what the hell are we doing here ?
Peter Ludlow interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Peter Ludlow senses there’s a crisis looming and we’re not alert to all the troubles being downloaded. So he thinks all the time about the threat to philosophy, the way advances in technology and science are moving too quickly for the critical resources we have available, about how the imminent crisis in the humanities is a crisis for everyone, about why rating Frank Ramsey makes a point about the key problem in philosophy, about crypto anarchy, cyberstates and pirate utopias, about the Occupy movement, about Gen Z, about the rules of online meeting spaces, about the radical dynamic of meanings that blows away philosophical hangovers from Locke and Wittgenstein and Quine and Plato, about the politics of every conversation, about the lack of women in academic philosophy departments and about language and tenses and time. Come gather round people and don’t block up the halls….
3:AM: Why did you become a philosopher?
Peter Ludlow: Well, I think that ‘philosopher’ is an honorific term that we hand out to people whose thinking about foundational issues we admire and approve of. It’s like putting a gold star next to someone’s name. I guess your question then is this: When did I decide to try and get the gold star? I started college as a business major, but existential trauma propelled me into courses on Kierkegaard and so forth. Those courses didn’t help with the existential trauma but they did help my GPA. After my junior year I took a summer school graduate course at the University of Minnesota. It was taught by Herbert Hochberg and it was all about Quine and then Kripke. That’s when the existential trauma lifted. That’s also when I gave myself the gold star. But you know, many years later I was at a dinner with Julia Kristeva and I told her the story of how Quine and Kripke cured my existential trauma. She didn’t talk to me the rest of the meal, so, you know, I don’t think everyone has the same ideas about who should get the gold star. And I’m o.k. with that!
3:AM: You’ve recently written about a threat to philosophy – that progress in philosophy has been made but is now being stymied by a lack of resources – not enough people doing it – and that technological advance threatens to leave it behind. How imminent do you think this threat to be? Could it already be too late? Perhaps the crisis in humanities suggests the singularity is already here!
PL: I think it’s a real problem. About ten years ago I interviewed Noam Chomsky, and the first question I asked him was why, with all the irons he has in the fire, he dedicates so much time to engaging with philosophers. He said his concern was really part of a more general concern – that “it should trouble us that we’re not thinking about what we’re up to, and those questions happen to be the domain of what philosophers pay attention to.” I feel that there are just too many human enterprises that are not being subjected to critical thinking, and the problem is getting worse rapidly. It isn’t even that we need “philosophers” for this. You could get by with someone whose job title is “thinking about what the hell we are doing here.”
The problem is getting urgent because our technological and scientific advances are very rapidly pulling away from our ability to think critically about them. In the past, our advances in science were accompanied by robust advances in the humanities (think of Ancient Greece or the Renaissance). That was crucial because it at once informed the progress of science and helped us to come to grips with our new place in the world and whatever new responsibilities might accrue from that. Well, science and technology have gotten so far in front that we (and our institutions and governments) no longer know how to act responsibly with the tools we are acquiring, or even what our new place in the world is.
3:AM: If it’s not too late what can be done, and how urgently is this required? Can philosophy keep up?
PL: I’m not sure what can be done and this is a problem because we are about to enter full crisis mode. To give you just one example among many, decisions are being made about data gathering, surveillance, the employment of methods of deception against civilian populations, etc. and these decisions are being made without much reflection at all as far as I can tell. We need more people to understand the scope of these programs, think through the consequences, and then stand up and say “why the hell are we allowing this to happen?”
I say we are entering crisis mode because of a lack of reflection, and that is not hyperbole. Most of the crises we are facing today, from the destruction of the environment to the rise of the surveillance state all fundamentally stem from the fact that we are not thinking critically about our new institutions and technologies. People talk about the “crisis in the humanities” but we need to make it clear that a crisis in the humanities is a crisis for everyone. If we aren’t thinking about what we are up to we are doomed.
3:AM: Your blogging about Frank Ramsey raised the issue about boundaries between philosophy and other fields and the significance of straying or influencing other fields. So what’s your thinking on this – in claiming Ramsey was the greatest philosopher of the last century are you influenced by his influences outside of philosophy? Brian Weatherson makes the point that great philosophers of the past would have been massively influential in the history of thought even if they’d not done philosophy – is this part of your thinking here?
PL: I admit it is a stretch to say Ramsey was the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century; he died at age 26 after all. But I floated that idea to get people thinking about the importance of his contributions in the development of other sciences and human disciplines, and I think these contributions should be very important to our estimation of him as a philosopher. Philosophers have traditionally been involved the development of the sciences – indeed people like Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton would have looked at you like you were crazy if you even tried to make a distinction between philosophy and science; they would have just called it “natural philosophy.” That is the source of our problem today: we’ve separated the reflective part of natural philosophy from the “science” part of natural philosophy and placed them into different buildings in the university. As if that weren’t enough now we are starving out the reflective part because it isn’t obvious how it can be monetized in the short term.
3:AM: You’ve been interested in the politics of cyberspace – the possibilities of anarchism, utopianism and state free horizontal political structures or the democratic regulation of hierarchical ones and so on – for over a decade haven’t you? What are the key issues for us at the moment for politics and technology? Has the post 2008 financial crisis brought about new forms of utopian thinking and action you find significant?
PL: I first seriously addressed these issues in a collection I edited and called Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias. Even though it was written at the turn of the millennium, it holds up pretty well, and it anticipates a lot of things happening today – including Bitcoin, Silk Road, and the importance of encryption, and it predicted that nation states were going to drop the hammer on all of this (hence online utopias would be fleeting things – which they have been). One thing I got completely wrong, however, was my assumption that all of this would be contained in virtual worlds.
In recent years the politics of cyberspace have spilled into the real world. Anonymous (a loosely organized network of socially active hackers – or hacktivists) was forged in online communities, and a lot of its methods and techniques were honed in virtual worlds (and in raids on virtual worlds).
More significantly, the thing I learned about virtual worlds was that they were just gateways to collections of individuals who happened to be geographically scattered but unified by certain narratives and experiences. Ultimately the fancy graphics were superfluous. Virtual worlds are at bottom places where people meet likeminded individuals. As Timothy Leary once said, “find the others.” Well, that is what virtual worlds were for and it is what made them so powerful. I honestly believe that a lot of the political foment we see around the world today incubated in online worlds and communities. And this is not at all surprising. Habermas has stressed the importance of public spaces to political discourse and action, and the State has worked to eliminate public spaces for precisely this reason. But it is not so easy to eliminate online spaces.
You ask if the 2008 crisis made a difference. I know lots of people in the Occupy movement who found their way into the movement because they lost their jobs or couldn’t get jobs because of the financial crisis. Even those who kept their jobs got a wakeup call — they saw that the system is rigged for the 1%. But the problem has been brewing since the rise of neoliberalism. The science fiction writer Charlie Stoss nailed the consequences of neoliberalism for what he calls generation Z in an article in Foreign Policy this past August:
Generation X’s parents expected a job for life, but with few exceptions Gen Xers never had that — they’re used to nomadic employment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards of organized-labour deracination. Gen Y’s parents are Gen X. Gen Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Gen Y will stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to their employer; the old feudal arrangement (“we’ll give you a job for life and look after you as long as you look out for the Organization”) is something their grandparents maybe ranted about, but it’s about as real as the divine right of kings. Employers are alien hive-mind colony intelligences who will fuck you over for the bottom line on the quarterly balance sheet. … This is the world they grew up in: this is the world that defines their expectations.
To Generation Z’s eyes, the boomers and their institutions look like parasitic aliens with incomprehensible values who make irrational demands for absolute loyalty without reciprocity. Worse, the foundational mythology and ideals of the United States will look like a bitter joke, a fun house mirror’s distorted reflection of the reality they live with from day to day.
That sounds about right to me. Younger people are not buying the demand for nonreciprocal loyalty. Not only are they not buying it, but the demand for loyalty to the State is just incomprehensible babble to them.
3:AM: You ask in ‘Our Future In Virtual Worlds’ whether states could be virtual and you argue that they can – in fact virtually everything can be virtual. In the book you look at what kinds of laws and regulations are being developed inside these virtual spaces (rather than how the meat world regulates cyberspace). So what are the philosophically interesting issues about virtual governance you’ve discovered?
PL: Yes, in Our Future in Virtual Worlds I observed that, strictly speaking, almost everything we engage with is either virtual, or much of its value-added is virtual. When we buy books or CDs, we aren’t paying for the paper or the disks, we are paying for the information, which is virtual. Bill Gates became the richest person in the United States by selling a product that is entirely virtual. Even something like a car is larded with the virtual. Cars today have between 10 and 40 computers in them, they are designed with the help of computer aided design and built with programmable soft tools. Even the steel is annealed with the help of virtual tools. The virtual/real distinction just doesn’t make sense anymore.
So, virtual worlds really shouldn’t be called ‘virtual’ or even ‘worlds’, they should just be called ‘online meeting places’, which is fundamentally what they are. But then of course whatever we call them there is a very important question: what rules or principles should govern them? And here is the problem; our new overlords are people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a philosophical bone in his body, and worse than that, doesn’t care the slightest for the welfare of the individuals who inhabit his world (i.e. meeting place). The architects of the United States of America, were, for all their limitations, still persons of philosophical depth. They thought critically about what good government should look like (at least for the privileged class to which they belonged). The architects of our new (virtual) meeting places are not thinking matters through as far as I can tell, and no one is even asking them to.
3:AM: Is there a link between your work in the metaphysics of language and mind and the work you do on cyberspace or do you see the domains as being completely separate?
PL: Understanding the semantics of natural language certainly informs the way one thinks about cyberspace. One mistake that is common is that people think the actions of their avatars are in some sense distinct from their own actions. That is a confusion because an avatar is simply a mode of presentation for a person; it is like a change of clothes. Referring to an avatar when within a virtual world is really an act of deferred ostension to some person. One is never talking to an avatar in a virtual world; one is talking to a person (or in the worst case a bot). This is important because it neutralizes the claim of “griefers” who argue that the harm they do in virtual world is only directed at cartoons. In point of fact, griefers are sociopaths.
3:AM: In your forthcoming book Living Words: Meaning Underdetermination and the Dynamic Lexicon you’re interested in how elements of meaning that can change radically on a conversation-by-conversation basis. Meanings are dynamic. This is not how language is traditionally thought about is it. To see how different your view is could you say something about the view your arguments challenge?
PL: The traditional view of language is summed up nicely by Locke, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
God, having designed man for a sociable creature, made him not only with an inclination and under a necessity to have fellowship with those of his own kind, but furnished him also with language, which was to be the great instrument and common tie of society.
The traditional view is that languages are fairly stable objects that we learn with varying degrees of success and that we then deploy for expressing thoughts and performing certain tasks (by giving orders, instructions, etc). Sometimes the traditional view uses the metaphor of language as a widely shared common currency that agents use to communicate, with individuals words being the common coins of the realm. These common coins are supposed to be more or less fixed; as Locke argued, even Augustus, though he ruled the world, was unable to coin new Latin words.
On my view we are coining new terms all the time – if only for a limited run – and more importantly we are also working together modulating word meanings so as to build microlanguages. These are possibly one-off languages that we construct based on communicative needs. So there is no language that is given to us or that is stable. Languages are things we are constantly building and modifying.
3:AM: I guess the traditional view accommodates some degrees of flex. You’re arguing for a flex that destroys that position though aren’t you?
PL: Yes that’s right. Many people believe that language is context sensitive and somewhat dynamic but I think that even Wittgensteinians failed to appreciate the full nature of the context sensitivity. I argue that word meanings are radically dynamic and that a large part of the conversations we enter into involve the modulations of word meaning. So, to use an example from the linguist Chris Barker, when I say “Smith is tall” I may not be making a claim about the world or even trying to do something in the world, but rather I am trying to modulate the meaning of ‘tall’. If I fix Smith as a safe case of a tall person I’ve possibly broadened the meaning or at least firmed it up for us.
3:AM: So are you saying there are no absolute meanings, just different modulations? I guess this is linked to meaning negotiation isn’t it. How does it work?
PL: Yes, that’s right. Some people think that with terms like ‘flat’ or ‘knows’ there is an absolute meaning, which is the core meaning – absolutely flat or knows with Cartesian certainty – and that we get away with using these terms (calling Kansas flat or saying I know I have hands) because we are always speaking loosely. I don’t think that is right. I think the “absolutely flat” meaning (if it is coherent) is just one modulation among many. There is no privileged modulation.
And yes, it is connected to meaning negotiation. The dynamic nature of language requires that we sync up with each other to effectively communicate. In doing so we form passing microlanguages with each other. Sometimes we sync up on word meanings without much reflection, but other times we litigate the meanings of terms. You hear this on sports talk radio a lot. Who get’s to be labeled ‘athlete’? Golphers? Bowlers? Formula 1 drivers? My view is that this is going on all the time. Sometimes we have these debates for fun, but other times the consequences are important; for example when we litigate the meaning of ‘person’ or ‘rape’ or, of particular interest to me, ‘privacy’, ‘treason’, ‘terrorist’, ‘journalist’, ‘hacktivist’, etc. Depending on how these terms are modulated people can either go to prison or go free. I argue that there are norms governing this meaning litigation process, and that it is important for us to respect those norms.
3:AM: So you are arguing that language is dynamic but also underdetermined. What do you mean by that?
PL: This is an idea that has also been explored recently by Stewart Shapiro who in turn makes a nod to Friedrich Waismann’s idea that language is “open textured.” The idea is that meanings are not precise objects and indeed have no precise core. We get tricked into thinking they must be precise because we use precise mathematical objects to model meanings. When we conclude that meanings (or semantic values) are precise we are confusedly taking an artifact of the model to be a property of the thing modeled. It is like using wooden tinker toys to model atoms and then concluding that all atomic elements must be combustible because their models are.
My idea is that we need to “lift meaning underdetermination into the metalanguage.” This raises a lot of interesting technical questions that I can’t address here, but I can say that the pull to think the metalanguage of semantics must be precise is the product of two philosophical hangovers – one from Quine and one from Plato. The Quinean hangover is the idea that our theorizing must take place in a first order language. The Platonic hangover is the idea that the meanings (semantic values) must be in some sense perfect – completely determinate is one way to put it. I see no reason why the theory of meaning needs to adopt these assumptions, and in the book I try to argue that those assumptions only lead to woe.
3:AM: And is philosophy going to have to think again about key areas of its work in epistemology, for example, or even logic? Can you give some contemporary philosophical positions that are going to be affected by this?
PL: My view is that a huge number of problems that analytic philosophy has wrestled with over the past 100 years stem in part from assumptions related to the static view of language. I’ll give you three quick examples. I believe that Kripke’s Padrewski puzzle (and related puzzles) stems from the assumption that there is one common meaning to the name ‘Paderewski’, but I believe that that name will be assigned different senses in different microlanguages. When a speaker S and hearer H attribute beliefs to an agent A, they will build a microlanguage to carry out that attribution, and in doing so they will modulate the sense of ‘Paderewski’. Different contexts of attribution will have different modulations and hence different senses of ‘Paderewski’. If you ignore this you are equivocating, conflating two terms that are, in effect, from different languages.
Another example involves the case for contextualism in epistemology. So, in the case of ‘knows’ it can be modulated to mean something like “known with Cartesian certainty” in Peter Unger’s epistemology seminar, but something less stringent in a court of law and something else again in a bar. As I say, the “absolute” meaning of ‘knows’ is not the privileged meaning; it is just one among many. Jason Stanley has argued that the verb ‘knows’ isn’t particularly special, and I think that’s right. But it doesn’t need to be special. My theory says that every verb can be modulated in this way. I’ve called this view “cheap contextualism” because contextualism basically falls out for free.
Finally, the dynamic lexicon naturally lends itself to a shifting sands account of vagueness, similar to that proposed by Diana Raffman, Delia Fara, and Scott Soames. We push the meaning of ‘heap’ along as we march through the Sorites. My account is a bit different than the other shifting sands accounts, and again this isn’t the place to go into details, but I do want to point out that the typical premise in a Sorites argument – if n hairs is bald then n+1 hairs is bald – is not really a claim about the world on my view. This is one of those cases where a metalinguistic argument is being offered. It is an argument to the effect that if you are going to count someone with n hairs as being bald you really ought to count someone with n+1 hairs as bald. It is really a conditional of metalinguistic persuasion.
3:AM: This view of language fits a type of political resistance to conformity and control. How political is this view of language, is it just an accidental feature or something that should be considered as part of language’s reality?
PL: It’s shot through with the political; if you think about it, the idea is that every time we engage in conversation we are engaged in a political activity. It’s the politics of what words should mean, and there are few words that don’t have political import somewhere down the line.
Now the problem is that most conversations take place between individuals with different levels of power, and there is often a presumption that we should defer to the lexical semantics of the person in power – whether that be a teacher or a politician or a billionaire. I’m hoping that by making the process of meaning litigation transparent and setting out some norms for word meaning litigation it will give people tools to stand up to power and assert their claims for what words should mean, independently of power relations.
There is a related issue about silencing. Rae Langton, has talked about “illocutionary silencing” – the idea that, for example, women can be pragmatically silenced. My student Rebecca Mason pointed out to me that the dynamic lexicon has additional consequences for how we can think about silencing; there can also be locutionary silencing. So, for example, people can simply refuse to entertain a modulation of a term like ‘rape’ or ‘marriage’ (e.g. “marriage can only happen between a man and a woman by definition, end of story”) and this refusal to engage is a way of not letting you express new ideas.
An example of this is Antonin Scalia and his doctrine of “Original Meaning.” From the perspective of the dynamic lexicon meanings are very dynamic and always undergoing modulation. When Scalia says “words mean what they mean” he is in effect saying that he gets to stipulate what they mean; end of discussion. Well that is a form of silencing, and it is really horrifying that a jurist at any level would take such a view.
Many philosophers are not much better than Scalia. Consider Wittgenstein, for example, who recognizes the context sensitivity of language, but once the form of life is fixed Wittgenstein is perfectly willing to tell you if what you are saying is nonsense or gibberish. I advocate a doctrine that I call “meaning control” which basically says that if your discourse partners go along you can modulate and extend meanings however you wish, in spite of the form of life you are engaged in.
To me, Wittgenstein is just as horrifyingly dogmatic as Scalia. And the whole exercise of calling certain uses of language “nonsense” strike me as so much locutionary silencing. I really don’t need the scion of the richest family in Austria to tell me what my words can and cannot mean, thank you very much.
3:AM: Speaking of silencing and the political, gender inequality is one of the problems in contemporary philosophy departments – there aren’t enough women doing it, despite the fact that some of the key figures in contemporary philosophy are women. What’s your take on this – is it in some way connected to the sometimes depoliticized self image of academic philosophy? What can be done?
PL: The only thing I know for sure about this problem is that it has nothing to do with the technical nature of analytic philosophy or its alleged apolitical nature. In the semantics of natural language, for example, I would guess that half the research contributors are women – most of those women just happen to be housed in linguistics departments. So that raises a question. Why can linguistics have so many women do this kind of technical work while in philosophy it is much less common? Here I can only speculate. For one, in the semantics of natural language there are many important female role models like Barbara Partee, Angelika Kratzer, and Irene Heim. Perhaps also it helps to be housed in a linguistics department where the gender balance is typically around 50/50 and there is much greater diversity all around. Perhaps the gender imbalance in philosophy departments leads to worse behavior by the men, or at least a greater likelihood of encountering bad behavior so that the problem is self-perpetuating.
It is worth pointing out that the gender imbalance is not only symptomatic of discrimination somewhere along the line, but it is not good for philosophy departments to have so little diversity. Diverse backgrounds can correlate with diversity of perspectives. Diverse perspectives mean more creativity, more novel solution strategies, and ultimately greater depth of understanding. Isn’t this something that philosophy departments should strive for?
3:AM: You’re a metaphysician of natural language and you’re pretty controversial. You start with Whorf and his study of the Hopi language and move on to argue that close study of English doesn’t support the notion of a tense and this leads you to doubt whether there is a general idea of time as a smooth flowing continuum flowing from past through the present to the future. Is that right?
PL: You are talking about my book, Semantics, Tense and Time. The problem is that I wrote that book before I knew how to write. I should have never mentioned Whorf because it just led to massive confusion about what I was up to in that book. I mentioned Whorf because I wanted to stress that like Hopi, English doesn’t have an obvious grammatical tense system either – certainly no future tense (we use modals to express future tense). I also doubted that the idea of genuine change or the flow of time could be made sense of. So, whereas Whorf wanted us to see how weird and alien Hopi was, my point was that English is not much different.
I also wanted to convey that studying language can be illuminating, but from this people deduced that I was saying you can argue from the syntactic structure of language to the metaphysics of time, but if you read the book I am saying nothing of the kind. My point in the book was that the semantics of tense and the metaphysics of time have to be made to dovetail, and that we need to solve an equation in which the demands of both are satisfied (along with the demands of physics).
When I wrote the book, I felt that if you take tense to be ineliminable – that is, as a fundamental feature of reality – then you are forced into being a presentist. But this then leads to all kinds of problems in the semantics of natural language because the whole system runs on reference to past and future events and intervals. So what I was trying to do was develop a presentist-friendly semantics of natural language, and it is not obvious that this can be done. It is pretty clear that A.N. Prior did not accomplish this with his tense logic because he did not have a handle on facts about temporal anaphora that were subsequently observed by Barbara Partee (by temporal anaphora I mean reference to future and past times). One bright observation I made in the book is that McTaggart’s argument for the incoherence of time also trades on the inability of the presentist to account for temporal anaphora. If you could solve the problem of temporal anaphora you would be home free at least as far as the semantics of tense is concerned. Solving that problem is not trivial, however.
3:AM: Was one of the outcomes of your approach to resist a cultural relativist position.? Roughly, were you arguing that if we establish that all natural languages – English, Hopi, French, Farsi etc – have similar structures then a similar metaphysics is shared across all these cultures?
PL: I was definitely arguing against cultural relativism with respect to tense and time. However you have to be careful when you say that different languages have similar structures. Languages have radically different morphosyntactic strategies for expressing tense. Some use modals, some use aspectual markers, some use evidentials, etc. This is why I don’t understand people who say that tense is a property of languages, but not the world. What are they talking about? You could never deduce the theory of tense by looking at surface features of a language. What is common to these languages is the core semantics for tense, and that is presumably held in common because we inhabit the same region of the universe.
It’s also important to point out that it doesn’t make sense to try and offload the tense into our psychology. Maybe that makes sense if you are running some sort of Cartesian psychology, but I was persuaded many years ago by Burge that psychological properties have to be anchored in the world. So if tense is ineliminable you better be prepared to allow tensed features of the world.
3:AM: You conclude that the B theory fails and the A theory survives don’t you?
PL: Well, I do believe that the B-theory (let’s call it the tenseless theory of time) can’t tell the whole story. It is sufficient if we are only interested in taking the perspective of the view from nowhere. And for some sciences that is appropriate. We don’t want our explanations of the world to be dependent on where and when we are offer the explanation. On the other hand, there are other things that need explanation – like the actions and emotions of particular individuals — and for these we need perspectival properties (e.g. to explain why I am going to the meeting now or to explain why I am grateful my root canal is over). Physics may have no use for such properties, but other subject areas need them. And semantics has to have the resources to anchor not just the language of physics but that of these other explanatory projects as well.
Since McTaggart, most philosophers have thought that if you are going to be a tenser you have to be a presentist, which is why tensism has been avoided like the plague by many philosophers. The reason they thought that tensism entails presentism is that if you try to combine genuine tense with a four-dimensional picture of space-time you run into the paradox of the moving now. I too thought that you had to choose either tensism or four-dimensionalism, which is why in my book I was assuming presentism and trying to square it with the semantics of natural language.
I no longer believe that presentism and four-dimensionalism are incompatible, and this is another case where I think the appearance of a puzzle stemmed from the idea of a static lexicon. People have assumed that while the referent of ‘now’ depends upon the time of utterance, the linguistic meaning or sense of the term ‘now’ is stable. But the dynamic lexicon allows that the sense of a term like ‘now’ can be different at different times – it can express different perspectival properties. If you like you can think of there being many expressions of the form ‘now’ with slightly different sense contents. So it turns out there is no moving now. Paradox resolved. Dynamic lexicon for the win!
3:AM: And finally, are there five books you would recommend to readers here at 3:AM to follow some of the many hares you’ve set running?
PL: I want to recommend more than just books! First of all, everyone should play the video game Braid, which is the greatest and most philosophical video game ever made. It not only rethinks game mechanics, but it also explores the nature of time, loss, guilt, our attempts at repair and desire for redemption, and ultimately our self-deception about the harm we do.
Now, about books. I am reluctant to recommend “philosophy” books, because I believe that the philosophy you read should depend of the particular issues you are working on. However, there are some non-philosophy books that have inspired me, inform my writing, and I would think they could be of interest to anyone.
Moral Mazes, by the sociologist Robert Jackall, explains how the norms of proper behavior within a system can contribute to the system doing great harm. As Aaron Swartz put it, the book does a great job of “explaining how so many well-intentioned people can end up committing so much evil.”
Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace, by Lawrence Lessig (which is out in a second edition as Code 2.0) is a tremendously important book. As Lessig points out, with the digital revolution and breakdown of the barrier between real and virtual, many features of our world are being engineered in such a way that our actions and freedoms are constrained. The laws are being baked into the software code of our world, and it is being done without discussion, reflection, or consent.
Textual Poachers, by Henry Jenkins explains that fan fiction is a way for the general population to take back control of cultural products from corporations. He gives many examples in which TV shows, movies and books are repaired by fanfic writers. Not technical errors are fixed, but these writers also remove instances of sexism and racism, both of which are pretty common in the popular media created by corporations (thankfully you can now get fan edits of The Phantom Menace in which Jar Jar Binks is more or less expunged). Fan fiction also explores obvious subtexts that corporate media is afraid to go near. You know, a lot of people make fun of the hundreds of thousands of people who engage in fan fiction, and that really makes me angry, because the message is that these fans are geeks or nerds because they have the audacity to repair and revise corporate entertainment. Presumably if they were cool, they would just accept it passively.
Much of the reading I do is to help inspire me as a writer. In this vein, the poems of Sappho are important to me. Her ability to say so much with such economy is remarkable. Here is one, found on a cup in an Athens museum.
but delicious to hear.
Not only did she invent her own meter, but I believe she is the person in the West that discovered that you could express emotional affect like love with poetry – that poetry was good for more than telling tales of epic warriors. Today we take it as obvious that poems are great for expressing emotions like love, but this came as a discovery after centuries of poetry in the West! It’s a good lesson that we can do much more with language than we initially suppose.
Then there is James Joyce (the writer, but I’m also a fan of the decision theorist), who showed us that we are still discovering and inventing the amazing things that can be done with language. I especially like Finnegan’s Wake, and used the following passage as the epigraph in my book Living Words.
Because, Soferim Bebel, if it goes to that… every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alle anyway connected with the gobblydumbed turkey was moving and changing every part of the time: the traveling inkhorn (possibly pot), the hare and the turtle pen and paper, the continually more or less intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators, the as time went on as it will variously inflected, differently pronounced, otherwise spelled, changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns. No, so help me Petault, it is not a miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed: it only looks as like it as damn it.
With all the dynamic moving parts to language we still manage to communicate. Soferim Bebel, that is amazing!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 13th, 2013.