Bonnes Nouvelles, Mauvaises Nouvelles

Written By: J.Noonan - Apr• 13•14

Socialism and Electoral Politics  In the Global North

In the most recent Quebec election, April 6th, 2014, Quebec Solidaire, the farthest left of any electoral party in Canada, increased its share of the vote from 6% to 7.6 %, and its number of seats from 2 to 3.  Its party platform includes a comprehensive green energy policy, ending tuition fees at all institutions of higher education,  a plan for creating a public sector bank to fund socially valuable institutions and projects, proposals for more strictly regulating the private banking sector, a plan for reforming the tax code to provide more funds for supporting and enhancing public institutions, policies securing the traditional and treaty rights of the people of the First Nations in the case of a vote for Quebec sovereignty, and new legislative protections for workers and unions.  In Europe there are much stronger electoral parties to the left of the dying social democratic project.  In Germany, Die Linke received 8.2 % of votes in 2013, which (under Germany’s proportional representation system) translated into 64 seats.  More impressively, in Greece, Syriza, a union of left parties, garnered  27.1% of the vote in the most recent elections.  In Europe as a whole the newly formed Party of the European Left is preparing to contest elections for the European Parliament on an anti-austerity platform.

Can any politically useful conclusions be drawn from this small and admittedly unscientific sample of recent electoral results?   Let me suggest four:

1) The collapse of social democratic parties into system-managers has created space on the left that can be occupied by parties whose platforms address the structural causes of widening income inequality, the destruction of social solidarity and public goods by neo-liberal austerity, the domination of all spheres of social and cultural life by corporate power, and environmental crisis.

2) The more severe the crisis and the more deeply implicated in its perpetuation traditional social democratic parties are, the more successful electoral left-alternatives to social democracy can be.  In Greece, the Social Democrats were compromised by their role in the on-set of crisis and their support for the austerity policies demanded by European banks.  The ever-more ruthless cutbacks have created social catastrophe, with a reported unemployment rate of 26.7% in January, 2014.  In this context, Syriza polled 27% of votes in the most recent election.  Conversely, in comparatively more stable contexts, left-alternative parties poll lower (but still statistically significant) numbers of votes.

3)  Without a proportional representational system, a statistically significant number of votes cannot be translated into a politically effective number of seats.

4) Even under worsening social conditions, the example of Greece suggests that social crisis will only push electoral support for anti-capitalist left parties into the 27 % range (far below the “vast majority” for whom democratic socialists claim to speak).  Hence, under all social conditions it seems imperative for anti-capitalist parties to find new ways to explain what their positive social, political, and economic goals (“socialism”) really mean for the lives of people whose support they seek to win.

What Do We Mean By Socialism

Is there any objective social and historical evidence that supports the belief of democratic socialists that they speak in the interests of the “vast majority?”  I believe that there is, but it cannot be found by asking people whether they are “anti-capitalist”  or “socialist,” but whether they are in favour of public services and institutions.  Let me cite three recent Canadian polls to explain what I mean.

In a nationwide poll in 2011, Nanos Research found that 94 % of Canadians favoured public over private health care.  In a poll taken in 2011, in the midst of government attacks on public broadcasting, 69 % of Canadians favoured the same or increased rates of funding for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  More generally, a recent poll proved that Canadians would support higher taxes if the revenue gains were used to support social programs.

“Well, these numbers prove nothing,” I can hear more stern Marxists than myself puff.  They abstract from class and race and gender and poll people under the nationalistic abstraction “Canadians.”  Hence, trying to draw political conclusions from their results is tantamount to accepting nationalist myths and succumbing to social democratic reformism.  What we need is a systematic demonstration that capitalism cannot resolve its crisis. Only a revolutionary movement, led by workers but involving all oppressed groups as equally contributing members, can overcome capitalist contradictions.”

I admit that this argument could be true, but I also look across my study to see dozens of Marxist systematic demonstrations of the contradictions of capitalism, and then out my window into my city, devastated by the on-going economic crisis, but quiet and peaceful (i.e., not in revolutionary upheaval against the bourgeoisie).  So, while granting the possibility that the rigorous Marxist objection is correct, let us at least entertain an alternative interpretation of what these polls might teach about building the sorts of parties and movements that solving capitalism’s structural problems will require.

In each of the polls cited above, what do the majority of respondants support, at the level of social principle, when they express support for these public institutions? Let me suggest four answers.

1) They support the principle “from each according to his or her needs.”  The best evidence here is the extraordinary support for the public health care system.  The principle of public health care is that each receives the health care she or he requires, not the health care for which she or he can pay.  This principle is the opposite of the principle of capitalist consumer markets:  each gets what he or she can afford.  The principle of distribution according to need is a socialist principle, but if one asked the same group of Canadians if they supported a “socialist principle of resource allocation”  it is certain that nowhere near 94 % of people would agree.  Perhaps socialists should seek political support by pointing to the ways in which socialist principles are already realized (imperfectly) in institutions people actually value and not by trying to convince people of the truth of an argument that the whole of capitalist society must be overthrown.

2) They support using collectively produced wealth for democratically decided and socially life-valuable purposes.  Belief in this principle is indicated by support for higher taxes to support more investment in social programs.  Social programs are designed to identify and meet needs that the market fails to satisfy.  At the level of social principle this demonstrates a commitment to the value of each person’s life and a recognition that capitalist markets harm lives because they cannot satisfy all the needs that must be satisfied in a good life.  If this conclusion is true, then public institutions funded by deductions from collectively produced wealth are a necessary condition of a good society and good lives, and support for a progressive taxation system is evidence of support for this more general principle.  Again, the more general principle is socialist, even though people who accept it might not identify themselves as socialists.  I think the values and the principles are more important than the name one gives one’s political identity.  The political way forward is to  build from the value base towards new practical struggles to rebuild the system of progressive income tax to better fund existing public institutions and create new institutions (a national drug strategy, for example)  with the new revenue.

3) They support the value of non-commercial cultural production.  While just as in the case of public health care the institutions of public television and radio broadcasting can be criticised for their actual performance, such criticism does not entail rejection of the principle underlying the mandate of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:   to tell stories that are important, not stories that are money-valuable.  Like all traditional broadcasters, the CBC is facing the challenge of audience fragmentation that new media is posing.  It is also facing the additional burden of contending with a Conservative government ideologically opposed to the non-market value that CBC’s mandate commits it to serving.  Public support for the CBC even in the face of funding cuts and declining viewership is thus again a sign of belief in another important socialist principle:  not everything of cultural value is of commercial value, and that markets, while they may be arbiters of taste, are not, for that reason, arbiters of cultural  value or aesthetic quality.

4) Collectively, these polls demonstrate majority support in Canada for the use of collectively produced wealth to meet needs that would  otherwise be unmet by capitalist markets.  In other words, they demonstrate support for a conception of socialism (as I defined it in another post)  as “institutionalized reciprocal care in those dimensions of our lives that require collective effort.” (Socialism and Snow Shovelling)  When people focus  on concrete issues of access to resources and quality of the good provided, majority opinion favours socialist principles.  Is not the rational political conclusion to draw from this evidence that socialists– those who believe that ultimately a society based upon the principles discussed above must replace capitalism- should henceforth focus on concrete issues of policy, not theoretical demonstrations of capitalism’s long term impossibility?  This conclusion is the opposite of that which most revolutionary democratic socialists to the left of social democracy have drawn over the past 40 years. In consequence, policy has been ceded to social democrats moving further and further to the right while revolutionary democratic socialists have largely taken refuge in systematic academic criticisms of capitalism.

The best of this work has generated deep insight into the structural problems of capitalism, uncovered  hidden implications of the core ideas and values of Marxism, and produced brilliantly original decodings of the ideological messages of popular and high cultural semiotic systems.   Has any of it advanced the struggle to reclaim life time, life space and life resources from their subordination to capitalist money value?  Most of the hard work of reclaiming life space, time, and resources  was accomplished in the previous two centuries, by a vast array of social struggles-  workers, women, racialized minorities, gays and lesbians– fighting not for wholesale revolutionary change, but for access to wider spaces of free self-creation, more time for reflection and interaction, and more access to the life-resources that enable valuable and valued lives.  Cumulatively, those struggle partially institutionalized the socialist principles noted above.

“Ah, yes, but the key is “partial,”  the rigorous Marxist rejoins.  All these reforms were not sufficient to overthrow capital and the capitalist class, and because their power was left intact, these victories were precarious.  Hence we still need a revolution on a Leninist model, in which, as Zizek says, (In Defence of Lost Causes) the “divine violence” of the people will sweep away bourgeois power and rebuild society anew, as Marx demanded, on the basis of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  Now this sort of bad poetry might strike some as uncompromisingly radical and revolutionary, but it is eminently ignorable (and is in fact ignored, by the powers that be, although for reasons that escape me not by some political philosophers who ought to be able to see its true vacuity) because it has no addressee interested in trying to put it into practice.

Instead, the ruling class worries about more prosaic struggles to save public institutions threatened by austerity.  These struggles, defensive and “reformist” as they may be, can actually work, as in Spain, where determined fightbacks by health care workers and community members have saved hospitals from privatization.   If one is serious about  the goal of revolutionary change (rather than trying to sound radical and uncompromising),  then the only efficacious means (if we judge as an historical materialist ought to judge, on the basis of historical evidence) are patient, long-term, dare I say “gradual”  struggles organized by specific projects of life time, space, and resource reclamation.   Given the enormous efforts of women, workers, and demonized minorities of all sorts to open the institutions of political power to their votes and their participation, it would be self-undermining to repudiate the institutions of parliamentary and republican government as undemocratic in essence.   If parties can be built that are willing to use institutionalized political power to legitimate and protect recovered space, time, and resources, and to build links across borders with likeminded parties, then there is indeed a “parliamentary road to socialism,”  although it would be a long, long road.  Nevertheless, with one’s feet planted on a real road each step brings one closer to a real destination; “leaping” in thin air just lands you on your arse in the exact same spot from which you leapt.






Gamed Theory

Written By: J.Noonan - Apr• 02•14

Why the World Has Become Unbearable I:

Gamification.  A new management fad.  It is  “usually described,” so an email that arrived unsolicited last week explains,  “as the application of game elements to non-game contexts.”  How it is not usually described was not noted.

Why gamification?  Why, we all love games, and most of us hate work, so, “gamification takes the characteristics we like about games and adds them to everyday actions in order to make them more interesting.”  In other words, it is behaviour modification, with a prize!!  Its real purpose is not hidden:   “Gamification encourages behaviour with instant, positive feedback.  Consistent feedback connects smaller tasks to larger goals, and makes each action more meaningful.” In other words, gamification attempts to distract people from the meaninglessness of work activity.  It does not make meaningless activity meaningful, but it does connect smaller tasks to larger goals.  That is, it motivates people to work harder for the objectives of the firm or business, without altering the intrinsic meaninglessness  of their own particular contribution.  People engage in meaningful activity for its own sake; no one needs to be enticed with prizes to pursue that which gives value and purpose to their lives.  It is only that which lacks intrinsic value and which serves no life-purpose which must be gamified.

While gamification is a sure sign of alienation, the assumptions that underlie it are not false, at least as descriptors of how people are in fact encouraged to work harder at– and seemingly enjoy working harder at– jobs they would quit if they could.  For it is true that “immediate, positive feedback makes us feel good about completing something and motivates us to do it again” and that “by changing the way people think about behavior, gamification can change people’s habits.”  If you can engage your employees’ attention in a competition to collect virtual badges that can be redeemed for a prize, you can undermine the habits of passive resistance (of working slowly, for example), and impede the development of more active resistance (like unionization).

And so the gamers are doubly gamed, again and again.  Not only do workers who go along with the games succumb to the distraction, but they also yield valuable data that can be used to refine the techniques of happy domination.  “Successful gamification strategies require fine-tuning and continual improvement.  As employees complete tasks, new ones will need to take their place.  Luckily, many gamification providers include tools to make sure your solution is producing results.”

Nothing says fun like waking up every morning and consulting the “analytics dashboard” and calculating how much additional work can be squeezed out of people if you add cute kitten faces to the badges for which they are competing.

Why the World Has Become Unbearable II:  The End of the Democracy (or, While You Were Collecting Your Badges and Cooing About the Kittens, Feudalism Returned).

Whatever the limitations of existing representative democratic institutions, they are never simply tools of ruling class interest.   The legitimate authority they possess to make binding law, and their responsiveness to well-organized and persistent extra-parliamentary power, makes them invaluable in struggles to re-appropriate collectively produced wealth from its capture by the owners of money-capital.  It is one thing to attack “union bosses” and “special interests,” it is quite another to reject the de jure authority of laws passed by democratically elected legislatures.  If that legislative power were irrelevant, it would be impossible to provide a coherent explanation of why the ruling class has been working so hard to subvert it.

In a recent short essay the economist John Weeks explores the scope and implications of the subversion of national legislative power.   Across Europe and North America– what we used to call, remember “the free world,”  the freedom of people to democratically determine their collective lives is being undermined by three parallel processes– the destruction of the organizations of extra-parliamentary power, the binding of national legislatures to money-capital friendly international treaties, and the subordination of the legislative to the executive branch of government.  As Weeks argues, “The current authoritarian tide in European and the United States also comes from the business elites, but in this case driven by the ideology of neoliberalism not fascism. Neoliberalism pretentiously claims to be the guarantor of freedom – “free markets, free men” was the title of Milton Friedman’s infamous London lecture to adoring businessmen in 1974. Reality is quite the contrary. The neoliberal inspired market deregulation over the last thirty years has been the destroyer of freedom. The most obvious mechanism by which this destruction occurs is the weakening of the power of trade unions and other popular organizations. Parallel to that weakening has been rise and consolidation of the power of the financial capital to control the media, political debate and elections themselves.”  This process has not provoked more radical opposition amongst working people and other potentially oppositional groups but simply weakened democratic power throughout society.

The cause and the effect of this deliberate eviscerating of democratic institutions is the same:  the political power of the other-worldly wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  The tiny fraction of the population that controls this wealth is– given its miniscule size- vulnerable to democratic power.  Hence the solution is to maintain the marble and granite facades of existing parliamentary and republican institutions while replacing their democratic substance with plutocratic authoritarianism.  As Paul Krugman writes in a recent New York Times article,”It seems safe to say that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Pikettyin which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent.”But is this situation best described as “patrimonial capitalism?”

Of course, that description fits the political economy of the twenty-first century, but what about its culture? In terms of the ever more rigid genetic, geographical, educational, and vocational divisions between the highest levels of the ruling class and everyone else,  and the deference the elite demands from everyone below, twenty-first century culture increasingly resembles feudalism.   And that fact, if true, is disturbingly regressive.  For whatever the material and social realities of capitalism, it was born out of a philosophical and cultural revolution against the intertwined ideas of natural fitness to rule and natural fitness to serve.  Can a society that allows a fraction of itself to wall itself off from everyone else, to send its children to schools no one else can afford, that reduces everyone else to being servants to their every vain whim be called anything but feudal?

Why The World has Become Unbearable III:  Surface Insouscience and Deep Obedience

During carnival the peasants were allowed to dress as nobles and pretend to rule.  So too today, the ebullient idiocy, the superficial insouscience,  and leave everything as it is iconoclasm of pop culture (fun as playing in all this froth can be) belies a depth obedience to the authority of money-value.  This is true in the obvious sense, that the main driver of pop culture is commercial success, but also in the less obvious sense, that symbolic opposition to the ruling value system masks a deeper subservience to it.  Clicking on on-line petitions, liking clever political memes, helping a plea for solidarity go viral– all express oppositional sentiment, but they do not detach the opponent from the problematic forces, dynamics, institutions, and value system.

liberal capitalism.  that the balance of forces has so far shifted in favour of the ruling class that recovery might not be possible.  How quickly Egypt was returned to the authoritarian fold; how little effective opposition there is in EU and the US and in Canada.

Weeks again puts the problem clearly:  “Writing in 1947 in the foremost economic journal of the time, The Economic Journal, the British economist K. W. Rothschild succinctly summarized the consequences of unregulated capitalism, ‘…[W]hen we enter the field of rivalry between [corporate] giants, the traditional separation of the political from the economic can no longer be maintained… Fascism…has been largely brought into power by this very struggle in an attempt of the most powerful oligopolists to strengthen, through political action, their position in the labour market and vis-à-vis their smaller competitors, and finally to strike out in order to change the world market situation in their favour.’  The deregulation of financial capital threatens to bring us back to capitalist authoritarianism that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.  But this time it gathers strength with no strong popular movement in Canada, the United States or any European country to challenge it.”

Of course, it does not follow from there now being no effective opposition that such will not arise in the future.  One fears, however, that given the extraordinary power assembled in ruling class hands, the outcome of such a struggle might look more like the fall of Rome issuing in the dark Ages than the French Revolution issuing in liberal-democratic capitalism.  One only has to look at Iraq or Afghanistan to see the social costs the ruling powers exact for resistance to their plans.





Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation: A Critique

Written By: J.Noonan - Mar• 20•14

On March 11th, 2014 the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) published a report authored by Linda Jonker and Martin Hicks.  The report, Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members:  Implications for Productivity and Differentiation, purports to be an objective study of the teaching loads and research output of faculty  in three disciplines at ten Ontario universities.  A close reading soon proves, however, that the document is less objective social science and more tendentious support for the province’s recently announced Differentiation Strategy for Higher Education.  (I have criticized that paper in an earlier post).  The paper’s own oft-acknowledged methodological shortcomings, combined with selective use of the information it was able to compile, misleading aggregate values, and a conception of “productivity” that is completely inappropriate to the purposes and outcomes of higher education leaves one with little alternative but to reject the findings as a political attempt to rouse the mainstream media and Ontario public against academics.

The paper focuses on full-time tenured and tenure track faculty in three departments (Economics, Chemistry, and Philosophy) at 10 Ontario  Universities.  The universities are (appropriately)  divided into 4 “clusters.”  The University of Toronto was considered on its own, McMaster, Ottawa, Queen’s, and Western formed a “research-intensive cluster,” Carleton and Windsor formed a cluster of comprehensive teaching and research universities, while Brock, Lakehead, and Wilfred Laurier formed a cluster primarily devoted to undergraduate teaching.  The sample of departments the paper considers is sound.  It includes natural scientific, social scientific, and humanistic research and teaching, which together form the historical disciplinary core of the modern university.  These “clusters” will also be familiar to readers of the annual MacLean’s rankings of Canadian universities.  While the construction of the sample is defensible, the report’s major conclusions are not.   Let us begin with the unsupported premise from which the paper proceeds, namely, that there is some a quantitative measure of productivity that can usefully inform discussions about the future development of university teaching and research.

Prof. Kate Lawson, executive director of the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations identifies the basic problem with this premise.  Writing in The Globe and Mail one day after the release of the report, Lawson argued that “Productivity – a term more at home in a factory than in education – is about squeezing more outputs from the same pool of resources. This is great if you’re making cars or widgets. The concept is less useful in higher education, where students and parents understandably prefer to look at a university degree in more human terms.” Lawson is correct that productivity is an attempt to measure the ratio of output to input, the more output for the same or less input, the more productive a process is.  She is also correct to reject its usefulness as a measure of the quality of university education and research.  She is wrong, however, to conclude that its unqualified use in systems of material production is “great.”  For unless we ask what the overall social and ecological impact of any productive process might be, the ever increasing levels of output of those systems can spell ultimate disaster.   As John McMurtry points out (private communication)  “productivity without discrimination [as to what is produced] is, well, insane. It could be and now is producing most of what is destroying human and natural life systems on the planet.”  In the context of education, increasing “productivity” will not produce toxins and waste that will destroy the plant, but the damage it can cause is no less real.  If accepted without challenge, this idea of productivity will encourage the adoption of a set of institutional priorities that threaten the educational mission of universities.

Lawson’s “human terms” can be cashed out as the principle that students are not objectified products of an educational factory which takes “uneducated”  raw materials in and spits out, at the other end of the academic assembly line, “educated” products.  Whatever else education is, it is a process that involves students and teachers in dynamic interactions through which everyone’s imaginative and cognitive capacities are deepened and broadened.  Unlike a car factory, which is “productive” if it is producing as many cars as possible at the lowest possible cost all of which conform to design specifications, a university is not simply concerned with graduating as many students as possible who all conform to some abstract  set of outcomes.  To be educated means, (whatever else it means), to be able to think independently, to put one’s cognitive and imaginative capacities to unexpected and unpredictable uses, and to be able to intervene creatively and critically in objective social process in unexpected and unpredictable (and hopefully,) constructive ways.  There are thus no design parameters to which graduates could conform– anyone who graduates from a university who is able to do nothing but that which is expected of him or her has not learned anything.   In other words, to identify quality teaching with the sheer output of universities is to ignore the “quality” of the education– that which it enables educated individuals to do that they would not have been able to do had they not become educated.  Producing more graduates or raising the number of courses individual academics teach does not improve the quality of the education students receive.  It may, however, diminish or destroy that quality if it forces academics to adopt more generic and mechanical teaching methods that disengage rather than challenge students just so that the university can “make quota.”

Let us turn now to a more detailed examination of the report.   The way in which any report is received by the public and the press (the real audience of this document, for reasons I will examine below) is shaped by its Executive Summary.  In this case the Executive Summary is preceded by a set of five key take-away points stated in simple sentences and enclosed in boxes to capture attention (and metaphorically, confine one’s thinking) to what is here listed.  One can be safe in assuming that many people in the media or the public, whose lives and livelihoods are only tangentially connected to the problem of “productivity’ in higher education, will read no further than these five key points and the Executive Summary, making their tone and content crucial to the rhetorical aims of the authors.  Here, the two essential goals are clear:  the authors want Ontarians to believe that academics will only work if they are more stringently supervised by external authority, and that they are not doing enough work as it is.

The first boxed point states “the more “we understand about how faculty members discharge the obligations expected of them, the more we can do to create the conditions and practices that permit faculty members to do their best work.”  (p.3). This undefined subject “we” appears again later in the text, where the author’s assert that there is a “growing interest in how faculty members allocate their time.” The “we” whose interest in growing is purportedly responding to a  “a general public concern about the productivity of univesrities.”  The report does not tell us who it is exactly that is growing more interested, and no evidence at all is cited to support the claim that there is a general public concern with the “productivity” of the universities (which is hard to believe, given the technical complexities of the idea of “productivity” in use in the report).

Generic subjects with undefined identities and unsubstantiated claims are hallmarks of shoddy argumentation, but not, alas, government propaganda to mobilise ex post facto support for policy decisions already made behind closed doors.  If the report said what is actually the case, the political agenda it serves would be clear.  However,  “the more the Liberal Government of Ontario knows” has very different implications from “the more we know.”  “We” connotes a general and non-partisan interest in an objective state of affairs; “the Liberal government of Ontario,” a particular political interest.  By hiding the particular in the abstract and undefined “we” the statement encourages readers to think that the main problem in universities is that no one knows what academics are doing with their time (and public money).

Academics are continually treated as if they were mere functions of institutional obligations the undefined “we” aims to ensure they are discharging.  Of course, we do in fact have obligations:  to our discipline, to our students, to our colleagues, to our communities and the wider world).  Reading the report it is easy to fear that it is not these obligations that are at issue, but rather obligations to acquiesce to the agenda of a particular government and one of its agencies (HEQCO).  If educators do in fact have dischargeable duties to a particular government and one of its agencies, a very dangerous threshold has been crossed beyond which academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the governance of its intellectual affairs have been subordinated to political expediency and economic power.

Perhaps some will regard that last claim as unduly alarmist.  We shall see.  What all academics in the province must be concerned about are the conclusion and recommendations of the paper. One of the key conclusions, stated baldly on the second page in the fourth boxed point is that the average course load  during the 2012 academic year was 2.8 courses.  I will examine in more detail some of the important flaws in the method by which this number was determined below.  Here I just want to focus on its rhetorical effects.  Anyone who does not read beyond this overview of purposes and results will come away with the belief that this value is a  legitimate measure of average course loads in Ontario universities.  What they will not be able to understand is that the number ignores the differences in the course loads in the different clusters the report itself constructs.  That is, course loads are lower in the larger, research-intensive universities.  Including them in an overall aggregate measure lowers the average and gives the impression that this number 2.8 tells us something important about average work loads in each university.  Possible political gain (in terms of support for the government’s agenda) comes at the expense of the scientific integrity of the paper.

The tendentious nature of the argument continues in the Executive Summary.  It begins with the assertion that the government “has signaled the need to seek further productivity gains.”  The report, not surprisingly, comes up with a way to do so, which just happens to align with the government’s “differentiation strategy” for higher education reform.   The report also does not mention the deeper background to its analysis, the so-called Drummond Report (2011), in which “differentiation” was  first floated as a means, not of improving quality, but keeping costs down in the post-secondary system.  Thus, the productivity gains that the recommended doubling of the teaching loads of “non-research active” tenured and tenure track faculty (the equivalent of hiring 1500 new faculty) is not about quality– (quality is no where discussed with any detail or rigor)– stems directly from a Public Commission into the state of Ontario’s finances (not the health of its universities).(p3, 4, 44).

Tendentious constructions are not the only problem.  The problem noted above, of faculty treated as little more than objects of an undefined indeterminate “we” that needs to study us continues throughout the report.  “Little is known”  the author’s write,  “about how faculty members actually allocate their efforts”(p.4) Again, we are not told who this subject that does not know is.  Faculty members themselves certainly know how they allocate their work time.  The Department Heads and Deans who write and sign off on performance reviews know.  The Vice-Presidents Academic to whom Dean’s report certainly know.  So who is it that does not know?  The authors of the report know enough to employ the clichéd 40-40-20 (forty per cent of time devoted to research, 40 per cent to teaching, and 20 per cent to service) distribution of work time.  So who is left?  The government which has commissioned this report and which masks its agenda behind a (highly transparent) veneer of honest information gathering.

The point is that even though it is their work that is the subject of interest, and even though asking academics about their work load would answer the questions the report wants to answer in much richer and more useful detail, treating academics as active subjects who can respond intelligently to questions posed would run too many political risks:  i.e., our testimony might contradict the desired political results of the paper.   Given the need to avoid this risk, the report proceeds to try to try to capture a “complete picture of what they do, what they contribute, and how much they are paid.” (p. 13) from university and department websites, data bases like ProQuest, and search engines like Google Scholar.  I will turn my attention to the methodological problems in a moment.  First, however, one further comment about the way in which the report constructs “the faculty” is in order.

Consider the preceding quotation and its use of the third person  “they.”  This construction alienates the faculty from the institutions and the political community of which we are members.  It suggests that faculty members are not fellow citizens of Ontario  but some species apart that does not speak the same language and so cannot simply be asked about the nature of our work, what we most need to accomplish it, and what limits we think the government should respect.  Instead of being called upon as leaders whose work sustains the universities in all important respects, as committed members of an academic community that can identify problems and propose improvements, the study essentially makes us objects of suspicion, cost centres, little more than “a  long term … employment and financial commitment by the university.”  A financial burden, in other words, which must be borne by the administration. (p. 14)

The methodological problems to which I know turn  are acknowledged by the authors (but not, as I will make clear below, in the media reports that followed its release).  The methodological trouble begins on p. 6, where the authors admit to the paucity of publicly available sources of the information their study requires.  They explain that they discovered numerous data gaps on the university  websites they consulted, gaps which significantly affect the accuracy of the picture of academic teaching loads and research output.  Yet, rather than adopt a different method of data collection, the authors simply proceed with a shrug:  “the reality is that there are few institutional data available that document teaching and research outputs of faculty, particularly teaching, and for the moment the data that are posted publically are the best we can obtain to advance these analyses.(p. 6, emphasis added).  Yet, if the data is incomplete, the conclusions of the analysis must be suspect, a fact which might give academic researchers pause (because our work must go through peer review).  With access to the government’s printing press and no peer review  to worry about, our authors proceed as if this fatal flaw to their numbers were a mere inconvenience.  

The methodological problems continue on p. 11, where the matter of teaching quality is raised.  There is no discussion of its meaning beyond the (unargued) assumption that student satisfaction surveys administered at the end of class and (more outrageously) entertainment websites like (in which, in addition to finding out how “hard”  and “helpful” professors are, you can also check out their “hotness”) tell us something about it.  While the authors again acknowledge the limitations of the data sources in passing, they fail utterly to make the much more important point–  student satisfaction is not synonymous with quality teaching.  Quality teaching challenges,  confronts students with their own limitations, and makes intellectual demands on  them that are difficult to meet.  These demands may produce short term resentment, which can register as lower scores on satisfaction surveys, but whose real value may become apparent over the longer term.  Indeed, it is only over the long term that high quality teaching can be fully determined, since whether one has learned anything of value or not depends upon the dispositions one manifests throughout one’s life.  Facts and particular interpretations will be forgotten, excellent teaching registers as a life-long willingness to  think independently and expansively, challenge the given, and only agree to claims supported by sound reasons.

An analogous objection could be made to the authors’ attempt to measure research output and “impact.”  I will confine my criticism here to their discussion of philosophical research, leaving it to economists and chemists to point out problems– if there are any-  in their analysis of those disciplines.  As regards philosophy, the first problem– which they acknowledge, and then ignore– is that they only count as “research output”  articles in peer reviewed journals.  Thus books, book chapters, book reviews, not to mention non-academic publications, are not included as research.  The authors themselves acknowledge the importance of monographs and book chapters in the discipline, but, with no acceptable justification, exclude them.  Immediately, this unjustified exclusion makes philosophers appear less “productive” than they really are, further supporting (but with faulty numbers) the suggestion to double the teaching loads of non research active faculty.(p.40)

The problems get worse when we turn to their attempt to measure “impact.”  They employ a standard approach to measuring impact in terms the number of citations, but, amazingly, they decide to count citations only from seven “top” philosophy journals.(see p. 18 for the list)  While the journals that they use are top journals, they collectively represent only a tiny fraction of published philosophical research. Moreover, these journals are not neutral in terms of what they consider worthwhile philosophical problems and methods.  Across the discipline, these problems and methods are controversial; many acknowledged leading philosophers will never publish in them because they reject the norms upon which those journals select the papers that they publish.

I am not impugning the quality of these journals or the papers that they publish, but it is beyond misleading, it is insulting, to the diversity of philosophical work and the range of its impacts– in the academy and in social life outside-  to construct a data set that implies that if your work is not cited in one of these journals, it has had no impact.  Consider the following hypothetical scenario.  A political philosopher is asked by the United Nations to author a report on intercultural communication for use in a culturally divided society on the verge of civil war.  The report helps each side better understand the other, thus averting civil war.  This report, which helped to preserve thousands of lives, has, by the metric chosen by the authors no impact, while  a tediously hairsplitting paper (of which there are innumerable examples in ‘top’ philosophy journals) that is cited 50 times for the excellence of its hairsplitting, will count as highly influential, even though totally irrelevant to real world concerns.  Which paper really has the sort of impact people should care about?

But even confining ourselves to real world cases, the number of citations, in top journals or bottom journals or all journals in between, does not tell us if the paper is any good or not.  Papers can be cited for being wrong, papers that are cited early on for being right can turn out to be wrong, papers that are ignored early on can turn out to have great impact over the longer term, the research might have its impact outside of philosophy and thus not register on a search of citation is philosophy journals alone.    Aggregate terms like “impact factors” might sound serious and scientific, and to be communicating important information, they may also flatter the egos of those who score high on the measure, but the only way to determine research quality is to know the field and read the work and evaluate it on a case by case basis.  Since the concrete information gleaned by study cannot by definition be compiled in an aggregate measure, it cannot be included in reports such as this, which speaks against the veracity and usefulness of such reports, not the importance of discipline-specific expertise.

Given the undefined terms,  the category mistakes (confusing quality with quantity),  highly questionable data, and the construction of “faculty” as passive objects who owe “obligations” to an undefined “we,” the report must be rejected as tendentious and misleading.  Yet, excluding Prof. Lawson’s intervention, it has not been criticized as such in the press.  In the country’s two largest papers, The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, the stories more or less reported the findings as verbatim confirmation that Ontario professors are underworked and underproductive.  The Toronto Star (after briefly citing Prof. Lawson) devoted about half the remaining space to the President of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance’s demand that all professors undergo mandatory teacher training.  The reporter failed to ask how this proposal would be implemented-  if we are all incompetent teachers, who is gong to teach us?  Perhaps an obnoxious political wannabe with an undergraduate degree?  Worse was yet to come and, as usual in cases of discussions of education in the corporate media, worse took the shape of Margaret Wente.  In her view, the report “finds that the typical teaching load of a university professor has dwindled to less than three courses a year – 2.8, to be exact, just 1.4 courses per semester.”  As I have pointed out, however, there is nothing at all “exact” about the figure, and the authors themselves acknowledge as much.  But their qualifications never make it into the reporting on the report, and one can be almost certain that few members of the public will slog through its fifty-four pages to find out just how inexact a figure it really is.

And that is perhaps the point– this is a political document written in a style to almost guarantee that it will not be read beyond the first three pages.  The number the government needs to have imprinted on people’s minds is right there in the fourth box on the second page, stark, with almost no text around it– 2.8.   The number, and not the method by which the number, and not the problems with the method by which the number, or the problems of the assumptions which framed the method by which the number was determined, is all that is reported.  Teasing out the contradictions and problems, as I have tried to do here, will not be enough to prevent further damage to the Ontario university system.  That can only happen if faculty emerge from their long political hibernation and begin to organize and fight back aggressively against the combined force of governments and administrations trying to mask the own fiscal neglect and bureaucratic over-management behind the myth of the entitled and lazy professor.  It is springtime.  The bears are waking up and so should we.



Readings: John Brown: Paintings, 2014

Written By: J.Noonan - Mar• 10•14

John Brown:  Paintings

At Olga Korper Gallery

17 Morrow Avenue, Toronto

Until March 29th, 2014


One who is free from attachment,

firmly resolved, self-effacing,

unmoved by success or failure,

is said to be a pure agent.

(The Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 18, 26-30)

In every era across all forms of human activity there are practitioners whose reputation amongst their peers exceeds their standing amongst critics.  To be a member of that set is to both know your own excellence (it is confirmed by the judgements of those who know from the inside, as fellow practitioners, what excellence in the field demands), and to doubt, (the critics, the public arbiters of taste, do not respond in a way proportional to the quality of the work).  No one can control the reception of their work, and in any case, that is not what ultimately counts, since the work will endure (or not) only if it can speak to different times and places.  Criticism speaks to the standards of the present, great work to an open future. (That is why great work is often said to be “ahead of its time”).  What speaks to us in an old work of philosophy, or poetry, or a medieval painting is not what the original audience heard or saw.  Works either transcend the moment of their creation or are hostage to it.  We no longer know the names of the works that were hostage to the moment of their creation, because they died with its passing.

No contemporary can say what the future of a new work will be, since it depends upon subsequent ages finding something in it that resonates with them.  One can say with more certainty what will not escape its present– work that is purely personal or too overtly tied to the politics of the moment.  People die, taking their motivations with them; political problems change, yesterday’s revolutionary slogan is tomorrow’s t-shirt.  To continue to communicate across ages a work must have content which is universal, which speaks to more or less permanent human needs, fears, and problems, while at the same time finding formal means of expressing that content that are not reducible to the fashions of its age.

If there is a Canadian painter whose work should live beyond the moment of its composition it is John Brown.   His new work  -16 paintings on exhibit at the Olga Korper Gallery– include stellar examples of Brown’s long-standing focus on the human body (in particular, the head) and his more recent concern with the structures and machines which threaten it.  Formally considered as paintings and not as illustrations of a theme, each fascinates with the complexity of its composition.   Every painting is a whole any part of which could be isolated from the rest and treated as if it were  an aesthetic whole in its own right.  Even surfaces that from a distance appear as mere white grounds for the figure that attracts attention turn out, on closer inspection, to contain colour fragments bursting from beneath the surface, like particles randomly popping into existence in the vacuum.  No part of the painted surface is merely instrumental to the purpose of directing attention to the figure or the centre; to be fully appreciated each must be viewed from afar, as a thematically unified whole, and from close up, as an infinite set of relations between scrapes, brush strokes, colours, and absences of colour.

The conventional relationship between figure and ground is disrupted in Brown’s works, especially the larger ones, by the exquisite working over of every part of the surface.  Though obviously unified compositions, looking closely at different parts of the surface leads one to imagine that every painting was constructed so as to contain an unlimited number of other possible paintings that could be produced by cutting  portions off from the whole.  In most paintings, classical or contemporary, much of the work is extraneous and uninteresting when isolated from the whole, because it has been instrumentally designed to serve a specific function.  In Brown’s work, there is a unique fractal-like nesting of scales, potential wholes contained in the actual whole which close-up examination brings to light.

Something similar could be said about the six smaller works (Grimm 79, 80, 83, 87, 88, 92) which have been hung together.  Viewed from afar, the arrangement looks like it has been deliberately composed as a  hexaptrych.  Yet in reality, each painting is a whole unto itself.  The appearance of “belonging together”  was not intended in the creation of any of the six paintings.  Even though the relations between the paintings are external and accidental, their co-presence in a single gaze generates the impression of looking at a single work whose unity could be preserved even if other Grimm paintings were substituted for the one’s here included (as a living being retains its organic structure even though its cells are constantly being replaced).

Connecting all of the works in the show is the archaeological way in which Brown paints.  The paintings emerge through a dialectic of putting on and scrapping off, of constructing images and erasing them only to have parts re-appear through later scrapings.  The paintings complete themselves as Brown goes in search of earlier structures of paint.  The paintings all have a weathered, aged appearance which adds to the power of their affect on the viewer.  The stressed, laboured, appearance of the finished painting calls to mind  medieval works which have lost their sheen to the elements and have become cracked and disrupted by blanks spaces where the paint has decayed.  The illusion of perfection having succumbed to the forces of physics and chemistry, their materiality as works of art, as human constructions, comes more clearly to the fore, and they are more interesting and moving to look at in consequence  than many better preserved examples.  Brown’s works are only a year or two old, but they appear older, much older, because of the way they have been painted, and this illusion of age adds substance to their emotional impact on the viewer.

This impact is always to draw the viewer into a reflection upon the most basic elements of human being:  the face as the bearer of identity, our mortality, our isolation (think of how most of his heads float in space) and struggles against isolation, (but somehow call out to the viewer for silent companionship), and of the threats to our flesh technology and machinery poses.  No machine is so threatening today than the drone, which Brown explores in this show in four large paintings (Inferno 5+1 (Drone 1), Bubble Puppy (Drone 2), Wimple Winch (Drone 3), Dolly Rocker (Drone 4). .  The drone terrifies because of its inhumanity– the victim will never see the face that flicks the switch that launches the missile that kills the body.  There is no possibility that a chance meeting of the eyes will forestall the execution by reminding the executioner of the humanity he shares with the target.   There are no faces in in the drone paintings, the machines hang there, ready to kill, mechanically.

But the drone paintings are not mere commentaries on contemporary geo-political conflict.  Really, they express a deeper and more general existential menace– impersonal death which takes people without remorse.    It is this universal experience, articulated through the particular painting, that will allow them to continue to resonate far beyond the moment of their creation.   As formal compositions, they stand apart from whatever thematic content they might convey.  If the viewer concentrates on the figures the paint composes,  as opposed to the name of the painting, it will be readily apparent that they are not critiques of American foreign policy, but evocations of the power of destruction that looms over us all at all moments, and which no political change can resolve:  death, loss of the loved one, destruction of what the self values, always there, looming, deeper and more pervasive and more forever than any specifically military-political techniques and tactics.  The only resolution to the depth problem of human vulnerability is the coffin, which, perhaps not accidently, Grimm 95 and For Jack both evoke.

Brown’s paintings are thus extraordinary formal constructions with paint and deeply philosophical mediations on the unyielding problems of human mortality.  Nowhere do these two sides of his work come together more perfectly that in Double Portrait of Herb Sigman, hung alone on the south wall of the gallery, stark in its black and white contrast.   It is the best painting in the show and possibly the crowing achievement of Brown’s career thus far.  It is an intensely personal piece, a love poem, but one needs know nothing of Brown’s life to feel its power.  The two white heads, like classical marble sculpture, emerge as almost three-dimensional figures from the mostly black background.  The white, the light that enlivens and moves, shining defiantly against the cold black of the universe.  The black, the dark of natural forces that surround us at any moment.   The light cannot hold back the forces of natural history– the black is slowly advancing into the face,  drawing it back to earth, to disintegration, to mute unity with the elements from which its life was created.  The beauty of the face can be preserved in paint– here, the black can advance only so far as the artist allows, but everyone knows that in real life the advance cannot be stopped, the light will be drowned in the dark, life in death, love in unfeeling matter.  Here is the most extraordinary testimony to the impossibility that makes art great–  open admission that the forces against which it fights– death and loss– cannot be defeated.  That we make art, as Brown once said, is a sign of hope, but the works that really succeed beyond the time of their creation are the ones that are honest enough to somehow acknowledge that the hope is futile, though not, for being futile, worthless.

Rebels With Causes, But Limited Effects

Written By: J.Noonan - Feb• 27•14

It seems the whole world has been lit on fire this winter.  Ukrainian protesters protected their encampment with a “ring of fire.”  Demonstrators in Bosnia and Herzegovina, fed up with unemployment and corruption and tired of politicians playing the nationalist card burned down government buildings across the country.  Fire reigning from the sky in “barrel bombs” in Syria and the fire of daily bombings across Iraq and fire in the streets of Bangkok.  Were we not supposed to be at the end of history by now?  Should we not be living in that period of unprecedented stability, peace, prosperity, and internationalism (under US hegemony, of course) that George Bush the First called the “new world order?”

“Now, we can see a new world coming into view. A world in  which there is the very real prospect of a new world order. In the words of Winston Churchill, a “world order” in which “the principles of justice and fair play … protect the weak against the strong …” A world where the United Nations, freed from cold war stalemate, is poised to fulfil the historic vision of its founders. A world in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations. The Gulf War put this new world to its first test, and, my fellow Americans, we passed that test.”

The wedding parties of Afghanistan and Yemen could use some of that protection from “the strong”  right now.  And ground zero for the emergence of this “new world order,” Iraq?   It continues to burn with the fires lit by George Bush the First, stoked by Bill Clinton, and fanned more furiously by George Bush the Second.  Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s lives have been devoured by the conflagration, and still they die, the civil war unleashed by the Operation “Iraqi Freedom” killing hundreds of Iraqis a week.  Is this the test America passed:  how to become a nation that harbors the war criminals who willingly unleashed this on-going crime against humanity? Is this what the International Criminal Court, the UN, and the sanctimonious schoolboys and girls of the global human rights choir that is the US State Department stand for: silence and complicity?

But maybe I am too impatient in my armchair.   Are there not more hopeful signs afoot?  What about the Arab Spring, the Ukraine, Venezuela?  Don’t these portend the end of history as Fukuyama saw it–globalized liberal-capitalist democracy. “Change society,” a spokesperson for the Ukrainian protesters demanded,  “Turn Ukraine into a European country.” (Time)  Is that not also what the Venezuelan protesters are demanding, an end to the experiment with twenty-first century socialism, to make Venezuela a European country?   “You have a government that increasingly, since the time of Chávez but even more with Maduro, has practically closed the channels of communication,” said Margarita López Maya, a Latin American analyst critical of the Bolivarian revolution.  Patience, then, the end is coming, just more slowly than initially conceived.

But is it?  One can always find, in any protest camp, the polite liberals, the attractive bloggers (why do ugly people’s pleas for justice never go viral?) that play well in the West.  But the reality, if it does not contradict the image, is always a great deal more complex.  The Arab Spring was led by young workers, not tweeters.  As Gilbert Achcar  argues, “To believe this [that the revolutions are essentially over], one must ignore the fact that the mainspring of the 2011 explosion is socio-economic: this mainspring is decades of blockage of regional development, resulting in record rates of unemployment–in particular, among young people and graduates. The corollary of this observation is that the revolutionary process that began in 2011 will end only when a solution is brought forward that makes it possible to come out of the socio-economic dead end–a solution which could be progressive as well as regressive, of course, because the best is never certain, alas, but no more than the worst is certain!”  In the Ukraine, opponents of the Yanukovych  government included virulent fascist elements and were most certainly advised (to some extent), by the United States.  In Venezuela, the protests are not about opening up a closed society (Maduro has offered peace talks, the opposition, smelling weakness, has refused) but overthrowing a democratically elected government which retains majority support amongst the Venezuela working class and poor.  As George Ciccariello-Maher, author of  “We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution,” argues “the Chavista government has been in power for more than 14 years and has won a larger number of elections than any other government essentially on earth because they mobilized the poor and have a strong support base among the poor, and also a chunk of the middle class … This support base is not going anywhere, and it’s not going to disintegrate because a relatively small number of students are protesting in relatively middle class areas of the country.”  So this is the end of history?  Fascists as freedom fighters and privileged elites as tribunes of the people?

Well, why not?  Volcanoes spew toxic gas, but over the long term they also deposit essential minerals,, making volcanic soils amongst the most fertile on earth.    Politics is messy and contradictory and people with bad ideas can serve good causes, can they not?

Politics is messy and contradictory, but it is not the case that people with bad ideas can serve good causes, because the idea that guides is the cause they serve.  Which is not to say that all the people involved in these struggles have bad ideas, or that they are not confronting real problems.   Yanukovych  was no doubt a thuggish Putin ally and deserved to be toppled, and Venezuela is in the midst of a difficult economic crisis that  mainstream economists attribute to inevitable effects of Chavez’s reforms and socialist economists to capital flight and a capital strike.  But it hardly follows that the solution to Ukraine’s problems is to become governed by rabid nationalists and endebted  to the US and the IMF (or to be carved in half by Russian intervention) or that Venezuela will be better off with a return to the right-wing strongmen who have dominated the history not only of Venezuela, but Latin America as a whole.

And herein lies the real problem of the age, it seems to me, not the end of history, but its running into a wall of long-term sideways movement.  In every case of uprising there has been no positive platform developed by any of the main political actors around which real social solidarity could be built.  Philosophically, it is easy enough to develop such a program-  practically undeniable life-requirements we share as human beings and the resources we need in order to satisfy them.  But translating an internally unified set of philosophical principles into social and political solidarity is proving almost impossible.  No sooner has a shared political enemy been eliminated than unity amongst the opposition disintegrates.   While all of the crises have important socio-economic dimensions, the fights are all focused on the state, and not the class forces and social and global dynamics which are causing the instability and popular unrest.  At one level this strategy makes sense– you can get your hands on the state.  But having captured the state, you now must face the global economic dynamics determine the life-conditions in it.  Thus, the new ruling group must comply with the same demands as the recently deposed regime, and the discontent soon returns in a new round of street occupations.   Socialist might say:  “see, these changes of government are meaningless, we need a real solution.”  True, but the “real solution” must mobilise  huge majorities, and no socialist movement has been able to do this, even six years into a devastating world crisis.  The future, it would seem, does not bode well for socialist real alternatives.

Nor does it seem to bode well for Fukuyama and George Bush the First’s hopes.  That people are re-learning that their collective power determines politics is antithetical to the “stability”  that global markets demand.   Having learned that massing in the streets can topple governments, people are unlikely to return to the niceties of once every five years voting.  Still, protest, resistance, and rebellion, in the absence of some coherent program for social transformation, can change governments, but of themselves seem capable only of keeping societies in a constant state of turmoil.  The world seems to be in for a long period of unstable toing-and-froing between superficially different but programmatically the same parties all claiming to speak for a ‘people’ which vanishes at the moment when it would be most propitious for it to act.







Written By: J.Noonan - Feb• 19•14

This is not a world historical neighbourhood.  There are no monuments, not even any local landmarks, just people passing through, mostly, and they don’t seem to notice much.  Its probably better, not really seeing.  That way, one is not implicated.

An old woman,  in a threadbare chair, in a room yellowed from time and light from the shadeless lamp, a shelf with a few mementos standing sadly behind.  Further back, one supposes, a kitchen, somewhere a bedroom and a faded, unravelling crotched blanket at the end of the bed.  The building not nearly closed off enough to the elements: frail windows death-rattling in the west wind, rusty trim, peeling siding, the door so  windworn  an arm could punch through without a scratch.

So close to the street.  What she must have to bear on Friday nights when the kids, loud, exuberant with drink and desire, roll home from downtown.  No building abuts the sidewalk in this place (as they should, in a real city).  Everywhere a missing-tooth gap of parking lot between structure and street.  Except here, where an old woman needs to sleep, somehow the connection between the dead things was got right.  But she never looks afraid, face ever stern and square to the TV.

Words lie, but not eyes, hands, and faces.  Those don’t seem like laugh lines etched into her hard, bespectacled face, the furrows accentuated in the dinge.  This is not a room for fond reminiscence.  No, better suited for regretful cigarettes and spiteful glasses of whatever it is old women drink.  Staring through the TV,  back to some history only she knows, only she can free herself from.  If not for her memory, whatever it is could rest, far off in time, where it belongs.  But here and now, it shares her space, and provides no pleasure.

What does she keep alive with that same harsh stare, night after night?  She is alone, has been forgotten, what is it that she cannot she forget? A trauma, a singular failure or breach, a chance left untried?  Or, just the gradually accumulating weight of years piled on years pressing home the point that it won’t get better now.  Does her anger rise as night falls?  Does she roll up the old comforter at night (when during the day it hangs down, as a curtain) so that everyone can see that despite it all (whatever it was) she is still here?  Does she feel redeemed by the witness the transient gazes of passers by, (briefly, so briefly), bear?  Perhaps she wants to implicate us.

One walks by, one sees, one keeps walking.  A few more paces and one finds oneself seized, thinking,  for a moment, and then a few more steps.  Well, what could one do?

Does she ever think:  “they can see me, why does no one ever knock?”  Or maybe she has lived too much to care about things anymore.  It is better, really, to stop caring, once one is past the point where change was possible.  One frees oneself from being implicated.

It will end here, most likely, (but not now).  Is that Saint Francis in the window?  Is this what you have prayed for, this dingy aluminum sided box all sooty from exhaust and spattered in mud, open for me to see?  No?

Everywhere I have been, it seems, the prayers of the poor are never answered.

Readings: Richard Ford: Canada

Written By: J.Noonan - Feb• 09•14

Works of art challenge given modes of experience, feeling, and understanding by demanding that viewers/readers/listeners open themselves to non-literal re-presentation.  If the challenge is met with the appropriate openness, one enters into constructed possible worlds distinct from, but connected to, mundane objectivity and the structures of experience, feeling, understanding, expectations, and valuations that rule there.  The construction of these new worlds requires the imposition of aesthetic form– the practices whereby a given content is transformed, the elements of the work arranged in artistic space and time (which is not outside of social and physical space and time, but not determined by them either).  In order to communicate as art, the formal dimension of aesthetic transformation, the transfiguration (or de-figuration), of the mundane is essentialAt the same time, in order to make good on art’s invitation, its invented worlds must have something to say.  Art is threatened by literalist pedantry and didacticism, but also by  empty virtuoso formalism.  The best art expands the boundaries of the permissible-  both of content,  (that which can become the subject of artistic presentation), and in terms of form, (the ways in which content can be re-presented).  In the synthesis which is the work, our receptive capacities are expanded at the same time as we are forced to think about things in new ways.

Of all the arts, the novel perhaps offers the greatest potential for world construction.  The human world– the world of symbolic meaning within which we live, not the raw natural world of which we are also apart and upon which we live– is a world narrated into existence.  Novels grow out of the universal practice of story telling, but free it from any imperative to relate events that happened as they happened.  By freeing narration from empirical history, the novel liberates meaning from established natural and social laws.  The author– and her or his readers– are free to explore dimensions of reality closed off by the given world (or to explore the given world in ways it would rather not be explored).  When reality is fictionalized the immoral becomes moral, the impermissible permissible.   As art work, the novel pushes the boundaries of what is fit subject-matter for telling, by exploring new narrative structures, or pushing to see how much structure intelligibility  can do without.  But the novel as art work is not only story, structure, and playing with structure, it is also words, which have their own aesthetic value apart from the story they are assembled to convey.  The perfect novel would be one in which no word was wasted, not one could be changed, in which each sentence could function as a poetic micro-universe, meaningful in itself and pleasurable to read on its own, and whose narrative and characters were so engaging that the reader must forever resist the temptation to skip ahead to find out how the story resolves itself.

Richard Ford’s Canada is not that novel, but Ford’s superb story telling, his deep understanding of the psychology of isolation, and his economical prose put the idea in my mind.

The novel tells the story of Dell Parsons, a fifteen year-old living in Great Falls Montana whose hopes  for normalcy are destroyed when his parents rob a bank.  After his twin sister runs away, he is spirited across the Canadian border to live with the brother of a family friend hiding from his own past in Fort Royal, Saskatchewan.  It is not a coming of age saga, into which it could easily have degenerated, but a meditation on the way in which lives are co-equally determined by chance and inertia, on the way in which the unravelling of expectations isolates, but does not necessarily destroy, of loss and reconstruction and more loss, of redemption, of a sort, and of Canada as a closeness that divides and an undesired but welcoming (and ultimately welcomed)  refuge.

Ford writes the way the eye sees: detailed, complex, nuanced, in colour, but without unnecessary colouration.  ( I cannot remember reading a single simile in the book). There is a matter-of-factness to his descriptions that communicate more about the character’s feelings than noisier and busier prose would.  The deepest forces and the most tragic conflicts that human beings face are related with a detached that-is-just-how-it-wasness.  The terror of events is announced with an unadorned narrative voice: “Of course, I know some particulars because we were there in the house with them and observed them– as children do– as things changed from ordinary, peaceful and good, to bad, then worse, and then as bad as could be (though no one got killed until later.” (20)  We are often spectators of our lives, involved but not in control.  We survive by paying attention,  not dressing things up.

One of the core themes of the novel is the way in which inertia determines much of human life–we are spectators, but we become authors when we stop being carried along by events and allow ourselves to be carried along.  Agency can be expressed negatively, by not exercising our capacity to act as a force equal and opposite to those impelling us in one direction.  It was inertia holding his mother in place that set in motion the events that led to the catastrophes that Dell undergoes.  Instead of leaving his father, as she often thought of doing, Dell’s mother simply rides along with her husband’s increasingly desperate scheming until it is too late:  “She could have left him … But again she didn’t.  Therefore, all that might have happened to her … didn’t happen.  Instead, she lived in Great Falls, a town she’d never before heard of … lived in one world taken up with us … feeling isolated, not wanting to assimilate, and thinking only frustratedly, complicatedly, of the future.  And all the while our father existed in another world– his easy scheming nature, his optimism about the future, his charm.  They seemed the same world because the two of them shared it, and they had us.  But they weren’t the same.  It’s also possible that she loved him, since he unquestioningly loved her.  And given her general unoptimistic frame of mind, given that she might have loved him, and that they had us, she conceivably couldn’t face the shock of going away and being  just alone with us forever.  This is not an unheard-of story in the world.”(24)  Tragedies that could be avoided would not be tragedies.

This inertia condemns Dell to flight, to Canada, until then a looming non-presence in his life– close, but without identity of its own.  “It was Canada there.  Indistinguishable.  Same sky.  Same daylight.  Same air.  But different.  How was it possible that I was going to it?” (212).  But it was possible, and a few hours later he is driving towards his new “home”  which, as he sees the next morning, is a desolate and abandoned farm town in the middle of a country which looks like his own, but is not.  “Life-changing events often don’t seem what they are.   Voices woke me.   These voices were somewhere outside the room I’d been asleep in, a room I remember entering, but didn’t recognise.  the cool smell of the earth and something tangy and metallic and sour thickened the air.  A thin grey cotton cloth with a white border was tacked over a window beside my bed– which was only a metal folding cot– softening what had to be morning light.  I didn’t know morning light where, or how long we’d driven the night before, or if here was my destination.” (228)  Ford restrains himself from any narrative overlay; he does not need to tell the reader that Dell feels alone, fragmented, far from home, he lets the scene itself do all the work.  Dell’s psychic isolation resonates all the louder in consequence.

But it does not destroy him.  He persists and succeeds, not through any heroic strength of character, but in the way someone makes it home through bitter, windy cold– by putting one’s shoulder to the wind and taking step after step, because there is no real alternative.  “Don’t send a lot of time thinking old gloomy, though,” the friend who spirits him into Canada tells him. “Your life’s going be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead.  So just pay attention to the present.  Don’t rule parts out, and be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing.  That’s important.”(217-218)  If there is one thing he learns, it is to not “rule parts out.”

But although he makes a new life for himself, he cannot– no one can– ultimately escape the events that set him on his journey.  Meeting his sister again much later in life, she gives him her mother’s journal, which she kept while she was in prison.  Her words about death repeat the truths that Dell lived.   “I think … that when you’re dying, you probably want it.  You don’t fight it.  It’s like dreaming.  It’s good.  Don’t you imagine it feels good?  Just giving into something. No more fighting, fighting, fighting.  I’ll worry about this eventually and be sorry. But right now I feel good.  A weight’s off me.  Some great weight.  Nature does not abhor a vacuum, as it turns out.”


Worry, Anxiety, and Existential Injustice

Written By: J.Noonan - Jan• 31•14

No one asks to be born, or to have to eat, or to require education.  We are, as Heidegger says, thrown into being, helpless, (initially), to meet the needs our bio-social nature imposes upon us.  We are not responsible for the consequences of decisions (or non-decisions) that led to our coming into the light.  We did not choose to be vulnerable and needy.   There is no personal responsibility for that which is imposed by nature and the actions of others.

If the infant is not responsible for procuring the milk it needs, who is?

The mother (or, more generally), the parents?  That is the obvious answer, but it is wrong.  They may have chosen to reproduce (or reproduced without planning to do so), but they are not furnished with all the resources their infant will ultimately require just by virtue of being parents.  No one (or two, or even a few) produces out of themselves that which they and others who depend upon them need.  The infant looks to whomever is closest, but his needs connect him to the whole world. Could he express himself in words and not just cries, he might reasonably ask:  “how do you intend to keep me alive, world, now that I am a part of you, not by own choice?”

The world speaks through the human beings ruthless enough to assert control (for a time) over it.  And the ruthless of our age would say:

“It is not our problem that you have not chosen to come into being and have not chosen your nature– not chosen to get hungry and thirsty and to need house and home.  It is not our problem, though we control all that you will eventually require, whether or not you are able to access it.  We care only about this:  whether or not you are able to pay your way.  For this you will be held responsible.  You see the earth and water and schools and houses and opportunities and think:  a place has been prepared for me.  But you are wrong.  Those are not yours, they belong to us.  They can be had, for a price, and we will do nothing to ensure that you will be able to cover the costs.”

And the infant might respond:  “But no one told me that I would be brought into a world in which all the means to satisfy my needs are controlled by people unmoved by the urgency of my requirements.  Still, I accept the deal.  I will focus and struggle and be willing to work; I was born through the labour of my mother so I will labour in turn.

And the spokespeople of the world rejoin:  “Whether you labour or not is again not our problem.  Though we have need for the labour of some (and then, on our terms, not theirs), we do not have need for the labour of all, and so, though we control all wealth and resources as well as the jobs through which the money needed to pay for everything else is procured, we cannot guarantee that we will have use for you.”

To which the infant might respond:  “Why then have I been allowed to be born into life without any place prepared for me to live it?  Is it not unreasonable that we bring creatures like me-  hopeful, wide-eyed, eager to grow and develop, willing to contribute, asking only for a place in which to make ourselves into what we desire to become-  and not take care to ensure that there is a place for us?”

To have — or rather, not have– a place is indeed the bedrock issue of our time.  Having a place in society is different from being locatable at a set of spatial coordinates.  A place is meaningful and not only structural.  The society that ensures places for everyone says:  you are wanted, you are needed, you will be enabled to flourish here and contribute back to the store from which you drew to satisfy your needs.  The places we make for each other shelter, protect, encourage, and enable each to grow and develop and contribute.  To have a place is existential justice: a welcoming into being spoken by everyone whose life the newborn joins.

To have no place, in contrast, is to be neglected, discounted, to have your needs ignored, to find no outlet for your capacities, to be impeded in becoming who you are. To be thrown into a structure of social being that has not prepared any place for you, to be unwelcomed by the world of which you did not choose to be a part, is existential injustice.

Of course, if the masters so deign, you may be allowed to persist, as their servant.  Well, is that not a place?  No, it is a function, a temporary use imposed upon you.  A function is not a place; place nurtures and protects, function is something you are allowed to do, not for as long as you need to, but for as long as it serves the masters’ interests.

Life as a function is a life spent in worry:  that grinding,  gnawing, sapping, fear of having day in day out to figure out how you might please the master, so that he might spare you some change (or more likely lend it to you, at interest).  To worry is to never be sheltered in place even for one second– to be exposed to the demands of the master until he is bored with you. Worry is the psychological reflex of existential injustice.

In that it is distinct from anxiety, the dread of annihilation, of anticipating the end of one’s existence in time and space:  “for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord.  In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations.(Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, par. 194)  This shaking to the foundations, but making us conscious of the compressed time and space of life, intensifies the expression of the energy of self-realization.  Worry accomplishes the opposite:  it wastes life, consumes body and soul in the search for a place in which to realize ourselves.

To struggle against this existential injustice is to struggle for a place.  But to struggle for a place means colliding with those who distribute them.  The struggle is not about their money (who cares about their vanity) and it does not aim to exterminate them  (whatever inane accusations they might from time to time interject).  It just demands that they make room.

The Imperfections of Architecture (Heraclitean Fragments and Aphorisms for Winter Evenings)

Written By: J.Noonan - Jan• 20•14

The slope is too shallow.  Either your head is in the way or a head is in your way.

Two vectors happily tracing their lines in space collide: geometrically,  an angle, materially, a corner, squaredly, a room.  Defined space makes activity possible, but limits it at the same time.

People who think comedians tell deep truths …

That which enables excludes.  Definition is by limitation, creation is through constraint.

Philosophy as Parasite:  Reflection presupposes other peoples’ risks.  If everyone were a philosopher there would be nothing to philosophise about.

To be is to do, to do is to ignore the determinist’s proof that ends are not origins.

A sofa in the median is not an invitation to sit.

My end is your beginning.

Hell is other people:  they block one’s road, but without them there would be no where to go.

…working with only wood and twine.

How complicated it gets, with just two.  Now multiply by billions.

Idealism and choreography:  the question is not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but how spirit-entities without bodies can dance.

Art is experience of the same, differently.

Book learning  really is overrated. (Learned from a book).

How much of what we are is built from the parts we forget?

So powerful was … make of … and … understood …  no [cost?] was too high.

Mere proximity in closed space is enough to cause aggression and animosity to rise.  The danger of violence increases with the degree of enforced immobility.

By forces, nutrients, shelters we live, by symbols we die.

The Grayson Affair: Accomodation, Religion, and the Values of Scholarship

Written By: J.Noonan - Jan• 10•14

Unremarked in the multiple discussions on-going around York University Sociology Professor Paul Grayson’s  refusal to accommodate a student’s request to be excused from meeting in public with female students on religious grounds is what it tells us about senior administrators’ attitudes towards the educational mission of the university.   Even though the student involved ultimately accepted Grayson’s decision to not exempt him from the group work assignment, Grayson’s Dean, the York Human Rights Office, and the Provost and Vice-President Academic maintained the position that Grayson is in fact obligated to accommodate the request.  Grayson’s potential troubles do not stop at senior administration. Rather than publicly and robustly support their member, the  York University Faculty Association has warned Grayson that he could face discipline for his courageous defence of the academic integrity of his course, his discipline, and the University as a whole.

Grayson refused the student’s request because he did not want to be seen as abetting sexist attitudes, and also because he did not want to help set a precedent potentially fatal to the academic mission of universities.  If one student can opt out of an assignment on religious grounds, then any student can potentially opt out of any assignment on religious grounds.  But Grayson has done more than simply stand up for the equality of men and women and the academic integrity of the learning environment, he has also, perhaps unwittingly, but nevertheless very clearly, exposed the degree to which the administrators who claim to be leaders of the university singularly fail in that task when the situation calls out for it.  Rather than defend the autonomy of universities from the potentially disastrous Ontario Differentiation Policy Framework for Higher Education, the Council of Ontario Universities (composed of the chief academic administrators from all Ontario Universities) was silent.  In response to a request that, if taken up by thousands of other religious students could make any sort of coherent classroom practice impossible, York administrators try to force one of their professors to meet it.

Why are those who have been hired to lead these institutions, people who are rarely shy about reminding the academics who actually do the teaching and research and mentor the students (i.e., do all the work that makes a university a university) that they are the leaders, incapable of doing so when the situation most requires it? Because they have ingested whole the message coming from governments and corporate think-tanks for two decades:  education is a customer service business, and the customer is always right.   At root, the problem with the student request that ignited this particular controversy has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with students thinking of themselves, and academic administrators allowing them to think of themselves as customers.  Customers of a business might legitimately demand that the business customise their products to meet consumer demand; but students need to demand of themselves the discipline required to meet the often uncomfortable challenges that educational practices and encounters pose.  That does not mean that students should defer to professorial authority uncritically– on the contrary.  But they need to challenge that authority by meeting it head on– by developing the strength of character and intellect necessary to do that which one might not ordinarily do or desire to do, so as to grow in intellectual capacity and have something to say against the professor when the context invites challenge and argument.

In defending himself from the demands of his Dean and the York Human Rights Office Grayson rightly argued that at root this matter is a problem of governance.  It is a problem of governance not only in terms of who has the right to determine that which occurs in the classroom, professors and students or senior administrators, government, and corporate lobbyists.  It is also a question of what values and what understanding of education will govern the university institution.  Will the values of self-discipline, ability to bear discomfort, capacity and desire to rise to challenges posed to one’s beliefs (the values of people who desire to become educated) rule, or will the desire to avoid discomfort and have course content and assignments tailored to one’s prejudices (consumer mindsets fatal to the capacity to become educated) overrule the values of scholarship?  Will education be understood as rooted in the demand that professors and students alike continually question their starting points and worldviews, or will education be reduced to consumer demand for a product (the degree) to be satisfied with as little effort and trouble as possible?

The most extraordinary outcome of this whole debacle is that the student (from what I can tell from the outside)  has proven himself to be an exemplar of the sort of willingness to challenge and question and accept a result contrary to his expectations essential to the process of becoming educated.  To his lasting credit, the student accepted Grayson’s refusal and (again, from what I can tell)  was willing to work past the discomfort he felt in order to meet the demands of the course.  It is the York administration that has failed utterly to defend the academic integrity of their institution.  They can try to hide behind the Ontario Human Rights Code and the fact that Grayson exempted another student from group work (because the student lived in Egypt!) all they want.  The truth of their failure is plain for all to see.  The Ontario Human Rights Code does not exist for the sake of destroying secular, public institutions, (which it could very well do, if the precedent the York administration is coming close to establishing  is allowed to stand and is taken up by thousands of other students around the province).  There is no commonality between exempting someone from Egypt from meeting other students in Toronto and exempting someone in Toronto because he does not want to be in public with women.  The issue is not fundamentally about human rights and not fundamentally about religious versus secular world views.  The fundamental issue is about administrators not having the courage to defend academic integrity because they are afraid of losing customers, even when the customer is satisfied with having his request denied.

In the sad new world of the academy, the student-customer is always right , the professor is always wrong, and those hired to lead the institution continue to steer it further and further off the course of its educational mission-  to provide the time and space for interpretation, critical enquiry, testing of and (where necessary) pushing past the existing boundaries of human knowledge and practice in all dimensions of human experience and activity, in an environment respectful of, but not subordinate to, the cultural differences that shape the identities of all who choose to belong to it.