Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Luke Cage: a view from Harlem

With the expansion in cable television, and the even more recent rise of online television, we live in a golden age of television. The range of TV series, including high quality TV series, available is unprecedented.

Marvel v DC
I have a weakness for police procedurals, crime shows and superhero shows (though not the animated versions). Among the "big two" comic conglomerates, DC comics has had a longer record of TV success than Marvel, though Marvel has started to expand its television presence. DC is doing particularly well in TV series at the moment. From the success of Arrow (2012-), DC has spun off The Flash (2014-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-) (the core of the so-called Arrowverse) plus creating Constantine (2014-15) and Supergirl (2015-). From the DC imprint Vertigo Comics comes Lucifer (2015-), which is the most wickedly funny of the various current set of comic series (as is only proper).

DC's most iconic comic characters are Superman (1933) and Batman (1939). In terms of current TV series, Supergirl is, of course, Superman's cousin while Gotham (2014-) is the story of the path, starting with the death of the Mr & Mrs Wayne's, of Bruce Wayne to becoming Batman. The previous great C21st DC superhero TV success being Smallville (2001-2011), the story of Kal-El/Clark Kent's path to becoming Superman. 

Outside the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Marvel has done much better in recent films than DC, both in fan/critical response and box office. The standout exception for DC being Wonder Woman (2017), which was not merely a great superhero film, but also a great war film. Otherwise, the recent DC outings have been too dour, too pedestrian: reasonable B-grade films, although with block-buster budgets, but nothing special.

Apart from the first Captain America film, The First Avenger (2011), the various Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been more fun, better received by the fans, and generally bigger box office than the recent DC film efforts. My favourites are Doctor Strange (2016) and Deadpool (2016), but I have enjoyed them all.

Their film success has encouraged Marvel to produce various TV series. They started with a direct leverage from the successful Avenger movies, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-) and Agent Carter (2015-2016) plus a group of specifically New York focused series; Jessica Jones (2015-), Daredevil (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-), Iron Fist (2017-) who converge in a group series The Defenders (2017-). Marvel has also launched The Punisher (2017-) as well as an explicitly X-men series, Legion (2017-). 

I have been watching (on DVD); Arrow (2012-), The Flash (2014-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-) and Gotham from DC comics plus Daredevil (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-) and Jessica Jones (2015-) from the Marvel universe.  I have also been watching, and greatly enjoying, Lucifer (2015-).

In the case of Jessica Jones (2015-), I only watched it because some of the events referenced in Luke Cage (2016-) happened in the first season of Jessica Jones (2015-). Although I watched all the first season of Jessica Jones (2015-), I found it at times a difficult watch. Not because it was not well done--it is very well done--but because the mind-controlling psychopath Kilgore (wonderfully played by David Tennant) was an uncomfortable villain while I found Jessica Jones's abrasive inability to manage people effectively frustrating: too much overt emotion, too little thinking it through. Luke Cage's caring calm was distinctly more engaging.

Man in a hoodie
Luke Cage is an unusual superhero in at least two respects. First, no mask: he is just an African-American man in a hoodie. Second, no special name; Luke Cage is the name he already goes by around first Hell's Kitchen, in Jessica Jones (2015-), and then Harlem (though it is not his legal name).

That Luke Cage is of African descent is less unusual: Marvel is bringing out a Black Panther film this year. Luke Cage does have special powers (bulletproof and unusually strong), the result of a freak medical experiment/accident, but that is hardly an unusual superhero back story.

(As an aside, I have come to very much dislike the use of white and black as racial terms. As journalist William Saletan nicely puts it, race is not a causal unit. It does not even bundle causal units together in other than the crudest of fashions. The terms white and black strip people of their cultural and civilisational heritages--we do not, after all, use the term yellow races any more. In the case of the US, white bundles people of European heritages together while black bundles people of various African heritages together--whether the descendants of slaves who have been in what is now the US for centuries, more than enough time for ethnogenesis; more recent Afro-Caribbean migrants further removed from the experience of slavery and with no Jim Crow in their history; or recent African immigrants who tend to be highly educated and highly successful.)

The character of Luke Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones (2015-) where he ran a bar in Hell's Kitchen. By the time the Luke Cage series starts, he has moved to Harlem and is sweeping hair in a barber shop and dishwashing at the Harlem Paradise nightclub.

People and place
As a TV series, Luke Cage has some notable features. The first is much less of "quick cuts" approach to scenes and shots in this online series than is usual in TV shows: there is much more lingering use of camera angles. Second is the on-screen music is much more front-and-centre. In particular, the scenes at the Harlem Paradise night club include guest singers, whose talents are showcased rather than touched-upon background. But not only there: a rap artist rapping at the end of a radio interview gets the same showcasing.

The third is a very solidly African-American perspective. This is a series very much placed in Harlem, and the history of Harlem is not one of slavery or Jim Crow; they were things that happened elsewhere. There is much reference to "black" history in the series, but it is a running reference to the achievements of notable African-Americans. The invoked public history is a heroic history of example and achievement, not a victim history of oppression.

A recurring touchpoint within the series is that of missing fathers. Only about 30 percent of African-Americans are now born in wedlock. If one wants to see communities experimenting with large-scale dispensing with fatherhood, then African-American communities are it. Not encouraging examples, and certainly Luke Cage as a TV series treats missing fathers as a lack, a failure, a flaw and a burden.

A continuing theme in the series is the use of the word nigger (or nigga).  Luke Cage (Mike Colter) himself refuses to use it, and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodward), the Harlem councilwoman with the crime family background, announces to her night club-owning crime-boss cousin Cornel "Cottonmouth" Stokes (another fine performance by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali: but all the leads are well-played) how much she despises the word in one of the first scenes of the series. Cottonmouth himself says in that same scene that "it is easy to underestimate a nigger, you don't see him coming". The characters who embrace crime and violent street bravado are the ones that bandy the word about.

Civilised order versus gangster barbarism is very much a theme of the series (roughly as many African-Americans identify as conservative as identify as liberal). Doing work is a character positive, as is running a (small) business. Liberty versus coercion is also a theme in the series; though coercion in the broad, not merely state coercion. The oppressed/oppression language of politics which African-American life is so often framed by appears lightly in the series, and then in the context of cops and young black males.

But the series refuses to indulge in easy racial stereotypes--the most dire case of police brutality is between a large African-American detective and a teenage African-American boy, while good and evil, strength and weakness are treated as orthogonal to race or ethnicity. The police themselves are portrayed as people, not stereotypes.

The writing and acting are generally excellent. But fine acting has become the norm in the better TV series from the US. The days when you watched American shows for the bang-bang and car chases and British shows for the acting and the wit have long since passed.

Fathers may be significantly absent, but family is not. Cottonmouth's erratic, almost febrile, violence makes so much more sense as you learn his (and his cousin's) family backstory. While Luke Cage's own family drama turns out to be central to the story arc of the first season (and, it is hinted at in the last episode, perhaps longer).

The contrast between a grandmother who corrupted her family and a father who failed his sons is another example of the series refusing to indulge in easy stereotypes. As is detective Misty Knight's (Simone Missick) wrestling with being in the system yet dubious of it after she is confronted by betrayal from within it and Luke Cage's example outside it.   

Natural versus imposed diversity
I enjoyed the intelligence and story-first approach of the series. It is also an excellent example of the correct way to do "diversity": make sure story comes first and diversity comes naturally out of it.

If one is clever about it, one can successfully alter, for example, the sex and race of iconic characters. A classic example is Lucy Liu's wonderful Joan Watson in Elementary (2012-) which--like the mostly superb Sherlock (2010-)--gives us a contemporary Sherlock Holmes; but a recovering drug addict Sherlock who lives in New York and has a sober companion hired by his father as a condition of living in one of his brownstones foisted on him. Enter the (former) Dr Joan Watson who has giving up being a surgeon to be a sober companion and through whose eyes we find out about Sherlock. The dynamic works and is a great basis for storytelling. It is also nice to see two attractive (heterosexual) characters of the opposite sex in a strong and dynamic relationship with absolutely no hint of sexual tension.

(Pausing here for fan joke: Joss Whedon, Steven Moffat and George R.R. Martin walk into a bar and every character you've ever loved dies.)

Both DC and Marvel comics have falling readerships. Marvel in particular has gratuitously failed to leverage the success of its movies. There has been too much of "we command the cultural commanding heights and we are going to show our institutional dominance" approach of expanding diversity by obliterating historical voices (as in gratuitously changing the sex/race/sexual/gender identity of iconic characters) and too little increasing the range of voices with their own inherent stories.

In other words, too much of the rebooted Ghostbusters model and not enough of the Mad Max; Fury Road example. The two films' respective IMDB ratings (5.3 and 8.1) and box office results ($229m worldwide on a $144m budget--it failed to make its production budget in the US--versus $379m worldwide on a $150m budget; remembering that you have to add on about 50% to the production budget to include distribution costs) indicate which is the more successful road to go down.

Because it is the path more respectful of story: respectful of function and purpose which is audience-directed, not gratuitously imposed moralising, which is self ("look at us") directed. Luke Cage is first and foremost good storytelling, which is how it is able to invoke people and place so well, and do it with a clear and engaging voice.


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The founding falsities of postcolonialism

In his discussion with anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman, evolutionary psychologist and YouTuber Gad Saad offers (at 8.48) the following:
By the way, in terms of generative grammar, whenever when I see the word 'post' before anything then that raises a flag that it's bullshit. So post = bullshit; postmodernism, postcolonialism, post-structuralism. So, maybe Chomsky can one day weigh in on why the introduction of post implies that we are going to generate nonsense.
As it happens, Chomsky is not a fan of postmodernism: he is too much of a member of the Enlightenment left for that.

I have been less than impressed with my encounters with postcolonialism. It seems to be based on three fundamental errors: the Marx Mistake, the Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy.

The Marx Mistake
Marx's conception of the state, so memorably set out in Chapter 1 of The Communist Manifesto (pdf) (1848) held that:
The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
A useful (if somewhat grammatically challenged) summary-discussion of the Marxist approach to the state is here and a pithy summary is here. At its simplest, the underlying causal structure is that the production technology produces the class structure which produces the state. So that, while there is some scope for independent action by holders of state power, the class structure is prior to, and helps structure, the state.

Which is, for most of human history, simply false. For most of human history, the dominant creator of class structure was the state itself because the state was, until very recently, the dominant generator of surplus (that is, resources beyond the needs of basic subsistence) and surplus is the basis of social hierarchy.

Human societies, up until the break out of human productive capacity beginning in the 1820s, were basically Malthusian in their dynamics. More production led to more babies. The only way to systematically extract surplus was to extract resources before they were used to support more babies and, until very recently in human history, by far the dominant extractor of surplus was the state itself.

The state was originally an extractive parasite which needed to keep its host population controlled (or at least docile) and producing, as set out nicely in historical anthropologist James C. Scott's recent work Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earlist States. Political economist Omer Moav and his colleagues have been developing models of original states as using coercive extraction to get (pdf) around Malthusian constraints including the importance of how vulnerable crops were to expropriation (pdf).

As an aside, whether states have stopped, and to what degree, being extractive parasites requiring docile-and-producing populations is very much a live question. One can, for example, reasonably see the decay of Detroit as a parasitic (mainly city) state apparatus bleeding the life out of a weak civil society undermined by economic changes that the state impedes adjustment to.

Historically, the only competitors to state taxation in producing surplus was various forms of non-state labour bondage (serfdom and slavery) and trade. The former because key to labour bondage is to extract surplus from labour generally paid at subsistence levels; expropriating, as much as is practicable, any scarcity premium from labour. (There is some complexity with regard to use of slaves in more skilled situations [pdf], but it is still about coercive extraction of surplus.) Some of the surplus was then used to maintain the control over those in bondage, the rest to support elite social niches.

While this could create social groups that the state had reasons to bargain with, the support of the state itself was usually required to maintain the labour bondage. The Black Death (which greatly increased the scarcity value of labour because it killed people, not land, machines or coins) failed to see a return to serfdom in Western Europe as the various crowns failed to support the smaller landlords in their demands to re-impose serfdom because it was not in the various crowns' interests to do so.

Trade also produced surplus because it was too variable (essentially, too risky) to be reliably babied-away and often required larger (i.e. surplus-including) social niches to operate.

Even in societies with significant non-state control of surplus, avoiding autocracy and tyranny was a perennial concern, precisely because of the continuing power of the state apparatus. But the entire issue of how to manage state power becomes a non-issue if one believes altering the class structure eliminates the problem, because the state "ultimately reflects" the underlying class structure. The entire history of Leninist tyranny flows from that misconception, in tandem with the necessity to hugely concentrate power to achieve the justifying social transformation.

By stripping away private economic activity, Leninist states were not being cutting edge modernisers, they were being profoundly atavistic. So much so, that the one remaining full-deal Leninist state is a hereditary theocratic autocracy (with deified rulers--an eternal President and eternal Secretary-General): the most atavistic version of the state.

So, a founding mistake of post-colonialism has been to fail to see the state as an structure with its own support and dynamics, not as some reflection of class or race. (Note that class-analysis is inherently superior to race-analysis because class analysis does actually connect to, or bundle together, things which could reasonably be causal units: race does not.)

The Lenin Error
The Lenin Error flows from the Marx Mistake. This was to see imperialism as primarily an economic-class phenomenon.

Imperialism is fundamentally a state phenomenon. Imperialism is what states do, whenever they able to do so in an extraction-positive way. States of all types of social arrangements and economic bases have engaged in imperialism. As soon as there was states, there was imperialism.

As historian Niall Ferguson has observed, imperialism is the least distinctive feature of Western civilisation. The remarkable things about Western territorial imperialism are:
  1. How successful it was.
  2. How comparatively little effort that success required.
  3. How much richer post-Imperial Western societies became.
Atlantic littoral European states (plus Russia) managed to occupy, directly or via neo-Europes, most of the globe. That is a striking level of success, unparalleled in human history.

Yet, at no stage, was the major military effort of any European society deployed against a non-European or neo-European society. European global expansion was achieved while European military forces mostly faced off against other European military forces.

Both these features are products of the same feature: Europe developed incredibly effective states. Since imperialism is what states do, those European states with avenues of geographic expansion (Atlantic littoral states and Russia) produced very, very successful imperialism. Hence also the greatest danger to European states being other European states, and so being where most European military effort was focused.

Looking at the alliance structure among the European Great Powers prior to the Dynasts' War (1914-1918), if extra-European imperialism was the key thing, Britain should not have been allied to France and Russia, who were its main imperial rivals outside Europe. It was internal European state dynamics which drove the alliance structure because the biggest threat to any European state was other European states.

And what happened when the European states abandoned those territorial empires? They got richer. Indeed, some of the richest European states never had any colonial possessions outside Europe (Switzerland being the most striking example). While the state with the longest extra-European empire (Portugal) was one of the least-rich of European societies by the time it lost its empire. 

Imperialism had much less to do with the wealth of European societies than trade (which did not require an empire; though sufficient state effectiveness and military power could certainly motivate imperial expansion to capture revenue from trade) and production within Europe (which also did not require an extra-European empire). 

If we see imperialism for what it is, a manifestation of state action, then the history of European imperialism becomes much more explicable. Moreover, one can see that European imperialism is an unusual manifestation of imperialism (albeit still state-based), which is a much wider historical phenomenon that has no intrinsic connection to being European, to "whiteness", or to capitalism. 

Not that Western states entirely gave up imperialism as they gave up their colonies. It is just that Westerners were, and remain, much better revenue-extraction targets than non-Westerners, so Western states shifted more to colonising their own societies. That Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), as Chancellor of the Second Reich, and Eduard von Taffe (1833-1895), as Minister-President of the Austrian Empire, were founders of the welfare state is something to pay a bit more attention to.

Successful imperialism came late to Euro-Mediterranean Christendom cum Western Civilisation. From the C7th to the C16th, it mostly lost ground to a civilisation genuinely structured, from its origins, for imperialism, Islam. But, if one is committed to the Lenin error of imperialism as an economic-class phenomenon, then the imperialism of Islam vanishes from sight, as it is based on religion; particularly Sharia (from its origins, and in its nature, an imperial legal system), marriage laws and the consequences of polygyny in generating predatory males with no local wife prospects whose external aggression was then sanctified (including expropriating infidel women). Hence Islam, which was born in imperialism, aggressing against every culture and civilisation it came up against in its first millennia: something it never rejected, it just came up against European states who had (after a millennia) evolved into better predators. Mainstream Islam is a religion of dominance: which is the source of all the difficulties Islam is currently generating. 

The Fanon Fallacy
The Fanon fallacy comes from Frantz Fanon's (1925-1961) writings, particularly his The Wretched of the Earth (1961): some apposite quotes are here. The Fanon Fallacy is to mistake rhetorical justification for something's underlying nature. In particular, to see imperialism as a "white" phenomenon.

First, race is not a causal actor. It does not even bundle causal units together in a useful way. Plenty of Europeans were the victims of imperialism by European states (the Irish, Highland Scots, Welsh, Bretons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans, Slovenes, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Ukrainians ...).  Hardly surprising, as imperialism is what states do, not races.

Indeed, the Dynasts' War (1914-1918) was not sparked by extra-European imperialism, it was sparked by intra-European imperialism.

I call it the Dynasts' War because it was sparked by dynastic regimes under pressure from social changes, regimes that attempted to harness mass sentiment to preserve their regimes and ended up being swallowed by those sentiments: having mobilised mass sentiment requiring vindication-by-victory, they were then trapped by those same sentiments, so forced to continue the war to the bitter end (of their regimes). I dislike the term World War because the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) were at least as global as the 1914-1918 conflict.

It is true that racial arguments came to be used (mostly after the fact of conquest) to explain and justify European and neo-European imperialism. But justificatory rhetoric says something about audience for the rhetoric and the purposes of those using the rhetoric, it does not explain the underlying thing. Moreover, it is normal for imperialisms to have a central group who are mobilised to support the imperial project by status, career, resources and rhetoric.

In particular, it is normal for imperial state societies to generate justificatory rhetoric which exults the imperial culture and denigrates external or peripheral cultures. Chinese intellectuals, for example, did so for millennia; something that James C. Scott discusses in his wonderful The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

The Fanon Fallacy takes the (largely ex-post) imperial rationalisation and sees it as structurally central: it functionally accepts (though morally reversing) the racial framing of later European imperialism and mistakes it for the underlying causal reality.

In fact, race is a counter-productive rhetoric for imperialism to adopt, as it seriously impedes incorporating the conquered into the imperial project. Racial conceptions of imperialism--compared to, say, religious or cultural ones--generate a much sharper contrast between conquerors and conquered while obscuring the nature of imperial conquest, turning it from a state action into a race action.

What destroyed European territorial imperialism was the consequences of the Dictators' War (1939-1945), particularly the interruption of colonial control due to conquest of European metropoles and Japanese expansion and Nazi imperialism giving imperialism a bad name among the populations of imperial powers while validating resistance to imperialism. Other factors included: the increased cost (both physical and moral) of control due to the spread of communication, transport and military technology; the falling benefit of territorial control due to both the expansion of communication and transport technology and (despite the two great wars) continuing expansion of productive capacity in Europe and the neo-Europes relative to many imperial holdings (particularly in Africa).

US naval hegemony providing a guarantee of access to oceanic trade also helped to reduce the benefit of extra-European territorial control. Inside Europe, the consolidation of ethnic nations meant that states could achieve a higher revenue/expenditure trade-off if their citizens shared a common language and culture. All of which was about the dynamics of states and domestic politics and nothing to do with race.

Between the Marx Mistake of failing to see that states have generally been central to class structures (a pattern that Leninist states, ironically returned to and exemplified), the Lenin Error of seeing imperialism as class-economic phenomenon rather than first and foremost a state one and the Fanon Fallacy of mistaking the largely ex-post imperial rationalisation of race as a causal feature of imperialism, it is not surprising that I have been serially underwhelmed by post-colonialism as a basis for analysis.

The Wiped Slate
But wait, there's more. There is considerable scholarly evidence that pre-colonial patterns and institutions have continuing effects on contemporary human societies (see here, here, here, here, and here). Including that whether a culture used plough-based farming or not influences contemporary attitudes on the status of women. Or that the length of time since a human population adopted farming has a significant long-term impact on average life expectancy.

This is not to claim imperialism and colonialism had no continuing effects--see here (pdf) for a study on how being ruled by the Ottomans continues to have adverse institutional effects. But there is an obvious importance gain for postcolonial studies to talk up the effect of colonialism on previously subject peoples. Which leads to what we might call the Wiped Slate Effect: treating colonialism as if it was by far the dominant moulding experience of colonial societies and that experience as unrelievedly negative. Clearly not true--Afghanistan (until the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989), Iran (apart from the brief Anglo-Soviet occupation 1941-6) and Thailand were never subject to European territorial occupation, yet are hardly profoundly different from their neighbours, who were subject to such occupation.

The Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy both encourage tendencies to the Wiped Slate Effect. But so does Marx's view of modes of production being socially dominant, as in this 1853 piece on British rule in India:
All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history. ...
Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.
Lenin, of course, derived his analysis from Marx.

Which is not to say that Marx in anyway romanticised what the British found in India:
we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.
The British were part of the arc of history heading in the proper direction:
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
Here we see Marx the historicist, who did so much to infect the social science and humanities with the bug of moralised ideology, where approved (typically highly moralised) framing dominate fact and evidence, whose proponents look for footnotes to fit in with the framing rather than following the evidence wherever it leads. Framing dominating fact is something that the Marx Mistake, the Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy are all manifestations of and which post-colonialist analysis is pervaded with.

Fortunately, there is still plenty of empirical scholarship out there which is far more useful in understanding the world around us than any amount of portentous post-colonialism parading as useful scholarship.


[Also posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Vampire Diaries versus True Blood


I have long been fond of vampire stories, particularly films and TV shows. This is something of a cliche among same-sex attracted folk -- intimate sharing of bodily fluids in intense, often apparently orgasmic, experiences manifesting desire incorporating folk of the same-sex by powerful beings who get others to conform to those desires: what's not to like?

I very much enjoyed all 7 seasons of Buffy and all 5 seasons of Angel. The musical episode of Buffy is according to IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) ratings, close to perfect television. And who can forget the puppet episode of Angel? I also very much enjoyed the vampire noir of Ultraviolet which, across its episodes, never used the "V-word".

When True Blood came along, billed as "vampires for adults", I was initially quite engaged. I had read and enjoyed many of the books in the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris that inspired the TV series. Yet I gave up on True Blood in the 4th season.

Conversely, I had ignored The Vampire Diaries as just teen angst vampire romance. Having eventually given it a go, I am now watching the 8th (and final) season. I enjoy even more its spinoff series The Originals (now in its 5th season, though I have only seen the first two).

Which made me wonder, why did The Vampire Diaries hold my attention much more than True Blood did?

I find the IMDB ratings, if enough people rate a show, to be pretty good wisdom-of-crowds indicators of quality. The IMDB ratings (out of 10) of the aforementioned shows, are, in downward order:
The Originals, 8.3
Buffy, 8.2
Ultraviolet, 8.1
Angel, 8.0
True Blood, 7.9
The Vampire Diaries, 7.8
So, not a lot of variance; though The Vampire Diaries-Originals franchise is the most successful (producing the highest IMDB rated show of the group, though slightly lower combined rating, and more total seasons than the Buffy-Angel franchise).

True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are a mere 0.1 apart in IMDB ratings and why one engaged me more successfully than the other is not because of any clear difference in acting performances, eye candy or dialogue. Indeed, my stand-out favourite performance in either series is the (sadly) late Nelsan Ellis's performance of Lafayette in True Blood.

Nor is it a matter of moral seriousness. The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre whatsoever. (Nor, for that matter, does The Originals, which operates rather as a supernatural gangster show.)

True Blood has a much stronger queer element, starting with Lafayette, than The Vampire Diaries but that hardly seems a drawback for moi.  Nor am I one of those sad queer folk who demands queer content to enjoy something, though I devour male-male romance e-books.

The fabulousness that is
Lafayette
The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre, but it does have an emotional one. I have found it genuinely moving at times. Which gets to why it held my attention much more than True Blood.

First is place. Mystic Falls, the town at the centre of The Vampire Diaries, is more successfully and engagingly evoked as a place than Bon Temps in True Blood. The Originals has New Orleans, which almost counts as an unfair advantage, but has meant that The Originals continues and improves the evocation of place that worked for The Vampire Diaries.

Second, and related, is family. True Blood does not really take family seriously. It appears to, but families tend to be dysfunctional adjuncts to characters rather than engaged structural elements of the story. Vampire Diaries takes family more seriously, starting with the two central characters, the Salvatore brothers Stefan and Damon. Characters are very much placed in family contexts, with family histories which operate more than backstory props, with family being treated as a serious factor in people's emotional lives for good and ill. Which, in turn, helps Mystic Falls be a more successfully evoked place than Bon Temps.

Again, this strength applies even more to The Originals, which is centred around the original Vampire family, the Mikkaelsons. Particularly the brothers Klaus and Elijah, but extending to their father, mother, and siblings. But families as living and shaping legacies applies also to other The Originals characters, human, witch or werewolf.

True Blood, particularly in its opening credits, is more self-consciously culture-political than Vampire Diaries, which is a mixed feature, as it can get in the way of the story telling. True Blood is a bit too inclined to see the South in terms of its flaws, which weakens the show's use of family and invocation of place.

The Vampire Diaries also ends up creating a richer metaphysics than True Blood. In True Blood, supernatural creatures just are, and flit across the story more as mystery-marvels than things with a place. The Vampire Diaries, by contrast, is very much concerned to provide origin stories.

Which rather summaries why The Vampire Diaries held my interest more successfully than True Blood. It was more committed to story. Families as having stories, a specific town shaping stories, supernatural beings and structures as having stories. I stopped caring about what happened to characters in True Blood because it was too much one damned thing after another and too little people in connecting webs of people and place. For people who are inside stories have more capacity to engage than people who are story-props. The Vampire Diaries even managed to make a character who was off-screen for the last two seasons a continuing part of the story, both because of the way that was a continuing touchstone for the other central characters and because it enabled the show to return to the "diary" device by having various characters write entries to a journal of "what happened while you were away".

The character of Klaus Mikkaelson, played beautifully by Joseph Morgan, a recurring character in a couple of seasons of The Vampire Diaries and one of the central characters of The Originals, is an excellent example of character both in and driving story. He is clearly both embedded in his family and shaped by it. His life becomes focused around his (miraculous but explained) daughter. He is both highly intelligent and deeply emotionally flawed (for entirely understandable reasons: when you meet his parents, so much is explained--including why his brother Elijah is so keen to emotionally redeem Klaus). Indeed, being so smart, so cunning, yet so emotionally unbalanced, is central to Klaus's character dynamic -- he is smart/cunning enough to cope with his emotional flaws but too shaped by them to overcome them. Which generates plenty of dramatic tension, of course. But also makes him a deeply engaging, if at times horrifying, character. (Remember, no moral centre.)

The Vampire Diaries was more committed to story, which meant more committed to connections and place, than True Blood, which is why the former kept my interest in a way that the latter failed to do.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Islam as Philosophical Dead End

Classical (622 to c.940) and early medieval Islam was a civilisation and period with a rich philosophical tradition. Yet Islam became a philosophical dead end, an example of how societies, indeed, an entire civilisation, can stop supporting philosophy as a significant autonomous realm of enquiry. Islam is a civilisation where religion swallowed philosophy, with consequences we are still living with.

That Islam as a civilisation developed a rich philosophical tradition is obvious and well-documented. Thinkers writing in Arabic were particularly important in reconciling Aristotelianism with monotheism. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198) in particular was very influential in Latin Christendom. So much so that St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in his writings, would refer to Aristotle (384-322 BC) as The Philosopher and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as The Commentator.

Yet that rich philosophical tradition dwindled away to vanishing point. It did so as the result of interaction between ideas and social change.

The social dwindling

The social change was the dwindling away of any basis for supporting scholarship and learning outside explicitly Islamic religious schools. The movement to a fief-based military administration reduced administrative bureaucracies, by far the most significant basis for non-religious intellectual life within Islamic societies, while dominance by Turkish-speaking warlords, from the time of the Seljuqs (1037-1153) onwards, led to a surge in ostentatious support for religion by rulers making up for their non-Arabness via ostentatious religious adherence and patronage.

The shock and devastation of the Mongol invasion (much larger and far more traumatic than Crusader seizure of narrow coastal strips), including the sack of Baghdad (1258), the only time the capital of a living Caliph had fallen to non-Muslims, aggravated these trends. The Mongol invasion and conquests, particularly the violent ending of the Abbasid Caliphate, apart from a sad shadow-line in Cairo, both disrupted what non-religious scholarly networks remained and encouraged a retreat into an intensified Islamic identity. These processes are well set out in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr.

The religious trumping
The two philosophy-swallowing ideas developed from the Ash'ari Islamic school, being given their civilisation-winning form by al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111). The moral claim was that revelation was the only ground for ethical judgement. This effectively eliminates moral arguments as the West understands them (indeed, as all the origin civilisations for philosophy—the Hellenic world, northern India and China — understood them). It is why Islamic states are the only ones who have seen fit to issue an adjusted form of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, because all ethical arguments and claims have to be grounded in revelation.

The metaphysical claim is that Allah is the source of all non-human causation. Not merely the ground of causation in the Aristotelian sense, but literally the immediate cause of everything that happens. Allah remakes the world at every moment; what we see as causal patterns are merely the habits of Allah, which Allah can change at any moment.

Unsurprisingly, the dwindling away of philosophy also saw the dwindling away of science within Islam, as intellectual effort was directed back into religion. Especially as law was part of religion and religious scholarship, apart from elements (qanun) allowed to operate in the silences of Sharia.

In this way, Islam pre-eliminates competition to itself from within Islamic society. It does so by eliminating the category of moral arguments beyond itself and allocating all non-human causation to Allah. So the levers to replace religious grounding of social and physical understanding which led to the Western Enlightenment are absent within mainstream Islam, as they have no resting points. Especially as the Quran is held to be the literal word of God, a manifested miracle, written in a single language and, according to mainstream Sunni thought, outside time, so far more insulated from critical scholarship than the Christian scriptures.

Adoption aborted
The expansion of the non-religious intelligentsia from the early C19th onwards that the (much delayed) spread of the printing press and efforts of modernising rulers created in the Middle East appeared to give the basis for Islam as a civilisation to “catch up” with the West. A modernising intelligentsia did develop, but largely as a by-product and support for modernising regimes and states.

This centrally-organised, copycat modernisation largely failed to put down deep roots in Islamic societies. Worse, it became tied to success of those states and regimes. (In some ways, a repeat of what happened to the original wave of reason-based modernisers, the Mu'tazila of Classical Islam: Islam is a civilisation of strong recurring patterns.)

Islamic Enlightenment: the Struggle between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue provides a history of this modern abortive Enlightenment: an informative and perceptive review is here.

The Islamic world became dominated by fascist-analogue regimes. But defeat in the Dictators’ War (1939-1945) had rather discredited Fascism and the Soviet bloc was willing to supply arms and support to friendly regimes, so socialism became the dominant rhetorical flavour of non-monarchical regimes in the Islamic world. (Note that I mean socialism in its command economy sense rather than its “free-floating good intentions insulated from any failures” sense.)

But Arab socialism fared no better than its alternatives elsewhere; though, being less actually socialist, rather less catastrophically so. In the West, the failure of socialism led to postmodernism and its close associates, such as Critical Theory. In Islam, the failure of socialism led to political Islam (Islamiyya) and to a search for a purified Islam (notably the Salafi and Deobandi movements).

This was somewhat less of a difference than it might appear, as al-Ghazali’s causal analysis was grounded in essentially the same epistemologically sceptical argument about what we can know from observation later developed by Hume (1711-1776), which so influenced Kant (1724-1804) and from there led to postmodernism.

Moreover, Critical Theory permits no moral argument beyond itself, as the purpose of all “proper” intellectual endeavour is to support the struggle against oppression and any critique of that goal is, by definition, illegitimate defence of exploitation and oppression. An attitude which has seeped into the wider society (particularly the "cultural commanding height" industries of media, education, entertainment and IT) to the extent that start-up entrepreneur Sam Altman can report that it is easier to discuss heretical ideas in China (under a Leninist regime) than in Silicon Valley in California.

Monarchy, mosque and military
So both mainstream Islam and PoMo progressivism pre-eliminate competition. In Islam, outside the monarchical societies, the weakness of civil society leaves politics suspended between mosque and military. (The monarchies tend to have richer civil societies precisely because the monarchies both incorporate and balance between mosque and military and failed to wage quite the war on traditional society that the modernising military regimes did.)

The revival of the headscarf both speaks to the power of Islam and the revival of political Islam. (Trying to spin it as some sort of manifestation of female power is pathetic, even given that reveiling has largely been driven by [pdf] expanded education and employment opportunities for women, as it is a response responding to the power of Islamic belief.) That the Islamic world still has significant patches of relatively low literacy rates (especially for women), and (in the case of the Arab world) a strikingly low rate of translation of non-Arabic books, does not help the develop of non-religious thinking and ideas within Islamic civilisation.

What intellectual life there is within Islam remains trapped within the concerns of the early Western Enlightenment—how to replace and overcome religious grounding of social and physical understandings versus how to insulate religion from the pressures of modernity—and remains without the levers that the Western Enlightenment relied on. While there is some dim possibility of a moderate modernising approach developing, Islam is not likely to stop being mostly a philosophical dead-end civilisation any time soon.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, December 18, 2017

Origins of philosophy

This very short post by philosopher Stephen Hicks states that:
*Metaphysically*, philosophy was born with Thales and the Milesians. *Epistemologically*, it was born with Parmenides and the Eleatics.
The Milesian school began around 600 BCE on the coast of Asia minor. The Eleatic school began around 500 BCE about 1100 kilometers west in the southern Italian peninsula.
He also has a nice post on what distinguishes philosophy from pre-philosophic thought.

There are three original cultures with serious philosophical traditions -- Greece, northern India and China. Their philosophical traditions all started in periods of small, competing polities sharing a common language and culture: the Archaic Period in Greece (776-480 BC), the Srmana Period in northern India (700s-332BC ) and the Spring and Autumn Period in China (771-456BC).

The contiguous time periods are very noticeable. One can see why German philosopher Karl Jaspers came up with the notion of an Axial Age. As for what they have in common, one is that they all had contact with the militarised pastoralist societies which developed as a result of the invention of the composite recurve bow and effective deployment of mounted archers. They were periods of increased urbanisation (particularly noticeable in India but also in the Hellenic world.) They were all places that developed coinage but that was after philosophy and is a natural response by urbanised trading polities to intense inter-polity competition.

In the case of China, the focus was on competing autocracies developing out of a vassalage-and-honour ("feudal") system. So Chinese philosophy focused on how to live and what to serve (Confucianism), how to rule (Legalism) and how to navigate serenely a world of flux (Taoism).

India had a range of types of polities, including deliberative assembly republics. The Vedic order was collapsing and being challenged by new ideas, notably Buddhism and Jainism, followed by the Brahmin response, which led to what is known as Hinduism or better understood as the Hindu synthesis. This clash of ideas, ways of thought, ways of being governed, led to the very rich Indian philosophical tradition, ranging from mathematics to ethics to metaphysics but with a strong tendency to an otherworldly focus.

The Hellenic world (which ranged from Spain to Crimea) also had a wide range of types of polities, but much less religious flux, resulting in a very rich philosophical tradition ranging from mathematics, to ethics to metaphysics but with a stronger element of epistemology than elsewhere and a more this-world focus leading to proto-science and (if physicist and historian of science Lucio Russo is correct) a full-blown Scientific Revolution in the Hellenistic Period.

Philosophy starting in culturally linked competing jurisdictions makes sense because:
(1) thinkers could move from less friendly to more friendly locales;
(2) diversity of polities led to more chances of "positive mutations" (i.e. mixtures of circumstances and institutions provoking, or friendly to, more intense and broader reasoning);
(3) common language facilitated far more connections between thinkers and ideas.

India and the Hellenic world had a far richer range of polities than China, leading to a much broader range of experience and examples for reasoning about social and political matters. The effect was much stronger in the Hellenic world, which had few significant monarchies and which was in contact with a much broader range of societies and geographies than northern India and far more so than China. In particular, the sheer number of polities with deliberative assemblies made the politics of persuasion a much stronger factor. This encourages thinking about rhetoric but also public reasoning in general.

So, it is not surprising that the Hellenic world had a somewhat broader ambit of philosophy than India and that both had much broader than China. Nor is it surprising that philosophy, as with other forms of human creativity, tends to operate more strongly in periods of polity diversity and competition.


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sex and gender

This is based on a comment I made here.

If you think the bodies are sexed (clearly true) and psyches are sexed (a bit murkier, but broadly true) then it is easy to get more than two genders.

Male (male in body and psyche)
Female (female in body and psyche)
Third (body and psyche don't match).

Plenty of human societies have worked on that basis.

You can even work on a simple matrix and get four genders (male-male, female-female, male-female, female-male). But third gender classification (really "other") is more common.

And some societies, without going all the way to third gender, have operated on sub-genders (e.g. males held to belong to a separate category because, hey, not sexually interested in girls). Western notions of sexuality are a way of modifying gender identity.

Sexuality or gender?
Back in the C19th, with the intersection between growing anthropological awareness of other societies' takes on gender with a critical mass of urbanisation, secularisation and communication making gender/sexual minorities more able to begin to organise, there was an argument in Western circles about whether queer folk should be treated as third gender. The notion of "homosexual" (and its derivatives, heterosexual and bisexual) won out, as it seemed more scientific and less of a shift of basic presumptions.

What we are seeing is a revisiting of that debate. Unfortunately, it is turning up on the wrong side of postmodernism, so rather than being grounded in ethnography and empiricism, it is all about feelz and discourses. Hence the ludicrous explosion of "genders".

Bio-error
What has not helped is that feminism has tended to talk so much about the penis & vagina, which actually do not mark the differences between males and females nearly as much as people think, as they both perform the same functions (bring gametes together, provide sexual pleasure). One's an innie (so receives) and the other's an outie (so penetrates), but they otherwise perform the same functions. If you take that as the key distinguishing feature between male and female, then, if one surgically turns one into the other, you have changed sex.

Except, of course, you haven't. People have just been surgically adjusted to better support a change of gender identity. Which, if we had a three gender system, would be fine--it would then get rid of those tedious and fruitless debates about who is a "real woman".

What really distinguishes male from female are testes, ovaries and mammaries. And no trans surgery actually provides those, just the external form of them. Hence trans surgery does not actually change one's sex, just physical form to support a change of gender identity. Something that there is a long history of via castration, such as eunuch priests and hijras.

All about the mammaries
Rather than the penis and vagina, the key for understanding the statistical patterns of cognitive differences between men and women is, in fact, the mammaries. (Mammaries are on the sex that gives birth, so that they are right there when the baby emerges.)

We are the cultural species, that is the secret of our success. To be the cultural species, we need big brains. So big, that they have to keep developing outside the womb.

Which requires extended childhoods, which leads to the oddness of the human mammaries--they are unusually large and prominent, they don't change shape all that much when lactating, and they can keep operating for years at a time to support those long childhoods. Hence female homo sapiens are the childminding sex. But we are the cultural species, which means we are the public space species. If one sex is the [what is compatible with] childminding sex, then the other will be the "everything you can't do while minding kids" sex, which makes it (the males) disproportionately the public space [i.e. outside household and immediate surrounds] sex.

In subsistence societies, producing the next generation requires a lot of available resources and attention. So, until the dramatic changes in production and reproduction technology over the last two centuries, the allocations of roles by sex in human societies has radiated out from [what was compatible with] childminding.

We have been the cultural species for many, many generations. Thousands of generations. Easily enough time to select for variated cognitive patterns. And even more than our long pregnancies, our long childhoods has driven that (hence mammaries being the most biologically important driver of cognitive differences).

So, irony of ironies, the biology required to be a species which can socially construct so much means that cognitive differences between men and women cannot be entirely socially constructed. Even more ironically, in societies of mass prosperity, the statistical cognitive patterns of men and women are becoming more divergent (pdf), not less, just as the notion of presumptive sex roles is being abandoned.

But these are very complex mechanisms, with a lot of overlap, and nature is always "throwing" the "genetic dice". Moreover, genes are not molds, they are recipes. So the "epigenetic dice" is also being "thrown". And all before we get into social and environmental influences. Hence psyches not lining up with biological sex in neatly differentiated ways. Nor, for that matter, does physical sex always line up in neatly differentiated ways.

Hence needing some language to talk of the people who do not fit. Having a third gender category does solve a lot of problems, which is why so many societies developed it. But that does not excuse the multiplying genders nonsense.


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]