A Better Utopia

I’ll be the first to admit that, on first read, the Green New Deal — that hefty package of legislations designed to tackle global warming — comes off as utopian. “Our charge is about saving the planet,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded us, “[The Green New Deal is] kind of…a broader agenda.”

One part of the deal is by no means controversial, it includes all the obvious hallmarks of an environmental legislation: calling for more energy efficiency, smarter grids, and investing in renewable energy sources. But why, we might wonder, do we include reforms in public ownership, indigenous sovereignty and economic equality too? These are “all good values,” as Pelosi says, but is this the time to insist on solving all the world’s problems in one fell swoop?

Most of us will see Pelosi, and others like her, as the counterpoint to proponents of the Green New Deal, or in other words, as the “realists, pragmatists, or rationalists,” opposite the utopians. In broad strokes, these rationalists acknowledge global warming as the paramount threat of this generation (a good start), but they reason from this fact that we can — and should — put aside our (necessary) differences on other issues to unite against this existential threat common to all. Save the world first, they’ll preach; our society comes later.

What belies this rational front, however, is a pernicious naiveté with respect to how the world actually works.

How do you support divestment without understanding that continued invasion of indigenous land is what enables fossil fuel extraction in the first place? How do you tackle the fossil fuel industry while ignoring the political-economic system that keeps it afloat, a system that will just as easily pivot to an exploitative and damaging lithium industry should the need arise? What does it even mean to make the world liveable and sustainable if liveability and sustainability are defined to the exclusion of certain people, let alone species?

Having revealed my hand, let me now reverse the question often directed at us utopians. Tell me, how do you solve this one problem without tackling all the others? That is like trying to make tea without boiling water.

If utopianism entails an unrealistic belief in a perfect world, then the “rationalists” have us beat. In their fantasies, causes and effects are disentangled, problems are neatly apportioned in disassociated chunks, and all we need to do is work through them one by one like your middle-school math homework. We can save the world without really changing it. How convenient!

So, if we’re all going to be utopians anyways, why settle?

Who is the “I”?: Anti-Essentialism in Dazai’s No Longer Human

I’m not sure where the idea that we have exclusive access to our “true” selves came from (maybe Descartes’ whole thing with “I think, therefore I am?”), but it certainly seems to have stuck. Of course, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the psychologists have known, for a long time, about how our biases affect how we construct our own identities. Still, these biases apply just as well to anyone else, so they do not challenge the idea that there is some special relation we have to ourselves that others do not.

This idea is what makes first-person novels so interesting to me, because these novels, implicitly or otherwise, take on a different authority. While the first-person perspective has been historically used to motivate an unreliable narrator, thus rendering a separation between the speaker and the so-called objective world; the subjective aspects of the novel, that is, the desires, intentions, beliefs, and motivations of the first-person protagonist cannot be questioned. These things are incorrigible, to put it in philosophical jargon, i.e. you cannot be wrong about your own desires, intentions, beliefs, and motivations.

In the novel No Longer Human, the protagonist Oba Yozo believes that he is not human. Whatever he may be, it is a matter of fact that he believes he is not human. He cannot relate to the humans that surround him. That much cannot be questioned. He pretends to be farcical, likable, but he is not really so. That cannot be questioned either. Or so the story goes.

Though the book was initially written in 1948 (the English translation being released 10 years later), its themes still resonate today, perhaps more than ever. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the concept of “intention” and “belief” have been thrust into the spotlight of our mainstream political discourse. It seems everywhere we turn, there is some discussion about someone’s intentions behind their actions, but more than that, there is an unhealthy emphasis being placed solely on one’s intentions. It is our intentions that define us, that condemns or acquits us from moral wrongdoing. How many comedians have we seen that apologize by stating their wholly innocent “intentions?”

What I find remarkable about Dazai’s novel is that the book spends almost all of its time building up this character Oba as solely a performer, someone whose intentions run contrary to his actions, someone who has spent his life, in essence, “faking it.” And what is worse than a pretender? We hate them, right?

But to say this is to say assent to the idea that we do have some special, exclusive access to our true nature. In some way, we know ourselves better than anyone else. So here, we must ask, why? Our relationship to ourselves is just another one of many relationships; is there any a priori reason to think this has to be different? Yes, we may have access to certain parts of ourselves, but so do others. Just as only we can truly know how we feel, only others can truly know how they feel about the actions we take, only others can know how our actions affect them. And is that not a form of knowledge they have about us, that we do not? If so, why think that is any less “special” than the kind of knowledge we have about ourselves?

In the prologue of the novel, Dazai does exactly this, where a character pronounces this: “The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing and if only he hadn’t drunk — no even though he did drink — he was a good boy, an angel.” In a seemingly abrupt ending, Dazai declares that no, Oba was wrong, he was human, if only he knew himself better.

Do Companies Dream of Numerical Sheep?

A few years back, there was what seemed to me a sudden spike in the number of articles on the ethics of self-driving cars, and perhaps for good reason. Machine learning was really hitting its stride, the (Western, technocratic) world was excited, and as with all novel technologies, critics came to temper our enthusiasm. The main idea behind these articles was this: how should we program the car to approach ethical dilemmas? Should it protect the driver? Apply a utilitarian principle? A deontological one? The normative ethicists are finally getting their time in the spotlight.

The reason (or at least one reason) we might care is that we want to know where the responsibility lies. But it seems in all these discussions, one option does not really get taken seriously: that the car itself is responsible.

Controversial, maybe, but here’s what I mean. Obviously, it does not mean that we throw a Tesla in jail on bail and wait for the court dates. But like a good criminologist who does not ask whether a criminal is morally responsible for their criminal actions so much as what factors drive the individual to commit these actions, so too, we should ask the same of the self-driving car. In other words, we ought to ask how and why the car was put in the situation in which it had to make these moral decisions.

Instead of assuming that these moral decisions come up inevitably, we should challenge their existence. Do self-driving cars necessitate a re-structuring of our city-scape, forcing us to rethink the concept of roads and sidewalks, or more generally how our pedestrian lives are entangled with our driving lives? Or for that matter, is self-driving technology best suited for private vehicles? Can it not be implemented into a better public transit system? Would this latter possibility not mitigate many of the risks associated with self-driving vehicles?

(Let’s not even get started on a class analysis of the ethics of self-driving vehicles, which is grossly absent from the articles I have read on mainstream news outlets. Suffice to say the people at risk in these real-life trolley problems are mostly going to be devoid of the rich.)

My point here isn’t really to advocate for any of these restructuring agendas (though I am a fervent supporter of investment in better public transportation), I am far from qualified. What I want to do is expose some assumptions about our ethical discussions on self-driving vehicles, and how these assumptions subtly reinforce a particular vision of the world as natural, and thus, unchangeable. The world is not. And, to make my point clear, maybe we should ask, why do we even want self-driving cars in our lives anyways?

Now, I have been speaking of self-driving cars as a future event, something that has begun to creep into our lives, but still remains far enough for us to “figure it out” before it shows up in full. But really, the fundamental problems I have with our discourse on self-driving cars is nothing new. It is not, as many writers make it seem, a unique problem posed to us by a radically new form of technology, i.e. machine learning/artificial intelligence. The technology may be new, I guess, but all technology alters the way we interact with each other and the world. The dearth of imagination in our discussion of the ethics of self-driving cars, however, represents a failure that is just as present in our discussions of business ethics.

If anything, corporations are forms of artificial intelligence. They operate with a certain telic logic (without being reducible to simple binary operations) that we might, if we expand our definition a little, even call intelligence, and this intelligence is no less artificial than that of a computer chip. In fact, we’ve begun to treat corporations as sentient beings, capable of intent. Just take a look at the whole fast food twitter thing happening a while back.

Wendy’s as Smug Anime Girl

The psychologists among us might point and cry “that’s just projection! Of course we all know they don’t really think!” And most of us will concede the point (I will too for now, as there isn’t enough room to get into a debate on the philosophy of mind). Yeah, corporations, like self-driving cars, don’t really think or even act. They are not moral agents, so we cannot rethink their place in the world. And like self-driving cars, the result is that we look elsewhere for moral responsibility, which of course, means the focus is shifted back onto the human.

As ethicists, we can only ever ask whether the people who work for corporations are morally responsible for unethical behavior by these same corporations. As individuals, we can only ever hope to act as ethically as we can within the confines of our roles in these corporations. In both cases, the lines have been drawn. The existence of corporations itself cannot be understood morally, or so they say. No, we do not need to ask whether corporations really need to exist, especially if our concern is living in a more ethical world. We take them as a given, and proceed from there. But why?

For so long, artificial intelligence has captured our collective imaginations. In our college dorms, we might ask ourselves whether our technologies may overtake us, drawing on our extensive knowledge of popular science-fiction like The Matrix or the Terminator franchise. We might ask whether we have the power to unplug our own creations. Well, it looks like the problem isn’t whether we are able to unplug or not, but whether we even know what it is that needs unplugging. Our current situation suggests that, no, we do not.

It’s weird, because we have so little trouble casting humans out of our world. The United States is particularly egregious in this matter. We throw them in prisons, mental asylums, deport them, murder them. It is so easy for us to tell someone, your existence threatens my world, so you are no longer welcome. Yet we never truly think to do the same with corporations or cars, even when we believe they do not have feelings and cannot suffer, which, if anything, ought to make it so much easier to say goodbye.

So much for our so-called Humanism.

Further Readings:


Going With the Flow: The Midnight Gospel and Epiphenomenal Philosophy

The Midnight Gospel was a confusing and conflicted watch for me. Up until the sixth episode, the show presented itself as basically an anthology series featuring semi-related vignettes, in which our protagonist Clancy visits differentiated simulated worlds and interviews a character for his “spacecast,” a podcast for, I guess, space.

Just from the premise alone, this was my type of show, and there was a lot to like about the first five episodes. While the different philosophies espoused by characters of the show can seem quite surface level at times, the show itself doesn’t seem to hide it. It is called The Midnight Gospel after all, a nod, perhaps, to the weird cosmic detours conversations can turn once midnight hits and you find yourself awake with a companion.

But between these free-flowing conversations, you could glean a central philosophy underlying it, a philosophy that works to give it that Linklater-esque conversational momentum. As with much of Pembleton’s work, the dialogue is more a gushing than an exchange, with characters building on, rather than acting against each other. Even the visuals, with characters never stopping for too long in space or composition, subtly enhances this movement. Go with the flow, the show seems to be saying.

There is something I found utterly refreshing about this. Adventure Time displays the same unceasing movement over its runtime, true (Finn, the show’s protagonist, for example, actually ages, unlike most children’s shows), but it is in The Midnight Gospel that this movement becomes the central focus.

Movement, as it turns out, happens to be the antithesis of modern mainstream philosophy, in the sense that philosophy is primarily about rigorous deliberation (sometimes for deliberation’s sake). It is about finding everything wrong with an idea, with either the hope of fixing it or moving on to a different one. Mainstream philosophy wants to, must, stop at every turn. The Midnight Gospel is not interested in that, instead, it goes, “well, hey, that’s interesting, where can we go with that?”

Clancy, in their role as an interviewer, then, acts as a particular type of philosophical interlocutor, in the same way Socrates acts as one in Plato’s writings. But rather than finding flaws (as Socrates does so well), Clancy “goes with the flow.” He pokes and prods at times, to be sure, but does that not to stop the movement but to continue it, not to problematize but to clarify and expand. It is a form of philosophical generosity that is quite rare, I find. It is a show that does not fight back with our pre-given assumptions but takes radical ideas in stride.

Still, there is also an ever-present worry, that despite how much I enjoyed the show (at least until episode 6), I could not fully shake. And unfortunately, the problems I do have with the first half of the show comes part and parcel with what I loved about it.

You see, “go with the flow” is a great philosophy when contrasted with the sort of oppressive, un-moving quality of mainstream philosophy in which nothing happens, it also births another sort of oppressive form of philosophy in which many things happen, but nothing matters. It is philosophy as epiphenomena. All the characters move, yes, but there is no destination.

In the fifth episode, this message is honed in. Clancy arrives at a prison and converses with a bird while watching an inmate repeatedly die. Here, the show gives us conflicting messages. On the one hand, it says “everything is connected,” and on the other hand, it tells us to accept the world as it is, that there are some things you can control and some things you can’t, which is to say some things just happen, they are random. But if everything is connected, how can anything be random? If randomness means something’s being is not determined by anything else, then isn’t randomness just a form of ultimate dis-connect?

The fifth episode inadvertently sums up the show so far. As much as things do happen on screen-time, and as crazy or radical as they may be, they are ostensibly random. They don’t mean anything. How we see it, well, that’s for us to figure it out. All we can do is take it in stride. Go with the flow, so to speak, but never change it.

Even the premise of the show itself subtly reinforces this point. Clancy goes into a simulator. It isn’t real. Clancy makes a spacecast, which blasts out to only one person. His actions, in this sense, aren’t real either. They are inconsequential. Nothing really matters in the show, not even within the world of the show. Like mainstream liberalism, everything is lip service, nothing is real. So, at this point, I thought I had a good idea of my thoughts about the show. Then, episode six came around.

Actually, the stage was set well before episode six. If I had been watching more closely, as I did on my second run through, I would’ve noticed that things did matter, as much as I was led to believe they didn’t. The throw-away lines of the simulator’s nagging, the sister who Clancy owes money to, and the random items that pop back with Clancy are actually central to the point.

Clancy, you see, has been hopping into the simulator to avoid responsibility, a.k.a to avoid the “real world.” This completely re-contextualizes the “go with the flow” philosophy that has been implicit so far, and reveals it to be less a form of engagement and more a form of avoidance, of negligence. At once, the show moves from being utterly inconsequential, with nothing to say, into one of the most incisive critiques of mainstream liberalism, whose hallmark is precisely that it manages to both welcome all forms of civil discourse and ignore them; discourse, in our liberal society like in Clancy’s simulations, becomes epiphenomenal, at best negligible, and at worst actively undermining real change (for more on this point, see Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies).

But just as soon as this interpretation had taken hold, the show pivots two more times, once at the end of episode six, and another at the start of episode seven. At the end of the sixth episode, Clancy had overcome his avoidance of responsibility and becomes enlightened. Of course, I found this quite problematic, since certain strands of Buddhism were known for their denunciation of the self, and if there is no self, how can the self hold the property of being enlightened? To be clear, this was not just a misreading of Buddhist philosophy, it directly undermined its criticism of liberalism, since to retreat back into a state of mindless meditation (it must be stressed that many Buddhist mindfulness practices were never divorced from politics) is to reassert the ostensible message of the first five episodes. However, episode seven reverses its message once again, and claims that, actually, Clancy was wrong to believe he was enlightened. “That was embarrassing,” Clancy admits to his simulator.

At this point, I was ready to give up. I enjoyed the show (I mean, the last episode genuinely made me cry), and maybe that was all it needed to be. I didn’t know how to analyze it, anyways. It seemed all over the place. But re-watching it that second time, one line in particular stood out. It happened at the end of episode seven, and in it, Clancy goes, “Even though your life is out of tune, you can still sing along with it.” I doubt this is some sort of meta-commentary on the show itself, but it works nonetheless.

The Midnight Gospel is not a perfect show, and mostly because no show can ever be perfect. But it is a show that is, at times, beautifully out of tune. It is a show that, intentionally or not, strikes at the core inconsistencies in my own life, and my own philosophies (perhaps all of ours). It is, really, fundamentally about a person trying to understand, to come to terms, with their world, without always having all the right tools to do so, and without ever knowing whether they might come to have such tools. This isn’t to say the show advocates some mindless intellectual modesty; quite the opposite. The show tries to grapple with big questions, tries so so hard, and sometimes even comes close (episode seven, for me, comes the closest), but it ultimately falls short. The limits of its creators, and perhaps the format of a Netflix show that must appeal to audiences, are on full display. Still, in its mess of inconsistencies, inconsistencies that I, too, have always and will forever be guilty of, what can we do but keep moving? Isn’t that what I’m doing? I mean, this blog post itself is not entirely off the hook: I criticize the combative stance of mainstream analytic philosophy but also take my time to complain about the cowardly and not altogether honest tolerance of liberalism. So what is it? What am I saying? Who knows? And yet, here I am, publishing this unfinished, inconsistent, honestly kind of lackluster piece of writing. Well, the flow, whatever it is, carries us all.

A Glass Analysis

In the slew of celebrity self-help videos, in which they “help” us through this corona-virus pandemic together, it may be tempting to make fun of the fact that, firstly, no one buys it, secondly, yeah I bet everything’s fine in your secluded mansion, and thirdly, why do all your houses look the same anyways?

I won’t recount the exact history of this FLW-style modernist design, but it’s worth asking, I think, how these modernist buildings came to symbolize a certain modernist form of power, especially, if you’ll notice, given the liberal use of glass. These brittle boxes are a far cry from the medieval castles from our collective imagination, whose brutal strength was demonstrated quite literally in their harsh, stony builds. Castles radiate their power; their strength was physical.

Of course, this sort of brutalist design is not limited to some mythical and romantic pre-modernity; they exist in plenty of government buildings and military facilities to this day. And yet, it seems that at least with respect to the economic elites, your celebrity homes and financial districts and gentrified downtown neighborhoods have a certain fetishism for glass. Bullet-proof glass in some cases perhaps, but glass nonetheless.

There are two quite simple suggestions here. From the inside, glass represents freedom. It opens the enclosure to the world without losing its inherent exclusivity. You can be outdoors indoors. In this sense, nature is thoroughly conquered, the aim of modernity finally achieved. To take all that one can get without giving any back. So this is one suggestion. Conversely, from the perspective of those on the outside, what is inside the glass takes on a commodified existence. The glassy exterior mirrors the storefront. The plastic hetero-normative family or the buzzing life of a Wall Street banker, it doesn’t matter. You can have it too, the glass says. They might as well be mannequins. All is for sale, if only you could pay.

But there is something more here, something even more pernicious. It may seem weird to phrase it this way, but in a sense, glass is parasitic. What I mean here is that its aesthetics is derived, at least in part, from its background, its context. Of course, the aesthetics of anything cannot be totally isolated, but glass is different. It holds minimal aesthetic appeal, if any, by itself. It exists only in complementation. A window looking only into pure darkness is, after all, no window at all.

Bong Joon Ho’s recent Parasite is a great example of this in action. Take the two central window-images of the film, the window from the Kim family’s semi-basement and the cinematic backyard facing one from the Park family’s modernist home.

One looks over a landscaped backyard, while the other into a grimy alley, whose meager view is further obstructed by prison-like bars. Both windows, yet vastly different from one another. The windows are parasitic on the material conditions of each family’s financial context. What is so luxurious about windows? Nothing for the Kim’s, apparently.

The glass’s aesthetics rests on a presupposed material condition, and so it is with its power. Glass itself is brittle, and yet it exerts power because it has come to display the invisible, all-encompassing power of modern social democratic liberalism: you will never get to the point of making contact (and breaking) the glass because the iron front gates, the patrolling security guards, and the implicit threat of a police call would have stopped you well before that point.

Where before, the brutal structures challenges violence with its own violent rigidity, glass can now welcome it. It makes itself vulnerable, and in its vulnerability, the challenger to the status quo becomes the perpetrator, the illiberal, undemocratic, backwards, unreasonable, violent individual, and the comfortable becomes the well-meaning victim.

Glass dares to be brittle because the game has already been won. It is like making a bet in poker after having seen everyone’s hand, which is to say it is no bet at all. To move forward then, takes much more than breaking just the glass ceiling. We have to tear down the whole house.

The connection between glass and the storefront is taken from chapter 3 of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964).