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.

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