Archive for the Christianity Category

Beating the Bejesus Out of Yourself: Fight Club, Consumerism, and the Myth of Manhood

Posted in archetypes, Christianity, collective unconscious, Existentialism, Film, Jung, Metaphor, Movies, Myth, Mythology, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, politics, Politics and Media, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, psychoanalysis, Psychology, Religion, religious, social psychology, terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2014 by Uroboros
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, a man's man

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, a true ‘man’s man’

SPOILER WARNING: Watch the movie before you read this!

Fifteen years after its release, David Fincher’s film Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, is an excellent example of how modern storytellers can use a timeless mythological structure to explore contemporary social issues. The movie employs elements of the hero cycle to examine the social construction of gender identity as well as the existential emptiness that arises from a blind faith in consumerism and other secular alternatives to traditional religious values.

 At its twisted heart, this postmodern odyssey is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the monomyth, a universal narrative rooted in the collective unconscious and symbolizing psychological development, a process Carl Jung referred to as individuation. From all appearances, the ambiguously named protagonist should be content: he’s a college graduate with a well-paying white-collar gig and a lovely condo full of nice Scandinavian furniture, but he is far from satisfied. His adventure begins when his home is destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and he moves in with his new friend, Tyler Durden. Tyler is too good to be true. Archetypal companion and mentor rolled into one, he assists the protagonist across the threshold and initiates a quest for a more authentic life, providing philosophical guidance along the way.


Helena Bonham Carter as Marla and Ed Norton as...?

Helena Bonham Carter as Marla and Edward Norton as…uh?

What the protagonist wants to avoid is Marla Singer, the primary female presence in his life. Marla’s assertive, self-assured style brings out the main character’s insecurities. Tyler helps him channel this anxious energy into hyper-masculine practices that give him a new sense of confidence and self-worth. As Tyler’s nihilistic beliefs and violent rituals, which form the basis of Fight Club, escalate into a domestic terrorist organization called Project Mayhem, the protagonist finally confronts Tyler and comes face-to-face with a stunning fact that he’s hidden from himself. Tyler is actually his own dissociated persona, a fabricated alter ego who embodies everything the protagonist believes he wants to be. In reality, his mentor-companion is a shadowy trickster, a product of his own fragmented unconscious. In terms of Campbell’s monomyth, this is the hero’s apotheosis—the climactic confrontation with his own inner demons—and his ability to overcome and integrate the Tyler persona makes him worthy of his ultimate boon: the chance to have a mature relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Marla isn’t the antagonist his twisted psyche perceived her to be. Instead, she is, in Jungian terms, the object of his anima projection, the feminine side of the male psyche. Now that he’s overcome his shadow, the protagonist has the potential to gain a higher degree of self-mastery and have more mature relationships. Of course, he realizes this as skyscrapers topple—cue the Pixies and roll the credits.

On a fundamental level, Fight Club is a story as old as human history itself: a heroic quest that is metaphorical of both psychological development and successful social integration. On a more immediate level, though, the film functions as meta-commentary on individualism and the problematic task of having to construct a meaningful identity in contemporary American culture. For most of its history, after all, this country has been dominated by patriarchal, Christian values. Fathers were expected to provide for their wives and children, ruling over them like domestic gods. Over the last century or so, those expectations have radically changed, and Fight Club constantly questions the psychosocial impact of this paradigm shift.

fight_club_quote_by_julianmadesomething-d6kp0fmLooking to cure his insomnia, the protagonist joins ‘Remaining Men Together,’ a support group for survivors of testicular cancer. Here, traditional notions of masculinity are inverted. These men openly share their feelings, weep, and hug. One member, Bob, has large breasts, an ironic side-effect of his steroid abuse. The surgery, which has anatomically emasculated them, symbolizes the effect feminism has had on the conventional definition of manhood. And then there’s Marla: her assertive personality clearly troubles the protagonist, which is why he invents a hyper-masculine alter ego in the first place. Through this persona, he voices an anti-feminist ideology: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is what we need.” Tyler refers to himself and fellow Fight Club members as children—as “God’s unwanted children” and “the middle children of history.” According to his philosophy, empowered women have driven their men away, leaving their sons to be raised without proper male role models and thus little chance of becoming ‘real men.’

The film also critiques the idea that consumerism can offer an adequate solution. While riding a bus, the protagonist and Tyler discuss a Calvin Klein underwear ad featuring a young, muscular model. When the protagonist asks if the image is manly, Tyler replies, “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction.” His theory implies that media representations of masculinity only intensify the problem. The superficial ideal is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, which actually serves corporate America’s agenda because men will keep buying more products in a futile attempt to fill the void. That is why Tyler preachers an anti-media, anti-consumerist position: “We were all raised to think we’d be celebrities and rock gods,” he says, “but we won’t, and we’re slowly waking up to that fact.”

Fight-Club-fight-club-quoteThe film’s examination of gender construction and consumerism ultimately converge on a deeper theme: the dramatic changes in America’s religious landscape. Until Marla’s arrives on the scene, the support groups provide a temporary cure for the protagonist’s insomnia, allowing him to find some degree of inner peace. It becomes clear, however, that the New Age pop-psychobabble is a superficial substitute for the existential stability traditional religious beliefs once provided. The meetings are actually held in churches, but rely on secularized language and practices, not scripture and liturgy. Nevertheless, Fincher suggests that piety still lingers in the background. At Remaining Men Together, when the protagonist is finally able to cry, choral music plays on the soundtrack, implying that, despite the secularized context, the weeping has a deeply spiritual quality, a connection reinforced by the main character’s use of evangelical terms to describe the experience. He says the groups make him feel “born again” and “resurrected.” The chemical burn scene connects this ambiguity and ambivalence back to the gender issue when Tyler says, “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that say about God?” Tyler’s answer: “God does not like you. In all probability, he hates you.”

In other words, God is dead: long live Fight Club! In Tyler we trust…

As Fight Club evolves into the extremism of Project Mayhem, the main target becomes the institutions that support consumerism. Like a gang of giddy juvenile delinquents, Project Mayhem terrorizes various consumer enterprises—auto dealerships, coffee shop franchises, etc.—before setting their sights on the institutions that ultimately feed and profit from the modern obsession with fabricated happiness: the banking and credit industry. By blowing up the banks and wiping out everyone’s credit history, Project Mayhem thinks it’s liberating people from the great oppressor, the false religion of consumerism.

Fight Club is about an alienated person’s strange, disturbing search for identity and existential purpose. It utilizes archetypal elements to reflect on what it means to be both a male and a spiritually-hungry consumer in postmodern America. In doing so, the film suggests that changes in the way gender and religious values are now constructed can have potentially destructive repercussions. While the reasons for these changes are valid and noble, e.g. gender equality and scientific progress, Fight Club reminds viewers to pay attention to what is happening to those who once benefited from gender inequality and Christian definitions of power: men. The film is a warning: paradigm shifts in identity and social norms can create gaping psychological holes that the Home Shopping Network cannot fill. In a culture where power relations are constantly changing, dark and violent ideas can fester inside insecure minds and erupt with horrific consequences.

Tyler and Marla together at last...

Tyler and Marla together at last…

The Philosophy of Decomposition: Poe and the Perversity of the Gothic Mind

Posted in Ancient Greek, anxiety, Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Christianity, Consciousness, ecology, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, fiction, French Revolution, Freud, God, Goth, Gothic, Horror, horror fiction, irrational, Jesus, Literature, Morality, Philosophy, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, Romanticism, Science, Speculative fiction, terror, tragedy, Uroboros, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2013 by Uroboros

Whether you think Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are expertly-crafted explorations of the dark side of human nature or morbid, overwrought  melodramas, there is no doubt his work has had a tremendous impact on Western culture. Probably his most important contribution, apart from establishing the contemporary short story format and inventing the detective genre, is revitalizing the Gothic genre and pushing horror fiction in a more philosophically interesting direction. His stories are so enduring and influential because of the conceptual depth he added to generic tropes, redefining literature in the process. He accomplished this feat by perverting the Gothic.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

By the time Poe arrived on the scene, Gothic fiction had already fossilized and become fodder for self-parody. What started with the fantastic absurdities of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and culminating in the speculative complexity of Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had eventually led to Northanger Abbey (1817), Jane Austin’s metafictional send up of what had become pretty stale conventions by then: crumbling castles, tormented heroines, supernatural entities, and family curses. Although the external trappings of Gothic plots may have fallen into ruin, its themes remained relevant. According to Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the genre in her own right, Gothic fiction explores the fragmentation of the alienated mind by inscrutable historical and biological forces that can overwhelm one’s ability to rationally understand the world and make intelligent choices, a critical antidote to naïve utopian visions of the future inspired by the Enlightenment and of particular interest to American culture, the intellectual basis of which is rooted in the rational pursuit of happiness. ‘Gothic’ suggests the fear of something primal and regressive that threatens to undermine mental and social stability. In order to be a culturally relevant again, though, Gothic literature needed a writer who could reanimate its tropes. It needed a morbid, hypersensitive, and arrogant genius named Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s key twist is turning the tropes inward and starting with the macabre landscape within—“the terror of the soul,” he calls it. By the 1830s, Poe is focused on composing short fiction, crafting tightly-constructed tales, rendered in dense, pompous prose, spewing from the cracked psyches of unreliable narrators. This is the dark heart of many of his best stories: “Ligeia” (1838), “William Wilson” (1839),  “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), just to name a few (of course, his most accomplished story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), flips this dynamic: an unnamed and relatively reasonable narrator details the psychic disintegration of Roderick Usher). Poe’s disturbed, epistemologically-challenged protagonists aren’t the true innovation. Marlowe and Shakespeare pioneered that literary territory centuries before. The element that Poe adds—the novelty that both revitalizes and Americanizes the Gothic—is, what Poe himself calls, “the spirit of the perverseness.”

-d328znhThe narrator in “The Black Cat” puts forth this concept to explain his violent deeds. He says perversity is “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties…which give direction to the character of Man.” What is its function? It is the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself,” the narrator says, “a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment” to commit a “vile or a silly action” precisely because we believe it to be ‘vile’ or ‘silly.’ In “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), the narrator claims that perversity is “a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment,” so deep and pervasive, that it is ultimately immune to the prescriptions of the analytical mind. In other words, Poe identified the disruptive and neurotic effects of ‘the Unconscious’ half a century before Freud burst onto the scene.

While these narrators claim that philosophers have ignored man’s irrational inclinations, we shouldn’t assume Poe, himself a well-read scholar, wasn’t influenced by obvious precursors to ‘the spirit of perverseness,’ namely Aristotle and St. Augustine. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posits his theory of akrasia, the vice of incontinence, i.e. the inability to control oneself and do the virtuous thing even when one knows it is the right choice. This is his corrective to the Socratic-Platonic dictum that to know the good is to do the good: no one willingly does evil. To Aristotle, this is a distorted view of the human condition. We can know theoretically what the virtuous choice is—wisdom Aristotle calls sophiabut that doesn’t automatically compel us to have phronesisor practical wisdom, which is the ability to do the good. In other words, there is a gap between knowledge and action, a notion that surfaces again in Aristotle’s Poetics. In his analysis of drama, Aristotle identifies hamartia as a key characteristic of the tragic hero, referring to the flaws in judgment that lead to a character’s ultimate downfall. An archery metaphor that means “to miss the mark,” hamartia becomes the main word New Testament writers use to translate the Jewish concept of sin into Greek (they weren’t the first to do this: writers of the Septuagint, the 2C BCE Greek translation of Hebrew scripture, had already made this move). By the fifth century CE, St. Augustine, the most influential Christian theologian of late-antiquity, formulates his doctrine of original sin, describing humanity’s lack of self-control as innate, embodied depravity. For Augustine, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they condemned their progeny to bondage, chaining the human spirit to this corrupt, uncontrollable, and ultimately decaying flesh. Only Christ’s sacrifice and God’s loving grace, Augustine assures us, can liberate the spirit from this prison.

This is part of the philosophical lineage behind perverseness, despite his narrators’ claims to the contrary. There is, however, some truth to the critique if seen from a mid-19C perspective. From Descartes right through to Locke, ‘Reason‘ is heralded as humanity’s salvation (of course, Hume and Rousseau poke skeptical holes in 18C Europeans’ over-inflated, self-aggrandizing mythology. Kant manages to salvage some of the optimism, but has to sacrifice key epistemic conceits in the process). But enlightened humanistic confidence looks like hubris to Romantic writers and artists, especially in the wake of the French Revolution and the international traumas it spawned. This is the mindset Poe resonates with: one that is highly skeptical of the ‘Man-is-the-rational-animal’ mythos. Anyone familiar with his biography can see why he gravitates toward a dark worldview. As a critic, he loves savaging fellow writers whose dispositions strike him as too sunny, and as a storyteller, his characters often confront—sometimes ironically, sometimes tragically—the limits of reason, a capacity Poe calls (I think with a tongue-in-cheek ambivalence) ‘ratiocination.’

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

The ‘spirit of perverseness’ implies that neither divine ‘Grace’ nor humanistic ‘Reason’ can save us from a life of terror and suffering, especially when we ignore and repress our essential sinfulness. Whether you view history through a biblical or Darwinian lens, one thing is clear: humans aren’t naturally inclined to seek rational knowledge anymore than we are given to loving and respecting each other universally. Modern cognitive science and psychology have shown us that the mind evolved to assist in feeding, procreation, and, of course, to protect the body from danger—not to seek objective truths. It evolved to help us band together in small tribal circles, fearing and even hating those who exist outside that circle. Over time we’ve been able to grasp how much better life would be if only we could rationally control ourselves and universally respect each other—and yet “in the teeth of our best judgment” we still can’t stop ourselves from committing vile and silly actions. Self-sabotage, Poe seems to argue, is our default setting.

Poe shifts Gothic terror from foggy graveyards and dark abbeys to broken brains and twisted minds. The true threats aren’t really lurking ‘out there.’ They’re stirring and bubbling from within, perturbing and overwhelming the soul, often with horrifying results. A Gothic mind lives in a Gothicized world—personifying its surroundings in terms of its own anxious and alienated disposition. ‘Evil’ only appears to be ‘out there.’ As literary and ecological theorist Timothy Morton points out, evil isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of beholder who frets over the corruption of the world without considering the perverseness generated by his own perceptual apparatus. It’s an Uroboric feedback loop that, left to its own devices, will spin out of control and crumble to pieces. The most disturbing implication of Poe-etic perversity is the sense of helplessness it evokes. Even when his characters are perceptive enough to diagnose their own disorders, they are incapable of stopping the Gothic effect. This is how I interpret the narrator’s ruminations in “The Fall of the House of Usher:”

 What was it…that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression…There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition…served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy…so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued…

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

More Human Than Human: Blade Runner and the Radical Ethics of A.I.

Posted in A.I., artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Brain Science, Christianity, Consciousness, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Jesus, Morality, Neurology, Phillip K Dick, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Psychology, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 27, 2012 by Uroboros

Blade Runner: What makes us human?

Self-consciousness is a secret, or at least its existence is predicated upon one. The privacy of subjective experience has mystified philosophers for centuries and dogged neuroscientists for decades. Science can, in principle, unravel every enigma in the universe, except perhaps for the one that’s happening in your head right now as you see and understand these words. Neurologists can give rich accounts of the visual processing happening in your occipital lobes and locate the cortical regions responsible for parsing the grammar and grasping the concepts. But they can’t objectively identify the ‘you’ part. There’s no neuron for ‘the self.’ No specific neural network which is essentially causing ‘you’ –with all your unique memories, interpretive quirks, and behavioral habits—to read these words have the particular experience you are having.

This problem is illustrated in debates about artificial intelligence. The goal is to create non-biological sentience with a subjective point-of-view, personal memories, and the ability to make choices. The Turing Test is a method for determining whether a machine is truly intelligent, as opposed to just blindly following a program and reacting algorithmically to stimuli. Basically, if a computer or a robot can convince enough people in a blind test that it is intelligent, then it is. That’s the test. The question is, what kind of behaviors and signs would a machine have to have in order to convince you that it’s self-aware?

Voight-Kampf Test

The 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has a version of this called the Voight-Kampf test. The androids in the story, Nexus-6 Replicants, are so close to humans in appearance and behavior that it takes an intense psychological questionnaire coupled with a scan of retinal and other involuntary responses to determine the difference. A anomalous emotional reaction is symptomatic of artificial, as opposed to natural, intelligence. Rachel, the Tyrell corporation’s most state-of-the-art Replicant, can’t even tell she’s artificial. “How can it not know what it is?” asks Deckard, the bounty hunter charged with ‘retiring’ rogue Replicants. Tyrell says memory implants have given her a sense of self, a personal narrative context through which she views the world. The line between real and artificial humans, therefore, is far from clear. Rachel asks Deckard if he’s ever ‘retired’ a human by mistake. He says he hasn’t, but the fact that Rachel had to ask is telling. Would you want to take this test?

If you think about it, what makes you’re own inner subjectivity provable to others—and their subjectivity provable to you—are the weird kind of quirks, the idiosyncrasies which are unique to you and would be exceedingly difficult for a program to imitate convincingly. This is what philosophers call the problem of other minds. Self-consciousness is the kind of thing which, by its very nature, cannot be turned inside out and objectively verified. This is what Descartes meant by ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Your own mental experience is the only thing in the world you can be sure of. You could, in principle, be deluded about the appearance of the outer world. You think you’re looking at this computer screen, but who do you know you’re not dreaming or hallucinating or are part of Matrix-like simulation? According to Descartes’ premise, even the consciousness of others could be faked, but you cannot doubt the fact that you are thinking right now, because to doubt this proposition is to actually prove it. All we’re left with is our sense of self. We are thinking things.

Fembot Fatale

The Turing Test, however, rips the rug away from this certainty. If the only proof for intelligence is behavior which implies a mindful agent as its  source, are you sure you could prove you’re a mindful, intelligent being to others? Can you really prove it to yourself? Who’s testing who? Who’s fooling who?

The uncanny proposition hinted at in Blade Runner is that you, the protagonist of your own inner narrative, may actually be artificial, too. Like Rachel and the not-so-human-after-all Deckard, you may be an android and not know it. Your neural circuitry may not have evolved by pure accident. The physical substrate supporting your ‘sense of self’ may be the random by-product of natural selection, something that just blooms from the brain, like an oak grows out of an acorn—but ‘the you part’ has to be programmed in. The circuitry is hijacked by a cultural virus called language, and the hardware is transformed in order to house a being that maybe from this planet, but now lives in its own world. Seen this way, the thick walls of the Cartesian self thin out and become permeable—perforated by motivations and powers not your own, but ‘Society’s.’ Seen in this light, it’s not as hard to view yourself as a kind of robot programmed to behave in particular ways in order to serve purposes which are systematically hidden.

This perspective has interesting moral implications. The typical question prompted by A.I. debates is, if we can make a machine that feel and thinks, does it deserve to be treated with the same dignity as flesh and blood human beings? Can a Replicant have rights? I ask my students this question when we read Frankenstein, the first science fiction story. Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley was already pondering the moral dilemma posed by A.I. Victor Frankenstein’s artificially-intelligent creation becomes a serial-killing monster precisely because his arrogant and myopic creator (the literary critic Harold Bloom famously called Victor a ‘moral idiot’) refuses to treat him with any dignity and respect. He sees his artificial son as a demon, a fiend, a wretch—never as a human being. That’s the tragedy of Shelley’s novel.

Robot, but doesn’t know it

In Blade Runner,the ‘real’ characters come off as cold and loveless, while the artificial ones turn out to be the most passionate and sympathetic. It’s an interesting inversion which suggests that what really makes us human isn’t something that’s reducible to neural wiring or a genetic coding—it isn’t something that can be measured or tested through retinal scans. Maybe the secret to ‘human nature’ is that it can produce the kind of self-awareness which empowers one to make moral decisions and treat other creatures, human and non-human, with dignity and respect. The radical uncertainty which surrounds selfhood, neurologically speaking, only heightens the ethical imperative. You don’t know the degree of consciousness in others, so why not assume other creatures are as sensitive as you are, and do unto others as you would have them do to you.

In other words, how would Jesus treat a Replicant?

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:

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:

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.        

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

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