On rereading old blog posts: William T. Vollman

In the early 2000’s I blogged at alanmurdock.com. Those old posts were archived at the internet archive online and sometimes I like to go back and see what I previously thought.

Here is a post from January 2005

“On reading Rising Up and Rising Down

“I’ve found a, not kindred spirit, but something on those lines in William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means. ‘Kindred spirit’ is too dreamy a description for such a hard-edged line of thought, and ‘Kindred’ implies the level of a peer. I am deeply interested in Vollmann’s subject, but my thoughts, while along the same line, dabble in the subject in contrast his breadth of research and experience that now I may only envy and strive to attain.

“Vollmann picks on Krapotkin’s naïve attempts to create a scientific basis for collaboration and sharing. ‘That antediluvian anarchist spent his final years upon an essay rancid with senile optimism.’ (21) Rancid. But he acknowledges the attempt, however innocent, however futile, to construct an objective basis for peace through collaboration. It is more credit than most would give to an anarchist.

“As I’ve implied in the past, nothing irritates me more than this blindly conservative, narrow, hopeful political religion. At the same time, I respect the attempt and the desire for a kind of social peace. However, like Vollmann, I don’t’ believe anything is inherent. Or maybe both peace and violence are inherent. Depending. Vollmann points out that ‘History suggests that whatever a revolution may achieve, its effects upon morality (unlike, say, its effect upon culture) will be temporary and local.’ (24)

“Right now I am happy to enjoy the energy, pragmatism, and challenge of a book meant to encourage us to consider and carefully engage our own acts of moral construction. I’ll post more thoughts as I read. Eventually I’ll post a proper annotated bibliography.”

I taught an honors course the following year in design ethics and included Vollman’s book in the class. A foundational principle of that class was a deconstruction of what we support with our actions and effort. If a designer makes a poster for a fascist government, are they not supporting that government, or can intentions and outcomes be separated? Can the intent to use design for good subvert the client? Is it ethical if it does?

We talked a lot about what each designer in the class is willing to fight for. If you were under deadly attack, would you protect yourself? If you wouldn’t, is it reasonable for another person in the same circumstance to protect themselves? Would you protect your child even if you would be unwilling to protect yourself? By interrogating this line of questioning we were able to break down overarching pacifist notions that if you are a good person you’ll wear a peace button and never hurt a flea. We were also able to interrogate majority culture messages that if you just follow along, go to the mall, and drive your car you’ll fit in and any harm that comes of it you can protect yourself from with your good intentions.

By the end of the course each student constructed their own proposition for what design ethics should look like, plus ten pages of polished writing that allowed students to examine key issues and authors in the area of design ethics. I’d like to teach that course on a regular basis. Its the kind of thinking that is necessary if we are going to work though the issues of today. Already we have new versions of the same old “senile optimism” in new movements like of all things “trauma informed yoga,” and “restorative justice” and “teaching peace in schools.” All of these are about placating what is really wrong so the smile salesmen can simultaneously make a buck and lube the machine. It’s time for real thinkers to rise up and utilize the power of critical thinking to stop the smug, flower power meme machine.

This kind of horseshit can’t be defeated with guns. Art and theory are the only weapons worthy of justice.

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