A Short History of Barbershops

For:  Windsoria/Windstoria

A Night of Interactive Mapping and Story Telling

Part of Mayworks Windsor 2015

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Artcite, 109 University Avenue West, Windsor

The men of my hometown seemed to do three things– work, drink, and go to the barber– and suffer their opposites– lay offs, hangovers, and hair loss.   The town barbershop was in the same building as the hotel, where after shift everyone would go to drink and smoke.   Kids could only determine what was going on in the hotel by inference from what they saw at home.  Like Leibniz`s monads, there were no windows in or out, just stolid grey cinder block and two heavy aluminum doors, one for “Men” and the other for “Ladies and Escorts.”

Rick’s Barbershop, by contrast, with its large window and mesmerizing (to a child) barber’s pole, seemed a welcoming presence.  Still, there was a tinge of the forbidden.  Perhaps because it was in the same building as the hotel, perhaps because of the rumoured Playboy’s on the magazine rack, it had a slightly intimidating adult and masculine feel. But its unknowns just made it all the more alluring (almost as alluring as the hotel) and to finally go to the barber by myself felt like a rite of passage, an act of self-definition.  Trivial, yes, but real.

Our aesthetic sensibilities are not so much learned, I think, as imprinted through banal experiences at crucial moments of our lives.  From the time I first went to Rick’s I have always loved barbershops- the art deco look of the chair, the feel of its smooth swivel, the pneumatic sound the pumping of its pedals make, its generous proportions that accommodate ever expanding middle aged girths, the massage effect of the clippers on my scalp, the cobalt blue of the antiseptic bath for the combs and scissors, the gallery of haircuts past, the scraping sound the straight razor makes, the clean evaporation of rubbing alcohol from my neck.

Neither geography nor history have changed the look of barbershops.  Rick’s on Birch Street in Garson, Aristotelis on Queen Street West and the Ossington Barber Shop in Toronto, Adolfo’s on Wyandote Street in Windsor, even the nameless Arab shop in the Petit Socco in Tangier looked the same.  Products of an older urbanism of organic neighbourhoods, barbershops do not remodel, they just close; barbers don’t retire, they die.

The urbanism of an organic neighborhood– especially a working class neighborhood– is rooted in provision of the most basic human natural and social needs.  The streetscapes are dominated by shops that satisfy our need to eat, to clean and care for ourselves, and to come together to laugh, argue, complain, organise, flirt, hook up, fall in love–   corner stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, pool halls, community centres, bars.  The barbershop mediates the natural and the social, but since one can live without cutting one’s hair, it is the social aspect that predominates.  People go to the barber to talk as much as to get a shave and a haircut.

“Professore!” Adolfo would call out as soon as I came into his place, “What would we do without you!”  Most of his clientele  had left the neighbourhood long ago (although some dutifully drove back every two weeks for a haircut they did not really need anymore).  The students who took their place in the neighbourhood, if they noticed his shop at all, looked upon it as they might a rotary phone.   And they were right.  The barbershop is a connection to a different era, a dying commitment to  face to face sociality, the uncomplicated intimacy of allowing a man to touch your hair, and a trust which would seem mad in other contexts:  There are few ways of giving yourself more completely to a person (who is always at first a stranger) than to let him draw a finely honed steel blade down your neck.

Somewhere, no doubt, risk analysts are calculating the probability of barbershop straight razor murders, a prelude to an argument in favour of barber-bots.  One day– why not– the barber-bot will be upon us– efficient, programmed, predictable-  as will the the nurse-bot, the friend-bot, the fuck-bot.  Perhaps to be joined soon thereafter by the philosopher-bot and the poet-bot.  If we treat human activity as nothing more than  an assemblage of subroutines, we can convince ourselves that anything can be outsourced to machines.

But is anything lost when another barber dies and another shop closes?  Nothing great, of course.  Barbershops are mundane things, prosaic, but then:  so too is most of what is worth fighting for and good in life.  If good lives had to be world historical, required a history changing invention, work of art, or political sacrifice– then most of life and the lives of most people would not be good.  But this is absurdity– to define the good of life in terms that exclude most of the people who have ever lived, are alive now, and will ever live.  People normally do not fight so that their oppressed artistic or scientific or philosophical genius can be expressed–  genius finds a way, no matter what.  People fight, rather, so they can live, and they live so they can tell the jokes they want to tell, love whomever they want to love, go where they want to go, and give as full play to their senses and intellect as they are able.

People’s basic needs anchor them to neighborhoods and the deprivation of those needs brings them into the streets.  Your neighborhood is where you go to get a haircut,  have a solitary drink or three in the afternoon, and where you go to rebel.  So far as I know, there have been no suburban revolutions.  If suburbanites rebel, they come to town to do it.

This is how streets become storied: Not because some Hollywood buffoon shows up to shoot a movie, but because  the quotidian sometimes gives rise to struggles from which history is made.  Then the old people can say:  “This is Clairmount Street, where the 1967 rebellion broke out,” “This is Droulliard Road, where the 1945 blockade was organized,” “This is where the Stonewall used to be.”  Eventually, people have enough, and they fight back.  Ordinary people, just trying to get a shave and a drink have enough, and then they make history.

But not all history is political history and not all streets have their stories told.  But the streets of organic neighborhoods all have stories to tell, because they all have a history– they have been around long enough to have changed.  And because they have changed,  some things have been lost which, while not great, were good.  Working people, nameless to the wider world, die, and shops close, and the older people tell stories through which the imaginary city – the city in which the past is made present again –comes to be.







Protecting Education from Schooling: The Common Interest of Elementary, Secondary, and Post-Secondary Teachers

This article was first published by rankandfile.ca  It is re-posted here with permission.

As Alan Sears demonstrates in his superb Retooling the Mind Factory, (Garamond, 2003) the values the school system will serve has been a fundamental political-economic problem for over a century.  Mass education developed as a response to economic changes that required a literate and numerate workforce.  At the same time, the development of literacy and numeracy skills enable working people to think for themselves, with the attendant danger that they will begin to think against rather than with the dominant value system and structure of power.

The political and economic struggle of the ruling class to control educational labour reveals a contradiction in its social interpretation.  On the one hand, education is regularly extolled as the means to economic success and equality; on the other hand, educational workers are regularly demonized as incompetent, lazy, greedy, and selfish, in need of strict managerial control if they are to fulfill their responsibilities to students and society.  The rhetorical attacks prepare the public to support legislative attacks on their conditions of work and right to bargain freely.  In the past five years alone Ontario teachers have seen their right to collectively bargain stripped away by Bill 115 and have been pushed into a strikes (high school teachers)  and a work to rule campaign (elementary school teachers) by a government seeking to impose wage freezes and undermine teacher autonomy in the class room.

The problem is not limited to Ontario and elementary and secondary school teachers.  The Nova Scotia government is currently trying to pass Bill 100, which would effectively bar strikes in the University system, allow the government to violate existing collective agreements, and essentially impose budgets on Nova Scotia universities.  Across the university sector faculty are seeing more and more resources devoted to administrative salaries, while administrators themselves increasingly forget their roots in academia to behave as urban planners embarking on ‘campus revitalization” projects and business managers bent on imposing discipline on faculty members treated as disposable employees.

The neo-liberal assault on public institutions has become a coordinated assault on educational workers at all three levels of education, with “student interest” mechanically invoked as justification for policies which manifestly do not serve them (larger class sizes, higher tuition, fewer courses, intensifying pressure to forsake educational for critical consciousness in favour of careerism).  As with any assault on working conditions, its success depends upon the degree to which workers are able to find the confidence to resist and build networks of solidarity, between each other across sectors and levels and with students.  The current moment seems ripe for both.

To build the network of solidarity needed to both resist the austerity agenda and construct a democratic alternative guided by the real values that education must serve (openness of mind, capacity for social criticism, understanding before acting, openness to the new and different, the capacity to evaluate alternatives non-dogmatically) we first need to remind ourselves that the problem in the Ontario economy (as elsewhere in the global North)  is not lack on funds to support public institutions, but priorities.  While the government demands that teachers accept another wage freeze, the average salary of Canadian executives rose approximately 25% between 2008 and 2013, from $7.35 million to $9.21 million. Clearly, there is money in the general economy that can be accessed by government through taxation if it wanted to access it.  Government is only as poor as it wants to be.  If education were a priority, then the government could generate funds to support its institutions and its workers if it wanted to tax wealth appropriately.

When put in the context of the fiscal priorities of government (tax breaks for the rich, austerity for workers), the argument in support of free collective bargaining, including the right to bargain wages, salaries, and benefits, is easier to win.   The greater job security (for the moment)  that  educational workers have vis-à-vis their counterparts in the private sector should be seen as a source of strength.  Just because it is difficult to lay off teachers and tenured faculty means that these workers have an objective basis of strength to fight back in the strongest way possible—by taking strike action and building links between strikers at different levels in the educational system.

However, the fight is not wholly financial.  Alongside the budgetary constraints imposed on public institutions and public sector workers governments, school boards, and university administrations are keen to impose an ever wider set of political constraints on the nature of educational labour.  In the current round of negotiations, both high school and elementary teachers are pushing back against demands to change their working conditions which would:  threaten larger class sizes, put the control over teachers’ preparation time in school  board/government hands, and generally further erode the professional autonomy of teachers.  Analogous moves have been made at the post-secondary level:  Strategic Mandate Agreements, learning outcomes, institutional evaluations based upon “key performance indicators” (which by and large reduce to the success of graduates in finding work after graduation).  While these new expressions of managerial power over educational workers might appear to be justified by appeal to students’ interests, the real interest served by these metrics is the interests of employers in having open access to a steady supply of compliant people willing to do whatever they need to do to find a job—until that job disappears and they need to reinvent themselves to find another one.

I am not saying that educators and education can be indifferent to students’ need to find paid employment.  At the same time, educators cannot fulfil their vocation as educators and meekly accept the subordination of education to schooling.   Education frees the intellect of students from subservience to appearances and the status quo—it demands that both justify themselves at the court of truth.  The goal of schooling, by contrast, is to integrate students into existing social structures and roles, seeking meaning in life only in the rewards the current society makes available.  If, as at present, pursuit of those rewards generates economic, political cultural, and environmental crisis, but education can help young people understand these causes and start to work against them, then the subordination of education to schooling ensures the perpetuation of crises, not their solution.

There are many differences between teaching toddlers and adolescents, teaching a secondary school class in calculus and supervising a doctoral dissertation on string theory.  Yet, more important than these differences is the continuity of the austerity agenda underlying the attacks we are facing:  on our bargaining rights, on our professional judgement and capacity to do our jobs free of stifling managerialism, on the finding for the institutions in which we serve our students and the public.  Together, these attacks are not only attacks on educational workers, they are attacks on education.  Teachers and professors, not administrators, bureaucratic overseers and their abstract, generic metrics inspire (or do not inspire) the animating love to understand the real education cultivates in students.   In standing up for their autonomy and professional integrity, Ontario secondary school and elementary teachers are saying to the government:  we did not choose this career so that we have summers off, but because we care deeply about the intellectual growth and well-being of students—leave us alone to do our jobs.

Austerity in the schools is not only an economic agenda, it is political.  Its aim is to increase pressure on educators to accept the values of productivism that rule in the private sector economy.  In order to impose those values–  the production of the most graduates with those skills and those skills only that labour markets are willing to hire, for the least cost—rights  to control our own labour have to be undermined.  Since we are all facing a common problem, we need to start to work out common solutions.  This work needs to go beyond informal picket line visits  (important as those are).  Both the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Canadian Association of University Teachers have been strong critics of austerity as it negatively effects university education.  We need to make the links to its negative effects on elementary and primary education.  We need to build a public campaign to counteract managerialist propaganda by reminding the public that those who educate their children are the ones who best understand how the goals of education are best accomplished.  And finally we need to build solidarity in action, coming together as educators in demonstrations and building connections when workplace struggles break out.  The public wants their children to receive the best education they can receive.  It is our job to provide that—but also to prove to parents that there is a contradiction between the austerity agenda and excellent education.  In making that case, we also make the case for our own autonomy as educational workers to teach for the sake for freeing students’ minds, as opposed to schooling them as mere inputs for labour markets.

May Day, 2015: From Ferguson to Baltimore to …

Would it be an exaggeration to say that the American Civil War never really ended but has continued in a state of low-intensity struggle since 1865?  Yes, the drive for Southern independence was crushed, and the African Americans held as slaves were emancipated, but they and their descendants have not been able to secure control over the resources  they needed and need  to live freely.  From radical reconstruction, through the Civil Rights movement against Jim Crow laws, to the Black Panthers and the urban rebellions of the late 1960’s, to the current upsurge of political action against police violence, black Americans have demonstrated an unsurpassed  courage, creativity, and commitment to struggle against racist oppression as well as the structural inequalities of capitalism generally.

Where there is resistance, there is oppression.  People do not fight for nothing.  They fight to drink from the same fountains, sit anywhere they want on the bus, find housing or employment when they need it, and against being demonized, feared, and imprisoned (at 5 times the rate of white Americans).  In these struggles they have often fought alone, but also together with whites (as in the union movement, which, although historically racist through the twentieth century, has also provided protection from the racism of non-union shops, and also helped improve the socio-economic conditions of African-American lives).

Undoubtedly, there have been spectacular struggles and structurally significant achievements, in particular in the legal-political sphere (the end to slavery, the end to segregation, voting rights, which in turn led to the election of black mayors, and in 2008, a black President).  But life is far more than law and politics, important as those both may be for framing the context of every day life.  Life is day to day activity and experience, and here the contradictions of American racism are perhaps sharpest.

The contradiction is classically illustrated in Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing. In the midst of a riot against police violence, Sal’s son denounces the rioters as violent “niggers.”  Spike Lee’s character does not simply object to the offensive language, but tries to reason with the son, pointing out that many of his sports heroes are black, his favourite singers are black, most of his customers and some of his friends are black.  So he cannot be the racist he presents himself as being and should stop mindlessly acting out his own ethnic stereotype–the loud mouthed and racist Italian working man.

It is a brilliant excavation of the cultural contradictions of American racism:  “good blacks” in sports and entertainment are celebrated for their talent, “bad” blacks in the inner cities (or now, since the inner cities are being reclaimed by capital for high end real estate development, the urban periphery) are still regarded (as the Baltimore rioters are now being labelled)  as “criminals” with “no excuse”  to fight back against the police who have long targeted, harassed, and killed them; as violent gang members, drug dealers, and looters seeking to take advantage of another so-called tragic death.

Definitions are political: The breaking of Freddy Gray’s  spinal cord during an arrest is “a matter for investigation,” a mystery; Apache helicopters, tear gas, rubber bullets, menacing phalanxes of police marching in disciplined lock-step, the National Guard, do not amount to armed state violence but “necessary steps”  to “protect Baltimore” (but who is “Baltimore?” Not Freddy Gray, since he was killed, not protected).  Throwing bricks and setting fires in response to the police breaking Freddy Gray’s spine: now that is “violent.”  One asks:  did the National Guard briefing sessions also refer to the Baltimore resisters as enemy forces as they did in Ferguson?

Urban rebellion against police violence and racism has been a constant of twentieth century American history.  Ralph Ellison exposed its complex political dynamics in his masterful Invisible Man, published in 1952.  What is in some sense shocking, politically, is that a set of structural problems, long-understood and long-resisted, has remained more or less unchanged for half a century.  That is not to say that within the poverty and neglect there have not been extraordinary cultural achievements, remarkable local experiments in political and economic self- sufficiency (the ‘urban gardening’ movement was created in the ghettoes of Los Angeles and Philadelphia), and, one is certain, sharing of the mundane joys of being alive.  Rather, what I think is worth remarking upon is the almost incomprehensible power of capital to resist structural change, even in the midst of the most determined, wide-ranging, and varied struggles.

There is a parallel here with the state of what was once called the Third World.  (The parallel is explored systematically in Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America– a conscious allusion to Andre Gunder Frank’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa).  Looking beyond the structural economic parallels, the struggles against colonialism and racism in America trace an analogous arc:  After a euphoric moment of liberation from colonial rule between the end of the Second World War and  1979 (when “Rhodesia” was liberated from British control and become Zimbabwe) the last forty years have seen little  but economic and political collapse across the Global South.  In America, there have been three moments of  political triumph:  Radical Reconstruction, when newly freed slaves, for a few years following the Civil War, gained access to land and looked poised to determine their own future; the complex period of struggle from the 1950’s to the 1960’s, in which the Civil Rights movement transformed into urban rebellion, a period in which the struggles of African Americans catalysed a decade of youth revolt around the world, and 2008, when (even though many had no illusions) Barack Obama’s election allowed many millions of African Americans to hope that finally  the structural causes of their oppression would be addressed.  But as in the Global South, a combination of social power, overt violence, co-optation and failures of leadership have conspired to thwart the realization of those hopes.

The conclusion that nothing seems capable of solving the structural causes of oppression:  not liberal education, or civil disobedience, or armed rebellion, or social democracy, or twenty-first century socialism, or autarkic self-sufficiency, is sometimes dismissed as pessimism. I call it historical materialism, which is, after all, supposed to be a method  which evaluates the real dynamics of struggle and draws political conclusions on the basis of an assessment of the evidence, not vacuous claims about how the future could in principle be different.  To assert that the future can be different is to assert a politically empty logical formalism:  the future is by definition distinct from the present, and all material things change, so it is the case that things will be different in the future.  What the character of that world will be is the interesting political question, and all signs seem to point right now to the conclusion that the character of the (near) future world is going to be unstable, violent, radically unequal, governed by the imperative to maximise money-returns for those who control most of the world’s wealth, with any opposition threatened with immediate and violent suppression.

No doubt, there will be resistance, but resistance rapidly becomes exhausting.  What the world is calling out for is a new, shared, universal political project to take the place of the now clearly dead “revolutionary road to socialism.” (If revolutions can break out across the Middle East and North Africa, be led by impoverished young workers,  if nearly a decade of austerity and twenty per cent unemployment rates in Europe have  given rise to parliamentary parties of radical leftists but not in any way revitalized the traditional revolutionary left, nothing will, and to believe that the hoped for second coming is just another crisis away is to leave historical materialism for the land of blind wishful thinking. 

Structural problems persist, and so resistance will persist.  But the most important question, at this point, has no answer:  What idea of a radically new society will prove capable of unifying struggles, North and South and across differences, such that we can begin to address causes rather than resist effects, with a plausible and detailed political-economic program, and not just general principles?

Ships: Coming Full Circle

The ships used to ply the waters in the other direction, to your shores, to corral and steal the flesh that would be put to work on ours, generating the capital that would be exported back to build the Europe that your boats are now prevented from reaching.  Your bodies were once of use– as slaves– but there’s no work now, so the sign says:  “Closed, No Help Wanted.”  Stay where you are, in the ruins of your civilizations that we destroyed with our insatiable greed for your bodies, a greed that has now turned into a denial that you are bodies, suffering from a poverty and violence that did not have to be but is now so intense and pervasive that no one can prevent its ravages destroying the lives of those who remain behind.  The problem cannot be solved today; tomorrow quickly becomes a new today, and the same argument applies.  A new boat will fill, more bodies will wash ashore.

The injustice of individual lifetime– suffer in the present, the solution is always put off until tomorrow, which becomes another today of suffering.

But in the tale that is told it is not the poverty that we have caused from which you suffer but — as usual– the individual bogeyman.  Not this time the communist, not this time the terrorist, but now the “human smuggler.”  He must be powerful indeed to reach back over three hundred years to organize the colonisation of Africa from which he now profits, so large as to cast in shadows the actual historical causes:  the slave trade, colonialist theft of resources, ethnic-tribal divide and conquer tactics, land grabs, coups against left-nationalist post-colonial regimes, structural adjustment programs, still rising external debt, low commodity prices, the corrupt politics that poverty breeds.  These causes point North, not sideways. Power does not tolerate having a mirror held up its face, so it distracts attention from systems to persons.

Your dead bodies are the strange fruit of my civilization and the impotence of its philosophy (of whose history I am part), a philosophy which Fanon once said contained the solution to the problems of all humanity.  A generous and penetrating intellect, but one really has to wonder today whether he was too kind.  Individuals proclaim “no one is illegal,” but let us not kid ourselves:  it is a cry without effect, there is not one safe shore for the ‘tired, the sick, the huddled masses.’  The gospel of human rights is preached, the dark-skinned speakers of odd languages have it literally bombed into them, but don’t think that the right to life means those who have taken your life-requirements for themselves are going to help you live.  Don’t be so childishly literal.  The cosmopolitan hospitality of  Europe will mean, for those of you lucky enough to survive, a prison camp.

So what is left?  Fascism, for the re-appearance of which you are also sometimes blamed?  “We have destroyed your cultures and your societies, but that is not our problem. We’re not racists, it is just that  there is no room here.  See, we have our own unemployed, and you have to take of your own, no?”

On the last point, maybe there is room for agreement.  Maybe you need to say:  “We agree, one does have to take care of one’s own, so give us back what you have taken, and then go away, and with the resources you have been stealing for three centuries we will take care of ourselves, happily, and in peace.

Amidst the terror and desperation, there was one hopeful sign:  the outstretched hand of a fisher from Rhodes reaching out to rescue one of you from the rocks, a hand which probably has little else to share (because those who have stolen from you steal from their own too; their greed knows no limits).  But when the small person is confronted directly with threats to life it is generally the need to help his fellow human that determines his actions, not the modesty of his own resources.  The rich and the powerful pontificate as they destroy. The small people are the ones who reach out their hands to their fellow human beings.

That is all that matters– the outstretched hand when it is needed, all else is just talk unless it enables more hands to reach and to slap down the other hands shovelling every scrap of earth air and water into their insatiable guts. To leave enough and as good for others, as one of our philosophers once said.


The Structural Disintegration of the Public Sphere

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas argued that the consolidation of liberal democratic political institutions depended in part upon the formation of a literate public.  “Public opinion” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the cultivated expression of the educated middle class, disseminated in quality newspapers and books, often composed of genuine argument and not simply ideological invective.  It was democratic in so far as it could generate political pressure that ruling parties had to take into account, but it excluded, by and large, the rough and tumble spontaneity of the barroom and union hall-  unless suitably domesticated and cleaned up.

If the problem in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was the managed respectability of “public opinion,” today the problem is the opposite.  The Twitterverse of instant commentary is predictably lauded for having unleashed global democratic energies, but “democracy” is treated as a little more than a blank wall upon which everyone is invited to spray paint their tag– or #, as it were.  But democracy is not a silence into which everyone may yell their opinion, it is a form of rule that has social conditions left unsatisfied by the garish inclusivity of #whatever.  The free dissemination of opinion does nothing to contest the control over major social institutions and life-conditions generally that anchors the deeply undemocratic nature of social life today.  Say what you like, but obey!  Repressive tolerance, Marcuse once called it.

The short half life of ideas disseminated through social media generates intense competitive pressures to be heard.  Reasoned argument, supporting evidence, and openness to rejoinder-  the dialectic of social critique– is not attention garnering.  Outré, abusive call outs and half intelligent cleverness is.  And thus public opinion, rescued from its eighteenth and nineteenth capture by the polite elites, squanders the democratic potential of communication technology and devolves into a surface froth stirred up by insult and outrage, censorship and denunciation of censorship, while just below the surface, the structure of power remains unchanged.

That which is forgotten is that free speech is politically rather than personally valuable when it exposes the social causes of oppression, domination, violence, and environmental destruction.  Exposing the causes, however, is not enough, which means that the political value of free speech is instrumental, not intrinsic.  Unless free speech as social criticism feeds social movements the knowledge of causes they require to solve those problems, it is reduced to a protection for the abstract individual to assert whatever comes into his or her head, in whatever way he or she feels like asserting it.  Invariably, the most obnoxious voices get heard, and political argument gets side tracked into debates about whether of not people have a right to insult one another.  The real issues disappear.

A recent example is the banning of the Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa by the Toronto Symphany Orchestra because of purportedly “deeply offensive”  comments she made about what she called government atrocities against the Russian-speaking Ukrainian population of the eastern part of the country.  What are the issues here? Alleged atrocities, the causes of the Ukrainian civil war, the demands of the opponents of the Ukrainian government, the role of Western powers in installing a Ukrainian government servile to their interests, and the arrogance of those same Western powers to decide who is and is not Ukrainian.  (Media outlets regularly called Lisitsa “Ukrainian-born” rather than “Ukrainian.”  This same tactic was adopted in describing the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan against American invasion– the insurgents were never called Iraqi or Afghan, which implied that ethnicity or nationality depended upon whether one was willing to accept American domination or not.).  All the heat shed no light on the political substance of Lisitsa’s comments.  The entire debate swirled around the issue of whether or not the TSO was justified in banning her from performing.

Once the argument shifts from the political substance of the speech banned to the legitimacy of banning it, the real political value of free speech gets lost.  Just as in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, free speech becomes identified with the right to mock, to be obnoxious, to indulge in hyperbolic rhetorical condemnation of opponents.  Free speech can and should protect both the form and content of speech- political argument need not be bloodless or never push satire beyond the bounds of boring good taste.  At the same time, being abusive or insulting or making inflammatory comments without evidence or argument makes it too easy on one’s political opponents.  To distract attention from the substantive claims being advanced, they object to– and generate debate around– the “hurtfulness” of the words.  The ease with which this sort of distraction is created means that public opinion is never able to coalesce around demands for systemic change, but always dissolves into a kaleidoscope of opinions about the politics of giving offence.

Perhaps philosophy finds a useful role to play here.  It is not beholden to grey statistics and is free to search for rhetorically pleasing arguments–  but arguments its interventions must make.  That is, philosophical interventions into the problems of the day contribute to the formation of a public sphere that is open to all– but not unconditionally.  Having an opinion is sufficient grounds for the legitimacy of asserting it, but asserting it as an argument is a condition of its generating an obligation in others to respond to it with counter-arguments.  What is lacking from the public sphere is not only (as conservatives are wont to argue), “civility,” but argument and counter-argument.  Power that proves itself incapable of responding to argument with convincing counter-argument is illegitimate, and powers that appear illegitimate are ultimately rejected by people who think of themselves as free.  While it might seem drawing-room dull, patient argument that avoids slurs (but not sarcasm) is radical, because only an argument can spell out the roots of problems in a way that forces the ruling powers to respond to the arguments, or risk losing legitimacy.

But spelling our arguments takes time and self-discipline, while time and self-discipline are incompatible with the power to immediately broadcast whatever comes into one’s head.  The problem is not that this power has been diffused widely– that is potentially a good thing– but that it has been bound up with formats that, by their very nature, push public communication towards ad hominem.  It is easy to call someone names in 140 characters, more difficult to explicate the socio-historical causes of the problem the target of the insult exemplifies.  We are in the midst, perhaps, of the structural disintegration of the public sphere, the loss of the publicity of its content in favour of isolated self-reporting of how everyone feels about things.  The motivation behind this self-reporting is to have one’s self acknowledged for one’s wit or passion, rather than a dedication to understanding and changing how the world works.




History and the Burdens of Aesthetic Judgement

Let us start from the assumption that aesthetic judgements that become normative for a society reflect the prejudices, material and ideological interests, and cultural biases of the ruling group with the power and wealth to assemble the collections that express those norms.  Does it therefore follow that all major collections of art are nothing more than the combined prejudices of the wealthy patrons who assemble them, and that different people, differently situated, with a different identity and different material and ideological interests, would construct radically different collections, in which that which is regarded as masterpiece today would be relegated to the status of minor work, and outsider pieces not even considered for inclusion would be celebrated as masterpieces?  Or does the fact that certain works of art are able to re-establish consensus around their excellence in different social and historical contexts suggest that history allows art to overcome the role of social power in the determination of taste?

One cannot exclude the first scenario as possibly the truth.  One way of reading the history of art over the past two hundred years is as an on-going opening to new genres, new materials, new artistic subject-positions and identities, and new relationships between artist and audience.  This on-going opening has been made possible by political struggles against the established ruling powers.  That which was formerly dismissed as non-art created by people counted as non-artists by the cultural authorities has forced its way to inclusion.  That which is today regarded as masterpiece (say, the best of the Impressionists)  was once regarded as scandalous rubbish.

As the content of any serious public contemporary collection testifies, these struggles have been, overall, successful.  At this point in history, the dialectic between a ruling aesthetic consensus and a heterodox outside struggling for recognition is little more than a caricature– the principled battles by women, African-American, non-European, and gay and lesbian artists for recognition as artists has long been won.

(The principled victory, of course, does not mean that there are no particular problems faced in particular instances by non-white, non-male artists, but no one, I take it, would, say, publically dismiss all art by women as mere handicraft while reserving the honorific ‘artwork’ for the creations of men only).

Yet, despite the on-going opening towards new artistic practices, the recognized masterworks remain more or less unchanged.  Is that reality attributable solely to the fact that the world is still ruled by a class of mostly white men? While the political claim is true, I do not think that the aesthetic judgement follows from it.  To understand my position, we need to examine this issue from a long-term historical perspective.

Let us take, for example, the masterworks of the Renaisaance.  First assembled into private collections by monarchical and Church authority, they have survived liberal-capitalist revolutions and remain recognized as masterworks today.  When the Jacobins seized the lands of the Church during the French Revolution, they could also have repudiated and sold off or destroyed the Church’s collection of art.  But they recognized a value deeper than its confessional content and preserved it.  Likewise, during the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky defended the historical and aesthetic value of ‘bourgeois art’ even as radical new experiments with artistic form and content were emerging.  Today, despite cyclical and predictable attacks on the gallery system and the need to free artistic practice from its confines (most often expressed in a gallery), no one has ever seriously urged the destruction on grounds of cultural irrelevance of the masterworks of history. John Baldessari burned his own works, not Giotto’s. Why not?

Let us set aside the commercial value of these works as a problem analytically distinct from their aesthetic value.  These works have been preserved, even across the gulfs of revolutionary violence and transformation, because a commitment to preserve them has been renewed generation after generation.  In principle, it would have been and is always possible to repudiate this heritage.  That it is not repudiated, even by most of the most radical critics of the underlying value system these works often reflect, must mean that something in those works called “classic” or “masterpiece” is able to speak across differences to new generations of people.

Let us take another example, this one more concrete.  Fra Angelico’s frescoes at the Convent of San Marco in Florence were not ‘art works’ when first painted, but devotional images intended only for the eyes of his fellow monks, to help them in their prayers.  There are no monks there anymore, and so, if all that these paintings were was devotional representations, they might well have been bulldozed once the convent ceased to function as a monastery.  But people saw something more in them once the immediate religious context of their creation disappeared.  The instrumental purpose evaporated and their beauty as inquiries into the meaning of sorrow, loss, love, and redemption appeared.

Of course, it is always possible for things once regarded as the highest expression of a given practice to cease to transcend the context and fall victim to indifference– architecture must be the saddest art for just this reason, exemplary creations are regularly destroyed to make way for new buildings and no one– or too few– see this destruction as desecration.  At the same time, some works, not only in the visual arts but also literature and music, are able to reinvent themselves from era to era, framing what it is we think about artistic power and achievement, not as an ideal to be emulated– art develops by differentiating itself from its past– but as foundation stones which, were they ever destroyed, would pull the entire  edifice down.  No artist, no matter how orthodox, could be safe under a regime like the Taliban, who destroyed the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan to prove that what mattered to them was not art of any sort, but ideological purity.  Contemporary artists may contest and question and interrogate and problematize the canon all they like (and they should), but they do so as contributors to a tradition in which those works judged canonical have had to repeatedly prove themselves in the judgements of an ever new set of contemporaries.  If the great works of the past were destroyed in order to make way for the ideologically or positionally new, the tradition of artistic creativity would also be destroyed, thus depriving the iconclasts of the legitimating foundation of their heterodox practices.  Artistic revolution widens the space of the artistically possible, building upon (even if against)  the achievements, not the rubble, of the past.  The best of those works repeatedly selected for preservation speak to universals of human life- love, death, sorrow, joy, desire, pain, terror, hope, struggle- that even the subaltern as human must identifiy with as the foundation of their struggles, political and artistic.  That which gives voice to nothing but a contextually determined problem or experience will disappear once the context changes (as it must).

Viewed in this light, artistic (or, for that matter, philosophical) tradition is not a filter which selects against and screens out the new, not a servant of conservative forces, but an emergent collective intelligence in which that which is of universal significance (i.e., not a tool of class or racial or sexual power) is recognized.  Tradition is not a thing of the past, over and done with, but rather of the future, in that classics must continue to prove their excellence, or be forgotten (thus refuting their claim to classic status).

There is another dimension to this problem and it concerns the evaluation of contemporary art.  It struck me recently (at the New Museum in New York, while looking at the works comprising the latest triennial exhibition organized by the gallery) that there is an inbuilt injustice to looking at new art.  Lacking a tradition of critical interpretation, a new work poses challenges to understanding and appreciation made worse by the short time frame of most encounters with it.  Artists’ statements and curatorial notes about new work rarely contain more than jejeune political  commentary about how the given piece is interrogating or contesting something or crossing some border or other. The words soon become predictable in the way a genuine encounter with aesthetic meaning is not.  But to be able to say anything of value about a work with which one might spend five minutes is almost impossible, not only because one does not have time to really study the nuances of a piece, but because the piece itself has not had time to reveal its full content.

In a real sense, it is always too early to say what it is one is looking at (or reading, or listening to) when one looks at new work.  Art must reveal itself over time:  the truly great works are those which prove capable of speaking throughout history, the contextually excellent to their own time, and the derivative to no time and no one at all.   There are no “masterpieces of contemporary art” not because of any in-built conservatism in the building of public collections or the curating of shows (which are now always scrupulously representative of the diversity of positions from which art can be made), but because it takes time for the world-historically great to emerge.  Some of the work on display at the triennial right now will be on display somewhere else in three hundred years, but it is impossible to say today which work(s) will prove capable of transcending the moment of their creation  Those which fall into irrelevance are not bad for that reason, just too much of the moment, incapable of speaking anything but the language of the now.  The works that will help extend the range of “masterpieces” is a problem to be worked out over the coming decades and centuries.  Ars longa, vita breva.



The Dispensable Nation

Foucault famously maintained that power and knowledge form an integral structure whose function is to produce compliant, docile subjects.  Science is not a neutral investigation of facts and forces but a partisan in the struggle to produce people who demand only what the established society can provide.  Social institutions are the materialised form of power through which this knowledge is disseminated. However influential and illuminating the idea of power/knowledge complexes has been to the explanation of social reproduction, his account is one-sided.  There are indeed complexes of power/knowledge, but power is also always integrated with structures of self-delusion  that blind those in power, and those who support them, to the real implications of their actions.

Let us take the on-going horror show (there seems no better word to describe it) across the Middle East and North Africa as an example.  The full historical explanation of the greatest social disaster since the Second World War would have to go back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, but let us confine ourselves to the more proximate causes of the current struggles in the late Cold War.  To orient ourselves, let us begin with then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s now (in)famous claim that America was the  “indispensable nation.”  This claim is a perfect example of the power/self-delusion complex that the ruling value system requires to convince its executors of the justice of the deadly implications of their policies.

Speaking on the Today Show in 1998 about the possible need for a ground invasion of Iraq to ensure that UN weapons inspectors had access to suspected nuclear and chemical weapons sites, she said:

“Let me say that we are doing everything possible so that American men and women in uniform do not have to go out there again. It is the threat of the use of force and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us. I know that the American men and women in uniform are always prepared to sacrifice for freedom, democracy and the American way of life.”

The First Gulf War, recall, had removed the Iraqi army from Kuwait, but did not topple Hussein.  It did, however, unleash the forces that have culminated today in the near complete destruction of Iraqi society.  All told, the sanctions regime, the First Gulf War, and the ten years of intermittent bombing and more sanctions  killed an estimated one million people.  The Second Gulf War and ensuing civil war have killed, to date, over 100 000 people. Not only has no American or American ally been tried for a war crime (proving that faith in international law is a paradigm case of the power/self-delusion complex), no one in a position of power in the West has learned the obvious lesson– attempts to remake ancient societies from the outside, to turn millions of lives into instruments of imperialist policy, destroys established social stability without creating the forces needed to reconstitute stability on a higher level of social development, social peace, and democratic self-organization.

With 25 years of evidence now available for public scrutiny, no one can any longer deny that American policy in the MIddle East in the quarter century from 1990-2015 has been an absolute failure, on any metric one chooses.  One can choose the ideological metrics of the Americans themselves– the Middle East is not democratic and is more violent and hostile to American interests than ever. Or one can choose the life-value metrics that alone should decide the value of any political policy.  On every count:  public health care, social stability, education, the rights of women, democratic self-governance, control over natural resources and social wealth and their use for supporting social life-development systems, the situation today is worse everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa touched by the two Gulf Wars and then the   “War on Terror.”  In every theatre in which it has been fought, this war on the life-conditions of Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa has brought nothing but death and destruction of the social life fabric.  Not a single country invaded for the sake of ‘democracy’ is on any trajectory toward democratic peace in any foreseeable time frame.

On the contrary, the situation continues to get worse.  With the re-election of Netanyahu in Israel and the Saudi bombing (and possible ground invasion) of Yemen, the forces of anti-human repression are in the ascendant.  The failure of the Arab Spring to lead to the democratic transformation of the Arab world (largely due to American and Saudi intervention) has once again allowed the anti-imperialist struggle to be taken up by the most reactionary and brutal religio-political movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia.

We have seen this story play out before.  More than thirty years before ISIS, the Iranian people rebelled against the US-backed Shah in 1979.  The ensuing revolution brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, but what has been largely forgotten is that there was a struggle within the revolutionary movement between a secular-left workers’ movement and the ultimately victorious Islamists (the silenced history is brilliantly told in Assef Bayat’s Workers and Revolution in Iran, Zed Books, 1987).

It is a common refrain amongst even progressive commentators in the West that the Arab world lacks the internal democratic-scientific-secular impetus towards social development that drove (in their view) the history of contemporary liberal-democratic-capitalism.  What they ignore is both the role of imperialist plunder in the development of Western society, and the role the West played in undermining the emergence of analogous developmental forces in the Arab world during the Cold War.  From the end of the Second World War until the end of the 1960’s, there was a secular left-nationalist movement in the Middle East that managed to cross the sectarian divides that are the front lines of the shockingly violent civil wars aging across the region today. What is happening today is not the result of “backward” peoples  replaying ancient grievances; it is the continuation of the struggle against Western imperialism, in the absence of secular principles and movements that can connect across ethnic and religious divisions.

Those principles have enjoyed success in the region; however, they were demonized and attacked during the Cold War, destroyed by American proxies, including the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, and various mujahadeen groups in Afghanistan, elements of which went on to form Al Qaeda and the Taliban. .

These are the three most important depth historical causes of the current catastrophe.  In 1949 Mohammed Mossadeq formed the National Front Party; in 1951 he was appointed Prime Minister.  When his plans to nationalize the oil resources of Iran alarmed Britain and the United States, the MI6 and the CIA engineered a 1953 coup, which removed Mossadeq and left the Shah in power, whose brutality ignited the 1979 Revolution.

The ascension to power of Saddam Hussein takes a similar trajectory to that of the Shah.  His coup was supported by the US because he was willing to target and liquidate left-wing members of the military who advocated the nationalization of Iraq’s oil wealth.  The story of Afghanistan is better known.  The CIA backed any group (including Osama bin Laden) willing to fight the Soviets and their Afghan proxies.   The end result of that strategy was, as Chalmers Johsnon put it, “blowback” in the form of the 9/11 attacks.

Without a vital left current, Islamic forces of varying ideological stripes have filled the void with sectarianism rather than solidarity, military and paramilitary life destruction rather than political and social life-development.  While it might seem preposterous to hope for the development of indigenous left-secular political movements capable of confronting both Western imperialism and Arab ruling classes (including their religious-ideological support systems), it is clear that the development of some such movement–crossing Sunni-Shi’a and national divides–is the only hope for the region.  A short four years ago, just such a movement was emerging as millions of mostly poor youth rose up against the legacy of Cold War autocracy and empty religious rhetoric.  In that crucible the indispensable nation made its choice– for the geriatric generals of Egypt, for murderous instability  everywhere else, deluding itself and its embarrassing allies like Stephen Harper that  killing just a few more of the wrong sort of people would solve the problem that more than a million dead Arab bodies has failed to solve.  This mountain of bodies is the material reality of the so-called “moral clarity”  which Harper believes attaches to his Middle East  policy.

Until this power/self-delusion complex is deconstructed and the policies of the indispensable nation dispensed with, the people of the Middle east will enjoy no respite for the evils our “civilization” rains upon them.


The Public Value of Public Sector Strikes: A Solidarity Message for CUPE 3902 and 3903

The essence of an unjust society is to continually demand and take from those with the least the little that they have to support their lives and life-goals and add it to the money-value hoards of those have the power to restructure public life to serve their limitless appetites.  So we see a recurrent pattern of struggle across history:  Those with the least power are forced to fight the hardest just to maintain what little they have.

These two political and historical principles need to be kept in mind when thinking about the on going strikes by Teaching Assistants at York and the University of Toronto.   At York, the major issues, according to a striker I have spoken with are:

1) “To Preserve the agreement they made with us linking tuition to funding for all members.  This is “tuition indexation.”  All we ask is that the university keep to this agreement as they did from 2000-2013.  Since 2013, however, they have broken this agreement.  We are not asking for anything more than for the university to keep its promise from 2000 and preserve education’s financial accessibility.

2) Include LGBTQ equity language in our agreements.  It is necessary that all members of both our union and academic community have their identities recognized by the university and feel secure and comfortable in their learning and working environment at York university.

3) Gain a sufficient funding package for Master’s students (unit 3 generally) with which they can pay rent, not go hungry, and hopefully avoid debt. ”

At the University of Toronto, the issues are similarly focussed on securing a living salary for graduate assistants trying to work and study in the most expensive city in the country.

To people outside the university, strikes by graduate students might seem absurd– are they not just there to study and pay their academic dues (so to speak) before they too join the ranks of overpaid blowhards expounding at great breadth and depth about nothing?

Alas, were that only so.  The reality is that graduate students perform essential work without which the university could not function and students could not learn at the level they ought to demand from a university education.  There could be no essays in large classes without TA’s to mark them, no tutorials to provide more intimate intellectual spaces for more intense discussion of fundamental problems, no labs for science students to hone their experimental skills, no time for faculty to research and make the profoundly important contributions to human understanding that faculty are capable of making.

So what these strikes really come down to is an opposition at the level of value systems. On the one hand, the administration’s opposition to the unions’ demands is rooted in the austerity agenda the Wynne government has adopted.  As Dave Bush and Doug Nesbitt  explain: “Their approach has usually been different from the frontal assault of the Harris years. The Liberal government, especially under Wynne, has been adept at carrying out austerity by isolating potential struggles. Cuts and tough bargaining are directed against one sector of the public service, while others are temporarily left alone, to suffer under a slow strangulation of funds.”  The agenda is justified by appeal to the combined effects on the Ontario economy of the 2008 recession and cuts to federal transfer payments.  What is left unsaid, as Bush and Nesbitt note, is that “the Liberals have repeatedly cut the corporate tax rate, have written off $1.4 billion in owed corporate taxes, and wasted billions on privatized “P3” hospital construction.”

They have also signalled repeatedly, in a series of documents which began with the Drummond Report, that funding for higher education is not going to rise faster than the inflation rate.  The slated 1 % increases are in fact cuts if inflation is taken into account.   Yet, university revenues continue to rise.  How?  By increasing tuition and ancillary fees for students. That is why tuition indexing is a major target for the York administration– it is a hard limit on how much money can be drained from students’ pockets to fund administrative goals– goals which, across the university system are increasingly determined by unaccountable senior executives coordinating with private business interests to turn the university into  a node in a circuit of money-value production.

But of course, I am being alarmist. If we listen to the government’s own agency, the Higher Education Quality Assurance Council (HEQAC), there is only good news for students, educators, and the general public.  HEQAC was created by the provincial government with the ostensible task of studying the state of higher education in the province and to make policy recommendations with reagrad to how to improve “quality.”  Yet, if one examines the various documents released over the past three years, one factor becomes evident– the council never defines quality in other than quantitive terms decided by labour markets and economic growth.   Its most recent report concludes that:

“Educational institutions … ensure a vibrant and robust quality of life and economy. In every province there is a positive link between postsecondary education and labour market success, individual earnings, citizen engagement and contributions to the economy.” (p.3) Note that every metric save the vague term “citizen engagement” links quality of individual life to service to the economy.

This reduction of educational quality to money quantity matters to the present struggle. If education is really about job training, and people are eventually getting jobs, then the educational system is working.  No matter that students are graduating with ever larger debts, those who find work are able to pay them down to reasonable levels after three years.  In Ontario, the average debt three years after graduation is “only” $8800, according to the report.(p.15).
What is not asked by the report is why students in one of the richest parts of the world should graduate with any debt at all.  In Nova Scotia, the administration, faculty union and students’ union  at Cape Breton University are currently discussing ways to effectively lobby the government to eliminate tuition fees.  This alternative is unthinkable to the provincial body selected to monitor the quality of Ontario’s universities, because – and this claim can be verified by reading their reports– their conclusions never contradict whatever policy for higher education the government is telegraphing.
Whatever the details of that policy, one fact about it is clear and explains why thousands of graduate assistants are on strike:  the universities of Ontario will be made to fund more and more of their operations on the backs of student fees. Therefore, increases to TA salaries and reductions of tuition will have to be funded by cuts elsewhere in the budget.  Since TA’s are the least powerful group in the academic hierarchy, every effort will be made to split their ranks, set them against students, contract academic staff, and regular faculty.
These are not easy times to be on strike.  These are not easy times to build the sort of militant, broad-based solidarity needed to make victory more likely. Nevertheless, these are important times for worker-students to be on strike in the university system because worker-students are crucial to the future direction of the institutions. Will universities continue to be not only accessible, but truly educational institutions?  By “educational institutions” I mean institutions whose fundamental guiding purpose is the cultivation of intellect and imagination, in all the fields in which human beings are capable of exercising intellect and imagination, for the sake of exposing lacunae, contradictions, and unjustified limitations in existing social, political and scientific institutions, and putting the superior understanding cultivated to work improving the lives and life-conditions of everyone, now and into the open ended future.
Hence, the public significance of the strikes, the core issue that no one in the province can afford to ignore, concerns the future of public university education. Will collectively produced wealth be used to enable students to work and learn free from the burden of wondering how to pay the rent, or will it be siphoned of by tax cuts, leaving students to pay a higher bill for access to institutions whose priorities are less and less determined by academics and students and more by unaccountable owners of money-value wealth?


Time and Space in Digital Culture

In a recent essay in the New York Time Books Review, Leon Wieseltier brings to light the central problems the digitization of material cultural artefacts has caused:  the emptying of social space of nodes of material cultural distribution, the negation of the time-structure required for the creation of insightful and meaningful work, the reduction of the qualitative evaluation of human reality to quantified analysis of statistical patterns, and the elimination of the capacity to appreciate the intrinsically valuable by the ubiquitous command for everything and everyone to be useful.

The essay begins with a lament for the changing streetscapes of America:  “The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookshops and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry.” (“Among the Disrupted,”  January 24th-25th, 2015).  That which is being lost is not so much once viable commercial enterprises, but more zones of contact between people drawn out of their homes because the acquisition of meaningful artefacts (books, records) depended upon social interaction in public space.  Before the ebook and the .mp3, one had to venture forth from one’s private domicile into the streets in order to buy a book or a record.  The significance of this act is only apparent now that is becoming more rare.

To stand in the midst of records or books arranged by someone else was to give oneself over to the chance encounter. One might have left home with a definite intention, but then found something completely new– or met someone completely new– simply in virtue of being in a public space whose contents exceeded– and showed themselves to exceed– one’s own initial intentions.  The distribution of meaningful artefacts in material space exposed people to the interactive and interdependent logic of society.  The social self develops and grows not by abstractly autonomous choices but by creative response to encounters with other subjects and objects.  It is a logic of creative adjustment rather than (self) creatio ex nihilo.

Cyberspace abstracts from this crucial material dimension of encounters in social space-time. I am not denying that real connections can be forged in cyberspace, or that within it one cannot be moved by the unexpected.  Like any technology (as Weiseltier acknowledges) the nature and implications of digital communication and distribution networks depend upon how they are used and the underlying social forces they serve.  In a capitalist society, technologies are used in the final instance to increase the productivity of labour and facilitate the consumption of commodities. (And of course, record stores and bookshops also sold commodities).  Nevertheless, I think there is an important difference in the way cyberspace encourages people to construct themselves.  Cyberspace is seductive because it appears to abolish the material constraints on the constitution of self-identity, on choice, and (from the perspective of the marketer) the opacity of future consumer demand.

The last function is the ironic negation of the first two.  With every keystroke, the virtual self hopes to define itself as someone unique, but is in fact becoming a function of pattern-determining algorithms which will increasingly define the self.  The chance encounter is doubly negated:  you become your surfing history and you allow the autocomplete to determine your future; you instrumentally select your ‘friends’ and instrumentally construct your personae, showing only what you think other people want to see and being offered for sale only what your past purchases reveal you to have wanted.

If one wants to insist that there is social being wherever there is communicative interaction, I will not disagree.  But at best the on-line self is an abstraction of social being– the idea of communication without the embodiment that makes it ultimately meaningful and valuable.  Caught up in the illusion of total control over self-presentation, we forget that ideas and representations must ultimately forge a material connection to be meaningful.  Songs shared through speakers sound differently from songs beamed right into your ears through head phones.  We read books alone, but they inform how we understand our lives, the histories from which they have derived, the goals they serve, the value of the relationships with other people we must try to forge.  It is our social being and not simply our own private taste that literature cultivates; the erotic intensity of a concert can never be duplicated by watching it on line or listening alone on an Ipod.   Cyberspace encourages a dissociation of the content of music and literature from the richer appreciation of the natural and social world from which that content has derived and whose value it must ultimately serve in order to be meaningful (‘liking’ something does not make it good.)  The generic individualism of cyberspace, its constant enducements to “personalise” our shopping cart and then share its contents with our ‘friends’ collapses personality into consumption and instrumental self-presentation.  It tries to separate the work of becoming a person from the risks, the uncertainties, and limitations of being a material being.  Does it succeed?

If one is convinced that the good in life comes down  to convenience and control, then one might be tempted to answer yes.  But think of how much of what is good in life depends upon relinquishing control to the process or relationship in which one is involved.  This point applies most of all to the process of thinking itself.  While it might appear to be the case that thinking is the clearest expression of our autonomy, it is in fact an almost complete giving oneself over to form and content which one did not create.  The meaning of words, the rules of grammar and logic are givens within which we work (even if we creatively work against them). More generally, the time of thought is determined by the labour of thought itself.  But in cyberspace, as Wieseltier notes,  “words cannot wait for thoughts.” Cyberspace is full of words, but words without thoughts are vacuous, and thoughts emerge and develop and become articulate at their own pace.  Learning to think is above all learning to be patient and to follow along.  “As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes,” he observes.

But this argument matters only to people who are concerned with the quality of expression.  What matters here is not how rapidly one responds to events, but how cogently one understands their meaning and implications.   But Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat are about content and quantity, not quality.  Nothing need be tempered by reflection, counter-argument, editing, or discriminating judgment.  But the problem goes further.  After all, diaries throughout the ages have contained saccharine poetry, and many a family photo album could use some discriminating judgement.

The real problem is epistemological– in this mass of words without thoughts the truth of ourselves is supposed to emerge. Big Money and Big Data collide, claiming to be able to decode the recesses of the soul in the unintentional patterns that emerge from intentional individual behaviour. The NSA and your bank are equally interested in these patterns– the truth is in the Data (as it used to be in genes, and before that in the character and influences, and before that, in the soul).  But the contemporary passion for data exceeds the zeal even of the orthodox believer, who at least admitted that there are mysteries of the faith.  Not so the analyst.  There is no recess of the heart or mind so dark that the light of numbers cannot make it shine on the LCD screen. “There are metrics for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured.  Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers.  Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms.  Economists are our experts on happiness.” And why not, if happiness is nothing more than a mechanical function of consumer desire-satisfaction?

But as anyone who has felt the creeping boredom with the new purchase can tell you, happiness is not a function of shopping.  But this does not mean– as Wieseltier argues, that happiness is not a material goal for human beings. The depth problem that Wieseltier exposes is not the limits of materialism, but rather its perversion by its standard psychological and metaphysical meanings:  selfish consumerism on the one hand and mechanical reductionism on the other.  According to the first, happiness is produced by the unlimited acquisition and ownership of commodities, and according to the second, the real is coextensive with the measurable elements and forces that determine physical nature.

But these are too narrow versions of materialism.  Unless we believe in ghosts and spirits, there is only this universe of matter and energy that individuals inhabit for a short time.  But we inhabit this universe not as machine functions, but as living social self-conscious agents who interpret the world we help build according to values we ultimately create.  Our symbols, our values, are every bit as materially real as electrons and nucleic acids– they are the purposes by which we determine our goals and act in the world; and it is through our collective acting in the world that social life is created, maintained, and changed.  That which is materially real is that which has causal efficacy, and it is certain that in human life, values have causal efficacy (people do something because they decide it is good, they desire someone because they are beautiful, and not because their genes mechanically determine them to survive and pass on their “genetic material”). Values and goals are the material substance of human social life.  Life goes wrong when they serve the reproduction of a system that reduces its living members to mere functions of its own reproduction.

That is the problem we face.  It is a problem that is exacerbated by a mathematical idealism that wants to reduce the truth of people to functions in an algorithm designed to predict (and steer) consumer behaviour. Against the multi-dimensional truth of the material universe– physical, chemical, biological, social, political, emotional, aesthetic, each layer nested in and emergent from the previous–  we are left with mathematical moonscape– Wieseltier’s metrics for things whose value cannot be measured quantitatively.

The antidote to this reign of abstraction is true thinking about meaning and value, and true thinking about meaning and value can only be cultivated through humanistic and philosophical study.  But the humanities and philosophy are being destroyed faster than record stores and bookshops by the relentless mantra that only that which serves the money-value system is valuable.  Against the reign of money and utility, against a society which believes that the processing of information is “the highest aim to which the human spirit may aspire,” Wieseltier defends the “defiantly nonutilitarian character,” of the humanities and philosophy, the way they uniquely enable individuals to learn that there is more to things than  “how [they] work, and to “develop their power of discernment and judgement, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty.”  He errs only in not seeing how truth and goodness and beauty, while not measureable properties of things, are essential to the material reality of human life. An immortal, spiritual being would neither make art nor philosophise, because it would exist outside the matrices of finitude that pose the challenges to living that art and philosophy try to meet.


Theses on Physician Assisted Suicide From a Life-Value Standpoint

On February 6th, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that sections of the Canadian Criminal Code banning physician assisted suicide violated Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which asserts the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person.  The Court reasoned that a)  to deny a person with a terminal or chronic illness that is causing them unrelievable pain the right to physician assisted suicide is tantamount to forcing them to commit suicide on their own (and is thus a violation of their right to life), and b) a violation of the values of autonomy and dignity that underlie the right to security of the person.

The judgement reads: “Insofar as they prohibit physician‑assisted dying for competent adults who seek such assistance as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring and intolerable suffering, ss. 241 (b) and 14  of the Criminal Code  deprive these adults of their right to life, liberty and security of the person under s. 7  of the Charter . The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly. Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged. An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.”

While to some people the ruling is obviously correct in its underlying moral foundations and practical implications, the decision has, unsurprisingly, proven politically and ethically controversial.  As so often in the age of instant reaction and commentary, the critical responses generally worry that “the sanctity of life” will be compromised if Canada allows rational adults to choose to end their lives rather than continue to exist only to writhe in pain.  What is meant by life and its sanctity, however, is typically assumed rather than explained.  The sanctity of life is indeed a bedrock moral principle, but, as the following theses hope to prove, is not in any way threatened by the principle (and carefully governed practice) of physician assisted suicide.

1)  Life is the foundation of all value in the universe.  If there were no living things conscious of their existence and their environment as a field of life-support, the universe would not matter,  because there would be no creatures capable of valuing it as the origin and basis of their lives.  Once there is life, there is striving to continue in existence, and therefore valuation: of life as such, of that which supports life, and of the universe as a whole as the ultimate source of that which sustains life.  With the emergence of life, material nature is trasnformed into what McMurtry calls the “life-ground of value”: “the connection of life to life’s resources as a felt bond of being.” (Unequal Freedoms, p.23).

2) The objective value of life is thus proven in the first instance not by philosophical argument  (or religious belief)  but by the actions, interactions, and struggles of living things to survive and  reproduce their lives, and to maintain and improve (to the extent that different species are capable) their conditions of life, in a present which opens onto an open-ended future.

3) The value of particular lives is not a fixed quantity but increases or diminishes in accordance with the quality of the activities through which it is expressed.  Since human beings have a greater range of life-capacities than an amoeba, our lives are, correspondingly, more valuable.  That is not to say that the amoeba is without life value, but that the life of an amoeba would not be tolerable for a human being.  As the distinctive features of human life:   social-self-conscious agency, community engagement and connection, a wide-circle of care and concern, the capacity to love and be loved in turn, the capacity for creative work that contributes to the satisfaction of other people’s life-requirements- degrade and disappear, that life loses life-value.

4) That which is often referred to by the vague phrase “quality of life” is the range, depth, and life-value (for self and others) of the expressed life-capacities of human beings.  Quality of life may be determined by application of McMurtry’s Primary Axiom of Value to concrete cases. The axiom reads”  “X is value if and only if, and to the extent that, x consists in or enables a more coherently inclusive range of thought/feeling/action than without it; where these three ultimate fields of value are defined as: thought = internal image and concept (T), feeling = the felt side of being (F)/ senses, desires, emotions, moods, action = animate movement (A). (Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1:  What is Good, What is Bad:  The Value of all Values Across Time, Places, and Theories, p. 213)  By stipulating that the growth of life-capacities must be “coherently inclusive,” the axiom rules out forms of life-capacity expression and enjoyment that unsustainably destroy the natural environment or depend upon the exploitation or oppression of other people.  Any form of enjoyed expression of such capacities are not life-valuable, but rather  exclusive and destructive forms of individual self-maximization rooted in a confusion between the desires of self  that ignores its dependence on nature and interdependence with others in society.

5) Human individuals are not isolated atoms but socially self-conscious agents who must reflect continually upon their needs for resources and people outside of themselves  as well as the future implications of their individual activity. Not everything that it is possible to do is good to do.  When that which it is possible to do would damage life and life’s conditions, either our own or others’, the materially rational and life-valuable choice is to refrain from doing it. Just because metabolic activity can be sustained by mechanical means does not entail that the life that remains retains any value, much less sanctity.

6) Materially rational decisions require the adoption of a philosophical disposition towards life.  The proper course of conduct is rarely obvious, but demands inquiry into the forces determining any choice-space and the range of alternatives available.  This philosophical disposition must be cultivated early.  Because the need to make hard choices can arise at any time, people must constantly reflect on the fundamental principles that make a good life possible,  and prepare themselves to make the life-valuable decision in any situation.

7)  All human choices are framed by our mortality.  The most general fact about individual human life is that it will end in death.  Of all the things a philosophical disposition towards life must comprehend, the inescapability of the death is the most important.  “We must live each day as if it were our last,” goes the cliché, and like all clichés; it contains some truth.  The truth it contains is that we must always strive to make the right decision and live according to the right principles, so that, when we die, we have made ourselves into the best person we could have been; that is, we have created a life that was valuable to ourselves and valued by others as having made real contributions to their development and enjoyment.

8) The best person is not necessarily the longest lived.  There is no essential connection between a good life and a long one, although, other things being equal, a long life is better than a short one.  Nevertheless, to believe that maintaining mere biological functioning is the same as living a meaningful and good life is a failure of philosophical reasoning.  Once our capacities for sentient experience, animate motion, thinking and imagination, and mutually rewarding relationship have been destroyed by disease, meaningful life has ceased (even if assisted respiration has not).

9) It does not follow from this claim that the lives of those with disabilities are without value. Ability and disability are  two ends of a continuum along which all real people lie.  All living beings face limitations, but the power of human beings to invent forms of life-valuable expression is such that people with physical and developmental disabilities can–provided social resources are used to create accessible environments– find innumerable ways to express and enjoy the capacities they do have and thus to create lives as valuable as any other.  Disability alone is thus not grounds for suicide– physician assisted or otherwise, because it is not the total negation of life-value.  Only once bodily damage has passed the point where further human activity is impossible does suicide become a life-valuable option.

10) In this context, Socrates’ claim that philosophy is a preparation for death takes on a new meaning. (Phaedo, 64a-b)  Once we have properly understood life-value, it becomes clear that with the on-set of a debilitating, excruciating, incurable illness, the choice to commit suicide, with or without the assistance of a physician, is a life-valuable choice, even though it ends one’s life somewhat sooner than otherwise.   By understanding life-value as expressed and enjoyed activity, experience, and relationship that contributes to others’ capacities for the the same, we realize that we do not lose anything by committing suicide, but remove a source of real life-disvalue — irremediable suffering of oneself and one’s loved ones.

11) That dying often entails prolonged suffering (for the self and one’s circle of intimates and friends)  and, in  private (or poorly resourced public) health care systems, enormous expenses does not generate , as John Hartwig argues, a duty to die.  There is  a responsibility to reflect upon the limits of human life, the fact that everyone must die, and to prepare oneself (as far as one can be prepared), to make rationally informed decisions about end of life care. (Is There a Duty to Die? pp. 126-7). One legitimate decision can be to die sooner than if one simply let the disease ‘run its course.’  But this is a decision that the dying person must make (in dialogue with whomever she feels needs to be involved), and not one that can be imposed by a generalized duty to die so as to relieve others of suffering or spare families the expense of prolonged treatment.  The later problem can be resolved by adequate public funding of health care, the former is a cross that some people and families may legitimately choose to bear.

12) By like reasoning, there is no duty to prolong one’s life past the point where one’s existence is nothing more than pain making life-valuable expression of human capacities impossible. There is nobility in suffering, as Nietzsche argued, but only in such suffering as one chooses to endure. (Beyond Good and Evil, p.171).  To be forced to suffer prolonged agony by the law is tantamount to torture– knowingly and systematically inflicting  needless pain on another human being.   Everyone can bear the cross he or she chooses; no one should force another to carry one whose weight he or she rejects as too much.

13) By like reasoning, no one may relieve another of the burden of suffering if that person has chosen to bear it, or if they have not clearly expressed their preferences on the matter before hand.  The disabled community— long treated as objects by scientific medicine and the broader community– has good historical grounds to worry that this decision could make their lives more vulnerable to doctors and even family members who decide for them that there lives are not worth living.  The Robert Latimer case looms large in their concerns.  Their worries can be obviated if the letter of the Supreme Court’s judgement guides the writing of the new law.  The Court is clear that only competent adults may chose physician assisted suicide for themselves. Unless, therefore, there is a clear and unambiguous written or verbal choice to die, there can be no physician assisted suicide.  By its very definition, “suicide” means “choice to take one’s own life.”  If there is no choice, there is no suicide, but rather homicide, which is not, obviously, what the Court’s decision, allows.

14) Every attempt to translate principle to practice involves hard cases which opponents will try to exploit as reasons that invalidate the principle.  Sufficiently clever people with enough time on their hands can always think up slippery slope arguments.  For example:   what about the case of a person who is in a near vegetative state but who can still communicate with hand gestures.  His care giver asks: “Do you want to die by physician assisted suicide?” He gives the gesture he had been giving for ‘yes.’  The court accepts the gesture as a sufficient expression of consent.  But now we have a form of consent that is neither verbal nor written.  This opens the door (here is the slippery slope) to people claiming, like Robert Latimer claimed about his daughter, to “know” what the person would want even in the absence of any capacity on their part to express their preferences.  And thus we have other people choosing death for those who cannot speak for themselves.   Hard cases like this one are important means of testing the implications of principles, but the slippery slope arguments derived from them are fallacious.  The fact that a worst case scenario can be imagined does not prove that it will arise.  Hard cases should not undermine principles that are otherwise life-valuable, but make us attentive to the possibility for mis-interpretation and abuse.

15) The argument that physician assisted suicide violates the sanctity of life because it interferes with death as  natural process is absurd.  Every living organism is threatened by death every moment.  If life-value requires accepting death as a natural process, then it follows that no organism should ever do anything to prevent its own death– any interference with it being, on their argument, unnatural.  As Hume pointed out more than two centuries ago, if suicide is morally objectionable because it is an “unnatural” shortening of life,  then so too is medicine morally objectionable as an “unnatural” prolongation of life. ( “Of Suicide,”  in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, p.100-101).  It is beyond comprehension how people who proclaim the sanctity of natural death (by which they sometimes mean death when “god chooses”) can reconcile their absolute subservience to mechanical means of prolonging biological functioning (and/or chemical means of reducing pain) with their conception of “natural.”

16) The death of individuals is not bad in and of itself and therefore need not be fought against as one fights against an unjust enemy.  All things which are– and not only living things– come to be and pass away in time.  Not even the universe is immortal.  All individuals have valuable capacities to share with others, capacities which, when realized in coherently inclusive ways, make life good. But the future belongs to those who are not yet, and all people must at some point stand aside so that new perspectives on the universe-  new beings–can come into existence and feel and see and think and act and connect and create in ways that would never come to pass if those new individuals were not born.  The deep reflection required to ask for help dying once one’s potential for life-valuable activity has been exhausted affirms the value of life as  enjoyment and contribution.  The sanctity of life is not a biological fact but a value which we honour by living well, striving to ensure there is a future for new life, while accepting the limitations of our own.