Category Archives: Dialectics

JARS: Toward a 2023 Grand Finale

In the fall of 1999, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies began publication as the only nonpartisan, interdisciplinary, double-blind, peer-reviewed, biannual periodical devoted to the study of Ayn Rand and her times. In 2013, JARS began a fruitful collaboration with Pennsylvania State University Press. Our reach has grown beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. We are indexed, in whole or in part, by nearly two dozen abstracting services across the humanities and the social sciences and are reaching thousands of global readers due to our availability on a variety of e-platforms—from JSTOR and Project MUSE to the new Scholarly Publishing Collective. And all its issues will always be on the Portico dark archive.

Over these last 22 years, JARS has contributed to the expansion of Rand scholarship in a truly significant way. With the forthcoming December 2022 issue, we will have published 408 articles by 188 different authors. Thus, we have not merely reflected a growing interest in Rand’s ideas; we have helped to spark a broader critical engagement with a thinker who was once viewed as outside the philosophical and literary mainstream. To this extent, we have accomplished one of our most important goals. Indeed, unlike the first year in which JARS appeared, articles about Rand are now being published regularly across the world in a wide variety of scholarly journals. And each year, more and more books are being published about her ideas and influence, and not even we can keep up with the demand for reviews of this expanding literature.

There comes a point at which one can look back at the achievements of a project and declare that it is time to move on. After more than two decades of what could only be termed ‘a labor of love’ by a group of editors, advisory board members, peer readers, and writers, this journal will be publishing its last volume as a double issue in 2023. We look forward to providing our readers with a truly grand finale. Our back issues will continue to be made available electronically and in print for as long as there are people seeking their contents.

This decision was made by the JARS Foundation Board of Trustees. This was not a publisher decision to liquidate JARS—which has been one of the most popular periodicals in the Penn State University Press Journals Program.

We know that there is still much work to be done in this field of study, but we are proud to have made a trailblazing contribution to its long-term vitality and success. Above all, we thank our readers for having made this journey possible.

Toward that end, I should note that we have a full slate of articles for our final July-December 2023 issue and will not be accepting any additional submissions beyond those already in production.

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As a personal aside, I have been asked by friends and colleagues about my own future in a post-JARS era. All I can say is this: It is no coincidence that the last book I published as an author was in the year 2000. It was the conclusion of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy”: Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. Since then, I have worked very hard as a founding coeditor of JARS, publishing the equivalent of two anthologies per year for what will be nearly a quarter century. Aside from several reviews and historical-archival essays that I contributed to JARS, my only “side” project was as a coeditor of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (2019). I fully intend to invest much more time and effort in expanding on this dialectical research project and its implications for human freedom and personal flourishing. But before I return to that project, I will be moving toward the completion of JARS. I’m proud of what this journal has accomplished and look forward to its graceful conclusion.

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*This has been announced publicly on Facebook and a link to it can also be found on the JARS home page. It was also announced by Stephen Boydstun on Objectivism Online.

BB, EC, BCS: A Dialectical Unity

There are no spoilers here, after the grand finale of “Better Call Saul” (BCS). But after finishing what is, in my view, one of the best written, well-acted, finely-plotted television series I’ve ever seen, I am now convinced more than ever that one cannot reasonably separate “BCS” from its predecessors, “Breaking Bad” (BB) and “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” (EC). There is an organic unity to these shows that deeply enriches one’s experience of each show, such that the universe they constitute is more than the sum of its parts.

Recently, I began re-watching BB, and noticed just how much more I am appreciating that series in light of the backstories the writers created with BCS. Likewise, BCS cannot possibly be fully appreciated in the absence of BB (and EC, which expands on aspects of the BB story). Each is an extension of the other; each could not be what it is in the absence of the other. They are the very exemplars of a dialectical sensibility, both constituting and being shaped by the wider context of which they are a part.

Above all, the universe that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould gave us is epic storytelling at its best. I will miss it—but return to it, and hopefully write about it much more extensively than I can here. Suffice it to say, I am not suggesting that the creators of this franchise had all the plotlines worked out from the very beginning. Of course they didn’t! But as their stories unfolded, as their characters came to life, there was an evolution in both the plot and its central players that was almost inexorable. That is what makes the achievement all the more remarkable—that its creators didn’t know from the beginning where it would go, even as they propelled us toward such a well-integrated conclusion.

Bravo to the creators, writers, directors, production teams, and to the terrific actors who delivered performances that humored us, enraged us, touched us, and broke our hearts. Bravo to this great franchise for delivering an unforgettable ride.

Check out the nice discussion of this on Facebook. Therein, I compare the BB/BCS “epic” to another: “The Godfather Epic.” In response to a point that Ayn Rand would have dismissed BB as the “dead end of naturalism,” I stated:

I don’t think BB should be dismissed because of its naturalism. Though Rand never wrote on it, producer Al Ruddy told me that he provided her with a private screening of “The Godfather”, which deeply impressed her. It is what convinced her that he could be the man to bring “Atlas Shrugged” to the screen. (This later fell apart because he refused to give her final script approval; as it happens, he now owns the film rights!)

Sometimes you can depict the importance of values by showing what happens in their absence, or, more tragically, what happens when you choose “bad” means of trying to preserve “good” ends. That is precisely what “Breaking Bad” depicts in painful detail. Indeed, I’d argue that there are very strong parallels between the “Godfather Epic” and the epic that constitutes the BB/BCS narrative. But that’s a post for another day.

Bob Odenkirk—who would go on to star in “Better Call Saul”—tells us, with regard to his final moments on the set of “Breaking Bad”, that Vince Gilligan provides people with an illustration of the ways in which bad decisions create severe unintended consequences that undermine the human ability to survive and flourish. (Indeed, I think Rand herself does this in her most ‘naturalistic’ of novels, “We the Living”, which shows how the “airtight” environment of totalitarianism destroys the human capacity to either survive or flourish.)

Check out Odenkirk’s comments here.

I made these additional comments on two other threads. In response to those who would attempt a chronological reordering of the BB/BCS landscape, similar to that in “The Godfather Epic,” I wrote:

It worked a lot better in “The Godfather Epic” IMHO than it ever could in the BB-BCS universe, especially because in the Epic, they added over 50 deleted scenes to the chronology and kept intact a key flashback scene toward the end. I understand why Coppola in “Godfather II” chose to counterpose the rise of young Vito and the loss of his son Michael’s soul … but I think a lot gets lost in the translation and so much is gained in the reshuffling of that story, chronologically, especially with those added scenes that were not in the theatrical releases. I think it would do a lot of damage to the artistry of BCS if somebody reshuffled those scenes, so I agree wholeheartedly on that score.

And in response to this article in The Guardian, which hails BCS as “more profound” than BB, I wrote:

Insofar as it is possible to evaluate BCS singularly, it is the greater achievement. But I don’t think that can be done reasonably. It would not have been what it became without BB, and BB is all the more enriched because we now have BCS. They constitute an organic whole, IMHO. Can’t be sundered or separated without doing damage to our overall conception of their universe.

Notablog: 20 Years, 3500 Posts

On July 26, 2002, I posted my first Notablog entry. It was to announce the New York Daily News publication on that date of my essay, “From The Fountainhead: Howard Roark“, part of the newspaper’s series, “Big Town Classic Characters: New Yorkers of the American Imagination.”

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of that first post. And this just so happens to be my 3,500th blog post in two decades. And if you believe this is a total coincidence, I got a nice bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you!

I started posting on Notablog when it was on the NYU server (archives of all those posts, July 26, 2002 to August 1, 2020 can be found here). On August 1, 2020, I migrated to my own Notablog.net.

Speaking of dates, it was back on May 14, 2022 that my long-time friend Roger Bissell said, tongue-in-cheek, “Chris himself has a long-running internet presence he styles in delightfully quasi-Hegelian fashion as ‘Notablog’.” Though I clearly have my quasi-Hegelian tendencies, I have indeed long been asked why I call what is obviously a blog, “Notablog”. As I explained on February 15, 2005:

Some readers have wondered why I continue to call this site “Not a Blog,” even though it seems to become more blog-like with each passing week. Well, it’s going to stay “Not a Blog”—though from now on it will appear with closed spaces between the words: “Notablog.” That phrase can just as easily be viewed as an acronym for “None Of The Above Blog” (as suggested here) or “Nota Blog” (as suggested here), recalling the Latin phrase “Nota Bene,” featuring entries on topics of which one might take particular notice.  

In any event, I’m happy that I’ve not let up in twenty years. I hope to continue blogging for a long time to come, and to continue sharing some of the blog’s contents on Facebook as well!

Postscript: Discussion of this post can be found on Facebook. Also: Much thanks to Tom Knapp for his kind congrats!

“The Dialectics of Liberty” Reviewed in RAE

I was notified today of a wonderful review of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (2019, Lexington Books) which I coedited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins. “Freedom in Context” by Alexander W. Craig, appears in the current Review of Austrian Economics. An excerpt from that review is on the book’s homepage.

Perhaps the following remarks fall under the category of “reviewing a review” of a book, but, in my opinion, Craig provides the most insightful and profoundly dialectical discussion of this eclectic volume yet published. In short: He gets it! What he has to say about a dialectical mode of inquiry is worthy enough to have been included in the anthology. He writes:

The contributors to ‘The Dialectics of Liberty’ demonstrate that libertarians can engage in a careful context-sensitive analysis of social behavior and political ideals. The book refutes the notion that libertarians must be insensitive to nuances in social environments and reliant on a woefully oversimplified conception of individuals, businesses, and governments. In this review, I first discuss the nature of dialectics, making explicit the mostly implicit definition running between the chapters of ‘The Dialectics’. I then summarize several of the chapters, synthesizing from them generalizable lessons about what Austrian economists and classical liberal scholars more generally can learn by being mindful of social context, synthesizing disparate ideas, and transcending dichotomies. …

Where logic supplies the principles whereby one may validly move from premise to conclusion and empirics discover the line between what is actual and what is merely possible, dialectics serves to keep the analyst mindful of how propositions surrounding the main object of study may change the meaning of facts under discussion. … Although all data is theory-laden, data never speaks for itself, etc., one can often take these data as they are and proceed, the empirical stage of research now giving way to the analysis stage. Logic retrospectively analyzes an argument and declares its conclusion valid or invalid based on the premises, which it has relatively little ability to discuss in themselves. Dialectics, however, is an approach to active inquiry. It makes recommendations about how an investigator might make progress in understanding a subject. Many issues one encounters in ongoing research are not so much questions of the internal and external validity of one’s empirics or the logical validity of one’s argument. They are issues of relevance and salience. …

This orientation towards the active process of investigation raises two more salient features of dialectical thinking: tacking between subjects; and transcending divides. In many situations, a researcher must find their place between at least two alternatives that are in tension with one another. … Dialectics often proceeds by transcending such dichotomies by situating them within a context. …

[The] deliberate intention to think dialectically about one’s work is likely to yield fruit for Austrian economists and classical liberal scholars. … [This book] succeeds in demonstrating the existence and value of dialectical thinkers. It is a stimulating series of inspirations for further work, and a useful reference for many interesting directions of contemporary libertarian scholarship. I would be pleased to see more scholars ask themselves not only ‘Is my evidence compelling?’ and ‘Is my argument sound?’ but also ‘Have I considered the context carefully?’

The review consists of a nice survey of many of the articles within the book. I heartily recommend the review—and the book (!)—to your attention! Readers can pick up a heavily discounted autographed copy of the volume from the C4SS Store.

The Theft of the Commons

An extraordinary article, “The Theft of the Commons,” by Eula Biss, was published two days ago, on 8 June 2022. Extraordinary—not because nobody has ever discussed this topic before, but because it actually appeared in The New Yorker (H/T to my dear friend Walter Grinder for bringing this article to my attention). The article emphasizes the ‘original sin’ at the foundations of what I have called “capitalism: the known reality,” in contrast to that ahistorical “unknown ideal” that Ayn Rand and so many others in contemporary libertarian thought have projected. As Biss writes:

As a visitor from the age of private property, it seems remarkable to me that commoners held rights to land they did not own or rent, but, at the time, it was commonplace. In addition to common pasture, commoners were granted rights of pannage, of turbary, of estovers, and of piscary—rights to run their pigs in the woods, to cut peat for fuel, to gather wood from the forests, and to fish. These were rights to subsistence, rights to live on what they could glean from the land. In the course of enclosure, as written law superseded customary law, commoners lost those rights. Parliament made property rights absolute, and the traditional practice of living off the land was redefined as theft. Gleaning became trespassing, and fishing became poaching. Commoners who continued to common were now criminals. 

Biss goes on to examine the 1968 Garrett Hardin thesis of the “tragedy of the commons,” though this thesis was first developed by William Forster Lloyd way back in 1833, in an examination of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land. That thesis was rocked to its core by the Nobel prize-winning political economist, Elinor Ostrom, a writer whose work is, regrettably, not touched upon in the New Yorker article. What Ostrom showed, in books such as Governing the Commons, was not that the Lloyd-Hardin thesis was fundamentally incorrect; it was that such a thesis was applicable less to an acontextual commons and more with regard to an unmanaged, unregulated common pool. Ostrom stressed the importance of context and empirical study and documented what might be called the miracle of the commons, in a way that challenged the monistic approaches of strict propertarians and centralizing statists alike. As the Wikipedia entry notes:

Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues looked at how real-world communities manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems, and farmlands, and they identified a number of factors conducive to successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself; resources with definable boundaries (e.g. land) can be preserved much more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation do better. A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse. When the commons is taken over by non-locals, those solutions can no longer be used.

I hope to have a lot more to say about this topic in time; but for now, check out the New Yorker article!

Song of the Day #1948 & 1949

Songs of the Day: This Track is a Planet Killer / Milky [YouTube links] are two songs composed by Soy. (to appear on their upcoming album “Johnathan”), with my dear friend Eric Fleischmann on vocals. The starkly different tracks, which follow one another, are united as part of a live performance that debuted on 2 January 2022 [YouTube link]. The first track is full of punk fury; the second is an ambient-alternative instrumental. The full 50+ minute official video can be viewed here. When Eric isn’t protesting on campus or writing about the work of Laurence Labadie or subjects as varied as historical materialism and the anarcho-punk movement, he’s busy wreaking havoc on stage with his bandmates: Mose Hatcher (bass), Max Folan (guitar, vocals), Noah Michalski (drums), Lex Puckett (guitar), Shaan Dahar aka HHP (guitar, backing vocals).

Soy.

Ed Younkins is Savvy

My dear friend Ed Younkins (with whom I coedited, with Roger Bissell, The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom) has published an essay in The Savvy Street that explores “New Perspectives on Ayn Rand’s Ideas“. Ed writes:

I believe the key is that the concern of every individual should be with truth as an integrated whole. When constructing one’s own worldview or conceptual framework, it is legitimate to take a selective approach with respect to existing philosophical positions because consistency with reality is all that really matters. It is thus appropriate for a person to extract what is true and good from the writings of Ayn Rand and others and to use those components as a basis for a better interpretation that allows for a superior understanding of what would constitute a morally right socioeconomic system. By integrating, modifying, and synthesizing ideas of others with one’s own ideas, it is possible to get closer to a comprehensive, logically consistent view of the world and a foundation and justification for a free society. Eschewing labels, each person has the ability to select the best ideas from a variety of sources, adapt them to his own purpose, and add his own views and integrate them to serve his own ends. The key is to use one’s own independent rational judgement. I have used this approach in some of my articles.

Our mutual friend and coeditor, Roger Bissell, provided some terrific additional commentary on Facebook here and here, which I reproduce below:

Some of us are old enough to remember that 7up used to be called “the uncola.” Chris himself has a long-running internet presence he styles in delightfully quasi-Hegelian fashion as “Notablog: The Blog of Chris Matthew Sciabarra.” For my part, I have received so many letters and emails addressing me as Dr. Bissell (I am master of one trade, doctor of none) that I sometimes refer to myself as “the undoctor.”Some may see this all as painfully negative and a sign of the “nihilism” of our times. But I can’t help noting that many of these are the same people who insist on defining logic as “the art of non-contradictory identification.” LOL. …

Five words: “The Divine Right of Stagnation.” This syndrome, so tellingly depicted in “Atlas Shrugged” and discussed in the essay of the same name in “The Virtue of Selfishness,” is a virus that has devastated the Objectivist movement since the very founding of the Ayn Rand Institute. You can rail against Open Objectivism and defriend people who push for research and development and expansion of Objectivism all you want, but all you do is betray that you, too, have fallen prey to the wasting, withering malady best encapsulated by James Taggart’s soliloquy about feeling threatened by new ideas and the lurid outburst “We’ve got to make those bastards stand still.”

To those who protest the idea of new, post-Rand Objectivism, I will remind readers that in her final years, Rand publicly acknowledged that Objectivism was incomplete and had gaps and that they would be worked on in the future and NOT by her. So, by whom? Only the anointed and officially approved? That, I think, is what it will ultimately amount to. Even now, we have already seen hints that Peikoff’s (and others’) writings will *eventually* be endorsed as “official Objectivism.” Will the defrienders and purists rail against this, too? Perhaps—but ultimately, who cares? And guess what? In the meantime, the “bastards”—whatever we decide to call ourselves—are NOT going to stand still.

Here, here, Roger!

The Essential Women of Liberty

For people looking for a fine introduction to the thought of a select group of women who have contributed to the cause of liberty, let me recommend The Essential Women of Liberty, coedited by Donald Boudreaux and Aeon J. Skoble, published by the Fraser Institute, with a foreword by Virginia Postrel. My dear friend Aeon informs me that the book is also available in hardcover and softcover editions.

The volume includes essays on Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Rose Director Friedman, Mary Paley Marshall, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand (a nice essay by Carrie-Ann Biondi), Anna Schwartz, Jane Jacobs, Elinor Ostrom, and Deirdre McCloskey.

I am truly delighted by the remarkably diverse selection of thinkers featured in this anthology. Indeed, any volume that runs the gamut from Wollstonecraft and Rand to Jacobs and Ostrom is worth the price of admission.

Deirdre McCloskey is the only woman featured in this collection whom I’ve ever had the privilege of getting to know personally, having worked closely with her as a contributor to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, which I coedited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins. (Indeed, a Facebook symposium dedicated to that anthology generated a colloquy on her delightful contribution, which appeared in the May 2020 issue of Poroi.)

The book is available as a PDF (for free) and in a Kindle edition (for a mere 99 cents!). Check out a nice YouTube video highlighting the collection …

Paul Crider on Ayn Rand

Notablog readers should check out a critical essay on Liberal Currents by Paul Crider that discusses “Liberalism versus Reaction in Ayn Rand“. Paul writes on Facebook:

Finally published my big essay on Ayn Rand. I’m very sympathetic to Rand and I encourage folks to see what people find so inspirational in her work. It’s all there.

BUT I do two—I think—novel things. First, I troubleth the idea that Rand fits within the liberal tradition, even classical liberal. Her perfectionism precludes the political contestation that is necessary for political liberalism. Atlas Shrugged itself is a kind of vanguardist integralism (though her real life activism differs from AS). Her hierarchical way of thinking masquerades as meritocracy but ultimately upholds traditional social hierarchies and reacts against upstarts—hence she’s much more a heterodox conservative than any kind of liberal. Second, I explore the possibility of a Randian left liberalism. I would say “left Objectivism” but the ARI would probably sue me. A Randian social liberalism seems like a contradiction in terms, but it draws on expressivist individualism of unfolding human potential and the concept of “truly human flourishing” (think Smith, Marx, Mill, and Nussbaum) that very much pervade her philosophy.

I read the essay and wrote on Facebook:

I very much enjoyed your essay, and I’m extremely sympathetic to a left-liberal reading of Rand, as anyone who is familiar with my attempts (in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical) to link Rand to a dialectical mode of analysis can attest. (A more recent article of mine extends this to an alignment of Rand with a certain form of left-libertarian anarchism.)

I think that, like most thinkers, Rand embraces views that are sometimes at odds with her core values. I’d certainly count among these her views on Native Americans, homosexuality, and feminism. My coedited volume with Mimi Gladstein (Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand) includes contributions from those who take Rand rightfully to task for many of her anti-feminist views, while also arguing that her philosophy was fully consonant with a certain kind of individualist feminism.

As for Rand’s views on homosexuality, I’ve argued (in Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation) that many post-Randian thinkers have attempted to correct for her blind spots. And I’ve also argued that Rand has important things to say about race and class in ways that would surprise both her acolytes and her critics (see, for example, my post on the ‘ominous parallels’ between CRT and Rand’s analysis of systemic racism).

Since I’ve plugged some of my own writings in this note, let me plug The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies—which would welcome thoughtful essays like yours into our pages.

Mutual Aid in an Urban Setting

With another H/T to my dear friend Walter Grinder, I wanted to highlight yet another article from Boston Review, this one by Nate File: “Detroiters Are Not Waiting to Be Saved“. The article highlights how Detroit activists have turned to forms of mutual aid to meet the needs of their community, hit heavily by systemic instabilities. From the article:

[Activist Dean] Spade notes that mutual aid has also sometimes been misclassified as a charity project, indifferent to the state. That misreading echoes the conservative view that people should take care of their own communities and eschew government. But mutual aid, Spade explains, is really an entry point into movement building … The leaders of EMA [Eastside Mutual Aid] are aware of criticisms of mutual aid, but they believe it is more important to listen to their community and meet the needs they describe. People sometimes have preconceived notions about “what’s best,” Price explains, “but when they get here [and talk to people], the community needs something completely different.” Marronage and mutual aid may not themselves the end goal, but they can help us get closer to it. “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down,” Kelley writes in Freedom Dreams. “We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”

The essay is worth a good read, especially for those of us who seek nonstate alternatives in a time of systemic crisis.