They call us ‘illegal’ demonstrators from the very first step. Bylaw P-6, passed in Quebec during the massive student demonstrations of 2012, requires any organized form of protest to provide police with an itinerary. Students on the streets in 2015 have made the point most clear – a protest with an itinerary is called a parade.

The question of legality is not just so much empty rhetoric – it is a stratagem of war waging ideologues. Bodies pour into the streets by the thousands, and we are a loud voice. We are at once a spectacle of opposition (a manifestation of counter-ideology), and a material force. Calling a movement ‘illegal’ does not rob it of its material force, any more than bearing the mantle of Capitalo-parliamentary state-approved ‘legality’ adds to this force. All rhetoric attached to the question of legality amounts to a form of ideological oppression and attempted subordination by the state of the movement; it is first and foremost an ideological assault.

We are a parade if we are ‘legal’ – what is a parade but pure spectacle? As revolutionaries are made into court jesters, sanitized by the official histories, so too are mass movements transformed into parades. Material surrender is ideological suicide. Acquiescence to this safe ‘legalized’ form of opposition would make us all no more than a tolerable nuisance – an empty symbolic bourgeois gesture; a controlled burn; an illusory apparition of the ruling class as being open to receiving criticism from the oppressed layers of society. A jester is never a revolutionary, for he accepts the provisions offered to him by the King, and thus accepts the mythology of the divine right to rule. We cannot – we must not – be legalized. If at first we surrender the streets, we shall thereby surrender the stories of our struggle to sanitization by the official histories.

Keep it illegal to keep it strong. Like alcohol during prohibition, we’re dirty but desired. But we are attacked on all sides, beset by oppressive forces bursting over the bulwarks we built, like the ones in the middle of rue Rene Levesque built with toppled trash dumpsters and police barricades and steel fencing torn off the faces of roadside construction sites. The question of legality is ideological assault. The matter of illegality serves as justification for direct material oppression. We are illegals: subhuman, starving for punishment, breaking our teeth on nightsticks for social justice. The loudspeakers of the SPVM squad cars are harbingers of dystopian noise:

You are committing an offense – and we are ordering you to disperse and leave. Otherwise, we will have to intervene.

This marquee has been etched on our minds – who was there on Friday night who does not still feel the rattling of this robotic voice? If we are legal, we surrender the streets; materially we surrender. Conversely, illegality is an abject refusal. Materially, we refuse to disperse, and are met with brute physical force. Nobody needs reminding about the specific armaments deployed in the name of ‘keeping the peace’ (‘peace’ for whom? – for the bourgeois, naturally.)

As long as we are kept illegal, the ideological assault will be allowed to continue only at the periphery of the movement. Layers of society not yet sympathetic to our cause will be treated to empty rhetoric and reactionary narratives from bourgeois media outlets, placated by their societally reinforced ignorance. But many are sympathetic, and more are becoming so. We are not only students, but workers – even the police themselves, though the hour has not yet come when they awaken to this immediately obvious fact (nous avons tous vu l’image, le carré rouge qui pointe son arme à un carré rouge). Many layers in society are just beginning to awaken, or awaken anew to the reality of their own oppression. We are storytellers, poets of revolution and counterculture. Our best weapon against ideological assault is to guard and grow our material strength, always to strengthen for another day and never to surrender.


Première manif de soir.

I had never intended to share anything here but my own thoughts.  Here, I share my eyes – not just mine, but all of ours.

First night demonstration for Quebec students.

Video by Mario Jean.

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From the author’s journal.

The following text is from my personal journal.  Nights are, as ever, sleepless.

March 24th (early hours.) My love is showing her concern.  Why shouldn’t she be?  These were difficult times – now they are radical times.  There is violence; tear gas, police batons, talk of mass arrests, riot police in our school buildings.  And we are distant.  She wants to believe that I can distance myself from my politics.  From my philosophy. In a sense, I can.  Hyperbole is a stratagem of argumentation.  I can offer myself to an argument partly as a foil of the counter-position; all good arguments close by negotiation, and radical phraseology may be a pragmatic utility for grounds conceded in this process. But as a philosopher, what am I?  What is my business in these streets?  The causes for the movement affect us all.  But the pure sanguinity, the singularity, the sweat and the sentiment of it all – I am reminded of my youth, spent largely thrashing around at punk rock shows.  And yet I turn about and see the insurrectionary soup I’m in, and I see that some who chant these chants still feel that this is a punk rock show.  “Pigs” are faceless walls of moshpit-ambivalent violence we thrash angrily against (and throw fists at, when the chorus booms).  What agency puts me here?  I offer myself as a foil – as a vessel for ideas.  As a munitions depot for ideological counterculture.  To declare one’s involvement as a philosopher is just to offer one’s self as a material reality of ideology – as the necessity of political reality; that is, as the emancipatory realpolitik at the end of the illusory Capitalo-parliamentary Right and social democratic (at best) “Left”. — I digress.  The point is that I am here to share ideas: for many feel – but not all hear – them.  Thus, offering myself as foil is a matter of integrity.  The voice of the Left must always be radical when strong, as a precondition for meaningful social justice.  Material conditions necessitate a manifestation of some transcendent reality (the French ‘maniféstation’ is infinitely superior here to the English “demonstration” or “protest,” as it suggests a becoming-real or materialization of ideology).  Either I part ways with material reality, or I put the transcendental on a Procrustean Bed, like a plain bronze statue who wished to be Apollo.  No.  As a philosopher, as I place myself in the context of class struggle, so too do I become a manifestation, more or less transcendental. Why is this voice necessary?  Marx and Engels argued against utopian socialism, and surely transcendentalism rings of such ideological poetics.  Here is another material reality; to most, the idea of a “socialist revolution” (even when presented scientifically) sounds utterly inconceivable.  All talk of revolution is thus utopian.  This is especially true where the myth of neo-liberal economic stability kills even the spectacle of a real emancipatory Left, where workers fight for narrow social reforms and balk at Marx’s face on our papers.  Announcing this idealistic revolutionary perspective in a way that legitimizes it is inherently poetic – we might call it utopoeiosis – speaking beyond structure.  The illusive bureaucratic politicians call this poetry “sedition”. I offer myself as an idea materialized.  Because the movement needs spectacle.  Because the spectacle of opposition – though officially declared dead (thank Fukuyama) – can still inspire.  Because we all feel poetry – we just can’t all hear it.

Printemps 2015

A new Printemps 2015: the title of an ominous promise, from labour leaders in Quebec to the provincial Liberal Government.  Demonstrations against a policy of austerity, bringing down $2.35-billion in cuts to social services, healthcare, and municipal workers – whose pension funds the government has stolen from in order to pay off its own debts, while refusing to negotiate – have drawn workers into the streets en masse, with the largest mobilization bringing together more than 100,000 workers, marching in solidarity against the cuts.  The promise of a new spring is a reference to the 2012 student movement – Printemps érable – which, at the peak of its life of seven months, saw over 150,000 students striking against a major tuition increase, again forced down by the Liberal Government: this time under Premier Jean Charest.  Daily protests shook the streets of Montreal, serving as a rallying cry for many of the oppressed layers in society, including workers disenfranchised and frustrated with the daily state of affairs; the largest of the 2012 protests saw more than 200,000 students and workers flood the old cobblestone streets.  Police brutality was a commonplace.  The Liberal Government passed the hated Bill 78, illegalizing the mass mobilizations – which in effect only fuelled them.  The promise of a new Printemps today is not made lightly.

I was not here in 2012.  At that time, I was completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.  Anglophone media has a way of leaving most of the country largely unaware of the sheer magnitude and intensity of Quebec’s struggles.  Much like the French language itself, the politics of La belle province remain a somewhat mysterious part of us, only dimly felt in the cultural constitutions of most Canadians.  We cannot imagine that this is accidental.  The possibility of an awakened class consciousness in spontaneity and solidarity with worker and student movements in Quebec spreading throughout Canada threatens the mythology of capitalo-parliamentarian legitimacy.  The national question in Canada tells a familiar story, of the division of the working class along nationalistic and cultural lines.  Hence, Anglophone media typically distorts the Quebecois realpolitik, through both systematic under-, and misrepresentation.

Just so, I was caught off guard by the alacrity when I moved here, to Montreal, in the fall of 2014.  Mosaics of stickers decorate each and every emergency response vehicle, every city bus and metro car, bearing slogans like, “LE GouverneMENT!” (a play on words: the government lies!); “On n’a rien volé!” (we didn’t steal anything, referring to money stolen from municipal workers’ pensions); and “Libre Négo!” (a cry for an unaccountable provincial government to allow negotiations).  Police officers wear non-uniform pants as a continuous form of passive protest.  And three times, in one quarter of one year, these workers have poured into the streets, in the tens – and reaching the hundreds – of thousands.  Meanwhile, the same Austerity Measures Act has imposed hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to education at all levels.  Independent student associations in solidarity under organizers such as ASSÉ (Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante) have been putting pressure on university administrations to refuse the cuts.  Ultimately proving to be ineffective, dozens upon dozens of these student associations have voted – and presently continue to vote – on strike mandates, in opposition to the cuts, recognizing austerity measures as a fundamental attack on our right to an education.  As of today’s date, nearly 48,000 students in Quebec have voted in favour of some sort of strike action, with some 130,000 passing votes in the coming weeks.

Of utmost significance, the majority of the strike mandates being passed by these student associations reflect an acute awareness of the workers’ movement.  Student strike action is largely strategized around solidarity with already planned marches and disruptive episodes against austerity from the working class.  Labour leaders have taken the student movement of 2012 as paragon, threatening an unwavering commitment in their opposition to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ issued by the Liberal Government.  And students are strategizing their own mobilizations around the demands of the workers.  There exists a critical symbiosis in this building Quebec movement, between these two so often disparate pockets of society.  Most recall 2012 as the historical precedent for this Printemps 2015.  But in truth, the current movement bears more of a resemblance to the Français (de la France) May 1968.  Students at the Sorbonne mobilized in solidarity under the national student union (UNEF, Union Nationale des Étudiants de France) against the closure and threatened expulsion of some students from Nanterre, were thrown into a revolutionary fervour after major clashes with police, resulting in a police occupation on the schools on May 6th.  After a heavy-handed reactionary government under de Gaulle unintentionally created a wave of sympathy for the student demonstrators, millions marched through the streets, and the students ended up occupying the schools – the Sorbonne was thus declared an autonomous people’s university.  This wave of sympathy resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers joining the students in strike action.  Those following the movement today will notice many common points between our still snowy present spring, and that momentous spring of 47 years ago: a discourse of student occupation of the university, effected today by the hard-picketing of staff and soft-picketing of students; the adoption of spontaneous wildcat strike tactics; an unshakeable solidarity between students and workers, and reactionary governments atop advanced capitalist economies scrambling amid the vicissitudes of revolutionary vigour.

In May 1968, the question of power was asked.  By the end of May, President de Gaulle had fled the country.  The state was effectively suspended, if not abolished in this singular moment.  The factories were occupied and being run by the workers – the academies, by the students.  We all know how this episode in history ends.  De Gaulle returns, refusing to resign, ordering the workers back to work.  The Communist and Socialist electoral alliance agreed to an election with the Gaullists, and the last ember of revolutionary flame was put out.  No vanguard party was true enough to seize the day.  Many social reforms were conceded and taken as victories from the movement; the bourgeoisie will concede everything at the bargaining table, save the foundation of their power – their so-called right to private property, which can never be taken but by force – when that foundation is threatened.

In countries with relative socioeconomic stability, like Canada and the United States, a radical left opposition will never exist within traditional parliamentary channels.  Stability is an ideological curse – it destroys all spectacle of opposition.  Moreover, stability is a myth.  Even here in Quebec, some argue that austerity cuts are merely ‘ideological’ – in truth, the economy is suffering.  Here we are another partner in the ongoing death dance of a globalized capitalist economy, and the music has been all but cacophony since the financial collapse of 2008.  But there are lessons of Quebec.  A unique symbiosis between students and workers is evolving here, precisely for lack of any traditional political organization which could resemble a vanguard party.  Student associations assist greatly in the mobilization of workers, and student mobilizations in turn adopt the demands of the working class.  But the crucial element that is provided this unique symbiosis is ideological.   Student layers provide a coherent narrative for the movement, in conversation with the workers and the lessons of history.  On the cobblestone streets of Montreal, students will engage workers in dialogues about theoretical frameworks to explain austerity measures and their resolutions.  We need not worry about petty sectarianism – the mobility of the workers is paramount and provides the lifeblood of any mass movement.  We might suggest the following; a first, broad-sweeping principle of a manifesto for student led radicalization, especially relevant today in North America: in sufficiently advanced and relatively stable capitalist economies, where there is as such no truly left political party, student organizations must realize themselves and constitute themselves as a revolutionary vanguard party. 

Alain Badiou tells us that the condition of a genuine politics is a discourse of emancipation – the emancipation of the working class out from under the wage-slavery imposed upon them by the means of production controlled by the bourgeoisie.  The millions of disenfranchised workers and youth, non-voters, burners, and other embittered pockets of society alike anticipate our conclusion.  Phenomenologically, parliamentary politics is sheer spectacle.  It is the inherent contradictions of a broken system, manifesting itself as performative bureaucracy.  In these so-called ‘stable’ capitalist democracies, there is no real politics.  This signals the historical necessity of the revolutionary vanguard student organization.  It is no secret that, under the existing modes of production in society, funding in academic institutions is invested overwhelmingly in favour of the more ‘productive’ departments: engineering, business, select natural sciences, etc.  Students in the arts and human sciences tend further towards radicalization.  Curiously, much of this divide is equally manufactured by the current economic system and North American political reality – it is only in the English language, and in institutions that are dominantly English-speaking, where the divide between the natural and the human sciences exists to this extent.  The bourgeoisie cannot be expected to fund its own counterculture; only court jesters are paid to criticize those in power.  Ideological subordination exists as material reality even in our academic institutions.  But student leftismo will never be extinct, and it must never become inert.  Students are told that they ought to study in one of the more productive faculties in order to thrive in today’s economy, to get a well-paying job and the right to accumulate countless commodities and gadgets.  Even in periods of relative economic stability in advanced capitalist nations, funding will not be equal between kinds of departments for just these reasons.  The formal and material reality of student leftismo is thus permanently suppressed as a logical condition of capitalist means of production.  Here again, there is inherent contradiction.  In sufficiently advanced and relatively stable capitalist economies, where there is as such no truly left political party, student organizations must realize themselves and constitute themselves as a revolutionary vanguard party, to move towards a genuine politics and as a precondition for political reality.

The building movement in Quebec must continue in this pattern of symbiotic solidarity.  Traditionally, mass student movements are not a threat to Capitalo-parliamentary democracy.  Since students are not directly involved in the means of production, their strike mandates do little on their own to hit the capitalists where it hurts.  By contrast, the construction workers’ strike in Quebec in 2013 cost bosses over $15-million per day.  While all must meet to fill the streets in the march against austerity measures, and ultimately against capitalism itself, there is a sense in which the workers comprise the material – and the students, the formal – reality of the revolutionary movement in at least one sense.  The workers hold the true material power in society.  As the old saying goes –not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns without the permission of the working class.  But matter is only hypothetical necessity, so says Aristotle.  The formal reality is the ideological narrative of the movement, and this gets provided by the student layers, in conversation with the workers.  Form imposes necessity on matter.  Aristotle also believes that the question of what-something-is always demands form as its answer.  What will be the form of Printemps 2015? – the answer is not simply bodies in streets, factory and university closures.  The answer is in the narrative.  And the narrative in-forms reality.

Reflecting On Reflection

Reflection has ever been the philosopher’s most prized capacity, thought capable of rendering clear our beliefs as a mode of second-order cognitive scrutiny.  I intuitively believe that there is a keyboard here at my fingertips, a monitor before my eyes; I may call these beliefs into question, distancing myself from the immediate cognitive impressions they form on me.  If I reflect on these beliefs aptly, I ought to find that I have good reasons to hold these beliefs.  Indeed, some have claimed that it is just this capacity which cuts between human and animal cognition.  My (sadly hypothetical) dog cannot distance himself from the belief that we will go out for a walk when I show him his leash – he cannot question whether he has good reason to hold this belief, any more than he can question whether having arrived at this belief in just the way that he did constitutes a good method for arriving at beliefs.  However, qua human beings, our beliefs are called into question constantly, from the flights of fancy of minds in vats to the complex assignment of statistical probabilities to the possible truth-values of a possible set of facts which are thought to occur in (possibly) the real world.  Just as the line between human and animal has been drawn along these lines, so too has the line of freedom and moral responsibility.  The ability to scrutinize our beliefs with some higher-order reflective capacity seems, to some, essential to explain the phenomenology or reality of human freedom and agency.  Agency is thought to imply responsibility.  Hence, we are thought able to be judged praise or blameworthy, in virtue of our freedom to chart the paths of our own actions from among a sea of possible alternatives.

However, the value of our capacity for reflection may not hold up to close scrutiny.  In On Reflection (2012), Hilary Kornblith argues that this faculty, as we have hitherto conceived of it, is not the kind of thing which could possibly enlighten our inquiries about knowledge, reason, freedom, and normativity.  Our treatment of reflection seems to be essentially phenomenological; Kornblith notes an important dissimilarity between this, and our rather more empirical orientation towards other phenomena in the natural world.  The reader should note the operative ‘other’ in the previous sentence.  Kornblith considers knowledge and related epistemological phenomena to be natural kinds – see his arguments for a naturalized epistemology in Knowledge and its Place in Nature (2002).  This phenomenological bias manifests particularly in the common tendency of philosophers in the reflectionist orthodoxy (a poor ad hoc moniker to be sure – the category is meant to include Sosa, Korsgaard, Goodman, BonJour, and many others) to use first-person language to describe features of reflection.  Naturalized epistemology can be characterized as the view that explanations of the objects of epistemological inquiry are ultimately natural explanations, rooted in the natural world.  If correct, this view provides a strong reason for scrapping our phenomenological bias, in favor of a more empirical orientation towards epistemological inquiry – including our reflections on ‘reflection’.

Kornblith’s main arguments against the received view of reflection show that, on that view, scrutinizing our beliefs always falls into infinite regress.  When I reflect on my first-order belief B that there is a keyboard at my fingertips, I form a second-order belief B’ that I do indeed have strong reasons in support of the first-order belief.  But I do not know whether I have strong reasons in support of B’ unless I reflect on those reasons, thus forming belief B’’ that I do indeed have strong reasons in support of B’; et cetera ad infinitum.  Therefore, our beliefs are never ultimately justified, and we never know what ultimately counts as having sufficient reasons for accepting a belief.  It follows that we must remain mute on normative claims about belief formation.

To infinity, not beyond.  I suspect that the severity of an infinite regress is a pain much more immediately felt by those with a naturalist suasion.  If explanations about objects of epistemological inquiry are ultimately natural explanations, and the received view of reflection leads in every case to an infinite regress, then one is at pains to devise a naturalistic explanation of infinity.  The human brain must thereby be supposed to be capable of performing supertasks, provided we are not meant to reflect on even our most banal beliefs on into eternity.  A supertask is a task consisting of a countably infinite set of calculations or operations, which occurs sequentially within a finite amount of time.  Kornblith offers no argument as to why infinite regress is to be avoided in epistemological explanations.  Presumably, it is his naturalistic aversion to something like a cognitive supertask that underwrites his argument.  Another likely assumption is that cognitive tasks in humans are not such that they can perform operations on infinities.  This is not necessarily true – the phenomenology of reflection provides good reasons to believe that at least one epistemological explanandum (reflection itself) performs operations on infinities.  Mathematicians reflect on set-theoretic proofs involving greater and smaller infinities, as Cantor did with his diagonalization argument.  On a similar vein, Roger Penrose has argued that Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems – and their subsequent comprehension and acceptance by fellow mathematicians and human reasoners – provide a strong reason to consider that human cognition must contain exponentially more processing power than any possible mechanical system could (though these arguments fall quite far short of wide acceptance themselves).  Again, this assumption falls on prima facie naturalistic inclinations.  Naturalized explanations just cannot, or cannot easily, contain infinities, greater or smaller.

I am differently inclined.  Some kind of infinitesimal calculus sounds to me like a potentially plausible way to model our capacity for reflection.  I form a first-order belief B, which defines the limit to a probability function that models my certainty in that belief (to a max- or minimum infinity).  Reflective scrutiny is hence a process somewhat like calculating a limit with reasons for belief in B, with a max-limit providing an idealized objective certainty in B, and a min-limit its absolute refutation.  We can no more conceive of each of the elements in an infinite set than we can the requirements of absolute certainty in or refutation of B; we can, however, form a transcendent ideal of the concept at hand in order to understand some part of it.  Here, I am somewhat indebted to a colleague from during my undergraduate work in Victoria, who once described Anselm’s ontological proof to me as calculating a limit towards God’s existence.  Of course, the procedure that I propose would involve some sort of conceptual analysis, or analysis of our epistemic intuitions.  Experimental philosophers have recently raised many issues with this practice, which I haven’t the space to consider in this post – see especially Stitch’s The Fragmentation Of Reason (1990), and Alexander and Weinberg’s “Analytic Epistemology and Epistemic Intuitions” (Philosophy Compass 2/1, 2007).

Infinite regress only seems menacing if we share Kornblith’s epistemological naturalism; otherwise, his main arguments against the received view of reflection simply are not knockdown arguments.  Kornblith often takes Ernest Sosa’s epistemological views as his target in On Reflection.  Sosa is a main proponent of the use of a virtue vocabulary to describe and reflect on our standards of excellence in all matters epistemic.  I believe that the cultivation of epistemic virtue might have some import to a view modeling reflection as an infinitesimal probability calculus operating on our beliefs.  Consider the phenomenon, familiar to many and well-studied by psychologists, linguists and other researchers in the field of child development, of the explosion of explanation-seeking questions in preschool aged children.  The attitudes of many parents towards this phenomenon are neatly summed up by comedian Louis C.K. in the following routine.

Children between roughly the ages of 2.5 and 5 never seem to know when to stop asking why.  The increasingly metaphysical nature of Louis’ daughter’s questions demonstrates a certain tendency to exceed what adults typically consider to be sufficient reason for holding some belief.  The phenomenon is particularly well documented in Frazier et al, “Preschoolers’ Search for Explanatory Information Within Adult-Child Conversation” (Child Development 80/6, 2009).  They will often seek to over-explicate their beliefs, because a reasonably reliable calculus for belief acceptance has not yet been developed.  Refinement of this calculus would constitute the cultivation of an epistemic virtue, essentially inscribing on one’s cognition a sort of cut elimination theorem.  As is the case with the cultivation of virtue in general, experience is required, to establish a mean relative to the individual child between excess and deficiency with respect to explanations.  Children must become proficient in the use of explanatory language, with causal connectives and representational concepts, to add to their own epistemic intuitions.  A pre-theoretic epistemic intuition such as ‘justification’ is refined by honing in on a reasonably reliable mental probability calculus to operate on our beliefs.

If it is plausible to model reflection on our beliefs as a probability calculus – and certainly more argument is required than what little I have entertained here – then a strong counterargument to Kornblith’s naturalized epistemology exists.  I agree with Kornblith’s assumption, that natural explans cannot, or cannot easily contain infinities.  All the more reason not to consider epistemological kinds as natural kinds.  In Metamind (1990), Keith Lehrer develops a different account of the human mind: the human mind is a metamind.  It is a representation of mind.  This is to say that the human mind in some sense essentially transgresses the natural, at least as Kornblith conceives of it.  Again, for lack of space, I cannot here entertain the idea that something like a metamind might better ground the argument that reflection is a sort of (meta-)mental probability calculus.  I shall continue to reflect on these thoughts henceforth, for a time.  For now, suffice it to say that Kornblith’s main arguments against the reflectionist orthodoxy are grounded in assumptions informed by his epistemological naturalism; unmoved by this proclivity, I lean towards a view like Lehrer’s.  The burden of argument falls on Kornblith to tell us why infinite regress is a bad thing, even if we do not wish to accept epistemological naturalism.  However, I find myself more inclined towards cautiously abandoning naturalism, to test the limits of infinity as an explanatory concept in the reflective scrutiny of our beliefs.  And I suspect that this endeavour shall keep me asking, “Why?” ad nauseam; in this, the philosopher resembles the preschooler.  Perhaps, a preschooler who has grown up having poorly refined the virtue of knowing how much reflection is sufficient for the reasonable acceptance of our beliefs!

Frozen Eggs for Working Women

The inspiration for this post comes from two sources.  First – today is International Women’s Day, a day most well suited for the discussion of issues related to gender equality, women’s rights, and the emancipation of women.  Perhaps the emancipatory talk seems radical.  Feminism is not a homogeneous critical stance; some feminists will be more radical than others.  But we must recall that International Women’s Day – actually, International Working Women’s Day – began as a socialist political event, proposed by Clara Zetkin of the International Women’s Conference that was linked to the Second International; and so, the historical roots of this day recall the emancipatory struggle, and the need to overthrow capitalism.  Second – it has been my intention since the recent inception of this blog to eventually discuss within it my thoughts on female egg cryopreservation.  I owe this blog site in part to Dr. Françoise Baylis, of Dalhousie University, who recently gave a talk on the subject at a conference where I spoke at in Toronto – the Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference.  Françoise used some of her time to impress upon us in the audience – mostly young graduate students and PhDs – the importance of blogging.  A philosopher must today be a public intellectual, and the public are predominantly engaging with the diverse sea of varying opinions on the Internet.  Ideas are only dangerous in numbers – or perhaps, zebra-like, we come under the protection of a shared formal reality against predation: stripes for zebras, emancipatory political realities for the underclasses (whatever your favoured class dichotomy).

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

These words, from the Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, are also inscribed on Marx’s grave.  Françoise shares in this view of philosophy.  After her talk, when pushed on the question as to whether the sorts of ethical quandaries which surface on her analysis of egg freezing could be resolved under a neo-liberal Capitalist democracy, she deferred commitment to any particular political ideology, but suggested an avowed belief in the demand placed on us to change the world.

Egg freezing is being sold to women as an instrument of gender equality.  It places itself immediately at the intersection of competing feminist perspectives.  Françoise gives seven arguments against egg freezing, in her original blog post (over here on Impact Ethics), which inspired the talk.  Two of them speak directly to systemic social issues, which – I suggest – represent challenges that can only be met by a revolutionary feminist perspective, that recalls the historical unity of the workers’ and women’s movements.  From this perspective, actual gender equality is possible only on the condition of an emancipatory politics that takes as its aim the struggle for the working class (the majority of whom, after all, are women).  Those arguments are Françoise’s fifth and sixth:

Fifth, normalizing egg freezing does nothing to correct the fundamental social injustice experienced by women in the workplace who are effectively forced to choose between having a career and raising a family. This is not a choice demanded of young men. The working assumption is that they can be fathers and productive employees.

Sixth, providing women with the option of egg freezing does not meaningfully expand women’s choices because it does nothing to ameliorate the context in which they must make decisions. The social context, which does not assume that women can be mothers and productive employees, significantly (and inappropriately) constrains the options they get to choose between.

Dr. Françoise Baylis, “Left Out In The Cold: Seven Reasons Not To Freeze Your Eggs”

Both arguments treat autonomy as (legitimately?) delimited by socio-cultural constraints, echoing a conception of liberty similar to that of John Stuart Mill, and never far from the orthodoxy of political philosophy.  Of course, these constraints are the result of material conditions imposed by the oppressive layers of society.  We shall return to material conditions with the sixth argument; first, we must take up talk of patriarchy, in the fifth.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels effectively treats the enslavement of women and the establishment of patriarchal gender-class relations in society as a product of the state and the notion of private property.  He embarks on an ethnography of pre-Statist cultures, pre-exchange economies, and argues that the prototypically bourgeois family unit is the result of a conception of private property, by which the man comes to identify the child (and thus the mother, as its bearer and caretaker) as his property, and through oppressive means (physical or ideological) continues to enforce his right onward throughout the annals of history.  This is not to diminish patriarchy to a mere epiphenomena of the imposition of State and class antagonisms; ideas have a material existence, and insinuate themselves in a very real way into social structures and institutions.  The socialist origins of the struggle for women’s emancipation have been repressed in the official histories; real victories of the women’s movement have been reduced and redescribed as victories in a woman’s right to upward mobility within a patriarchal society – this is the mostly petty bourgeois individualist feminism that focuses today on companies with women as CEOs and strong female Capitalo-parliamentary politicians.  Egg freezing is marketed to women on exactly this platform.  Bourgeois patriarchal ideology is insinuated in the context of the choice being offered, between career and family.  The “working assumption” in the fifth argument is just the patriarchal assumption related to the origin of private property and struggle along class lines in society.  The way to struggle against it is to challenge the assumption of the legitimacy of the authority of the oppressive layers of society; that is, to fight Capitalism.

The sixth argument speaks to the material conditions of production in Capitalist society.  The assumption that women cannot be both mothers and productive employees relates to the contradictions of a class society, whereby one in four are without work, and the remaining three have far too much of it (clearly I generalize).  The historical contribution of Capitalist society has been to elevate the means of production to the point that humankind is able to create surplus; however, the creation of surplus is utterly contingent on profit motive, and so scarcity is manufactured (the only bona fide ‘product’ of the bourgeoisie).  Beyond the point where I can invest further in technology to gain a productive edge on my competition, my only recourse as a boss is to lay off workers.  The Capitalist mythology relates the ever extending work day to the praiseworthiness of a Protestant work ethic – this is the ideology, perpetuated to the benefit of those blessed with work, and fortunate enough to work ever longer and harder.  The ideology decries any deviation from the all-encompassing importance of work.  A woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee, because productive employees work at least forty hours a week – twice that, if you aspire to become more like the bourgeois feminist icons that remain after the historical reduction and revision of the socialist origins of the women’s movement to its contemporary friendliness to Capitalist ideology.   Those who deviate from this norm are stigmatized as being insufficiently dedicated to their professional lives, and so the mere expression in the professional world of a desire to shift priorities is treated as an affront to the ideological ethic.

Scarcity and surplus are two sides of the same coin, and this particular kind of coin exclusively fills Capitalist coffers – it is foreign currency in these parts.  “Scarcity and surplus” is a false dichotomy imposed on the means of production by free-market Capitalist logic.  A socialist alternative abolishes the distinction.  The productive capacity of the average advanced Western Capitalist state is more than strong enough to support a reduced workweek, even while significantly reducing unemployment.  The assumption that a woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee is built into the social reality imposed under a Capitalist system – a woman who would like to reduce her working hours in order to become a mother is not sufficiently dedicated to her work to thrive under this Protestant work ethic ideology, and most women who would make this choice would find it places them in an almost impossible financial situation.  The way to struggle against this is to challenge the contradictions of Capitalo-parliamentary logic imposed as social reality on the means of production.

The emancipation of women is central to the struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed layers in society.  The recent introduction of egg-freezing as an instrument of gender equality, endorsed by major tech companies like Facebook and Apple as part of their health insurance packages for female employees, reaffirms the legitimacy of bourgeois Capitalist ideology.  It is congruent with the reactionary and revisionary history of the struggle for women’s emancipation, distilling the movement’s victories into a warped bourgeois-ified neo-liberal feminism, alien to emancipatory politics and inert with respect to true gender equality.  And so, with a final word of thanks to Dr. Françoise Baylis, I conclude my thoughts with a simple imperative (and the title of Françoise’s aforementioned talk at Ryerson): “Ladies, Don’t Freeze Your Eggs!”

Victims Of Communism

Some controversy has been brewing in Ottawa these past few weeks, over the building of a memorial monument to the “Victims of Communism”.  What sort of controversy might possibly befall such an ill-conceived project, you ask?  Government officials are primarily concerned with the proposed location of the memorial site.  It seems that the land is considered prime real estate for another stuffy building to house government bureaucrats.  Others are concerned that the proposed design of the monument is bleak, stark, unsightly, and depressing.  Point taken – it’s mimetic, mirroring the profound despair of Communism!  Good that we should regard it as somewhat unsightly.  This emboldens our Western neo-liberal convictions and democratic self-assurances.

Althusser could not have conceived of a more literal interpretation of On Ideology (1971)In a Marxist vein, Althusser extends his materialist dialectics directly to the oppressive ideological arm of the state: “Thesis II: Ideology has a material existence.”  Typically, ideology operates in a more covert manner.  To say that it has a material existence is to pay our post-Hegelian dues, speaking of ‘matter’ in many senses.  Ideology subsists on educational systems, on political dialogues and scientific narratives of meaning; chiefly, it subsists or supervenes on artifactuality – Derrida’s word for the totalizing mediation that presents us only with a particular conception of reality (that is, the real projection of the master) projected onto the whole.  The artefact is something created in nature, placed in, on, or over the natural world; as early as Aristotle, that is to say that it has a material existence.  And it is supposed to have many parts, each one relating to the other as part of an intricate machine.  Althusser calls this subtle social machine the ideological state apparatus.

Yet here is just such an artefact proposing to be plopped, plain as day, right outside of the Canadian Supreme Court building.  All semblance of covertness in the operation of the apparatus has been lost.  With the opacity of its metaphor, the state offends us with the transparency of its intent.  The monument does not only commemorate the deaths of those many millions who lost their lives under totalitarian regimes (whose lives we do well to remember, to learn lessons for the future) – it commemorates the death of an idea, of a spectacle of opposition, namely of Communism itself.  ‘Communism kills’ is the message (keep your children away!) – however, here we are blessedly safe from tyranny, where we are free to memorialize these deaths without fear of the violent reaction of an oppressive government.  We are safe precisely because Communism is dead.  Never mind whether it died all at once with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or slowly on the rack, after a thousand cuts from Francis Fukuyama and the rest of the Club Western capitalo-parliamentarian.

Yet if Communism is dead and gone, then why do we continue to hear ever more novel iterations of its epitaph?  The Memorial to the Victims Of Communism is just the latest of gravestones, set down wherever it is one supposes ‘Communism’ to be buried.  Surely if it was dead, we would not have to be reminded by the State of its passing with such dutiful consistency?  The proposed monument is not as much a memorial as it is another killing blow, proclaiming itself final.  It is a voodoo doll set up as a public spectacle, and every one complicit or nonchalant to behold it places another cut to injure the idea.

But ideas do not die.  We see this with the immortality of men and women who become ideas, even if the bourgeois mythology sometimes functions to distort the verisimilitude between the person and the idea.  Only last week, Boris Nemtsov made this transcendence to ideal existence.  After his assassination, thousands marched on in his name, rallying against Putin’s corrupt regime.  The ideal of an emancipatory politics – namely, of ‘Communism’ – will carry on eternal in the masses subjected to the existence of the material reality of class struggle.  Over the past two decades, ‘Communism’, or the historical antecedents to what Alain Badiou newly calls The Communist Hypothesis (2010) has been sullied unceasingly by the dominant state ideology.  We must steal the ideal back from the rack.  By refining, and persisting in its use, the ideological exertion of the state will wither away.  “[I]f all are together, then all are communists!  And if all are communists, then all are philosophers!” (Badiou, Philosophy For Militants).

We demand equal rights to establishing gravesites for ideas.  The “Victims Of Communism” memorial is covered with over a hundred million memory squares, meant to represent individual victims.  How many more millions of squares would decorate a memorial to the Victims Of Capitalism?  But, they will never allow us to build such an offensive apparatus.  We do better to find an existing memorial, to proclaim that, Here! Here lies the body of the idea, called Capitalism!  Where might we locate this site?

You know that in Paris, under the Arc de Triomphe, there is a perpetual flame, which celebrates the Unknown Soldier.  Indeed, it belongs to the very essence of the symbolic figure of the soldier to be unknown.  The fundamental dimension of the soldier is precisely the dialectical unity between courageous death and immortality, without the slightest reference either to a personal soul or to a God.

Alain Badiou, Philosophy For Militants (2012)

The paradigm of heroism, in modern war, and in the modern world system, is the soldier.  The creative value of this figurative representation is illustrated, as Badiou thinks, in romantic and post-romantic lyric poetry.  The soldier is not an individual.  The soldier is a representation, an affect or simulacrum of a historicist dialectic.  The soldier embodies the formal reality of the ascendant ideology of the state – it goes beyond Aristotelian hylomorphism, fully transcending the individuality of the particular soldier qua perfect symbolic representation of a Platonic form of the ideal, as a mathematical symbol represents a number.  The romantic lyrical theme is predominantly characterized by a return to Christian pacifism, and passive sacrifice.  Surely modern war is anything but pacifistic; rather, it is the submission of the nameless to his own subjection by the formal reality of the ideal that embodies this passivity, just as Christ submits himself to the formal reality of His Holy Father as the sacrificial part.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is just as such a memorial to sacrifice, to the victims of Capitalism.  Its victims count so many that we have given up even the semblance of an effort to quantify them, resorting to synecdoche.

The Tories are rushing the “Victims Of Communism” memorial project through, apparently in a bid to garner votes for the upcoming election.  Controversy and opposition to the monument has hitherto been utterly vacuous.  Poor Althusser is rolling over in his grave for this lack of subtlety.  Real politics is possible only on the condition of the emancipation of the oppressed masses.  This monument only serves to perpetuate the self-serving faux-politik ­of bourgeois democracy.  We do not need a memorial to remember ideological oppression.  Ideological oppression has never left.  It is a precondition of the continued existence of the Capitalist state.  And it has never been so unsightly.

On the title of this blog.

Imagine if the world which we inhabit were nothing but a projection – a projection, from us, onto the external world.  Facts of the matter about states of affairs in this world turn on facts about us, rather than on the putative noumenal entities which relate, in some mysteriously neo-Kantian way, to phenomenal reality.  In Ways Of Worldmaking (1978), Nelson Goodman (whom, you will notice, I have robbed for the name of this new blog) inverts our expectations about what it is to be a rational animal inhabiting a world.  As the title suggests, Goodman argues that our worldly habitat is largely one of our own construction. Actually, to say that “the” world is “one” of our own construction is not correct, strictly speaking.  Goodman’s view implies a wide plurality of worlds, each filled with at least as many objects provided by their subjective inhabitants, as those grounded in an underlying substratum of reality.  Galileo and Copernicus lived in a different world than Aristotle and Ptolemy – in the former world, the earth revolves around the sun, while the latter world was geo-static.  Priestley’s world contained dephlogisticated air, while Lavoisier’s was full of oxygen.  Hokusai’s world emphasizes different aesthetic aspects than Rembrandt’s, and in some Shamanistic worlds human inhabitants have non-human ancestors, as they are the children of sacred plants.

All of this talk of worldmaking turns on one of the key philosophical insights that defined the Enlightenment, from Descartes to Kant.  Since Descartes, the world beyond our perception has been called into doubt (particularly if we are atheists or agnostics).  Kant took reality away from us, realizing that we could never escape the confines of subjective experience, so as to be able to check whether or not the world of our perception matches the “real” world.  All we can do is suppose that the “real” world somehow sets boundary conditions on what can be thought, to ensure that we are able to communicate meaningfully about anything.  Goodman attests that his “multiplicity of worlds” is a neo-Kantian theme.  The first act of human creativity comes as easily as Being-in-the-world (I apologize to my Heidegger-buff colleagues for this imperfect lexical appropriation). Imagine if this world we share were actually just so many projections, gaining its apparent cohesion as if by merging the complete set of conceptual matrices from the totality of we, its inhabitants.  Imagine how many conventions that we collectively subscribe to, which would come to be seen as utterly contingent constructions.  Most of us never stop to consider the utterly ethereal nature of those many “invisible hands” which daily oppress us – fair enough, for we are not all metaphysicians.

Consider this spectral thing called the economy.  Total world debt is over 300% of total world GDP.  How is this possible?  To whom do we owe all of this money – to Mars, perhaps?  But, everything in our daily experience is constructed so as to reinforce the strength and legitimacy of this gargantuan imaginary.  Althusser reveals the mythology, of bourgeois capitalo-parliamentarians and the ideological state apparatus.  The greatest weapon of the capitalist state is the construction of the story of its own necessity.  Of course this constructed actuality must cement itself by offering the most vivid, noisiest projection of its kind.  The media is the story teller.  Artifactuality: the marketplace of facts failed to get us any closer to reality. Philosophers are worldmakers.  But so are scientists, artists, lovers, and even politicians.  The worth of a world turns on how well it promotes our values, reveres our ideals.  I have always considered metaphysics as much a matter of nonrational as rational choice.  I choose to believe in magic, because it is not inherently logically contradictory, and because it enchants my existence.  We find meaning in mathematics, molecular biology, and magic mushrooms.  Traditionally, each of these three worlds would be taken to speak to different levels of reality, if we are most optimistic; more likely, one (perhaps two) will be taken to be merely illusory, depending on one’s tastes.  But each defines a world we might inhabit, if only for a time.

They say that wine tastes sweeter to one with a refined palate.  Why should we not visit new worlds freely, becoming highly cultured worldly travellers in the process?  Our understanding of ‘meaning’ might stand to benefit. I have chosen the title of Goodman’s book for my blog, in part because I support the spirit of his view.  It does seem to me that we are largely responsible for the construction of the worlds that we inhabit.  I am not sure why this should sound surprising to anybody – in nature, we build homes and infrastructure where the external world fails to accommodate us.  Literally, we shape the external world in our image, as architects and civil engineers, as oil- and war-mongers.  So too do we shape it in our image as economists and physicists, as poets and painters.  And if we should find that some noisy projection is blocking the beauty of daylight from those worlds of our creation, we should find ourselves well within our rights to tear down the offender.  Ways Of Worldmaking ought to speak to the philosopher’s curiosity as much as it does to the heart of the revolutionary – and on this level, it strikes me more profoundly.  Our worlds are imperialized by the beliefs and customs of our oppressors.  We are meant to believe that neo-liberal democracy and a global capitalist monstrosity represents the ideal across all worlds.  Of course, whether you call it the bourgeoisie, the upper class or the one-percent, we should see that assent to those factitious objects which legitimate the domination of the master over the slave is manufactured.  Whatever the underclass, everything in our quotidian experience reminds us of our domination.  In The Lessons Of October, Trotsky writes

The working class struggles and matures in the never-failing consciousness of the fact that the preponderance of forces lies on the side of the enemy.  This preponderance manifests itself in daily life, at every step.  The enemy possesses wealth and state power, all the means of exerting ideological pressure and all the instruments of repression …  The consequences entailed by this or that careless or premature act serve each time as most cruel reminders of the enemy’s strength.

I will at times write philosophical musings, ways of worldmaking which reflect my passing curiosities and flights of fancy.  At other times, I will engage in more pointed cultural critiques, launching attacks on those worlds which violently stake their own flags in the soft soil of our rightful psychological or ideological lands.  Most of all, the writings that find their way into this blog will be a representation, an invitation into the world which I inhabit.  Often I feel that I live in it alone, but I am always trying to compel others to come and see our very green grass.  Please, take off your shoes and let our green grass tickle under your feet and between your toes.  There will be sunsets, there will be curiosities aplenty – and there will be action!