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.