Category Archives: Culture

Late Capitalism’s Greatest Trick

zhdssMy first serious girlfriend said that her motto, the creed which she lived by, was “go with the flow” (indeed, it was her high-school yearbook quote). She was (and is) such a sweet person. Such a good person: kind, loving, patient, wise. But, truth be told, I remember being viscerally repulsed by her yearbook quote, and, since I was arrogant and obnoxious at sixteen, I probably told her as much. Probably said something really mean. Something I’ve conveniently forgotten. Regardless, I remember thinking that even though my life was a complete mess, even though I was flunking out of school, even though I was totally confused, even though I was angry all the time for no good reason, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I could, nevertheless, be sure of at least one thing: I did NOT want to go with the flow!

Much of my twenties were consumed by a quixotic (and, in retrospect, rather ridiculous) attempt to live a life less ordinary. But when I look back now, at all that crazy countercultural stuff I did, I find that the vast majority of it was shockingly ordinary. When I swap war-stories with people my age, after a few beers, we invariably discover that we’ve got the same twenty stories from our twenties. Buddy of mine calls them twin tales. Because they’re so hard to tell apart. Proper nouns being their only distinguishing feature. Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have swallowed. After all, the commonplace nature of my generation’s countercultural war-stories is hardly their most unflattering feature. The worst thing you can say about us—the thing that many of my friends still fail to acknowledge—is that the crazy countercultural stuff we did wasn’t particularly countercultural.

Nor was it particularly radical. As Thomas Frank makes clear in The Conquest of Cool (1997), much of what passes for countercultural behavior since the 1960s is, in actual fact, an integral part of the “flow” of consumer capitalism. So I guess you could say that I’ve been going with the flow for quite some time now, regardless of my intentions and pretensions. Even at the height of my twenties—when I was an obnoxious, self-righteous, left-wing vegan, with blue hair and tattoos—my individual-centered approach to social change pretty much ensured my complicity with Late Capitalism. As the poet Tony Hoagland puts it at the end of “Hard Rain” (one of his best poems): “I used to think I was not a part of this, / that I could mind my own business and get along, / but that was just another song / that had been taught to me since birth— / whose words I was humming under my breath, / as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.”

The personal isn’t necessarily political. That said, society does benefit when individuals decide to, say, quit smoking, get in shape, or learn how to control their anger. But the benefits accrue primarily to the individual in question. Those close to the individual—such as partner, children, family members, close friends—also benefit; however, outside of that sacred circle, the benefits are largely negligible. Trying to solve the world’s problems with a program of individual-centered perfectionism is like trying to solve the problems of the poor with a program of trickle-down economics.

If the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Late Capitalism’s greatest trick was to convince us that we could be radical without being political. The “one percent” isn’t threatened by your tribal tattoos, your hard-core haircut, your skateboarding, your edgy music, your veganism, your yoga, your recreational drug use, your bisexuality, your dreads, your piercings, your kinky taste in porn—or anything else you do by yourself (or with other consenting adults) in the privacy of your own home. You may see a radical subculture, but they just see another niche market.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Less austerity, more philosophy

Source: Purdue.edu

When deprived of funding educational systems respond by centralization and efficiency. These concepts make sense when mass-manufacturing ketchup, but undermine curiosity, creativity, and wisdom when applied to education.

The logic of efficiency demands that more be done with less. Inevitably, this translates to teachers having more students with the same time available to teach them. In consequence, teachers have less time to establish a rapport with their students and must learn to treat them like they are all the same tomato being squished into the same bottle. Over-standardization and the installation of often-inflexible rules, at all levels, is the outcome. Ministers, administrators, and teachers must employ ever more efficient methods to assess outcomes and demonstrate progress. In Cegep, where learning the names of 120 students is already challenging, the human-ness of students recedes. In short: education – when funneled through the logic of efficiency – is at threat of becoming cold, impersonal, and soulless.

All is not lost, to be sure. Knowledge, as the saying goes, is generated. Vocabulary is improved, logic is strengthened, morals are considered, and skills are acquired. Society benefits from this. But at risk of being lost is a whole set of skills that are at the heart of learning, even if they are not easily quantifiable, or quantifiable at all.

Ignoring the triaging tactics that assessment and feedback demand of large classes, consider how efficiency and the overloading of classes alter the nature of conversation. There is the risk of there being no conversation, for starters. In a classroom of 40 – 42 students – typical of Cegep – there may be too many personalities, too much social pressure, and too many people for an open and inclusive conversation to develop. This can be a curse for the social sciences and humanities, in particular. What should be a dialogue, dialectic, conversation, etc. may become an extended monologue. Some larger classes can develop great discussions, to be sure, and some teachers are particularly effective in such settings. Quite often, though, the same 3 or 4 personalities dominate, while most others remain silent, often in opposition to the more confident personalities. Knowing that they will not be called upon, many students recede into their cell-phones or internal preoccupations where they have more skin in the game, so to speak. Whatever they miss in class they will make up for with cramming later. The more students that teachers have to instruct, the greater the distance between them and their students, and the more the educational system becomes less responsive to students’ thought processes.

I was recently speaking with a student about a project that she was developing on whether violent imagery perpetuates violent behaviour. The student is smart, patient, and creative, and she was applying a unique and thoughtful analysis to a question that is wrought with clichés and oversimplifications. While speaking with her she divulged that she believes in the theory that aliens have built the pyramids. I prompted her by suggesting that the type of experts she has used as sources for her class project are similar to the experts that, by consensus, reject the idea that aliens built the pyramids. ‘Yeah, well we all know about “experts”,’ was the reply.

My mind began to race as the words fell from her mouth. Here we have one of the more able students in the class – a 90s student who can deliver a 15 page, university-level, APA formatted analysis – who by her own words does not trust the sources that she is using to deliver her work, but knows that they are required in order to gain good grades. Administrators can check all of the boxes for her in terms of “meeting competencies”, “obtaining objectives”, “demonstrating knowledge”, etc. without knowing that she doesn’t believe in any of it and is probably more concerned about the dangers of chemtrails (not unlikely given the way ideas overlap).

It occurred to me that this could be an excellent learning opportunity. By what criteria can we establish truth about the building of the pyramids? If the criteria are defined and accepted, does one or the other theory better survive the scrutiny demanded by the criteria? This situation could have been developed into an engaging exercise in the philosophy of science, and might have reframed the way that she approaches important questions throughout her life. As I thought all of this I realized that her time was up and that the next student was at the door, waiting for her 10 minutes of conversation time. We had to leave it there. Next.

Geoffrey Pearce – Montreal, Qc

Trudeau’s Hotness

11230109_10156175696195068_6632135282872998127_nDISCLAIMER: While I do in fact have eyes, and can therefore note the new Leader of the Great White North is in fact …. smoking fuckin’ hot… I have to confess, having actually met him on a number of occasions, that while he’s pretty to look at? He’s actually not my type. I’m 5′ even on a day when I stand up super duper straight and fluff my hair a bit. And I feel like a little kid when I am with guys his size, as I barely come up to his rib cage! (The new PM is also super ridiculously crazy tall. Well, compared to me, anyway). I actually used to have “if you’re over 5’8″ please don’t bother messaging me!” in my online dating profiles, and I wasn’t kidding. On one of our first dates, my husband told me he was 5’5″, and I jumped across the table and kissed him, because I’d never heard a man admit outloud that he was less than 5’7″ before. Fifteen months later, I married him. So while I can indeed see that Canada’s Favourite Boy Scout is fiiiiine, I am not one of the many women who has JT on her “Freebie List.” This piece is in defence of those men and women who do!

Recently, there’s been an outcry that it’s not okay to point out that in the case of our new Prime Minister, it seems PM stands for Pretty Manly and Positively Magnificent. The argument goes something along the lines of either “it’s not okay to say that about women so why is it okay to say about him?!” or something about how talking about someone’s sexuality without their consent isn’t cool, is objectifying, and reducing them to a “thing”.

With regard to the second argument, I think there’s a way to point out someone is attractive without being gross. Being gross is never okay. And I’ll totally admit that some of the commentary on our completely fine PM is way over the top, the kind of stuff that should be reserved for bedrooms, not boardrooms! Stuff that is disrespectful to someone’s marriage and their own personhood. That’s completely not cool.

But I will take issue with the argument that because it’s not okay to say something about women leaders, it’s not okay to say that same something about male leaders.

There is a huge, massive, major difference between how men and women and their sexuality are viewed in mainstream society. A man’s sexuality has never, EVER taken away from the assumption he is also competent and capable. It, a woman’s sexuality that is, does take away from the assumption she is competent and capable when we’re talking about a woman’s hot factor. Well, actually, no, maybe it doesn’t, because it’s always assumed women are, well, women first, and competent later. If ever. So adding that she’s hot on top of it is just another layer of stuff to dig through before mainstream society sees her as competent and capable.

There is absolutely a double standard, and that’s because they are different. Men and women are equally capable of being competent, effective leaders. Of learning, of leading, of governing. But when it comes to how women and men are perceived as sexual and intellectual beings, It’s apples and oranges. Pointing out the fact the good Lord spent just a little extra time on Justin doesn’t demean Mr Trudeau as a PM, or imply he’s just a hot body and great hair. But there’s no way to seriously put forward the idea his sex appeal is not part of his overall appeal. Let’s face it, he won the election when the accompanying picture here went all over Canada, and women fell in love with the guy who handed a woman beater’s ass to him in the boxing ring, and then got kissed passionately by his wife after as if she was breathing fire into him. That has to be one of the hottest, sexiest pictures ever taken of a national leader in any country!

And no one thinks that makes him less capable as a leader. Now, a woman would absolutely be thought of as less capable due to the fact she’s a woman and seen as sexual. Somehow, we can’t be seen as sexual and be taken seriously at the same time. And so no, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to point out the sky is blue the PM is hot simply because it’s inappropriate to point out a woman in his position is hot. Instead, I lament that women have to be stripped of their hotness to be taken seriously as leaders. Because I’d prefer to live in a world where one could admit they find a woman sexually appealing without that being either a physical threat to her safety*, or essentially saying that her value as a human begins and ends with the fact that she is sexually appealing.

But we don’t live in that world. Yet.

*let’s face it, the world we live in, that is in fact what it is for many women when they are told some man finds them sexually appealing: sure, most men probably won’t rape us. And we aren’t stupid; we know that! But here’s the thing: we don’t know which men will, and which men will not, until after we’ve put ourselves in the position where he can… and yet chooses not to do so. And yeah . . . that’s not a risk many women are willing to take until we know a man quite well

—Wendy KH

Is Therapy Destroying Your Life?

Just as those who pay for sex soon suck at sex, those who pay someone to listen soon suck at listening.

books020410_03-003Although we spend billions on it, talk therapy seems to help, at best, one in four. Numerous studies have demonstrated this: it simply does not work for most people. What’s odd, to my mind, is that nobody who knows what they’re talking about seems to dispute this, not even the profession’s most vocal apologists. And yet for some strange reason, our collective faith in the promise of therapeutic salvation remains strong—stronger now, perhaps, than ever before. Despite this abysmal track record, most of us reflexively advise our friends and relatives to “get some help” when they’re going through a tough time. Most of us believe—in a lazy, unthinking way—that seeing a therapist whenever life hurts is, well, you know, just what normal people do. Those who fail to seek professional help when they’re “in a bad place” are viewed with suspicion. At best, we think them eccentric, quirky, and odd, like that weird old friend who still doesn’t have a driver’s license at 42, or that funny middle-aged aunt who lives alone, makes her own hummus, and refuses to use underarm deodorant. At worst, we begin to resent their refusal: “I can’t believe she still hasn’t seen someone! I mean, seriously, at this point, I’m starting to think she wants to be miserable.” “Ya, I know what you mean, my brother’s the same way. It’s like he just doesn’t wanna be happy.”

z024p-001Peer pressure to “get help” can be surprisingly strong on Planet Oprah. We’ve probably all found ourselves in its orbit at some point or another; but none have felt the terrible tug of its gravitational force more than the parents of bratty kids and troubled teens. Most give in to the zeitgeist’s demands regardless of whether or not they think it’s going to help. And they are richly rewarded for their conformity: they and their wayward children shall be washed in therapeutic grace. Schoolyard sins shall be forgiven. These parents—who get their little monsters “the help they need”—are deemed decent, upstanding, responsible, virtuous, and good. But those who stubbornly refuse to seek professional help for their problematic offspring are subjected to a tsunami wave of righteous indignation.

THAT BOY NEEDS THERAPYIf Dante was reincarnated today as a mommy-shaming helicopter parent, my guess is that he’d reserve a particularly nasty place in his new and improved Inferno for suburban heretics who refuse to find therapists for their difficult kids. These parental outlaws will share a spot on Hell Crescent with crackheads who gave their kids beer for breakfast, working parents who slipped peanut butter sandwiches into school lunches, and that coked-up celebrity who sped down the highway in a red convertible with an unsecured baby on his lap. Of course all of this social pressure to “get help” is predicated on the assumption that therapy works—that it can fix you, fix your kid, fix your marriage—however, as I mentioned from the outset, numerous studies have demonstrated that therapy simply does not work for most people. Some find healing, no doubt about that; but most of those who show up broken, leave broken. That being said, my concern, here, isn’t, first and foremost, with whether or not therapy works; it’s with therapy’s side-effects. I suspect that many of those who find healing in the therapist’s office trade in old problems for new ones. What’s worse, I suspect that many who show up broken, leave more broken. There are three reasons for this: (1) talk therapy often erodes social skills; (2) most talk therapy is based upon a discredited model of the mind; and (3) talk therapy often undermines friendship.

(1) How Talk Therapy Erodes Social Skills

Although some learn how to communicate more effectively in therapy, most do not. All to the contrary, talk therapy usually reinforces many of the same inept ways of relating, such as a monological manner, which contributed to the individual’s social isolation in the first place. Good conversation is based on give-and-take, dialogue, empathy, reciprocity, and giving a shit about how the other person feels. When you’re talking with a friend, even an extremely close friend, you’re always trying, to some extent, to engage them, to be funny and entertaining. But when you’re talking with your therapist, it’s all about you—and that’s, well, not that good for you.

(2) Talk Therapy is Based on a Discredited Model of the Mind

We live in a therapeutic culture that’s been extolling the virtues of venting for the better part of a century. As such, we’ve all heard a great deal about the need to express our anger and talk, at length, about things that have made us angry in the past. All of this is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind that was popularized during the Industrial Revolution, a model that still relies heavily—perhaps unsurprisingly—upon steam-engine metaphors (e.g., pressure build-up, the importance of pressure-release valves, etc.). But since we’re dealing here with the received wisdom of our age, this underlying rationale is rarely made manifest, nor is it subjected to serious scrutiny. Most of us simply assume that venting is good for us. What’s more, we assume that its benefits have been proven (somewhere) and backed-up by solid research. In fact, the rationale for venting is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind which researchers disproved and discarded decades ago. As Susan Cain puts it, in Quiet (2012): “The ‘catharsis hypothesis’—that aggression builds up inside us until it’s healthily released—dates back to the Greeks, was revived by Freud, and gained steam during the ‘let it all hang out’ 1960s of punching bags and primal screams. But the catharsis hypothesis is a myth—a plausible one, an elegant one, but a myth nonetheless. Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it.” What does all of this mean? Well, it means that talking about your problems can often make them worse. This is probably what Aaron Haspel had in mind when he wrote: “If you want to kill your marriage, talk about it.”

(3) Talk Therapy Undermines Friendship

We all like going out for dinner from time to time, and this usually involves paying a stranger to cook for us. Still, most of our meals are home-cooked by family members or friends. But imagine, for a moment, how strange it would be if we all ate out at restaurants so much that we forgot how to cook for each other. What’s more, imagine if we came to believe that it was actually dangerous and unhealthy for “non-professionals” to cook for themselves and others. That, to my mind, is where we are right now vis-à-vis therapy in our culture. Many of us seem to have come to the conclusion that the normal thing to do—Plan A, as it were—is to go to a therapist whenever something’s wrong. And that’s the problem. That’s what’s stunting the growth of our personal relationships and rendering so many of our friendships shallow and superficial.

In The Commercialization of Intimate Life (2003), sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild maintains that an over-reliance upon therapy is one of liberal feminism’s greatest weaknesses: “While books like Women Who Love Too Much focus on therapy, ironically the actual process of healing is subtracted from the image of normal family or communal bonds. The women in Norwood’s tales seem to live in a wider community strikingly barren of emotional support. Actual healing is reserved for a separate zone of paid professionals where people have PhDs, MDs, MAs, accept money, and have special therapeutic identities. While psychotherapy is surely a help to many, it is no substitute for life itself. In the picture Norwood paints, there is little power of healing outside of therapy. In the stories Norwood tells, love doesn’t heal. When you give it, it doesn’t take. When another offers it, it may feel good but it’s not good for you. . . . If the word ‘therapy’ conveys the desire to help another to get to the root of a problem, this is a very deep subtraction from our idea of love and friendship. It thins and lightens our idea of love. We are invited to confine our trust to the thinner, once-a-week, ‘processed’ concern of the professional. This may add to our expectations of therapy, but it lightens our expectations of lovers, family, and friends.”

Though some of our deepest and most meaningful connections to others grow out of joy, most are forged in adversity: e.g., she was there for me when I was going through that terrible break-up; she was there, as well, when my mother was dying of cancer; he was there for me when I got fired; he was there, as well, when I was recovering from that horrible car accident. Every time you pay someone to hang out with you during a rough patch, you rob yourself of an opportunity to get closer to a friend or relative.

I once took a powerful course of antibiotics that wreaked havoc on my digestive system for months. Do I regret taking the antibiotics? Of course not. But I wish I had been better informed about how much damage “the cure” would do. Likewise, it’s time to have an honest conversation about the sociological side-effects of talk therapy. We need to start viewing talk therapy the way we’ve come to view antibiotics. Only a fool would say that antibiotics are useless. Likewise, only a fool would say that talk therapy is useless. But we now know that antibiotics have been vastly over-prescribed, and that this overuse has done real damage. What’s more, we now know that even when the use of antibiotics is warranted, there are harmful side-effects associated with their use which need to be acknowledged and addressed. The same is no doubt true of talk therapy.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

The Good Wife’s Cardinal Achievement

“Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error . . . but . . . as part of the normal human situation.”—Isaiah Berlin, “The Originality of Machiavelli”

Fullscreen capture 2015-10-009Many nice things can be said about The Good Wife—all of them true—but what makes it stand out, what makes it so enthralling, so memorable, so special, is its morally complicated meditation on the meaning of good and evil in 21st-century America. The Good Wife is a painfully accurate depiction of the uneasy relationship between public life and private life; an unsettling exploration of the differences—and inherent conflicts—between private virtue and political virtue; and a shockingly honest portrayal of political life and the American legal system, which takes us far beyond the wishful thinking of Law and Order, the virtue ethics of NCIS, the moral exhibitionism of House, the realism of The Wire, and the cynicism of House of Cards. Machiavelli would love this show.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Alabama, Goddamn!

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Alabama has just decided to shut down close to half of its DMVs. Why is this a big deal? Well, Alabama is one of those states wherein a voter needs to have government-issued identification like a driver’s license in order to vote. There are 10 counties in Alabama where African Americans are the majority of the voter rolls. Eight of them are losing their driver’s license offices. It’s not hard to imagine what the consequences of this will be.

As Chuck D. once rapped, I’ve got so much trouble on my mind. All I can says is Alabama, goddamn. You can not help but learn about privilege very quickly when you move to Alabama. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class man, I have it. And for that I am lucky. I have had a week being reminded of all who do not have privilege, those who are marginalized here. In the 21st century. In many ways, I feel like I have stepped into a time warp in the past week.

Tuesday night, I went to a public talk here on campus about LGBT rights. Where I come from, LGBT rights, whilst not perfect, exist. It has been a long struggle, much of it in my lifetime, but, for the most part, LGBT rights are protected by the Constitution in Canada. More than that, I have seen a shift in society from one of intolerance to tolerance to acceptance. But, Tuesday night, I heard about kids who get kicked out of their parents homes for coming out. I talked to students who do not feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality to their professors. I could go on. I was shocked and appalled. And determined to fix this.

BillieYesterday, I read an article appeared on AL.com, a news site for the state. Alabama has recently undergone a budget crisis, with a large deficit. This caused our Republican legislature (with a super-majority and control of the House, Senate, and Governor’s office) all kinds of headaches as it could not agree on how to fix this. In the end, it stole from education to do so. Education in Alabama is funded through a different budget than the general fund. And, in theory, the legislature cannot steal from education to fix its mistakes. Except it did.

But there are other problems with a budgetary shortfall. State parks are being shut down, so are National Guard armories. But worse, driver’s license offices are, too. What’s the big deal with this? Well, Alabama is a state where a voter needs to have government-issued identification in order to vote. Offices in 31 counties state-wide are being closed down; there are 67 counties in Alabama. There are 10 counties in Alabama where African Americans are the majority of the voter rolls. Eight of them are losing their driver’s license offices. You can figure out the consequences of this.

Alabama-DMV-test
As John Archibald writes on AL.com, Alabama may as well just invite the Department of Justice on down to investigate this civil rights violation.

As John Archibald writes on AL.com, Alabama may as well just invite the Department of Justice on down to investigate this civil rights violation. Remember, Alabama is where the Civil Rights movement was born back in the 1960s. This is where Martin Luther King, Jr., plied his trade. This is where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. This is where the Selma to Montgomery March took place. And, worse, Alabama is genuinely proud of its importance in the Civil Rights movement.

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In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of legislation from the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. The heart of this legislation meant that nine states, almost all in the South and including Alabama, could not change their voting laws without approval from the federal government. And while Alabama’s decision to close driver’s license laws is not a consequence of this, the state’s decision to require government-issued photo ID to vote is.

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Alabama only ever makes the national news when it does something stupid. This is kind of embarrassing for those of us who live here. But this is one of those times when Alabama deserves to be nationally, and internationally, shamed for its stupidity. This is embarrassing.

Prior to the Civil Rights era, African Americans were denied the right to vote through all kinds of informal means, such as county clerks requiring them to recite the Constitution, key SCOTUS decisions, etc. When they could not, they were denied the vote. This decision to close the driver’s license offices in these eight counties is in the same vein.

Alabama only ever makes the national news when it does something stupid. This is kind of embarrassing for those of us who live here. But this is one of those times when Alabama deserves to be nationally, and internationally, shamed for its stupidity. This is embarrassing.

Along with having Chuck D. and Public Enemy in my head this morning, I also have Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” in there, too. Only, change the state: Alabama Goddamn.

—John Matthew Barlow

Originally published at John Matthew Barlow. Reprinted with permission.

Why I’m Voting NDP

“Thomas Mulcair is a smart man. When Stephen Harper decided to descend into the gutter by playing the niqab card (and when Gilles Duceppe decided to make himself into Harper’s objective ally by joining in), Mulcair had to know that taking a stand on principle would not be an electoral winner. He had to know that given the state of near-hysteria over the issue in his electoral stronghold in Quebec, he may be giving away the election by reminding us that Charter protections should be defended most strenuously when they apply to rights-protected acts that the majority dislikes. But stand on principle is what he has done (and let’s hope he continues to do so till the end). Whoever has ever accused him of being a political opportunist should now think long and hard about that accusation. True leadership is not about pandering. It is not about appealing to prejudices and bigotry. It is not about telling the majority that it is okay to hate. It is about holding us as a society to our higher values. Mulcair is a leader. He had the most to lose in this completely manufactured debate. It is good to know that there is at least one leader among the big parties who is not willing to go to any lengths to curry favour with voters.”
—Daniel Weinstock

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I want a Prime Minister who takes their job seriously. It seems like Thomas Mulcair takes his job seriously as leader of the opposition, so I am willing to give him a chance as leader of this country. I am mostly in line with the NDP party platform so I can get behind the party that he happens to be the leader of. Mulcair is a beast in question period. That’s what I like best about him. He asks straight questions and calls out people when they circle into double speak. He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that. Anyway, charismatic leaders are usually sociopaths.

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“He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that.”—Helen Simard

Thomas Mulcair is better than the Kitten Eater we have in power right now. I don’t like Elizabeth May and her judgmental views on abortion and her weird 1970s-style comments on essential femininity. Justin Trudeau and Gilles Duceppe are the leaders of parties that do not offer platforms I can get behind. I am also not voting for Mulcair, but for the NDP candidate in my riding who has represented our riding well for the past 4 years. And I am lucky to live in a place where most people vote NDP so I don’t have to worry about strategic voting.

I like Mulcair because to me he’s the best of the shit options we are being offered, a real lesser of evils. And that may seem cynical, but when evil is nice enough to give me a choice, I will always choose the lesser of evils.

—Helen Simard

The Simulacrum

The idea of the simulacrum which I discussed in the following review (slightly revised here) I did for a sociology class in my undergrad days strikes me in retrospect as a good example of a postmodernist tendency to take a good concept and overextend it – a tendency which, ironically enough, postmodernist thinkers have criticised modernist, Enlightenment-inspired thinkers of having in abundance, manifesting in particular as an impulse to create “totalising” ideologies. The dangers of sweeping generalisation are perennial.

IMG_7495Chapter 7 of Sturken and Cartwright’s “Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture“, titled “Postmodernism and Popular Culture”, begins by discussing the “simulacrum” in the context of postmodernism. The simulacrum is what replaces the idea of “the original” – whether that original is an image, a text, or a more abstract entity such as “an ideal small town” – as a result of what might be called the postmodern reordering of cultural space. It has been able to do so because of the rise to predominance of the image over other forms of cultural media and of technologies of (apparently) perfect reproduction.

The simulacrum cannot be, and does not need to be, tied to a particular referent. In the case of “an ideal small town”, Disneyland’s Main Street is a simulacrum par excellence: it refers to no particular town anywhere, as opposed to the referent of, let’s say, an actual town in Maine as referred to in the memory of someone who has been to it. Its very generic nature is its essence, and thus it is easily reproducible, and any and every re-production is as essentially “original” as the initial production. The fact that an image or other entity might be the first instance of production rather than the thousandth has no significance when that entity is a simulacrum. They are all originals and thus none are originals.

Postmodernism questions the modernist assumption of progressive linearity of development, of historical necessity, and thus the temporal causal chain with which one would trace back to the “original” potentially is brought into question. [pp. 251-252] “Presence”, the immediacy of direct perception, of experience, is itself challenged as not so direct, in fact as always mediated. [p. 252] (This is a centrally familiar concept in phenomenology.) How do you know that this is the “original” you are experiencing? All you have are your sense impressions, interpreted by your brain; thus you perceive not the “real world”, but your brain’s constructed simulacrum of it. Postmodernism also challenges the claims to universality of various philosophical concepts and the institutions which are founded upon them. How do you determine “authenticity” when its basis – the values underlying it – may be culturally contingent and thus limited in scope? [p. 252]

As a musician who works in digital media, as well as a philosopher, I find a certain irony in the notion of the predominance of the simulacrum in the age of the image and digital reproduction, in the notion that there are, or may be, no longer any originals. I would say that even if the first instance, the first digital file, of a composition I create on my laptop in Ableton Live is not “original”, in the sense that it’s indistinguishable from every subsequent copy I make and distribute electronically, there is yet an irreducible and inextinguishable originality in the act of its creation, which, after all, happens first in one and only one place: my brain. (The memetic question of how original any creative person actually can be, given unconscious influences by others, and the deterministic causal chains those imply, is a different one, not requiring resolution for this determination of the originality – in the sense of being different from and prior to all copies – of the products of my brain’s activity.) This sense of originality adheres to the composition forever thereafter, no matter how many copies I or anyone else may make of it. Its referent is durable. Thus, the irony lies in the sweeping nature of the claim of ubiquity for the simulacrum; perhaps just the sort of metanarrative which postmodernism aspires to abjure.

—Kaï Matthews

(Image from http://www.redbubble.com/people/thehazeeffect/works/10730573-there-are-many-copies?p=pouch )

Sticks and Stones may Break your Bones, but Aaron Haspel Draws Blood: A Review of Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)

“I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out. That this is no way to get to the depths, to get deep enough, is the superstition of those who fear water, the enemies of cold water; they speak without experience. Oh, the great cold makes one fast! And incidentally: does a matter stay unrecognized, not understood, merely because it has been touched in flight; is only glanced at, seen in a flash? Does one absolutely have to sit firmly on it first? Have brooded on it as on an egg? Diu noctuque incubando, as Newton said of himself? At least there are truths that are especially shy and ticklish and can’t be caught except suddenly—that one must surprise or leave alone.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887)

41XBc2HTu0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In a letter to a friend, Nietzsche maintained that the only readers who could really claim to have understood his Zarathustra (1891) were those who were, at times, profoundly wounded by it. I couldn’t help but think of this remark as I read Everything (2015). Although this book is quite short and extraordinarily clear, it’s not an easy read. Far from it actually. Haspel says that he asks but “one thing of literature: that it draw blood.” And he delivers on this score, again and again, with aphorisms like the following: (i) “Whatever you think you like — are you sure you like it? Or do you like being the sort of person who likes it?” (ii) “Whatever you have done, you are the sort of person who would do that.” (iii) “It never seems to occur to the teacher who complains of inattentive students that he may not be worth attending to.” (iv) “If you want to destroy your marriage talk about it.”

But these are only some of the most obviously challenging aphorisms contained in this volume. The more insidious ones are like time-bombs or retroviruses: I rarely “get” them the first time I read them. Don’t even necessarily get them when I’m reading them. Instead, something happens or someone says something, days or even weeks later, and a bell goes off in my head and I think “a-ha”—that’s what he meant! For instance, this aphorism (which I posted the other day on Facebook) is loved at first for almost all of the wrong reasons: “If it has never crossed your mind that you might be stupid, you are.” People who’ve been (like me), at times, painfully aware of their inadequacy, read this and feel smart. Until, that is, they realize, a few days or weeks later, that although failing the aphorism’s test proves that you’re stupid, passing it doesn’t prove that you’re smart. A week or two later, however, it gets worse: the self-congratulatory glow loses all of what’s left of its luster when you realize that you can be stupid and know you’re stupid.

Some of Haspel’s aphorisms are laugh-out-loud funny, such as: (i) “Passion, n. An overwhelming urge to spend your life at something you don’t do especially well.” (ii) “The ideal work environment for a writer is jail.” (iii) “Blaming an actor for being a narcissist is like blaming a tiger for being a carnivore.” (iv) “It is when we recognize our hopeless inadequacy at everything else that we discover our vocation.” And some of them are straightforwardly brilliant, such as this one, which is, to my mind, the best summary of the Socratic way of life I have ever read: “A grudging willingness to admit error does not suffice; you have to cultivate a taste for it.”

Still, if you’re looking for the kind of writer beloved of avid readers of The New Yorker—the kind who knows how to make his educated liberal audience feel superior to all of those yahoos in the sticks who hunt, pray, vote Republican, and believe in weird stuff—don’t buy this book. Seriously, don’t. Because you’ll hate it. Haspel holds up a mirror, and, trust me, you’re not going to like everything you see. I know I didn’t. If Haspel has an overarching message that he wants to impart it’s that we’re not exempt from the follies of our day, even (and perhaps especially) when we think we are: “We are more like our contemporaries than we imagine, and less like our ancestors.”

I read a great deal (probably more than I should), and I’ve been a great lover of the aphoristic genre for over twenty years. Yet never before have I encountered so many aphorisms written by a contemporary of such a high quality: Haspel is in a league of his own. At his best, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorisms in The Bed of Procrustes (2010) rival those of Epicurus (e.g., “Love without sacrifice is like theft” is something I wish I had written). But my fellow Canadian, George Murray, probably deserves the prize for second place. His most recent collection of aphorisms, Glimpse (2010), is often outstanding (e.g., “Rubble becomes ruin when the tourists arrive”). Even so, the collection is scandalously uneven, and it really doesn’t hold a candle to Everything. To wit: Aaron Haspel is the greatest master of the aphoristic form writing in English today. It’s always hard to know which books will stand the test of time, which books will be read 300 years from now. But if I was a betting man, I’d bet on Everything.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Dressing for the Heat

1891600_10152484108932683_2793182695933157344_oIt’s during hot weather like today’s that one of the deeply insane aspects of our dominant Western culture stands out to me. It’s the insistence on adherence to standard workplace dress codes, especially suits and ties, which are, at best, only suited to mildly cool weather, during warmer weather. This means, of course, that during outdoor walking or public transit commutes many people are quite overdressed, and workplaces, shops, and theatres, for instance, are overly air-conditioned to meet this norm. Everyone who’s worked in an office building has probably witnessed the incongruity of the secretary who brings in a sweater to wear indoors when it’s sweltering outside.

All of this is of course extremely wasteful; so much energy could be saved if we all wore seasonally appropriate clothes. (I won’t propose nudism for really hot weather, although that’s actually the most logical option.) In some hot countries (e.g., Israel or The Philippines, where you usually see politicians on the news in short sleeve shirts and no jackets or ties), they do wear more appropriate attire. But not here in North America or Europe during hot weather. No, we insist on denying the reality of the season and modifying as much of our environment as possible to create an artificial spring or autumn. We resent nature and want it to conform to our needs, to accommodate our dress codes. (I don’t include myself, or many people I know, for that matter, in this “we”, of course. It’s merely a rhetorical device.) This truly is insane.

—Kaï Matthews