Fireside 2.1 ( Weird Studies Blog Fri, 16 Feb 2018 07:00:00 -0500 Weird Studies Blog en-us No one understands you Fri, 16 Feb 2018 07:00:00 -0500 dd996e5f-a639-4d8a-81d3-a9326021dad7 Phil dusts off a decade-old blog post on an epistemic dead end in identity politics Post by Phil Ford

Since 2006 (with time off now and then) I have been recording my thoughts at Dial 'M' for Musicology. By now co-blogger Jonathan Bellman and I have accumulated close to 700 posts at Dial M and at this point I have forgotten a lot of the stuff I've written for that site. The other day I re-discovered something I wrote in January 2009 called "No one understands you" and was surprised at how much it predicted a certain dead end in which conversations around identity always find themselves nowadays.

One historical interest I developed in writing my book Dig is the intellectual history of the American Left. When identity politics became a hot topic in recent years (and I am old enough to remember its last big moment in the early 1990s) I knew what I was looking at: an argumentative dead end that the American left has been stumbling into since the 1960s. The postmodern left, the academic left, has inherited a useless mental script from its New Left parents. Anyone who has gone to an academic conference in the last few years will have seen some variation on the following script play out in someone's Q&A session:

A: You suck.

B: No, you suck.

C: Speaking as a C, I think you both suck.

A: You would say that, wouldn't you.*

Needless to say, no-one is really having a conversation in this type of a situation.

Now, on a platform called "Weird Studies" you might think it's going to be Halloween every day and therefore wonder why I am talking about postmodern-left politics and not something a bit sexier. But I'm always interested in those habits of mind that limit what we can think, and this script has got to be one of the most limiting of all. And it is no longer confined to academia: the big story of progressive politics in recent years, I think, is the wholesale transfer of academic styles of thought to the mainstream. All of Twitter now looks like a particularly poisonous faculty meeting.

So I am going to dust off this old blog post and re-publish it here on Weird Studies, taking the opportunity to clean it up a little and bring it up to date.

About 15 years ago I was on a postdoc at Stanford University and doing research at the Hoover Institution archive, a bottomless well of ephemera related to every conceivable political opinion. I was looking into the late-1960s/early 1970s historical moment during which countercultural notions of revolution seemed kinda-sorta plausible. One of the things I found in the New Left collection was a digest of the "underground press" called Source Catalogue Communications. It listed publications (some of them profoundly obscure) in order of affinity group -- black liberationist, women's liberationist, gay, Chicano/a, etc. One of the categories was "high school movement." Did you know there was a radical high school student movement analogous to the collegiate SDS? No? That's because there wasn't one. Not really, anyway -- at least nothing much beyond a few wildly self-dramatizing high-school publications that lasted one or two issues before disappearing (presumably after a stern lecture from Dad in the family den). But a "radical high school movement" could be posited in advance of any such movement actually materializing because it made sense to imagine that very young people would form an autonomous and radical political consciousness. This was the logical extension of an already well-entrenched habit of New Left thought.

One thing the New Left borrowed from Marxism was a particular mechanism of radical critique. George Orwell somewhere writes of how the animals in Animal Farm develop a Marxist-style critique of human power: from the point of view of the animals, the class lines that divided men were really only illusions, transient and shallow eddies in the world current. Humans might fight among themselves, but when faced with revolutionary animals they would unite against a common enemy. Thus it could be proven, in proper dialectical fashion, that the mechanics of class struggle are secondary to the true engine of world oppression, the domination of animals by humans. This is a parody of Marx's critique of the bourgeoisie: they only seemed to favor universal rights in opposition to the hereditary power of the landed classes, but when faced with proletarian revolution they would show their true colors and band together with their erstwhile enemies. Marxist critique then could argue that it got at a more fundamental truth than any of its competitors -- for example, the ideas associated with liberal politics. It was a style of critique that knocked the legs out from under its competitors by asserting a kind of radical consciousness that sees things at a deeper level. This deeper level would remain unavailable to those not initiated into the Marxist gnosis.

This critique played out in the New Left, but in an increasingly fractured way. At the beginning of the sixties it was leveled against liberals in a civil-rights context: northern liberals appeared to oppose southern reactionaries, the argument went, but when the chips were down both factions would unite against black revolution. African Americans, then, had a privileged consciousness of oppression that liberals and reactionaries alike did not and could not share. At about the same time, though, the young -- meaning the collegiate youth who made up the SDS -- started to think of youth as a category similarly left out of consensus and similarly equipped with a unique consciousness. And once the New Left had learned to make this cognitive move, any number of groups within it could posit their own radical consciousness, each marginalized by all the others: Native Americans, women, gays, hispanics, poor whites, etc. But no-one could agree any more on which radical consciousness was more foundational than any other -- or, to put it more crudely, who was the most oppressed.** And as a result the New Left split into mutually uncomprehending groupuscles, and the vision of a grand unified movement of the Left faded in the early 1970s.

One little line from Source Catalogue Communications underscores this point. It is a quote from Our Time Is Now, a publication of the “high school movement” that “explains that high school students are forming their own consciousness, and shouldn’t be treated (by SDS organizers or anybody else) as embryonic college students.” This was in 1970: whoever wrote this was simply rehearsing a well-worn trope. By then, any New Left groupuscule could claim its own radical awareness, whose particularity and un-co-optedness would be jealously guarded. The thinking goes, We're young, but we're not college students. We are oppressed in ways that college students can't even begin to understand. As the more-oppressed we claim the right to have our own institutions, our own underground papers, our own movement, uncontaminated by college students. The pocket-sized radical consciousnesses claimed by the “high school student movement” et al find their historical echo in the identity-political factionalization of the early-mid 1990s and in the present day.

And it was as self-defeating in the 1970s as it would be in its later forms, because once you claim unique and privileged perspective for your own group you have made an epistemological end-run. Staking a claim to radical consciousness, you are left with nothing to say but shut up and listen, now, to this new voice of conscience; I and those like me have been silenced by you for too long. While this rhetoric is powerful -- it does get people to shut up, at least -- it removes the possibility of real communication. If the members of a given group assert a consciousness of oppression that privileges their collective voice as uniquely their own and epistemically unavailable to those outside it, on what basis could those outside the group understand them?

If I'm an outsider to a group's shared consciousness, the best I can do is remain mute as I am lectured on things I am assured I will never understand and must therefore take on faith. I am faced with a stark choice: submit to authority or rebel against it. But conversation, true conversation, becomes impossible, because if this is the conversational role I'm stuck with, I can never be on an equal footing with my interlocutor.

Think of it this way: I make an utterance in the expectation that it will be understood, and, so doing, I envision (or at least have an enabling tacit background assumption about) the kind of person who will understand that utterance. In speaking, I am positing another speaker, and in interpreting me, my interlocutor is entering into that role. The philosopher Donald Davidson has argued that this is a basic, non-negotiable aspect of all communication. If you cannot assume that your interlocutor (real or virtual) shares the same basic habits of mind and standards of rationality as you, then there is no basis for any kind of interpretation at all. “If we cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behavior of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards, we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything at all.” (Davidson, “Radical Interpretation,” in Truth and Interpretation, 137.)

If you say "no-one understands me except people who are like me," then how could anyone understand or even care about your oppression? We understand people when only we can make a threshold assumption that their minds are something like ours. This isn't the same thing as saying that people are exactly like us, or that people will always be as rational as we ourselves are. It is just to say that when you set yourself up on a hermeneutic pedestal, placing yourself above your interlocutors, you won't have a conversation.***

And that's pretty much where we are today: not having conversations. Instead, we have monologues, sermons, rants, diatribes, accusations, and parodies; we don't talk to one another, but about one another, from within our cushioned solitudes. For one of the things that distinguishes this historical moment from earlier ones is that the American Right has learned the style of critique I have tried to anatomize here. Now we're all doing it, and it's as if we can't remember that only a few short years ago there was some other way we used to think.

*I didn't invent this archetypal dialogue; the person who did is an academic who enjoys the quiet life and most certainly does not want to be publicly associated with even an innocent joke like this. Which gives you some idea of the mood of fear that hangs over the academy in the age of the Cold Civil War.

**Latter-day identity politics tried to avoid getting dragged into the "oppression Olympics" with the notion of intersectionality. Suffice it to say, it didn't work.

***Francis Davis once wrote about the loft-scene free-jazz/poetry/political rants he remembers from the early 1970s, “the confusing gist of which was likely to be that only blacks were culturally equipped to understand jazz and white people ought to be ashamed of themselves for not supporting it in greater numbers.” This is also the same habit of mind one finds among hipsters of all stripes, who resent uncool outsiders and at the same time resent the cultural "mainstream" that doesn't understand their music.

Weird Studies Exists Wed, 07 Feb 2018 16:00:00 -0500 c0a53ff0-61eb-47dd-af77-1c1d1991660d JF announces the launch of Weird Studies on his Reclaiming Art blog -- reposted here. Hello. Long time no see.

Weird Studies, a new art and philosophy podcast I've been developing with professor of musicology Phil Ford, is now live. New episodes will appear every other Wednesday. Eventually, we may crank it up to one a week.

Here's the "About the Show" copy:

"Weird Studies" is a scholarly field that doesn't and can't exist. 

The Weird is that which resists any settled explanation or frame of reference. It is the bulging file labelled “other/misc.” in our mental filing cabinet, full of supernatural entities, magical synchronicities, and occult rites. But it also appears when a work of art breaks in on our habits of perception and ordinary things become uncanny. 
The Weird is easiest to define as whatever lies on the further side of a line between what we can easily accept from our world and what we cannot. And it defines an attitude towards whatever lies on that side of the line: a willingness to remain suspended between explanations and abide in strangeness.

Phil and I have been recording material for the show since September. We decided to launch the show with two episodes, a short "Introduction to Weird Studies" where we discuss the concept of the weird outlined above, and a longer, crazier one titled "Garmonbozia," which intersects Twin Peaks: The Return with the creation of the atom bomb to say something about the underlying mood of the present age.

Our modus operandi is to discuss whatever topic strikes our fancy in the hope that others will dig them as well. Upcoming themes include Arthur Machen's terrific novella The White People, the occult power of Dungeons & Dragons, the spectre of nihilism haunting contemporary academia, bloodsports, and lots of others. Over the last couple of years, Phil and I have indulged in a correspondence that passed the 100,000-word mark a while ago. This is our way of taking the conversation online to see what happens.

Some serious acknowledgements are in order here. Joseph Cook did an amazing job designing our logo, and Matt Melanson gave us an awesome illustration that conveys the weird mood. My brother Pierre-Yves Martel wrote the theme music and the transitions between segments, and my wife Lesley Halferty recorded the intro and outro. Big thanks to all four for freely lending their formidable talents and skills to the project.

Birth of the Weird Wed, 07 Feb 2018 10:00:00 -0500 d2b77d2d-9d31-4412-b78d-82fbbff949d8 Phil's "hello world" post for Weird Studies A few months ago, I announced that J.F. Martel and I are starting a podcast, Weird Studies. And now, at last, here it is!

New episodes will be added soon, but for now we have two up: a half-hour intro episode and a full-length show that follows a train of thought begun in my "the Cold War never ended" series, which was really the point where I started writing about magical styles of thought, at least on my blog Dial M for Musicology.

To some degree, Weird Studies is a product of that writing. But even more, it's the outgrowth of a conversation that  J.F. and I have been having since we first met in Ottawa in 2015. At that time J.F. had just published his book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which I had heard about on Erik Davis's podcast Expanding Mind, itself an indispensable part of the weirdosphere. I was immediately a huge fan of the book, and when I was visiting Ottawa my friend Graham introduced us. Graham orchestrated a book launch event at Octopus Books where we all talked about the ideas in Reclaiming Art, one of the foundation texts of Weird Studies, the joke academic discipline whose birth and death I announced on Dial M the next year.

But at this point "Weird Studies" is not quite a joke, even if it is also not quite an actual academic field either.

In lieu of a real academic field, we offer a podcast. As I say, it is an extension of the conversation J.F. and I have been having since the shindig at Octopus Books. We've written somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand words to one another -- epic flights of speculative metaphysics, cracked-out jags of art interpretation, red-eyed searches for eldritch patterns in the drift of daily life. And that's what's going into our podcast, too.

I seem to have gotten in the habit of writing only about things that both demand and refuse definition -- hipness, for example. So now, as J.F. and I launch this podcast, the threshold question that greets us is, what is the weird? I've written about this before, but it's worth repeating that "the weird" is both a quality ("El Topo was really weird") and a way of seeing things. It can be nothing more than a willingness to suspend usual habits of perception and judgment and hang out in the weightless spaces between certainties. It can be an attitude of entertaining an idea. The origin of the word is French, entre = between and tenir = to hold: to entertain is to hold between. In entertaining an idea, I dandle it lightly between my hands, holding it up to the light and admiring how it looks from different angles. It is a way of trying on ideas without commitment, without biting down on belief. It is thinking as idle amusement, the intellectual posture of the Flâneur.

But this is the weird as a function of reception -- a question of how we see the weird, not what the weird is in itself. So what gives an idea the quality of weirdness?

In a previous post, I suggested that an idea strikes us as weird when it violates our naïve construal of how reality works. That is, a weird idea lies outside the “construal we just live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or — for most of us — without ever even formulating it,” as Charles Taylor writes. Calling it a "naïve construal" isn't an insult: we all have some largely unavowed metaphysical picture of the world running in the back of our minds as we go about our day. It's hard to see how it could be otherwise. "Question everything" has a nice motivational ring to it, but really, no-one has the mental energy to question everything: some things you just have to take for granted. Some ideas are like computer programs that arrange the foreground of your experience while running invisibly in the background. In my book Dig: Sound and Music in Hip CultureI argue that hipness is one such script.* But there are many more scripts that run in our minds, regulating what we believe possible or likely and establishing categories for our experiences. I have come up with a list of twelve, though doubtless many more could be imagined.

1.Time moves irreversibly forward. Situations evolve from previous situations, and this evolution goes on continuously. The meaning of each such situation is given by its place in progressive linear time.

2.Thus, past ideas and events are nothing more than the products of political, economic, and social forces within the cultures that give rise to them. Consequently, there can be no such thing as “timeless wisdom” or a “perennial tradition” of metaphysical truth. Indeed, there are no human universals, only "cultures." (“Always historicize,” as humanities academics like to say.)

3.Mind is a human property, and private property at that. As Taylor writes, “the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds; the only minds in the cosmos are those of humans … and minds are bounded, so that these thoughts, feelings etc. are situated “within” them. [Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 29-30.]

4.Mind is a function of the brain. When my brain stops functioning, so too does my consciousness. Death is the end of all “thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan” — the end of me.

5.Likewise, all immaterial things have material causes: love is an evolutionary mechanism, aesthetic beauty is a construct of the political economy, a vision of God is something funny going on in your brain, etc.

6.Chance is random. If I draw a tarot card from a shuffled deck, it cannot correspond with anything meaningful in my life, except by accident.

7.What is “real” is what can be reliably recorded, measured, and quantified. This is what is meant by “objective reality.”

8.Subjective experience is an imperfect reflection of objective reality: it is the latter, not the former, that compels our trust and respect.

9.Reductive explanations (e.g. “Love is just evolution’s way of getting us to reproduce”) are automatically more plausible than the alternatives.

10.The fact that such explanations are depressing is proof that they are probably correct. Optimistic notions are convincing only because they are “comforting” to those who favor them.

11.Meaningful connections are causal connections. A non-causal connection — for example, a dream that foretells a death in the family — can only be a coincidence or something you are “reading into” a situation.

12.If I testify to an experience that contradicts any of these rules — telepathy, an encounter with a demon or a UFO, a successful magical working — I am either crazy, lying, or duped.

We can call this "the naïve construal of modernity." And if you read some or all of these propositions and think "those aren't cultural scripts or metaphysical assumptions, they are reality," well, that's what people tend to say when confronted with the axioms of their naïve construal. That's what makes it a naïve construal.

Actually, it's more complicated than this, because it's possible to be confronted with the axioms of one's own naïve construal, question them, know their provenance and history, know them to be contingent ... and still hold to them in every important respect. Or maybe it's truer to say that they still hold onto you. That's certainly true of me. It doesn't matter if I "believe in" them; I act on them.

In listing the axioms of the modern naïve construal, I'm not trying to convince you to believe their opposites. I couldn't do it if I tried, and why would I want to? Weird Studies isn't about believing or convincing. The ideas contained herein are (as the old arcade tokens used to say) for amusement only.

Which doesn't mean they don't matter, or that we're not serious. They matter a lot, and we're serious as a phone call at 3:00 a.m. Amusement is serious business. As Oscar Wilde said, “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”

*Hipness "is like an operating system—a code, running largely below the threshold of conscious thought, that constellates habits of mind and patterns of taste; orders our everyday perceptions of what is meaningful, true, and beautiful; and shapes individual acts of artistic creation." Me, Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture (NY: Oxford, 2013), 20. "Constellates," indeed. Nothing is so irritating as your own writing from several years ago.