Monday, May 2, 2011

Which Political Divide Will Claim bin Laden's Death Was Fake First?

I’ve been stewing ideas for blog posts over the last while about the election, my philosophical research, and assembling my final thoughts on Finnegans Wake since I finished it last month. But the past few weeks have been busy with work and plans to attend conferences. Then just as I happened to get a few minutes, Osama bin Laden was assassinated. And since I never manage to update this frequenly enough to generate a serious readership beyond immediate friends and any intelligence agencies scanning the internet presence of young intellectuals, I thought I’d just muse about this until I felt like stopping.

I can’t say much that foreign policy experts and the more frequently-updated on the internet haven’t already said. But when I heard the circumstances of bin Laden’s burial, I knew what was coming next: Donald Trump spinning a ridiculous series of accusations that Obama faked the entire raid just to embarrass him. After all, the raid came the day after Obama and Seth Meyers humiliated Trump at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, and that’s too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.

This is the way conspiracy thinking works, after all: nothing is a coincidence if it can be understood to be integrally connected to different events. Actually, a long term philosophical project of mine is to analyze conspiracy thinking as the ultimate irrefutable argument: even clear statements of fact against the claims of the conspiracy prove its truth, because any argument or fact showing the conspiracy theorist to be wrong can be understood as planted by the evil conspirators themselves. In the context of philosophy, it challenges irrefutability as the most important feature of a true account. But in a political context, it’s working very differently.

Obama’s best joke against Trump at the Correspondents dinner was a line connecting his boosting of the Birther conspiracy with ridiculously outlandish ideas. Now that the long-form birth certificate has been released, said Obama, “we can move on to the truly important matters that face our nation: Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? Where are Biggie and Tupac?” These are scenarios so zany, they can be dismissed by most people.

But contemporary conspiracies – 9/11 Truth, Birtherism – are deeply politically partisan. I have a rather apolitical friend who actually both theories, or at least considers them plausible. But he’s an outlier, because the American conspiracies of the 21st century are firmly divided along political lines. 9/11 Truth, or Trutherism, is a conspiracy of the left, those who were so driven into partisan rage against the Bush/Cheney Administration that they took gaps in evidence, the sheer monstrosity of the event, and gave it enough anger for fuel that they grew convinced that the American government caused the September 11 attacks, whether by launching missiles into the buildings, destroying them from inside, or remotely controlling the planes themselves.

Then during Obama’s campaign for the presidency, rumours began swirling that he was not born in the United States, and so ineligible for the role of president according to their constitution. This is a conspiracy of the right, prevalent among the Tea Party, tacitly tolerated by congressional leaders like John Boehner, and openly endorsed by congressional rebels like Michelle Bachmann. And most recently, Birtherism has been the key rant of the Trump pre-campaign. Critics of Birtherism have connected it to accusations of implicit racism, the unspoken feeling, probably largely unacknowledged by many of its believers, that a black person should not be president of the United States. At least that’s the joke: if he were white, we wouldn’t be questioning Obama’s qualifications.

The sad part is that the Birther conspiracy was started by desperate partisans in the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008, before it was picked up by the American right. However, I’m at least slightly bemused that conspiracy theorists of left and right in America can find some common ground in the overlap among their main paranoiacally concocted secret plans. If you watch Zeitgeist, one of the better-known underground documentaries advocating 9/11 Truth, it actually connects Truther principles about a government conspiracy to control the Middle East with the Jewish conspiracy to control the international financial system and erode democracy from within its institutions by implanting surveillance microchips in the human body. That’s right: the flagship conspiracy of the West’s paranoid secular left is a grandson of the anti-Semitic Protocols of Zion.

See, that’s how you can tell conspiracy theory lineage: look for which secret societies they have in common. The secret societies don’t really exist, of course, but the conspiracies acknowledge that they must exist in order for these real events to happen. If there’s one thing a conspiracist can’t tolerate, it’s that the world is just messed up and terrible things just happen without the need for a secret intelligence directing it all.

I was expecting conspiracy theories about faking bin Laden’s death to arrive soon, probably from the Trump camp. The best way to discredit Obama, after all, is to tar him with the brush of conspirator. And discrediting Obama results in Republican victories. But it seems that this could be a conspiracy of the left in America, as well as of the right. I’m sure Trump will advocate the falsity of the Abbottabad raid as soon as he and his Celebrity Apprentice writers assemble enough epithets. But the first advocate out of the gate saying the government faked bin Laden’s death is one we haven’t heard from in a few years: Cindy Sheehan. She’s the activist who led many protests against the invasion of Iraq, and she was the first one to capitalize on the lack of photographic evidence and the quick disposal of the body. So maybe the far left's disappointment with Obama will result in a merger of the Fake Bin Laden Death conspiracy with the 9/11 Truth conspiracy, and lump the Democrats in with the Republicans as evil manipulators of a free public.

I never thought I'd sound radical advocating for listening to the government and believing in simple answers to questions.

Monday, April 18, 2011

To Change a Mind Is Immensely Difficult

Last week, a website that was brilliant in its simplicity made the rounds of a ton of my facebook friends, Shit Harper Did. Next to a coal sketch of Stephen Harper smiling creepily while cradling a freaked out kitten, is a generator of summaries of news articles describing the destructive, polarizing, alienating, and anti-democratic activities of the Harper Government™. Among the terrible things that appear is Harper sabotaging international talks on carbon emission reductions and climate change, cutting funding for scientific research while muzzling the ability of government-employed scientists to speak to the media about their work independently of party-controlled public relations officials. He has also doubled annual spending on prisons in a country with falling crime rates. His handling of the G8 and G20 meetings in summer 2010 was needlessly provocative, grossly expensive in direct spending and lost revenue, and ridiculously handled.

I was glad that after I posted this site, the number of reposts among my friends skyrocketed. To see the popularity of anti-Harper propaganda like this at first made me hopeful that he would be out of power within a few weeks. Then I thought about who my friends were.

That phrase is usually trotted out to disparage a group of people, but I mean it in a more literal sense. My friends were already against Stephen Harper. They never voted Conservative in the first place, and they certainly weren’t about to now. Apart from a few exceptions, my social circles tend to involve people who are already left-leaning. We’re academics in the humanities, artists, journalists, activists for unions and marijuana legalization, young people in the technology industries. We’re people who live in the centre of cities, many of us don’t own cars unless we have to for work purposes, and few of my friends have work that requires cars. Even most of the lawyers I know are most interested in labour, criminal, entertainment, and contract, or else they went to law school and decided never to be a lawyer. We are not the demographic that votes Stephen Harper.

This idea first started making sense to me when Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto. All my friends were amazed that Ford won with the massive share of the vote that he did. But when I looked at the district-by-district breakdown, it was plain what had happened: the centre of the city, split among several diverse and dynamic candidates, went in their various directions indicated by their diverse and dynamic personalities. All the suburbs went Ford. None of my friends knew anyone in the suburbs. Neither do I, apart from some of my students, who commute to school from their suburban homes. We ask ourselves questions like "How could anyone vote for Stephen Harper?" and expect to hear only confused rage and disgust, because we only ask it around our friends who never consider voting for Stephen Harper. The most productive way to ask this question is with genuine curiosity and respect towards someone who enthusiastically votes for Stephen Harper.

There’s no way our venting anger on the alleys of facebook or in Toronto’s gay district is ever going to change a single Conservative vote. And that’s a shame, because voicing rage against the stupid and bigoted activities of the Harper Government™ and receiving adulation and praise in return feels so wonderful. What will be utterly painful and wretched is to go out to ridings that are in close contests and campaign against the Conservative party in places like Ajax, Orleans in Ottawa, or Mississauga. You’ll have doors slammed in your face, Conservative party activists hurl abuse at you, and go home feeling demoralized and dejected every day. But if you want to change minds and actually achieve political goals, a requirement is talking articulately with people who don’t already agree with you.

I, meanwhile, will just write this blog post that I’ll link on facebook and entertain my friends who hate Stephen Harper and like to complain about him.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Conference Diary: My Free Dinners with Marxists*

For the first time last week, I visited York University, an enormous modernist compound in the middle of industrial parks north of Toronto, adjacent to a distant, isolated slum. It was for a conference their department of Social and Political Thought organizes every year, and because my friend who attends Osgoode law school lives on campus there (thanks again for use of the couch, Kyle!), I decided I would go. I presented a paper that took some of my ideas about the contingency of existence and a Nietzschean political philosophy into the context of postcolonialism. Normally, my writing wouldn’t be quite so reaching, but going to a department that’s outside philosophy proper, I gave myself some liberty with composition.

I did see some very interesting presentations, including some people who knew a whole hell of a lot about Theodor Adorno, and a lot of Marxists. It’s rare that someone from a philosophy department comes across such a concentration of academics who genuinely seem to believe in political revolution of the global working class. It was refreshing, and I think more traditional philosophy departments could learn something from interacting more regularly with these differently oriented departments and groups.

McMaster University has a lot of guest speakers come to its department to give talks; we have a weekly Friday series during the Fall and Winter semesters just for that reason. For the most part, the guests are people from other universities around southern Ontario – some just commute in for the afternoon – but some come from far flung locations like southern Illinois and North Carolina. In the past year, we’ve hosted a conference on the anniversary of Russell & Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica that drew logic and history of philosophy scholars from all over the world. Our upcoming philosophy of law conference will have delegates with a similar diversity of origin. But going to a place like the Social and Political Thought conference made me realize that despite the diversity of people who visit McMaster, they’re all also kind of the same.

It’s not that every one who visits McMaster has the same answers to philosophical questions. I’ve seen some epic arguments on a variety of topics. But there’s a remarkable amount of common ground on what questions to argue about. In a way, I think this is just about the habits of people anyway. An area of philosophical inquiry is a region of thought that a person – professor, graduate student, general thinker – is comofortable moving in. But beyond simply the comfort of familiarity, a philosophical inquiry is a set of open questions that require continued exploration, literally a lifelong and life-defining project. If you’re interested in developing such a project, you’ll be drawn to people talking about the same types of problems, compatriots with whom you can work to develop the ideas that have come to define your professional existence.

There are no Marxists, critical theorists, Frankfurt School specialists, anti-capitalist revolutionaries, or postcolonialists at our department. So those problems aren’t going to be on their professional radar, and the types of questions they ask won’t come up. In the same way, a lot of the intriguing questions that are asked at McMaster Philosophy will never come up in York Social and Political Thought. I stuck out like a spotlight over there talking about Richard Rorty. If you’re the type of thinker who does good work through focus along developing a specific path, then it won’t matter to you whether other groups of people are interested in other problems. But I find myself thinking that an inquiry can be revitalized, or at least given a healthy shock, by exposure to ways of thinking that diverge from the habits you might be used to. It’s what draws me to interdisciplinary conferences, or gatherings of different sorts of people. Some folks would find that diversity confusing, while I find it challenging. At the same time, I find the inquiry style of a specializer to be boring, and in danger of insularity, while other folks do their best work in that context.

People are built differently, and are better and worse at different tasks.

* Ever since the “My Dinner with André” episode of Community a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been incorporating references to that movie into different conversations I’ve had. I like to think this isn’t sad.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Wake Diary: Tangents of Philosophical Wisdom

When I would tell my friends and concerned loved ones that I was reading Finnegans Wake, they worried for my general sanity. After they realized that I had gone long enough without general sanity that I never really needed it in the first place, they were still concerned that I would waste months of my life reading a book that made no sense. This post isn’t about following the plot or symbolism of Finnegans Wake: there’s too little of one, and too much of the other for that. This is about a phrase I found a couple of weeks ago, but am only getting around to writing about now, that actually sums up rather well what I think about problems of individual knowledge in philosophy.

"What can't be coded can be decorded if an ear aye sieze what an eye ere grieved for."

You might think that strange. And it is. But this actually made quite a lot of sense to me as an expression of my attitude towards how knowledge problems are manufactured and solved. Go through the phrase bit by bit.

“What can’t be coded”
We fail to have knowledge of something in two general ways. We may have no way to access it because it might be too far away, too large, or too small, and we haven’t figured out the right technology to observe it yet. We had no knowledge of Jupiter’s moons until we developed telescopes to see them. They were always there, but couldn’t be seen. But this phrase responds to the second, more problematic kind of unknown: that which might be part of our everyday world, but which we don’t know how to understand. It’s the problem of the unknown unknown, an object or a situation which we don’t even know we’re oblivious to, because we can’t even conceive of it existing. We can’t search for it, because we wouldn’t even know how to search for such a thing.

“can be decorded”
I like the wordplay, combining the senses of the terms ‘decoded’ and ‘untangled,’ as if we were trapped in a mesh of ropes that we had to figure out how to disentangle ourselves. And the ropes in which we’re stuck are metaphors for our perceptual habits, the ways of thinking that we’ve become used to and don’t bother to question. But all ways of thinking are limited, leaving parts of the world unknown to us, and that we don’t even understand how to search for or conceive of. But we can discover unknown unknowns by decoding the patterns in language that we don’t understand, taking that pattern apart and reverse-engineering it.

How do we do that?

“if an ear aye sieze what an eye ere grieved for.”
I wish I could remember where I heard this joke, but someone once told a joke about being stuck on an airplane where a blind man was laughing at a video of Mr Bean. The joke is funny because someone with no visual perceptual ability can understand comedy that’s entirely visual performance. His ears should “grieve for” visual humour because they’re incapable of perceiving it. Our ability to think abstractly lets us experiment with concepts so we can develop new powers of thinking, which allow us to figure out the patterns by which some unknown unknown exists in the world, and we can learn to search for it. Once you learn how to search for something, you’re able to find it, and systematize your discovery about the world into the framework by which you understand the world. Conceptually speaking, we can grow an ear where before we may only have had eyes. That’s how you solve the most interesting problems of knowledge, by figuring out how to perceive the world differently than you ever had before.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Wars and Dictators and Elections and Eyebrows

A Political Note on Libya

A few posts ago, I was exasperated with Barack Obama’s waffling on support for the Libyan revolutionaries to the point where I was giving up on him. Having seen a vigorous no-fly zone manned by efficient Americans and angry Frenchmen, I am no longer giving up on him (the poster still hangs on the wall by my kitchen). Like he said in his books, he believes in the democratic institutions of his country and the world, even when they move with an aching slowness.

Actually, what’s been exasperating lately, though to a lesser degree, is the perspectives of my leftist comrades. Robert Fisk is a brilliant journalist and author, and in an otherwise balanced (and also exasperated) column, he writes, “Yet again, it’s going to be regime change.” My friends and political columnists who lean left and America-skeptical have begun leaning against Libyan intervention, that the no-fly zone is another grab for oil, or Middle Eastern influence, or something. If it’s not always mentioned, I find it an undercurrent to some of the discourse critical of the intervention.

But Libya is not Iraq. The anti-Gaddafi rebellion didn’t need Western help to begin. These are the revolutions of the Arab world. While it’s probably going to be a mixed bag of success, continued repression, and half-measured compromise, it’s still a vibrant revolution of Arab people. Westerners didn’t manufacture this revolution, but we can still aid it as best we can. A dictator like Gaddafi isn’t talked out of power. I’m no longer willing to say that there can always be a peaceful solution to political repression.

I’m willing to accept the paradox that sometimes you have to start a war for peace. Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Ben-Ali are just three more names on the list of overthrown dictators of people who wouldn’t live under their rule anymore. They join Slobodan Milosevic, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Chun Doo-Hwan, Rafael Trujillo, Porfirio Díaz, Benito Mussolini, Napoleon Boneparte, Louis XVI, and George III.

No matter how much we may complain about the Tea Party’s racism and insanity, and no matter how justified we may be in our fight against the destruction of organized labour in the United States, it was anti-Iraq-Invasion protesters who first put a Hitler moustache on a sitting President.
A Political Note on Canada

I’m looking forward to this election, because I think Stephen Harper will finally lose some seats again. I don’t think the Conservative Party will ultimately lose the plurality in parliament, but if their numbers are reduced to the mid-130s or (if we’re lucky) mid-120s, it might be enough to cause an insurrection in the Conservative Party against Stephen Harper.

I’m registered to vote in Hamilton Centre, one of the safest NDP districts in the country. But when I hear that Harper is losing support in Quebec, and that a lot of seats in Saskatchewan are in play, I couldn’t be happier. Harper has demonstrated contempt for Canadian political institutions and for Canada’s parliament, as well as open hatred for every other political party. Holding Harper in contempt of parliament wasn’t just a political ploy: the reason he’s the only prime minister ever to be held in contempt is because of the seriousness of the charge. It carries with it a nominal restriction from running to be an MP for five years, which Harper has ignored. He treats the Canadian government as if he owned it, and there were no checks on the power of his office. He treats his own back-benchers and party activists like cogs in the Stephen Harper machine.

I posted on my facebook wall a link to an article that compared Stephen Harper’s methods of governance to that of Richard Nixon, and found them brothers in arms. Then a friend sent me another article demonstrating that Nixon’s policies on the environment, engagement with China, infrastructure and scientific investment, and even civil rights were more progressive, humanitarian, and superior to Stephen Harper’s.

I’ll be so happy to see him go.
A Political Note on Senses of Humour

A sign that I think the Liberal party might have a chance of making some serious gains in this election is that they’re giving away a particular free gift with small donations: Stick-on Ignatieff Eyebrows. I’m glad their campaign is finally loosening up and is able to make fun of Michael Ignatieff’s stick-in-the-mud pretentious image. I’m waiting for the media clip where he tries them on himself.
A Political Note on Exasperation

I know one of the excuses that have been heard for just giving the Conservatives a majority is that the increased frequency of elections in the past decade is hurting Canadian democracy. If anything, the greater means of maintaining accountability of politicians in parliament without a single majority party should keep leaders in a more moderate, compromising position which takes more concerns of Canadians into account. Harper hasn’t learned those lessons, and is just becoming more authoritarian in his party and the bureaucracy. If this is his authoritarian streak in a minority, I’d hate to see what he would do to the country with an unchecked four year mandate.

Monday, March 21, 2011

We’re All Different, But We Can All Be Understood

Errol Morris had an intriguing series of essays published this week at the New York Times. They are entitled “Incommensurability,” and are an exploration into a philosophical idea about the social nature of science and knowledge. It turns out that Morris took a graduate seminar in philosophy from Thomas Kuhn, a writer from whom I’ve stolen some very good ideas. The climax of this relationship, from Morris’ perspective, was when Kuhn threw an ashtray at his head. The reason for this assault was Morris needling Kuhn about a problem regarding incommensurability.

Kuhn was a scientist and a historian of science more than a philosopher, but the ideas he had to formulate to make sense of his interpretations of science’s history were deeply philosophical. Key to Kuhn’s own understanding of the history of science, and the focus of Morris’ essay, was the concept of incommensurability. Science was not a progress toward better and better knowledge of the world, as traditional ways of writing its history would have it. The history of science actually consisted of a variety of models, ways of understanding the world and articulating problems that are largely unrelated to each other.

Revolutionary periods in science were the time when new models were created and become prominent enough to challenge the old models. This usually happened when some problem that the old model couldn’t make sense of become too noticeable to ignore. Those practicing one model understood the world in a totally different way than those practicing another model. The terms of one model only make sense within that model; to translate terms from one model to another would remove all the distinctive characteristics from the translated model. This is what it means to be incommensurable.

Morris explains that he confronted Kuhn with a problem of incommensurability: If two broadly defined ways of seeing the world were truly incommensurable, which Kuhn assured him they were, then a historian of science in the mid 20th century could never truly understand the scientific worldview of the medieval Europeans or ancient Greeks. The history of science itself should be impossible. And the ashtray flew.

Morris goes through several intriguing examples from history and philosophy and the history of philosophy to illustrate his points about the problem of the incommensurability concept. They are quite fascinating, but they all add up to the same point: If different models of understanding the world are genuinely incommensurable, then holders of different models shouldn’t be able to understand each other at all. Yet the conflicts among models of understanding the world seem to be motivated precisely because their opponents understand the new model. Read the articles and think about it.

Are you finished? Good.

I first heard of Errol Morris when I saw his documentary about the career of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. I thought it was a brilliant exploration of how a sharp, intelligent, and empathetic person found himself becoming the architect of one of the most terrifying mistakes the American government ever made: its invasion of Vietnam. As I started hearing more about Morris’ history, I was less impressed.

When his filmmaking career began, Morris was friends with Werner Herzog, and would always talk to Herzog about this idea he had for a documentary about pet cemetaries and the people who use their services. But he would always come up with excuses as to why the film could never get off the ground. Finally Herzog said that if Morris ever actually got his film made, Herzog would eat the very boots that he was wearing at the time of the challenge. Morris made Gates of Heaven, and at its festival premiere, Herzog ate the boiled shoes from the challenge. The result was another short documentary: the hilarious Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. But it took a shoe eating challenge from Germany’s greatest living director to get it off the ground. I discovered on the commentary for Herzog’s Stroszek that this film was generated when Herzog went to rural Wisconsin to help make a documentary about Morris’ early life. But Morris never showed up, so Herzog wandered around small-town Wisconsin himself, coming up with ideas for the film that eventually became Stroszek. A wonderful result, but borne of Morris’ scatterbrained laziness.

Perhaps despite of these habits of his personality, Morris has written a fine series of articles that work a general audience through complex philosophical problems. The project suffers, I think, from the prominence that having an ashtray whipped at his head plays in his memories of Kuhn. That confrontation colours his entire view of Kuhn: With every interaction they had about what incommensurability meant, Morris thought Kuhn's anger was a sign that Morris was getting to the older man, forcing him to deal with something he didn't want to admit. Having won the staring contest, Morris presumes his suspicions were right, and doesn't think about the miscommunication he and Kuhn could have had from the beginning. I don't blame him for being affected by nearly being knocked out with an ashtray, but there is more nuance to Kuhn's (or at least Kuhn-inspired) thinking than Morris suggests.

It doesn’t require a purely objective perspective, a god’s eye view, or a view from nowhere to understand a way of making sense of the world that is alien to your own. All you need are skills of observation and disciplined, careful imagination. I think Morris makes a mistake in calling incommensurability the absolute separateness of some way of understanding from another, that someone who thinks according to paradigm A couldn't possibly understand anything of paradigm B. If this were true, there was no way for anyone to do any history of science at all: every view that differed from our own would be dismissed as nonsense. But one can think about one's own premises of thinking, and do so for any paradigm of thinking you care to investigate. In understanding how a paradigm of thought arises and evolves, one understands that paradigm.

Incommensurability is a matter of practical work, not pure understanding. A phlogiston chemist can't test for oxygen, because the structure of phlogiston chemistry doesn't include oxygen, or much of the periodic table. That phlogiston chemist could learn the basic concepts of a periodic table chemist, just as the periodic table chemist could learn how phlogiston theories work. But you couldn't do chemistry experiments using both theories at the same time. They can be understood, from a perspective of self-reflexivity, reflexive criticism. But when it comes to the work, you have to choose one or the other.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Barack Obama Is a Pathetic Wretch

I’ve been willing to forgive Barack Obama for a lot in the past two years. But his abandonment of Libyan rebels is something I can’t let go.

There are definitely positive aspects to his administration. He has signed law improving income equity among genders, allowed homosexuals to join the army and die for their country in useless wars, and made their money back from the auto industry bailouts, giving the anemic manufacturing sector of his country another chance to recover. That they will likely fail is the fault of manufacturing business leaders who seek better profits from more exploitive working conditions in Asia. The health care reform that he fought for, while compromised, is a genuine improvement on the almost entirely private and piratical system the United States had until 2010. His candidacy, with its rhetoric and imagery of a generational shift in the tenor of American politics, inspired so many people around the world with its romanticized vision of America that he won the Nobel Prize. For the strength of that inspiration alone, he deserved it.

But aside from his rhetoric, he has been utterly tepid. The health care reform plan will likely be revoked by conservative court action, and validated by conservative legislatures. The anger that the ideologues of the Tea Party rode to the House of Representatives began with public outrage over health care reform. If Obama had advocated strongly for his health care program with the same inspirational power and ethical idealism that he summoned in the campaign, he could have stopped this movement in its tracks. All he needed was an information program that made sure Medicare reform (which first provoked the backlash’s first rage among the elderly) was a streamlining, and not a cut. Instead, he held back, and let the conservative movement take control of the national agenda.

When the Green Revolution failed in Tehran, I considered it a tragedy, but there was nothing Obama could really do to help them. Military action in Iran would have required a force as powerful as that which invaded Iraq, an invasion which left the American military limping out. Libya is a different case. All the rebels needed was weapons and a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan planes from taking off from their airbases. And that no-fly zone could have been enforced with sea power! One or two destroyers from the American navy, patrolling off the Libyan coast, could shell every Gaddafi-controlled air force base into dust. A steady stream of weapons could have been smuggled to the rebels with the help of the Egyptian army (who had just helped overthrow their own dictator, and would be glad to see the Gaddafi family out of their backyard). Even the Canadian military could probably carry out an operation like this – actually, why don’t we? Instead, the rebels are bombed into submission, and outgunned by government ground forces. The Libyan army will kill tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, in its inevitable destruction of Benghazi.

Obama has sat on his hands, afraid of offending the sensibilities of anyone (if they even exist) who would be opposed to American action to overthrow a dictator. Perhaps he is afraid of sounding like George W Bush, endorsing American military action in Arab lands in the name of freedom. It’s the same reason that Bill Clinton refused to sanction military force against Bagosora in Rwanda in 1994: having been burned in peacekeeping in Somalia, Clinton was unwilling to commit another military action in an obscure African country. Having been steadily burned in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama will not commit to yet another military action in a Muslim country. This true believer in democracy will let thousands die at the hands of a dictator, when they are crying out for help to overthrow that tyrant.

I hope that he’s re-elected president for a second term, if only because his most likely Republican competitors would sell off every publicly held asset in the country for the benefit of big business interests. Conservative ideology in the United States today is based on the rollback of the last hundred years to the era of robber baron capitalism, reducing the country to utter poverty. He needs to stay in power at least to provide a bulwark against the free market über alles ideology that will transform the United States into an oligarchy.

As an alleged democrat, Barack Obama is worthy only of my contempt. The ‘Hope’ poster is finally coming down.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wake Diary: Poems Made of Tone and Images

The problem with novels is that the vast majority of readers expect them to have plots. That is, they want a clearly identified protagonist or protagonists facing a concretely described problem that they slowly investigate, act to solve, and then manage the aftermath. This is the standard rising-climax-falling structure of a plot that people are taught in high school literature studies. I prefer novels that are more narrative than plot, because plots have clear beginning and endpoints. The characters exist in the service of the plot, rather than serving as points of interest themselves. I read and I write stories that don’t have plots, as much as they have explorations, narratives, collisions of people.

Then I came to face Finnegans Wake, which doesn’t even really have characters. Looking for a narrative in this book is an academic cottage industry, as is looking for a clearly defined cast of characters. But I think there’s another way of reading this book, which actually fits its style better than an attempt to find (or interpret into it) clear characters and narratives. It’s a poem, constructed from emotionally evocative language, its rhythms, allusions, and allegories. There are recurring motifs, some of which receive clear definition in one part of the book so they can be better recognized in the rest of the work. HCE, Anna Livia, and Shem the Penman are some of these motifs. But the writing is meant to affect a reader the way a tone poem, or a piece of music does.

If anything, I suppose the entire thrust of James Joyce’s writing was a series of experiments that slowly jettisoned reliance on plot, then narrative, then even character. The stories of Dubliners were intricately constructed plots, situations whose narrative arcs created detailed situations that climaxed in a character defining epiphany. Portrait of the Artist eschewed the careful construction of plot for a series of five moments that exemplified the transformation of a character as he grew from a dependent child to an independent adult. Ulysses left narrative behind for a series of events contingently connected through the characters that wandered among them. Wake abandons even the constancy of characters. I’m not sure what to call whatever remains.

But I’ve had some profoundly strange ideas about how the Wake’s techniques influenced other artworks.

I found a very intersting interpretation of the Star Wars prequels a couple of months ago that reads them in the same way. It actually fits with some of what I know about their production, and how George Lucas envisioned particular scenes. If you watch Red Letter Media’s detailed reviews of the prequels, one of the critiques of Lucas’ narratives is that he includes specific images that mirror or parallel images from the original trilogy, but that these images lack their emotional impact when they appear without the investment of the individual characters.

When Leia sees Boba Fett’s ship taking off from the dock at Cloud City, she’s emotionally devastated, because the man she loves may have disappeared forever. When Padme watches Count Dooku’s ship take off from the dock of his mountain base, she doesn’t have the same emotional investment in the moment. Lucas created parallel images, but didn’t realize that the emotional connection of audience to story comes from the narrative itself, not the image alone.

That article above suggests that Lucas had always envisioned the story of the prequels told through images alone, not through narrative, and that he had to create his overcomplicated, emotionally cold narrative to get the proper images into the films. In other words, Lucas was stuck, because of the economics of his own film company, making a sci-fi blockbuster, when he really wanted to make a new La Jetée, on an enormous scale.

La Jetée was a silent French film whose narrative would form the skeleton of Twelve Monkeys. But its technique was to tell a story entirely through images that created emotional tones, crafted using motifs that allowed viewers to track the triggers of these emotions, and the relationships between those triggers. It was a film told with the same techniques of Finnegans Wake.

Monday, March 7, 2011

St John’s Diary: Sad to See the Old Girl Go

My friend Kyle wrote a piece for the Osgoode Law School newspaper Obiter Dicta last week, talking about the benefits of returning to practice law in St John’s. It was an entertaining piece, and while I didn’t (nor have I ever) respected the bad jokes Kyle threw in his article, I do respect his position. He always states it well, and there’s a particular realism to his patriotism that I think is at the centre of why I can tolerate it.

I find Newfoundland patriotism slightly distasteful and a little deluded. Visiting a couple of weeks ago, my mother joked about a popular documentary that examined what an economic powerhouse Newfoundland could have been if we had maintained national independence in the 1930s. The contrast case was an everlasting boom that would never run into a money problem ever again: Iceland. This is the kind of delusion that annoys me about contemporary Newfoundland patriotism.

But Kyle’s piece centred on aspects of life in St John’s that don’t have the outsized ambition that some of the more naive patriots in the old country have displayed. The lifestyle is relaxed; the people are friendly; the rent is cheap; in the particular case of lawyers, law firms compete to attract students, instead of more frequently the other way around. A lawyer working in St John’s can be more of a community practitioner, instead of a faceless corporate shill. I know most people in law school actually want to be corporate shills. But Kyle is that most rare of law students: he’s actually a very nice person.

This is actually a more personal post on what I found when I returned to St John’s this time. For the first time, it was not because of a special event. It wasn’t Xmas, which I spent in Hamilton for the first time this year. When I went to St John’s this summer, it was for my friends’ wedding, which dominated my time there. This was just midterm break and a relatively cheap direct flight from Toronto. I would have to make my own fun.

I actually found a city that was starting to become distasteful. Ugly box stores were dominating the architecture of the old-growth suburb where I grew up. A very sketchily arranged Burger King was slated to be built within twenty feet of my mother’s condominium complex, ruining the atmosphere with its terrible smell and constant traffic. Hava Java, the legendary coffeeshop that was the centrepiece of the city’s hipster, art, and music communities, was leaving its classic location, forced out by a new building owner who wanted to install office space in the building. He had already forced St John’s’ only gay bar to close the previous Xmas. Some of my friends were doing well, and some of them were stuck in ruts. I hated to see it all.

So I returned to Hamilton, a cheap Ontario steeltown with a bad reputation and an endemic recession, feeling optimistic about where I lived, and much more hopeful for my future outside St John’s than I am for the city itself. My friend Elsa made this movie about it a little while ago, and it reminds me of a city that I’m not sure ever existed.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Maybe a New(ish) Way to Do History of Philosophy?

University of Western Ontario is starting a History of Philosophy roundtable, discussing, as the name implies, various topics in the history of philosophy. I’m of two minds about studying the history of philosophy – my attitude towards the practice is a mixture of enthusiasm, dread, dismissal. The reasons why are a little complex, but that’s what blogging is for.

In my time as a graduate student, I've come across two approaches to the history of philosophy that seem pretty mainstream. One is history of philosophy as antiquarian studies: philology on writer X that seeks to get X right. One is understanding historical developments in current terms: asking if Aristotle was a functionalist on philosophy of mind – that question makes no sense to me. It applies the concepts of a long-ago philosopher to current debates with little heed to the radically different context of two writings.

I did my first few years of training in philosophy in a very historically-minded department, and I think I came out better for it. When I engage the work of a complex, difficult philosopher, I put a lot of effort into understanding their terminology, concepts, historical context, and the reasons why they thought the problems at the focus of their work were worth the trouble. I emerged with the ability to read a complex work in a very deep and careful manner rather quickly. You might think this leaned toward the antiquarian definition, and to a degree this was true.

But the individuals who played the biggest role in my education treated their historical subjects as their specialties, but they had no particular loyalties to them. At Memorial, I never worked on history of philosophy with any professors who said their specialty writers were the apex of philosophy, or that those writers were the only ones to get the universe really right. I’ve come across that attitude among some students who work on history of philosophy, and I hope that disappears from them.

My friend Jeremy once came up with the perfect definition of such a slavish historical philosopher: For a devoted X-ian, the only time X was ever wrong was when X himself said some element of X’s own corpus was wrong.

However, I’ve discovered over the past few years that I don’t want to work on history of philosophy, or secondary material generally, as my main specialties. I didn’t want to use my intellectual capacities in the service of illuminating the work of another writer. I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my time arguing over interpretations of another writer, with other writers whose careers were also spent commenting on the same writer as me. I’m just not humble enough to be that subordinate, even to someone who had proven themselves as remarkable as Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Heidegger, or Russell. I find secondary material to be writing about philosophy. But I want to write philosophy.

For me, the history of philosophy is a tool for creating concepts and working through contemporary social and ethical problems in philosophy. For example, I’m interested in Spinoza, but not just exegesis of Spinoza’s writings. He’s one of the few philosophers in the Western tradition for whom ontological matters – questions about being and what is – are closely integrated with ethical questions. This kind of reasoning is very important for my own work, but it’s difficult for mainstream philosophers to see this kind of convergence as legitimate. Being able to say that a big name like Spinoza did it too grants my ideas at least a small grasp on that legitimacy.

More than that, I engage with philosophy’s history to find the hidden subtlties of thought and strange concepts in dark corners that we usually don’t mention to undergraduates in the field. I’m looking for peculiarity that can inspire, or strange elements that could have sparked a completely different revolution in philosophy but never caught on because of some social or institutional factor beyond the writer’s control (this is my view of why Johann Fichte didn’t invent phenomenology in 1801).

I’m interested in taking part in this roundtable at Western, provided I can get transportation to London three or four times during the next term. I revere no one, although I respect them very much. And my applications of past to present are very indrect and convoluted. But I hope to find welcome, or at least sympathy. I’m not exactly someone who fits in.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wake Diary: Unafraid to Sound Like a Lunatic

An egomaniac is coming up against the limits of his own fantastic mind right now. I cannot make any damn sense out of Finnegans Wake, but I won’t give up on this thing. I’m only two chapters in so far, after starting to read it a week ago. I expected this would take a while, and I’m probably moving faster than most people who take a shot at it. Hell, I’m 50 pages in and haven’t thrown it out the window yet.

The inventions of words don’t stand in my way. The stereotype of Finnegans Wake is that every sentence invents so many new words that it’s impossible to understand the semantics of the book. But the book is written as if it really were a bizarre auditory monologue. Words are spelled differently, but mean the same thing, because they’re pronounced the same way. Most of the ordinary neologisms in the book play with the peculiarity of English spelling, seeing how many different ways you can spell a word but pronounce it the same.

Pronounciation is, for me, the most important part of reading this book. Whenever I come up against a particularly difficult passage, I start reading aloud, and return to my silent reading at the end of the paragraph, or whenever my voice gets tired. The only qualification is that I read it in a wretchedly thick Irish accent. And it actually makes more sense. In a way, it fits with the way James Joyce himself may have composed his work in the last twenty years of his life. He was functionally blind, most of his visual field an array of blurred colours. With difficulty composing a text, he would have had to speak out loud most of his drafts as he wrote each sentence. So their composition would have focussed on their vocal cadences and rhythms, musical and melodic qualities rather than ordinary grammar.

Given the context of the book being a kind of dream, this actually is an improvement. Read aloud, the Wake is more of a recording of a series of extended vocal improvisations than it is a novel as we traditionally think of them. Shifts in mood and digressions of content are more important than clearly defined characters and narrative. The closest analogue is like watching a jazz performance fed into a DJ mixing board where pre-recorded music is blended with live instruments, and the jazz players are reacting to their own playing, but also the DJ’s samples and regurgitations of their own music. And this is all done by one blind author. Over 17 years.

This is a tenuous analogy. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was coming up at the limits of my powers of description.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dream of a Music Video Director

I enjoy the music of just about everyone in the New Pornographers collective, Neko Case and Dan Bejar especially. Destroyer’s Rubies was one of my favourite albums of 2006, and I still love listening to it. Now, Bejar’s music and personality was always a little ridiculous. His New Pornographers songs were always the strangest on every album, but they were usually also the most interesting (although “Myriad Harbour” from Challengers is an earworm that lodges itself in you until you want to drill a hole through your head).

However, after hearing some songs from the new Destroyer album, Kaputt, I don’t really know what to think. Pitchfork gave the album an 8.8 and included it on their list of Best New Music. I usually respect Pitchfork praise, which is not exactly given lightly. They described Kaputt as evoking the pop aesthetic of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Describing its sound, they offered analogues in Sade, Steely Dan, Roxy Music, and Chuck Mangione. When I first listened to the lead single, “Chinatown,” I enjoyed it, finding it retro and catchy. But after a few more listens, the kitsch and the cheese is just biting into me and making me bleed in uncomfortable places. Listen to “Chinatown,” below, and see if you can’t get through that saxophone line with a straight face.

This is the kind of music a lounge singer from 1984 would sing at a private gig in the catskills for a bunch of bankers’ wives.

This morning as I was walking to lunch, I imagined a music video for this utterly ridiculous song. The setting is, of course, an expensive restaurant with an expansive dance floor. A beautiful Asian woman in a red dress leaves her companion, an uptight older white man, to get a drink from the bar. As the music begins to play, she sees a handsome brown-skinned man her own age. They lock eyes, a thin silk fabric goes over the camera lens, already coated in more vaseline than a wrestling pig at a Wyoming county fair. They walk past Dan Bejar, singing the song, on their way to the dance floor. A subtly erotic tango begins as the saxophone kicks in.

Her older lover stares at the couple on the dance floor, his face seething with the inward rage of hidden anger. Bejar’s head turns into the frame at suitable moments throughout the song, facilitating breaks in the dance in alteration with the Asian woman’s now-former lover. As the last verse finishes, the woman in red leaves the restaurant with her new lover, walking past the older man, who is still quietly enraged. She ignores his presence completely.

Outside, the young man opens the passenger door of his car (a DeLorean, naturally), offering it to her. But the woman in red looks away and walks down the street, proudly alone and self-reliant. Bejar sings as she strides into the city on her own, repeating, “walk away.” “Walk away.”

Maybe that should be one of my alternate careers in case academics doesn’t work out. Music video director.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Canada Could Use a New Species of Conservative

The only politician whose twitter feed I follow is Canadian Industry Minister Tony Clement. The vast majority of politicians’ twitter feeds are written by PR interns, and consist almost entirely of announcements of speeches and press conferences, or links to press releases that state generic party policies, except with greater vapidity.

But someone retweeted Tony Clement joking about some absurd piece of popular culture. Intrigued, I read through his profile and discovered a fan not just of sports, but of science fiction. I discovered a man who seems to be a genuine nerd for technological innovations. We have quite a few common follows as well. Clement follows a lot of my more noteworthy journalist friends, which is probably expected for a politician to follow reporters who may soon work on him. But he also follows some of the same weird celebrities I do, like David Lynch, Leonard Nimoy, Conan O’Brien, and Kanye West.

After I spoke with my friends who read far more tech news than I do this weekend, I became incensed at the CRTC ruling having the effect that independent internet service providers, although nominally allowed to compete with large companies whose physical networks they used, would not be permitted to offer more bandwidth than the ISP plans of those larger companies. This would severely restrict internet access in Canada, making it practically unaffordable to many businesses and individuals. Coffeeshops, for example, could no longer offer free wifi, and probably lose their shirts along with the lagging customers buying endless coffees, pastries, and sandwiches while they sit in a warm coffeeshop on a freezing winter afternoon.

So I sent a twitter letter to Tony Clement. In eleven tweets, I explained my major complaints and my idea that a truly pro-business government would encourage investment in the bandwidth infrastructure for small ISP businesses to thrive, possibly even without having to rely on the networks of large telecom corporations. That was the main positive contribution to my critique.

I was chuffed when I got home today to check my e-mail, and found a direct message in my twitter inbox from Clement. It was a quick notice to watch his website for a more detailed statement on the ISP ruling, but nonetheless, it was a direct message to me from a minister of the party whose platform I am largely the most distant from in the entire parliament of my country.

Mind you, the actual statement was pretty underwhelming in terms of spelling out any actual position the government was taking on the issue. But they did acknowledge that the ruling conformed to the lobbying efforts of a major network owner, without naming that company, which was Bell. I will likely never be a fan of Stephen Harper, but if Clement listens to the knowledge of well-informed Canadians who understand how harmful the bandwidth restrictions unfolding from this ruling will be to the country, there will be at least one Conservative in the party who I think is pretty okay.

For most politicians, pretty okay is like getting a high A. Not an A with distinction (that’s an alright), but it’s about as high as a politician can get until I become the industry or education minster in about twenty or so years.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Universally Rejected

One element of what I love about the internet is that random pieces of hilarity like this show up, The Journal of Universal Rejection. It perfectly illustrates one of the silliest paradoxes of academic culture, while working on multiple levels, especially given the weird philosophy I’ve been working on.

So the first interpretation I’ll explore is the simple satire. Academic journals have a way of measuring their relative prestige that I find remarkably strange. A journal gains prestige based on how many submissions they reject. Now, there are other criteria of prestige, like the age of the journal, the number of articles it has published that became pivotal in the evolution of its field, the reputations of its editors or regular contributors. But the shorthand prestige marker is the sheer statistical likelihood (or lack thereof) of actually having your submitted essay accepted for publication. If a PhD candidate like me gets an essay published in a journal with a 75% rejection rate, an established (if snobbish) professor or colleague may dismiss it as a relatively unimportant venue. “Oh, you had a one in four chance. Anyone could have made that!” But if you make it into a journal with a 95% rejection rate, that garners much more prestige.

Of course, anyone who actually knows how statistics works knows that this reduction of a peer evaluation, editing, and selection process to a fraction (1/4, 1/20) is a hideous oversimplification of an extremely complex process. But in most conversation, even among the supposedly most educated members of the human population, this little number is all that matters.

Academics themselves often take the criteria of a high rejection rate for granted, I think just because they’ve been acculturated to the idea for so long. Like the best satire, the Journal of Universal Rejection takes this simple principle and carries it to its logical extreme, so we can see how stupid it really is for measuring the worthiness of a journal. If a higher rejection rate equals greater prestige, then the most prestigious possible journal will have the highest possible rejection rate: 100%. Literally no essay is good enough for its high standards.

We find this ridiculous, but the principle we’ve used to arrive at the ridiculous is taken for granted and makes perfect sense. If we’re as intelligent as we say we are, we re-evaluate just how useful for living is this principle that we’ve never bothered to question before. This is how satire can sometimes push us into ambitious and interesting philosophy.

As I thought about it this morning, The Journal of Universal Rejection also has some meaning for my own ideas about ethics based on singularity. One of the problems I face when trying to articulate this ethical point of view is that it seems to paralyze activity. It starts from a principle that’s arrived through an ontological investigation, an examination of how the world is. That principle is that every situation and every individual is a singularity, a unique body that differs at least in some degree from every other. The result is that any universal principle or proposition will be a generalization that misses some of the singular features of the bodies to which it applies. A proposition that applies to many bodies in common won’t take into account various differences among those bodies. If it did, then it wouldn’t be able to apply to all of them.

This means that any universal proposition can’t be necessarily valid: some difference among its members that the proposition doesn’t account for can create effects that render the proposition useless. To put it more poetically: Reality rebels against any attempt at unity. Or to put it more happily: Existence can surprise us at any time.

In order for a set of universal principles and propositions to hold, those rebellious features of reality have to be set aside. If the people who hold those universal principles and propositions want to maintain the widespread belief in the truth of their system, they have to convince people that these rebellious singularities do not in fact exist. The universal principle rejects the reality that surprises it. If enough of reality becomes surprising to the universal system that the rejections can no longer be ignored, then the system becomes ridiculous, like a government or corporation that denies reality.

Think of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad telling the United Nations that there are no homosexuals in Iran, or a British Petroleum executive telling Louisiana residents that there isn’t anything serious about Deepwater Horizon. These statements become ridiculous because reality has escaped their systems of universal propositions which tell us that the singularities we can plainly see cannot possibly exist.

From ontology to ethics to politics in four paragraphs. Would anyone try to say philosophy is useless now?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nobility in Barbarous Times

After a slightly circuituous journey, my dvd of Werner Herzog’s Invincible has finally arrived this week. The company delivered the wrong dvd at first, a film of the same name released the same year, starring Billy Zane as an immortal swordsman turning against his people to fight for humanity. The film that I actually wanted to watch was Herzog’s adaptation of the life story of Zische Breitbart, an early twentieth century Jewish strongman into a parable about justice, hope, and kindness in 1932 Berlin starring Jouko Ahola and Tim Roth.

Invincible is the story of a naive Jewish blacksmith in eastern Poland who becomes a famous strongman performer in Berlin, and a lightning rod for tensions between the rising Nazi party and the local Jewish community. The story begins when Breitbart gets into a fight in a restaurant with some local anti-Semites, and competes against a travelling strongman for a prize to pay back the damages. He’s seen by an agent, who books him to perform in a variety/occult club in Berlin, working for Tim Roth, a hypnotist and clairvoyant who is cruel and demeaning to his lover Anna Gourari, and is courting for a position of power in the Nazi party. Ahola is first dressed up as Siegfried in a blonde wig and viking armor, but eventually decides to be true to his own identity and declare himself the new Samson. The real Breitbart died in 1925, but Herzog uses the man as inspiration for this story.

The more of his films I watch, the more satisfied I am at my choice of Herzog to be the centre of this philosophical project. Having familiarized myself with his classic period, 1970-82, I can easily spot the common themes and ideas in his more contemporary work that originated there. The faux-metaphysical proto-new-age nonsense that Roth spouts onstage during his hypnotism act reflects Herzog’s irritation at the attitudes of most professional hypnotists that he developed while working on Heart of Glass. It also brought a smile to my face when I recognized Herzog's son Rudolph, himself a magician, in a cameo as the club's magician, and Herzog's voice denouncing Ahola from off camera. Invincible is the most direct engagement Herzog ever made in his work with what he calls the barbarism of the Nazi period. Even here, he never addresses the war directly: he doesn’t need to, because in 2001, when the movie was made, we all know what will happen.

One thing that struck me when I was researching the film was the criticism of its acting. Among the three leads, only Tim Roth is an actor by trade. Jouko Ahola is a strongman athlete, and Anna Gourari is a classical pianist (her performance of Beethoven’s third sonata is the centrepiece of the film’s story and the fulfillment of the character arcs of herself and Ahola). Roth gives a highly nuanced performance, embodying stealth, viciousness, ambition, while slowly engendering sympathy as his plans are ruined. Ahola, in comparison, is almost naive in the transparency of his performance; Gourari is stilted and uncomfortable at almost all moments when she isn’t playing piano.

But watching the film, particularly the development of its story, the style of performance was itself integral to the narrative. Invincible doesn’t really have a plot, if by plot you understand events that push the characters to a climax. It has a storyline: these three characters are brought together and transform each other’s lives, physically and ethically. Roth’s hypnotist is a con man who has lived his entire life as a series of cruel deceptions, and when he meets Ahola, he presumes that this Jewish performer in Berlin will also embrace a new identity. But Ahola’s strongman is honest about himself, his feelings, and his motivations. He tears away his disguise because the only way for him to live is to be who he is.

Ahola’s strength is obvious, physical, part of his very identity. Roth’s strength comes from his mind, his ability to deceive and manipulate: physically weak, he finds ways to turn the strength of others to his advantage. He succeeds with Ahola at first, but the strongman eventually learns how to direct his strength of body and character in a more noble direction as a symbol for the confidence of his people. The simplicity of his performance fits the simplicity of his character’s spirit, given purpose in collision with a duplicitous man. Herzog created in his Breitbart a flickering beacon of nobility of spirit in a descent into barbarous times.

Here's the trailer that Peter Zeitlinger, the cinematographer, uploaded to youtube himself.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Overcoming the Sentimentality of My Country

The last two weeks have been quite heavily packed with activity, most of it having to do with work. I’ve been so busy with teaching, writing philosophy essays and thesis chapters, and taking part in the hiring process for our department’s new position that I haven’t had time to blog, and hardly had time to drink. I even missed the New Years Day edition of the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show, and when I miss Craig Charles, you know I’m working seriously hard.

But I came across an article that has gotten me rightfully upset, or at least a tad cross. The Sentimentalists is the novel that won the Giller Prize last year, and its publication history seemed at first to be an uplifting tale of the surprising success of a nearly defeated underdog. Johanna Skibsrud wrote a novel, and couldn’t get it published by any of the big houses, so she eventually went with the small Gaspereau Press, who printed a limited run. The book was sent to a few influential critics who liked it enough to include on the Giller longlist, and it found itself on the shortlist, then took the top prize. There’s a softcover run on a major publishing label, and triumph was had.

This article sums up all the underhanded dealing that has resulted in this remarkably corrupt Giller win. I think I have something to add to this debate, however, which has less to do with the corruption of the Giller judges and the idiocy of Skibsrud’s publishers, and more to do with my ideas about Canadian literature generally. I didn’t know much about The Sentimentalists when it initially won the Giller, but having this accolade made me at least slightly interested in reading it. The books that I picked up on the gift card Mother sent me for Xmas (Bolaño’s Antwerp is done, Berlin Alexanderplatz is in progress, and Finnegans Wake looms before me, and I might blog my thoughts on it, like I did with Proust last year) are still not read yet. But once I read that article, The Sentimentalists stopped being interesting for me. Here’s why.

It’s rural, it’s cold, and its central character is a Canadian stereotype, the cruel buffoon. In other words, The Sentimentalists embodies everything that I’ve come to hate about Canadian literature, and that everyone else in the world who knows anything about Canadian literature hates about it too. I think this image of Canadian literature as being about rural, isolated existence is popular, but I think it’s exactly what keeps people from being more attracted to Canadian literature. The article I linked is right when it says that the rural Canadian novel doesn’t even represent the country anymore, now that Canada is more urban and suburban. Canada is also far less white, less Christian, and far more technologically savvy than the traditionally defined ‘Canadian novel’ makes it out to be.

The most interesting point of view for me is trying to work out how a fiction with a Canadian identity can reflect that urbanity without sounding like an American big city novel; or how we can reflect our multiethnic population without becoming a typical immigrant novel. I don’t really have a program, and I don’t want one, because I no longer believe that programs and manifestos really inspire creativity. They’re just easy to follow in a superficial history course.

Creative experimentation is probably the best route, but I do have ideas about basic ground rules of what not to do, and an inkling of what the most productive paths of development might be. Very clearly, what not to do is rely on the old stereotypes of the Canadian novel, the kind of survival themes that Margaret Atwood talked about in her thematically eponymous book, or the rural settings that aren’t as important to the lives of Canadians anymore. And it’s best not to fall too much in line with the major American fiction archetypes like the urban decay novel or the Western. Books about the underbelly of downtown Vancouver or the exploration of the Rockies or the North could definitely be interesting, but maybe not the most progressive.

Science fiction elements might end up being interesting, because sci-fi life is the kind of direction human civilization is moving in right now. We may not have underwater bubble cities, but we do have Wikileaks and hacker culture.

There’s a political attitude in Canada that I think is best called necessary humility. We’ve always been politically independent, but we live in the shadow of the United States. So while we’re part of the former dominating class of Earth’s powers, Canada has never really dominated anyone. I think that gives us a perspective on the shifting alignment of the world that’s more of a detatched observer than an angsty falling empire, like the USA. A Canadian can take a more ironic perspective on the shift of global power to China, India, and Brazil than any of the former world powers like America, Europe, or Russia could. They’re all losing something, but we’re not.

And there’s enough people of Asian and African descent in Canada for several generations that immigrant narratives don’t apply to them, but they’ve diversified Canada to the point where they can’t be known as the traditional culture of the majority. A third-generation Indian or African living in Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver is part of a very different kind of settler community than the white folks were. So I don’t really know what’s going to turn up out of Canada in the future. But as long as it’s not more rural pablum like The Sentimentalists, I’ll probably be happy.

I heard Imelda May’s music on the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show for the first time this weekend, and I was suitably impressed by a fiery smart beautiful Irish woman who sings ridiculously frenetic rockabilly. She also does a cover of “Tainted Love” that blows Marilyn Manson AND Soft Cell away, along with the versions by Inspiral Carpets, and definitely better (and better looking) than the Pussycat Dolls version.