Ontological mud?

•April 17, 2009 • 1 Comment

As I whittle down the idea, the discourse proliferates. The more I write, the narrower my focus. What I am writing becomes ever smaller and more specific, like a statue chiseled from marble, ever more vertical in aspect, even as the words which form it branch out and form a wide, busy river delta. Thus the idea cloud becomes the mind map becomes the outline becomes the essay — or the delusion becomes the dream becomes the rant becomes the manifesto. (The life becomes the journal becomes the notebook becomes the draft becomes the novel/memoir.) Content precedes form, but the creation of content simultaneously constitutes form. Broad ideas lead to specificities, but in a path-dependent manner: Creativity is anisotropic.

And sometimes the delta turns back on itself, and the density of thought turns into a swamp — a vast, unwieldy apparatus. Currents undercut and interpenetrate to such an extend that the river just collapses, spreads out. No longer a haven of deep water for proud and modern ships, but not dry and parched like the vapid and insipid mainland, the swamp-book becomes a contradiction: not an easily used tool, not a functional ideological object, and yet still murky and grimy like the most well-worn of implements. The passions and internal contradictions are such that the conventional style of the river cannot hold you, even in its broadest and most humid of forms. Neither implementation nor beautification. Sometimes the words get away from you, and you are left standing knee deep in the mud you’ve created of your cultural heritage.

Let us play in the mud and get dirty.

The inadequacy of rights

•April 16, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, preeminent within the Bill of Rights, is undoubtedly a powerful tool of great utility. Limited though it is by the efforts of technocrats and authoritarians alike, it nonetheless protects a vast range of behaviors and serves as a potent emotional rallying point for allies and advocates of freedom.

But the notion of a right to “freedom of speech” is misleading. Yes, this legal hack helps to protect people, but it goes only so far: it is a negative right, serving merely to constrain the activities of the government. While direct government censorship is rare in the United States, the discursive activities of its inhabitants are not “free.” The power to censor or repress is certainly a mighty one, but I would argue that it is not the primary way in which people are subjected to control. Power carries its effects not only as a limit or restraint: power networks are creative, too, and this positive effect is not always welcome. (Hat tip to Michel Foucault.)

Example: School students certainly are subject to censorship and prohibition; but even more they are the victims and subjects of a great proliferation of speech. Teachers, parents, school officials, doctors, counselors, police: what they say, how they say it, to whom they speak, which boxes they pencil in and which they leave blank — these constitute potent methods of control. And the speech which is required of you — who cares if you have the right to remain silent? If you do not speak, they will happily speak for you. The negative right of free speech does nothing to protect you. Indeed, free speech can be a cover which enables others to speak over you, for you, to you, about you. The phone call from principal to parent; the parent-teacher conference; the report card. What right protects you? What right can ever protect you from these reports and conferences of control?

(In fact, we may find that one of the prime functions of the First Amendment’s rights to speech and assembly is to serve as an ideological spine-stiffener. The actual legal protections promised by the First Amendment are not themselves universally available or homogenously deployed; but the general understanding that you can say and write whatever you want helps give people determination and the moral / mental force they need to mount their resistance. Rights bear great moral weight, and so can sometimes be used to sway those who otherwise don’t give two shits about you. Rights are activist tarbabies — if you can trick your interlocutor to violate your right, you’ve got them, but all it requires to nullify your power is to stay just outside the boundaries of Violation. Skirting the edges of the range of your weapon … )

Rights are powerful and often effective discursive and legal tools of resistance. They allow groups and individuals to push back against direct domination and certain types of government actions. It is proper to seek out and secure our rights. But the rights discourse completely bypasses whole realms of power relations which together influence and determine our lives in profound ways. Rights help you only insofar as the power networks you find yourself caught in are primarily juridical, or can be moved to that sphere. They give you something to hang on to; a cause of action or someone to sue; they are shields and rallying points, if you can somehow force your opponents to focus in and get trapped. But we need more pivots and handles than any regime of rights can ever supply. We need to branch out and find other tools of resistance — and perhaps more imaginative applications for the discourses and legal constructs we already live within.

I want more attention paid to our concrete experiences of resistance and more focus on what untapped opportunities we can find for (Memetics is an interesting field in this vein.)

Questions: Can rights have effects greater than the narrow ones I allow them? Might it be helpful to have a “medical bill of rights” (or “fill-in-the-blank bill of rights”)? Was this all too abstract, requiring more and more blog posts to make sensible?

Left-justified speculation

•April 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

“Our hearts have been pigeons for too long — now we rise up as hawks to perch on the barstool of History.”

Our visions of the Future have long been filled with hope — and fraught with anxiety. For thousands of years humans have sought insight into the workings of the future and the truth of their fate. Out of such seekings have emerged many oracles and prophets. Almost all of those people are dead. Most of them were wrong.

I do not claim to make predictions about the future. The future is not monolithic, and it cannot be mapped out. I speculate, and I hope I make informed speculations. “I can already see where this is going…” I try to trace out possibilities and potentialities. I hope to be helpful and add my own little shove to reality in the general direction of beauty — and survival.

In order to speak of the future we need to have some idea of the past. History is a cultural product of supreme flexibility, and we have to beware of the stories and narratives we are told (and the ones we tell). If we do not contest history, we implicitly cede it to those who would turn it against us. “Even if you don’t care about history, history cares about you.” The history of the future is already being written, and we must not let it be scripted by those who do not have our best interests at heart.

Given the scale of our modern 7 billion-plus global society, most of us think our actions are too small to matter. But history — and therefore the present and the future — is emergent from our local, micro-political games. Small events feed into larger flows feed into larger movements which topple regimes and create new horizons.

The world is changing at an accelerating pace. This great mass has truly gargantuan inertia; we cannot hope to stop it. A new world presses against our backs, waiting to be born, and as it gasps and erupts there will be (are) many opportunities — where a little push can go a long way. There will be (is) simple scurrying in desperation not to get killed; there will be (is) great ‘profit’ potential, as old structures are swept away and new ones (some non-capitalist) created; there will be (are) openings in which to shove a wedge to widen spaces for freedom. The inertia of the present may very well blow up the past, creating moments of uncertainty — where past, present, and future meld into possibility.

This blog hopes to explore some of those avenues of escape.