How this is going to begin

From Firefly to Wikileaks, the Liberal Revolution as Conspiracy Revealed

In Firefly, (Joss Whedon, 2002), the TV series and movie that blended Western with Sci-Fi and features the best use of a Baldwin since, well, ever, rebellious narratives make an interesting appearance. The main characters were on the losing side in a defensive war against an expansionist political entity known as “The Alliance,” which, at the start of the storyline, is the ultimate force in the solar system. Multiple aesthetic cues evoke the Civil War showdown between the Yankees and the Rebels, but without that whole embarrassing slavery thing (the series protagonist not only has black friends, he has a black co-star).

Now that the war is lost, the two ex-rebels go Han Soloing about the star system in a space freighter, smuggling stuff and doing things with the help of the typical unlikely cast of crewmembers. Aside from providing what may be the best anti-authoritarian line from B-Grade film since Charlton Heston’s 1973 “Soylent Green is people!” (the new titleholder is “I aim to misbehave,” delivered by Nathan Fillion with a sexy sneer), there’s hardly anything novel in this embarrassingly amusing series and film.

What we find instead is a common liberal archetype of revolution as conspiracy revealed. Besides the authorities and other criminals, the only bad guys in the Firefly star system are known as “reavers.” Well beyond Faulkneresque, these reavers are ultraviolent, marauding freaks whom the movie reveals to be the accidental product of a secret government program to engineer perfectly happy, perfectly obedient citizens. The attempt to remove free will unpredictably turns them into psychopaths bent only on destruction. Denoument is achieved by broadcasting this suppressed truth, with the help of a rogue hacker, throughout the system.

The assumption is that once people realize the truth, they will rise up and the old regime will fall. The advantage of this model of rebellion is that it can be singlehandedly executed by a lone individual or a small group (making things easier for the scriptwriters) and that it never requires the building of collective power or the negation of deeper structures of domination (making things easier for the governments whose citizens regularly consume this storyline). Nearly every book or movie that deals with conspiracy and protagonizes rebellion makes at least some use of this model of revolution.

The ongoing controversy involving Wikileaks and the trials and tribulations of Julian Assange provide yet another test case for the effectiveness of this model in the real world. It would be a hilaroius sequel to Firefly in which our hotshot space pilot were arrested as a sex-offender while all the lower class Alliance citizens negatively impacted by the reavers, which is to say by their government’s policies, tsked and shook their heads and debated whether such openness were harmful to national security.

The real secret that liberal discourse hides, the great conspiracy, revolves around the nature of knowledge itself. I’m not sure if Foucault’s analysis of knowledge-power is adequate to this situation, because what is at stake is not merely the categorization and mobilization of knowledge. Such a paradigmatic approach discards the possibility of subversive agency or externality to power. While we are presented with the interaction of fragments, this is a productive interaction, such that contradiction, and thus the need for suppression, is minimized.

At every moment the leaked State Department cables are being presented within the category of policy, never translated out of the strategic language of government nor even the institutional dialects in which they were written, so we are not dealing with pure and external facts that challenge a reigning paradigm but with a dispositif’s own descriptions of its operations.

So far, vanilla. The controversy that is playing out in real life does not reflect a paradigmatic conflict. However, the debate centers around the question, “Should we know these things?” The psychological underpinnings of this question reveal that, in a way, everyone already knew that the military was running death squads, that every government everywhere is conniving and petty, that Israel was up to no good, and so on and so forth. And they knew only so far as this knowledge already belonged to the hive mind of society. When Wikileaks released the cables, hardly anyone acted surprised.

Rather, there was a spontaneous transition from the debate (which admittedly had faded into the background years ago) about whether the US military is torturing people to a debate about whether we should know the US military is torturing people. No double-take, no stuttering, no process of transition, but a smooth replacement of one argument with another, despite the contradictory bases of those arguments.

As a great part of society from all classes argue in favor of the compartmentalization of this classified knowledge within the authorized cells of the hive mind, it becomes apparent that we are not living and struggling in a terrain where rational debate is possible. What we are faced with, actually, is a society suffering from cognitive dissonance, that will replace its alibis as quickly as an alcoholic.

I stumbled across a test case on a much smaller scale that furnished identical results when an acquaintance who teaches a university course showed me his students’ responses to the question, “Is it okay to be a luddite?” Of about twenty responses, all but two answered in the negative, and the overwhelming majority of these argued that it was ethically wrong to be a luddite because “technology” was imposed on society and anyone who didn’t use it would be excluded. Only a handful bothered to claim that “technology” made our lives better. In other words, for most people right and wrong are pragmatic measurements of their antagonism or invisibility towards the power structures that can exclude them from society. Thus, if power is indeed reproduced by everyone, it is done so unevenly and in such a way that it exists as an intimate externality to each individual’s free will, like an abusive father for whom one is constantly making excuses.

This behavior suggests a primacy of social relations to which discourse is subservient. In general, people believe what they have to believe in order to get along. The ideal is to live in accordance with your beliefs, but if your life and your actions are disciplined and limited by the State, it will be easier to tailor your beliefs to the life you are already living. This process of building an alibi is in fact a central movement in the identity-formation known as “growing up.”

In some cases, the operation is an easy one. How many people would be able to find out on their own that people living outside of the State did not lead “nasty, brutish and short” lives? Other cases, such as the nature of the police, are harder to cover up, because people encounter contradictions to the official line in their day to day life. This is why you only have a few movies or news programs showing savages living in misery, and a damnable flood of cultural production that introduces “the corrupt cop,” “the good cop,” and the racialized or lumpen criminal in order to help the citizenry explain away the troubling episodes they may witness daily.

The idea of a continuous synthesizing between knowledge and power without any externality is contradicted by the occasional evidence of the world or the body asserting themselves against the discourses that attempt to mold them. Cognitive dissonance, regardless of the paradigm it is understood within, comes with disorders, perturbations, bad humours, however you want to call them, that demonstrate there is a limit to the ability of the ordering of knowledge to enlist us in the universal reproduction of power.

We can attest, therefore, to a world that is independent from knowledge but never separate from it. Seen in this light, the inability of knowledge of the government leaks to provoke substantive resistance reveals a particular relationship to knowledge within democratic society. Through the device of free speech, democracy has already accomplished the alienation of beliefs from actions. By allowing freedom of expression in exchange for the prohibition of free action, democracy expropriates us from our opinions and disciplines us to believe in anything as long as we act on nothing. This is a qualititative shift from the days of the Bogomils, the Cathars, and the Taborites, when heresy was the greatest threat to established order. Today, heresy is passé.

Therefore, within the current arrangement of power, it becomes necessary to distinguish between information and knowledge, with the former being the alienated husk of the latter. Xabier Barandiaran provides a useful analysis of the mining and acculturation of information as code to be plugged into developing socio-technological apparati. In this model, information is inert when not plugged into the mechanical operation it was encoded for.

So, when government documents are leaked, it is something like the spilling of God’s seed on this barren and fruitless earth—the faithful among us go running after those out-of-place tadpoles, fishing them all into a great basket so they can be returned to the only realm where they can find any use and thus where they have any meaning. Government secrets, the good citizens argue, belong with the government.

Knowledge, as opposed to information, requires interaction with the world, as mediated through symbol and discourse. Mediation here is not bad, it is not the stand-in for alienation, as though world and body were two separate entities, stumbling blindly towards some reunion (I recall the Ted Hughes poem “A Childish Prank”) and separated only by language and other mediating instruments—this is the image bequeathed to us by what has unfortunately been the predominant current in anarchist philosophy over the last decades (perhaps since Fredy Perlman, who was marvelous regardless).

Rather, knowledge, which is always self-knowledge, requires a symbolic dimension, just as the physical phenomenon of reflection (synonym of contemplation) suggests both the possibilities of self-awareness and of symbolic representation. Thus, knowledge is not a pure body finding a pure world because world and body are one. Knowledge is the world, as the body, discovering itself. Therefore, when the State has expropriated the body from the world, knowledge becomes obsolete and the body becomes a cog that can either process information according to the code or not. By opting out, it is not attacking this process, simply removing itself from the flows of information and value (monetary as well as affective), whether by not going to work, not going to the pep rally, not laughing or sighing when the rest of the audience does.

And there are limits on opting out as well. One may survive only by serving as a conduit for these flows. By not going to work, by not going to the movies, one removes oneself from the community of commodities and affective allegiances to those commodities that, in the capitalist world, is the only means of reproduction, of survival.

Power, one might say, is not everywhere, but nowhere. This is a universe of powerlessness, in which power can only be born in a singularity such as is the seizing of agency, which in this universe is always a rebellious act. The idea that information could be subversive implies that people are already taking action in their lives, and new information would direct their actions in new directions. This never plays out because people are not taking action but serving as conduits (with differing degrees of enthusiasm) and transforming the code that passes before them into mechanical operation and back into code.

Events such as Wikileaks threaten the alibi but not the fundamental activity being covered up. New or different information cannot interrupt this mechanical process because it does not address people’s relationship to that information (which is one of alienation) or their essential powerlessness and passivity. In the end, all the subversive information in the world is only saying one thing: “You are powerless. You are powerless. You are powerless. You are powerless.” Learning this does not change a thing. It was already obvious. This is why people needed the alibis in the first place.

A revolutionary understanding of the nature of information is actually present in the Matrix trilogy, speaking of code. The significance of this film’s resonance should not be overlooked—it spoke directly to the alienation of millions of young and not so young people, touching them at the very level of identity, mediated, in most cases, by new aesthetic trends, but in no few instances by such outbursts as public shootings. When the first film ends, Neo informs the machine world that “Now, I’m going to hang up this phone, and I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see.”

This threat promises the typical liberal revolution as conspiracy revealed. But the continuation of the trilogy exposes the revelation’s impotence: the Matrix does not come tumbling down just because people have discovered its existence. The discovery only serves to strengthen those who are already rebelling; everyone else must still unplug and arm themselves, one by one. And looking back to the previous line at the end of the first film, we find that it was the genre and not this particular script that gave us these expectations: “I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end, I came here to tell you how this is going to begin […] I’m going to show them a world without you […] A world where anything is possible.”

Revealing the conspiracy has its value, but the conspiracy itself is not the framework for the evil authority, simply its alibi. Unmasking it can only be a beginning.

A Is for Adraknones

I’m going to wager that you know someone who has read more science fiction and/or fantasy novels than I have. In fact, you might be that person. I don’t live in the world of sf/fantasy; however, I’ve been vacationing there off and on for the past several years. I know a little bit about it, but no, not as much as you or your know-it-all friend.

My attraction to sf/fantasy is the creations of other worlds. This is not surprising. I’ll be up front in saying that the world I want to live in is not this one. I also recognize that there’s a fair amount of investment in creating a world, which is why a lot of sf/fantasy stories are published in series or at least as mammoth tomes. If you’re going to invent a new world, you may as well get a number of books out of it, or at least many pages. There’s also a certain commitment that I as a reader must make in order to fully engage with this.

I’m drawn to these alternate worlds generally because I would prefer to live in those worlds. For example, I would absolutely live in the magical world of Harry Potter if I had the choice. Even with Death Eaters and dragons, I’d still choose this if it also meant I could ride a broom and perform spells and hexes. Some literary worlds I’m a little more ambivalent about hypothetically inhabiting, such as Middle-earth in Tolkien’s books and Bas-Lag in the trilogy by China Mieville. Neither place is a walk in the park.

Recently I read Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Unlike my previous examples, it falls under the speculative fiction genre rather than the fantasy. It tips the scales at a hefty 890 pages, with another 45 pages dedicated to a glossary and three mathematical appendices. My hardcover copy could be used to bludgeon an opponent’s skull before polycosmology could erupt from anybody’s lips. The first third of the book is dedicated to describing the world that the protagonist Fraa Erasmus inhabits and its system of philosophical monasteries called concents. Arbre is a world similar to ours but with a few subtle differences. Stephenson creates new terminology to describe analogous occurrences. Jeejahs, fraas, suurs, Deolaters, and the Hylaean Theoric World: they each have corresponding realities in the world we live in, and some of their meanings can be deduced from comparable etymology.

There’s a criticism to be made about inventing new terms for things that an author could conceivably describe in the language in which the book is being written. It’s a lot of new words for a reader to pick up. The glossary is 20 pages long. It’s not every reader who will want to attempt such an endeavor. Some of my science fiction fan friends couldn’t tolerate the book because of this. I might not have attempted it if I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed two of Stephenson’s novels already, including Cryptonomicon which at nearly 1200 pages is the longest novel I have ever read. As is turns out though, I seem to have a very long attention span for novels. Anticipating Anathem‘s bounty of new terms, I actually read the glossary first. If an author is going to go through the trouble of creating a new world, I want to at least understand it.

Let’s talk about the creation of terms first. Language literally defines the practices and values of a given civilization. If you were going to create a new world, why wouldn’t the words be different? In the practice of writing speculative fiction, you also have to think about the consistency of terminology within the given system. Arbre didn’t have Pythagoras; therefore the length of a hypotenuse isn’t determined with the Pythagorean Theorum but with the Adraknonic Theorum, named after ancient Arbran theorist Adrakhones. Arbre also has two language groups— Orth, reserved solely for monastic living, and various vernacular languages across the world, Fluccish being the one in use where most of the book takes place. Stephenson is no dummy; he makes an introductory disclaimer that while the book is translated from Arbran languages, original terminology is kept unless the difference between the Arbran object and our counterpart is so small that to use an Arbran term would be unnecessarily complicated. He cites the carrot as an example of something whose Arbran counterpart is so similar that he (the translator) may as well just call them carrots to make it easier on the reader. He also begins the book with a brief timeline of the approximately 7000 years of Arbran ontological history..

In addition to a long attention span for novels I also seem to have an ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to reading books about different worlds than my own. Once, after having read a few Harry Potter books in a row, I found myself requiring a pen that was across the room. Without pausing for thought, I said, “Accio pen!” Yes, aloud. It took me half a second to realize that the pen wasn’t going to fly across the room into my hand.

Similarly, Anathem‘s mathic system— that is to say, the social division on Arbre that places intellectuals and philosophers inside networks of monastic seclusion— infused my brain with its terms and features. I wondered if I would have been in the Edharian group or the New Circle, or if I would have been one of the Saeculars whom for whatever reason had never been properly assessed and collected as a child by the monastic orders. I even went through my romantic history and mentally categorized my relationships into Tivian liaisons and Etrevenean ones. Some of the argumentative concepts also seemed useful, and I nearly forgot that I couldn’t drop those terms in regular conversations. The Rake is Arbran shorthand for the idea that wishing something is true doesn’t make it more likely to be true, and stems from an incident when an ancient philosopher used a garden implement to brush away zealots. The Steelyard is a similar mental tool which states that when faced with two hypotheses to choose the simpler one, based on an ancient metaphor involving a scale.

I wonder if it’s just an aspect of these worlds that I’m drawn to, in the same way that Ren Faire folks obsess over only a certain spectrum of Renaissance era living. I like the part of Harry Potter that exists in Hogwarts, and I like the concents in Anathem. What does this say about me— that my true desire is to live in a cult? I hope not. No, I think what it says is that if I could, I would choose a life outside of capitalism. The concents as they are described in the beginning of the book seem like idyllic intentional communities where contemplation is favored over consumer culture. At first, it seems like a livable trade-off— sure there are rules about what documents you’re allowed to read and what technologies you can have access to, but on the other hand once you come of age your time is for the most part your own. Reading, writing, growing and preparing food, pursuing crafts or martial arts that interest you, and most importantly consulting with your peers— you can make a life of this.

I could make a life of this.

However, as with many things in life and in fiction, illusions fall away. The concents are centers of intellectual separatism which manage to successfully resist the comparably frenetic pace of cultural and technological change outside their fortified gates, but they are also themselves political entities with power and weaknesses known only to secret organizations within their walls. They maintain their perceived neutrality and separation only insofar as the outside governments decide to grant it to them, a situation not that different than an intentional community or cult on our planet that is left alone by military forces until such time that its inhabitants are deemed too dangerous or too useful.

As a result, I’m back on this planet, at least until I read another science fiction book.