My name is Ethan Mills. This blog represents the convergence of two aspects of my identity: science fiction fan and philosophy professor. I've been a science fiction fan as long as I can remember, and I later realized that I was also interested in philosophy all along.http://examinedworlds.blogspot.com/p/about.html
This year my wife and I took our usual beach vacation around our anniversary. We've been to Panama City Beach on the Florida panhandle a few times now (see, for instance, this post from 2017, "A Nerd at the Beach"), but this year we had a new thing to contend with: Tropical Storm Barry! It was headed for Louisiana, but here's a thing about tropical storms: they are really big and affect a lot of surrounding areas. We only had one day with a lot of rain, but the sea was so rough and the risk of rip currents so high that nobody was allowed to swim in the ocean during most of our trip. How did we fare despite this calamity? Here are some short tales that might tell.
Florida is a Garbage Fire
After arriving at our destination on the beach, we unpacked and went for a quick swim. We noticed things in the water. My wife said they were jellyfish. My eyesight without glasses can basically be described as "when Velma from Scooby Doo loses her glasses" so I was mostly taking her word for it, although I could sort of see some jellyfish-like shapes if I squinted. So, we got out of the water after less than five minutes. That was the only swimming we would do for the whole trip.
That night I sat on on the balcony overlooking the beach, enjoying the sound of the surf and the salt on the breeze. There were amateur fireworks of increasingly dangerous varieties (it was less than a week after the 4th of July). After the fireworks ended and the police arrived to investigate 20 minutes after the amateur firework artists fled to their hovels, crab-hunting families continued to scour the darkness, their flashlights bobbing up and down the beach.
I noticed a faint flicker. It grew a bit stronger. My first inclination was to think someone had started a bonfire on the beach. It grew stronger yet. I remembered that fires (and fireworks) are forbidden on this part of the beach. I noticed the fire was inside one of the many garbage cans that line the edge of the beach.
My inclination was to go down there and try to put it out with some sand. But what if there were fireworks in there? Or bullets? (This was Florida, after all). I wasn't about to put myself in danger to save a garbage can that could entirely burn down on the sand without incident.
While I sat there watching, the fire grew and grew. Eventually it engulfed the entire garbage can, which, as I had hypothetically pondered earlier, entirely burned down on the sand without incident. There was some nasty black smoke from whatever plastic the can was made of and whatever mélange of sunscreen, broken beach chairs, motor oil, rotten alligator steaks, or whatever Floridians put in garbage cans at the beach.
Eventually the fire department arrived and put out the dying embers. The next morning a tractor came and scooped up the charred remains, mostly just ash and a metal rim at that point.
And that's how our Florida vacation began: with a literal garbage fire.
That's Okay, We Didn't Want to Go in the Water, Anyway
As I mentioned above, Tropical Storm Barry put a bit of a damper on our Florida vacation as the water was closed for swimming starting with our first full day there. We switched hotels for the last night (for boring reasons, nothing dramatic), so we had a few hours to kill. We drove around a bit, but we thought it would be kind of funny to go to see the new movie Crawl (aka, the one with the giant alligators) while we were in Florida. By this point in the trip the prospect of spending a few hours in a comfy chair in the air conditioning eating popcorn sounded pretty nice, too.
How was the movie? It was a silly horror movie with a plot of sorts, but mostly giant scary alligators doing lots of cheap jump scares and taking big chunks out of mostly unsuspecting humans. The movie wasn't very good, but at least it made us slightly less excited about entering bodies of water.
(Yes, I know that alligators are freshwater swamp creatures and we had nothing to fear from them in the ocean, but it made for a joke that amused me).
After the movie I chatted with a kid (maybe about 12 or 13) in the lobby about the movie. I made my joke about how I didn't want to go in the water now. Some locals overheard and came up to make sure that I wasn't planning on swimming because apparently several people had drowned in the area in recent weeks (details here). Those rip currents aren't messing around.
To me, the water didn't look any rougher than the ocean I've swum in in Hawaii many times, but I'm not an oceanographer or a local who knows the area. Take the advice of the experts and the locals: don't swim when you see those double red flags. Or giant gators.
Slug Life, or, Carry On, My Wayward Slug On our last night we noticed something moving on the beach at dusk. It was a sea slug of some kind, about five inches long, stranded on the beach by the tide. We decided to help it by pushing it back into the water with a bottle. We're not marine biologists. We had no idea if the thing was dangerous or not, but a water bottle somehow seemed like a safe and sanitary instrument for slug aid.
After several tries (it comically kept rolling back on the beach with each new wave) we finally got it rolled back into the sea. I said "Godspeed, little slug!" But then I realized speed isn't something conducive to slugs, and this might be offensive to slug kind (it may also presume that that slug is a theist). I spent the rest of the night wondering if I should have told it to go back to the Slug Life or to Carry On, My Wayward Slug.
Further research indicated that the etymology of "Godspeed" actually has nothing to do with speed. So maybe I'm clear when it comes to offending slug kind, at least etymologically. When it comes to the slug's philosophical views about the divine, I may still be on shakier ground. Who am I to know the mind of a slug? Who am I to impose my vertebrate agenda on this free thinking invertebrate? Who am I, indeed?
Break Dancing When Wet
I saw this sign and immediately thought this person was doing some sweet break dancing moves.
Where Did You Go?!
I had rented a car for a long multi-state journey to visit family and friends in Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri and to attend CONvergence. I decided to keep the Nissan a while longer for the Florida trip to avoid driving our ancient Saturn through the wilds of rural Alabama. When I returned the Nissan to the car rental place three weeks, nine states, and 4,000 miles after renting it, the car rental employee looked at the mileage and exclaimed, "Where did you go!?"
My mixed feelings continued for at least the first third of the novel. Part of my mixed feelings were about whether this was a "novel" at all, or merely unconnected novellas cut up and shuffled together. I kept forgetting who was who among the five or six main characters. Worse yet, one of them seemed to be a predictably angsty teenager intent on demonstrating that teen angst is as timeless and universal a phenomenon as it is an obnoxious one.
By the middle of the novel, though, Chambers had won me over. I understood what people love about these books.
I even came to begrudgingly like the angsty teenager. I came to love the funeral director (of sorts - it's more complicated than that) and the alien anthropologist. I even came to see how all the story lines fit together in something like a French apartment novel (as Kim Stanley Robinson discussed in reference to his novel New York 2140). It even turns out that this novel merely takes place in the same universe as the previous novels, so not having read them was no impairment at all to picking up the third one, although I surely missed some subtle connections fans of the first two novels would notice.
The setting was really interesting and philosophically fruitful: a fleet of generation ships dating back to a time before contact with aliens who possess advanced technology that made generation ships useless. Instead of traversing the inky depths of interstellar space, the Fleet orbits a planet. Still, the people continue to live there. Why? It's complicated. But it prompts the existential question: What are we, the readers, doing on a rock hurtling through space heading nowhere in particular, destined to die? It starts off subtle but it all gets pretty deep (we're talking meaning-of-life type stuff, some of it - damn it - coming from the angsty teen). This really surprised me considering a lot of the novel feels pretty... light and fluffy. You could totally read this as a light and fluffy space romp and enjoy it just fine, but there are depths if you're willing to look into the subtleties.
Some reviewers have complained that "nothing happens." It's true that nobody is saving the galaxy here. But galaxy-saving is a bit overdone, isn't it? This isn't Space Opera as much as Space Chillwave. Think Star Trek or Iain M. Bank's The Culture, but without any of the Klingons, Borg, Idirans, or other external baddies.
Chambers's galaxy doesn't particularly need saving. Maybe a quick tune-up is all. It's a pretty nice place. In face the "niceness" of Chambers's universe is something I came to love. Nobody in the Fleet is starving or homeless, and no one is putting immigrant children in cages, threatening war, eliminating reproductive rights, or ignoring an impending ecological catastrophe. They're all just living their lives the best they can.
It would be tempting to think Chambers is merely engaging in escapism for naïve leftists (to be fair, there's a bit of that), but I think her deeper point may be this: In a just universe living a human life would be enough drama for anyone. Utopia (or something like it) will not eliminate all our problems, but it would make them easier to bear. And surely that is something worth striving for.
Another theme is that everything changes, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Fleet is not a perfect society, but it's pretty nice and has a lot to share with the rest of the galaxy. It has some growing pains, some of them even violent (it's not all puppy dogs and rainbows), but overall the kids are going to be alright.
In terms of world building, the alien anthropologist's reports are the best source of information about the Fleet, a sort of anarcho-socialist society poor in technology compared to the rest of the galaxy, but perhaps rich in wisdom. I was reminded of something Iain M. Banks says about the political effects of space travel: it would not encourage space empires, but rather, as he says, "socialism within; anarchy without." Living in metal cans in the depths of space encourages a more equitable sharing of resources (in the Fleet, there is no money and everyone has food, shelter, and basic needs met just by being there), but the vastness of space makes enforcing a particular government difficult (there is some kind of loose galactic government, but no Borg Cubes or Storm Troopers in sight, just a lovable alien anthropologist).
The main trouble with the novel is that this all takes a really, really long time to get off the ground, and it can seem glacially slow until it all starts to come together somewhere in the middle. Some of it is all a bit too "twee" (if I can be permitted some British slang), the type of thing guaranteed to make a certain type of denizen of SF fandom "squee" (if I can be permitted some American slang). Consider a lot of the aforementioned teen angst along with the "aw, shucks, this chapter is really just a sitcom about an upper-middle-class liberal Californian family, but in space instead of the suburbs!"
But I can forgive the shortcomings, mostly because I totally understand the appeal of this novel. It does feel great to read something like this, to momentarily forget the dystopian aspects of our world, and to hope for and work toward a future a little more like this.
I've been wanting to read Stephen King's The Dead Zone for a few decades, and I'm glad I finally did because it's now one of my favorite Stephen King novels. It's more focused than his longer books, but still intricate and well put-together enough to be interesting. And there are some great thoughts to be had on love, death, religion, and politics, but perhaps most philosophically interesting (to me, anyway) are the questions about knowledge -- what is it, what do you do with it, and how much of it do you really want?
Teacher Johnny Smith (no, really) is in a car accident after a date with fellow teacher Sarah in 1970. He goes into a coma and wakes up in 1975, which gives King an interesting way to tell the story of 1970's America but also the heartache of lost love (Sarah has married someone else and has a child). His dad is still a kindly father figure, but his mom has become even more of a religious fundamentalist/conspiracy theorist than she was before. Her particular type of religious mania was actually pretty new in the 70's, and there's some nice, but not overdone, treatment of this sort of religious fervor as a shallow form of desire for wish fulfillment rather than a deeper, more authentic religious commitment.
But I've buried the lead: Johnny also has some kind of psychic powers (or at least more intense ones than he had earlier). When he touches people he sometimes has visions of their past or future. This power is never precisely described or explained, which is why it works in the novel. Johnny becomes a reluctant celebrity, deals with his relationships with Sarah and his parents, helps out with a murder investigation in Castle Rock (the first appearance of this fictional town in King's corpus), and eventually gets interested in politics. He even shakes Jimmy Carter's hand!
The Dead Zone is not a huge novel -- not compared to King's behemoth tomes, anyway, but quite a bit happens. And none of it is fluff, even the stuff that seems like fluff when you first read it. It all comes together. Every scene, every plot thread has its place. The structure of the novel is a thing to behold. And the ending is perfect.
The Horror of Epistemology and the Epistemology of Horror
A lot of King's early novels focus on psychic powers (Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, etc.), which brings up the question of whether we could ever know whether such powers are real. (Full disclosure: I do not believe in such things in real life, mostly because the evidence doesn't stack up, but I'm fascinated by the whole phenomenon).
There are other questions in the part of philosophy known as epistemology (theory of knowledge). Johnny often says he "knows" things through his psychic ability. But does he really know anything, especially if he can't explain at all how he knows things? If we say he knows things, what's the difference between Johnny and someone with a lot of lucky guesses?
Some philosophers, most famously Alvin Goldman, have said that knowledge is a matter of being the result of a reliable process, so if Johnny's psychic power regularly leads to true beliefs, then these philosophers ("reliabilists") would say he really does know. And the novel has at least four instances where it really does seem like Johnny's power produced true beliefs, so maybe his power really is a reliable source.
But other philosophers have suggested that knowledge requires something more: some kind of account of how one knows. Think of it like showing, or being able to show, your work on a math problem versus relying only on having a hunch or guessing the correct answer. The philosopher Laurence BonJour, in his book The Structure of Empirical Knowledge, even used an example of a psychic named Norman with powers somewhat similar to Johnny's as a counter-example to reliabilism. We wouldn't say Norman knows, so neither should we say Johnny knows (according to BonJour, anyway).
Johnny repeatedly claims that he "knows" things, but he also says he can't explain how he knows these things. And it seems doubtful that either he or his doctors (not even the friendly Dr. Weizak) can explain his abilities even in principle. He couldn't "show his work" even if he wanted to, which is of course complicated by the fact that his visions aren't entirely reliable as some things lie within the eponymous "dead zone" where he can't see.
So this raises a practical issue: should he really put so much stock in his visions if they don't really constitute knowledge? How would it change the novel if he regarded his visions as statistical predictions or hunches? But can he do that, or is he, like a mystic, prophet, or religious seer, unable to disbelieve his own visions?
And, just to till the philosophical soil a bit more, if his visions are accurate (whether we call them "knowledge" or not), what does that say about the structure of the universe? Must we live in a somewhat deterministic universe (at least beyond the quantum level) for his visions to be true? What does this say about "free will"? And how can he change the future? If he changes it, then he wasn't really seeing the future, was he? He was seeing what "would have been," but how can we make sense of that? Do we need multiple universes? Is this where King's Dark Tower multiverse comes in? Is this how someone in The Dead Zone can mention a novel called Carrie (p. 320)? Which universe are we in now?
Of course, The Dead Zone is novel, not a philosophical treatise. It doesn't try to give definitive or systematic answers these questions. King may not have meant to even ask all of them. But they are there to ask wrapped up within this well-constructed narrative. The answers to such philosophical questions probably lie within the dead zone of the human intellect.
Occasionally I like to write a "review of reviews." I've been reading a lot of Stephen King lately, and I have a few short reviews I haven't posted yet... so, here is my Review of Reviews: Stephen King Edition! I'm reviewing works that span a lot of King's career: The Talisman (with Peter Straub, 1984), Elevation (2018), Everything’s Eventual (2002), and On Writing (2000). I swear I didn't mean to become obsessed with Stephen King. It just kinda happened. Oh, well.
The Talisman(with Peter Straub, 1984) I really enjoyed The Talisman, although it felt ... stretched out ... from time to time. But overall it's a unique and worthwhile fantasy novel.
The Talisman is a collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub. I've been reading a lot of King lately (I've especially loved the Dark Tower series), but I don't think I've ever read Straub before. I can say it still felt like a King novel, but it also makes me keen to read some Straub. There are shades of the Dark Tower (mostly in the idea of multiple dimensions), but it still feels like a separate work, although of course once you include multiple dimensions it makes less sense to say that anything could be in a "separate" universe.
It's hard to summarize a novel like The Talisman, although the basic plot structure is relatively simple. A 12-year-old boy, Jack Sawyer, in New Hampshire in 1981 is dealing with his mother's cancer when he discovers that his late father had been able to travel to another dimension and that the key to healing his mother is the eponymous Talisman, which can be found via a long journey in this and the other dimension. A lot of stuff happens along the way, and most of that stuff is hard to summarize and gives the world building in the novel a dense feel that fantasy fans will appreciate. I'm also not entirely sure what happened at every juncture (especially toward the end when it gets trippy), but as dense as it can be the novel has a way of carrying the reader along.
That said, though, I did feel like it lagged at several points. There are several long digressions where Jack is trapped (either literally or by circumstances), all of which threatens to derail the main quest plot. A 12-year-old boy hitchhiking across America was probably odd and dangerous in 1981, but it would seem unthinkable in 2019, although ironically it's probably safer today, statistically speaking. And Jack's journey is anything but safe. A lot of the horror aspects of the novel come from Jack's precariousness. King and Straub are both primarily known for horror, and they do not disappoint. Even though "child in danger" is a relatively easy way to generate horror, it's done pretty well here.
Another lagging portion was the end of the novel, which felt like it was almost done with something like 130 pages left. The good part of that, though, is that the ending really is nicely wrapped up in a way you don't always get with King's longer books. I never wanted to put the book aside, although I did on at least three or four occasions wish that King and Straub would get on with things a little faster.
Another criticism is that I was hoping more of the novel would take place in the Territories (the alternate dimension), but at least 60-70% of it takes place in our dimension.
I can forgive a lot of this, though, because for all these faults the novel is engrossing in the way that good fantasy often is: it sucks you into its world.
Philosophically speaking, you of course get all the fun of multiple worlds, complete with alternate versions of individual people. The question of economic exploitation comes up (one character from our dimension is making money via nefarious means in the Territories). The human confrontation with death, both mourning those deceased and facing the terminal illness of a loved one, is a big part of the emotional and philosophical core of the novel as well.
One thing I particularly enjoyed was the depiction of a close male friendships: Jack has two friends in the novel with whom he feels a special emotional bond. He expresses his love in physical (but not sexual) ways in a way that seems entirely healthy. He has a brief moment of toxic masculinity-fueled doubt, but then he decides to comfort his friend by holding his hand. He also loves his mom, despite all her many flaws, and he never apologizes for it. If the men of this dimension could have Jack Sawyer's emotional intelligence, we'd all be better for it. And that's a big part of what makes this such a beautiful novel.
I've been reading a lot of King's older stuff lately, but I thought I'd read one of his newest books to see what he's been up to. This is a novella, which is a wisp of a book compared to King's typical door-stoppers. It's also not horror, but King writes lots of other stuff (see his collection Different Seasons for fine examples, including the novellas that inspired The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me). So already this is an atypical King creation, which is what I think explains a lot of the lackluster reviews. But don't believe them. I can't guarantee, of course, you'll like this, but, unlike the main character, it's a lot heavier than it appears.
This is really a fantasy story, or depending on one's level of literary pretension, magical realism. The main conceit of the plot (Scott loses weight but stays the same size) doesn't make any sense scientifically, but that's the point: life has plenty of mysteries, and this is one way to dramatize that. There's also a nice storyline about being good neighbors with some political dimensions, although some of that is a bit hasty and clunky, squeezed as it is into a novella.
Elevation is also, like a lot of great fiction, including a lot of King's, a deep meditation on human mortality. I particularly loved the last few pages. King has never shied away from discussions of mortality, of course. That's what Pet Sematary is all about, for example, or indeed, Thinner, which is an obvious comparison to Elevation yet a really different story. However, there's a new angle in Elevation -- maybe as King and the rest of us get older, a new perspective arises? The end for finite creatures such as we is a bit melancholy, sure, but it doesn't have to weigh us down.
I picked this up because there are two stories with Dark Tower connections: "Everything's Eventual" and "The Little Sisters of Eluria" (actually the second one just is a Dark Tower story of one of Roland's earlier adventures, a story that has all the delightful weirdness of the Tower stuff - I loved it). After reading those I put this book aside for a time, but figured I'd turn back to it because I love Stephen King's work, I'm trying to find particularly terrifying/philosophical stories of his to use in an upcoming horror and philosophy class I'm teaching, and I'm trying to branch out into writing more short stories myself so it's good inspiration.
On that second point, two of the stories actually mention philosophy "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French" (existentialist hell!) and "Riding the Bullet" (a young hitchhiker contemplates his mother's and his own mortality) so I might add those to my class at least as optional readings. They were my favorites of the collection along with "Little Sisters" and "L.T.'s Theory of Pets" (it's funny and macabre, which I find a good combo).
I also particularly enjoyed "The Man in the Black Suit" (a simple, but effective story), "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" (a heart-breaking story of a lonely salesman), and "The Road Virus Heads North" (classic King fare involving a creepy painting).
I liked, but didn't love, "1408" (fine, but I might try to catch the movie sometime), "Lunch at the Gotham Café" (scary, but just okay), "Autopsy Room Four" (starts off strong and terrifying, kind of unravels at the end), "Luckey Quarter" (reminded me of a middling Twilight Zone episode), and "The Death of Jack Hamilton" (fun story about 1930's gangsters, but nothing too special). The only story I didn't really care for at all was "In the Deathroom" (set in a Central American torture room, seemed to rely on/reinforce some stereotypes or maybe it just wasn't that interesting).
So I think I found a couple stories that might work for my class here. I'm also going to check out some of King's other collections soon!
I was going to skip the biographical parts, but (as often happens with King's writing) I couldn't resist the gravitational pull of his narrative. I enjoyed learning a bit about his life and what made him the writer he is. Somewhere he quipped that his lower middle class American roots are what led him to write mostly about lower middle class Americans, which is probably a lot of what I like about him. I appreciated his account of his accident in June 1999 as well, especially since I just finished the Dark Tower series. It was interesting to read the non-fictional account of the accident (although Dark Tower fans may want to complicate the assessment of what's fictional and non-fictional).
My favorite part of the book is King's account of writing fiction as a type of archeological dig rather than creation out of nothing. Other authors say they "hear" or "find" their stories and characters, but the way King describes it makes me feel like it's something I could try rather than some occult mystery. There is a similar exploration of the creative process in the later Dark Tower novels, but this is neither the time nor the place to spoil those.
I'm at best an amateur fiction writer, so I can't speak much to whether King's advice is good. He sure does hate adverbs! Much of King's advice echoes what I've heard elsewhere, which of course makes it no easier to follow but good to hear again nonetheless. I particularly like the advice to start with situations. I think of a lot of situations. It's the follow-through I have trouble with.
Some of his advice is aimed at people looking to make writing a career and some of that is probably outdated by now (this was published in 2000). I like my day job, so fiction is at most going to be a hobby or side hustle for me, but I'm glad I read On Writing. Whether all of King's advice will work for me or not, it's nice to get some inspiration from an author I admire.
It's been awhile since I posted an old-fashioned review of reviews (as opposed to a "round up"), so here it goes! In this one I'm reviewing three non-fiction books and two fiction books: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart, Exultant by Stephen Baxter, The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod, and Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sydney Perkowitz and Eddie von Mueller.
And if none of those pique your interest, I will be posting an all-Stephen King review of reviews soon!
The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart
I'm a big fan of 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and I deeply appreciate his German contemporary Gottfried Leibniz, so I was delighted to read this philosophical biography that revolves around the time Spinoza and Leibniz met in person in The Hague in 1676. It was even more fun to read parts of this while I was visiting the Netherlands recently (including The Hague, Voorburg, and Amsterdam).
While one could get a lot out of this book never having read Spinoza or Leibniz before, I think at least a little bit of background, like a survey course in modern European philosophy, would enhance one's appreciation. Stewart does a pretty decent job explaining the views and arguments of each philosopher, but of course there's no substitute for reading for oneself.
People who have tried to read Spinoza and Leibniz, though, will be pleased that Stewart's book is light reading by comparison. I learned a lot about the biographies and general historical context of each philosopher, and the story of how these two men and their respective philosophies are related was intriguing. Hard-core Spinoza and Leibniz scholars may not be impressed with Stewart's interpretations, but I at least found his contention that Leibniz was forever haunted by the specter of Spinozism to be intriguing, even if a bit over-done (Leibniz was reacting to what he saw as the threats of modernism in a general sense whether that always meant specifically Spinoza in his mind or not).
I also greatly appreciate Stewart's attention both to the internal details of each philosopher's views, but also their contexts, influences, personalities, and legacies. I enjoyed getting to know each philosopher a little bit. Spinoza was loved by his neighbors later in life despite the tumultuous times of his early expunging from the Jewish community of Amsterdam and his publication of a radical book that was widely scorned as dangerous atheistic heresy. Leibniz fans may feel that Stewart shows too much favoritism to Spinoza (and they would have a point), but I came away feeling like I knew Leibniz and could forgive his personal idiosyncrasies and foibles in light of his tremendous intellect and breadth of interests. (I loved learning about Leibniz's various money-making schemes, like his project to convince France to invade Egypt, which was really an excuse to travel, as well as his failed work in mining and his pretense at royal genealogy.)
To sum up, this is a book for lovers of philosophy especially, but also for anyone interested in the history of early modern Europe and its legacy today.
What have we got here? Enough Big Ideas for several novels? Mind-bending physics? Characters that are just kinda there? The feeling that you just experienced something really cool that you can't completely explain? Must be a Stephen Baxter novel.
This is nominally a sequel to Baxter's Coalescent, which I read several years ago and enjoyed. Exultant takes place in the same universe over 20,000 years later, so I guess it's a sequel in roughly the same way that Dune is a sequel to Hamlet. Especially if you're looking for far-future space opera, you could skip Coalescent and dive right into Exultant. This is a bit of an overstatement: there are connections (the descendants of the "coalescents" or hive-like humans show up once or twice), but this is really another installment in Baxter's sprawling Xeelee sequence.
Our main character, Pirius, is a pilot in the war with the alien Xeelee, a war that has consumed humanity and slowed its progress for 20,000 years. Pirius captures a Xeelee spacecraft (something nobody has apparently done before), but he uses his FTL drive and finds himself two years in the past (for science reasons). He and his self from two years ago are put on trial for disobeying orders. He is sent to boot camp for army grunts while his past self is whisked away by a bumbling absent-minded professor type who has the radical idea that the war should be won and has an idea how to do it.
The rest of the plot is fairly simple, if a "simple" plot can involve two iterations of the main character in different parts of the galaxy (helpfully referred to as "Pirius Blue" and "Pirius Red"), plenty of helpings of mind-bending physics, several religions/philosophical persuasions, thoughts on war, bureaucracy, and politics, and several particularly mind-exploding chapters describing the evolution of life (but not as we know it) from the very beginning of the universe.
As a philosopher, I appreciate that Baxter refers to philosophy a lot. He even name drops Leibniz at one point - there are creatures called monads! Given that there are two iterations of the main character (and maybe one more...), of course personal identity issues abound. A lot of the characters seem to be confident that one is "real" and the other is a "copy." There's also a lot to think about with regard to war and its effect on society: does it hold us back, culturally, philosophically, scientifically? I would like a little more treatment of these issues, which Baxter brings up but doesn't delve much into. But then again there's a fine-to-nonexistent line between philosophy and all the super weird theoretical physics (this is something I say because it's true but also to annoy scientistic types). In any case, your mind will get a workout trying to keep up with Baxter. Be sure to stretch and drink plenty of fluids.
If you've read Baxter before, you have a pretty good idea what to expect from his brand of Big Ideas Hard SF. If you want interesting, fleshed out characters in your science fiction, read Lois McMaster Bujold or Stephen King. Baxter's characters are, as usual, really more vehicles for the ideas. I tend to read SF for the ideas, so I'm okay with that. Baxter is one of the best contemporary practitioners of Arthur C. Clarke-style Big Ideas SF working today, although the galactic empire stuff reminds me a lot of Asimov, too, especially the archetype of the bumbling professor with radical ideas.
So all in all, while I can't say I liked or enjoyed everything about this novel or that this is my favorite Stephen Baxter novel (that's probably either Evolution or Ultima), but there's enough of what I was hoping for from Baxter to keep me reading. That stuff on the evolution of life in the early universe in particular will probably stick with me for awhile.
The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber
As an academic myself, I can't say I disagreed with the main point of this book, but I also can't say it was Earth-shattering. It was nice to read someone expressing concerns about corporatization and "busyness" in academia, though, at least for a sort of solidarity that might help moving forward. I personally didn't get much from the time management or teaching chapters (I figured most of that out for myself in grad school), but there were a couple nice tips on research and collegiality. But the real point of the book isn't to give tips, it's the sense of solidarity against the acids of business and "busyness" that have been corroding academia in recent decades.
The book does have some limitations. Some reviews from academics in STEM fields complained that this book was too humanities-focused, which I find amusing because we humanities people are used to feeling left out. When I'm faced with something obviously meant more for STEM fields (like interdisciplinary discussions or, increasingly, funding applications), I try to translate it into something that makes sense in the humanities. STEM people might do the same with this book, but it definitely does come from a humanities perspective.
Also, this book is written by two English professors who have tenure, so a lot of what they say is probably more applicable to tenured professors who have a lot more freedom to slow down than untenured or contingent faculty, for whom slowing down may mean unemployment.
As others have noted, this book doesn't give solutions to the bigger problems of corporatization, although it doesn't claim to. Still, one wonders if it's too late, if the by-gone era of leisurely chats with colleagues in the hall and humane teaching and research loads is gone forever. I sincerely hope this is not the case, but I fear that it is.
I'm almost out of Iain M. Banks SF to read, so I thought I'd move on to his friend Ken MacLeod. MacLeod isn't the genius Banks was, but this is entertaining and interesting enough. I would have liked a lot more development and explanation of a lot of aspects of the plot and setting and I honestly could have done without most of the "romance" (or at least it could have been done much better), but there's enough cool stuff to keep me interested: a far future Epicurean quasi-religion (which I find interesting because I've always thought that if Epicureanism has survived to modern times we'd call it a religion), dinosaur hunting, aliens, microorganism "gods" that control the universe, political/economic intrigue, and let's not forget: Area 51.
I enjoyed the alternating plot strands more than I thought I would (I was in the mood for far future space opera, but the near future storyline was interesting, too). I suppose that a lot of things feel under-explained is purposive, since this is the first book in a series. I might pick up the next one to see where it all goes.
Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sydney Perkowitz and Eddie von Mueller
An anthology that celebrates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with pieces on the novel, the various film adaptations (including an interview with Mel Brooks), the larger cultural impact, and some contemporary ethical and scientific issues. I would've liked to see more on philosophy (I may be biased here), but otherwise this is a a nice overview of the novel and its tremendous influence over the last 200 years.
René Magritte, "The Human Condition" (photo from my recent visit to the Magritte Museum in Brussels)
The problem with many self-described “skeptics” these days is not that they are too skeptical but that they are not skeptical enough. Or so I’m going to try to argue here via a circuitous route through a current dispute about transphobia in academic philosophy with stops in ancient Greco-Roman, classical Chinese, and classical Indian philosophy.
Recently philosopher Jonathan Ichikawa posted a Twitter thread about a particular use of skepticism. Ichikawa’s thread includes the idea that skepticism is often linked with conservatism, an idea that is hardly new (although, I think, less true than is often supposed), but the more immediate context of all this is an ongoing … well, I’m not sure what to call it. “Discussion” is too tame, “kerfuffle” is too dismissive, and “internet shit-show that gives a peek at everything that’s wrong with my discipline” is, while not entirely inaccurate, not quite right. I’ll settle on “dispute” for now with the caveat that I leave this open to future revision.
I am a cis man. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The idea that I can tell other people what their experience is seems to me to be, far from skepticism, perhaps a kind of epistemic arrogance.
Here’s a suggestion: the problem with transphobia and other forms of anti-LGTBQIA+ sentiment isn’t so much that people have the wrong beliefs about gender, but that they have too many beliefs about gender. The idea that a trans woman isn’t a real woman relies on some pretty concrete beliefs about gender, particularly what it means to be a woman. Much the same could be said about notions that lesbians and gay men can be “cured”, or that bisexual people don’t really exist, or that nobody can be asexual, or that intersex children are abominations, and so on. Such notions are usually founded upon some kind of gender dogmatism.
I don’t know whether gender is “natural.” I’m even less sure what that would even mean. But I’m pretty sure that trans folks are human beings worthy of whatever respect any other human being might deserve, or in any case I’d like to think the discipline would be better off if we treated our colleagues with the modicum of respect of acknowledging basic aspects of their identity. The idea that many trans folks in our discipline feel disrespected and harmed should start from the fact that many trans people have explicitly said this, but because this seems not to be enough for many so-called skeptics, let me put it this way: whether or not trans people are “really” the gender they say they are, we should respect our colleagues. And by “respect” I mean at the very least taking our colleagues’ experiences seriously by not outright denying their identities.
I don’t see why this is so hard. And if you need some kind of argument here, try this: Imagine that one person claimed repeatedly that another person with a PhD in philosophy who is a philosophy teacher and researcher at a university was not really a philosopher. That would be pretty weird. I realize this actually happens, but notice that when it does, it’s often because the person making the claim has some definition of philosophy, often a pretty narrow one formed on the more extreme edges of specific camps, e.g., analytic, continental, etc. Notice also that I have not engaged in any sort of a priori attempt to define “philosophy” before I feel comfortable saying that the second person is a philosopher. Nor have I claimed that we should not ask metaphilosophical questions.
But this is merely an analogy. I want to reiterate again that I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The only evidence I have to go on is the testimony of trans people in philosophy. It seems odd for people allegedly interested in the truth to a priori reject what would prima facie appear to be a valuable source of evidence on the matter. (But one might object: isn’t this just what skepticism does? More on that soon.)
Maybe all of this reveals that categories like gender and “philosopher” are more fluid than we take them to be. Maybe it shows that such categories are in need of further conceptual analysis or deconstruction or whatever. I don’t know. But here’s my hypothesis: whatever one’s views about gender or metaphilosophy may be, telling other people what their identity is would seem to be a matter of great dogmatic faith in one’s own epistemic abilities rather than any kind of skepticism.
(Because my intended audience here is mostly philosophers, I should add the qualification that of course I don’t mean we should always respect the self-professed identities of other people: for instance, a person who clearly advocates white supremacist views but who denies being a white supremacist is not necessarily worthy of respect).
Contemporary Uses of Ancient Skepticism
That objection again: But that’s just what skepticism does! It discounts the obvious sources of evidence at the expense of others. That’s what Descartes did: he discounted the evidence of the senses at the expense of the evidence provided by “clear and distinct ideas.” Is it just good rational practice to subject new claims to the skeptical fire?
Ichikawa in the Twitter thread mentioned earlier questions this assumption and points out that such skepticism often serves to support the status quo. Ichikawa cites a passage from Sextus Empiricus about following “the tradition of laws and customs” as part of Sextus’s answer to the inactivity objection (how can skeptics act without beliefs?). I’m not disputing that Sextus said that or that many skeptics throughout history have been political conservatives on account of their skepticism. And I agree with Ichikawa that many self-described skeptics do indeed have the effect of maintaining the status quo.
But I would like to suggest two things: first, ancient and modern skepticism are very different animals, and second, it would be dogmatic to take Sextus too seriously here.
I’ve said more on the first point elsewhere, but when most philosophers these days talk about “skepticism” they usually have in mind the kinds of arguments you find in Descartes, Hume, or their intellectual descendants in analytic epistemology. While such arguments often borrow from ancient Greco-Roman skepticism, they are put to very different uses: modern skepticism is a move within a theoretical project of epistemology, while ancient skepticism was a way of life in the sense expressed by contemporary philosopher Pierre Hadot (while the Academics come closer to contemporary skepticism than the Pyrrhonian skeptics, I think Academics were practicing skepticism as a way of life, at least as they were represented by Cicero). Or, to put it more succinctly, modern skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) theoretical, while ancient skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) practical.
On the second point, skepticism does not logically entail conservatism. A fully purged Pyrrhonian skeptic could just as easily be what we’d call “progressive” once they stop trying to base their politics on anything like a fully worked out philosophical view. A contemporary Pyrrhonian might attack gender dogmatism, especially if such dogmatism is causing harm to oneself or others. Pyrrhonism’s target (at least in the version of Pyrrhonism we find in Sextus) is disturbance and its goal is tranquility, or the lack of disturbance. I dare say there is a great deal of disturbance created both on Twitter and off by gender dogmatism. Perhaps we’d be better off with fewer beliefs about gender.
An Academic skeptic may even have what Carneades called “persuasive impressions,” or something more than suspension of judgment and less than a full belief. Academics very well may form “persuasive impressions” about gender based on testimony from the experience of trans people or at least about the necessity of respecting one’s colleagues. And this can all be done with something less than full, dogmatic belief, something open to future revision.
But, one might object, doesn’t “progressivism” (or some other political philosophy) require some idea of what we are progressing toward? Doesn’t it require some coherent beliefs about the goals of politics? Can one act politically without political beliefs?
Skepticism, of both the everyday and philosophical varieties, is these days typically associated by its opponents with cynical dismissiveness and by its champions with hard-nosed rationality. But I think both views get it wrong, because they see skepticism as inherently directed toward others.
A lesson from the ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna is that skepticism is an internal affair. Once you turn skepticism back on itself to purge yourself of your internal dogmatisms, you are left with a kind of mental peace, a coolness of the mind. For Nāgārjuna (at least as I interpret him) a major cause of our suffering is attachment to philosophical views, even when it comes to Buddhism itself. The Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi and the classical Indian skeptic Jayarāśi show that skepticism might lead to a cheerful openness to new ways of being and thinking, unimpeded by our self-imposed cognitive straightjackets. For Zhuangzi, skepticism results in a freer and less dogmatic way of being in the world, and for Jayarāśi, the destruction of philosophical dogmatism (especially that of religious philosophers) leaves us free to delight in everyday experience.
I personally find great joy in the attitude that the universe doesn’t owe us anything, that we are imperfect creatures doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Imagine how dismal (and boring) it would be to believe that we have almost everything figured out already! I don’t see why this attitude can’t be applied to gender as well: human beings are complex and gender is a vastly complicated topic that has spurred a panoply of views throughout all of human history. It would be intellectual folly to claim to have figured out gender once and for all.
Neither is skepticism inherently conservative. Conservatives often rely on dogmatic beliefs that society and its inhabitants must be a certain way and know their place in some preordained order. Skeptical progressives would lack the dogmatisms that hold us back from trying something new, from listening to and taking seriously the concerns of people on the margins of societal power. Instead of asking, “Why?” skeptical progressives might ask, “Why not?” Skepticism, properly applied, is a form of openness to social progress, but without an a priori fixed idea of what this progress consists in or where it is headed; maybe this makes it a great deal more progressive than most dogmatic forms of progressivism.
Auto-Skepticism and Epistemic Modesty
Let’s call the idea that skepticism should be applied to oneself “auto-skepticism.” I’m not entirely set on this term. I may revise it later, lest someone think I’m implying that we should be skeptical about automobiles (maybe we should be, but it would require another post!).
So, my suggestion is this: skepticism should be applied as much, if not more so, to oneself as to others. Auto-skepticism is especially important for those of us who are in positions of social privilege. I’ve written about this before, but the problem is two-fold: a privileged person simultaneously has less access to evidence of what it’s like to be a marginalized person and more confidence in their epistemic authority about all matters (including the experience of marginalized people). It’s something like a Dunning-Kruger effect.
This seems especially true for someone like me. As a white, cis-het man I have been taught (usually implicitly) that I have a special epistemic authority to tell other people what their experience is: I’ve noticed over the years how easy it is for me to say dismissive things like, “It’s not that bad,” “You’re over-reacting,” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way,” “I’ve never noticed that myself, so it can’t be right,” and so on. This is something I’m working on. And I find that auto-skepticism is a useful tool in the process of reminding myself that my experience does not dictate reality.
Here’s some skeptical advice. If you find yourself tempted to think things like “trans people are just confused” or “trans women aren’t really women,” ask yourself some questions. What is your motivation for thinking so? Is it really an open-minded search for truth, or are there emotions lurking deeper (disgust, fear, etc.)? Why does this issue matter to you? What is your evidence in favor of these claims? Does this evidence trump the evidence of testimony of trans people? Where does the burden of proof lie in this case? What is the proper amount of epistemic modesty here? What are your own epistemic limitations, especially when it comes to experiences you’ve never had? Could these limitations be doing more work than you think? What are your reasons for thinking whatever you think about gender? Are these good reasons? Are your arguments actually good arguments? Are you overly attached to a particular view about gender? Does this attachment cause suffering to yourself or others? Might you be better off having fewer beliefs about gender? Might you experience a kind of peace of mind or intellectual freedom in relinquishing some of your beliefs about gender? Must one have beliefs about everything?
I can’t say what your answers to these questions will be. To say so would be uncouthly dogmatic. But I wonder if they are nonetheless helpful questions to ask oneself.
Do I turn this auto-skepticism on everything I have written here? Of course! Feel free to tell me where I am wrong. My own position contains blind spots, and I don’t see myself as having solved anything. At best I hope to have suggested some things to consider, things that may help some people turn their gaze inward to their own dogmatisms at least long enough to give some of our colleagues a moment of respite.
When it comes to lofty matters like the ontology of gender, it’s hard to know what to think. But in the meantime, I think a basic collegial respect is warranted. And if you require an argument in favor of treating people with basic respect, well, you may need more help than philosophy can give.
My own presentation is entitled, "Jayarāśi’s Skepticism as an Irreligious Way of Life." Here's the abstract.
The continental tradition has generally looked unfavorably upon philosophical skepticism, a key example being Heidegger’s famous dismissal of the problem of the external world in Being and Time. By expanding the category of philosophical skepticism both temporally and culturally, however, I argue that philosophical skepticism ought to be of more interest to philosophers working within the continental tradition than has typically been the case. Drawing on Pierre Hadot’s notion of philosophy as a way of life (Hadot 1995), I show that skepticism need not be dismissed as an abstract game of sterile epistemological theory, but it can be a viable way of life free from the fetters of dogmatic belief. After a brief discussion of Hadot on Hellenistic skepticism as well as recent applications of Hadot’s work to Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Fiordalis 2018), I focus on the classical Indian skeptic Jayarāśi (c. 770-830 CE) and his expression of skepticism as a way of life, which forms a branch of the irreligious Cārvāka tradition. I end with some brief comparisons between Jayarāśi’s skepticism and skeptical interpretations of the Chinese philosophical classic Zhuangzi (e.g., Kjellberg 1996, Raphals 1996, Trowbridge 2006).
I've been reading a lot of Stephen King lately, but somehow I had never read one of his most famous books. I'm glad I finally did. Misery is definitely one of King's tightest novels (being relatively short and only having two major characters probably helps there). It also brings up a lot of interesting issues with regard to addiction, mental illness, and biggest of all: the ethics of what creators owe to their audience and vice versa.
This is one of those novels that's so famous I don't need to summarize the plot (thanks also to the 1990 movie starring Kathy Bates). This one doesn't contain any supernatural or science fictional elements, but this is less uncommon for King than many people think (remember that Stand By Me and Shawshank Redemption are based on King's works). A lot of King's novels, especially the longer ones, have a lot of long digressions and backstories. Misery, however, really only has two characters and their backstories aren't immediately obvious. There's a bit of an all-too-convenient info dump of Annie's backstory, but I can forgive that because it is explained later. King's genius, however, is that he makes what could be a boring character-study novel into something riveting. Every time Paul left his room, anytime Annie wasn't around, anytime Annie was around,... well, pretty much the whole time, I kept reading in search of what Paul called "the gotta" (as in, "gotta see what happens").
As for the characters, Paul is flawed and honestly not that likable, which makes King's skill in getting readers to care about him all the more amazing. Annie is even creepier than you think she's going to be as a nurse who harms her patients and a frumpy middle-aged woman more sadistic than any movie gangster. That she never swears but says things like "cockadoodle" instead is just the icing on the creepy cake.
The internet has caused a lot of people to falsely believe they are experts, which I think is somewhat the case with Game of Thrones: people sometimes seem to believe they know how to write the story better than the show creators. I'm not saying one way or another whether the season is actually good or not (I'll save that for a review of the show), but in Misery Annie sometimes seems to think she knows better than Paul what to do with his novel. She makes him destroy a manuscript and forces him to write a new novel ret-conning the death of her favorite character, Misery.
But even Annie for all her many failings seems to recognize Paul's expertise as a writer, at least some of the time. But do we as an audience really want creators to create just for us? Do we consume books or TV shows just to get what we think we want - "fan service" in the dismissive sense? Or do we gain something valuable from engaging with works of art that might surprise, challenge, and yes, even disappoint us from time to time? Does there come a time when fans and creators simply part ways? Can such "divorces" be amicable or are they always acrimonious?
Case in point: I have made my peace with Metallica's change in direction, but I don't listen to their new stuff; I'm even coming to see that the Star Wars prequels or The Matrix sequels weren't as bad as everyone seems to think. I haven't rewatched the Star Wars prequels in a long time, but see here for my recent experiment of re-watching The Matrix sequels.
Back to Misery: Paul is our POV character so we get a lot of his inner monologue about the creative process (a lot of which reminds me of what King says in On Writing). He ranges from hating his fans (with Annie as his proxy) and feeling like he got stuck in a rut giving fans what they want to genuinely enjoying creating something people (i.e., Annie) will love. At at least one point he says that when he creates he doesn't think of the audience, but can you forget about your audience when you're creating? Should you? Or does the audience enter into it in the editing stage? What do creators owe their fans? Can the creator-fan relationship be reduced to a capitalist supplier and consumer model? Or is it more complicated than that, perhaps more like a personal relationship? Does the capitalist system make us think about the creator-fan relationship differently? Or has art remained a part of human life that can't be totally reduced to economic relations? Does that make it a point of resistance or exploitation?
I'm not saying Misery explicitly asks all of these questions, but it entices me to ask them and genuinely surprised me with how good it is. I think the novel may be making a point about these questions whether King intended it or not. Another thing Misery makes me wonder: whether there will ever be another author both as economically and artistically successful as Stephen King.
A while back I started collecting my random thoughts and putting them on my blog. There have been three parts so far (see here, here, and here). And you are now reading Part 4! Enjoy!
59. A lot of the reason philosophers think people (especially college students) are moral relativists has more to do with philosophers’ level of analysis than anything else. Philosophers look for the deeper structures of morality, structures taken for granted by and invisible to most regular people, who notice differences only against a background of similarities. Pretty much everyone agrees that murder and theft are wrong, but many people disagree about what exactly counts as murder and theft. Ordinary people focus on the relatively small disagreements in definition against a shared background of deeper agreement. Philosophers mistake this for moral relativism and regular people mistake this for a deeper disagreement than it really is.
60. I've been teaching Buddhist arguments against the self for many years and each time students seem to disagree with them more strongly than previous students did. I'm not sure if this means I'm doing a better or worse job teaching these arguments.
61. One difficult thing about teaching philosophy is that you generally don't start doing it until you've been learning about philosophy for a decade or so, and by then you are ipso facto going to be a very weird person trying to explain very weird stuff to mostly normal people.
62. One reason I take social science data based on surveys with a huge grain of salt is that when I fill out such surveys myself I am mostly guessing, going with a whim, or answering for the sake of feeling useful. I’m never sure I’m capable of giving the “real” answer, and I’m even less sure that anybody is capable of accurately reporting their own deeper thoughts or feelings on a scale of “mostly agree” to “mostly disagree.” Human beings are simply more complicated than that. And if human complexity can’t be measured on surveys, so much the worse for surveys.
63. Can Confucian or Aristotelian human flourishing be measured? And if flourishing can’t be measured, does that make it less real or worthy as a goal of human life?
64. Do psychologists measure desire satisfaction because that’s what they really think happiness is, or do they think happiness is desire satisfaction because it can be measured?
65. One reason I’m a philosopher and not a social scientist is that I find the question “What is happiness?” a lot more interesting than “What percentage of random people believe they are happy?”
66. There is no reason that “data-driven” should by itself necessarily be a good thing. We are drowning in data. Figuring out what any of it means is the hard and interesting part.
67. I think the end of Game of Thrones, the main Marvel movies, and the Skywalker-focused Star Wars movies could be a good thing for nerds after 2019, especially if creators have the courage to make genuinely new things and nerds are open-minded enough to give them a chance. Otherwise get ready for endless reboots and re-reboots of every Marvel movie ever made. Ugh. (There are also always going to be lots more different kinds of stories, settings, and characters in the written word, so I implore my fellow nerds to read novels and short stories).
68. A lot of this will also depend on whether fandom can exorcise itself of the sheer hate some part of it turns on itself (see especially a particularly nasty subset of Star Wars “fans”). The future of fandom depends on learning to love new things. Otherwise fandom will be reduced to mindless nostalgia guarded by small-minded gate-keepers.
69. I enjoy being a bit of an academic weirdo, using unpopular methods to work on an unpopular part of an unpopular sub-discipline. I’ve been lucky it has worked out so far (being an agreeable white man in a very white and male discipline filled with prickly people probably doesn’t hurt, either, and I always try to balance the outré with respectable citations). If the only path in academia were an R1 job doing respectable work in a respectable field, I wouldn’t be here. Few, however, are as lucky as I have been. I’d like to see more paths for academic weirdos.
70. I’m going to keep talking about philosophy as if it’s a cross-cultural discipline until it is.
71. I’ve always found the phrase “strong women” to be odd, because I’ve never known any other kind.
72. Now that the result of a literal horse race has been blamed on "political correctness" can we admit that the phrase "political correctness" doesn't really mean anything?
73. Is US Presidential politics really the place to look for things like grassroots systemic change, a complete overhaul of our society’s institutions, the overthrowing of capitalism, etc.? I’m not entirely sure where to look for such things, but it’s odd to me that anyone would expect such changes to be top-down.
74. Authenticity is not always a good thing.
75. The internet seems to encourage a performative hyper-authenticity that is ironically quite inauthentic; we are pretending to be people we don’t really want to be.
76. My concern with phrases like “political correctness,” “SJWs,” and “identity politics” isn’t with what these phrases mean, because they don’t really mean anything if you examine them for more than two seconds. My concern is the effect these phrases have on discourse: who is the focus of our discourse, whose concerns and points of view are taken seriously, whose concerns and points of view are ignored or downplayed, who is given cognitive and political authority, whose stories are told, whose stories are heard.
77. Two things can explain a lot about contemporary American politics: the selective fetishization of personal freedom as well as an unreasonable fear of people perceived as other.
78. Reading Stephen King’s Misery during the week in which hundreds of thousands of “fans” of HBO’s Game of Thrones signed a petition to have the last season rewritten seems … appropriate.
79. Men, white people, straight people, cis people… anybody in any power-dominant social position: when someone from a marginalized group tells you about their experience, try to not do the things we have been trained to do: “That can’t really be your experience. It can’t be that bad. You’re over-reacting. You must be overlooking something. I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way. Let me tell you what the real problem is.” If we can re-train ourselves to stop doing these things (and this is something I personally struggle with daily), we just might learn something valuable. It might make our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings a lot better.
80. The day you become an adult is the day you realize that adults are also only guessing and nobody really knows what they’re doing.
In recent months many US states have passed legislation severely limiting access to abortion or making it illegal all together (read about some of this legislation here). Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.
1. Abortion is going to happen and has been happening for thousands of years. I’d rather have it be safe and legal.
2. Personhood is a super complicated issue. I recently taught a whole class on what it means to be a person. My own inclination is that an embryo or a fetus does not meet any reasonable criteria for personal identity. But almost all human beings capable of being pregnant clearly do meet these criteria.
3. Pregnancy can be dangerous and has vast effects on a person’s body, health, and life. It usually ends with hours and hours of pain the rest of us can’t imagine. Nobody should be forced to go through with that.
4. Pregnancy is caused by men. It’s weird that people seem to forget that, especially people who like to talk about “personal responsibility.”
5. Casual denigration of the South is no solution: first, prejudice against the South is dumb and helps nobody, and second, the whole anti-abortion strategy is to use these laws to force challenges in the Supreme Court, so this should alarm all Americans.
6. It really is about respecting women’s autonomy and recognizing women’s humanity. The same goes for people who do not identify as women but who can become pregnant.
7. I tend not to feel or express anger or outrage in conventional ways. I also have a lot of misgivings about how many people these days express anger and outrage, especially on the internet. But rest assured that I do feel both anger and outrage about recent restrictions on abortion. It’s appalling and we should all be working to protect abortion rights.
8. Fellow men, most of us have not said enough about this or done enough to stop what’s happening. We can do better. This is our issue, too.