Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: movies (page 1 of 3)

King and Country: On Lawrence of Arabia

for Christine Harmon

The opening of Lawrence of Arabia tells much of the story, if not the whole. There’s that sense of adventure, a sense of exploring the world anew, underlying our highest desires and some not so high ones. It can lead one to ride a motorbike too fast, seeing more while daring anyone or anything to stop you. And it can lead to wanting to conquer your fears, know as much as possible, and take control. The link between such a spirited individual and the highest political objects is the want of freedom, but is the freedom that screams from within oneself the same thing as freedom for a people? No wonder the bureaucrats at Lawrence’s funeral refuse to explain his legacy. They can’t. The tension can only be felt by someone aware of freedom in the first place.

To be sure, this is somewhat of a boyish enterprise, and that is not meant as a compliment. It stems from another tension, one central to anything we call education in the West. British schoolboys were bred to be noble. Discipline, respect for authority, strength from order. But British schoolboys were also Christian, believing in miracles and a Providence benefiting one personally. Discipline and order do not simply create boy scouts or automatons. Self-discipline and an intellect that recognizes where things are properly put accompany the most daring curiosities and the most creative personalities. Add the idea that God becomes man and the most explosive hubris can unearth itself. The noble sees itself confirmed in the world, as it thinks it sees its own narrative unfold. One might see Lawrence as a kind of holy warrior, fighting for the cult of himself. One might accuse him of immaturity.

But Faisal’s comment that war is a young man’s game and peace an old man’s game does not begin to do the situation justice. It’s a cheap characterization which directly substitutes manipulation as control for the freedom which comes from the feeling of control. It already assumes that the only thing worth being is the manipulator who can always manipulate. What makes Lawrence so compelling to those around him is his boldness which has a certain honesty about it. That he can be broken, that he can be “half-mad,” is his being an extraordinary man. This is not a simple case of a man who is only a warrior failing to recognize the realities of politics. If anything, he sees the political situation too well and plays a complicated, deadly game that of necessity will find his weakness. We’re all naive about politics to a degree.

We witness the slide from man to divinity primarily through his learning. We see him restless in Cairo, wanting to be useful. But he does not simply exercise patience; he builds an inhuman tolerance of pain, putting out fires with his fingers as a parlor trick. He says the pain does not matter if one pays it no mind. This sort of continence, while in this case obviously exaggerated, is discussed as useful to leaders in Xenophon. It is the key to understanding both Socrates and the Spartans. Lawrence makes sure to know the region he operates in and act on that knowledge. He wins over Faisal and Ali by letting Faisal’s men do what they are best at, guerrilla fighting based on mastery of the terrain. This allows him to build a serious basis for Arab identity through the Bedouin spirit. His propensity for stupid risks endears him to his men. Prone to excessive compassion and violence, he shows a daring they wish they could have. This may be the deeper truth underlying why the best generals do whatever they order their men to do, whether Xenophon, Caesar, Napoleon. It isn’t as simple as challenging another’s manhood; it’s showing another what they can be, truly. That they never need to feel constrained by the world.

That Lawrence is successful becomes the problem. If you perform miracles, who are you? And what is the price of performing one miracle? What makes the movie so powerful is that it is the performance of a miracle which breaks Lawrence. He saves a man in the desert who by all rights should have died. He kills him later and preserves a peace which lasts even in Damascus. To perform a miracle once – to have a pillar of dust be one of fire – is to never look at a pillar of dust the same way again. That Lawrence performed a miracle at least once makes the problem more acute. For nobility, as pagan authors like Plutarch and Tacitus noted, is not meant to result in victory. Nobility actually exists as a substitute for the good. When we don’t get what we want, we content ourselves with the honor and respect due us. To be honored and respected while obtaining the good is to be no less than a god.

Lawrence grapples with this problem and it drives him mad. The central moment in the movie is recognizing how low he has fallen at the peak of his reputation. He has crossed the desert and won the unwinnable. Yet he is profoundly troubled by two deaths. First, the death of one he was directly a protector of, the outcast youth servant. The other death is Gasim, who he says he enjoyed killing. It isn’t clear how much he liked shooting Gasim from our vantage. It does look like he is disgusted with himself during and after the killing. But maybe Lawrence’s “enjoyment” is coming from being a miracle-worker, a founder of peoples, a giver of independence. As a truly free man, bound to no order, he must take pride in the actions that mark his effectiveness. His is not a role one gives up easily, evidenced by the times he tries to walk away.  He ultimately knows the importance of oneself as a symbol and a cause. Yet it is impossible to take any pride in the actions constituting that, as they force one to see one’s inhumanity.

The back-and-forth instability of one’s own self, weirdly enough, can be the fuel for success on the battlefield. Lawrence dares to create an Arab revolt with his personality. It fails, as even his captors do not recognize him. He returns after a crisis of confidence in himself, and his strategy is to indulge the cult of personality even more, bribing as many as possible and openly embracing savagery. It is easy to dismiss this as the actions of a potential tyrant. In truth, a broken man struggling with himself is still aiming at the higher objects. And he does this very well, giving his army a number of reasons to fight: those who love honor and freedom need no other motivation than Lawrence’s brilliance; those who love money have it; those who love to kill have that too. Small wonder he can move his army far faster than the British.

Neither the noble nor the miraculous alone make us human. But they are not just extremes with no value for our lives. Ali goes from murderous thug to a real believer in order, a commander who cares for his men, and a potential leader in a Arab nation which stands together. Lawrence serves as educator to him. And the political disarray proximately caused by the too hasty occupation of Damascus is not political naivete. It is a real chance at an independent Arab nation. The project fails for a number of reasons, not least of which the attempt to steal Arabia from the people living in it, but that Lawrence gives them a chance at success is a small miracle unto itself. The boy scout colonel looks absolutely disgusted when he leaves the room, after Faisal and Allenby acknowledge how much of a pest Lawrence was to them. I wonder if he’s angry at nobility being manipulated so basely. People really do fight for causes, and the highest causes tear us apart from the inside.

The Alien: On “Man of Steel”

Spoilers galore ahead

I can understand some of the complaints against Zack Snyder’s Superman movie. It does feel like some things are too clipped and not developed enough. We’re moved from scene to scene at a frenetic pace. There certainly could be more scenes that let the actors do their job (which they are pretty awesome at). And a lot happens in the action sequences that’s confusing and disorienting. One needs a lot of focus to keep track of everything.

Be that as it may, this is a well-written movie with some powerful, convincing performances. And the portrait it develops of Superman is just amazing. If anything, this movie is underrated: I think a lot of the complaints about it are pretty juvenile.

Superman is the product of a debate occurring on Krypton. Krypton is a huge, technologically advanced empire with colonies and outposts on a number of other planets. Kryptonian society is highly regimented, dependent on a “Codex” that assigns each and every citizen their place. Of course, Krypton is not just exhausting its resources and limiting its nearly immortal population. It is causing massive damage to the planet itself and will implode. When the planet Krypton goes, the entire empire crumbles: the outposts and colonies have no clue how to survive.

Two people see the decay of Krypton: Jor-El, Krypton’s lead scientist, and General Zod, Krypton’s lead warrior. Jor-El sees that Kryptonians have exhausted the planet and that it is too late for the entire race. He understands the limits of strict hierarchy. Natural births do not occur on Krypton; only Jor-El and his wife will attempt such a thing. Future Kryptonians are dictated by the Codex. Krypton is a society that can duplicate its success over and over on other planets, assuming they have resources.

General Zod sees that strength and does not want to let it go, not under any circumstance. He stages a coup against the Council ruling Krypton a few weeks before the planet implodes. He kills Jor-El, but Jor-El has stolen the Codex and sent it away with Kal-El to Earth. Jor-El wants Kal-El to be able to make a choice, not simply serve society for the sake of utility. Jor-El, like Jonathan Kent, understands that this is no insult to anyone else. That the things we know are in a way subservient to the things we believe, and this is freedom for all.

This is a tricky set of propositions, I know, and the film moves by fast. Freedom versus utility does not seem an obvious choice for discussing a central theme, nor knowledge or belief. It is difficult to see the defining threads of any given theme, really, save one: Kal-El choosing to be human. It is not an easy choice for him. We first see him in a classroom as an ADD student, struggling with all the excess information his super-senses give him. His mother has to coax him out of a janitor’s closet he locks himself in by getting him to focus on one thing, in order to get him to concentrate his power. It is not hard to see how Superman’s Boy Scout ethos is a necessity, why he is hesitant at key moments, why he is a journeyman and an outcast with aggression issues.

To not have an identity is a logical choice and temptation, one that Jonathan Kent and Jor-El give unwitting support to. Both the elder Kent and Jor-El know that the powers of a super man are too much for any given world unless the right moment arrives. Kent knows this and can explain it to Clark after watching a woman turn nearly hysterical with both hope and fear after Clark saves a busload of kids from drowning. He knows the most important thing is for Clark to have a choice, to discover his true purpose for himself. To expose Clark is to give him no chance at having a choice. Thus, Kent’s boy is put under some strict rules about what he can and cannot do; the movie is utterly convincing when a father dies rather than let his son see others save him. Jor-El lives in a society of supermen that can only preserve itself ironically; everything is prideful boasting or the pride that comes from pretended or forced humility.

All these considerations, put another way: usually, we talk about forming an identity with regard to other, known identities. We pick people to emulate and work from there. That conventionality hides something far more radical about each of us being one intelligence among many. The very concept of an identity to someone forming one can be alien; it is easy for those of us who have one to forget exactly what it is we have. This is something that we usually cover up in our own minds. We have humanity as a reference point.

Clark Kent doesn’t have humanity as a reference point. Jor-El understands the strength of this in his own way. The problem with Zod is that everything is Krypton to him. His identity is immediately useful and it is absolutely the case his single-minded vengeful idiocy would have recreated Krypton and saved the race. Zod’s rage makes a lot of sense even if he comes off as a cartoon at times. He’s a man who’s lost his homeworld but whose sole purpose in life was to fight for it anyway. He really cannot understand what Jor-El and Jonathan Kent are up to. Nor can the military or officials or most of our world, who are more than willing to let Lois Lane get taken by the aliens even though the only thing they said they wanted was Kal-El. The concept of the alien throws everything to pieces: we can forget who we are and what we stand for. Zod understands this much, as broadcasting “You Are Not Alone” to us is an all-too-effective weapon.

Superman is an outcast and a loner because he has a choice, a real choice. The trick to having a real choice is having a say in the conditions that frame it. This is why sacrifice, why knowledge, why belief: these are not solely components of an aristocratic/timocratic ethic, but something essential to all who claim to be free. Zod does not understand this, but Superman’s alien and human parents do. Sacrifice, knowledge and belief do not require building anything or making anything lasting. Again, Zod is a stronger villain than he appears at times. Recreating Krypton is creating an incredible empire that provides goods for many, if not all who are worthy. Earth doesn’t seem to be doing much except indulging in the same excess and decay Krypton did, with less to show.

The ideal of Superman of which Jor-El speaks is to make the right choice at the right time, to stand for something but not be told what to do. Hiding his power results in an untrained fighter who does not know his own strengths. His lack of focus makes him hesitant and unable to act swiftly enough to save everyone or combat with restraint. He has anger issues and the Boy Scout ethos is so, so necessary. Without it, he can easily be a deranged loner. But in truth, he is the Codex, the wisdom of Krypton preserved. Krypton failed to preserve itself because it lacked the courage to face up to difficult choices. But Jor-El put Krypton in Clark Kent’s very DNA to give the whole society no less than a second chance, if Clark Kent decides the time is right. He sent Kal-El to Earth, where numerous other people consistently do the same thing Jor-El did. Whether we’re talking about Jonathan Kent in a tornado, Lois Lane willingly getting on board a spaceship, Coast Guard rescuers landing on top of a burning oil rig, an Air Force colonel and a scientist on a suicide mission, a newspaper editor trying to free one of his employees while a city crumbles – you get the idea. The real beauty of Superman is how what is most alien is something within.

On Skyfall

Spoilers galore ahead

The greatest Bond movie ever made – I think that, and I don’t particularly like Daniel Craig – and a necessary anti-Bourne corrective. Its themes pick up directly from Goldeneye: Is there a need for spies in the post-Cold War world? What is patriotism if the nation-state makes trained killers from orphans?

The extreme skepticism of the Bourne movies leads to thinking that all the government does is kill people and erase memories in the name of an abstract security and liberty. Quite frankly, it’s hard to see what we stand for when we increasingly fire missiles from drones and consider that and only that counter-terrorism policy. I’m not saying we should ram our values down other people’s throats. Just that it takes something more to see why evil is evil, to see why we need to pay tremendous, ironic costs for safety, justice, our way.

It’s a very thin line and Skyfall addresses it directly. M, for all practical purposes, has Bond shot in the opening as Bond is fighting for her and country. There is no reason for Bond to go back or care for MI-6. Yet he does when he sees MI-6 attacked.

It’s an open question whether this is just Bond’s instinct kicking in, whether he can be tempted by what a former agent turned villain promises. That former agent doesn’t just want revenge. If he outs all the NATO agents in the world, he can literally stop the system that spawned him. He will show it useless at even defending itself, not to mention others. If he goes further and kills M during a hearing, he can show intelligence useful for only nurturing grudges.

Bond doesn’t get tempted by the villain, despite the fact it isn’t clear M should be saved by anyone. The villain was basically a child-soldier, as are all the agents. Why shouldn’t he be angry? Why shouldn’t this system be dismantled? Bond needs to convince us that he stands for something worth standing for. He needs to justify himself. M argues before the MP questioning all of espionage that there are forces in the shadows which cannot be denied. She’s right, but it isn’t the whole truth.

The truth is that M isn’t a leader as much as a symbol. She’s incompetent to stop her former agent, who knows all MI-6’s tricks. Javier Bardem’s character has his best moments in the final battle at Skyfall. He uses a first wave of mercenaries to make Bond and company use up all their tricks in defending the manor. Then he calmly starts setting the house on fire after machine gunning it. The only way people get out is through a tunnel underneath the house, once meant for practitioners of a secret faith. The only way Bond turns the tables is that explosive substances were left in the house to keep it warm.

The metaphor is actually pretty subtle. Bond cries when M dies. It’s hard to see why duty for duty’s sake matters, especially when it seems an infinite regress. Bond loses his childhood home and the person he was supposed to protect. In material terms, all he does is kill the bad guy. Is that really a good? Or even anything just? The bad guy was simply part of a cycle of revenge, no?

Tradition – “our way” – is the infinite regress of duty. You can look at it as a cost you’re always paying or a source of near infinite strength. It sounds ridiculous to say the latter, especially since our greatest heroes stand up to bad ideas, bad traditions. But that’s just it: they start somewhere, they establish something. Now to look at literal costs gives one tremendous power. Like Javier Bardem’s villain, you can use computers to get others to cause explosions in the strangest places or rig elections. You just need to find the price for what you want and pay it. Tradition as a perpetual cost is priceless, for better or worse. It does create child-soldiers and horrific casualties.

But tradition has a power which matters in a positive sense. Bond’s patriotism is real. He does remember his childhood home; Scotland and England and the people in it matter to him. To a degree, he can sacrifice them because he knows they too stand for something. That’s the real power of tradition: trust. You can establish trust another way – Socrates certainly does – but it is unclear that can reach all men. Weirdly enough, there’s something univocally universal about patriotism. In declaring one’s own limits, one sets the stage for seeing others who are different.

There’s more. Smarts aren’t enough to deal with others, especially socially. Tradition makes one a leader more than a planner. Bond demonstrates this best with Moneypenny. He’s not telling her to stop being a field agent because she shot him. He tells her this because there are good people who can contribute best without being in the line of fire. You want to fight for as many as possible. The alternative is only fighting for oneself, all the time.

Again, this is a very thin line. Bond sure as hell looks like he’s fighting for himself, that he’s a rat who eats other rats just as much as the bad guy. And the bad guy’s revenge might even create a better world. The issues of establishing trust and fighting for others are matters of degree. It is difficult to know right from wrong. What’s funny about M talking about the shadows where evils need to be fought is her moral relativity stemming from a moral absolutism. Not that there are absolutely right answers, but that we need to start somewhere. Bond sees that exactly in Skyfall and draws his strength of will from it. Evil is real not because the bad guys don’t have a point, but precisely because they do.

Recommended: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Blah blah blah Hansel and Gretel is misogynistic & “witch hunt” is offensive & the whole thing is just one joke & blah blah blah I don’t know how to go to the movies and have some damn fun (h/t Ricky McAllister)

I’ll give Moviebob, whose video review is linked above, credit for one of his complaints: the movie is a bit paint-by-numbers. I don’t feel it drags like he says, where the first 10 minutes are the only good part and then a gag runs too long.

I do feel the movie is ridiculous fun and recommend it heartily. The rapid-fire crossbows and other medieval Batman gadgets make for cute gags; the witches trying to escape on brooms are a neat parody of chase scenes. The movie looks good – it is colorful, like a storybook, and that contrasts nicely with the hardened, overly macho action star dialogue of the leads.

Moviebob’s complaints are just awful. The “witch hunt” one is just ludicrous. Almost the very first thing that happens in the movie is that a witch is saved. She’s later recognized to be a good witch but is consistently one of the movie’s heroes. To say the movie is some kind of attack on practicing pagans or Wiccans is insane. “Misogyny” has a bit more bite, but not much. Hansel and Gretel beat up witches in scenes that recall The Dark Knight’s “enhanced interrogations.” However, the evil witches are established as super strong with some kind of regeneration early on. The whole plot of the movie is that they only need immunity to fire for immortality.

The strength of the movie is in the acting. Gemma Arterton’s Gretel is strong and sexy. When she takes command of the public square early on, declaring who she is and headbutting anyone in her way, it is clear who her character is and one wants to see more of her in the movie. Jeremy Renner’s Hansel is a lot of fun. He’s always trying to be tougher than he is. This results in him getting saved a ludicrous number of times by women – either Gretel or the good witch or bad witches missing badly.

Not much else to tell you. The reason for this “review” was to prevent stupid reviews by snobby critics from stopping you from seeing it. It’s good to be able to go to the movies and enjoy yourself. I am not sure why that is becoming a crime in some circles. I suspect some don’t read enough and are expecting film to take the place of “literature” or “philosophy” or “thinking for yourself.”

On Princess Mononoke

It’s hard to describe just how beautiful Princess Mononoke is. Our hero, Ashitaka, tells San “you’re beautiful” in what could be his last words. He’s come a long way to do only that. Cursed by a war-god turned demon while trying to save his village, he is forced to leave his primitive, thought-to-be extinct people and find a cure from the Spirit of the Forest. This leads him to witness massacres, battles and a ravaged land as nobles fight with each other and the Emperor tries to find a cure for mortality.

Eventually he comes to Iron Town, where Lady Eboshi is actively hunting the gods of the forest for iron for her rifles. She gives former prostitutes work in her factories; lepers design her weapons. They are loyal because of her generosity and leadership. But she shot the boar that was the war-god and turned it demonic. And she is actively destroying the forest for the materials she needs. She openly declares war on the animal/nature gods and hopes to hunt them with her rifles. In our first encounter with her, she mortally wounds the wolf-goddess, the wolf-mother who adopted San. The residents of Iron Town see San fighting alongside the wolves and want her dead.

Ashitaka saves San from a trap where at one point every rifle in town is aimed at her. He is shot by a woman who wants revenge for her husband, killed by wolves. Only the curse of the demon keeps him alive as he bleeds to death. San takes him to the Spirit of the Forest, letting the Spirit do as it will with him. It chooses to heal him but does not remove the curse. Ashitaka’s attempt to bring peace between people and nature – his attempt to use the curse – makes him alone, with nothing but his own animal companion. San is pledged to hate humans and fight with wolves and the other forest animals. He has saved people from Iron Town, but also allowed one of their greatest enemies to live. And he is far from his village.

These problems resolve, as he does find allies and love, but what Princess Mononoke continually calls for, in every scene, is the viewer to be more sensitive. The question is what is the power of the old gods, the old piety. This is not a simple environmental statement. Attempts to unify and modernize Japan were always matters of war. Industry itself does not seem a neutral concept. It is subordinate to war as it helps build an “us” opposed to “them.” But the old nature gods – the great boar, the great wolf – have the same problems we do as they fight among themselves for a solution to the human problem.

Nature is the possibility of resurrection. It contains demonic darkness to be sure. Both ideas make it that much more strange to see animals and natural forces talk amongst themselves in terms of human conflict. That anthropomorphization did not occur because of our encroachment. Lady Eboshi says she wants to kill the old gods so she can deal with dumb, stupid beasts. What is in the forest is ourselves. Our hero’s curse pulls him away from the village so he can see more fully what he was standing for. In sacrificing himself to protect his people, he did choose exile. No particular place can attest to naturally being human and why it matters.

To worship the old nature gods, then, is to see human limit as constitutive. It is to see the beauty of simply being. That does not mean the nature gods are right about anything. It does not mean they have any power; they do dissolve before our reach. It does mean to ask the right questions will bring us to fantastic, terrible places, places we may have to be. And it means we have to accept division and loss for a greater unity. Ashitaka’s new home will be Iron Town. His love will stay in the forest nearby. When walking back at night after watching the film, I watched some ripples in the pond reflect the light from some lamps. I stared at them, thinking they were animated.

The State of Philosophy on the Internet

1. Sometimes the Internet and modern media technology are responsible for explosions of new talent. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ve been treated to a bunch of exceptional chess players and some great photographers because of our increasingly digital life.

I have reasons to suspect that despite access to a number of terrific resources, quite a few philosophy majors, and intelligent philosophy blogging that philosophy as a field is not blossoming online.

2. Notice that I say “as a field.” I don’t expect people to be reincarnations of Socrates or Wittgenstein. I’m not sure I even want that. What I do want is familiarity with the basics, an ability to think critically, appreciation and discrimination of the better from the worse in terms of philosophy itself.

It’s a losing battle. When philosophical thinking is not reduced to justification for various ideologies, it is needlessly complex and always shallow – the goal seems to be to show who can “win” on comment threads. The only thing even approaching something like intellectual honesty is the population of would-be cheaters posting their homework questions in forums. I can’t stand them. But at least their assignments ask “What does so-and-so mean by such-and-such?”

I’m not unhappy with philosophy blogging. Then again, we’re talking about academics blogging primarily. That’s exclusive in some awful ways. Academics not only tend to talk to other academics, but to a very specific segment of them. None of this, of course, helps the field significantly, especially when more “accessible” posts are ideological rants.

3. There is no solution that will make what I’m complaining about go away. I’m writing so that way a few serious minds who are dabbling in the field but not doing something more rigorous get away from news aggregator sites like Digg or Reddit and start making good notes on primary sources for themselves. I’m actually happy philosophy isn’t worse online – after Colin McGinn’s ridiculous proposal, it is clear things could be a lot worse overall.

I’d better tell my story. In my undergraduate studies, I understood virtually nothing in philosophy for 3 years. I was lucky to encounter some lectures on Aeschylus that explored the mythic foundations of the city. There was little or nothing to sustain those thoughts, though. The course I was in blazed through the Apology and Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. I couldn’t keep up and every time I got confused there was not only too much to do, but it wasn’t clear how I should even approach the texts.

Things only started opening up for me when I had time to breathe and a rough idea how the history of ideas worked. Yes, I’m not even talking about critical thinking or appreciation/discrimination at this point. Everything I’ve said so far is about “basics.” It took repeated attempts of reading with the question “Who cares about this stupid book?” in the background to bring the better books to life. Plato’s Republic was notorious in this regard. I tried reading it several times over a number of years. Each time I tried, I got the feeling that the book read “What is justice? Yes.”

4. So I think this. We can remedy a lot of what’s wrong with philosophy online if a few know some more basics and are willing to read carefully. Eventually they’ll ask serious questions. They won’t see everything in terms of arguments or argumentation. They won’t be taken in by big names and ideological agendas.

A few posts I’ve got to help people get started:

  • On Machiavelli’s Prince – a brief overview of the history of political philosophy. I’ve got my biases. They’re pretty clear in this post. I still recommend it: it’s a starting point.
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia III.7 – I’ve got the whole section here where Socrates exhorts Charmides, Plato’s uncle and an awful human being, to hold office. The commentary shows that this might actually be an attempt of Socrates to moderate Charmides. The larger point: ancient philosophy is very tricky stuff. Usually it requires ridiculously good reading skills. I confess I’m still lacking in many regards.
  • On Oedipus Tyrannus – short post showing how Greek tragedy may create a counterpoint to political philosophy.
  • On Plato’s Minos – you don’t need to know the text to know the status of “What is law?” is a solid question.
  • On Aristotle’s Politics I.1 – the text in question is very important. Aristotle lays out a plan for politics on vastly different grounds than we use.

I’ve got so much more lying around. Wish I could link you to all of it. I’ll just say this – I started writing so that way people could pick their text and stick with it. They’d know someone had read it or was reading with them. The big problem with the Internet is simply this. With all these texts available and the ability to publish, we do surprisingly little reading. Surprisingly little consideration of the voices of others.

Gattaca and the Problem of Nobility

Spoilers ahead. Go watch Gattaca if you haven’t already.

Earlier this week, I was wondering about the division of all human knowing into two: theoretical philosophy and political science. It’s a division Maimonides uses in his Logic, a work which seems to be about the recovery of political philosophy. I remarked to Nathaniel that maybe such a severe distinction – where almost everything is political science – brings about the concept of the noble. The bridge between these types of knowledge has to cater to our vision of the highest, but vision alone becomes the key. What is noble often concerns self-sacrifice with the hope of a greater good for others.

Enter Gattaca. At least one genetically engineered super-human, Jude Law’s character, cannot abide his place in life. He takes his death wish and creates a new ambition. Give his name to someone else who can use it, help them get what they want, then kill himself. It’s hard to call what he’s doing vengeful because of the contrast with Ethan Hawke’s Vincent and Gore Vidal’s bash-your-head-in-with-a-keyboard director. Vincent definitely wants to get the hell off this damn rock. He’s not explicitly vengeful, but he is moreso than the original Jerome Morrow.

So what are Jude Law’s motivations? I think we can identify two:

  1. He has decided that the most rational thing to do in a world which is utter crap is kill himself. Before dismissing this as arrogance and saying that people lived through worse, consider how powerfully Gattaca itself makes this argument. Would you really want to live in a world where everything is genetic testing to absurd, consistently extra-legal degrees? Jude Law sees right through all this. He declares, rightly, that people are going to see who they want to see. This was never about perfection in any sense, not even about utility. This was all about the feeling that we could try to guarantee success and would be better off trying to do so. This was all about the fear of fear itself: panic, in a word.
  2. The only way to truly not be second-best is win a competition no one would dare enter, not even in the future. What is left for a genetically engineered superhuman who can compete at nearly everything? You’re going to have to use all your advantages in the service of a powerful cause and be ready to give it all up at the drop of a hat. In short, you have to earn your identity for yourself by destroying your own DNA, perhaps even all connection to this world. The privacy and ultimate willingness to give up his own name are crucial to Jude Law’s character.

On that last point: it is true that we don’t know, say, who “Homer” was. We just have a name. Did Jude Law figure out that working for your name is actually a fruitless endeavor, the sort of thing that relentless genetic enhancement is supposed to aid? He certainly is defensive about his name early on in the film.

I’m not sure how to resolve any of these difficulties. A general comment on the rational and the noble is in order because what’s happening in Gattaca, unwittingly, is the science of perfect gentlemen. We’re going to create “noble and good” people, a class with higher desires and trappings who gets what they deserve. And that class, to some degree, will figure out that this is the most worthless sort of life. Who doesn’t want to earn and fight for what is good? Who doesn’t want to learn, and more importantly, learn how to learn?

Then again, we’ve tried to create aristocracies before. Early on in Herodotus (I.30-33), Solon discusses two examples of happiness. One is Tellus the Athenian, who has a beautiful large family, wealth, land, is in a time where his city is prosperous. He dies nobly on the battlefield, is given a great funeral. Tellus is first in happiness. Second are twin brothers who carry their mother to the temple for miles like oxen would. She asks the goddess to give them what is best. They die in their sleep. Is it better to never have been born at all? Is a natural basis for nobility our simply dealing with the ills of Fortune?

The trouble with going that route is where “nature” finally leads – not so much to nobility, but to rationality. This is true even if nature reduces to (and disappears with) physics in the sense we have it. Nature somehow ends up characteristic of a higher or necessary sort of knowledge, not just our will. Nobility ends up almost entirely artificial. Almost. The two problems of the soul Aristotle identified, how it is both a source of motion and knowing, are on display. Good luck solving them – only with that “solution” could the conventional be entirely displaced. Jude Law says there might be nothing on Titan. He knows for sure there is nothing on Earth.

“Whisper of the Heart:” Wonder, Love, and Growing Up

Thanks to Trevor for introducing me to the film.

I’ve been thinking a lot about someone recently. Thinking if she likes me in any way, what’s feasible, if I’m just delusional. A lot in my head revolves around whether or not I want to be loved in order to compensate for other shortcomings and failures.

Enter Whisper of the Heart. Miyazaki has been very vocal that society feeds girls cheap romance and doesn’t adequately treat their deeper desires. In Spirited Away, questions of home and family weigh on the young protagonist’s mind. Whisper features a girl in junior high who needs to test into a good high school. Instead, she’s into fairytales. Not too far into the movie, she realizes she’s into boys.

The pressure on her is intense. This is a modern, commercial, industrialized world. Her family is cramped into a small space and makes the most of it. They want her studying. Her peers want gossip and relentlessly structure everything around that. Her friend and her don’t just want cute boys, but far more. Wouldn’t it be nice if guys had ambition and abilities well above school? What if you had ambitions and abilities, too – wouldn’t you need such ambitions to be equal?

I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself. The world the movie portrays is that of the protagonist’s sister. Work part time jobs until one has saved enough, then strike out independently. The safe, conventional approach gets you success. For some strange reason, it doesn’t appeal to adolescents whose sexuality is awakening. Success isn’t the same thing as ambition. It certainly doesn’t hold a candle to love.

Our protagonist’s fairytale starts a weird way. Someone has been checking out all the library books she’s been reading. Her desire to find out the mystery of why every library book she borrows has been taken out already by another leads her to a “stupid jerk” boy and his grandfather’s shop, albeit with the aid of a mystical cat. The grandfather invites her to explore yet another fairytale world, one in which lovers meet for a moment before one disappears. When the “stupid jerk” boy and the protagonist fall in love, it isn’t hard to note that he’s partly fallen in love with her because of her story (followed a cat to the shop on a whim, hoping for a fairytale ending. Found the stupid jerk boy again). She falls for him because of his story and the story he wants to have. He would rather be crafting violins in Italy than go to high school. Given that he’s worked as an apprentice to a degree, this is not unreasonable.

She’s in love and wants to match him, to be his equal so she can be loved. She sets out and writes a novel. At about 14 years of age, both fail in their efforts. Only: the film doesn’t let you call the growth, the effort, the literal labor of love a failure. Society can call it that. She failed tests and wrote a bad novel, he didn’t cut it as an apprentice when offered an opportunity in Italy. The film is pretty explicit in the development of this theme. Her wonder at fairytales and his wonder about a world of music led away from school to a purer love. Yeah, there’s silly adolescent drama. Yeah, there’s going to be more silly adolescent drama. But they’ve gotten to the concept of ambition and dreams and even the value of education an entirely different route than the one we preach.

I just think about the priority of wonder with my situation. A friend told me that if I like this woman, she’s got to be special. I’ve got to believe that and be a lot less anxious and preoccupied. How can I trust my desires? Am I hoping for a fairytale ending? Probably not. I believe in someone, and believe in time, mutual effort, communication. It’s a far cry from expecting results right away, or even betterment. It’s simply “let’s have our story, if you will.”

On “Inception”

Spoilers galore ahead. Yes, posting will resume the 20th. I’m making an exception because – well, you’ll see.

On “Inception:” a meditation on trust and sacrifice. Those issues are explored through faith and reason. The movie is filled with extraordinarily clever and competent people and a curious device that allows them to give someone a dream, go into that dream with themselves and the recipient of that dream as actors, “extract” information and plant ideas.

Underlying the Inception project is the mixture of dreams and reality – the mixture is destined to be a mess, as it depends on untruth in its very, um, inception. It is no surprise the one man best at navigating others’ minds drove his own wife insane by implanting the idea that they were together in a dream world when they really were in a dream world. Brought back to reality, she wondered if that too was a dream and killed herself assuming it was. That’s not Inception gone wrong: that’s the very nature of the project and how DiCaprio’s character knows Inception will work, especially for planting ideas.

But the movie is nowhere near as nihilistic as “The Prestige,” where a fatal conflict between old and new has a Hollywood ending slapped on. There, the “new” wins because of “family,” never mind that the “new” drove one of his wives to hang herself through his purposeful neglect. Underlying faith and reason here is memory, the want to believe and trust, the guilt we feel that we must reckon with, not simply recollection. His dead wife, as a subconscious projection of his, only wants him. He’s the anchor to reality; the dream world only includes one other person for her. The twistedness of trust as blind loyalty/mental projections begins to disappear when one realizes that if it weren’t for being forced together in a dream world, all the insanely clever people we’re presented would be trapped in their own little worlds. It is no surprise the idea DiCaprio and friends are supposed to implant is that of breaking up a monopoly in an heir’s mind. The father, dead for years to/in reality, had through his cunning and power near complete control of the world’s energy. One wonders how much they deceive the heir, given that the heir’s placement of his childhood as central seems a self-realization. The plan that called for creating two dreams within a dream was ultimately about seeing what would make the heir happy. Money and power were never terribly important to him even before the dreaming began.

What is surprising is how much trust invading others’ dreams takes, how only a thief – a liar – can be the surest safeguard for everyone else who needs to be involved. The thief and crew are employed by the very first person targeted; he probably set himself up to see what they could/would do. He is most likely testing their loyalty/ethics with the confrontation before the helicopter ride. We get different examples of “faith” (spoken 3 or 4 times at decisive moments) throughout the movie: a team that trusts each other despite violent disagreements (at least two members know full well how threatening DiCaprio’s subconscious is), the girl in love with the dream world who ends up believing more in the thief and his techniques than he himself; a belief by the thief that he still has a family despite a wife screaming in his head that he doesn’t really. But the trust a corporate executive puts into a fugitive who broke into his mind is the strangest of all, yet yields the greatest reward for all involved. DiCaprio’s hero understands more than his mentor that faith is faith in something, someone. The memory of the wife shows “only one” can be just as lost as being alone. Two may not be enough. What “reality” is: the everyday trust a CEO may have in his workers, his reputation, yes, his money, driving him to incredible acts of heroism. Recall how much pain he endures throughout the dream, for a chance at normalcy.

Online Culture and Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”

1. Paul recommended “Idiocracy” to me a while back, and I regret not seeing it immediately then. I saw a good portion of the film on Comedy Central yesterday – I picked up at the part where Luke Wilson was in line to go to prison.

If you haven’t seen the film, all you need to know is that in the future, the President is a professional wrestler, there’s trash and dust clouds everywhere, we try to feed crops a Gatorade knock-off instead of water, there’s a whole channel entitled “the masturbation channel” which has a 300 year lifespan, food and sex are merged in the most stomach-churning way, and oh yeah: everyone is as dumb as a post.

We can go a step farther and say all of this seems to be happening because of one critical factor: the rise of the corporation as culture. Why do we feed plants Gatorade, even though Gatorade is bad for them? Because their slogan, which is scientific-sounding, is all we can recite. (Also, the company that manufactures the stuff bought the FDA and replaced them as an authority.)

I think one can explain having a President who was a professional wrestler the same way. Cicero and Lincoln don’t sell in terms of rhetoric when we want culture dictated to us by corporations. A wrestler’s microphone skills are consistently tested by focus groups of sorts around the country.

The food/sex convergence also makes sense within this framework. Gratification is an immediate benefit and sells well. If companies can reduce what we take pleasure in to one concept – if they can get rid of that pesky notion of “the beautiful,” which in Plato drives no less than Socratic eros – it is much easier to provide for consumers and maximize profitability. They can give us a sham diversity (i.e. Maxim is “reading” and Debbie Does Dallas is a classic) and not have to think themselves at all. One corporation’s computer, in the movie, has an “auto-layoffs” function when profits decrease. It is notable that people work in the dystopia: in fact, quite a lot of people seem employed.

2.  You’ve probably noticed I don’t rant too much about people being dumb. When I link to something like Bauerlein’s discussion of the subject, I’m more interested in what’s wrong with modern education. How can you have kids in an American history class, 40 minutes a day, 180 days a year, and they don’t know who the Vice President is? I don’t even get how this is possible.

I’m much more interested in factionalization/polarization, and not the way most political scientists are (i.e. the parties are much more partisan than they’ve ever been). The real issue to me is whether we’re respecting each other as Americans, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I say that.

If we use the framework I’m suggesting we get from Idiocracy, we can see an enormous problem looming. You’ve got two cable networks, at least, with profit-seeking agendas that play an explicitly partisan game for both Left and Right. I say “game” because if you think Bill O’Reilly and Olbermann care in the least if you’re an educated, thoughtful voter you’re an idiot. It isn’t that money motivates them solely, but it motivates them enough that they’re willing to dumb us all down for a few tenths of a ratings point.

It’s bad enough the one time people are interested in issues and seeking information on candidates occurs every four years, in the guise of a campaign. That’s already frighteningly close to Presidential elections being a pay-per-view of sorts: inasmuch as campaigns fulfill an educative function – and the way things work now, they have to fulfill this function, we don’t care about self-governance at any other moment – they work like WWE’s “Smackdown” and “Raw:” regular advertisements for the sake of getting you to do one thing. Perhaps we can charge people $39.99 to vote and throw in a complimentary t-shirt for the candidate’s brand.

3. Notice I’m not ranting at corporations explicitly. I’m more fascinated by the logic we’re using as individuals and private associations. Corporations make money. Money is good (or, in Idiocracy: “I like money,” said in the slowest slack-jawed drawl possible). Therefore, the more we emulate corporate behavior or think like they think, the better we are. Heck, maybe we should think like they want us to think – they spend all this time researching what we want, maybe they know something about ourselves we don’t.

Which brings us to the Internet. What if there was a faction dedicated to stupidity (bad question, I know: what faction isn’t dedicated to such a thing)? But you know what I mean – people who are proud of being dumb, and finding smart-sounding ways of tearing others down? We note that one thing being online does to nearly all of us is make us very, very rude, no matter how educated we are. (I grant I am not exempt from this critique).

I suspect one reason why people feel free to be so much more vicious here is that the bandwagon tendencies are pronounced, so much so it is hard to feel heard. If you’re chiming in agreement and feeling part of a community, you can definitely feel drowned out by the 29384792749 other people chiming in. If you disagree, obviously, you’re going to feel like singular subatomic particle responsible in large part for the Big Bang that scientists will never find because you’re doomed to disappear upon sight. You must carry your message of truth loudly and obnoxiously and make sure that everyone who disagrees with you is revealed to be a child molester.

All of this is to say that the bandwagon tendencies one sees online are just one step away from becoming formally corporate culture, if they aren’t products of that culture already. Those of you on Digg or Reddit know how much pride some users take in their “community,” and I put that word in scare quotes because given some things said, it isn’t clear those people are housebroken yet.

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind – I think online culture carries the real danger of making us a bunch of drones who only respond to slogans and immediate gratification. The key isn’t the dumbing-down, but the nature of the dumbing-down: group identity is established by a streamlining of pleasure (let’s all agree and hate anyone who disagrees!), and it doesn’t matter that one can get a bunch of newspapers, the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia, poems, classics, Frankfurt School philosophers on Twitter, etc. All that “smart” junk isn’t needed when we have the masturbation channel in place already.

Older posts

© 2014 Rethink.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑