Tuesday, October 16, 2018

CYBERPUNCTUM: Metaphysics of Cyberpunk

Notes delivered at the Sublime Cognition conference 14 September 2018 at Birkbeck, London:


At the heart of (post)cyberpunk lies a puzzle about belief.  The Lockean belief in self-as-punctum (0-D object) from Taylor’s book Sources of the Self is here the origin of the concept; and the Lockean belief in the blank slate theory of human nature and property from the latter’s treatise on government.  The self-as-map, invested in reductive Lockean philosophies (and to some extent critical of them), is bolstered by cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk sensibilities.  Where Frankenstein is deeply critical of the Lockean paradigms of self and property, (post)cyberpunk in many ways capitulates or gives in to Lockean impulses that drive the paradigm.  Exceptions tend to be schizoanalytic, as when Kovacs bifurcates, or is copied into two bodies.  This represents progress over monolinear (but still bifurcated) Neuromantic cyberspace, that tends to leave the essential Case intact (or hardwired as Foster might put it).

This slide uses Kripkean categories to map out a hypothesis on the evolution of cyberpunk to its post-sensibilities.  Case’s identity is maintained retroactively over the course of Neuromancer. Case remains essentially the same in every possible world (contra Butler’s shaky reading of how this works in her otherwise excellent Bodies That Matter).  Kovacs, on the other hand, is essentially the same, but with a repetitive difference, especially after the bifurcation or copying of his ‘stack’.  That copying introduces a new kind of contingency that transcends death and troubles the very idea of possible worlds.  I here term this (the more difficult) a priori necessity, a schizoanalytic term derived from Butler’s performative sense of naming.


“…history, I’ve since come to believe, is the ultimate in speculative narrative, subject to ongoing and inevitable revision…Science fiction tends to behave like a species of history pointing in the opposite direction, up the timeline rather than back.  But you can’t draw imaginary future histories without a map of the past that your readers will accept as their own…The less you think your map of the past imaginary (or contingent), the more conventionally you tend to stride forward into your imaginary future.  Many of the authors I read as a boy [Bester, Lieber, Sheckley] possessed remarkably solid maps of the past.  Carved, it seemed, from doughty oak.  Confident men, they knew exactly where we were coming from, exactly where we were, and exactly where they thought we were going.  And they were largely wrong on all three counts, at least as seen from this much farther up the tracks”

(from the Introduction to William Gibson’s 2003 collection Burning Chrome (page xv))

The question with which this paper is concerned is: what do Gibson’s and Morgan’s maps of the past, as mapped in Neuromancer and Altered Carbon, say about them as writers and seers into the future?

My thesis is that, on the one hand, Gibson is a synchronic writer who, in Neuromancer, was primarily concerned with the rise of unchecked corporate power; and on the other hand, Morgan is a diachronic writer who, in Altered Carbon, is primarily concerned with the fate of the individual after the consolidation of corporate power.  Both writers propagate ideology through the strategic deployment of names and blank slates.

I will address the question and build towards confirming the main thesis through the use of philosophical theory combined with evidence from Neuromancer and Altered Carbon.   I then evoke Kripke’s puzzle about belief and apply it to the ‘problem’ of cyberspace in cyberpunk.  That problem is, to what do we refer when we talk about cyberspace.  I posit here that we talk the problem of reference itself, and in the philosophy of language we are talking about names.  Here I stick mostly to proper names rather than the more generalised sense of names as noun-phrases referring to things in the world. 


Csicsery-Ronay’s techno-evolution, anthropology, and memetics saturate every pore of the synchronic  work of Gibson, especially Neuromancer (Gibson’s first and greatest published novel).  Hinting at a singularity to come (both in genre and in the world), cyberspace, like its protagonist Case, proceeds iteratively, recursively, and incrementally (almost cautiously despite the cowboy junkie quality of Case) as a self-made (virtual) map.  Synchronic in the sense that identities (both real and virtual) retain necessary qualities that gain in rigid designation a posteriori.  Case, like Kripke’s Aristotle, would still be (the) Case, now described as brain-dead, or as a musician, rather than the role Gibson has him perform in Neuromancer.  The a posteriori necessity of the novel applies equally well to two further rigid designators: cyberspace, and cyberpunk.

Though of a different kind, the class designators (like Kripke’s ‘gold’ and ’tiger’) are equally subject to both the strictures and freedoms of the ‘communication chain’ paradigm for naming adopted by Kripke, and modified by Butler in Bodies That Matter (however crudely).  These stipulate that names, from their original (and probably mythical) baptismal moments, are communicated  without causality in the enchaining.  Thus drift in the actual name is inconsequential, but the fact of enchainment and communication is essential.  Called by other names, cyberspace and cyberpunk hit the same referents, things-themselves-in-the-world that may not have changed in essence.  The mere existence of evolving references, a la Butler, may in turn change our opinion, as the difference behind repetition begins to sway belief.  Whence thus the ‘Stack’ of Altered Carbon, the lurking singularity of Harkaway’s Gnomon, the hack of Levy’s Rig, going back, from whence Frankenstein, his grotesque, his sublime?


The fictional UN resolution 653 is part of the novum-assemblage of Altered Carbon, serving, alongside the idea and implications of the ‘Stack, to structure the plot of the novel.  In this sense, “a minimal novum produce[s] a fictive change of perspective into a new perspective” (Csicsery-Ronay, 2008, page 124) in an SF thought experiment.  Without the UN resolution, the Stack is not nearly as interesting or new.  It is less novum, more philosophy, one that posits complete separability of body and mind, with the latter constructed as software, the former (the body) hardware.  The resulting memes could be straight out of Gibson or Dennett.  The human and social (and socially implicated) parts of Altered Carbon are what gives it both interest and impetus. 

I posit here that Altered Carbon uses an a priori contingent construction of identity that relies on repetition with a difference (and thus Butlerian naming structures) with a schizoanalytic  bifurcated tail.  This evolutionary structure is certainly unique, and represents a tail-end of (post)cyberpunk, as well as a key reference point for larger emerging biopunk sensibilities that, alongside Anthropocenic explorations of climate-change induced SF thought experiments, will continue to become the century’s SF dual-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox.

A prior contingency of repetition-with-a-difference means there is an inherent rigidity and analyticity to the SF proceedings that might emerge: there may be two heads, but there’s still one name this has implications -- do we still call this beast SF, or is it now a branch of philosophy, an inexact but necessary science, dedicated to working out variously possible scenarios with tightly constrained empirical climate and genetic data firmly in mind?


In a nutshell, Kripke’s puzzle about belief is concerned with the statement “London is pretty,” and the precise sets of conditions, subject-positions, and referential quantifications under which the truth of the statement pertains. 

“Cyberspace is pretty” – when one enters cyberspace (or cyberpunk) one enters a reified form of consciousness, one that is about property in/properties of mind/consciousness.

The truth of each parallel statement, about London on the one hand, and about cyberspace/cyberpunk on the other, depends upon which part of London/cyberpunk one is in, but does not necessarily change its value or axioms

Evidence for these claims (as stated above) lies in examining how names lie along spectrums of value resulting in axial truths produced by narratives in/of cyberspace that are, essentially, maps of the mind.  These names are posited as memes – discrete, particulate, essential aspects of mind unique to cyberspace/cyberpunk.

The Kripkean puzzle about belief about where we are in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk is confounded by Butlerian repetition with difference both within and between cyberspatial productions (and this now includes novels as disparate as Gibson’s Spook Country, Harkaway’s Gnomon, Allan’s The Rift, and Levy’s The Rig).  This has to do with both individual works and the genres to which those works contribute and are comprised.  Ghosts (of genre) are made out of stars (of individual works) that in turn form medial and structuring constellations that overlap and blur, just like the manifold names that comprise Neuromancer do for that originary work of cyberpunk (and I might argue provocatively, an origin point for science fiction itself).  Ontogeny (of the work) in this way recapitulates phylogeny (of the genre/system) that nonetheless retains a ghostly character and cognition.

To take just two examples of how patterns of evolution and transmission are produced and evoked in cyberpunk (Neuromancer) and post-cyberpunk (Altered Carbon), we look at the name “Case” in the former, and “Kovacs” in the latter.  Case has a singular death-drive that is essentially self-referential, endlessly rejuvenating itself in and through juxtapositions of cyberspace and the ‘real world’ of BAMA (the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis that retains much of the actual character of late-twentieth century west coast cities like Vancouver, Gibson’s home city).  The self-referential Case is a repetition-with-difference unto death of the body that maps one-to-one between body and mind, despite the blurrings between cyberspace and the real world.  By contrast, in Altered Carbon, Kovacs could be read as ‘two emptinesses’ (of body and mind), a name that changes bodies in a repetition-with-difference that pertains to the body only, keeping the ideal copy of consciousness intact through time, to infinity.  This takes place in a more vertical setting that evokes the class hierarchies the underpin Altered Carbon’s social world. 


[Dual-aspect theory: when you get too close to a ghost/genre it disappears/blurs.  Of what is it composed?  Different answer whether zoomed in or out.  If a name/genre is a punctum, then it becomes much easier to see in isolation, though it is deceptive, because when manifested as this kind of representation (a point) its zero-dimensional objectivity provides a false sense of provision.  In fact its essence is very dispersed (and ghostly, in the case of ‘dead’ genres like cyberpunk), as one sees when one zooms out.  If the ‘punctual’ genres are represented as points, then one sees a shifting constellation of points in relation to each other.  As ghosts, one begins to see their (dead) forms, and how they can overlap and interact in an assemblage of ghostliness]
[But when one zooms in, one can add another ‘layer’ by opening up the genre-point to access the constellation of works that make up the genre.  Within each individual work (itself yet another ‘third’ layer) is a constellation of names, primarily proper (person) names, but also place- and category names.  Once we’ve zoomed in to the level of the individual work (the third zoom-level down) one can still experience the dual-aspect noted above, such that when one pulls back from the novel (e.g. Neuromancer) it can be seen to have a ‘ghostly’ form or aspect, associated both with its datedness, and in terms of its outline and overlap with other works (e.g. Vinge’s True Names)]

[The thing about ghosts is: they act, and they are acted upon (Rieder, 2017, page 34), they may even interact.  Genres, people, texts, mediations, and representations must be allowed to do the same, to haunt us in their various ways, even as we react.  Cyberpunk offers an especially appropriate example for exploring the idea of ghostly genre, because it is rich with names and categories ‘all the way down’, and therefore as metaphorical and metonymical driver of much of what comes after (see Luckhurst, 2018 on the current state of play in literary science fiction)]


Locke’s theory of the ‘punctual self’ (Taylor, 1989), as a zero-dimensional mappable object, plays out in synchronic and diachronic ways in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk respectively.  Furthermore, the punctum of (post-)cyberpunk applies to both fictional selves and subjectivities in particular works like those examined here; as well as to the works themselves and the genres to which they belong (however blurry and overlapping).  Mapping genre as constellation and ghost (‘ghosts are made of stars’) has brought forward the dual-aspect of self, cyberpunk, and larger structures of genre (and origin stories of same). 

To take the Kripkean line again, (post-)cyberpunk is indeed pretty, in both its aspects – from its smooth outer surfaces to its constellated interiors.  There really is no puzzle, as (post-)cyberpunk’s gritty-prettiness is part of its enduring appeal (just like London in fact).  But its experience its punctuality, will appeal variably across subject positions, times, and spaces (this has been pointed out by Foster in The Souls of Cyberfolk, in which Locke is only very briefly mentioned, a brevity that was part of the impetus for this discussion); and in sensibilities more in tune with embodiment, other genres may appeal more (though we have Cadigan’s Synners for example and other cyberpunk works that emphasise embodiment, and thus diminish the ‘punctal’ aspect, to greater or lesser degree).  The critical function of seeing (post-)cyberpunk as a puzzle is to highlight its map-like (and thus blank-slate and name-dependent) dual structure and, with Gibson, to attempt to see how effective its maps have been at teaching us about the present’s potential future(s).


Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. 2008. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction.  Wesleyan UP.

Foster, Thomas, 2005.  The Souls of Cyberfolk.  U Minnesota Press.

Luckhurst, Roger. (ed.). 2018. Science Fiction: A Literary History. British Library.

O’Brien, Michael Kvamme.  2018. “Post-cyberpunk and the potential ontological emancipation of cyberspatial education in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age”. Fantastika.

Rieder, John.  2017.  Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System.  Wesleyan UP.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self.  Harvard UP.

Monday, August 6, 2018

12 Rules for Life

Endure 24, June 2018
Peterson's 12 Rules, reviewed:

1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient) 

8 Tell the truth -- or, at least, don't lie

9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't

10 Be precise in your speech

11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street


1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

I was already doing this on account of my running.  Even at the end of a marathon because it is more efficient to run that way, with your body aligned over the top of your feet as they hit the ground.  Standing or sitting I might tend to slouch a bit more.  But I do very much agree with this rule, and will continue to apply it, running or not.

But I can definitely see the point of this rule, as well, from a non-running perspective.  I do think posture can have a positive effect on outlook, but I don't think it looks great to always be puffed out and beaming like a lunatic.  So, apply in moderation (this applies to all 12 Rules, and I'm sure Peterson would agree with my moderation qualification).

This chapter includes extensive observations on the behaviours of lobsters, ostensibly included to illuminate points about human evolutionary psychology, territoriality, and hierarchy.  Peterson is big on hierarchy and is at pains to show how human origins in the animal world, a thinly veiled socio-biology, have resulted in such 'archical behaviour in humans.  And how, in fact, we thrive upon and need vertical stratification and strife in order to achieve both individual and collective goals.

This lobster bit is meant to reel us in, but for me it had the opposite effect to such an extent that I considered not reading the book.  I found the lobster bit hokey, and disagreed quite strongly with the Bloomblurb on the back of the book calling this section on lobsters "breathtaking".  It was not.  Besides, how is a lobster supposed to keep his or her shoulders back standing straight up?

Actually I thought quite a few times about Spongebob Squarepants during this chapter and it made me laugh.  The book is not without humour, but overall it is a very serious book, quoting Nietszche and Dostoyevsky frequently, and evoking Heidegger throughout.  I really really dig the seriousness of this book, just not the lobster bit quite so much.

2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

This is an interesting one in that it assumes the reader has already internalised the rule "treat others as you would treat yourself", and then counter-intuitively flips it around.  I really don't think the order matters though, as long as you've internalised the rule to do better for both others and self.

The interesting thing here is that Peterson assumes the reader is already a 'moral' person, trying not just to think of themselves all the time, and treating others better than they might treat themselves.  We know it is wrong to do so, and therefore make attempts not to be selfish, to focus on others' problems as a way of taking us out of ourselves, and our self-centred concerns.

So I do very much agree with this rule.  You cannot take care of others if you have not, first, taken care of yourself.  When I took swiftwater rescue training near Kitimat, British Columbia in the late 1990s they taught us how to pull someone out of a swiftly moving river.  The way not to do it?  Don't get in the river, and don't tie the rescue rope to yourself as you throw it out into the current.  Both will result in your own, and the other's, death.  Take care of yourself as best you know how, then treat others with equal care.

Now, I should mention that each chapter of this book is accompanied by an illustration (a drawing) that is meant to resonate with the content of the chapter.  Chapter 2 shows a child looking at a painting of a biblical scene with bodies in various states of ageing and decrepitude.  The child motif recurs throughout, highlighting the intergenerational knowledge transmission aspect of the book: these are rules to teach your children, to pass on through time.  The bible is a theme throughout.

So far, a biblical tome about teaching the children well, and one that has the reputation of being a 'darling of the American right' (as a security guard at Vancouver airport told me upon seeing the book in the tray I had readied for scanning).  So far so good?

I don't know, but I really liked chapter 2, and this is really where the book started to pick up for me.  It maintained its momentum for the entirety and subsequent chapters, in the sense that I couldn't poke holes in the 'internal' logic of its arguments, despite often having that hierarchical, patriarchal, right-ish flavoured tang about them.  I kept reading.

Through chapter 2, Peterson mentions dual-aspect theory of experience that resonates really well with map-based metaphorical thinking.  Not only can life be experienced in terms of chaos/order, but it can be experienced also subjectively (from within) and objectively (like a map).  Peterson, like Nagel, is, in a very liberal-humanist vein (i.e. not really right wing, more maybe a bit neoliberal) trying to get us to pull ourselves out of ourselves and our constrained ways of thinking.

Another book that I really like that did this is Adam Roberts masterful speculative fiction work, The Thing Itself.  Both Peterson's Rules and Roberts Thing resonate together by presenting the Kantian worldview (of rules, of phenomena) in very accessible ways, de-ontologically, i.e., not based on what we (think we) know, but based upon a liberating logic that leapfrogs dread due to the clarity of its aim and vision.

3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

This makes sense too, especially if you think about how easy it might be to do the opposite given ulterior motives and downright devilishness.  By the latter I mean sometimes it feels good to be bad, and that can become reflected in the company we keep.  This could be so easy to do, to start hanging with a shady crew because of that 'feel-good/freedom' factor of 'being bad' (or maybe even Breaking Bad).

If we follow this rule I think we might find our friends-list is a bit sparser than before, that we are only picking people we can really rely upon to take our interests to heart, and to treat both our- and them-selves very well, and with reciprocation driving the relationships forward.

I see in this reciprocal-action aspect (and in the intergenerational knowledge aspect mentioned above) a very anthropological approach to life and philosophy.  This did not hurt my appreciation of the book.  On the contrary it heightened it.  So far so good, I was on board with the first three rules, agreed with them, and wanted to keep driving forward along with Peterson, who writes and thinks, like Nietszche, with a hammer, in hard crystalline chunks of thought and short declarative sentences.  So far so biblical, so poetic.

(By this time, as well, I was wondering if this was a self-help book, a work of philosophy, or psychology, or what?  It turns out it is all of these things, though on the back it is listed as "Psychology -- Self-Help", and the 'data' for the book quite often draws upon Peterson's extensive experience as a clinical psychologist).

4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

Makes a lot of sense, but in the day-to-day fray of existence, it is very easy to forget.  To what, to whom, against which person or thing should I compare myself (if I were to do such a thing), by way of measuring my progress towards some goal, some improvement I want to make in myself?  Ok, but first you have to want to have a goal, you have to want to compare yourself to anything at all (as opposed to just being, or even just muddling through, as many of us do much of the time).

But what we can get into the habit of doing is comparing ourselves to something that represents a cop-out or a very low baseline, and this makes it easy to look good.  We do this all the time when we say anything like "well, at least I'm not" x (where x is someone who is currently perhaps not doing well, is in a ditch, or is performing poorly).  The baseline for comparison must always be yourself, not someone else.

And if you compare yourself to yourself too long ago, you are essentially comparing yourself to someone else again (and thus presenting a false baseline).  Thus the essential 'yesterday' in this rule.

These rules are, by the way, in very Kantian vein, universalisable.  Kantian de-ontology requires this condition, that all the rules apply all the time everywhere.  It is precisely why we need to be careful with rules (but not with applying them too strictly if they represent a careful selection of all potential rules available).  We know what trouble can arise with the idea of a rule is taken to extreme or too literally.  It results on a Rule-bag Archipelago, a series of misfortunate happenings base on overzealous application of de-ontological logic, become complicit with murderers' and Nazis questioning  because suddenly we cannot lie to save the life of someone on the run.

Peterson loves to cite Solzhenitsyn as the ultimate individual who stood up to ideological power, who questioned the reigning powers-that-were (Stalinism), and that individual speaking truth to power is, for Peterson, king.  Individualism, a kind of Kantian-anarchy, based upon the cognitive power of the person acting according to their own atomistic consciousness (and thus free of the distortions of collectivised consciousnesses of both fascistic and communistic varieties), has the power to internalise key rules for living and apply them against chaos (as the subtitle of this books suggests), for order.  For the universe tends towards the former, and therefore we (each of us separately, but reciprocally networked together by our transcendent ability to each apply rules consistently and in action) must push towards the latter through the application of the universal cognitive power of the rules (within the strictures, of course, of the data in relation to any given problem at hand).

5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

This is where I thought the book might start to go south again, but I was wrong.  Peterson's logic continued to hammer home, to strengthen, and to elucidate the human condition.  I do not have children, but I began to look at them in a new light.  I already knew, at the very least, how manipulative and aggressive children can be if you let them get away with things.  Establishing who's boss through strict boundaries as to what kind of behaviour is acceptable and what is not can require a remarkable amount of creativity and fortitude from a parent.

For Peterson this falls just short of corporal punishment, and has, at times, physical aspects.  One must prepare to do battle, and the only acceptable outcome is a win.  The consequences of not winning are simply too dire, especially when in comes to one's future as a parent and the lifetimes of relationships that stretch out before each and every parent (or not-parent, for each and every one of us has been a child at one time, with parents with whom we have various kinds of relationships).

This chapter made me think of my childhood and why my parents may or may not have made certain choices about how to deal with the way we behaved (or more importantly the ways in which we absolutely did not behave, and how they tried to correct this).  My parents are both teachers of young (elementary school or younger) children, and are therefore conversant in the language of boundaries, early learning, rules, and rewards.

We are behavioural beings after all.  One of the ways that readers will object to Peterson is his emphasis on Skinnerian behavioural outcomes.  But when applied to children, and thinking what it might be like to have to bring up a child, I think it would be very natural to want to have some baseline behavioural psychology in place.  Therefore, I agree with rule 5, that if a child is being a real bastard, a little jerk, you fix it right then and there through the application of your superior adult knowledge and experience.  You fix it firmly and fairly and without violence.

It might take a thumb-thump or two (my own grandfather loved to surprise me at least once a year with one of these, and it damn well worked), or a finger to the chest; it might once in a lifetime take a spanking, but persistence will result in something resembling respect.  I am glad that my father brought me up in a strict household, in the sense that there were rules that were meant to be followed.

At my father's memorial service last month I quoted The Loney: "you will come in time to thank the man who made your mind".  Strictness and adherence to rules have the potential to make minds, for good, and for the better.  Peterson's Rules are far from misplaced in this regard.  The world might very well be a much better place if everyone followed (and debated and questioned) them.

6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

By this time I know both that I will finish this book, and that I will read it again...soon!  The previous chapter on children was exceptionally clear and convincing, and in the present chapter, about setting one's house in order, Peterson switches into top gear with an opening discussion of mass-murders, e.g. the Columbine and Sandy Hook mass shootings.  If you were not convinced in the previous chapter that letting children take advantage, manipulate, and overstep boundaries, with potential criminal outcomes, the present chapter brings it home.

We explore here the depths of abnormal psychology, illuminated again by liberal doses of the Bible, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, and Solzhenitsyn (these are the key 5 for Peterson).

At the very moment I read this page, there was an active shooter on Toronto's Danforth Avenue, an unfortunate almost Jungian synchrony that made reading this chapter both very eerie and exceptionally effective.  What are the consequences of anti-human outlooks on life?  Peterson is at great pains to demonstrate that such (postmodern) outlooks have real consequences.  Not that the shooters were necessarily reading Foucault and Butler before performing their heinous acts, nor that society is so infected with such thinking ungrounded by morality that it results in increasing occurrences of phenomena like mass-murder, but that one must be very careful not to lend credence to sloppy or slippery thoughts that might lead to unintended consequences.  The direction we travel is largely in our hands, and we have many tools with which to make some good decisions to avoid tragedy (Peterson's book included).  Peterson himself is a case in point.  He read Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, et al, and comes out (perhaps years later, yes), on the other side, with a clearer sense of direction than before.

Perhaps the call, therefore, is for a return to precursors.  Of course both the postmodernists and Peterson (definitely not a postmodernist, nor even an alt-righter thankfully) read Nietzsche.  If so, let's return to that key thinker on his own terms: let's be better, more radical Christians rather than garden-variety atheists.  This was Dostoyevsky's message too, if we've read him correctly, with due care and attention.

Rule 6 is a re-stating of a maxim to be your best self before you attempt to make changes in others.  How would they take you seriously otherwise?  This is a call to take the high road, to pull each other up out of the slime of existence, to make the world a better place, one house at a time, each ideally stocked with a copy of Peterson's Rules on the coffee-table right next to the Bible and the existentialist classics.  The Kantian (anarchist-individualist) utopia awaits.

7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

So many people are going to set their heels in right at the start of this book.  I did not.  I went with the flow, I was critical, I believed!

OK, so rule 7 is a bit banal, but after chapter 6 we needed a bit of relief (I mean it's all relative at this point).  But, again to Peterson's credit, we do tend to do this.  We tend to pursue expedience over meaning, and it often boils down to not being able to see the map of our existence outside of ourselves.  In this sense it is not just about delayed gratification or correct application of de-ontological structures.

It is about meaning-creation in an inherently chaotic world, and about finding ways to push back and use the chaos that is all around in creative ways the result increased sense of meaning in our lives.  This is way beyond by now, so the second half of the book is just a ride.

8 Tell the truth -- or, at least, don't lie

The rules get more fun towards the end (especially the last two, which we'll get to).  I mean, #8 is a tough one in a sense because followed too strictly it could be problematic, but Peterson isn't talking about hiding Jewish folk on the run during WWII (but he does love to bring up the Nazis and the Communists, and Hitler and Stalin lot, in very equal measure).  Peterson is talking about generating a personal practice that, through consistent application, will become a collective (and thus societal) practice of more truthful behaviour.  What if Trump followed this rule?  If he really did (truly), he would essentially no longer be Trump (and that would be a very good thing).  This realisation alone made me think there is something very valuable happening in 12 Rules.  It seems to withstand various thought experiments about its application in the real world very well.

Anyone ever accused of lying knows how much it hurts.  But we all remain children at some level, full of defence mechanisms, and overblown senses of our own niceness.  We think we are good people when very often we are not.  We justify, we fudge, we are self-serving and manipulative.  We want to get what we want after all (not necessarily what we need...see rule 7).

Peterson points out that we are not as nice as we think we are, and that it requires very careful reflection to begin to build a core of resilience against our own worst natures.  We do have badnesses hard-wired within.  It is a kind of super-man (or -woman) that can rise above them.  But it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to do so each and every day.  Peterson is very much helping in this regard.

**9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
(**This is my favourite rule)

After rule 9, the rules become quite a bit more 'lefty'.  Peterson knows this, and 'admits' to lefty beliefs that he holds, mostly around unfair distribution of wealth in society, and how to remedy inequality.  Perhaps he is showing his true 'Canadian-ness' here, or simply his liberal side, but any question as to whether Peterson is a martinet or not I think are laid to rest in the final four chapters of 12 Rules.

Rule 9 is a case in point, because it makes assumptions about 'the other' that can only be read as compassionate, liberal, and generous.

It also takes the default (and very Freudian) position of listening.  This again might be down to Peterson's clinical psychological practice, but if so, it works, and it is inherently liberal in outlook.

This might also be the hardest rule to put into action.  We tend to think inside our own brains, and to assume perfect knowledge (for some reason).  We tend to act like we already have the map.  What we actually have is a map, and a very partial and sketchy one at that.  Furthermore, that map is infected by subjectivity that blurs its boundaries and clear lines, names and signposts very significantly.  Someone else always has another map, their view from above that they think is right.  To get two such beings to come together and actually listen is nothing short of a miracle.

I have rarely seen it happen, but I think with Peterson we have a much better chance of increasing its frequency (i.e. of actually assuming the 'other' or Other might know something we don', and that is worth listening to, considering, and internalising into our own map).

10 Be precise in your speech

The flip-side of rule 9 is rule 10.  We switch from listening to speaking and when we do so we must communicate back to the other person (dialectically, or in conversation) that we have actually understood what they've said BEFORE we go on to make our own points.

What this might mean in practice is, actually literally, repeating back to the person with whom we are having a conversation or argument, what they've just said to us, and having them verify that our understanding of what the other has said is correct.

This might seem pedantic; it might seem overzealous, but it might also in practice avoid a lot of chaos, strife, and unnecessary conflict.   Who does not want to avoid a fight, a conflict, or an argument.  Ask yourself, if you like these things, what are your ulterior motives, your hang-ups, what's your deal?  We all have at least some issues.

Peterson is consistently counter-intuitive throughout.  We think him a right-winger (well, this is partly because of what he's said before about boys being boys, and them having hard time in the world today, while girls having it comparatively easy and the like), and sometimes he might be, but this is a very a-political book, and thankfully so.

This is a book about communication, about value- and meaning-creation, and it builds up a philosophical foundation from first principles, as the best works of philosophy must do.  It does so with admirable economy and force, without artifice, and yet in a way that is not hostile to creativity (even artfulness...think Nietzsche here, or any time you might be in doubt as to where Peterson is coming from).

11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

We are letting the light in now, we are being liberal, taking risks, exploring, staying open to the world, in a way to which only children (and a few select adults) can do justice.  This is the essence of what is meant by letting children skateboard.

It is all too easy to think of some rule-creating and -following adult being the exact same type of person that would become irate about noisy chaotic skateboarding wielding children.  Peterson (again counter-intuitively, and not disingenuously) does not fit this stuck-in-the-mud adult mould.  I feel that Peterson is probably the type of person (risking an ad hominem observation here) who becomes more liberal as he ages.  From this, I take inspiration.

12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson likes dogs, and starts this chapter talking about dogs.  So he is saying in essence that whatever kind of person you think you are, be a different one.  Pet a cat even if you are a so-called 'dog person'.  Both dog- and cat-being have their strengths.

Reading the bible as a tool-kit of metaphors for living also has immense strengths.  So does reading Nietzsche.  And reading Dostoyevsky (though beware the Notes from Underground, for that text is suspect.  Instead read The Brothers Karamazov, and look to Alyosha for instruction on how to avoid nihilism).

I like Peterson a lot and as mentioned above will immediately begin reading his book again.  It resonates (though doesn't wear this as a badge on its sleeve) with other 'Kantian' texts, but it does so without being a rigid designator, and without being against a certain liberality, and even occasional 'fun'.


These are the 12 Rules.  Follow them for a better life.  I believe this, without irony.  Well done, Peterson (...slow clap).

Monday, June 4, 2018

Dark Tourism

This is a review of Stone's (2018) edited volume, The Palgrave Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies.

I've deleted this review once and started over.  I want to get it right because when this review is complete, I plan to begin re-writing my own dark tourism paper.  In essence, this is a review of dark tourism and as such it encompasses much more than the volume shown in the image at the top of this post.  It also includes a literature review of the research area that goes by the name 'dark tourism' and, as such, will go over some key foundational texts in the area by way of arriving at a starting point for my own paper.  The subject of that paper is the new North Coast 500 driving route around the far northern Highlands of Scotland, one which includes for many tourists in the area visiting Inverness, the historic Culloden battlefield and Clava Cairns sites.  The latter is under pressure from increasing tourist numbers as it is included in Diana Gabaldon's novel Outlander, as well as the Netflix series by the same name.

Upon my arrival in Inverness in the summer of 2017, I got into a conversation with the taxi driver taking me to my hotel, and the topic of that conversation was Outlander.  Actually it was about how many tourists were coming to the area now that the TV series was out, and figures cited usually mentioned a 'doubling' of that figure for the area, with special focus on the Clava Cairns, a (highly inaccurate) representation of which features in the TV series.

As I'm reading The Palgrave Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies each new chapter suggests itself as a possible way of reading Culloden, the Clava Cairns, and the NC500 route, a trio I've come to see as a sort of 'package' that tourists will experience either in its entirety or in part.  The middle chapters of the volume especially, in section 3 (Dark Tourism, Society and Culture) for example, include 'Unwanted Tourism', 'Disaster Tourism', 'Spectral Tourism', mediated tourism, and others, each of which represents a potentially viable theoretical framework for my own paper-in-progress.

I had originally started this review intending to structure it around several key chapters that I felt were punching above their weight, especially chapter 10 (in section 2, "Dark Tourism and Philosophy"), on psychogeography.  I believe this chapter is quite 'weighty' in terms of its theoretical importance, as it brings together a very sophisticated Debordian derive-style of spectacular tourist consumption and a Foucauldian heterotopic framework for examining its two case studies: Chernobyl and the Auschwitz-Berkenau Memorial and Museum.

There are certainly other equally 'weighty' chapters in this volume, however, not least chapter 20 by Hartmann, "Tourism to Memorial Sites of the Holocaust", which attempts to synthesise all the literature to date on this type of site: the resulting bibliography is massive; while the analysis synthesises a useful typology.  This chapter is itself in section 4, the chapters of which consist entirely of those written by geographers.  For example, Hanna, Alderman, and Bright's chapter on tourism in sites of former slavery is one of the only to include maps.  The spatiality of dark tourism is thus elucidated through diagrams indicating how few slavery sites manage to do justice to the actualities of life lived everyday as a slave.

The Handbook is an astounding achievement.  There are no two ways about that.  This volume surpasses all that have gone before, synthesising the previous insights and, though those other volumes may be more specialised (see for example titles like Dark Tourism and Place Identity or Dark Tourism and Crime, two examples of Routledge titles in the field of Dark Tourism), a number of the 'classics' of Dark Tourism scholarship are here superseded.  Lennon and Foley's (2000) Dark Tourism, for example, is succinctly summarised here in Lennon's chapter 24, which updates, corrects, and with much more brevity says many of the same things as the (admittedly itself succinct) earlier monograph.


The Handbook also gives us a definition.  "Engineered and Orchestrated Remembrance" (chapter 1, by Seaton) is first encountered on page 13, and the admittedly abstract terms engineering/orchestration are demonstrated, however, to be central to the definition of Dark Tourism as a field, in addition to a small set of other criteria revolving around remembrance, commemoration, and mortality.  We come to know that this kind of tourism is not crucially limited by any aspect of supply or demand; and that there is no such thing as a 'dark tourist'; that darkness is itself subject to qualification and shading of intensity.

But we cannot get around the facts of EOR (Seaton, 2018, page 13): "The development of material forms to expedite these choices may be described in abstract terms as the engineering and orchestration of remembrance, where engineering is the choice of form and medium (headstone, memorial tablet, epitaph, etc.), and orchestration is their content, layout, and style (gravestone design, memorial speech, mausoleum features, etc.).  It is these commemorative forms that become central to much dark tourism."


And so, we come to learn how commemoration is, within an EOR framework, presented and one the recurring sites is Chernobyl.  This is a fascinating site that has evolved from a sort of 'ground zero' style place of absolute desolation, to one that is gradually being reclaimed by both natural processes (i.e. the return of wildlife and viable ecological relationships) and cultural ones, especially of a particular type of tourist, one that might be interested in psychogeography or nature (not to mention speculative fiction, as the movie Stalker is partly credited with providing some impetus for tourist interest in Chernobyl, despite its pre-dating the event by several years).

Engineering and orchestration are not, of course, particular only to Dark Tourist sites like Chernobyl, Auschwitz, or Culloden (the latter is of particular interest to my own research); instead we find that dark tourism relies upon them in very particular ways that allow for more precise shadings of commemoration, from the 'light' to the 'dark', where the former might include 'dungeon' tours or Madame Tussaud's; and the latter concentration camps or sites of terrorist attacks. Psychologically it is argued herein that Freudian processes are at work in how humanity wants to process the fact of its death; dark tourism can aid this.  It can also aid in processing educational material, for example, there is a kind of tourist 'out there' who will spend considerable amounts of time and money examining sites of slavery and associated murders, lynchings, and assassinations in southern US states.

This is not every tourist, to be sure; but at the same time, as mentioned above, there is no 'dark tourist' (Seaton points this out in the chapter that introduces part 5 of this handbook).  Places can become branded in such ways that they present along that spectrum (here referring to the seminal 2006 paper by Stone, entitled "A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions, and exhibitions", published in the journal Tourism) mentioned above.

Researchers paying close attention to the development of dark tourist studies will need to pay very close attention to this Handbook.   It is now required reading also for business leaders and practitioners hoping to take advantage of the burgeoning of affect and consumption on the 'dark side' of tourism.  While most tourists will continue to stay lighter, simply because it is both healthy and in good supply, this 'other' side remains equally necessary, and is not likely to go away any time soon.

My main comment here, as a geographer, would be that EOR and dark tourism need more maps.  What better way to orchestrate, to engineer, tourist consumption of site than through the use of a map that can situate the participant in the landscapes of affect and intellect that often accompany such sites?  Tourism as a whole, and as a primarily visual field of consumption, relies upon imagery to be effective.  This is produced by both participants and suppliers of various brands, sites, and products that are part and parcel of the experiences the tourist wishes to leave with.  They want to have a lot of photographs at the end of the trip, by which to remember the experience, and by which to share it with others (see Urry's classic book The Tourist Gaze for more on visuality).

Maps epitomise the spatialities inherent with such an approach, and many a map will come home alongside the photographs.  The map's strength is that it includes much more than just the image: in also has text and drawings that allow for the synthesis of a great deal of information.

If dark tourism is even more about the transmission of information across generational lines than 'standard' tourism, with purposes beyond mere consumption, but of preservation of collective memory, then maps have a demonstrable value in that kind of intergenerational engineering.  Even in the discipline of geography, maps are overlooked, and there is only a small handful of papers (see Hanna and del Casino's Mapping Tourism for the best example) and books that look at tourism from the perspective of this very precise kind of EOR.

It is there (in maps), and it is geographers, that need to pay much more attention, and not only to this Handbook, but to some of their own backyards, some of which contain an embarrassment of riches in terms of human geographical materials, the subjects of which are active construction of ethnographically rich archives of material.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Ex machina: The Rig

The moment we first 'see' Alef is the turning point for me. He is wasting with trauma, and it is just the start of it. In fact The Rig (written by Roger Levy) is saturated with traumas: each and every character's trajectory, their being and becoming if you will, is defined by both original and ongoing traumatic events.  As such what this novel delivers is exactly what it proposes: a massive torture device called The Rig, which has been literally rigged to take the place of God.

God, and religion, have a big place here, and structure the novel's philosophical underpinnings and those of the characters residing on various planets of the System, each of which has a particular take on questions of religion and (self-)representation. Not least, with respect to the latter, are names and naming practices.  One planet is essentially the 'unnamable' one, that which cannot be mentioned because it refuses to be named.  The name of God cannot be uttered on the others because the 'state' on the planets of the System are officially atheist.

Most of the characters have some relation to the very Godly Gehenna, however, and the opening chapter of The Rig is comparable to LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness in its phenomenal descriptions of the mass rituals that occur there.

Besides the autistic Alef, whom we grow to love, so much revolves around Razer, and it is around her that most of the mystery The Rig contains (and it contains much mystery) revolves.  Razer, in contrast to Alef's cerebral supremacy, is military capable, as is her lover and mission Tallen. Both of these latter characters have brain implants called 'neurids' through which external control can be maintained by central power (whether of the state or of the individual, which often conflate to the same this in this distant future).

Reading The Economist's Technology Quarterly this week on state surveillance I am struck by how 'state of the art' the technology in The Rig is.  The idea of the neurid, of course, is a metaphor, and I would hesitate to say that it is even a novum here.  The Rig itself fulfils this latter function, and the most important structuring metaphor.  And by structuring I mean that it drives, metonymically, the action (I am here relying on Adam Roberts definitions of SF from both his book The History of Science Fiction, with respect to novums; and his blog post on metonymy/metaphor as defining SF).

The Rig passes that first test: it is enough about now that it pushes the envelope into the future a bit.  This is all we can hope for, really.  But The Rig is way beyond merely being satisfactory in this respect: I would argue for its exemplariness, and its excellence.  This boils down to the great writing, the plotting, and the sympathy with which we come to regard the characters, even the evil ones! (This could be just me, but I'm sympathetic even to Pellenhorc).  "Pellenhorc" is a brilliant name by the way.  For starters it contains the word 'orc' and this cannot be a coincidence in my opinion.

Bleak, as a planet, is wonderfully evoked, and it contains possibly the bulk of the most important action (as opposed to thinking which occurs on other planets).  There is action a-plenty here, of a believable and fast-moving kind: it is many and varied.  Those who like action will be happy; those who like thinking, equally so.

Other aspects that are so, now: AfterLife and The Song. These two names evoke sites that are like advanced copies of our own twitter and facebook, but more virtual and all encompassing.  And this brings us to the intergenerational aspect, the one that is about humankind maintaining cultural and technological continuities required for its extended reproduction in space and time.  What the characters are faced with is existential in this regard; Alef and Razer are shouldering unbelievable  masses of responsibility for the future of humanity.

And this is so much of what SF is about, in the end: survival in the face of forces of potential mass destruction.  The Rig is a traumatic read, but I urge you with all haste to pick it up and read it as soon as possible.