Friday, October 19, 2012

The Purpose of Playing God

The physical and chemical properties of the universe are freaking amazing.  Their complexity, stability, scale and resolution of detail are completely breathtaking when considered at any level of comprehension.  Without an equivalent of natural selection by which to explain their emergence it is easy to assume that they must have been the design of a sentient.  Of course the counter argument to this always has been and always will be the anthropic principle - that were the universe any different or any less "spectacular" in design then we would not be here to perceive it so; thus we should not be surprised and cannot logically infer anything about its creation.

In the movie Prometheus the android David asks a human crewmate... 

Why do you think your people made me? 

We made ya 'cause we could.

Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator? 

In the movie Innocence the advertising caption was...

Why are humans so obsessed with recreating themselves?

If the universe was created intentionally then, taking an anthropocentric line of argument, we shall assume that the emergence of sentient life was part of that intention - either for experiment or by design, but ultimately because the creator could create that life.

To what end?  To learn something?  Peter Weyland, from the same school of ambition and entrepreneurship as Eldon Tyrell, gives this powerful speech several years in the future...

Both of Ridley Scott's films come to pretty much the same conclusion; humans learn fuck all from the creation of sentient life.  In Blade Runner the children have shorter lifespans than humans, the humans play god and skirt around the periphery of the drama the Replicants make themselves.  In Prometheus the David 8 android is physically and logically superior to humans and practically immortal, but lacks the fire of the Replicants and humans themselves.  In both cases, the human reactions to their creations are nothing short of ambivalent - it was something that was done because it could be done, and yet the problems of the purpose of creation and human mortality remained - from the human perspective they have created nothing more than an image of themselves, a reflection that is ultimately, as Innocence ponders, obfuscating rather than instructive.

Curious, no, that the creation of life, at least in the thought experiments of intelligent writers, answers no questions about the purpose of the creation of life?

Going back to our hypothetical demiurge, what would it learn from us, its creations?  Were we as a species worth waiting thirteen billion years for?  If we created sentient life, like us, would we benefit in any spiritual or philosophical sense?  Would the creator itself learn anything from our compulsive technological procession?

I think... nothing, no, no and no.

However for writer Iain Banks in the Culture novels, the creation of sentient machines, along with interstellar travel, is a technological leap towards post scarcity and liberal utopia.  The technology itself answers no questions, but makes life while we have it more diverse and stimulating.

Banks is, I am happy to note, quite similar to Tolkien in his take on creation.  For Ronald, for Iluvatar, the act of creation by necessity results in both good and bad consequences, but all add to the glory of life.  The music of Eru is created simply for the joy of doing so.

In the results driven practicality of the modern world where cause and effect can be scrutinized without end, and often censored or trammeled at even the lowest level because the Great Game is all encompassing, it is easy to forget that even the greatest of technological advances can have no more impact than the furtherment of enjoyment for the living.  Or perhaps we should not be surprised at that at all, for perhaps, like the Olympians from whom Prometheus stole fire, revel in the time we have with our fires burning brightly, maintaining one's elan vital, is all life was ever meant to be about.  Perhaps if there is a demiurge, it simply enjoys watching its children play with the fire it gifted them.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hear that, Jim? More water!

Maybe we should replace your coffee.  Hahaha!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Time for another of my pet artistic/philosophical topics.


For a long time I have been fascinated by the central theme of The Iliad; generally recognised as the first story in the western literary tradition it is curious to me in that it follows a single theme along many threads in an insistent, almost dogmatic, fashion:  Possession.  The possession of women by men, of power by men, of life, death, jealousy, honour, status, trophy, skill, love, respect, immortality and the bodies of fallen friends.  The whole story revolves around players who are constantly seeking the possession of something or someone.

Now this in itself is fascinating; why did the early Greeks craft a story such as this?  Why does the story not cover the beginning nor the end of the war?  What didactic lesson, if at all, was this meant to imbue the listener or reader with when, I think fairly, it can be said there is no conclusion (one might say "point") to the theme?

Well, in my own mind I have I feel answered these questions in part with a new interpretation of the Iliad that I have been building.  To get there, I want to jump forward to Danny Boyle & Alex Garland movies of today...

The three movies they have so far collaborated on, The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, follow very similar themes and my interpretation of The Iliad requires a preliminary interpretation of these stories.  All three follow a young man into a progressively worsening situation, and on one level chart his responses and eventual "triumph" over the obstacle.  In each case, the man is clearly of middle class origins, educated either in a formal sense or worldly way, but finds no tools within that experience to deal with what he faces.  Instead, he becomes like his aggressors, he becomes animalistic, savage and wild, acts unpredictably and totally unlike his usual self.  Having just written this, I am pleased to find on Wikipedia that Boyle was influenced by Apocalypse Now:

"It had eviscerated my brain, completely. I was an impressionable twenty-one-year-old guy from the sticks. My brain had not been fed and watered with great culture, you know, as art is meant to do. It had been sandblasted by the power of cinema. And that’s why cinema, despite everything we try to do, it remains a young man’s medium, really, in terms of audience."

Brando and Sheen are clearly reflected in the young men of Boyle's movies.  But what does this mean?

Each man is conservative and is forced, for his life, to abandon this for anarchy, to embrace anarchy, to triumph.  In The Beach, the triumph is over the conservatism of the beach community.  In 28 Days Later the triumph is over the anarchy of the zombies and the conservatism of the army.  In Sunshine it is over the conservatism of the pan-theistic religion of the captain (on a side note, what organisation sending a space ship to the sun to save humanity would ever call the ship Icarus, and when it fails - whoops, didn't see that coming - call the next one Icarus II?  Geesh!).  That each man triumphs over a different adversary in each movie is important; and what this signifies is the strength of anarchic-conservatism over either of its constituent parts.

Let's go back to the first story ever recorded; the Epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  The king Gilgamesh represents ultimate conservatism; he has absolute wealth and power in his kingdom, and was famed for the construction of the epitome of conservative architecture; a big wall.  Enkidu is anarchy embodied; a feral man who runs with the animals, he is civilised by procreating with a whore for a week.  Apart they are forces that rival and challenge one another, together they are stronger than anything else in the land.

And forward again to Akira (the movie) by Katsuhiro Ootomo...

Above, Capa (or "Kappa" or "K") and Kaneda attempt to repair the solar shield in Sunshine.  Below, Kaneda and Kei run from the cops.

Above, Kaneda faces down the light of the sun.  Below Kaneda enters the light of Akira to help Tetsuo.

In Akira, the two friends Kaneda and Tetsuo become anarchy realised as they tear up Neo Tokyo.  The Colonel is the force of conservatism, desperately trying to protect the city and its people using all his military power.  The Doctor, the scientist, is portrayed as a short sighted fool possessing neither power.  What succeeds in stopping Tetsuo in the end is not Kaneda (anarchy) or the Colonel (conservatism) but the three espers; Takashi, Kiyoko and Masaru.  Again, they are symbolic of the convergence of anarchy and conservatism; they are childlike in stature and voice, but elder in appearance and power and knowledge.  They stay with the Colonel in safety, but Takashi is escaped by radicals and comes into contact with the bike gang early on.  This dualism gives them the power to summon Akira, to stop Tetsuo.

Finally we may return to the Iliad.  To desire the possession of what one does not have is anarchic, to hold what one has is conservative.  Achilles is the fusion of these elements and this alloyed psyche is his real strength; the conflicting needs to be immortal and yet to be famed gives him a life-force beyond all others.  Hector is representative of all Trojans, excepting Paris; conservative, and thus his and his city's fate are writ.  His father though also conservative, enboldened by Hermes, he, like Boyle's characters or Ootomo's Steamboy, crosses the line into anarchy and does the unthinkable in order to regain the body of his son.


I believe that this simple message, that united anarchy and conservatism are stronger than either force alone, is a pervasive and universal theme of all art.  What I find incredible is that firstly, this was the central theme of the very first written art in the history of civilisation and has persisted 1000 years later with the Iliad and 3000 years later with cinema, and secondly that this message is not taught more explicitly.

It is clearly manifest in history, in contemporary politics and economics, but it is rarely identified.  Yes, the likes of Nietzsche or Freud or Campbell have elicited the basic need for a Hermes like figure to traverse the boundaries of the mind/soul/society/whatever to bring external knowledge to the group and so strengthen it, but nowhere have I seen this insisted upon with such clarity and strength of vision than in Homer, Boyle and Ootomo (and Michael Mann with whose works I've been having a protracted love affair).  Thus, we can answer that riddle from the start, how come this was the theme for the very first art of our cultural history.  At heart, the difference between these artists and the aforementioned academics is one of Action: They are artists of the world, and for men in the world.  Unlike the academics of towers on rare heights or scientists gazing at glowing rectangles, these are men that have themselves been actors in the world, and have transferred that experience to art for others to learn. 

The Music

Is from the soundtrack for the animation Akira, and is composed and performed by a Japanese music "collective" called Geinoh Yamashirogumi.  Every track is remarkable, but this one in particular has an artistic beauty tied to the movie.  Sections of melody decay into chaos, only to be restored by the Buddhist-style chanting, the primal rhythm of a male chorus.  But are they human?  No.  Each instrument and vocalisation becomes an animistic cry from nature.  The deep percussion at the start, the female chorus crying out Tetsuo's name, the priests forcing order, the cacophony of the city in the xylophones, the chorus returning with a lullaby for Akira and Tetsuo - this is the city of Neo Tokyo reacting to and trying to influence the events of the movie.  It screams in pain, rejoices in life and pleads with empathy.  I cannot listen to music anymore unless there is a story, either intrinsic to the piece or provided by mine own interpretation, to accompany.

I hope to see this group perform in August.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sue Naami

Sue Naami is the fat lady who bombs the swimming pool.  It's a joke from Scouts.  Said with a New Zealand accent.

I just watched the C4 program, "Japan's Tsunami - Caught on Camera", and it was well worth taking a ganders.  Most of the footage has been shown on TV or the internet before, but the interviews with the camera-peoples were very illuminating, mostly for the largely normal and predictable reactions they all exhibited (except for the totally chilled out guy who said, "Well, what could I do?  I just climbed the tree.").

Ten months on and, well at least here in Shizuoka, you'd be hard pressed to find any evidence in daily life that Japan had suffered it's worst natural disaster since the Great Kanto earthquake crushed and burned over 300,000.  An order of magnitude smaller in the blood cost, about 30,000 people were crushed and drowned.  Trivial!  If I reach into the collective psyche of the culture I now live in, this catastrophe, the instant death of 0.02% of the population, has really registered as nothing more than an event of the year.  A "happening", as the Japanese say in borrowed English, that is quite disagreeable yet nevertheless seems right at home amongst the milieu of bad news that permeates the twilight of fear-driven Western capitalism.

Engage Anti-Capitalist Drive

"The contrast between publicity's interpretation of the world and the world's actual condition is a very stark one, and this sometimes becomes evident in the colour magazines which deal with news stories.  Overleaf is the contents page of such a magazine."
Ways of Seeing, John Berger

The following page shows in the top half refugees from atrocities in Bangladesh in 1971, the bottom this ad for badedas bath products...

"Publicity is essentially eventless.  It extends just as far as nothing else is happening.  For publicity all real events are exceptional and happen only to strangers."

I witnessed no stronger proof of Berger's argument than what happened to publicity in Japan after March 11th.  The commercials on TV just stopped.  For weeks.  Only one company, one suspects at the behest of the government or TV stations since nobody wants consumers remembering a time when there were no ads, continued to "advertise" on TV.  But these were thirty second, "We can do it, Japan!" "commercials" for a company which nobody has a clue what they actually do.  They only had three or four commercials in their portfolio, and indeed viewers got so irritated by seeing the same commercials, often back to back, day in day out, the company even made some more.

If you watch this 100 times, I guarantee you too shall grow to hate this kid.

Berger's assault on Capitalism from this point is merciless...

"Publicity exerts an enormous influence and is a political phenomenon of great importance.  But its offer is as narrow as its references are wide.  It recognizes nothing except the power to acquire."

"Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy.  The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice.  Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society."

"Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible.  This was once achieved by extensive deprivation.  Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what and what is not desirable."

He is perfectly correct.  TV stations just cut everything for round the clock news commentary for several days, since no existing program could cope with the reality presented by the disaster.  The silence of Japanese culture spoke more about itself in that week than it has ever done in its loud, crass, rock-bottom-denominator days before or since.

Irrespective of what Japan was before, which from my point of view had some very artistically productive and socially vibrant decades within living memory, it is now a consumer-culture par excellence.  Rather like a perverse Orwellian perpetual war culture, Japan is now in a state of goading its citizens to spend more, forget about reality more, worry about China more in a desperate bid to stave off the long defeat.  The long defeat into what?  Into a marginally poorer and more anarchic state than the situation they had the good fortune to be handed to them by America and protected-market policies after the Second World War.  This wholly reasonable reaction to an economic decline would not be so bad if they didn't have to drag the culture down with it, by employing every artistic mouthpiece for hire to bray the monotonous call-to-arms (to support Japanese industry) before the impending Ragnarok.

I think my body is slightly purer for having got that out.

If you buy into Japanese culture, it isn't nearly so bad looking from the inside.  I enjoy some programs on TV, and go to J-Pop concerts and readily engorge my share of complementary tripe as happily as Ralph.  Not two weeks ago we partook of an Arashi concert in Nagoya, had excellent seats in the central arena section, and I boast to my students that I got a wave from Ninomiya.

Man, it was awesome.  I should add that even the lamentation of death is something that is beginning to irk me; currently I am fascinated by pre-industrial/pre-modern fatalism, so even if Japan had commemorated those taken by Poseidon with sufficient European melancholy and pomp, I should have had something to complain about.  Not to mention that today I found myself (kind of) defending the SOPA bill and political lobbying in a forum discussion with some stridently uneducated gamers, it's probably best that I suffer my chronic dualism in silence.  ..........