was a cover song: someone playing a song that somebody else wrote, sometimes decades or even centuries ago. Today, when someone plays a cover song, we think of it as the player’s version of the writer’s song. And we can refer back to a definitive version of that song to compare the writer’s and the player’s: the album track.

But there isn’t really anything essentially different from the album track and a live reproduction and a cover version. The instrumentation may change, the quality of play may be different, but every iteration of that song is the same song. We’ve come to fetishize the recording to the point that the recorded version is often understood as the essence of the song. The album version is the theme, and all live performances and covers are variations. But by the 17th century, someone playing a song from the 16th century has no idea how it might have originally sounded. Without some definitive recorded version, that musician only has the basic structure of the song and his own skill to play it. There’s no battle between some new version of the song and its pure original.

It made me consider the idea that this understanding of the record as the essential version of the song is a kind of mistake. The musicians can be much more meticulous about the creation of a song in the studio, add effects or instrumentations that are only possible in the studio, and then rearrange everything in order to play the song live. Sometimes, the live version will be completely different from the recorded version.

Coroner ran into this problem a lot, because they created songs with gigantic numbers of guitar tracks all integrated with incredible complexity. But they only ever played live as a three-piece: the guitarist could never, with his single instrument, capture the same power and complexity as a studio version with twenty or more tracks. Their live performances lacked the necessary power that the studio could give them. Meanwhile, KISS only really broke through with their live album: the studio was too clinical an environment to produce the spontaneous, party-like energy of their live performances. KISS thrived on that energy of the concert, and they could never bring that energy to the meticulous construction of the studio.

The studio is just one set of ways of producing the song. It’s a very different set of tools than live performance, so there are very different things you can do. But the studio version is just one more iteration of the song itself, one more variation without a theme. It’s just that the studio version, being the one on record, is most easily referred back to. It’s the version of the song that most people will hear. They can play it at their leisure. They’ll hear it first, they’ll hear it most often, and they’ll probably hear it exclusively. So they think of this version that they hear most often, the most likely become ubiquitous in one’s experience of the song, as the essence of that song, and all other versions judged in reference to it. But the studio is one way among many of organizing musicians and instruments.

The song itself is the organizing principle of all its performances, whether that performance happens in a studio with the instruments recorded weeks apart and assembled on a mixing board, in the middle of an arena stage, or on an acoustic guitar half-drunk at a party.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I Like It When People Feel Good About Themselves By Hitting Keyboards

In the past week or so, I’ve seen facebook statuses of some of my female friends that have confused me. “I like it in the closet.” “I like it on the back of my chair.” And so on. I knew there was some new meme creeping around, and when I did eventually discover what it was, I was even more disappointed than I had expected to be. I found out through this article, which I also discovered through a friend’s facebook link.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means there are going to be commercials and memes telling me that breast cancer exists, and that it is a problem. I, and the vast majority of people, have known this for some time. But in the “I like it” meme, women are asked to change their status to say where they like to ‘leave their purse’ when they come home. The use of pronouns lets them feel naughty, as if they were talking about sexual intercourse (but not really, because that would be weird, wouldn’t it?). They send a message to a few of their friends explaining it, and the meme spreads, making lots of people aware of breast cancer.

Just when I think Christine O’Donnell or Bill Maher are the most disappointing features of Western humanity, this happens. As Stephanie Fusco explains in the linked article above, the only person who knows that the “I like it” status is actually about breast cancer is the writer of the status update. They have fallen for an increasingly common delusion of affluent Westerners with high-speed internet: thinking they can bring genuine social and political change with a status update or a tweet. They are deluded about their own significance in the world.

Before I go off on my major rant, Fusco mentions another terrible aspect of this meme: reinforcing moronic sexual mores. She, and her friend Amanda quoted in the article, say it better than I can.

“The whole idea that putting something so ‘provocative’ in your Facebook status will gain attention relies on the notion that women speaking openly about sex is both slutty and shocking. This may come across as feminist drivel, and I may be accused of having too many feelings, but it’s true. As my super-star feminist friend Amanda Judd explained, ‘This whole thing was really an exercise in using the associated shame of sluttiness to supposedly draw attention to a good cause. It wouldn’t have been provocative if slut shaming weren’t so big. So it was slutty, it was totally meant to be. Women were supposed to sacrifice their reputation for a moment to grab the attention of others.’”

Congratulations ladies, for your trip back to 1953.

And now for my own major point. I have long had a suspicion, which has since become a conclusion, that the most contemptible kind of activist today is the affluent white person who thinks they can make a difference to those worse off than they are. Isn’t this the basic principle of charity? Yes. Yes it is. But I’m talking about a very specific version of the principle of charity, which I think is perfectly exemplified by this “I like it” meme. An affluent person with no real problems in her life wants to make a difference to people who actually do have problems. She feels affinity with breast cancer as a cause because she’s a woman, and breast cancer is the most stereotypically feminized cancer in the world. Its ribbon is even a stereotypically feminized colour, pink. She is told about this meme with a message explaining it to her, feels slightly giddy because it’s also a sex joke, and posts the status.

Now she feels like she’s done something to help those less fortunate. Of course, she hasn’t. She’s just put a cryptic sex joke in her facebook status. But she knows exactly what the status update means. So, as her reasoning goes, ‘If I understand it, then its meaning was obvious.’ Of course, the meaning is only obvious to her because she was told explicitly what it means. To anyone, like myself, who hasn’t heard this explanation, this is just another confusing meme travelling around the internet. But the people updating their status this way get to feel good about themselves. They’ve done a good thing! Now pat yourself on the back, affluent little white person, while actual cancer research and treatment continues unhelped and unhindered by your complete lack of a contribution.

So much time and effort is wasted in the affluent West on protest campaigns like this that achieve nothing. The only thing that’s accomplished is that someone who normally does nothing to improve the world feels slightly better about themselves. Some of the people I know who joined the “I like it” meme are genuinely politically involved people, and actually work to correct injustices in the world. But I’ve seen many protests like this that exist solely to assuage the guilt of the affluent.

Another post will follow in the next week or so where I discuss what I think are the larger political and social trends revolving around the guilty feelings of the affluent and the decline of Europe and North America relative to China, India, and Brazil.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Screw the Tea Party, Join the New Peronistas

I was listening to some old Rage Against the Machine songs, and thinking back to my more naive younger days when I dismissed them as moronic radicals without noticing how awesome their songs were. I went through a rebellious conservative phase as a teenager.

But I’ve actually been thinking about conservative revolutions, because I’ve been paying attention to politics in the United States lately. I’ve also been studying the political and social ideas of Martin Heidegger and the conservative intellectual scene in Germany in the 1920s. And I saw an Argentine movie a while ago called El Secrete de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), which took place under the Isabel Peron presidency, and dealt with the devastating effects the Peronista death squads had on that society. And I saw a movie at the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s film festival called Politist (Police, Adjective) with a very chilling subtext about a policeman’s duty to follow the law without reference to his conscience or moral sensibilities. And I’ve been thinking about the popular support throughout Iran of the Ahmedinejad regime.

I think Canadians, and Westerners in general, have associated radical thinking and emotionally driven politics with the left, as if conservative politicians were about preserving status quo, too rational, out of touch with their own moral sensibilities. But a conservative revolution can inspire the same powerful feelings as a leftist one. When I started listening to Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics again, I realized how little political content was actually there. You know their sensibilities because they’re famous, but most of their lyrics are poetic exhortations. So I thought that a good exercise in political philosophy was to make a Rage song pro-fascist, changing as few lines as possible.

Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...ughh!
Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...yeah!
It goes a-1, 2, 3...

Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack
And suckas be thinkin' that they can fade this
But I'm gonna drop it at a higher level
'Cause I'm inclined to stoop down
Hand out some beat-downs
Cold runna train on punk ho's that
Think they run the game

But I learned to burn that bridge and delete
Those who a level that's obsolete
Instead I warm my hands upon the flames of their flag (was “the flag”)
As I recall their downfall (was “our downfall”)
And the business that burned us all
See through the news and the views that twist reality

I call the bluff
Fuck moral humility! (was “Fuck Manifest Destiny”)

Drug lords and media whores (was “Landlords and power whores”)
On my people they took turns
Dispute the suits I ignite
And then watch 'em burn

With the thoughts from a militant mind
Hardline, hardline after hardline

Drug lords and media whores (was “Landlords and power whores”)
On my people they took turns
Dispute the suits I ignite
And then watch 'em burn

Burn, burn, yes ya gonna burn (ad infinitum)

It goes a-1, 2, 3
Another funky radical bombtrack
Started as a sketch in my notebook
And now dope hooks make punks take another look
My thoughts ya hear and ya begin to fear
That ya card will get pulled if ya interfere

With the thoughts from a militant mind
Hardline, hardline after hardline

Drug lords and media whores (was “Landlords and power whores”)
On my people they took turns
Dispute the suits I ignite
And then watch 'em burn

Burn, burn, yes ya gonna burn (ad infinitum)

And it would still be just as good a song. So now, students, you understand the moral indifference of art and emotion.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Freedom Is Doing What You Never Even Knew You Could Have Done

I had one of those minor philosophical epiphanies that I probably won’t do anything with professionally, at least not directly. In order to produce publishable (in academic journals) material around this epiphany, I’d have to read at least the last twenty years of evolutionary philosophy and psychology, and the freedom vs determinism debate going back at least twice as far, and then well into the seventeenth century. I really don’t have time for an extra project that long, so I’m going to blog about it. There’s a few steps in this, so it’ll take a few paragraphs to spell out.

Why are the opponents of evolution so frightened by the prospect? It has to do with what exactly that prospect is. The more theatrical anti-evolutionists have made rhetoric of jokes about an orangutan being their uncles or aunts. But the weirdness of existing on a continuum with other species is only evoked to disgust people. Conceptually, a deeper meaning underlies it.

The way humans have understood themselves morally is as free agents. Human morality and the complex societies that produce these moral systems are typically seen as exceptions to the natural order. We humans are artificial. That which is natural is governed by deterministic linear causality, the most advanced form of which is instinct. But humans are not purely instinctual: we are moral. Morality is an exception to instinct, animal behaviour not subject to linear causality.

But evolution is a natural process. If humans are the product of a natural process, then our moral systems do not constitute an exception to the deterministic natural order. This produces a contradiction in which morality loses, in those people who think of the deterministic natural order in a particular (but very popular) way. Actions which are not freely chosen cannot require the moral responsibility of their actors. If morality is a natural process, then it is a complex evolution of instinct, an entire determined process. So we have moral concepts by which we attribute responsibility, but no actual responsibility because we are not an exception to the deterministic natural order.

The greatest fear underlying opposition to evolution is the fear that there is no genuine moral responsibility.

I laid out this chain of reasoning, but I don’t believe in it, because I think several of the premises according to which this makes sense are not actually the case about the universe. It hinges on a metaphysical point. I used the term deterministic linear causality above, and I did that on purpose. Causality in general is an underdetermined process: an event can have a huge number of conditions and causes, and very complex relations among them. The image of one snooker ball hitting another snooker ball is an example that oversimplifies an amazingly complex universe. Determinism is similarly underdetermined: an event can have a huge number of different effects, can change a system in a wide variety of highly complex ways, and each of these effects interfere with each other apart from the event that was their genesis.

Here’s where the word ‘linear’ comes in. Precisely because of these underdeterminations in how events actually interact and cause each other, very few relations of causality are actually linear, like the snooker balls. The world we live in is enormously complex, and even though the mathematics that describe these complex systems that are our world are deterministic, there are enormous possibilities within the deterministic development of a system. One event does not cause a single set of effect events. One event sets off an enormous chain of interrelated events with millions of possibilities that its constituent bodies can choose from. That choice among possibilities is especially open to creatures with highly complex perceptual and reasoning skills who can analyze situations with an eye towards all that can be, not simply what there is.

Instinct is a reactive response to stimulus, a pattern that an organism follows according to what is there. The ability to conceive of possibility, either through colloquial reasoning, or highly complex phase space chaos mathematics, is a step far beyond instinct. This way of thinking about the metaphysics of the universe and causality takes us out of the trap by which moral responsibility disappears. Freedom, the capacity to understand and act on what can be rather than simply on what there is, is an evolved trait.

The natural order itself constitutes creatures that are more free than any creature before, so free that they can imagine themselves to be unnatural, and believe their dreams.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Future of Television - Lost. In Space

I thought of an excellent idea for a new science fiction television show that would follow a similar pattern of Battlestar Galactica, at least as far as revamping seriously a laughably camp old sci-fi hit from the 1970s. I’m thinking about Lost in Space. Consider the basic premise of the show: An exploration ship is sabotaged and crash-lands on an unknown world, the crew being forced to work with the very saboteur who caused the mess in the first place. Of course, apart from the first and last episodes, the original series executed this premise as if it was Gilligan’s Island in space (with a comparable budget). But with a few tropes lifted from recent critically acclaimed hit sci-fi programs, and a few ideas of my own, I think I have a pretty good pitch. It could be worth developing further, at least.

The Ship and Its Crew.

The setup of the original show was too simple: The Robinson family of scientists and their best friend are the crew of the ship, and the only foreign entity in the crew is the villain-turned-walking-joke Dr Smith. What we’ve learned from shows like Lost and Stargate: Universe is that a larger, more diverse cast can constitute more complex storylines simply by their being stuck together. A large ensemble cast of singular characters with diverse histories and many different reasons for being on the ship provides a comparatively large potential for different character arcs as individual stories are developed, and different people come into different kinds of conflict as they try to survive on an alien world.

How to Travel in Space.

I only thought of the idea this afternoon walking back from the market, so I haven’t yet considered all the details of how this technology would work. I’m imagining some kind of wormhole creation and manipulation technology. This is partly why they’re stranded so hopelessly for quite some time into the series. Only ships carrying a wormhole generator can travel faster than light; signals can’t. So they can’t send a decent distress signal at all, because they’re too far away from human worlds, and can only signal them at light speed.

Key to the narrative is that humanity didn’t invent the wormhole technology - they discovered and reverse-engineered it on a sublight expedition several centuries ago. So a major narrative arc of the series would be that the cast slowly discovers evidence that they are wrecked on the homeworld of the beings who invented the wormhole technology.

The Villain.

I’m a pretty big Doctor Who fan, as regular readers will have discovered by now. And one of the Doctor’s favourite aliases, especially when he was stuck on Earth working for a planetary defence task force, was Dr John Smith. So I thought of making the central villain, the saboteur, a remixed version of our favourite Time Lord. The Dr Smith of the regenerated Lost in Space would be a manipulator of the rest of the characters, with his own nefarious ends regarding the planet's mysteries.

No one, not even the audience, would know he sabotaged the ship, and engineered it to crash on the Mystery Planet. Dr Smith would be a brilliant, eccentric, manipulative asshole. He would, effectively, be the charming rogue scientist at the centre of the show, using his considerably wide-ranging expertise to take at least partial charge of the cast.

There would probably be some other characters who would take charge of the day-to-day problems of survival for the cast on an alien world. And those characters would drive ongoing power struggles with Smith because they’re more obviously helping the cast survive on the planet. The cast also grows more suspicious of Smith over time, as they become conscious of his manipulating them, and his investigations into the planet’s mysterious nature.

One idea I had for the character is that he would be an older man, with some echoes of the Hartnell and Pertwee versions of The Doctor. And a story arc for the first couple of years would involve him discovering technology on the island to build an android body that would eventually resemble a young man, and eventually copy his own personality into it, cloning himself into a practically immortal body. This brings me to my favourite idea for the new Lost in Space.

The Android (or, Danger Will Robinson My Ass!)

At the 24 Hour Art Marathon in St John’s this summer, I wrote a short story about a future society that has invented a race of android servants and companions, whose brains were powerful computers and scanners based on chaos mathematics. Their long lifespans and incredibly fast learning curves make them intellectually and perceptually superior to humans. Because the intellectually successful androids were built as companions, they were basically T800 style robots with flesh that repaired itself by absorbing ultraviolet light, and couldn’t eat or drink, because the light would recharge their power plants as well. Pretty much every power source built to work in terrestrial environments, of course, would be solar or wind based by this point in human civilization, androids included.

By the time of Lost in Space 2.0, the androids will have long ago won their rights to self-determination, integrated into society, and to some degree have been forgotten. The android character from my story, Alice Chesterton, would be on the ship. A major narrative arc for her would be the crew’s eventually discovering that she is an android. Her immensely powerful brain would cast her as a rival to Dr Smith, and his envy and conflict with her would be partially what drives him to create his android replica.

Probably the most important element of Alice that the writers would have to keep in mind throughout the show is that Alice’s intelligence and learning speed is beyond the greatest of human geniuses. All androids are this way. Probably a very fascinating part of the Lost in Space 2.0 mythology is discovering the history of how the prominence of androids in society would have disappeared over the previous centuries. They are intellectually and physically superior to humans in every way. So one of the great mysteries about human history in this universe would be how and why the androids disguised themselves, or hid themselves away. Perhaps there's a secret society of androids somewhere in the human worlds, something like the Freemason conspiracies.

After Dr Smith created his android replica, he would have to be written with the same caveats as Alice. After that point, both Alice and Dr Smith can perceive all the possibilities of every object they see, giving them a fantastically fast learning curve. But Alice, unlike Dr Smith, is already centuries old, and was built by a corporation that became massively successful building high quality android companions. Android Smith, however, would not be built by such experts, and would be hampered by mechanical problems.

One of these would be impotence, because Alice was originally designed as a sexual companion for a professor on Earth, and so the physical processes for sexual activity would be an integral part of her brain. Her sexual relationships with other members of the cast would be excellent narrative fodder as well. Dr Smith's android would be something of a patch job. This would just add to the conflict between them, even as Android Smith begins to sympathize with Alice more than the human crew as he learns to exercise the immense potential of his brain. Alice has always been an android, so comes from a much more enlightened ethical perspective. Smith built his android self for egocentric human reasons, like envy of Alice and yearning for immortality. The breakdowns of his mechanical body would be quite ironic, given his advanced age as a human in the first two seasons of the show.

The Planet.

This is where the direct analogue to Lost comes into my idea. A mandatory feature in the hypothetical show’s bible would be that nothing like the God-ish aspects of Abrams and Lindelof’s island would ever come into play in Lost in Space 2.0. It’s a standard trope that most stories about stranded people take place in some jungle environment, but I’d prefer to set the crash site on a steppe near a mountain range, the kind of environment that would make shooting in British Columbia or California fairly easy.

All the long-range arcs of the story, again riffing from Lost, would have to do with the mysteries of the planet where they’re wrecked. Over the course of the first series, the cast, particularly those more loyal to Alice, would discover that human expeditions have visited the planet before, and evidence of these prior investigations (and perhaps some of their sticky, violent ends).

The steppe-mountain setting departs from the tradition of stranded stories, and would give the writers extra flexibility in setting. Some episodes would take place on the steppe, some at a nearby lake, and some exploring the mountains. Another narrative arc of the show would be a quest by some characters to discover the sea on the other side of the mountains, and that would probably integrate with the reveal of the indigenous species, described a bit later.

Most important about the planet’s mythology is that there is an alien race that lives there, the descendents of the inventors of the wormhole technology. And I would have them be as absolutely unlike humanity in every way possible. Perhaps they’d be a species something like amphibious cephalopods. The most important scientific consultant on the show would be the biologists who would brainstorm ways that intelligent amphibious cephalopods could evolve and become the dominant technological species on a planet.

The cephalopod culture would have to be immensely detailed as well, because the major narrative of the show would be the cast discovering their technology, culture, and mysteries, eventually learning to communicate with them. This would probably be the most difficult part of designing Lost in Space 2.0, even more than having one (and later two) major characters who are advanced android geniuses. At least androids and humans share a common history. The cephalopod culture would have nothing at all in common with Earth, but with a history just as detailed, and ethically complex, as humanity's.

There could also be conflicts because some of the humans (probably Smith and his cronies) would catch small cephalopods to eat at the beginning of the series. But because androids can perceive all the possible states of an object as well as its current actual state, Alice would stop the cast from eating them, and provoking the adult intelligent cephalopods. The human-cephalopod misunderstandings and conflicts would be another central story arc of the show.

I think this show sounds like a really cool idea. Let me know if you have any character ideas for anyone other than Alice and Dr Smith, because they’re the only people I’ve thought of so far. I don’t really want to see anyone who is too much like a character from Lost or BSG. If this whole academic career doesn’t work out, or it turns out that I can make more money as a tv producer, I know I at least have a good idea I can attach my name to.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to Read Philosophy, and Be a Philosopher

In the course of preparing a presentation I’ve been invited to give at a conference at University of St Gallen in Switzerland later this Fall, an intriguing idea came to me about the history of philosophy. It’s too complex to fit into the space I have for the presentation, but it’s promising enough that I think I can work with it for a while. It’s also connected to a conversation I had Friday evening about how philosophy is taught at the introductory and undergraduate level.

My friend has begun to find it ridiculous that we are teaching undergraduates philosophy by having them argue against or otherwise try to attack the works and ideas of the giants of our fields. If a philosophical work or corpus has survived with a prominent role in the history of ideas for hundreds or thousands of years, it seems absurd that we would teach people by demanding that they refute Aristotle at age 19. It trivializes a work of monumental scope and power. It demeans the concepts that have revolutionized thinking over the millennia. I didn’t recall being taught that way.

My first philosophy instructor was (and still is) an old Cambridge man, who waxed to me this summer about the old way of teaching philosophy, where you truly know your history, can genuinely understand the thoughts and social milieux that shaped the thinkers you’re studying. You can’t start refuting all over the house until you know why every word is just the way it is. This is philosophy as serious scholarship, the meticulous investigation into a way of life that in most cases no longer exists, so that one can understand most deeply how a great piece of work was produced, and how it was meant to affect its own time, its own readers.

However, there is a different way to read philosophy which I consider equally legitimate as serious scholarship, but is easier in some respects, but far more difficult in others. Werner Herzog talks about how the meaning of his films, particularly Aguirre The Wrath of God, changes depending on who is watching them. The work is no less great, even though the people who receive it transform its meaning significantly and radically. In fact, it’s greater because it can have all these different meanings in different contexts of culture and history. Philosophy has such a long tradition that its great works have undergone similar transformations. It is easier than scholarship because it doesn’t require so much historical and contextual work. But inspirational readings are more difficult because the work stands out as even more alien when it is transplanted into a new context.

It’s difficult to read philosophy well, or indeed any great work, when you are part of the community. Every filmmaker, the Hollywood hacks, commercial directors, no-budget indie directors with a stolen digital camera, is in the same community as Kubrick, Murnau, and Herzog. Writers are in the same community as Eliot, Joyce, and Cervantes. Philosophers are in the same community as Plato, Russell, Deleuze, and Kant. The danger of the trivializing attitude of refutation being your only engagement with a work is that you make a mockery of the giants of your field. The scholarly attitude becomes dangerous when it becomes worship, and you sterilize your own creativity in a terrible inferiority complex.

The inspirational attitude is to pick up a work and a philosopher as if you are talking to an old, strange friend. This friend will shock and terrify you, and also mystify you completely. But if you can engage your alien friend in a respectful conversation, a productive dialogue, then you can become a great figure yourself.