Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fixing Poverty, the Meaning of Life & It's Okay to be Depressed - or - How to Save the World Through Utopian Fiction

The current social climate & general awareness of our species self-accelerated extinction has left the world, perhaps justifiably, with an over-saturation of dystopian stories. Zombie apocalypse is now its own genre with small variations of format; fast zombies, zombies in Europe, zombies in snow, paleo-zombies, vampire zombies... Like many other people I have gone through periods of indulging in these dystopian stories in one format or another. At first I suspected that such enjoyment originated from the love of macabre that seems to permeate into some aspect of every depressed persons life, but after some time I begin to conclude that the love of stories about societies fall are more complex than that. Going further, that dystopian stories are effective as a warning message but will always fall one step back of solving societies problems because the very nature of a dystopian novel is the fall of society.

Today there is a need to 'fight back' by demanding, or creating, more Utopian stories as a way of commenting on the problems with the world today while also offering possible solutions; where dystopia glances Utopia inquires & acts.

There are three main stages of realization of life; the first is how to survive which involves learning (how to eat, walk, climb a tree, etc), drama (relationships, stubbing a toe) and comedy (watching someone else stub their toe). Then there's surviving at a consistent pace (also known as "being in a  rut") and with this comes boredom and depression which people satisfy with illusions like the offerings of the entertainment industry which is over saturated in advertisements, promotes wasteful excess & is almost always vapid and often times immoral.

When one is surviving/in-a-rut they eventually become depressed, wanting 'more'. This is when people turn to dystopian storytelling, for a two fold reason. First, dystopian stories show that there is an existence worse than our own (a strange form of shock doctrine) that, even though it is fictional, usually does not stray to far from reality (for example; the failure of nuclear deterrence during the cold war is often used as the starting point for dystopian stories). Second, dystopian novels offer a way for in-a-rut/frustrated/confused/angry people to soothe their evolving presuppositions.The final stage is trying to change things around a person that affect their life in a manner that brings success (not monetary), & this is where the theme of Utopia excels.

When one is surviving and 'in-a-rut' they start to question presuppositions to life (what we have to know without knowing of it). Questions come up such as what do I do next or how come other people aren't able to be complacent or, the usual big one, what is the meaning to our/this/a life.

Looking for meaning to life is like looking for meaning in nature; something that's capable of both waterfalls & AIDS, rainbows & tsunamis, diversity & chaos. Life 'is'; it exists therefore we are. This means that there is reason for our species to try to control nature due to its unpredictability. Imagine if the tornadoes that have ravaged the Midwest for years, 7 times in Oklahoma in about as many years (ABC News), had their terrible power weakened or deflected. While this is not possible & an extreme example it only helps illustrate the validity of exploring certain aspects of nature to better our species.

I believe no one would argue that manipulating nature in a careful & consistent manner is desirable for our species, even among organic farmers & those that are ecologically minded. This is because organic farming itself is a manipulation of nature, but a good one, much as removing cancer is a manipulation of nature. That's not to say that GMO food is the answer to food production, which is potentially just as absurd as denying modern cancer treatment if available (and insured) or not improving preventive medicine.

Those that work hard to question the loose regulations of the industrial food industry are wise to do so; hardly any research goes into modified crops & no one likes walking through a mine field blindfolded. Still, if nature were to run completely on its own that would not be the ideal situation for our species. So one should not become complacent but one should learn where to direct their energy so that they can have a life where their actions affect the things around them. That brings us to the third stage of the realization of life; Utopia or active change.

The concept of utopia is frustrating because "people see that utopia is possible in there lifetime, right now, but it is not happening" (The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Zizek).  These reasons are due to poverty, education, healthcare & ability to live/work/do-what-you-do/whatever-you-want-to-call-it being possible for all but not distributed fairly. Fixing poverty is not something I want to say is simple because I am not qualified to make that generalization but anyone can easily find proof of bad behavior from the super-rich that imbalances the world. This is a historical trope through time; those in power that have been abused will abuse those they try to subjugate, usually by reducing agency & income under the mask of efficiency, nationalism and job creation. Considering this, the next step is to locate where to start creating a better balance. That would be by reducing the size of the largest entities that are destroying the source, much how cloning insects will decimate a plant by feeding on its chloroplast to the point of killing itself. This happens in an ecosystem if the insect is not practicing niche separation (this is usually due to an invasive species, botanically meaning non-native). The source is the economy/citizens/raw-resources but in a more physical sense. The silly notion of constant perpetual wealth must not be completely destroyed, as that would so damage the illusion of those entranced they would not be able to handle the change (and indeed may riot themselves) but simply capped or changed to prevent such flagrant abuse, much like using niche separation & population control so that both the mentioned insect & plant survive. Consider the separation of church and state; neither wanted the other removed but through time they have challenged each other when the other gets to large. The third player, the market based economy, entered the ring (for the West) a few hundred years ago (arguably around the 16th-17th century) & now battles with the other two. Regarding poverty, consider that the top 100 richest people in the world could end poverty according to Oxfam. Seventeen organizations form the confederacy that is Oxfam who work in over 90 countries to try to create a "just world without poverty" & they "envision a world in which people can influence decisions which affect their lives, enjoy their rights, and assume their responsibilities as full citizens of a world in which all human beings are valued and treated equally." (Oxfam International)

While the giants of religion, state & economy battle over who gets to destroy the source the quickest the general public suffers. Since this is a long historical trope (for those that disagree please see: there have always been forecasters of both the problems & possible future for society & it's economy (since the two are so intertwined/connected). Economists like Jeffrey Sachs have said that "Extreme poverty can be ended, not in the time of our grandchildren, but our time." (Earth Institute). Adding to the frustration are statistics from Oxfam Canada that reveal the world produces 17% more food per person today than 30 years ago (Oxfam Canada) but more than 14% of the worlds population goes hungry, possibly much more (World Hunger Education). These conditions cause people to have a general feeling of uncertainty & frustration which causes dystopian stories to becoming alluring, usually as a form of releasing those frustrations and uncertainties. This can be a tragic thing; dystopian storytelling takes energy away from individuals that could instead make active change.

Aaron Swartz, one of the creators of Reddit who was persecuted for downloading to many academic articles (this lead to his suicide) wrote:

"No, you can’t force other people to change. You can, however, change just about everything else. And usually, that’s enough" (Raw Thought).

The importance of having agency to make change is obvious; its a silent presupposition. This agency has been continually reduced among the general people across the world, a trope that emerges when any organization/entity becomes to large with unchecked power/to-fail. This brings me to the final stage of this 3 stage approach of realization of life; working to make things better, working for the utopia. This is a life long step where one moves in a direction toward solving the problem rather than being a part of the problem. Being active in ones community is a cornerstone of this as well as questioning problems so they are properly identified. This allows for more efficient policy making as well as general thinking. It's important to note that actively working for the better conditions and agency of the general population is usually a gradual change & does not happen overnight or easily. On the plus side, it doesn't taste bitter in the slightest & becomes preferable in time.

Some people may not want to get involved or work harder toward better communities because it does not provide a quick or easy route to happiness. The role of happiness is important to consider because it is unethical, but not mutually exclusive, from Utopia.

Working for the better of others should not be about happiness. Happiness should not even be a goal, but it is a wonderful side effect that happens when people can influence decisions which affect their lives. Consider the arctic climber who screams joy at the top of his lungs only to sit shocked in belief, all over an old stash of cheese doodles (Basic Needs, Extreme Happiness). When asked what makes happiness the climber said "30 days of starvation" (Radiolab). So happiness comes from sometimes arbitrary things. Happiness can also be used in a negative way which is most easily noted in any form of shock doctrine to control populations as seen in Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973, the Falklands War in 1982, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Asian Financial crisis in 1997 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. In short, happiness is not a barometer for living life in a moral or efficient way.

Zizek had this to say on happiness:

"You can be happy without being moral. You can be happy without being interesting or engaged in the world around you. You can be happy without having a single creative idea or interest or passion. You can get everything you desire, and still not be happy. So why even focus on finding bliss?" (Big Think)

If understanding the problems to life seem difficult then fixing them can seem almost insurmountable. Still, the cart must come before the horse. Instead of a Utopian story that goes back, usually circa WW2 to re-imagine how our society could of been through alternative history games, there should be utopian novels and serials in all mediums that imagine the very realistic possibility of Utopia being achieved right now, in real life.

Works Cited

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Slavoj Zizek.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Reverse Nationalism: Milton's Presupposition Of Censorship

Empires have historically thrown a smokescreen of innocence over forms of censorship that's purpose is to disingenuously control a population. One of the earliest manifestations of censorship comes from England around 1530 & continues until the 1660's. The lack of a public forums during this time translated into information that was easy for the Monarch to control; whenever a public forum gained to much popularity (usually through theater and the arts) England was quick to assign a Master of Revels, a group that pre-censors all content not from the crown . While laws are altered after the English Revolution the most substantial change had its catalyst with the publication of John Milton's Areopagitica in 1664. In this appeal, which originally circulated as an illegally printed pamphlet, is a challenge to the states position on censorship and an attempt by Milton to redefine an English citizens silent presuppositions to knowledge. 

Silent presupposition is that which “teaches us what we have to know without knowing it in order to function” (Zizek). At the time of Areopagitica's publication the state was censoring the press for the the apparent good of the people for so many generations it had changed the instinctual responses citizens had to censorship. The public was told there was no right for a place of philosophical discourse. This is an early example of shock doctrine; by creating a situation of increasingly reduced agency parliament would justify it's actions as being better than the alternative when it's actions would only diminish the source. The real reason for the early days of censorship of the press was to create a form of control for state benefit at the cost of the unknowing people. 

By radically rearranging the qualities of what defines knowledge Milton uses the emerging state tools of nationalism to change parliament's opinion to the side of the public. He starts his theory by analyzing the human condition through a biblical lens when he writes that those “who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin” are hopeless. Even if one were to “banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste that come thither...” (Longman p1719), Milton argued that sin is a constant temptation for humankind and always present, removing it would be like trying to remove every grain of sand from the ocean. Furthermore to do so would go against the design of temptation & choice in nature (or god's design). To those that would feel reading itself goes against the human condition or that knowledge is “evil” Milton argues that “though some part of it (sin) may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universal thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remain entire“ (Longman p1719). To put it in other words if a form of press has sinful information on its pages its still up to interpretation by the individual and that interpretation would be impossible without both good and evil existing. This gives agency back to the public and away from groups like the Master of Revels by putting control of source material in the hands of everyone.

Parliament would cite one reason of censorship is to prevent dangerous ideas and schisms from developing. Milton argues that if “the men be erroneous who appear to be leading the schismatics” the way to correct this is by debating with “distrust in the right cause”, if “not for their sakes, yet for our own” (Longman p1723)? Milton further defends his theory by describing public debate as a positive thing for the country: “opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making” & argues that major characters in biblical history were educated like Moses and David. Even more spectacular is how Milton defends the value of flawed opinions when he writes that “the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil” Even wrong opinions are important for Milton when he writes that good & evil, in its “many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned”, are necessary because “that is to say of knowing good by evil” (Longman p1717), There is no way to have good without evil & god has given every person the ability to reason since Adam. 

Milton brings agency back to the people by carefully placing power in their hands. Instead of asking the commoner to conform to the laws of parliament, Milton argues that the English should “be more considerate builders, more wise in spiritual architecture, when great reformation is expected.” (Longman, p1724) This line turns every reader into an active creator of their national identity.
Milton uses a more recognizable form of nationalism when he personifies the nation: “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks” (Longman 1724). While in modern times this reads like zealous patriotism or that Milton is making a compliment, it's also a prophecy of the outcome to his theory and further proof that that no one should “suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge” from “springing daily” (Longman 1724). Milton has carefully maneuvered himself, by analyzing the morality of free opinion through a biblical lens, into position where he feels he can attack censorship directly with public support. Milton goes even further with relating to his religious audience when he makes opinion holy. In a clever fashion Milton writes that “For who knows not that truth is strong, next to the almighty.” (Longman 1725) Milton uses language that suggest truth being godly is common sense, re-defining a part of English silent presuppositions in medias res. 

Areopagitica is a radical text at a time when text itself is a radical possession but still manages to promote some form of censorship. At one hand Milton argues that books are useful and that licensing is “a dishonor and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege of dignity or Learning” and that if “we think to regulate printing” then “we must regulate all recreations and pastimes...” (Longman 1719). The author attacks licensing laws directly when he argues that regulations claims its role is to prevent the “infection” of bad ideas but that this is inefficient because to licensing can never stop social corruption. Milton goes further when he points that censorship could slow down divine plans which would cause more corruption.

On the other hand Milton shows he would censor, even pull from the root, certain text: “I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win the weak and misled...” (Longman 1726). Milton still has elements of control in his definition of English silent presuppositions; while it is just, good and holy not to censor any author or idea it is equally unjust, evil and pagan to “interrupt the unity of spirit”. Essentially Milton is setting up a fail safe against heretical ideas based on his writing in Areopagitica. If anyone disagrees with his theory Milton can easily point them out as an interrupter of unity & have their work destroyed, an active form of censorship and seemingly unnecessary when Milton himself argues the usefulness of bad ideas and sinful books. It's also a direct contradiction considering Milton's opinion that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye” (HumanitiesWeb). 
Miltons greatest success in his theory on censorship is found in the prose itself. The writer masterfully appeals to every sensibility of every major demographic with sentiment triumphing over sentimentality while carefully selecting which aspects of government to critique & only after blows have been softened. Milton will typically begin with a brief defense of an idea and then finish with a furious volley of opinion. Consider that the beginning of Areopagitica is a defense of Areopagitica itself, with Milton calling up the ancestral images of Spenser before stating “the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constitution of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth (Longman 1717).” Milton easily defines knowledge as a positive human virtue by playing on the idea of silent presupposition; the author defines knowledge as good because it is, one should just know it. According to Milton, every human should have an instinctual response that public knowledge is a virtue because knowledge can help identify good and evil. Milton compares this identification to the story of Adam and the apple when he writes that Adam was “knowing of good by evil” (Longman 1717), as being a necessity. In two paragraphs, under the filter of academic and papal nostalgia, Milton has laid a logical foundation for the justification of his illegal printing to both the scientist and the priest. 
Nationalism is still the same idea since its not-so-long-ago inception; turning the abstract idea of a nation into a real power. Writers of today should still be looking to Milton's Areopagitica, which shows the successful passive/aggressive style that Milton camouflages in his writing with nostalgia, history and invoking virtues onto ideas through presupposition. Eventually these presuppositions become silent in the reverse; instead of citizens of the 17th century instinctively assuming that knowledge is evil because the state told them so for many generations, they instinctively & accurately assume censorship removes agency because of the work of people like John Milton staying relevant through generations.

Works Cited

Zizek, Slavoj. "We Need Thinking." Lavan. N.p.. Web. 10 May 2013. <>.

"Areopagitica by John Milton." HumanitiesWeb. N.p.. Web. 10 May 2013. <>.

The Longman Anthology