Semiofest meets Biosemiotics

Semiofest, the largest meeting and organization professional semioticians (working commercially rather than academically) just had a session biosemiotics. In many ways, it was also sustainability 2.0, tackling the issues of performativity and power in how we make sense of our social and natural world.

My own presentation urged commercial semioticians to “select wider” than advertising to our parasites, suggesting that we can get better results (for whom? over what time span?) advertising to holobionts.

What does select wider mean? It means focusing less on whatever we think the problem is and more on contexts, environments. As Mazzy Cameron puts it: “Companies looking to send their employees to a one-hour training to promote joy, only to return their employees to their toxic environment will fail fast.” Fixing localized symptoms can never do justice to the diffused, far-reaching genesis of disease. To do otherwise that address systemic, long-term, and diffuse sources of health and disease is to offer snake oil, to sell false promises and cures that don’t work. Desperate people will sometimes fall for grift. But eventually such grifting runs out of new markets. It is a self-undermining business model. Sustainable semiotics isn’t just about sustaining profit, though that comes along the way too, as a positive side-effect. Sustainable semiotics is about creating the conditions for continued sensemaking, not just leeching on epistemic commons as a form of extended sensetaking.

Object‐Oriented Ontology and the Other of We in Anthropocentric Posthumanism

My new article out in Zygon, “Object‐Oriented Ontology and the Other of We in Anthropocentric Posthumanism” is a philosophical takedown of a misguided notion: that difference that make a difference should be deliberately overlooked or ignored for the sake of respecting the individuality of objects.

While this seems like an extreme form of politically correct identity politics, it’s not. It’s advanced metaphysical gymnastics. Attempting to place being out of grasp while describing it in excruciating detail has been a pasttime of nominalists for generations. Plato, Kant, and others had bad habits of describing the very things they claimed were indescribable, beyond the access of mere mortals. Such privileged access begs the question: either these object whisperers know more than we do, and are able to reach through the veil where mere mortals cannot, or they are speculating without any grounding in reality.

If you’re bicurious about OOO, posthumanism, new materialism, and the bevy of other ungrounded and often non-relational theories de jour that get served up to university students as the new gospel, you might enjoy reading this paper.

Reflections on EUR’s Roundtable on Academic Freedom and Sustainability

After the 28 November, 2022 occupation of the Sanders Building at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where I work, by OccupyEUR, the students involved in the very nonviolent protest were violently removed by riot police at the Executive Board’s behest. Not the finest day for our university.

Thankfully, the Executive Board (CvB) are people, not machines. Which means that they felt contrition – a healthy and appropriate emotional response to exaggeratedly preemptively striking out against your own student population, while protecting the business interests of your oil and gas donors. Because of their display of human emotions – whether due to genuine genuflection and soul-searching, or the heaps of bad press their actions precipitated – this provided an unique opportunity for the campus to come together in dialog about the nontransparent kowtowing to the most polluting industries on earth. It brought up the asymmetric application of Erasmian Values, and the underestimation of the actual threats of climate collapse versus the imagined harms that could come from growing a backbone and cutting ties with the fossil fuels (and other ecocidal) industries.

So, my colleagues, many with whom I had organized together a petition for the professorate signed by over 550 university scholars condemning EUR’s police presence and violence against students on campus, the refusal to listen to them and take them seriously as an early warning system, and the university’s involvement in apologetics and social license for the fossil fuel industry – organized a roundtable with the CvB (top leadership) of EUR, as well as with some students and professors, to discuss how to move forward. (You can watch the entire thing here.)

One of the fundamental weaknesses of such a ‘townhall’ model, however, are the following:

(1) The tendency for conversations to go around in circles, with lots of finger pointing, abstraction, and he said she said

(2) The invitation for those who are insincere to actually address the graveness of the situation to blame the wrong people (blame the victim) and play light of the fundamental issues being discussed

(3) The tendency for those who are least informed about an issue to presume that they deserve the loudest voice in reinforcing normalcy bias.

All three of these tendencies were in full force at the Roundtable. Allow me to explain.

Anyone who has studied rhetoric knows the fallacies of argumentation – the weaknesses of thought that allow people to jump prematurely to conclusions. These are often similar to what Daniel Kahneman and others describe as our System 1 (fast, ‘gut’ instinct, emotional) and System 2 (slow, logical, deliberative) ways of thinking. Ironically, many times, those in the Roundtable who were asking for the introduction for accounting for our emotions were actually the most logical, those using their System 2 capabilities more than the others.

Facts matter. That doesn’t mean that we can’t contest them, á la science studies. But to make statements that are patently false, and verifiably false, especially in a moment or event where we are trying to create a collective emotional tone and way forward, is a sort of unintentional violence based on ignorance.

Because there was so much misinformation and fossil fuel talking points in the Roundtable, I routinely teach my students about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is important to understand because most people know that (1) OccupyEUR did not close down the campus or even the Sanders building; that was the direct reaction (however illogical) of the CvB, which had many other options on the table that due to their preemptive strike mindset, they chose not to follow (so the University Council gentleman who got that wrong, with bravado, simply doesn’t know how the university works, which is understandable and predictable since becoming a council member became a popularity contest rather that a faculty appointment based on excellence); (2) False equivalencies of a group of peaceful protesters doing your labor for you (of raising awareness about the actual level of existential catastrophe of climate change) is somehow morally on-par with right-wing racist extremist groups protesting because they want to kill you (as the University Council dame somehow made this mistake); (3) Shell did not give the Nigerians jobs (as an ESPhil postdoc incorrectly proposed) – Shell and the rest of the colonial fossil fuel predators destroyed the ecology of a thriving and self-sufficient flourishing people, destroying their clean water and ability to farm due to oil slicks. All of these major mistakes could have been prevented if those with the least amount of knowledge could have watched their emotions and realized they didn’t possess the rationality in that moment to contribute meaningfully, but only wished to poison the atmosphere with their virtue signalling hyperbolic doubt.

Any good researcher, like Albert Einstein, Peter Kalmus, Katherine Heyhoe, and Ruha Benjamin, amongst others, are compelled to act on the truths they discover. To do so otherwise would be unethical. To know exactly the cutting edge of climate science and pretend like you can keep on living unmoved in our unsustainable cultural and material oil soup, would be unconscionable. Literally, it would be lobotomizing, to remove our consciousness. Are universities really places for removing empathy and compassion? Are we training each other to become more dead inside, more automatic, more machinelike, for the sake of a death-creating system. I hope not. That’s not what I signed up for.

Unfortunately, the majority of research (money and funding) is focused on the contemporary equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In order to not do the hard sociological and cultural work of developing our conscience and changing the course of locked-in toxic power dynamics, research is exploited to reevaluate things we already know. Downstream versus upstream.

The loss of science in our process of doing science, in our university attempting to be a university, is sad but not surprising. We are happy to pay consultants the big bucks to help us manage people ‘better’ or create more paperwork, or try to get us higher in some rankings, but we’re unwilling to listen to the world-renowned experts at our own institution. This deliberate overlooking of expertise is in order to pretend that there’s not a problem. We’re happy to have worldclass researchers and teachers attracting students, bringing in grant money, and publishing in recognized peer-reviewed journals, but to listen to them on the most important questions of the millenia? Nah, to vulnerable. Too honest to admit that the top brass doesn’t know what they are doing and needs help. It would require being human, admitting mistakes fully, admitting failure even. And admitting, like any addict (to oil, to prestige, to a broken and breaking structure of global gaslighting) that you have a problem. And seeking help. From people who are doctors, and know how to treat this particular addiction. Please listen to us. Please listen to more than your own echochamber. As I mentioned, I’m part of a much larger group of experts, both at our university, and as part of the Climate Social Science Network, a group of people who have read the documents of the largest transnational fossil fuel companies on earth (you can too!), and have been studying these topics for decades, might have some idea of what works best, and what doesn’t. We could discuss the pernicious effects of normalcy bias (don’t look up!), how adaptive preferences assume like Dr. Pangloss that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, the world of agnotology and how ignorance is perpetuated (like a virus) systematically, or how to make sense in a traumatized society. Unlike those on the peak of Mount Stupid in the Dunning-Kruger curve, we have been studying these things with peers and have a recognized discourse and epistemic culture upholding our own Overton window.

Experts who study catastrophic climate change, the end of civilization, the destruction of the Megamachine, and the harm of industrialization, like myself, are always happy to help sincere inquirers. If you are ready to change your mind, and are open to learning, we’re happy to have a conversation with you, and lead you down the path of how we came to the conclusions we hold. All you have to do is ask. Sincerely.

After the event, one of the CvB approached me, and asked me in a blustered matter: “Well, Shell is investing €1 billion in green hydrogen at the Port of Rotterdam. Don’t you think that’s a good thing? Surely, we desperately need the Port to clean up its pollution.” While I agree that the Port of Rotterdam, with its bunker oil-filled ships, the diesel trucks carrying stuff from Europe’s largest port across Europe, I am sure that Shell, like other corporations, does not engage in largess without calculated significant strategic advantage. Perhaps Shell’s investment will give them leverage to retard actualization of hydrogen shipping, or to help reinforce the brain worm that shipping will only increase when in fact it will have to drastically ramp down. I don’t know the actual mechanism at play, because in this case I haven’t looked at their documents on this issue. But to blindly assume that a drop in the bucket of green technology amounts to Shell suddenly becoming (again) The Great White Savior is hogwash. No corporation makes investments without an expected ROI, not just monetarily, but also in terms of securing their social license to operate, and to keep competition out. To not engage in the complexity of these issues is patently unscientific. How can we let such small gestures (compared to their total expenditures and earnings) compensate for the fact, say, that when the Dutch Courts ruled that Shell needed to significantly reduce it’s CO2e output, it jumped ship and reestablished (as UnRoyal and NonDutch Shell) in London? Are our memories so short? Are we so pro-industry that we only remember the greenwashing?

To wit, The New York Times just came out with an article titled “Big Oil Companies Are Bullies That ‘Want to Be Seen as Good Guys’” that discusses how our society is addicted to helping out the worst perpetrators in our society because of their successful global gaslighting that has convinced us that they really are the victims, rather than the violators. The biggest surprise after a year of US Congressional investigation was the “lack of introspection.” Perhaps it is our own lack of introspection that has us falling for their empty promises again and again.

As I publicly proclaimed at the Roundtable: even if we have a love affair with Shell and other genocidal fossil fueled groups, if we really love them, we need to set them free, and if they come back, then we know it’s meant to be. We must break all relations with these poisoning groups, and if their actions change, at a later point, may reconsider. But business as usual is killing them and us.

In these times of moral and material darkness, let us remember that especially if you find yourself on the side of hate and ignorance, that there is work to be done. And for the rest of us too, that to move forward, we will have to sacrifice our egos (however hard it may be for me!) in order to achieve a better world for all, even for those kicking and screaming against their own very most exquisite self-interest.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

― St. Francis of Assisi

What do we mean by thinking ‘upstream’? A look at 3 levels

The Abbott Baby Formula catastrophe is what I’ve been writing about for years: it doesn’t matter if you’re making nuclear missiles or baby food, the industrial model predictably results in industrial epidemics.

Here, I will look at how this story is told from three different points of view.

New York Times predictably goes the ‘what went wrong’ approach, pointing the finger every which way, compounding the confusion and simultaneously providing an alibi for it, and all associated snafus. This corrupt world paradigm is self-entrenching.

In other words, NYTimes gives the human interest story with the it was everybody’s fault story, hard to assign blame story – just like they did on the Flint Michigan lead corporate-state crime.

Next, let’s look at that old red rag, The Jacobin. They rally around that dog whistle of the poor being sacrificed for the rich, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. Markets are the bad guys, we’re told, and that’s why this corp killed babies with it’s corner-cutting behavior.

Finally, we could ask the questions: Why should baby formula not be a nationalized product, a non-profit service? And, why don’t we work on helping women breastfeed, and resurrect wet nurses?

Alienation’s Apotheosis

There are some presentations at our second cohort at the biomedical ethics residency today that made me queasy because of how backwards causation they were. The whole point of having biomedical ethics is to avoid blinding ourselves to the various factors that create the need for medicalization and individualization of the common(s) problems we face with health and illness.

I’m going to say something that might be hurtful to people’s feelings because it might undermine a large part of their career as fruitless or misguided. If you look at East Germany how child rearing was done, you don’t need to imagine how artificial wombs may make people’s lives better – you just need policies that support women. It’s pretty simple.

Some people actually believe that artificial wombs would be more ‘just’ for women. Your ‘product’ would no longer be a human being. And you would no longer have a mother. Is this really the only direction science can take us? Towards dehumanizing ourselves (biologically, ecologically, socially)?

The problem is of course that so many people believe that it’s impossible to actually have a political and social system that supports women that instead they are going to blow up the entire earth in the whole universe in order to make that work around. This logic of the workaround which is so central to most of our technological developments is an industry ploy to not confront that which needs to be confronted, whether it’s perversions of religion the state or our dysfunctional social system.

Unless and until we re-gain a sense of the sacred in our lives and in life, we will not be able to make good decisions, but will keep on doubling down on suffering in ways that we can’t even be aware of. Instead of throwing technology at our problems, as if this technology didn’t arise from our own twisted mentality, and could somehow break free from our own contorted mind, we need to work on addressing the traumas and us individually and collectively which gave rise to the problems for which that technology would have been desired in the first place.

The Tech Megamachine

As annoying as I find Russell Brand on occasion, in this case he makes a good point. The marriage of corporate and state power – technology and the monopoly on violence – which Mussolini called ‘fascism’ and Lewis Mumford called the megamachine, is getting closer and closer to a totalitarian checkmate the likes of which Hitler and Stalin could only dream of. While the purported ends of this power is far different (we hope) in putative democracies than for those dictators, it behooves us not to throw out Lord Acton’s admonition about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

That is to say, even in the best case scenario of enlightened despotism, good people can easily become quite unenlightened and arbitrary despots when shoehorned into the role. Or to modulate parlance, Marshall McLuhan understood the hubris that comes with the ability to manipulate. The mediums of communication and expression aren’t only constraining on the degrees of freedom for those bound by them, but also for those who construct them. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. When access to more data must be justified through results, then more and more events must be legible as actionable. Otherwise, the justification for such police powers is anemic, and easily refuted, with legitimacy possibly undermined. Thus, technologies of surveillance and violence themselves must give rise to more cases that allow the opportunity for violent intervention, or else risking their claim to providing actual services in the public’s interest.

The Ring commercial Brand reruns here is a classic case of what Andrew Szasz has critiqued as building up a personal commodity bubble. Instead of, like any addict, acknowledging that we have a problem, and then working with others maturely to solve it, Amazon’s Ring video doorbell surveillence system markets an exclusively individual solution to what is in reality a preventable collective action problem. Ring’s commercial pitch goes like this: If there are robbers, keep them moving along, not so that they can improve their lives, and change professions, but so that instead of robbing you, they go rob your neighbor’s house!

Such galimatias attempts to gaslight you into thinking that it is inevitable that we live in a fundamentally unsafe world. Because if we believed that we could live in a safer world, we might be able to build that world. And you can bet, that world would not require as many cameras or police.

This gets to the heart of why Ring’s preying on nebulous fears which are brought on by the megamachine itself is so successful as a ploy. Because of the manufactured stochastic crime created by an every-man-for-himself system without safety nets or a healthy welfare state, inequality breeds both blue-collar crime (the type we’re all made to be afraid of) and white collar crime (which kills millions at a time through enforced poverty, impoverishing our environment, and harming our health behind the scenes). This is not to minimize the trauma to people of actual violent crime or thievery. Instead, it is to say that all of this is preventable – and not just by playing an arms race (or evolutionary treadmill) with robbers. Getting smarter systems just makes robbers get smarter, and the same amount of crime occurs.

Amazon’s wish is to make it so that only those opting out of their private neighborhood watch program get robbed, because they will be easier targets. So those opting out for moral, religious, or financial reasons from their racket then become left out of their ‘protection,’ and the insinuation goes, become the targets of least resistance.

“No, I think you’re in the wrong place.” As the video shows, the idea that would-be criminals are only in the “wrong place” rather than needing help for reform and redemption, cements the trope of cleverness. I’m clever because I have the Ring alarm system by Amazon, so I get off fine, but that poor schmuck down the street, well, he’s screwed. Such notions reinforce the tech megamachine, where you keep on having to buy into the racket because crime is inevitable, and just don’t let it happen to you. It is, what Davids Graeber and Wendgrove call a “failure of imagination.” It is capitalist realism, or crime realism, where those evil people out there are uncorrectable, and just bad people, rather than just victims of a broken system. With such pathological thinking comes the inevitability that crime stays constant (or increases, especially in election years!). Manipulating perceptions of crime, and stripping away access to human dignity so things feel more precarious for everyone, is the perfect catfishing for expensive subscription services of mass totalizing surveillance that Foucault could only dream of.

I’d be interested to see data on how many false positives Ring delivers to police; how many times the cameras have been hacked by perverts; how many times leaked clips of children playing have appeared on dark web sites; etc.

Ring touts itself as “Neighborhood Watch for the digital age.” There’s a long, racist history of the invention of Neighborhood Watch programs springing up in response to de-segregation and the policing of white spaces, which continues today. Shawn Fields’ excellent new treatment of this history discusses the abuse of emergency response systems, which rarely fight crime, but often lead to unwarranted police violence.

affording to grieve

We can’t afford to grieve in our contemporary culture. There is literally no space, time, or network to allow for us to process the wrongs done, to atone the righteous rage we feel at a degraded earth and the waste of our own lives. Without the capacity to grieve, how can we authentically rejoice? Maybe that’s the newfound attraction to virtual realities – they are subdued, under our control, and can’t really hurt us (nor elevate us). Joy has become dialed down to entertainment. We’ve become content with blah. Because we can’t grieve.