Archive for February, 2012

A Brief History of “Love”

Posted in Ancient Greek, Christianity, History, Love, Middle Ages, Mythology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Renaissance, Roman History, Valentine's Day, Victorian with tags on February 14, 2012 by Uroboros

What’re you asking when you say ‘be my Valentine?’

Something to Think about amidst All the Flowers, Cards, and Candy

Like a lot of holidays rooted in ancient traditions, there are many legends surrounding St. Valentine and the origin of the holiday which bears his name. First of all, there is more than one candidate for the historical Valentine. The common denominator is martyrdom. In the third century AD, the Roman Empire openly persecuted Christianity, still a developing religion at the time. Christians were often forced to renounce their beliefs or die. Martyrs chose death. Valentine was most likely a high-ranking member of the Catholic Church who was martyred, an act which left a deep impression on his fellow Christians, so much so, they set a day aside to honor him.

That day was February 14th.

Although some people link Valentine’s Day to late winter Greco-Roman fertility rituals, those celebrations bear little resemblance to what modern Westerners tend to associate with February 14th. The day wasn’t associated with romantic love until the late Middle Ages when European culture celebrated concepts like “chivalry” and “courtly love.” It was in this context that we begin to see romantic love—intense passion and devotion between two people, soul mates—being expressed, especially by the troubadours, the traveling rock stars of their day, who went from court to court singing about the beauty and pain of being “in love.”

Remember, in those days, most marriages were arranged—a contract between two families who benefited economically from the nuptials—and sanctioned by the church. This was especially true for the nobility. The idea of two people falling deeply and passionately in love and devoting their lives to one another, regardless of social status or family background hasn’t always been the norm, and, in many cultures, still isn’t. In the age of the troubadours, it was radical—if not subversive.

By the time of the Renaissance, we see more and more love poems referencing St. Valentine’s Day. Renaissance culture was also fascinated with ancient Greek and Roman mythology. This is when Cupid with his arrow and bows became a Valentine’s Day icon. In ancient Rome, Cupid represented passionate desire—what the Greeks called eros—an attraction you didn’t choose or control. Of course, in the Christian world, especially with medieval Catholicism, free-will and choice were emphasized. In the modern context, this association speaks to the duality and tension at the heart of the modern concept of love: do we really choose to love someone? Or is it a feeling that sweeps us up—something we’re powerless to resist? The best love songs are always, at least in part, about the pain that comes with being in love. Can you choose not to love someone?

What are you actually asking when you ask somebody to be your valentine?         

By the nineteenth century, the Victorian Age, the holiday starts to look more like what we have today. With faster communication and transportation, as well as factory technology, a man could buy a Valentine’s Day card and mail it along with boxes of candy and flowers. While the sentiments from the age of romance and courtly love have remained, commercialism and technology have made their celebration and expression much more elaborate. 

The modern understanding of the holiday truly begins in the late Middle Ages, though. The idea of chivalry and courtly love hint at the key concept which would come to define the modern Western world: individual freedom. The modern West is founded on personal political and economic rights. Valentine’s Day reminds us of another aspect of freedom, one that makes political and economic comfort worth having in the first place: finding someone special to share it with.

For Jenn

Advertisements

Zombocalypse Now!

Posted in Apocalypse, Enlightenment, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Morality, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, State of nature, Television, The Walking Dead, Uncategorized, Zombies with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by Uroboros

The Walking Dead as Dark Thought Experiment

Glimpse Behind the Apocalyptic Door

One thing I love about zombie stories—from Romero’s groundbreaking Dead   saga to AMC’s brilliant The Walking Dead—is how they flip the script of history and imagine an inverted world. It’s a dark thought experiment. Post-apocalypse, what would our lives be like? What kind of humans would we be under those circumstances?

Contemplating such extremes, I can’t help but wonder if I could survive at all, a curiosity which taps into my anxieties over the fact that, if I had to feed, shelter, and clothe myself, I’d be  screwed. Long ago, our culture off-loaded these life-skills to specialists and technological capabilities most of us take for granted     and are pretty clueless about. We’re alienated from our own livelihood. That’s why there’s a growing subculture in this country devoted to learning survival  skills and preparing for the social calamity so many see coming.

As a student of history, I can’t just dismiss this anxiety as pure paranoid fantasy. One of the properties all civilizations seem to share is their inability to overcome the law of entropy. Even the mighty Roman Empire fell. Dark ages do happen. So where do we get off assuming the modern West will be the one culture that bucks this trend?

While I graze the aisles of my beloved local supermarket, sipping my bottled water and pondering which shrink-wrapped package of factory farm beef to buy, I’m haunted by the notion that, if this easy access to sustenance were to vanish suddenly, I’d be hard-pressed to find an alternative source. After all, I’m not a hunter and gatherer. In the zombified state-of-mindlessness, in which I often find myself these days, it’s a struggle to remember to water the plants sometimes. After all, I’m not a farmer. I’m a consumer. I’m a debit card-swiper and button-pusher.

How in the world would I survive the end of the world?     

[Warning: Walking Dead spoiler alert]

Andrea vs. Dale

Zombie mythology raises an even deeper issue: would I even want to survive? The characters in The Walking Dead constantly wrestle with this core existential dilemma. Andrea’s nihilism in particular gets under my skin. You want to reach through the screen and slap her—you want to tell her that, yes, what happened to your sister is  tragic—you’re obviously entitled to your grief—but be glad you’re still alive and that someone like Dale, the post-apocalyptic Obi-Wan, is there for you. Your life matters, Andrea, because life itself still matters. I hope I’d be like Dale—optimistic, determined, not cynical and defeatist. But how do I know I wouldn’t feel like Andrea? After what she’s experienced, isn’t she entitled to her nihilism? What’s even more disturbing is, what if she’s right? Under those conditions, the right to check out—to call it a life—could be just as ethically-viable as making the effort to survive. If I decided to stockpile booze and pills and go out like Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, who’s to say that, under those circumstances, I’m ‘wrong.’ Live fast, die young, and leave a rotten liver for the Walkers to munch on.

Why not?  

The first half of Season Two has been particularly good at exploring the existential implications of a zombocalypse. But finding the will to go on is just the beginning of your troubles because, even if your will to live survives intact, the anxiety just switches from ‘Do I want to live?’ to an even harder question: ‘How do I want to live?’

I tell myself I wouldn’t become like Shane, whose cold pragmatism has grown more brutal and vicious as Season Two has progressed. Watching his transformation from wily, but redeemable trickster to a truly duplicitous, anti-heroic killer has been the creepiest thing about this season, punctuated with startling irony and tragic pathos in the climax of Episode Seven.

But what really disturbed me about the ending was who wound up resolving it. When Rick pulled the trigger, his intentions seemed so ambiguous. Was he doing “the right thing” by putting Sophia and, by extension, the rest of the gang out of their misery? Or was he really just reasserting his authority over the tribe after Shane’s over-the-top attempt at a coup de ta? Are the two intentions so conflated in his mind they could never be pried apart and judged?

Shane vs. Rick

Looking towards the future, will Rick have to become like Shane in order to keep him in line? One thing’s for sure, they can’t go back to the relatively stable and orderly life the farm has provided. No doubt, after what happened at the barn, Rick would have to adopt a Shane-like mentality in order to keep the gang there. At any rate, his attempts to persuade Herschel and entertain his zombies-are-people-too ethic are all moot now. Unless Herschel has a mental breakdown or a radical change of conscience, Rick and company have certainly worn out their welcome in this pastoral paradise. So what are they going to do? Again, for Rick, it’s not a question of ‘Do I want to live?’ but ‘How do I want to live?’—a conflict made all the more poignant when you consider that his wife is pregnant. Now we’re left to wonder if, by stepping up and pulling the trigger, he hasn’t compromised some core element of his morality.

What is Rick willing and prepared to do now?       

Some fans have complained about the pacing and melodrama of the farm episodes, but I think the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down and developing the characters and the thematic implications of their struggles. The last few episodes have focused more on tweaking the character arcs in order to enhance the terror lurking around the corner and in the woods. It’s a refreshing change from the hyperactivity you get with True Blood and American Horror Story, two series which flow like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation. 

The Walking Dead knows how to spread out the story and alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite, and the monster isn’t always a zombie, either. This kind of structure and pacing not only builds the dread, but it lets the viewer contemplate the dark thought experiment, too. In short, in the midst of the suspense, The Walking Dead gives its viewers the time and space to think about the truly terrifying aspects of the scenario and care about the implications because we’re invested in the characters and understand the stakes.

This approach lets us wonder about the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives, as well, the desires that get us out of bed in the morning, the fears that won’t let us sleep at night. If the script of history does flip, would you want to throw away the old morality? To hell with having to be altruistic, especially to strangers or people who can’t help you survive. To hell with reasoning and debating ‘the right thing to do.’ It’s shotgun politics. The one with the biggest gun and the most ammo makes the rules—pure might over right.

Seen in this light, zombie fiction is a pop cultural version of Enlightenment philosophers’ state-of-nature theories. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, three highly influential thinkers, imagined a prehistoric past to justify modern ethics and politics. In doing so, they helped articulate the West’s new vision of human nature—the rational individual with unalienable rights—and argued for the proper political structure in which said individual should live. Their theories helped inspire the American and French Revolutions, reshaping the modern world. Conversely, a zombie state-of-nature story allows us—not to retroject like an Enlightenment philosopher—but to project visions of human nature, politics, and ethics onto the great hypothetical that’s haunting us all these days: what if the world founded on Enlightenment principles falls apart, and we’re back to square one?

Rick’s Existential and Moral Dilemmas

In a world where life is brutish, nasty, and short, who would you be like? Rick and Dale or Andrea and Shane? Not only does The Walking Dead’s spin on the zombocalypse pose this query, it prompts an even more pointed and immediate question: what kind of person are you now? What’s your character like, morally speaking, under your current existential circumstances? Are we fulfilling our individual potential as human beings and living up to our social duties? Would it take a zombocalypse to find out who we really are and what we truly value? Maybe if we confronted these issues in the here and now, we could  redirect or squelch the very forces which make the End of Days look so inevitable sometimes.

We’re the Monsters, Man. We’re the Living Dead.

Posted in Apocalypse, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Hubert Dreyfus, Metaphor, Monsters, Morality, Myth, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, State of nature, Television, The Walking Dead, True Blood, Twilight, Uncategorized, Vampires, Zombies with tags , , on February 11, 2012 by Uroboros

You can tell a lot about a culture by the kind of monsters it craves. John Landis, director of the classic American Werewolf in London and author of Monsters in the Movies, reminds us that monsters are always metaphors—symbols of disturbing feelings buried deep inside of us. Wikipedia says monsters are also warnings—that’s the Latin root of the word, actually—a sign that something’s gone horribly wrong.  Chaos personified.

Monster are metaphors?

So, if monsters are metaphors, what do zombies represent? By considering their image, what can we glimpse and glean about ourselves? For one, the current zombie craze taps into the apocalyptic fever—this entropic vibe—which is gripping the collective conscious now more than ever. After all, it’s 2012. Time to start thinking hard about the End of Days, and zombies are a perfect means to that end.

The zombie evokes existential and moral questions, and The Walking Dead milks the symbolic potential for all it’s worth. It’s a commentary on the issue of human nature itself: Who are we as a species? Is there even such a thing as ‘human nature,’ if so what is it? Do we have core needs and unique abilities which define us, or are we socially-conditioned creatures who can evolve into just about anything? Could we turn into creatures which would be unrecognizable to us now, something inhuman, something monstrous? What if this transformation has already begun? 

 

The Zombie Herd

Watching The Walking Dead, I often wonder if I’m not already morphing into a zombie. When I saw the roaming herd of Walkers in the Season Two opener, I was struck by a question I haven’t been able to shake: Is the zombie-virus already here, slowly, invisibly creeping in and changing us? I’m not just talking about the kind of mindless consumerism that Romero satirized in the 70s with Dawn of the Dead. I mean the state-of-mindlessness I often find myself in these days and the inner battle against personal zombification. I’m talking about the zoned-out, autopilot existence—about simply going through the day-to-day motions, being little more than a creature of habit, a robot of routine.

Sometimes, while driving, I suddenly find myself unable to consciously recall having driven the last few miles. I was off in La-la land, daydreaming and worrying while my body was steered, changed gears, accelerated and braked. Have you ever caught yourself gazing into the fridge, wondering what you’re looking for—why you opened the fridge in the first place? Isn’t this state-of-mindlessness sort of what it’s like to be a zombie? That plus the pale, decaying complexion and a taste for human flesh, of course. Sometimes I hear myself and others spouting off platitudes and bullet-point truisms—spinning worn-out, jukebox references and anecdotes laced with ubiquitous terms like ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ and ‘really?’—I hear the noise that passes for conversation and think: We are the Talking Dead.

Zombificiation is not a psychological mood one can easily fight against or simply dismiss, either. In fact, as philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus have pointed out, there is value and purpose in being able to zone out. After all, athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, etc are all better at what they do when they’re in ‘The Zone.’ Dreyfus interprets the great poet Homer himself as saying that humans are actually at their best when they’re in the zone—when the self-conscious, hyper-aware mind shuts down and we’re moved by the muses. I take Dreyfus’ point, but there’s still something creepy about letting the mind go offline and just going with the flow. The beauty and danger of going with the flow is you don’t always know where the flow might take you. In this day and age, can one afford to do what Homer waxed poetic about in 700 BC?  

We have all of this state-of-the-art communication technology at our disposal, and we’re already so immersed in the flow of information we take it for granted, like water to a fish. We now have instant, global access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom, and we’d rather double-check our Facebook wall or click on OMG! How often does the flow go to places designed to make you zone out? In short, the smarter my phone gets, the dumber I feel—iPhone smart, iMe dumberer.

Who’s the real Droid?

Modern science tells us there’s a rational explanation for everything. Love and fear are just neurochemical cocktails, products of an organic machine—you know, the same one that can drive a car with little input from the iMe—a mechanism with interchangeable parts that’s adjustable through medication. Sometimes it seems like there’s no more mystery, no more true romance or adventure. So we make up or hype things to distract ourselves—we seek out celebrity exhibitionism and political histrionics; we ponder alien conspiracy theories and the plausibility of ghost-hunting. Perhaps the advent and enduring popularity of reality-TV is the canary in the coal mine. What does it say about a culture when, instead of wanting to watch fake people having realistic experiences, it starts to prefer ‘real’ people having fake experiences?

Is it that—somewhere in our collective unconscious—we’ve already marked a subtle existential shift, a barely-perceptible but palpable transition into a fake, fabricated existence unworthy of our humanity? Does the apocalyptic fever embodied in the zombietype represent a secret collective desire? Pardon the Freudianisms, but one could argue that the viral zombie craze and apocalypticism circulating in our culture is a sublimated version of a dark, unspoken wish that this deadening, diseased world will end soon. Could it be that many of us actually hope we’ll wake up one terrifying morning to see the world in utter chaos and rapturous ruin, so that, for the first time, we’ll get a chance to find out what it’s really like to be alive? You can’t drift around like a zombie in a world where there are actual zombies and hope to survive. What if  a ‘zombocalypse’ can show us who we truly are—what human beings are actually made of?

A show like The Walking Dead lets us vicariously fulfill this wish—lets us enter a world where what we crave and slave for now—a higher rung on the corporate ladder, the right house, the impressive car, the self-expressive clothes and accessories, the latest technological do-dads—all that stuff is suddenly rendered less valuable—if not totally worthless—and certainly less meaningful. 

If we are what we consume and what we consume becomes pointless then don’t we become pointless, too? If monsters are metaphors, then, perhaps zombies are symbolic warnings of not only how fragile and tenuous our world is, but also just how much of its true value and potential we take for granted, especially when we become mindless creatures of habit.

The Science of Myth and the Myth of Science

Posted in anxiety, archetypes, barriers to critical thinking, Brain Science, collective unconscious, Consciousness, Creationism, critical thinking, emotion, God, History, humanities, irrational, Jung, Knowledge, limbic system, Maori, Myth, Mythology, Neurology, paranoia, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, Rationalization, rationalizing animal, reason, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, Science, social psychology, terror, Terror Management Theory, theory, theory of mind, Uroboros, V.S. Ramachandran, William James with tags on February 3, 2012 by Uroboros

Years ago in a mythology course I taught, a student once came up to me after class with an annoyed look. We’d just covered the Maori creation myth, and something about it had gotten under his skin. According to the myth, father sky, Rangi, and mother earth, Papa, formed out of primordial chaos and tangled in a tight, erotic embrace. Their offspring decided to pry Rangi and Papa apart in order to escape and live on their own. With his ax, Tane, the forest god, finally separated Father Sky and Mother Earth, and in that space, life grew and flourished.

The broad strokes of this creation myth aren’t unique. Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Norse stories (just to name a few) relate life’s origins to the separation of giant primordial parents.

“How could people believe that?” the student asked, shaking his head. It wasn’t his perturbed incredulity that struck me. Often, students initially find stories from ancient cultures to be, well, weird. It was his condescension. For him, ‘myth’ meant not just ‘false,’ but ‘silly.’ In his defense, it’s what it means for most of us. When we want to sneer at strange, fantastical beliefs, we call them ‘myths.’

The term is synonymous with ‘false.’

‘Myth’ originally meant the exact opposite, though. The Ancient Greek root of mythos referred to life’s deepest truths, something discussed and contemplated with a sense of awe and reverence, not incredulity and disdain. Seen in this light, myths are the stories humans tell in order to explain the unknown and make sense of the world. My thesis is that humans are essentially myth-making creatures and will continue to be so—no matter how scientific our stories get.

Scowls form on some students’ faces when they hear a professor say that science is, on a certain level, still mythological. Scientists are still storytellers, though, trying to turn the unknown into the known. Ancient and modern storytellers have different ways of approaching the unknown—different notions about what counts as a valid explanation.

Today, people (tend to) prefer creation stories that fit the scientific paradigm that’s proved so successful in explaining and predicting natural phenomena. But in dismissing past explanations, we overlook some interesting similarities. Ancient and modern stories share what psychologist Carl Jung called archetypal patterns. Jung theorized that humans share underlying patterns of thought because we all inherit the same neurological equipment. The anatomical differences between an ancient human brain and, say, Darwin’s brain are negligible. Setting the obvious differences between the Maori story and Darwin’s theory aside for just a moment, there are archetypal similarities between these accounts.

Darwinism says life began in a kind of primordial soup where, over time, inorganic molecules organized into the first living cell, and then single-celled organisms eventually separated into multicellular organisms, and from that, thanks to genetic mutation and the pressure of natural selection, lifeforms diversified and flourished. The Big Bang has this underlying pattern too: a ‘primordial atom,’ containing all matter, exploded and separated into the cosmic forms we see today.

I think the key difference between ancient and modern creation stories is in the tendency to personify nature, or the lack there of. The modern scientific method tries remove the subjective factor from the equation. Once we stopped projecting our emotions upon ‘Mother Nature,’ we started telling different stories about how ‘she’ works.

Now scientists are investigating how myth-making itself works. Neurologists and evolutionary psychologists are exploring the biological basis of our ability to mythologize and the possible adaptive purposes informing our storytelling instinct. Let’s start by getting hypothetical and do a little ‘state of nature’ thought experiment. Imagine a prehistoric hunter startled by booming thunder. Now we know the meteorological explanation, but he doesn’t. He experiences what thunder feels like to him: anger. But who is angry?

The problem is addressed by the limbic system, the subcortical brain structure that initially processes emotion and memory. Potential dangers must be understood or anxiety will overwhelm the mind, rendering the hunter less able to cope and survive. The amygdala, the brain’s watchdog, primes the body for action—for fight or flight—while the hippocampus tries to associate feelings with memories in order to focus and better define both the stimuli and the appropriate response. This process is entirely unconscious—faster than the speed of consciousness.

The hippocampus recalls an experience of anger, perhaps one involving the hunter’s own father, and then the cerebral cortex, home of our higher cognitive capacities, gets involved. Somewhere in our cortical circuitry, probably in the angular gyrus, where neuroscientist VS Ramachandran says our metaphoric functions reside, storm images are cross-wired with paternal images. A myth is born: sky is father, earth is mother, and the cause-effect logic of storytelling in the brain’s left-hemisphere embellishes until the amygdala eases up, and the anxiety is relatively alleviated. At least the dread becomes more manageable. In neurochemical terms, the adrenaline and cortisol rush are balanced off and contained by dopamine, the calming effect of apparent knowledge, the pleasure of grasping what was once unknown.

From then on, thunder and lightning will be a little less terrifying. Now there is a story to help make sense of it. Storms are a sign of Father Sky’s anger. What do we do? We try to appease this force–to make amends. We honor the deity by singing and dancing. We sacrifice. Now we have myths and rituals. In short, we have a religion.

That’s why so many prehistoric people, who had no contact with one another, came to believe in primordial giants, and we are still not that far removed from this impulse. For example, why do we still name hurricanes? Sometimes, it’s just easier for us to handle nature if we make it a little more human. As neurologists point out, we are hardwired to pick up on patterns in the environment and attribute human-like qualities and intentions to them. Philosophers and psychologists call this penchant for projecting anthropomorphic agency a theory of mind. English teachers call it personification, an imaginative, poetic skill.

This is why dismissive, condescending attitudes toward myth-making frustrate me. The metaphoric-mythic instinct has been, and still is, a tremendous boon to our own self-understanding, without which science, as we know it, probably wouldn’t have evolved. I came to this conclusion while pondering a profound historical fact: no culture in human history ever made the intellectual leap to objective theories first. Human beings start to know the unknown by projecting what they’re already familiar with onto it.

It’s an a priori instinct. We can’t help it.

Modern science helps make us more conscious of this tendency. The scientific method gives us a way of testing our imaginative leaps—our deeply held intuitions about how the world works—so we can come up with more reliable and practical explanations. The mythological method, in turn, reminds us to be critical of any theory which claims to have achieved pure, unassailable objectivity—to have removed, once and for all, the tendency to unconsciously impose our own assumptions and biases on the interpretation of facts. The ability to do that is just as much a myth as the ‘myths’ such claims supposedly debunk. I’ll paraphrase William James here: The truth is always more complex and complicated than the theories which aim to capture it. Just study the history of modern science—the evolution of theories and paradigms over the last 350 years especially—to see evidence for the asymmetrical relationship between beliefs, justifications, and the ever-elusive Truth.

Laid-back, self-aware scientists have no problem admitting the limitations built into the empirical method itself: Scientific conclusions are implicitly provisional. A theory is true for now. The beauty and power of science hinges upon this point—the self-correcting mechanism, the openness to other possibilities. Otherwise, it’s no longer the scientific method at work. It’s politicized dogma peddling. It’s blind mythologizing.

The recent research into the neurology and psychology of myth-making is fascinating. It enhances our understanding of what a myth is: a story imbued with such emotional power and resonance that how it actually lines up with reality is often an afterthought. But what’s equally fascinating to me, is the mythologizing which still informs our science-making.

I think it’s, of course, dangerous to believe blindly in myths, to accredit stories without testing them against experience and empirical evidence. I also believe it’s dangerous to behold scientific theories as somehow above and beyond the mythological instinct. Like the interconnected swirl of the yin-yang, science and myth need each other, and that relationship should be as balanced and transparent as possible.

Uroboros. A universal symbol of balance and immortality.

Uroboros. A universal symbol of balance and immortality.

%d bloggers like this: