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The Rational Animal? Really?

Posted in Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Carol Tavris, cognitive dissonance, critical thinking, Elliot Aronson, emotion, gadfly, irrational, Leon Festinger, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Psychology, rational animal, rationalizing animal, reason, resistance to critical thinking, social psychology, Socrates, UFO Cults, Uncategorized, When prophecy fails with tags , on August 29, 2013 by Uroboros
Socrates: the Gadfly, Godfather of Critical Thinking

Socrates: the Gadfly, Godfather of Critical Thinking

Last week I began teaching a philosophy course at Moraine Valley Community College on the Southside of Chicago. The course is PHIL 111: Critical Thinking, a topic that never ceases to amaze and, at times, perplex and challenge my assumptions about what it means to be human.

As a philosophy student, I was always struck by Aristotle’s description of human nature: we are the rational animal. But the more we analyze ourselves, the more we explore our capacities and limitations as a species, the more we discover that rational thinking is the exception, and not the norm…Far, far from it apparently. Neurologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary psychologists have all made convincing arguments that the human brain, and the thought patterns it tends to produce, evolved not to pursue logical explanations and objective evidence, but to concoct self-serving, self-justifying theories about how the world works. Why let objective facts and explanations ruin a good, wish-fulfilling story, right?

This is because the deluded, biased explanations serve a more fundamental purpose: survival. There’s an adaptive advantage to spinning yarns and fabricating facts that, though divorced from the realm of reason and objectivity, nevertheless reduce stress and anxiety, making the world a seemingly more sensible, human-friendly place and building our confidence.

When Prophecy Fails: classic study of cognitive dissonance

When Prophecy Fails: classic study of cognitive dissonance

For over fifty years, social psychologists have been exploring this capacity for mendacity. The theory of Cognitive Dissonance accounts for our need to justify core beliefs and behaviors. To justify them at almost any cost. Cognitive Dissonance is the uneasy, sometimes terrified, sometimes enraged, feeling you get when an event or a person challenges or threatens your beliefs. It was first proposed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, the product of research into a doomsday UFO cult. Chronicled in the book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger and his colleagues wondered what cult members would do when the mothership didn’t come and whisk them away to another planet. How would these so-called rational animals behave then? So, did the cult members adjust their beliefs? Did they discard their delusions and wake up to reality? What Festinger found was that cult members actually doubled-down on their beliefs and tended to become more invested in the cult’s bizarre mythology. Instead of critically analyzing why they were so deluded, they used their powers of reason to recalculate the arrival of the mothership. They kept on believing. They were just too committed to back out and admit the truth.

Now you might say: that sounds about right. After all, they were UFO cult members. Shouldn’t we expect them to act that way? But Festinger and his student Elliot Aronson found cognitive dissonance to be a universal human trait. When confronted with contradictory and disturbing information, ideas and facts that threaten our core beliefs, we all put our creative mental powers to work defending those beliefs. And what is the most essential idea we are dying to protect? The most fragile one of all: the idea we have of ourselves as intelligent, well-meaning, competent people. Whether it’s smokers, music downloaders, cheaters, whatever the sin or vice, it’s so easy to come up with a story that makes your sin or vice or moment of incompetence sound like the most reasonable, ethical thing in the world. In other words, self-justification and esteem needs trump the desire for transcendent truth.

That’s why I love teaching critical thinking. That’s why we have to teach it. It doesn’t come naturally. The first step is to overcome cognitive dissonance, put your own ego in check, and really engage in that Socratic call to examine life. Critical thinkers listen to the buzzing inner-gadfly of skepticism and curiosity. Only then can a human being emerge from the muck of deluded, self-serving thoughts, shake off the slime, and become the clear-headed, rational animal Aristotle challenged us to be. Otherwise, we are, as Aronson pointed out, merely rationalizing animals. That’s what comes naturally. Thanks to evolution, I get to make a living teaching others, and myself, how to immunize the mind from the virus of irrationality.

If you’re interested in the topic, too, I suggest checking out Aronson’s and his colleague Carol Tavris’ work on cognitive dissonance. What are your thoughts on rationality? Do you agree or disagree with cognitive dissonance theory? Why? What would Socrates ask?

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Aronson and Tavris

The Dark Knight: Why So Existential?

Posted in Alan More, Batman, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, Christopher Nolan, comic books, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC Comics, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Film, Frank Miller, Gotham, graphic literature, graphic novels, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith, Literature, Morality, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, superheroes, teleological suspension of the ethical, The Dark Knight Returns, The Joker, The Killing Joke, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by Uroboros

Four years after first seeing The Dark Knight, I still marvel at how Christopher Nolan managed to sneak so much thought-provoking material into such an action-packed Hollywood flick—how, amidst all the clever heists, over-the-top chase sequences, and ear-popping explosions, this sleek auteur didn’t shy away from post 9/11 political commentary; he neither neglected the psycho-social dimensions of the characters, nor waved his hand at the existential implications of the film’s wildly suspenseful dilemmas. Like no other filmmaker before him, Nolan and his co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, respect the literary depth of the comic source material. They see, and unapologetically embrace, the existential potency at the heart of the Batman mythos.

Influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, existentialism focuses on the individual’s struggle to find meaning in the modern world, one increasingly devoid of traditional notions of order and authority and constantly threatened by the specter of post-Darwinian nihilism. Existentialists argue that the cosmos doesn’t have a clear, predetermined plan. There’s not even an essential ‘human nature’ to help guide us through life’s obstacle course. There is only the purpose we create through our choices, and we can’t know with absolute, God-like certainty whether we’ve made the right ones. Rational debate and scientific research can help, but ultimately such truths, being contingent upon the evidence we have at the time, are provisional and may be revised in the future. Free will, an existentialist is likely to argue, is predicated on a state of inescapable doubt.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century Protestant theologian, coped by imagining a kind of philosophical hero tailor made for an uncertain reality. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Knight of Faith.’ Exemplified by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a Knight of Faith doesn’t tremble at life’s uncertainties or delude himself about its fundamental absurdities. He embraces them as a call to adventure, a test of one’s commitment to his or her most cherished beliefs.

Kierkegaard’s paragon of faith resembles the Dark Knight in several key ways. Existential quests begin with absurd events that defy easy explanation and haunt our thoughts long after they’ve passed. For Bruce Wayne, of course, it’s his parents’ senseless murder. At eight years old, the orphaned Bruce inherits a fortune but is robbed of one of life’s true treasures: the sense of security that comes from belonging to a loving family. He spends the rest of his adolescence struggling to overcome grief, terror, and rage–the deafening psychological echo of the gun shots fired in Crime Alley on that fateful night.

Existentialists are quick to point out that we don’t choose to exist (our parents do that for us), but at some point, we do get the chance to take the reins and make decisions that shape our destinies. As Bruce matures, he refuses to become a helpless slave to his emotions. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he says, “We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.” His parents’ murder teaches him that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.” Instead of becoming fatalistic, Bruce takes up the cape and cowl in pursuit of something that will bring meaning back to his life: a sense of justice.

The choice of the bat totem isn’t arbitrary. It symbolizes Bruce’s mastery of the fear and rage that threaten to turn him into the very criminals he’s battling against. In Nolan’s Batman Begins, Alfred, Bruce’s butler, asks him about his preoccupation with bats. “They frighten me,” Bruce replies, “and it’s time my enemies share my dread.” Batman takes on Gotham’s underworld and tries to rectify the forces that victimize people. This is how Bruce atones for the loss of his parents, who used their wealth and power to make Gotham a safer city.

While Bruce embraces conventional philanthropy, too, his fractured psyche craves a more concrete way of pursuing his goals. Batman turns fear and grief into an existential weapon, stalking the shadowy space between institutional order and criminal chaos, placing himself beyond the law, but not above it. It’s a place of paradox and uncertainty—a place also explored by Kierkeggard’s Knight of Faith. Through what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,‘ the Knight Faith doesn’t have to limit his passion for moral order to conventional understandings, which are always temporal and flawed. Likewise, Bruce never lets the letter of the law get in the way of preserving its spirit, especially when the institutions charged with protecting us are so corrupt. That’s why he feels compelled to dress up as a bat and “strike fear in the hearts of those who prey upon the fearful.” It’s a leap of faith that, to others, looks irrational and absurd, but, according to Kierkegaard, that’s a risk the Knight of Faith has to be willing to take, and Bruce/Batman does, using all of his physical and mental abilities toward his teleological end.

A superhero’s greatness, however, depends on the nature of the nemeses who stand in his or her way, and arguably there’s no better rogue in any graphic lit gallery than the Joker. His relationship with Batman is a yin-yang of stark existential contrasts. For example, while Batman struggles to create order, Joker revels in disorder. Where Bruce’s world revolves around his parents’ murder, the Joker’s past, prior to the chemical bath that hideously deformed him, is ill-defined. In Alan More’s The Killing Joke, the Clown Prince quips, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, each time the Joker explains how he got his scars, he puts a different spin on the story.

These dichotomous hero-villain origins reflect the diametrically-opposed nature of their subsequent crusades. Born of a singular act of random violence, Bruce channels his passions and focuses on a clear, if ultimately unachievable, goal: a war on crime itself in order to create a safer, more just society. The Joker, on the other hand, lives to create total chaos and debilitating fear. In the spirit of his ‘multiple choice’ origins, he is an advocate for meaninglessness, a champion of the purely arbitrary.

The Joker mocks Batman’s attempt to protect Gotham’s citizenry. In The Killing Joke, he claims the average man is “nature’s mistake.” With an air of dark, Nietzschean glee, he argues that it takes a “deformed set of values” and a “clubfooted social conscience” to pretend that life is anything but “mad, random, and pointless.” This was the point of his ‘social experiment’ in The Dark Knight. The Joker puts seemingly ‘good’ Gothamites in a situation where the corrosive power of fear would erode their consciences and reveal what lies beneath: a horde of primitive, selfish little ids only pretending to be civilized folk governed by high-minded morals. To him, the Dark Knight’s quest is the ultimate absurdity because life itself is just one big cosmic joke: “Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for,” he says in The Killing Joke, “it’s all a monstrous, demented gag.”

This contrast is part of what makes the Batman mythos one of the most profound in all of graphic literature. It speaks to the fundamental things we cherish and fear. The philosopher Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into existence, and once we wake up to the reality of our predicament, the rest is up to us. The true challenge is to face one’s fears and be an authentic person. As for the anxiety and dread of being a self-conscious creature, it’s the price of free will, and the suffering that comes with it is what makes the pursuit of happiness worth the effort—it’s the dark background against which moments of illumination stand out in joyous relief, the bitter seasoning that makes little successes along the way taste so sweet.

Batman and Joker represent divergent paths in the struggle. There’s Bruce’s effort to accept his past and prevail, not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He chooses to make it meaningful. Then there’s The Joker’s quest, which starts with the question: “Why so serious?” and ends in chaos. He embodies the nihilistic suspicions that haunt anyone trying to lead a sensible, purpose-driven life. Batman overcomes these suspicions and commits himself to a worthy cause—even if it requires a seemingly absurd leap of faith in order to sustain it. Nolan brilliantly captured this yin-yang dialectic in The Dark Knight, and I never get tired of watching the interplay of all those wonderful ideas.

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?

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?

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.

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.         

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.

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