Monday, 15 September 2014

On drugs, self-deception, and political manipulation

I finally got around to reading Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future. In it Fukuyama argues that the widespread use of drugs like Prozac and Ritalin is a harbinger of political challenges humanity has never faced before. In the last century, we've learned so much about how the brain works that we will soon be able to manipulate people's behaviour with neuropharmaceuticals and the use of genetic engineering. Fukuyama warns that these developments have important political implications and if we don't understand and regulate these effects our society runs the risk of becoming one of soulless, artificially happy, and obedient people. That is, an inhuman or posthuman society just like the one described by Aldous Huxley in his well-known and deeply disturbing dystopian novel Brave New World

But what is the political effect of the use of pharmaceuticals? And in what way is Prozac and other anti-depressants similar to the Huxleyan "soma"? Fukuyama argues that there's a set of "political emotions" like pride, confidence, aggression and happiness which are an integral part of what makes us human. Plato has famously argued that the human soul has three distinct parts: a desiring part, a rational part and thymos, which, Fukuyama explains, is "the prideful part of human personality, the part that demands that other people recognize one's worth and dignity." Our sense of pride is closely related to our feeling of self-esteem and our level of confidence and motivation. A spirited person is active, proud and confident. On the other hand, lack of self-esteem is associated with submissiveness, apathy and weakness of the will. 

Now, Fukuyama points out that "the desire for recognition has a biological basis and that basis is related with levels of serotonin in the brain. It has been shown that monkeys at the low end of the dominance hierarchy have low levels of serotonin and that, conversely, when a monkey wins alpha male status, he feels a serotonin high." Thus, if drugs like Prozac can boost serotonin levels, they can give us a permanent "serotonin high," a sense of being socially accepted and recognized, a constant feeling of confidence and motivation. 

The widespread use of anti-depressants in our society, Fukuyama argues, also signals our inclination to use genetic engineering to design people who are always happy. That is, we are open to pathologizing unhappiness and fighting it like a disease. Then, once the technology becomes available to understand the genetic and chemical underpinnings of "feeling blue," we can eradicate the abnormality and effectively bring Heaven on Earth. 

While I agree with Fukuyama's uneasiness with regard to these scientific developments, I think there's an equivocation in his argument which takes away from its strength. In philosophical jargon, notions like self-esteem and recognition have both internalist and externalist connotations. Internalist, in the sense that they refer to subjective feelings (i.e. internal states of the individual) and externalist to the extent that they concern the external social environment of the person (i.e. his relations to others). 

Now, it's hard to see how one can achieve social recognition just by taking a drug. Social status, obviously, is not a property of the individual considered in isolation, but it regards his relation to others. For instance, being the best receiver in the NFL, is not a matter of how one feels inside, but a question of how others feel about him and, objectively, a question of numbers (yards covered, touchdowns scored etc.) Now, one can feel inside that he's the best receiver ever, but that alone doesn't make it so. So, it's hard to see how taking a serotonin booster, can help one become the best receiver in the NFL. The status is conferred based on the objective athletic ability publicly displayed by the player during games. No matter how a player feels inside, if he only "talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk," (or make the catch and run the run) he's not going to be conferred the status of best receiver. 

Surely, there might be a statistical correlation between levels of confidence and success, but one cannot be reduced to the other. Although many participants in a race may be confident in their winning, there will only be one winner. Also, theoretically, there may be cases in which the less confident of the bunch may turn out to be the winner, and the more confident the sore loser. This is because what competitions measure is objectively displayed abilities measured by public standards, independently of how the competitors feel about their skills. Just a few examples. Take famous writer Stephen King. At first he thought that his novel Carrie was crap and went as far as throwing the manuscript in the garbage. After his wife patiently fished it out of the can and persuaded him it was good, Mr. King decided to publish it and Carrie turned out to be a very successful novel, a paradigm of horror fiction. Or take philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was so unhappy with his work Philosophical Investigations, he didn't even want it published. Subsequently, the published book became the most important contribution to twentieth-century philosophy. On the other hand, in spite of thinking highly of themselves, authors like Dean Koontz seem to publish mostly subpar fiction. Examples like these can be easily multiplied. 

Although confidence and motivation don't guarantee success and recognition, they might create the
illusion of success if coupled with a healthy dose of self-deception. That way, someone may persuade themselves they have achieved a certain social status on little or no evidence. For instance, someone may think they are a great writer based on a praiseworthy review written by a friend or his earlier self. Or someone may think they're popular based on the number of friends they have on Facebook, in spite of the fact he rarely meets any of those people and they usually try to avoid him. The illusion of happiness and self-deception may be promoted and positively sanctioned in a society. In his book, The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges makes the case that Americans are entrenched into a culture of illusion and magical thinking. In that case, happiness can be artificially created by merely thinking happy thoughts, that is, escaping from reality into a realm of fantasy where logic and reason have no place. Positive psychologists teach us that "once we adopt a positive mind, positive things will always happen. This belief, like all other illusions peddled in the culture, encourages people to flee from reality when reality is frightening and depressing." 

The power of illusion can be seen vividly in the work environment of a private corporation. This context is a model of what could happen in a totalitarian state where the use of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology falls into the hands of power structures who benefit from manipulating and exploiting the masses. All employees in a corporation can be given a sense that they are important and accepted by offering them meaningless distinctions like "Employee of the Month." Everybody can get that status at some point and feel accepted and recognized. Telling of the infantilization implicit in the corporatist culture is the practice of celebrating the birthdays of employees at work and offering them cake, drinks, and other treats. This gives workers a sense of belonging and acceptance and disburdens them of the hassle of building an identity outside the work place. Everyone is their own star and they each live happily inside their narcotic, bubbly universes. This is perfectly illustrated in this apparently benign but deeply outrageous Ford commercial, in which a fully grown man claims with a straight face that working for Ford has been his dream job since he was a kid. The amount of self-deception in that statement can make one cringe with disgust!!!!


Back to Fukuyama's argument, I think the widespread use of anti-depressants can have a significant political effect if coupled with a wider cultural or social environment promoting illusion and self-deception. Like one of the genetic engineers from Brave New World explains: "That is the secret of happiness and virtue — liking what you've got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny." That is, let's say two prospective parents notice that football players make tons of money and live happy lives. Then they talk to their doctor to design a baby with great athletic ability, someone who is a team player and obeys his coach, someone who doesn't break rules, someone who doesn't drink, smoke, or chases women. They design their new baby such that he would love and full-heartedly embrace his destiny as a successful athlete. What more can he ask for?

This is a war inside human nature, that each of us will fight sooner or later. The tension between, on the one hand, the inclination toward self-deception and toward embracing the paradisiacal irresponsibility of childhood and, on the other hand, the desire for autonomy, freedom, and truth. The battle is fought in the name of staying human and lucid, with all the hardships and pains it entails, against our vegetative tendency to close our eyes, repress reality and the long nightmare of our evolutionary history, and live in a comfortable, manufactured world of make-belief.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

CIBC took my welfare

Bill is a good friend of mine. In March 2012 he developed a heart condition (atrial fibrillation) which made it impossible for him to continue his full-time job as a resident manager. After losing his job, he went on Medical Employment Insurance. His claim expired after only one year, at which time he was forced to rely on a meager welfare cheque (around $600) which doesn't even begin to cover his living expenses. Things went from bad to worse when Bill became the victim of an on-line scam which ended up with his bank, CIBC, gobbling up his welfare money. Bill and I think the public should know both about the scam and about the bank's abusive behavior. Also, the complete and criminal passivity of the Edmonton Police should also raise the eyebrows of many tax-payers. That outrageous apathy was equaled by the "vigilant" reporters of the Edmonton Journal, who didn't bother reporting or investigating this story, being too busy with their beer-tasting activities.

In the following I reproduce Bill's story, in his own words. Besides the questions he raises at the end, I want to add a few of mine: isn't taking someone's welfare morally equivalent to murder? and, aren't bankers criminals? Thinking what sorts of people could do such a thing makes you also wonder: are bankers people?

"My name is Bill Horner. Since I've started living on welfare in January 2014, I've been actively looking for a job. In late Feb. 2014 I applied for a job online to work as a Mystery Shopper.

On March 7th, 2014, I received an email from a company called "99Feedbacks Evaluation Services." They sent me a cheque on Mar. 13th, 2014 in the amount of $2,862 to perform several tasks at a local Walmart store: evaluate the cleanliness of the store, determine whether the associates in Electronics are knowledgeable and so on. In addition, Bob Stevens, the representative of the company, instructed me through the phone to withdraw $1,100 from the money I deposited. With this money I was asked to make a purchase of maximum $80 dollars in the Electronics department and then go to Walmart's customer service desk and pick up two Western Union money transfers. Then, still on the phone, Bob instructed me how to fill out the money transfers. I purchased the first transfer with the $1,000 dollars I had left. The transaction was completed successfully. Bob asked me to use my debit card for the second purchase but the transaction was declined because I exceeded my daily spending.
Bob said I could wait till next day to have the issue fixed with my bank.

Next morning, March 14th, 2014 I received a second cheque in the amount of $2,741 and started feeling uneasy and suspicious. Still, I went to CIBC and asked the Assistant Manager (Yvonne) if I could increase my daily spending limit on my debit card to $1,000 per day. She asked why? I replied that I was a Mystery Shopper. Her reply was, "Oh No." I gave her my bank card and the second cheque I had just received.

She entered my card number and said it was cancelled. Then she called Servus Credit Union where the account was with the name of the company Endura Inc. on the cheque. They informed her that the cheque was counterfeit. Her advice was to go to the Edmonton Police Service and file a report with them. Then she told me to make contact with my home CIBC branch. I immediately went to the EPS Strathcona Community Station and talked to an officer of Scottish descent. He made the comment to me that he would take my report but nothing more would happen as I was foolish enough to fall for this scam. I thought about this for a few days and then decided I should do more about it, as I was clearly the victim of a crime. I went to the RCMP in Edmonton. They told me that the capital city wasn't their jurisdiction and EPS should be looking after this.

The next day I went to EPS Downtown division and filed a report, then I proceeded to go to my bank (CIBC, Parkdale branch) to discuss this matter with the manager. I ended up talking to the assistant manager: Heather. I explained the situation to her and gave her all my documentation in regards to this matter, police report included. As I'm on Income Assistance (Welfare), I made a proposal to pay the money back in installments. She said a bank representative would contact me in the following days.

After several days of not hearing back from the bank I went back to them and was told that it was my responsibility to pay this money back in full immediately. They also advised I should go to Welfare to help me out.

On March 26th, 2014 welfare made a direct deposit into my CIBC account for my monthly support. CIBC immediately applied my income assistance to the outstanding balance, thus leaving me nothing to pay my rent or living expenses. My GST Rebate was also taken and applied to the outstanding balance, as well as my minimal royalty payment.

I believe that there is an injustice here that needs further investigation. I have been back to the bank several times as nobody seems to want to return my phone messages and I seem to be getting nowhere. Here are my questions: Are the police here to protect us or is our justice system failing us? I thought fraud was a criminal offense. The phone number I provided to the police and the bank was still in use after the alleged fraud for about two weeks, so obviously nothing has been done to stop Bob Stevens from scamming other people. Also, doesn't the CIBC bank teller share part of the blame? Why did she deposit the cheque as a payroll cheque without asking me what the cheque was for? After all, she was able to see my account activity with no such company cheque ever deposited before. Why did she not question it when I had a negative balance of $66, and yet I wanted to withdraw $1,100 from that deposit? And also, isn't CIBC already insured against such fraud?

I think there has been an injustice done here on the part of both the police department and the financial institution. I've been with CIBC for ten years. They told me that if I were employed they would grant me an overdraft to cover the outstanding balance. But, since I was on welfare, I wasn't able to enjoy that luxury. In their rush to cover their meager losses, CIBC seems to have forgotten that welfare is a guaranteed minimum income and that taking someone's welfare is like a death sentence. Last time I checked, they weren't hurting for money, posting billions of dollars in annual profits. Also, they've treated me as a criminal, not a victim of a criminal scam. In addition, I let them know I was willing to pay back the money in $100 monthly instalments. In spite of all this, CIBC showed no mercy. They brutally decided to suspend my account, seize any incoming funds and ask for immediate payment of the balance. They threatened they would close my account of I don't pay the outstanding balance within a month."

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

What's it like to rot alive?

I'm fascinated by the concept of rotting alive, of maintaining consciousness while your body slowly decomposes. This is why, as soon as I read the plot of the movie "Thanatomorphose" (2012), at a nearby struggling Movie Studio, I knew I had to watch it. Then, when I googled it, I found out about a more recent movie, "Contracted" (2013), based on the same idea. "Contracted" is the better movie, but "Thanatomorphose" is more philosophically ambitious. 

We figuratively say that someone is already dead when they are divorced from their own lives, trapped in a mindless routine, and they don't have the inner strength to make any meaningful changes. Their alienation is an absolute fact, their minds cannot spin any more narratives about themselves, their center of narrative gravity becoming a point of vague, constant anxiety.  

We say that these people are overwhelmed by life, pounded into submission by the external world, raped and strangled, stripped even of the luxury of suicide. 

Exploring this metaphor artistically implies taking some liberties with regards to what is scientifically possible. Obviously, from a materialist point of view, the mind will have to disappear once the body dies and the structure of the brain crumbles. So the artist, for the sake of his creation, should have to make use of the dualistic principle that the mind and soul are separate from the body. However, depicting the process of putrefaction as realistically as possible adds to the vividness of the artistic product. 

I don't remember the main character in "Thanatomorphose" having a name, so I'm just going to call her Rose, after the name of the actress. Samantha is the main protagonist in "Contracted". Both women go through an existential crisis. Rose is affected by a sense of malaise. She no longer finds pleasure in her sex life, in her relationships, or her artistic work (she's a sculptor). Her body's decomposition is triggered by a persistent, deep-seated sense of alienation and unhappiness. Samantha's sickness has a more precise cause. Although a committed lesbian, she isn't happy with her female partner, Nikki, and ends up having unprotected sex with a guy at a party, thus contracting a venereal disease. Ooopsy! The guy is a necropheliac, so —a fitting but unscientific consequence — the disease Samantha contracts is decaying of the body while the mind stays awake and witnesses the spread of the gangrene. Ooops again!!

Rose and Samantha start by feeling cold and somewhat stiff. Green and brown blotches appear on their bodies for unknown reasons. Then they start pissing and shitting blood and their nails fall off. An especially effective addition to this list of symptoms is Samantha's eyes turning red and then one of them turning milky white. Just like the cum which infested her body, right there on her face, impossible to ignore, the sight of her morbid weakness.  

When we're not strong, all of us, male or female, run the risk of becoming mobile cum-dumpsters, swallowing the salty, alien will of those around us, our bosses, our friends, our families, our gossipy neighbors and co-workers. We end up squinting at the world through a viscous curtain of fermented semen. And that seed's bloom is filth and decay. 

Both Rose and Samantha first react by trying to hide the symptoms of their putrefaction from themselves and from others. Rose keeps applying make-up, although her face is covered with dark spots and her teeth are falling out. Samantha starts wearing sunglasses and a tuque to cover her bold spots. 

At the same time, the gods Eros and Thanatos show up to meet the two rotting victims. The women are overwhelmed by a sex drive coupled with homicidal tendencies. They both end up violently murdering their partners, Nikki and Rose's abusive boyfriend. In an especially disturbing scene, a cadaveric Rose is playing with her worm-infested clit while fantasizing about stabbing her boyfriend repeatedly. Also, Samantha, although in a rough shape, manages to seduce a male friend of hers. When he penetrates her, he moans with pleasure that she's so "wet", but when she pulls out he realizes her pussy was crawling with worms which now want to burrow into his penis. The guy runs into the bathroom screaming. 

While Samantha slowly turns into a zombie and goes after her annoying mother, Rose maintains her lucidity till the last moments, when she's reduced to a bag of bones and there's no muscles left to articulate her screams. This is why I think "Thanatomorphose" is the more original, philosophically challenging movie. Rose doesn't turn into a zombie, but holds onto her identity in an extreme situation, and this contributes to the emotional punch of the movie. By contrast, witnessing Samantha turn into a zombie makes the viewer not care about her as much. 

Both movies are very graphic and hard to watch. But they both miss an important phase of the putrefaction process: bloating. A few days after death, "the gas produced by the proliferation of bacteria exerts more and more pressure on the body's outer wall, causing a dramatic ballooning effect that nearly doubles the corpse's volume. Of course, the abdomen is particularly infected given the large quantity of bacteria there, but other regions are also affected, notably the head: the eyeballs are pushed out of their orbits, the lips swell and the tongue hangs out." (Death: The Scientific Facts to Help Us Understand It Better, by Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras) Adding this aspect to the movies would have made them even more graphic, gross, and gut-churning. That is, it would have made the films better and more realistic. 

Picture from
The two films also miss another crucial point. The greatest fear triggered by the realization that one is rotting alive is not that one is dying, but that one is already dead. For some reason, assuming the dualism between mind/soul and body the body didn't catapult the soul out to the heavens at the moment of biological death, but kept it caged inside its ruined fortress. The thinking subject is still there, brooding, observing, expecting, fearing, trying to scream for help. Neither of the two movies managed to capture this horror of being forever paralyzed inside the dome of one's own skull. Will the soul facing an empty eternity try to escape inside its memories or its dreams? How long before it will surrender to insanity? How hard will it have to prey for the blessing of nonexistence?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Stephen King's "Dr. Sleep", much ado about nothing

I'm happy to be one of the millions of Stephen King fans, one of his Constant Readers. I had looked forward to reading Dr. Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, but I found the novel disappointing. Don't get me wrong, I totally enjoyed reading it, it was just not one of my favorites. Even worse. I mean The Dead Zone wasn't one of my favorites either, but it was an awesome book. The same with 11/22/63. But Dr. Sleep is nowhere near The Dead Zone or 11/22/63

Dr. Sleep reads like a collage of previous Stephen King novels. It reminded me how much I loved the Stand, and Dreamcatcher, and Insomnia. But when you peel off the stuff King borrows from his earlier works, there's not much left for Dr. Sleep to be, except a small puff of steam dissipating in darkness.

Let's just say that Dr. Sleep is much better than a Dean Koontz novel, and not as boring as Bag of Bones.

But it's not a good Stephen King novel. 

Dr. Sleep is about Dan Torrance. The kid from The Shining is now a grown man fighting alcoholism and a bad temper. While he tries to stay sober, he decides to redeem his sins by using his shining in a positive way. That is, working in a hospice, he helps sick people die peacefully. After being coached by Dan, a.k.a. Dr. Sleep, old people manage to give their last breath "the gasp" and there is a red steam rising out of their mouths, nose and eyes. The mist hovers around their body and then fades mysteriously. 

Now, Dan gets in touch with another prodigy who has the shining, Abra Stone. Her paranormal powers are even greater than Dan's. But that's what makes her a perfect prey for a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot. These vampires don't look like Dracula, no fangs or capes, but they appear as boring RV people traveling around. Their leader, Rose the Hat, deposits their victims' steam or psychic gas in canisters she keeps hidden in her Earth Cruiser. She feeds her crew from time to time, when they get hungry and there's a shortage of "steamheads". Now, their supply is running low and they go after Abra, "the mother of all steamheads". The girl's shining, especially if extracted by severe torture, will keep them going for a few hundred years at least. 

Predictably, Dan joins forces with Abra and defeats The True Knot forever and ever. 

Two aspects of the novel stand out as original: the characterization of the True Knot, and the psychic wars between Abra and Dan on the one hand, and the circle of the True Knot, on the other. King moves away from the image of evil beings roaming the earth under the guise of a traveling carnival; an idea going back at least to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. King keeps the idea that satanic groups are nomadic, but instead of equating them to the roaring Hell's Angels, he portrays them as the Mild Angels, the placid RV people. They get away with their crimes because they blend perfectly in the environment, nobody pays attention to them: 

"You hardly see them, right? Why would you? They’re just the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what. They’re the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones."
The only difference between this group of vampires and the normal RV people is that vampires don't have dogs. 

"They don’t like dogs, and dogs don’t like them. You might say dogs see through them. To the sharp and watchful eyes behind the cut-rate sunglasses. To the strong and long-muscled hunters’ legs beneath the polyester slacks from Walmart. To the sharp teeth beneath the dentures, waiting to come out. They don’t like dogs, but they like certain children. Oh yes, they like certain children very much."
That is, tasty children who have the shining, like Abra Stone. 

King is very inventive in his account of the parapsychological war between Abra Stone and Rose the Hat. Abra is able to jump bodies and see through other people's eyes, while others see through her eyes. This is what she and Dan call turning the wheel. Using this trick, Abra is able to fool Rose the Hat, not once, but twice, by giving her the wrong location. That is, in one instance, Abra jumps into Dan's body and gives Rose the impression she is where Dan is, that is on her way to Colorado, when in fact she's at home in New Hampshire. These mind games are reminiscent of the ones between Jonesy and Mr. Grey in Dreamcatcher.
While these aspects of the novel are original and entertaining, the story doesn't have enough emotional depth to make the reader care for the characters. I never cared for Dan Torrence as much as I did for Ralph Roberts in Insomnia, for instance. The depiction of Dan's struggle with alcoholism and with the demons of his dad and the Overlook Hotel is powerful and gripping. But then, we don't know enough about his gift of helping people die peacefully. How did Dan stumble upon this gift and how does it work exactly? Also, how can it go wrong? What if someone doesn't die peacefully? What's so terrible about that? Is the dull red mist that raises from the dead man's head, their soul? Is it going to go to Hell or Purgatory? Or keep roaming the earth aimlessly? If the novel explored this part of the story more, it would have been much better. 

Similarly, the author doesn't tell us much about the True Knot. And there must be a lot to tell, since they've been around for centuries. They are empty devils, concerned only with staying alive and finding new recruits and having lots of sex. But their characters, including their leader, Rose the Hat, are not really fleshed out. What's it like living such long lives? What keeps them going? What do they believe in? Do they feel loneliness, anxiety, fear? When they die there's no mist hovering above them. Their bodies just disappear. Does that mean they have no souls? King is silent on that point. 

All in all, one gets the impression that King wanted to fit too much in a book which ended up being about nothing. One reason why the novel doesn't work is that Dan's mysterious ability to help people die peacefully doesn't fit with his helping Abra against the True Knot. The only moment his strange power comes into play in the battle against the Knot is when he manages to trap Abra's great-great-mother cancerous steam in his mind and then release it against the members of the True Knot. But that's just a clever artifice. There's nothing substantial drawing these two essential strands of the book together. Maybe this book should have been two books? Or three books? Either way, on its own, it fails. But it can serve as a reminder of how good other Stephen King books are.