Archive for March, 2012

What is a Dystopia?

Posted in Dystopia, Entertainment, Film, Literature, Movies, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 31, 2012 by Uroboros

The Hunger Games phenomenon has people discussing a funky word, dystopia. Filmspotting.com put together a Top Five Dystopian Movies list recently. Their definition allowed 28 Days Later and The Road Warriorto be considered, though.

Dystopias: disorderly or over-orderly?

What? I cry foul. A post-apocalyptic movie isn’t, by definition, dystopian is it?My wife and I have been discussing the defining properties, and I think that being set in a disorderly world doesn’t make a story dystopian.

First it has to be the opposite of ‘utopia’ (which literally means ‘no place’), right? I take a utopia to be a vision of social order that allows human nature to flourish and achieve its full potential. From Plato’s Republic to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (he coined the word), the point is to imagine a world of perfect justice and virtue and then speculate about the kinds of laws and institutions which would bring them out.

A dystopia, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from a lack of order, but an overabundance of it. In other words, dystopias imagine a world where laws and institutions bring out the worst of human nature, or snuff it out altogether.

That’s why The Hunger Games, Equlibrium, V for Vendetta, The Matrix, Blade Runner…all the way back to A Clockwork Orange and even further back to Metropolis–these are all dystopias, and 28 Days Later, Terminator, The Road Warrior, etc. are not.

What do you think? Is this a functional definition? A distinction that matters? What’s your list?

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Jules Finds God. Vincent Gets Got.

Posted in Christianity, Entertainment, Existentialism, Film, Filmspotting, Hubert Dreyfus, Kiekegaard, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, Uncategorized, William James with tags , , , , on March 20, 2012 by Uroboros

Pulp Fiction’s Themes Re-visited

If I had a dime for every time I’ve debated the meaning of that damn briefcase in Pulp Fiction I could buy a round of milkshakes from Jack Rabbit Slim’s.  It’s the mark of a film’s greatness that 18 years later people  are still talking about it. My favorite filmgeek podcast, Filmspotting, recently explored Pulp Fiction’s legacy and re-visited it’s deeper meanings (or lack there of).

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading All Things Shining by philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelley which briefly touches on the existential themes in Pulp Fiction, too. So, film/philosophy geek that I am, I had to revisit Tarantino’s masterpiece in search of deeper meanings. Every frame of that film is bursting with style, but, as Adam and Josh from Filmspotting ask, does Pulp have any substance? Is there any ‘there’ there?

Dreyfus and Kelley argue there is. They call the ‘hand cannon’ scene a contemporary version of an ‘Odysseus event,’ an incredible experience which forces you to feel either extraordinarily lucky or grateful to a higher power. In Homer’s Odyssey, when a barrage of spearheads miss the mark and Odysseus escapes, he thinks it’s because Athena is looking out for him. When the Jerry-Seinfeld-looking dude charges out of bathroom and unloads point blank on Jules and Vincent, they have irreconcilable interpretations as to what the inexplicably errant shots mean. Take a look: http://youtu.be/anhdphUxNVo

Vincent says they were lucky. Jules says it was divine intervention.

As Dreyfus and Kelly point out, Jules and Odysseus both felt a power outside of themselves had gotten involved. Vincent, of course, doesn’t accept the metaphysics. He’s a Han Solo-style skeptical realist: higher powers don’t exist, and the fact that they’re still alive is a fluke. Nobody’s ‘up there’ pulling the strings.

One event. Two different experiences.

This moment mirrors the modern existential concern with subjective freedom, choices, and responsibility. Jules suddenly sees the world in a new light. He decides to leave the business and walk the earth—an inner transformation evident in the new meaning he finds in his (largely made-up) Ezekiel quote. What was once just some cold-blooded shit to say before he popped a cap becomes a formula for how to see himself and his place in the world. He’s finally connected with the spirit of what he’s been saying and now wants to lead a more authentic life. Vincent, on the other hand, rejects the religious interpretation, scoffs at Jules’ plan, and tries to change the subject.

Take a look: http://youtu.be/YujYTVQ4_S0

The debate ends when Vincent goes to the bathroom and the robbery goes down. Afterward, when Jules and Vincent leave the diner, there’s a sense of accomplishment and finality. The two men exit, the movie ends, and we’re left to wonder if Jules will actually retire and pursue his new path. Thanks to the non-linear structure, though, we know what happens to Vincent at least. Accidentally shooting Marvin in the face and the close call with Mia fail to make an impression. It’s almost comical how Vincent refuses to be spooked by all his ‘bad luck.’ The only thing he really agonizes over is whether to have sex with Mia or not, a debate that happens while he’s in the bathroom and not outside preventing Mia from snorting the heroin. Turns out, Vincent is pretty dense. His fate, of course, is to be gunned down by Butch after…emerging from the bathroom.

Coincidence? Is somebody trying to tell us something? Is there a ‘there’ there?

The scenario prompts some intriguing questions: Is the hyper-stylish Pulp Fiction—a brutal, often sadistic film about the apparent morality of immoral men—actually a deeply spiritual story? Is Vincent’s fate a subtle critique of the agnostic/atheist worldview? Setting metaphysical issues aside, is Taratino rewarding Jules’ existential openness while punishing Vincent for his close-mindedness? It’s almost as if Tarantino is daring me to call Pulp Fiction a religious movie.

After all, if we had absolute insight into how the cosmos works, then there would be no room for faith, and we wouldn’t really be free. The choices that matter—the ones which define our identity and imbue our days with meaning—are always made from behind a veil of uncertainty. There’s an inexorable element of risk. Otherwise, we’d just be taking marching orders. We’d be drones. The miracle/fluke dichotomy dramatizes the rare opportunities life offers: the chance to reassess who we are, take a long, hard look in the mirror, and ask, ‘Is something up there sending me a message? Is it time to consider another path?’ That’s the question Vincent should’ve asked himself. Jules asks these questions and gets a clear response.

One event. Two experiences. Two divergent paths.

Of course, you could also say that if Jules hadn’t walked away, he would’ve had Vincent’s back and Butch wouldn’t have killed him. Again, Tarantino leaves it open to interpretation because life itself is an open text, and we have to connect the dots. We may never see the big picture, but we can learn a lot about ourselves from the connections we try to make.

It’s Okay to Kill Zombies ‘Cause They Don’t Have Any Feelings.

Posted in Brain Science, Christianity, David Chalmers, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Metaphysics, Morality, Neurology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, The Walking Dead, Zombies with tags , , on March 10, 2012 by Uroboros

You’re sprinting and stumbling through a thick, dark forest. Gun cocked, finger on the trigger. You’re fleeing a zombie horde. You want to survive. They want to eat you. You trip on a rotten limb, tumbling to the ground. Looking up, you’re face-to-face with a zombie. It can’t move, though. A broken leg, severed arm. It’s basically a piece of animated flesh, writhing madly, but not a true threat. You can skirt by it, no problem. What do you do? 

Season Two of The Walking Dead has brought the zombicide issue to the fore. Is it ever wrong to kill zombies? On a practical, survival level, of course, the answer seems morally unambiguous: If a Walker is after you, self-defense necessitates doing what you have to do. 

Self-defense notwithstanding, let’s explore how the characters in TWD view what they’re doing. What’s their ethical stance? As in all zombie fiction, the dominant position is the kill’em all approach: the living dead aren’t people, which excuses or dismisses any moral qualms one may have about pumping a few shotgun rounds into the side of a Walker’s head. But TWD is too thoughtful a series to let this issue go unexamined. 

The existential and moral status of zombies themselves, which has lurked in the background of the series since Season One, moved front and center as we reached the climax of the middle of this season—brought to a head by Herschel, patriarch of the farm. As you’ll recall, Herschel doesn’t share the kill ’em all approach that Rick and company had pretty much taken for granted—and who could blame them? After what happened at their camp and in Atlanta, there’s been little time and reason to contemplate the possible personhood of the herds of Walkers chomping at the bit to kill them.

But, since farm life has slowed things down and afforded the time to think, the issue has slowly but surely lumbered and lunged out into the open. It was just one of the crises interwoven into the drama, but, by Episode Seven, the status of zombies became the key issue, the breaking point in the tension between the main characters and their hosts.

Rick and Herschel's Moral Debate

If you were like me, you couldn’t believe what Herschel was hiding was in the barn. At first, I was with the rest of the gang who thought he was either delusional or up to something sinister. It’s easy to react like Shane and dismiss Herschel’s view. A Walker is a Walker, and the only good Walker is a dead Walker. When Rick confronted him, however, the conviction in Herschel’s reasoning and ethical stance was interesting. From his perspective, a zombie is just a sick human being. What if zombiehood could be cured? What if someone comes up with a serum or antidote to the disease or whatever the TWD mythology eventually puts forth as the cause of the zombocalypse? Behind the evil eyes and pale, rotten skin, Herschel sees a human being waiting to be saved. If that’s your philosophy, then killing a zombie when you don’t have to is murder.    ‘Personhood’ is a tougher thing to verify than you might think. We all walk around assuming the people around us have a subjective awareness of the world—have feelings and memories and intelligence, the ability both to make decisions and be held responsible for them. This assumption frames one’s experience of reality. You can criticize or condemn your fellow human beings for their improprieties—but you don’t feel the same way towards your car or laptop if it let’s you down. You may, for a second or two, get angry at the laptop for freezing up—might even smack it a few times—but that’s just an instinctual projection of your own emotions. If you actually think your laptop is trying to undermine you, then I’ll post a link for the psychiatrist you need to consult.

It’s okay to hit computers because they don’t have any feelings (yet). But how do you know other people have feelings? Sure, they appear to—they have the body language and can speak about intentions and inner states—but that, too, could be just an appearance. After all, that’s just behavior. It could be a simulation of consciousness, a simulacrum of selfhood. You can’t get ‘inside’ somebody’s head and experience the world from their point of view. We don’t have Being John Malkovich portals into the subjectivity of others (yet). Philosophically and scientifically speaking, the only state of consciousness you can be sure of is your own.  

Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, pointed this out in the 17th century, and it’s been a tantalizing issue ever since. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum—I  think, therefore I am—he was trying to establish a rock solid foundation for philosophy and science, but leave it to a Frenchman to lay an intellectual foundation in quicksand and produce the opposite of what he intended. The problem with cogito is that—unless you assume the same things Descartes did about God, language, and math—you can’t really be sure about the existence of other cogitos or even the world outside your own head. What one experiences could be like a dream or a fake reality conjured up by a Matrix-style evil genius. ‘I think, therefore I am’ opens up a Pandora’s jar of radical skepticism and solipsism.

So how do you know that other people are conscious like you and not ‘philosophical zombies,’ i.e. beings which behave like they’re conscious but are in fact only organic  machines without actual intelligence and free-will. Contemporary philosopher of mind David Chalmers has made a career of pointing out the deep quirk—the so-called ‘hard problem’—embedded in the modern concept of personhood. Scientifically-speaking, we can only observe and measure objective phenomena. So, what is ‘mind’ to a neurologist? It’s the product of brain states—it’s located in the synaptic mesh of neurons and electrochemical flow of hormones which happens inside the skull, a purely physical thing which can be observed with an fMRI machine.

This theory was dramatized in Episode Six of Season One by Dr. Jenner at the CDC facility. When he shows Grimes and the gang an actual transformation from human to Walker using (what looks like) an fMRI, Dr. Jenner claims the brain images represent all that one is—the sum total of your memories and dreams, the hopes and fears which define you as a person—and the death of the brain is the irrevocable end of that identity. What is revived through zombification  is not that person—it’s not even human. In other words, you are your brain. Brain dead equals you dead. The zombie that emerges may resemble you in some way—it may move its eyes and limbs as if  it’s a being with some kind of conscious intentions—but it’s not. At least, that’s Dr. Jenner’s theory, and, up until we meet Herschel, nobody on the show seems to disagree or question it.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay on the issue called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” which argued we shouldn’t reduce mindfulness to purely physical, objective descriptions because such descriptions, by definition, leave out the very thing we’re trying to understand, namely, what is it like to be that being, what it is like to have that mind. We’re right back in Descartes’ quicksand. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics notwithstanding, we seem to be able to explain everything in nature, at least in principle, in physical, materialist terms, except for the very thing we’re using to explain everything else in nature, i.e. our own minds.

These days the debate has become divisive, even ideological. Which side are you on? Are you a materialist—do you believe the mind is either caused by brain states or so closely correlated to them as to be functionally indistinguishable—or are you still haunted by Descartes’ cogito and believe the mind is not just an illusory ghost in the machine? Do you believe there’s something irreducible to the self, maybe even soulful or spiritual? If you do, you’d be labeled a dualist, which, in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a euphemism for superstitious.                         

I think Herschel’s theory offers another way of approaching the problem, one that sidesteps the Cartesian quicksand. After all Herschel’s not interested in proving scientificallythat he’s right about zombiehood. For him, it’s a given: the creatures corralled in the barn aren’t soulless ghouls who can be exterminated with impunity. They’re family members and neighbors who happen to be sick and might someday be cured. He can’t kill them. What’s intriguing about his approach is how it bypasses the metaphysical problem in favor of the ethical question. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that zombies aren’t conscious—devoid of some sliver of humanity swirling around inside their skulls—then isn’t Herschel’s theory a more appropriate moral response, a more humane approach?

Zombies on leashes?

If a zombie attacks, and you can subdue it with out scattering its brains across the grass, then why not leash it and put it in the barn like Herschel did? It’s an ethically-complex question with implications that go beyond the do’s and dont’s of zombocalypse survival. It answers the question of consciousness and selfhood not by getting bogged down in the metaphysical quicksand, but by recognizing the ambiguous metaphysics and essentially saying, until you neurologists and philosophers get a better grip on the issue, we’re going to treat the zombie-other as if it’s a conscious being deserving of humane and dignified treatment. The show roots Herschel’s ethics in his religious beliefs, his faith. Agnostic or atheist viewers might find this a facile cop out, more a symptom of intellectual weakness than a sign of moral integrity. But I don’t think Herschel’s ethics should be dismissed as merely the product of old-timey superstitions. In a situation where there isn’t absolute certainty—where empirical observation and rational explanations can give you two valid, but logically irreconcilable descriptions—isn’t some kind of faith necessary? The zombie dilemma on The Walking Dead echoes the actual debate going on in neurology and philosophy of mind and reminds me of the lines from Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? about truth and illusion. We don’t know the difference…but we must carry on as though we did. Amen.

Herschel has decided to carry on as though the zombies are persons who deserve to be treated with some degree of dignity. His faith justifies his moral stance; it’s an act of religious compassion. Even if zombies seem like enemies, he must love them. If they terrify and enrage him, he must pull the beam from his own eye, judge not, and learn to care for his zombie brothers and sisters—in a way which doesn’t threaten the lives of his non-zombie kin, of course. Hence the leashes and barn accommodations. It may not be room and board at a cozy bed and breakfast, but it’s certainly more humane than Shane’s handgun or one of Darryl’s arrows.

There is something to a Sermon on the Mount ethical approach to such quandaries. If we can’t know with scientific certainty the objective nature of consciousness, we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions and endorse policies, especially violent ones, which depend on assumptions about subjectivity, or the lack there of. The greatest atrocities in history all begin with  dehumanizing the other—by drawing a line between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Religious beliefs always cut both ways—sometimes they reinforce that line—they sharpen the blade—and sometimes they undermine it by redefining and expanding the definition of what counts as a human being—of who deserves to be treated with respect.

I mean, what Jesus would do to a zombie? Wait, didn’t Jesus become a zombie? (Sorry, couldn’t resist;)

That matters is how you treat the other, the stranger. I think it’s no accident that Herschel is a veterinarian and not a ‘human ‘doctor, which would’ve served his initial plot function—saving  Carl—just as well, if not better. As a vet, Herschel has to care about the pain and suffering of creatures whose states of mind he can’t know or prove. He  has to carry on just the same. What matters most is not trying to test and determine the degree to which a creature is conscious and then scaling your moral obligations in proportion to that measurement—after all, such a measurement may be in principle impossible—what matters is how you treat others in the absence of such evidence. In short, it depends on a kind of faith, a default assumption which necessitates hospitality, not hostility. In an uncertain world, it’s the right thing to do—not only what Jesus might do, but a logically-consistent, rationally-valid thing to do.

The implications are profound. The perspective we adopt, the stance we assume, defines how we relate to animals and the planet as a whole—to other human beings and ultimately oneself.

Of course, by Episode Eight, Herschel backs away from his radical ethical stance. In a state of despair, he regrets putting them in the barn—says it was his way of avoiding the grief over losing his wife. Maybe so. But something tells me that’s just the despair talking. Whether Herschel returns to his old perspective or embraces a kill ’em all approach, I don’t think the issue itself is dead and buried.

My hope is that it will be raised again, and it’ll have something to do with what Dr. Jenner whispered to Rick at the end of Season One. After all the suicidal doctor told Rick that all the survivors are carrying a latent form of the zombie virus. Maybe they’ll meet another scientist down the road who can cure the plague. If this scenario or something like it plays out, then the show will have to confront the zombies-are-people-too versus kill ’em all question again.        

Martin Scorsese and the Trauma Machine

Posted in Dreams, Entertainment, Film, filmmaking, Hugo, Martin Scorsese, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, psychoanalysis, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 2, 2012 by Uroboros

Besides being an exceptional bit of cinematic wizardry, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a real rarity in terms of the spin it puts on its themes. Many modern stories cast a wary eye on technological innovation. Sci-fi novels and films, especially, tend to find humanity’s knack for creating gadgets  and mechanisms to be dehumanizing, if not downright self-destructive. The Terminator and Matrix franchises, for example, paint gloomy pictures about the fate of our reliance on machines. Hugo, however, not only celebrates humanity’s technological prowess but actually argues that, far from dehumanizing us, the gadgets we invent can help us fulfill our potential as human beings.

Hugo Cabaret is the orphaned son of a clockmaker who secretively maintains the clocks at a train station while feverishly trying to fix the automaton his late father salvaged from a museum. The child believes the automaton, which is designed to write, will pen a message from his late father, something which will help Hugo understand his purpose in life. The wish is, of course, fantastical, the product of a child’s vivid imagination, pure make-believe. As unrealistic as it is, though, this dream fuels Hugo, intertwining his destiny with that of the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies. In the film, both Hugo and Melies are deeply-wounded and broken creatures, who, through the power of technology, are healed, achieving a wholeness which restores a sense of purpose to their desperate lives. The revitalizing technology, of course, is the film camera.

The Automaton

Scorsese revels in the power of cinematic storytelling, championing it as a perfect medium for human beings to express and articulate their dreams. Hugo‘s underlying argument is psychoanalytic. As Freud and Jung theorized, when we dream, whether at night or during the day, we’re experiencing symbolic, coded messages from our own unconscious, a personal repository of repressed fears and unfulfilled wishes for Freud, a collective reservoir of human potential for Jung. In the film, Melies waxes rhapsodic about filmmaking as the stuff of dreams, a means for transforming personal visions into the focal point of collective experience. This is the magical force latent in the film camera, the celluloid balm projected onto the silver screen. Scorsese is unabashed in celebrating the potential therapeutic value inherent in a technology he’s dedicated his life to mastering. The revered auteur was a lonely boy, too, with a vivid imagination and passionate dreams. As a sickly child, he spent many afternoons watching the world from his bedroom window conjuring up personal versions of the stories he experienced at the movie theater down the block. If you’re a fan of his work—of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, etc—then you’ll recognize Hugo as both his most un-Scorsese-like film and his most deeply-personal.

It’s no surprise he revisited Melies’ story, either. Melies didn’t invent filmmaking. The technology had been around for a while. Melies’ great insight was in imagining how movies could be more than mere novelty—more than dropping a nickle into a machine in order to get a spectacular but fleeting thrill. Melies grasped film’s potential for turning the unconscious inside out; when he looked at a camera, he saw a dream machine. If you automatically associate filmmaking with storytelling, then you’re seeing the medium as Melies envisioned it. Through Hugo’s quest, Scorsese offers the audience a wonderfully-mythologized account of the early evolution of film, rendered in lavish light and colors, set in intricately-detailed locales, and framed in eye-popping and content-appropriate 3-D (as opposed to how 3-D tech is used in most films these days, a money-making gimmick tantamount to the Nickelodeonapproach of pre-Melies cinema, i.e. titillating thrills as fleeting and disposable as the plastic glass through which they’re viewed.) Here, technology not only serves Scorsese’s story. It is the story. The narrative focuses on people who are either driven or haunted by dreams, the sting of unfulfilled passions. This duality is captured by the German term for dreaming itself, traumen, which, of course, suggests ‘trauma.’ In other words, dreams are a kind of wound, the expression of something within that needs to be healed. We suffer dreams in the sense of ‘undergoing’ them; they’re spontaneous passions which move us through pain toward pleasure; they’re a renewable energy source for the pursuit of happiness. Hugo reminds us that, far from hindering this pursuit, the technologies we generate along the way can help us achieve our ends.  Machines can actually make us more human.

It’s a strange, unique message. Modern culture’s anxiety about rapid technological progress has grown increasingly gloomy, if not apocalyptic, over the last several decades. As a culture, we do need to tell and retell the Frankensteinian stories about technology run amok. We need to consider the destructive and dehumanizing impact our scientific breakthroughs can have. But, watching Hugo, I was reminded that Frankenstein isn’t the whole story. Hugo envisions another kind of image in the ink blot, one where the automaton’s pen—the cogs and gears, the clicking and winding—doesn’t necessarily spell humanity’s doom. Instead, they help us reconnect the broken parts and revitalize that spark which makes us human: the ability we have to use our imaginations to produce meaning and manufacture happiness long enough to keep the human project itself running.

As Hugo Caberet tells Isabelle:

Everything has a purpose, even machines. Clocks tell the time, trains take you places…Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad. They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken…Machines never come with any extra parts. They always come with the exact amount they need.

If the world is one big machine, Hugo adds, no one is an extra part. We’re all here for a reason. In an age when people feel trapped in an overly-mechanized culture, it’s refreshing to hear a radically different take on the nature of machines, a more optimistic answer to questions concerning technology and its potentially traumatic impact on human nature.         

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