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.