Thursday, September 18, 2014

Philosophy Thursday: Some Real Life Examples

So, for this week's Philosophy Thursday, I wanted to just catch up to myself a little. In particular, I wanted to illustrate Levinasian concepts of violence and justice as I interpret them using some real world examples.

The Most Obvious Examples First

So, outside of actual physical violence, there is the violence of psychological warfare, bullying, cyber bullying, internet trolling, microaggressions, and good ol' fashion name calling. For me, it is obvious that these stem from placing the Other as the object in my subjective experience. Rather than letting the Other be self-determining, I've thought of them in ways that fit in with my own internal idiolect. Idio-consciousness? Idio-thoughts? That needs a word. Someone make up a word for idiolect but my thoughts instead of my words. I need it.

But I want to make it clear that in enacting justice as the third party or in the name of the Other, I don't mean that we all should go on a mission to correct everyone else's supposed unethical behaviour. Vigilante justice is not justice. It is not ethical. I'll let someone smarter than me step in once to explain what I mean:

And Now Some Less Obvious Examples

Okay, so most of that may be obvious and a bit of a given.

But since Levinasian ontology (as he calls it) or ethics (as I call it) is an impossible system, it means that his version of violence crops up everywhere in daily life, over and over again.

Example One

Like this one time about a million years ago when I had this friend who had just broken up with his girlfriend. He confided in me that he wasn't sure whether he had been in love with her, or in love with the person he'd assumed she was. His idea of her, in short. And that sort of hits the nail on the head, doesn't it?

The way I see it, romantic love is particular prone to Levinasian violence. Partially, I blame Disney and pretty much every rom com ever. And Charles Dickens. I had a particular illustrative Charles Dickens quotation to insert here, but the paper it comes from -- about romantic love and Levinas' idea of violence -- is currently packed up for the move. I'll edit later. Moving on.

I definitely had this idea up until my late twenties that looking for a romantic partner involved looking for a person who would not only adhere to some sort of inane checklist of interests and characteristics I had in my head (that they couldn't possibly know about), but that also filled some weird psychological lack that I had in my life. It's this entire idea of "You Complete Me" (barf) that I was fed during my formative years. This idea that my future romantic partner would not be a full, complete person on their own and neither was I. It reduces two people to fully functioning human beings who want to share something to mere shells of being who have no function outside of fulfilling some pre-destined role waiting for them inside a romantic partnership.

And if you don't adhere to the checklist in my head and act at all in a way that is indicative of a complex, perhaps at times conflicting internal life, out you go! And how violent is that?

Example Two

This can also apply to my interactions with friends, with acquaintances, with strangers. You are expected to act a certain way so that my psychological landscape can remain intact.

Another really mundane example of everyday Levinasian violence is family expectations. I can see how first time parents can imagine with joyful expectation how life will be with the addition of their inevitably perfect children. However, life doesn't work that way. Just because you will your family members to be a certain way, to act a certain way, and to tow the family line doesn't mean they are going to. You cannot control any person except yourself, so there's no use trying. There is no use in even thinking of them as any way except the way they are.

But I'm not bitter.

And To Close, Examples Related to the Industry in which I Find Myself

Now, the more interesting stuff.

Example One

Sometimes when it comes to the publishing industry in particular, and the entertainment industry more generally (which for me includes movies, music, books), I have to shake my head in wonder (oh, boy. Here comes the judgey bit).

Look, I understand that as an author, I'm just now starting out. And I understand that when it comes to my craft, I have a long road; I have tons of work to do. I'm not perfect, and no artist ever is. It's a practice, a skill that keeps evolving. And I understand how the rest of this entry is going to come off as hella smug.

Be that as it may, having respect for the Other in practicing my craft is something that I strive to keep in mind and is an aspect of my writing that I continue to focus heavily on.

For instance, I could never write something like Memoirs of a Geisha. While it's a well-written book, it's a monument to cultural appropriation akin to that of Katy Perry's latest antics. I will never be able to tell someone else's story in that way. Not only because I am not comfortable with it, but because by my ethics, it is a violence.

But neither would I ever be able to write a story about only people who look like me or who live like me. As in my +Wattpad story, RoboNomics (shameless plug alert), I am trying with my writing to tell my story as authentically as possible. My main character may look and live like I do, but my experience in the cultural, political and economic milieu in which I have lived (specifically, Canada in the end of 20th/beginning of 21st centuries; more specifically central and eastern Ontario in those times) has not been a whitewashed experience. My aim is to reflect that experience in my art.

When I sit down to write any story at all, the representation of the Other in that art should, I believe, be respectful. In any narrative in writing or on film, there are many characters who have many different levels of importance to the story. There's a main or many main characters, and there are secondary and then also background players. But this doesn't mean that those characters are stereotypes. This doesn't mean that they don't each have their own full, complex lives. How much information I have the page space to reveal about each character may be limited, but that doesn't mean they don't have a complex backstory, or that they exist merely to service a plot function.

I read somewhere that if you create a character merely to fill a plot hole, that just don't. Cease and desist. That shit is creatively lazy.

So how do I go about writing characters who have different lives and experiences than mine while being respectful and not reducing them to tired, uncreative stereotype? Well, for me, I try and create characters that are amalgams of folks I've actually known in my life. Never based one a single person (because that would be technically illegal unless you get signatures), but built from characteristics that I have actually observed in my family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers. This requires, of course, some of the skills most important to writing fiction. Namely, observation and wide breadth of experience. If you want to have a selfish justification for it, go make some friends! Be nice to people for fluff's sake! :P

Example Two

When it comes to the particular genres in which I write (fantasy and science fiction for now, speculative fiction more broadly), I've already touched on some of its problems as I see them with regards to its treatment of the Other. 

For me, speculative fiction represents a unique set of freedoms and challenges. Freedom in the form of unendingly new and unique ways of telling stories. The freedom to imagine completely innovative settings, completely unique characters, and unbounded realms where even the laws of physics can take a holiday. The human imagination at its best.

Or its worst. Because the challenge of speculative fiction is to write stories that still contain relatable characters -- or at least believable characters. With plot points that are palatable enough for the reader or audience to suspend their disbelief and settings that are compelling and involving.

And there's yet another set of freedoms and challenges. Speculative fiction, I believe, allows for the commentary on recent or current political, cultural and economic events from a safe distance of it's not really about that. It's about dragons! Direct satire of world conflicts might be too inflaming, but if we write about ghosts, ghouls, and water spirits (or what have you), a story can be edifying and entertaining.

In this way, the move Avatar could have been a subtle comment on the dangers of immersive technologies like virtual reality, or some such thing. Could have been. Instead it was just a white saviour/exoticism fantasy with a clumsily tacked-on moralistic lesson that do with the environment. I think?

And that's one of the big dangers that much of speculative fiction has come up against. And failed when faced with. That is, when you represent an alternate version of reality, you've got to think outside the box. I try -- let me not be too preachy about it -- I try to guard against simply replicating the world as it is represented into my made-up world. I try to guard against replicating harmful stereotypes and renditions of the Other that exist in this world, and are false and harmful: those that reduce people to objects; to convenient pawns for my make believe play.

Jason Momoa, of Game of Thrones (Dothraki) fame.
Photo by Florida Supercon (cropped).
Put another way: I don't want to make up a fantasy or sci fi world in which there is the "main" continent or planet where the civilized folks live and look a certain way; and then there is the "other" continent or planet where the uncivilized folks live and look a certain way. It's tired and it's violent. All sorts of people live all sorts of different ways -- some of them yet unimagined.

Again, if you want the selfish justification: I believe that this not only helps me to further my craft in pushing me to be more and more creative but it also means that my stories, with any luck and continuous refinement, will become more interesting and involving. And if I get it wrong, and I receive constructive criticism that points out some terribly violent or limiting way I've represented the Other, there will be nothing wrong with my correcting my writing now and in the future. After all, that's how I learn. And helps to beat back that functional fixedness that I'm terrified of.

One Caveat

Look, I realize that the Klingons of Star Trek are beloved. I know that folks love Game of Thrones. And if you are enamoured of James Cameron's Avatar...well, you should just own that. Like what you like! Be protective of the artwork that helped you through being 14, by all means. What I'm arguing shouldn't take away from that. All I'm saying in pointing to these particular examples is that I've learned something from all of them. I've learned how to hone my own craft in particular ways.

Example Three

Man, long entry today! The third example of violence that the entertainment industry is prone to has to do with the fact that it is run, at least still in part (and still in large part) by corporations. But you know what, I think that may be a rant for next week. I've taken up a lot of your time so far and I'm sure you need an entire week to process this information. At least, I do.

So, until then! :P