Academia brings with it a peculiar unfreedom. It’s the cost of entry. The freedom-benefits of academia are well known – the formal right to free speech and exploration of ideas, protection against censorship, the ability to manage one’s time, and the distance from economic necessity enjoyed by tenured academics – impede novel and creative thought through the disciplinary and practical demands of scholastic life. Citation, reference, knowing ‘the literature’ and – more importantly – using citation and reference to demonstrate one’s knowledge of the literature. In academia, one cannot refer to a ‘little other’ without assuring the reader that Lacan is familiar, accounted for and put into an appropriately hierarchical relationship with what needs to now be said. One cannot describe essay aphorisms without bogging down in discussions of Nietzsche and Adorno.
I’m stuck in an algorithm loop of internet articles circulating around questions of attention span, concentration, productivity, mindfulness and, of course technology as the day’s greatest blessing and curse. I’m in the loop because the questions resonate. I return to the algorithm and the algorithm returns me to resonance. The loop is interesting in a passing and superficial way, but intrinsically partial.
There is nonetheless an opportunity for critique. The argument common to most of these combinations of pop science and cultural critique is that technology is damaging to some part of our humanity: usually our creativity, our patience, our kindness. Always our productivity. In this loop, meaningfulness is connected to accomplishment, preferably in your job-cum-career.
For those who take the social seriously, claims about the impact of tech on humanity have an obvious appeal. Humanity, whatever that is, is shaped by materiality, including technology. The material world is expressed in and through culture and structures the relations through which individual and collective subjectivities emerge. When materiality changes – through tech or revolution – then then so does our humanity. Nonetheless, these arguments inevitably carry a subterranean “kids these days…” undertone. In my day – or, more likely, in my grandfather’s day and my grandmother’s kitchen – we moved slowly, related slowly, focused carefully and took time to create meaningful lives.
Empirically, the problem is a lack of comparative psychological data. Epistemologically, the problem is poor research design: without a universal conception of what the experience of meaningfully living is, we cannot even conceptualize the shape of the comparative psychological data we lack. Ethically, there are no grounds for a universal conception of what constitutes living meaningfully.
Politically, these questions orient thinking and critique toward the epiphenomenal. As per Marx, technology enables, indeed forces, specific social relations. The history of social relations, however, has a continuity and a morphology that extends beyond the tech of the day. Critiquing the loop means pulling back from the questions it poses to find the continuity beyond the tech: capitalist exploitation and patriarchy. Forget about whether your grandfather watched TV while eating. Ask instead about the relation consumption has to work, to profit and to power. Forget about whether your grandmother lovingly cooked from scratch with easily-pronounced ingredients in a tech-free kitchen. Ask instead whether she would have preferred to be somewhere else entirely. Forget about how the tech of the day, transfixing but transient, impacts your attention span, your capacity for mindfulness. Ask instead about the continuity of social relations that outlive any given tech.
Photo credit: Cory Hayden
The following is an excerpt from my book, Conform, Fail, Repeat: How Power Distorts Collective Action, which is coming October 2017 from Between the Lines. It is a critique of how Pride Toronto ran a Town Hall discussion of the demands posed and issues raised by Black Lives Matter-Toronto. In 2016, BLM TO was the honoured group at Toronto’s Pride Parade. They briefly halted the parade to raise awareness of racism – particularly anti-Black racism – within Toronto’s LGBTQ communities and within the pride festival. During the action, BLM TO presented 9 demands, all of which were agreed to by Pride Toronto. The most controversial of the demands – that armed and uniformed police not be allowed to participate in the parade or host booths in the accompanying street fair – generated heated and productive debates about racism, policing/overpolicing, and inclusion. In 2017, BLM TO participated in the parade but refused to register or pay the entry fee: “Pride is actually ours. Queer and trans people of colour actually started this. We don’t need to register for a deadline, we don’t need to tell you we’re coming, we don’t need to pay money for a float. We’re just going to take up space.” (Rodney Diverlus, co-founder of BLM TO)
I want to close by critiquing what I would characterize as an attempt at deliberative democratic practice to illustrate how far Pride Toronto’s response fell from the demands of symbolic democracy. For its August 2016 town hall, Pride Toronto used an open-mic format. What struck me about the format was the facilitator’s insistence that attendees neither applaud nor boo speakers. The do-not-clap, do-not-boo rule was justified according to arguments that are fairly typical of deliberative democratic practice and its commitment to “civil” discussions. Applause, we were told, provides an incentive to speakers to be more emotional, more dynamic, and more rhetorical than they might otherwise be. Booing intimidates and potentially silences speakers. In short, the facilitator argued that reactions from the crowd would distort the discussion and prevent the town hall from obtaining rational, objective arguments. The approach fails in a number of ways.
First, banning applause only makes speaking easier for a specific type of speaker: one who is uninvested, non-anxious (comfortable speaking publicly), and who bears the privilege of assuming that most spaces are already designed for them. It fosters a space that is deferent to authority (that is, to the authority of whoever is speaking), and rewards speakers whose lives are already free from the quotidian ways in which non-dominant groups are stopped and interrupted. Because these privileges disproportionately accrue to white men, the ban on applause disproportionately supported white cisgender male and middle- or upper-class speakers. The ban ignores the importance of community in supporting those who speak truth to power. It ignores the daily psychic and emotional tolls incurred by oppression and the importance of not only communicating that emotional expression, but also—in order to make expressing that experience as safe as possible—allowing fellow-travellers to amplify descriptions of that experience. Although applause may provide incentives for more rhetorical flourishes, insisting on meeting speech with silence breaks the connection between a speaker and their community.
Second, the town hall was organized as a scene where speakers spoke and Pride board members listened without responding. Banning applause, had it been successful, would have created a dyadic speaking scene between speaker and board only. That is, it would have individualized speakers and artificially restricted their audience to the board itself. It is arbitrary to assume, in a moment of collective identity production such as this, that speakers should speak only to the board and not to fellow audience members. Whether or not it was a good idea to have board members listen without responding (and it wasn’t), intervening between speakers and other participants by denying those participants a role as a communicative partner supports the production of falsely individualistic, unemotional, rationally neutral speakers. When grappling with oppression, individualism, coldness, and neutrality are the opposite of justice.
Third, the ban on booing failed in its intention to produce a safe space. Ostensibly, the organizers wanted to promote inclusion by ensuring the town hall was a safe space. A commitment to safe space is both a practical principle (movements are stronger with more participants) and a normative one (movements ought to make everyone they claim to represent feel safe, at home). However, the town hall could never guarantee such a space, particularly because what makes a dominant group feel safe may make a dominated group unsafe. The fact that a central goal of the town hall was to address the impact of anti-Black racism in policing should have woken Pride organizers to the need to create safety through an anti-oppression lens, rather than a liberal anti-censorship lens. The facilitator prohibited booing apparently on the liberal principle that collective reasoning is best served when all opinions are heard. Such a liberal anti-censorship perspective valorizes the least popular opinions precisely because they challenge accepted views and force all speakers to articulate themselves better, to rethink their premises.
As with many liberal principles, however, enforcing a freedom-of-speech prohibition on booing was both individualizing and context-denying. Like the prohibition on applause, the prohibition on booing severed the speaker from the audience. Unlike the prohibition on applause, which undermines the community’s ability to support and reflect the speaker, the prohibition on booing undercut speakers’ accountability to the community they addressed. When one speaker articulated a racist denial of oppression and followed it with “fuck you, BLM TO,” the facilitator refused to censor him while trying to silence audience members who vocally objected. Ostensibly neutral anti-censorship rules intended to create a safe space predictably sided with the anti-Black racism that had precipitated the town hall in the first place. In short, prohibiting booing did not ensure safety, but officially devaluing racism might have. As a counter-principle, symbolic democracy would forgo official neutrality in favour of rules that promote the safety of vulnerable groups even if (or especially if) that causes discomfort for dominant speakers voicing oppressive ideas. This might entail explicitly censoring racist speech, but it should also encourage identifying and implementing a discussion format that rewards universality and accountability.
Three Nietzschean prescriptions: Create a style for yourself; Overcome yourself; Choose wakefulness over inheritance.
From Zarathustra: “This – is now my way: where is yours?’ Thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way – does not exist!”
Create a style, overcome yourself, choose wakefulness: find your way.
There is no authentic self to guide you. No matter how quietly you sit, no matter how penetratingly you introspect, there is, at bottom, nothing. The you at the surface – and this will be a different you depending on the moment, the conditions – is the only authentic you there is, and that you is a fragmentary and more or less shifting, fickle, reflection of the multitude of drives, constraints, desires, ambitions, fears, affects, feelings, anxieties, hopes and – above all – antagonisms that you embody.
‘I’ experience myself, but in so doing am experiencing the spring-loaded responses, borne by my body, to the predictable, systematic vagaries of the social and physical world.
Am I angry? Then I’m on my bike, cut off by drivers. Am I wandering in the clouds, dreaming of possibilities? Then I’m reading Adorno or Camus. Am I amused? Then I’m surfing buzzfeed articles for 25 tweets only I will understand.
But, deeper. Am I ambitious? Then I have cobbled together some combination of desire and strategy, but without also calling up all the obstacles facing me, resources needed. Am I hesitant and anxious? Then you are handsome and confident and I need you to pass me the coffee cream or spot me while I bench press. Am I jealous and enraged? Then you are equally handsome and confident and I am lost in the conflicting urges to have you, to be you, to be wanted by you – sexually, financially, totally.
An essay aphorism should do two things. First, it should express a complete thought or idea. Second, it should both create in the reader a desire to think more and provide more or less subtly imposed suggestions for the direction thought ought to take.
Done well, the essay aphorism bridges the strengths of analytic and continental philosophical styles. For the analytically minded, it clarifies and distinguishes like from dislike. The essay aphorism renders intuition concrete. The author turns a privately experienced thought into a concrete concept. Such concepts are, in turn, describable and amenable to further clarification and distinction. For continental-style thinkers, essay aphorisms prevent analytic thought from shutting down philosophical exploration. Refusing to hermetically seal a complete thought within a closed logic, opens pathways for unanticipated connections, lateral critique and – what is most important for philosophy generally but most difficult for analytic modes specifically – speculative and wide-ranging investigation of fundamentally ineffable subjective experience.
Expressing a complete thought means that, to an extent, an essay aphorism can stand alone. It answers a single question with sufficient clarity that a superficial and/or time-constrained reader will have their answer and feel satisfied. It does no disservice to truth and performs the important function of providing a place to stand when grappling with social and political phenomena.
For the careful reader and for the thinker who hungers for more, the essay aphorism should open more doors than it closes. Whatever concept an author settles within the aphorism they should also unsettle by extending it to as many connected and complicating ideas and phenomena as possible. The author has many tools at their disposal for extending an opening: foster self-reflection on the key point by connecting it to lived experiences in unexpected ways; reference conceptual tools and ideas in a way that doesn’t obfuscate the complete thought, but that nonetheless promise additional insight on that thought if understood more fully; even hinting at implications without fully elaborating on them is allowable as long as the hints are not so opaque or so esoteric as to either empty them of meaning or disrupt the completeness of the central idea.
The author’s responsibility doesn’t end with a complete thought and external connections. There should also be some nudging and directing. Any idea worth expressing through a well-constructed aphorism essay will have political and normative content and therefore ought to express the author’s political and normative commitments. At the very least, this rightly exposes an author’s commitments to evaluation and critique; at the very most it shifts normative and political terrain toward a better state of affairs.
A relatively conventional strategy for directing the reader is to connect aphorisms one to another simply by publishing them within an intentional set of orders and divisions. Nietzsche and Adorno relied on this method and experts on Nietzsche will tell you that understanding Nietzsche’s aphorisms requires reading them in the context of their neighbours. The directive function of this strategy remains viable, but a well-constructed aphorism should allow a sophisticated reader, and perhaps some combination of queer reading and queer publication – to take advantage of aphorisms’ modularity to force them out of the author’s directive ordering and into new relationships and constellations. The author directs; following is optional.