Sunday, April 25, 2010

My Kind of Waking Life

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a very interesting movie called After.Life. It’s an intriguing premise that apparently resulted in a wretched film. Christina Ricci is a woman (a spoiled, horrid, difficult, self-absorbed, idiotic woman) who is in a car accident and wakes up on Liam Neeson the undertaker’s slab. Apparently, Ricci is a spirit who hasn’t been able to understand that she’s dead, and Neeson has the power to convince her to accept her fate. As their conversations continue, she gains an increasingly deathly pallor, her body catching up to her actual situation of being dead.

This fancy little idea is not the actual point of the movie, however. I don’t mind spoiling it for you, because the movie is supposed to be pretty terrible, and the movie itself isn’t why I’m writing. It turns out that Neeson’s character is just a creepy serial killer who’s using the ‘confused souls’ story as a cover: He’s slowly injecting Ricci with chemicals to make her appear as if she’s dying, cutting off more and more pieces of her clothing for no good reason, and will end by burying her ‘alive.’

After reading the reviewer’s dismissal of the film as “veering into Saw territory,” I was pretty disappointed too. I thought the idea of an undertaker who had to deal with his self-reanimating corpses was pretty brilliant in itself. There’s no need to turn it into a samey serial killer story. In fact, this could make a brilliant black comedy. Consider this: What kind of person would die and refuse to believe that they’re dead. The character Ricci plays in the movie is actually quite like what one of those people would be: Someone so self-absorbed, so convinced that the world revolves around them, that they would find it incredible that the world would go on without them, or that they would die in an absurd accident, that their deaths would be anything other than epic or noteworthy. Can you imagine having to talk someone like that into humility?

That’s where the comedy comes in. This poor undertaker, who I would imagine as a bit more nebbishy, or at least a little less fit, than Liam Neeson, just wants to get on with his business of dressing the dead for their funerals. It’s fine when it comes to the nice old ladies and well-adjusted people dying of sudden heart attacks or terminal illnesses. But so much of his time is filled with exasperating conversations with utterly wretched people. Plus, he has a funeral deadline to convince them to make.

I think I’ll put this on my list of short stories to write. It will finally give me a chance to use Erin May, this reporter character I developed a couple of years ago for a novel treatment that went nowhere (too pretentious). She can investigate his funeral home after the Ricci character starts walking and talking during her own funeral, cajoling people about how little they appreciate her. I've been wanting to write something articulating her plucky jadedness for a while now, and this story might suit it perfectly. It would be a good practice for writing irrealism too.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Better Expression of My Views on Sports Than I Could Write

It’s difficult sometimes for me to explain my hatred for the New York Yankees. It’s one of those principles that seems utter nonsense unless you already understand it. So it’s impossible to make anyone understand it. However, Joe Queenan of the New York Times does a very good job.

It all revolves around the smugness of the franchise: everyone hopes to win, but the Yankees (like the Dallas Cowboys, Duke University basketball, the LA Lakers, and Manchester United) expect to win. A team can go on a years-long winning streak, like the Green Bay Packers, or Chicago Bulls, and not necessarily have this smugness, the presumption of victory. Everyone has to work for victory, but these teams are still conscious of having to work for it, and that consciousness in a Bulls fan, Packers fan, or Blue Jays fan prevents smugness from developing.

Developing legions of insincere fans from all over the world also helps build that smugness. The Montreal Canadiens won almost every hockey game they ever played for decades (and even a few games that they weren’t even playing at all). But the paradigmatic Canadiens fan was still a Quebecois. But there is nothing more insufferable than a dedicated Yankees fan from Arizona or Paris.

Being a Canadian who likes baseball, we all converge morally on Toronto, because the Blue Jays are all we’ve got. Even when the Montreal Expos still existed, Toronto was really all we had. Being ten years old during the second world series victory in a row helped imprint the Blue Jays on my personality as something to which warm, fuzzy thoughts and feelings apply.

The most difficult thing about being a Blue Jays fan is that they’re in the toughest division in the entire sport. Every Blue Jays victory has to come with a Yankees, Red Sox, or Tampa Bay Rays loss. You shouldn’t count the Baltimore Orioles as a team, however, because a 1-11 record this season disqualifies them from that status. So not only have the Blue Jays become my only untainted expression of patriotism, but they are also my weapon against the itching smugness of the Yankees. They’re down to third in the division right now, but a 7-6 record is still good in the first two weeks of the season. The Jays keep above .500 win percentage, and maybe this could be the year we knock the Yankees out.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons from History, Or When Not to Read Too Closely

I was reflecting on last Tuesday’s John Ralston Saul talk at McMaster this weekend, and another idea occurred to me. The actual subject of his talk was understanding Canada as a Métis nation, a life grown of pluralism that was founded in the historical situation in the country for many years, where the indigenous peoples and the English and French settlers were on a level playing field. This shifted, he said, in the nineteenth century, as European philosophies of racial nationhood took hold. But he said that Canada had a very special essence in this founding atmosphere of pluralism and multiple identities.

I found Saul’s talk very intriguing and useful. But my social scientist, cultural theorist, and historian friends thought differently. They raised questions and commented to me that Saul’s theory was naive. They raised the valid point that his romanticizing the early indigenous-settler relationships as a creative multiplicity of identity and lifestyle (and it was quite romanticized) papered over the genuine terrifying harm that settler-descended people had done to the indigenous. They argued that history was much messier than Saul’s simple story, and I agreed with them.

But I hold firm that Saul’s talk was intriguing and useful - as philosophy. As history, it missed major complications that made a mockery of his account of the Canadian story. Of course, the complications of history as it actually occurred always make a mockery of any simple story. The point of a simple story is not to be an accurate retelling of events, and anyone who thinks that is the point doesn’t understand the messy muddiness of how history works.

A story like Saul’s is told not to recount the past, but to create the future. A plural Canada whose people embrace contradiction and multiplicity in their national and personal identity is a Canada where I would love to live. Saul told a just-so story to explain his philosophy of identity (because that’s what it was, not a genuine historical account). Such a philosophy is connected with Canadian history to give its audience an anchor in their own lives, a tool to apply the concept to their own lives, taking it out of the abstract and into actual application.

The problem with just-so stories that are delivered as interpretations of historical events is that they gloss over the events that don’t jive with the story. So those in the audience with a better mind for history than philosophy will dismiss the concept as poor history and leave it at that. It’s a long-standing problem for creative philosophers to find ways to articulate their concepts in a manner that people can latch onto them and incorporate them into their own lives. It can be tough to get our ideas out of the abstract.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Philosophy as Critic and Creator

Again, Brian Leiter’s blog has informed me of an intriguing essay and a sticky problem that contemporary philosophers face: the perception among many in wider society that the problems of philosophy are irrelevant. This essay by Jason Stanley describes a typical philosopher’s problem of trying to make the issues around which his discipline revolves matter. Stanley describes philosophy as the target of a prevailing attitude in the humanities today that understanding the particularities of cultures are most important for human civilization. Philosophy concentrates on the ancient problems such as whether there is free will, the nature of rational agency, what constitutes evidence, what is the truth of existence? These are the eternal questions, the questions that would appear to make mere gossip of what Stanley calls “the anthropology of the other.”

Yet philosophy, as it is traditionally understood, is devalued by its fellow humanities disciplines precisely because it does not engage in this anthropology. Stanley describes philosophers who seek ways of writing that escape the traditional eternal questions (Friedrich Nietzsche, Slavoj Zizek, in my opinion John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein also) as anti-philosophers. Stanley sees a role for philosophy in this new environment as one in its ancient Western tradition: the critic.

Often, people find themselves slipping into the dogmas of their cultural upbringings, their colloquial traditions, that which seems so obvious that it would never be questioned. Where this happens, the critical voice of philosopher turns, showing people by reasoned argument that they are straying from the truth through their mere anthropology. The job of the philosopher is to stand up for what is right and true, defending universal justice in the face of those who would say, “Ah, that’s not how we do things here,” sneaking abuse and violence under the banner of tolerant relativism. This relativism ends all discourse over right and wrong, which the philosopher, with his eye on the truth, can restore.

But I want to take this further. Stanley is mistaken to build an antagonism, an opposition, between the philosophy of the traditional eternal questions and the traditional critics of philosophy that tend to align with cultural studies and anthropology. The ideas they represent are only anti-philosophy insofar as ‘philosophy’ is understood as investigating the eternal, projects above merely cultural traditions, matters of absolute truth, unpolluted by facts of simple practicality.

To understand philosophy as a cultural tradition is not anti-philosophical, it is anti-necessitarian. I agree with Stanley about the importance of philosophical thinking as a critical, subversive activity. The biggest problem philosophy faces, I think, is its tendency to believe itself to have this priviledged role as the only path to reasoned certainty; its tendency to believe that the truth is unified, absolute, more pure than the cultural collisions described in mere anthropology.

John Ralston Saul gave a talk at McMaster University today on understanding Canada as having an important cultural tradition of embracing hybrids, multiple mutually inconsistent identities, continuing negotiation among neighbouring communities, and adaptation to changing conditions of life. He contrasted this attitude (which he associated with the traditions of the indigenous peoples of Canada and its first immigrants who implicitly picked up their ideas) with the European attitude that unity of identity, science, politics, ethnicity, territory, and truth is the only good way to run society.

From the very beginning of one’s education in philosophy, one is taught to unify one’s thinking, that inconsistency is a major problem in one’s thinking and identity, that you cannot be two things at once. Such inconsistencies and multiplicities are against the very nature of reason and truth itself. This is the kind of thinking that is dangerous, that brings adaptiveness and flexibility to an end. Convinced that what is true now is true at all times, one will run into severe problems when the nature of the world changes.

One rhetorical point Saul made was to bring up the condescending point about the technology of the indigenous peoples of the Canadian shield. “If these people were so intelligent, said the intelligensia of Europe, then why didn’t they develop such a simple technology as the wheel? Have you ever tried to use a wheeled vehicle of the nineteenth century to get through the wilderness of the Shield? You’d end up with a lot of broken wood very quickly.”

The point is that what is right and true for one land, region, culture, people, civilization, may not be right and true for another. This is not relativism, but adaptation. One can defend those abused by the powers of a foreign land, but not because you have access to an eternal ethical truth that holds sway over the contingent culture. The abused themselves know that they are abused, and if they ask for help, it must be given. A violent man may say that this is what we do here, but not for long once those to which violence is done rise up.

The philosophy that most intrigues me is the creation of new concepts and new ways of life for changing times, and the changing problems that come along with time. Philosophy is the branch of the humanities that deals with thought at its most abstract, but this is not superior because of the purity of the abstract. There is no absolute purity, only purity of some quality, abstractness being only one such quality. Thought at its most abstract is least restrained by our habits of daily thought, what we have become used to thinking is possible and impossible.

Maximizing freedom of thought in philosophical creativity lets us build ideas that can take us to weird, alien places. The world may change in an utterly unpredictable way one day. The more concepts we have at our disposal, the better we can approximate in our thinking and planning the strange new world where we now find ourselves. Philosophy can be our first foothold in a contingent, dangerous world.