Saturday, November 30, 2019

Three Dead Critics - John Simon - Beginning



What's amazing about this truly brutal review is that John Simon was right; and not just a little right, he hit a bullseye on every target. Star Wars is infantile and a brutal dehumanization of the senses, it bespoke a terrible wind in the spirit of our time that so pedestaled machines over humans that machines became the center of human connectivity rather than human connection to other humans. Star Wars signaled the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, not just the short one that lasted roughly from 1967 until 1983, but the long one from roughly 1920 onward that allowed Hollywood to release quality products every week for sixty years with good scripts, good acting, and good production design without any one element of the movies' quality overwhelming any other.

And yet how is someone so right so obviously wrong? Star Wars is brutal and stupid and dehumanizing and everything else John Simon said it was, but if you have to do brutal, stupid dehumanization, you cannot ever do it better than Star Wars. It's the 24 karat gold standard B-movie in which the sublime stands right next to the absurd, the great next to the camp, and Alec Guinness -arguably greatest actor in film history, stands for an hour next to an eight-foot bear/dog whose only line is (do wookie noise). In other words, to make the most obvious declaration I've ever made on this podcast, Star Wars is fun. And Star Wars made our country take fun so seriously that it arrested the entire development of our country, and if you cannot find that phenomenon fascinating, your intellectual development is as stunted as the millions of people you accuse.

And was the artistic world which Star Wars wiped out truly that great? Perhaps, but John Simon certainly didn't think so, I've read it measured that over the course of his sixty year career he gave roughly 1 in 5 movies and plays he reviewed a good review. William F. Buckley, not exactly the font of generosity himself, once quipped that 'John Simon reviews movies the same way a pigeon reviews statues.'

.....

I don't know if John Simon was a truly wicked man, but he was a wicked critic, and not necessarily for the reasons people think.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Three Dead Critics - Introduction

I want to use the next three or more podcasts to talk about the extremely recent passing of three major writers, all of them critics, all of them kinds of giants of the eras immediately preceding our own whose writing deeply affected the way that readers of our parents' and grandparents' generations thought, and spoke, and decided,... and read of course. It should go without saying that they were white males as was the spirit of their era and every Western cultural era before this one, but it should also be self-evident that like every era, there were giant cleaves of thought, disagreements on what was considered the right way of thinking, of reading, of making art, of what was right and wrong. They embodied three ways to approach it - one generally great, one was generally terrible, and one brilliantly stupid. The usually towering Clive James, the often villainous John Simon, and the sometimes ridiculous Harold Bloom: and for this podcast, a role model, a warning, and a temptation.

I use qualifying adjectives on each them because absolute judgements are exactly where the temptation lies, and therein lies the critical madness that mistakes summary judgement for objective truth, a strong temptation to which I am extremely prone, and therefore like every human with extreme temptations, I yield frequently enough that it must be actively fought.

Part of the reason it's very, very difficult to fight against one's own summary prejudices is that, contrary to the spirit of our time, prejudices are inherent in us for a good reason, it's a necessary human condition that protects us against all manner of malfeasance, and prejudice against prejudice is its own prejudice that opens us up to all manner of exploitation. Do you really want to live in a world where we just assume that people with hateful beliefs, be they white supremacy or Islamic supremacy, fascism or communism, misogyny and homophobia or anti-nationalist terror, aren't willing to act on their beliefs with violent intent, or at very least support and give money to more violent activists than they? There genuinely are some issues on which a lack of prejudice is a mindset which you should make your exception, rather than your rule, and these prejudices go over three-hundred sixty degrees, and these people should sometimes, perhaps even often, be viewed as 'the enemy,' with no excuse made. Even if most bigots of any era clearly subscribe to one set of bigotries rather than the other, both must be recognized for the evil they are. And even if one must make alliances with one set of bigots to combat the greater threat, there can be no forgetting that these temporary allies hold beliefs that can convince them to cut your throat.

But this week, we're not dealing with issues of life and death. We're dealing with the arts, the space of human endeavor we reserve for complexity, for ambiguity; to ascertain what life is in its full meaning. And the arts are only a life and death issue because when a country or historical era insufficiently appreciates the complexity of the arts, it's a sign so often that they don't appreciate the full complexity of life, and are therefore prone to write off whole classes and races as the enemy simply for their identities, rather than their beliefs.

These are three critics who were probably at their most eminent in the 70s, an era that probably seems to my parents' generation like yesterday, but how amazingly different that era was to our own! Almost as close to a precise opposite as the world gives. It was an era when liberalism was the status quo and conservatism, not progressivism, was ascendent in extremis. The great threat to life, and it was a great threat indeed, was the beliefs of left-wing extremists, who threatened to bring the entire world to heel under a cold and monolithically grey dictatorship of fear, informants, sudden and permanent disappearance, and all in the name of giving the world a new and more equal birth of freedom. What more minor wars and dictatorships and breeches of civil liberty would, and perhaps even ought, be countenanced to prevent that?

If so many older people who are overwhelmingly decent in their personal lives seem impossibly, bigotedly, lethally conservative, please try to remember that they lived through the years after 1968, and the world seemed like a very, very different place. Even if Vietnam was a disaster, hundreds of millions believed in the wars like Vietnam for a reason - because Mao and Brezhnev seemed perfectly willing to blow up billions to ensure their dictatorial hegemony, both ideological and imperial. If 58,000 Americans died and 2 million Vietnamese, what a small price that was to pay compared to the payment that might have been. And if so many people in our time seem impossibly, militantly radicalized, and believe that our entire economic system need be overthrown, that a vague and nearly unprovable superstructure of white men exists to keep everyone else down, that American actions around the world are a force for evil rather than good, you have to be similarly tolerant of them if you want to live a decent life. My generation has come of age in the era of Global Warming when American dynamism has brought the planet to the brink of global annihilation. It hasn't occurred to many of them that the democratic dynamism of American auspiced capitalism is also our best hope of solving this crisis, but it's nevertheless true, global warming is fundamentally our creation, and it will primarily affect countries whose immigrants American conservatives are determined to keep out of America. America may be the solution to the world's biggest problem, but it's undeniable, America is also the world's biggest problem.

This was also an era when writing itself was so very different from what it is today. There were far less writers, generally selected from a uniform pool of educated white men, but my god, they could make a good living! They were guaranteed a public! They not only were beloved by small cliques of like-minded lemmings and hated by opposing cliques, they were debated by people who disagreed, and often without rancor! They were engaged with! Readers were allowed to have ambiguous feelings and weigh their strengths and weaknesses.

So many of the best minds today should have been polemicists, but with the death of so many newspapers and magazines, how many could ever make their living this way? They therefore retreat to academia, where the job market is hardly better, but at least colleges are in no danger of folding. Rather than learning the necessity of entertainment, even on the printed page and in the life of the mind, they're forced to spend their time writing unread theses, and their recommendations for employment in the academic world depend upon their theses regurgitating their professors unread ideas. As never before, academia becomes a breeding ground for political radicalism, because why support the beliefs of a general public who rejects you?

We now exist in this weird twilight era when popular culture so subsumes what we used to refer to as 'high culture' that humanities academia has little idea what to study anymore. So rather than learn broadly through our three-to-five thousand year storehouse of knowledge, we live in an era of critical theory, where semi-philosophers, semi-activists, semi-public figures, ....semoiticians, and semi-bullshit artists pre-process the literary world for students, and show them how to view every facet of the mind's life through an ill-informed political refraction with such contradictions . The humanities have been reduced to political propaganda many, many times in history, and rarely did such perceptions do much political good except foretell massive instability in the world. The result is that millions of young intellectuals now inveigh against the evils of capitalism every minute when they're not joyfully consuming capitalism's cultural products by the thousands and insisting the world treat these products with absolute intellectual seriousness, and somehow they live this contradiction with no cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps all this is a straw-man argument, part of my mind is shouting against it even as I write all this down. But consider this: the segregation and mistrust in America between academics and public is statistically demonstrable to be at an all-time high. Just between 2015 to 2017, the end of the Obama era and the beginning of Trump, the level of mistrust of 'expert opinion' in the Republican Party has gone from 54% to 36%. Meanwhile, the Democrat level of trust in expertise in this time has stayed absolutely consistent at 72%, but polls show that Democratic mistrust has gone vociferously down since 1970.

The only explanation I can think of is decline of the polemical journalist in mass media, who can bridge the gap between academic and public, is the only explanation that circumstantially fits. The intellectual consensus that keeps a society away from civil conflict depends on widely read consensus publications hiring respectable, authoritative voices from around the political and cultural spectrum whom their editorial standards can ensure are well-informed and not conspiracy peddlers, who can pursuade a public, whatever their political orientation, think critically, whatever their ideological filter. The polemical newspaper journalist, be they critic or columnist, is often wrong, perhaps even usually, but their answers are almost inevitably wrong about the right questions. The lack of informed opinion is an enormous portion of precipitation for this crisis in American life, and therefore life on earth, and the reinstitution of informed opinion into widely read publications with genuine editorial standards is what will save us from this crisis.



Saturday, November 23, 2019

Mini-Cast #? - How to Be a Dictator

In a fit of manic fascination, I took out ten biographies out from the library, nearly all of which are well over five-hundred pages. After three weeks of Jewish holidays and an automatic renewal, I'm finally finishing biography #2 - Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I'm disappointed to say that it's a rather dull book which I've persisted with for fear of the precedent it will set that I can start still more books without finishing them. I don't know the actual figure, but I like to say that I read 400 books a year and finish seven.

Scholarly writing is, by its nature, a little dry. There are only so many ways to make a subject interesting to the layman when a scholar is beholden to the truth. The truth always conspires to make reality duller than we inevitably wish. There's usually no great conspiracy, no grand illumination, no sudden explicator which sets the truth out to us in a lacerating revelation of fire. Yet simultaneously, reality grounds a book to the point that our flights of fancy can weed out the true believers.

And yet the very dryness of scholarship allows pseudo-scholarship to easily masquerade. The dullest books in the world can excite a cult of the initiated who perceive thousands of meanings the rest of us with our mundane bullshit detectors would never perceive. If you hold your nose at a cult's behest, you can perceive an endless litany of hidden meanings in any text at all, and spend a lifetime uncovering them. Only a bought and paid for member of the cult would endure the endless tedium of conceptual jargon it takes to master in order to grow excited by the hidden meanings, and by the time time we have mastered everything about the cult, the cult warps our thinking about everything else. Smart or stupid, such texts must have something to say about the state of the world, so the sacred text becomes the filter through which the wider world is perceived to its most devoted readers. To the rest of us, there is often no more boring experience. I suppose, given whom we're talking about right now, the obvious example of this phenomenon is Karl Marx, but I could name dozens of other writers and thinkers for whom this process is equally true, and I'm sure many listeners could do the same.

But what I like about substantial biographies is that by their nature, they're generally as grounded in the mundane realities of the moment as any book can be. So if the subject is exciting, the biography gives ample opportunities for a writer to conjure exciting scenes. You would think that the most effective mass murderer in European history would give ample opportunities for this kind of scene-building, but no, this biography is completely concerned with the little details of Kremlin intrigues - who was up, who was down, why Stalin had this or that one shot. So told is this story from the inside that one often forgets that this clique killed up to 25% of their own population!

The service biography performs is to prove something scholars of all kinds have gone to enormous lengths to disprove - that Stalin was a dictator in every sense. who did not delegate unless it was something so time sensitive that he could not find a twenty-fifth hour of the day to figure out the policy himself. He controlled everything. He read everything. His instructions on every subject were detailed to the dotted i.

Stalin was just as evil as Hitler, and in many ways just as unstable a personality. But if he lasted decades longer than Hitler, no small reason is because he made himself a meticulous authority on every subject in the purview of a head of state. Hitler, as Montefiore notes and many before him, was a political gambler who gained power by daring the most enormous risks during a period when World War I left his opponents congenitally timid. Stalin, on the other hand, was a man who inhaled thousands of details before he made any decision at all. He ascended to power by being Lenin's General Secretary, basically a Chief of Staff, but as he was Chief of Staff to a Premier and not a mere President, he had no legislative or judicial oversight, and therefore much more powerful than any Haldemann or Baker, and also much more free to create his own portfolio, his own policies, and most importantly, his own staff. By the time Lenin died, so many of Lenin's advisors were Stalin appointments that by the time of Lenin's death, a majority of his inner circle owed Stalin their eminence, and therefore supported Stalin as Lenin's heir, even though Lenin warned in a memo against Stalin's election in the most ominous manner. And therefore, beginning with Stalin, the Communist Party's 'General Secretary' was the de-facto dictator, a precedent also adapted by China, Vietnam and Laos. It was also used by Mongolia until their communist dictatorship fell in 1992, and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, you probably know the rest of that story...

Stalin was many evil things, but his evil compounded itself exponentially by the fact that he absolutely was a genius. I had generally assumed it a myth that Stalin took it upon himself to personally guide the development of every major artist in the Soviet Union, but after reading this biography, there's no question: it's no myth at all. Most dictators, perhaps most politicians, fancy themselves intellectuals. But eyewitness accounts state that Stalin read something like four-hundred pages a day on average, probably not including government memos, and he was extremely eager to discuss his reading with the country's most distinguished intellectuals, whose work he of course watched like a hawk to ensure intellectuals came to the conclusions he desired. Intellectuals, probably out of Stockholm syndrome, consulted him all the time, and the more terrified they were of him, the more often they wrote him. Stalin, like a true Orwellian dictator, occupied their thoughts, and the more thoughts a person has, the more thoughts among them totalitarian can occupy.

This is where I should mention that famous dictum from Thomas Carlyle in 'On Heroes' where he introduced the 'Great Man Theory of History' which states: 'Find in any country the ablest man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him; you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit."

In the Age of Trump, this theory begins again to look better than risible. If democracy ends up giving us an authoritarian anyway, who in their right mind would not give up an election or two to ensure that the dictator is at least competent.

Yet at the same time, intellect has many, many limitations. And there is no better example of this than Stalin - who famously said: 'Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.' Stalin and Lenin both were men of colossal intelligence, they understood that if they wanted to completely remake a society, they had to liquidate the people within it. But you cannot remake society without destroying it. How was Stalin to know how to properly arm for war against Hitler when he'd liquidated his entire general staff? How was Stalin to meet his farm production quotas when he'd liquidated the entire merchant class twice over who knew how to manage the farms? And how was Stalin to survive the sickness that killed him when he'd liquidated all the best doctors in the USSR? In so many ways, the greater the intelligence, the greater the capacity for stupidity.

Stalin was as meticulous as a human being becomes, but his pathological need to understand every detail was due in part to the grand sweeping theory of historical materialism that attracted him to the life of the mind to begin with. As the man who went further to put Marx into practice than any human being ever had, and I suppose ties with Mao for 'ever did,' he had to master the details that not even Lenin concerned himself with nearly as much. But when so much mastery and control is put into the service of an overarching theory so obviously wrong, the detailed mastery can only serve to warp people's lives still moreso, not less. And this is why the slow steady democratic progress governed generally by American or East Asian mediocrities still seems a preferable option to bet for humanity's progress in 21st century than the promotion of extraordinary men to the highest ranks in China. When even geniuses have absolute power, they have the power to get things absolutely wrong, and by dint of a genius's vision and planning ability, they will almost certainly make more and more costly mistakes than mediocrities ever do, because genius proves itself to be so by taking enormous risks and succeeding - but even in success, what a terrible price is paid. Stalin basically shielded his country from the Great Depression, but did so at the expense of mass population resettlements so that Russia's regional cultures would be broken down forever, and The Great Terror - called a terror due to the random arrests and permanent disappearance of nearly a million people over the course of a year. Stalin won the Great Patriotic War, what we call World War II, because he simply had the willpower to throw death at the Germans in perpetuity. 27 million Soviets died in the Great Patriotic War - one in six...

Some human beings have the capacity for greater achievements than others, but no human achieves anything alone. Stalin may have aspired to a greater collective greatness for mankind, but in its pursuit he created the most astonishing cult of personality since the 17th century Baroque sovereigns.   The pursuit of individual greatness requires people to take at least some measure of spotlight away from others, and the pursuit of individual's cult requires people to take some measure of life away from others, because those who survive need both to be perpetually terrified of what will happen to them if they don't worship the murderer, and also submitted into awe that this demigod of an individual with power of life and death over us can create works so great so long as you continue to  submit yourself to his will.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Mini-Cast # 17: It's Better to be Very Good than Great - First Half

Greetings from Northern Colorado. Your not always faithful podcaster wishes he'd been doing this podcast last January when he was in Kansas City and Austin, but as it happens, he was back in Houston this weekend, and has yet another podcast outlined in his mind from a visit to Houston museums. Talk about a niche market...

The sheer dynamism of Houston never ceases to amaze. There is no city I've ever been to quite like Houston - the city seems one giant highway atop one giant mall, with houses randomly sprinkled among the parking lots. The closest in our Easterners' area to its feel is New Jersey, but New Jersey is giant state-wide suburb where the development is a bit restrained to house residential spaces for so many millions who brave the train and traffic every day to the explosive upward-rather-than-outward development of Manhattan and Center City, Philadelphia. The development of Houston, with its absolute absence of zoning, is unlimited. The residential neighborhood in which I stayed, Galleria, is named for the sixty story building and mall built amid dozens of square blocks of housing. This is also the home of The Summit, former home of the Houston Rockets, which now functions as a 16,000 seat Lakewood Central Church, operated by the famous or perhaps infamous mega preacher Joel Osteen, whose fame spread still more dubiously wide by his refusal to open the church for shelter for congregation of Hurricane Harvey victims. And this weekend, the Lakewood Central Church was the hottest ticket in America to see Kanye West and his Yeezy choir performed his Jesus crap. And once your unfaithful podcaster heard from an uber driver that free tickets were being issued for the evening performance, he deluded himself for a half-hour into thinking that he might be able to score a ticket until the obvious truth he should have thought of was presented to him, that these free tickets were snapped up days ago and re-sold on the internet for 5000 dollars.

On that same day, your less-than-devoted podcaster had a chance to go to the famous Texas Renaissance Fair, a 55 acre town with 25 stages where nerds congregate over nine weekends AND weekdays with more than half-a-million individual attendees every year, a number of whom stay overnight to partake of festivities whom eyewitnesses tell me are as debauchedly pagan as you'd expect in rebellion from the ethos of America's most famously Christian state. Every weekend of the faire has a theme for shows and costumes, the weekend activities commencing and concluding with ceremonies of operatic spectacle. But after a weekend of alcoholic and barbecue consumption at a close friend's wedding, your podcaster feared for his life and turned the chance down for a day of rehydration.

Nothing in Texas is ever done by half-measures, and while I love Texas dearly, I also fear the shit out of it. I wonder if the diversity of Houston exceeds even New York and Chicago, yet while the dynamic flux of New York's racial tension produces a chickenhawk like Donald Trump perfectly happy to stoke racial resentments, the Trumps of the world sit atop their faux-ivory towers to provoke people of a will-to-action they'd never have the foolhardy fortitude to commit to themselves. The famous 'good-ol-boy' network of Texas is clearly alive and well, and the mechanisms of state can still gerrymander themselves well past the point that the true political orientation of 21st-century Texas is yet unknown. But part of what makes these aggressively white demagogues and their resentful constituents so dangerous is their dwindling number. I have no idea if there is truly any chance for civil war in America, or even if such a civil war would be anything more than a low-level conflict that could even be called a war rather than a series of skirmishes that only a small number of militias take part in. But the economic inequalities, the ethnic faultlines, the lack of regulation, the cultural glorification of violence in all manners of rebellion which now seem to be affecting certain kinds of progressives as well as so many millions of conservatives... It all does sound like the faultlines of a certain other period of American history...


Thursday, November 14, 2019

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

It makes me very sad to hear that Marin Alsop is on her way out. I wasn't always her biggest fan, but it's obvious that she never had the chance to show the extent of her strengths in exactly what she was best at. In all these messes we've had here, from the very beginning of her appointment, she conducted herself magnificently and treated us much better than we treated her. I don't want this to be the beginning of the end for the BSO, and maybe such an uncertain future calls for new leadership who can figure out a different approach, but I worry that these are not problems you come back from. It's just another indication that there's no room in modern America to let people in the arts and humanities make a decent living anymore - all but the most well-connected musicians, journalists, professors, artists, actors, writers, even teachers, are finding it harder and harder to make any kind of middle class living. This is all part of the social oil that lubricates a well-run civil society, once we all can't make a living anymore, what other jobs will be next?

Mini-Cast #16 - The Re-Arrival Part 4 - Final Draft

Warning: Here be massive spoilers.

So what then... what has arrived in Arrival?

Like I said last week, it's not a great movie by the metrics of Sarris and Kaufmann, or even Kael, but those critics judged for another era of cinema more influenced by vestigial literary notions from a pre-cinematic age, they wouldn't have understood this neo-romantic future - based on the metaphysics of the scientific age, though I truly wonder if many of their of the literary predecessors weaned on Milton and Spencer and Blake would understand it better than they. Many reviewers thought the movie ineffably moving and human - moving it absolutely is, it seems to levitate from beginning to end in a state of grace almost Christian. But human? Most definitely not. Even the surprises are unsurprising, the characters behave not as human beings but servants to plot devices. But what a plot...

In the face of a plot this overwhelmingly mystical, the kind of fully realized and evolving characters one gets in Ozu and Altman would only get in the way. The point of movies like this is not the people, but the metaphysical states to which our minds are capable of ascending.

What makes Arrival much more than a mere gimmick is not the twist ending, it's the nature of the idea the twist ending posits - an idea whose baroque grandeur is matched by the romantic magnificence of the visual way it's conveyed.

The aliens in Arrival, the squid-like heptopods, communicate with a three-dimensional alphabet written on the air by the vaporous ink they secrete, an alphabet that looks much like Eastern calligraphy. Like Chinese and Japanese, their written language is pictographic, but the pictographs are so nuanced that when computers process the data of their language, each word seems to have potential to mean a dozen words, and the reason why is that their alphabet is so complex that each letter often seems to convey an entire sentence. A particularly knowledgeable listener will immediately hear the kinship in this idea to what's probably the most famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius. But this idea takes this Borgesian concept to its next logical step, and discovers a visual style to match its vastly magnified sublimity.

When we first see the aliens, they appear to us not in a sudden jerk of surprise to elicit a fearful reaction; rather, these grey beings gradually appear to us from an even grayer ether. Even on the second largest screen in the whole city, we can barely perceive their outline over a period of two minutes as the cinematography ever so gradually makes their outlines distinguishable from the cloudy mist. We don't know if we're supposed to fear these beings, but they are awesome and terrifying - as unfathomable to us as the divine.

As we begin to learn about them, their unknowability only increases. the stoicism of these beings seems eternal and unchangeable. They wait with seemingly infinite patience for a human to assimilate an understanding of their nature, and wait a while they must, because it is not only their appearance and communication that's different from ours, it is the nature of their identity and their very consciousness. The essence of their language would seem to be different at the root of consciousness itself. Even a linguist as capable as Amy Adams's character is no different than the rest of us, no human can process their memories except backwards; but Heptopod memories are not only of the past, but of the future. They do not move through time, they experience all time in present simultaneously, so therefore their memories are of both past and future. So just as advanced conceptual mathematics allows people to conceive of the world in vastly more complex terms, mastery of a language this complex allows people to conceive of the world in manners so much more complex than they'd be able to perceive without this language, so that by mastering it, one can literally predict the future. The last time I have been so awed by the conceptual thinking of a movie was twenty years ago in Darren Aronofsky's movie, Pi, in which a Jewish mathematician realizes he is on the verge of discovering a mathematical equation with a 216 digit answer that would allow him to discover the complete name of Yahweh.

This is all science fiction, and very much fiction. In no way should any of this be taken as science as we understand science, with its generally incontrovertible physical material. The philosophy and science this movie deals in is neither astronomy nor linguistics, it's metaphysics, pure philosophy, and probably not that complex either, as far as philosophy goes. But a metaphysician or a philosopher specializing in time and memory, trained in Plato and Kant and Heidegger and Bergson, would be much better equipped to appreciate this movie than any linguist or scientist whose training would prevent them from understanding that there may be states of being out there which transcend the scientific laws upon which they've based their life's work.

How similar the study of language and science is is a debate for another day, and a concept sloppily introduced at the beginning of the movie yet barely touched upon for the rest. But the promise which both fields of study hold out for us is transcendent possibility - the promise that eventually we will gather sufficient sufficient amounts of hard information, it will so upend some field of study, be it metaphysics, or metasemantics, or epistemology, or eternalism, that the entirety of humanity's consciousness will metamorphose into shapes of which our current selves cannot possibly conceive. For more than two thousand years, this was the transcendent possibility of the monotheistic divine. It's now the transcendent possibility of the science. Science is the first hard proof humans ever got that the extraordinary is possible on earth, caused by us rather than inexplicable invisible forces. Our ancestors strove to attain what they thought of as the divine kingdom, but with every new scientific development, we do not just come closer to the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell, we can become them, we can bring the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell to Earth, and while we still seem quite far away from understanding their consequences of the miracles we wrought, we can very much wrought feats which would have been thought divine miracles just two-and-a-half centuries ago. These possibilities are thoroughly exciting, and incredibly dangerous, but in an age when human ability to acquire information is compounded to the nth degree of the nth, we cannot possibly fathom just how much and quickly humans may begin to change. Human concept of eternity used to be an unchanging state, but eternity is now a state of eternal change and flux. Eternity has re-arrived to the human condition in reciprocal form to the previous eternity. No longer will science seem like something humans control. For better or worse, it is mankind's new god. By learning so much more about the world and the universe than we were ever capable of before mechanical computing, we have uncovered so many unknowabilities and will uncover so many more. The eternal, the mystical, the transcendent possibilities, have re-arrived to the human experience, but this time, the material that is transcended is not the divine, it is the material itself.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mini-Cast #11: Assassins



I've seen Assassins live twice, and both times the thought occurred to me: could we be arrested merely for watching this?

Threatening to kill a President is still a Federal Offense: a Class-E felony under United States Code Title 18 Section 871. It is illegal to make “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”

Personally, I think that’s a violation of Free Speech that can push insane people capable of mass murder over a parking ticket over the edge into willing martyrs. But during the era of the first Black president, perhaps these violations made a slight bit of sense. Now that we're living in the Trump era, well... let's just count ourselves lucky that this statute hasn't been used against any of Trump's enemies yet.

But whether you saw Assassins during the Obama era or the Trump era, you can’t see a creation as explosively relevant to our time as any work could ever hope to be, and not see that this work can change our world in the span of an eye-blink - and let's face it, that change could even be for the good, but it could very much be for the ill, and would probably be a world-shaking mix of both, But in an American era when nearly 300 million guns are held for private use, when Presidents of both parties are routinely compared to Nazis, when a day with mass shootings is practically the rule rather than the exception, there is no more explosively powerful work of art to our time. This is the rare work of art that does precisely what Plato warned against in The Republic. It practically puts the gun in assailant’s hands.

This unholy blast of drama could be written by Satan himself - it's America’s answer to Macb*th. It’s practically an incitement to terrorism and shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the American Dream was built upon dirt and shit, and does nothing to console us with any redeeming vision. The American Dream is real, don't believe anybody who tells you that it's a lie. But the America of people’s nightmares just as much the true America, and we’re all just fooling ourselves if we think America isn't and wasn't a cesspool of despair for hundreds of millions of citizens.

When Assassins premiered in the week before Christmas 1990, the mood in America was as happy as ever since the end of World War II. After forty-three years of worry that the Soviet Union could incinerate us in an instant, the Cold War was finally done with and we won. The Persian Gulf War was humming along (quote-unquote) ‘peacefully,’ its resolution in clear sight. It was the first moment since Vietnam that everyone but the most hardened Leftists agreed that America's exercise of power for good, not evil.

No American was ready for Assassins in 1990. The reviews were crushing and the show closed after 73 performances - respectable for any Broadway composer but one whose every work turned to gold. Broadway planned a revival for October 2001. I needn't tell you what happened...

What makes Assassins all the more effective is the musical irony, it has all the tropes of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and yet music that could just as easily be sung by Ethel Merman about the hopes of Okies working the land, depicts more than a century’s worth of famous terrorists - all of whom motivated by the fanaticism of the pathologically lonely, nihilists to take their place along the lineage of Edmund from King Lear to the Underground Man to the Joker, who want nothing more than to spread chaos and suffering. Fifty years before Assassins, Rogers and Hammerstein gave Oklahoma, a vision of boundless hope - in Assassins, the American Musical comes full circle with a vision of endless despair.

This is a musical that depicted Sam Byck, who, thirty years before 9/11, attempted to hijack a commercial airliner so he could ram it into the White House. This musical that shows Charles Guiteau, the Christian fanatic who killed James Garfield, anticipating his death with all the ecstasy of a suicide bomber: according to the famous critic, Frank Rich - “you find yourself wondering if he’s expecting 72 black-eyed virgins as his posthumous reward.”


Is Assassins truly good enough to sustain a comparison to Macb*th or King Lear? I have no idea. What I do know is that like even the lesser Shakespeare plays, Sondheim’s words are like a hallucinogen in which you can immerse yourself to a consciousness altering state. The pure voluptuous pleasure of hearing so many ideas fly past you at light speed is something you can only otherwise get from Shakespeare and Mozart. Yes, Sondheim’s that good, and I envy anybody who has yet to fall in love with his work. This podcast will come back to Sondheim many times.

Like Shakespeare and Mozart, like Dickens and Beethoven, Chekhov and (ahem) The Simpsons, Sondheim always leads you home. Every dark moment is balanced with a light one, every lofty sentiment with pure vulgarity, every piece of realism balanced with surreal magic. It speaks to the mastery of this creator who holds a mirror up to Nature that Sondheim has the balance which you can only find in the very most immortal.

But while other works of Sondheim, with all their cynicism and heartlessness, can still hit you squarely in the feels, Assassins has pure acid and black bile in place of its heart. It begins and ends with the song "Everybody's got the right...", the right to happiness; and since everybody has the right, everybody also has the right to kill the President... Sweeney Todd, often called the ‘Great American Opera’, is similarly dark, but it’s just a warmup act for what we get in Assassins. In Sweeney, there is always a wink, a nod, something that assures us that this is all a fairy tale or a Grand Guignol melodrama, an enjoyably spooky nightmare. It pulls the cape away with a whoosh and shows it was all a joke. Assassins shows us a world where you can kid about the darkest subjects, only to pull the cape away again, and reveal to us at all that there was no joke at all.

Assassins is a comedy so black it ceases to be funny. It’s so light that half the lines in the musical could probably be interpreted as laugh lines, but the stakes are American History itself. Sweeney Todd makes the audience enjoy humanity's dark underbelly, but Assassins insidiously worms its way into our souls and eats away at our faith in humanity.


Friday, November 8, 2019

Mini-Cast #16 - The Re-Arrival Part IV

Warning: Here be massive spoilers.

So what then... what has arrived in Arrival?

Like I said last week, it's not a great movie by the metrics of Sarris and Kaufmann, or even Kael, but those critics were critiquing for another era of cinema more influenced by vestigial artistic notions from a pre-cinematic age, they wouldn't have understood this future - even if I wonder whether many of their of the literary predecessors weaned on Milton and Spencer and Blake would have. Many reviewers thought the movie ineffably moving and human - moving it absolutely is, it seems to levitate from beginning to end in a state of grace almost Christian. But human? Most definitely not. Even the surprises are unsurprising, the characters behave not as human beings but servants to plot devices. But what a plot...

In the face of a plot this overwhelmingly mystical, the kind of fully realized and evolving characters one gets in Ozu and Altman would only get in the way. The point of movies like this is not the people, but the metaphysical states to which our minds are capable of ascending.

What makes Arrival much more than a mere gimmick is not the twist ending, it's the nature of the idea the twist ending posits - an idea whose baroque grandeur is matched by the romantic magnificence of the visual way it's conveyed.

The aliens in Arrival, the squid-like heptopods, communicate with a three-dimensional alphabet written on the air by the vaporous ink they secrete, an alphabet that looks much like Eastern calligraphy. Like Chinese and Japanese, their written language is pictographic, but the pictographs are so nuanced that when computers processes the data of their language, each word seems to have potential to mean a relative infinity of words, and the reason why is that their alphabet is so complex that each letter conveys an entire sentence. A particularly knowledgeable listener will immediately hear the kinship in this idea to what's probably the most famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius. But this idea takes this Borgesian concept to its next logical step, and discovers a visual style to match its vastly magnified sublimity.

When we first see the aliens, they appear to us not in a sudden jerk of surprise to elicit a fearful reaction; rather, these grey beings gradually appear to us from an even grayer ether. Even on the second largest screen in the whole city, we can barely perceive their outline over a period of two minutes as the cinematography ever so gradually makes their outlines distinguishable from the cloudy mist. We don't know if we're supposed to fear these beings, but they are awesome and terrifying - as unfathomable to us as the divine.

As we begin to learn about them, their unknowability only increases. the stoicism of these beings seems eternal and unchangeable. They wait with seemingly infinite patience for a human to assimilate an understanding of their nature, and wait a while they must, because it is not only their appearance and communication that's different from ours, it is the nature of their identity and their very consciousness. These are not individual beings but a single collective being who can communicate the essence of their language by a simple touch. And the essence of their language would seem to be consciousness itself. Even a linguist as capable as Amy Adams's character is no different than the rest of us, no human can process their memories except backwards. But Heptopod memories are not only of the past, but of the future. They do not move through time, they experience all time in present simultaneously, so therefore their memories are of both past and future. So just as advanced conceptual mathematics allows people to conceive of the world in vastly more complex terms, mastery of a language this complex allows people to conceive of the world in manners so much more complex than they would without this language, that by mastering it, one can literally predict the future. The last time I have been so awed by the conceptual thinking of a movie was twenty years ago when the mathematician protagonist of Pi realized that he was on the verge of discovering a mathematical equation that would allow him to discover the name of God.

This is all science fiction, and very much fiction. In no way should any of this be taken as science as we must understand science, with its generally incontrovertible physical material. The philosophy and science this movie deals in is neither astronomy nor linguistics, it's metaphysics, pure philosophy, and probably not that complex either, as far as philosophy goes. But a metaphysician or a philosopher specializing in time and memory, trained in Plato and Kant and Heidegger and Bergson, would be much better equipped to appreciate this movie than any linguist or scientist whose training would prevent them from understanding that there may be states of being out there which transcend the scientific laws upon which they've based their life's work.

How similar the study of language and science is is a debate for another day, and a concept sloppily introduced at the beginning of the movie yet barely touched upon for the rest. But the promise which both fields of study hold out for us is transcendent possibility - the promise that eventually we will gather sufficient sufficient amounts of hard information, it will so upend some field of study, be it metaphysics, or metasemantics, or epistemology, or eternalism, that the entirety of humanity's consciousness will metamorphose into shapes of which our current selves cannot possibly conceive. For more than two thousand years, this was the transcendent possibility of the monotheistic divine. It's now the transcendent possibility of the science. Science is the first hard proof humans ever got that the extraordinary is possible on earth, caused by us rather than inexplicable invisible forces. Our ancestors strove to attain what they thought of as the divine kingdom, but with every new scientific development, we do not just come closer to the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell, we can become them, we can bring the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell to Earth, and while we still seem quite far away from understanding their consequences of the miracles we wrought, we can very much wrought feats which would have been thought divine miracles just two-hundred fifty years ago. These possibilities are simultaneously and thoroughly exciting, and incredibly dangerous, but in an age when human ability to acquire information is compounded to the nth degree of the nth, we cannot possibly fathom just how much and quickly humans may begin to change. Human concept of eternity used to be an unchanging state, but eternity is now a state of eternal change and flux. Eternity has re-arrived to the human condition in reciprocal form to the previous eternity. No longer will science seem like something humans control. For better or worse, it is mankind's new god. By learning so much more about the world and the universe than we were ever capable of before mechanical computing, we have uncovered so many unknowabilities and will uncover so many more. The eternal, the mystical, the transcendent possibilities, have re-arrived to the human experience, but this time, the material that is transcended is not the divine, it is the material itself.

Mini-Cast #16: Re-Arrival - Part IV - Two Thirds

Warning: Here be massive spoilers.

So what then... what has arrived in Arrival?

Like I said last week, it's not a great movie by the metrics of Sarris and Kaufmann, or even Kael, but those film critiques were critiquing for another era more influenced by old notions, they wouldn't have understood the future - even if I wonder whether many of their of the literary predecessors weaned on Milton and Blake would have. Many reviewers thought the movie ineffably moving and human - moving it absolutely is, it seems to levitate from beginning to end in a state of grace almost Christian. But human? Most definitely not. Even the surprises are unsurprising, the characters behave not as human beings but servants to plot devices. But what a plot...

In the face of a plot this overwhelmingly mystical, the kind of fully realized and evolving characters one gets in Ozu and Altman would only get in the way. The point of movies like this is not the people, but the metaphysical states of mind to which people are capable of ascending.

What makes Arrival much more than a mere gimmick is not the twist ending, it's the nature of the idea it posits. An idea whose baroque grandeur is matched by the romantic magnificence of the visual way it conveys it.

The aliens in Arrival, the squid-like heptopods, communicate with a three-dimensional alphabet written in the vaporous ink they secrete, an alphabet that looks much like Eastern calligraphy. Like Chinese and Japanese, their written language is pictographic, but the pictographs are so nuanced that when computers processes the data of their language, each word comes up with the potential to mean a relative infinity of words, because as it turns out, their pictographs are so complex that each letter conveys an entire sentence. A particularly knowledgeable listener will immediately hear the kinship in this idea to what's probably the most famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius. But this idea takes this Borgesian concept to its next logical step, and discovers a visual style to match its vastly magnified sublimity.

When we first see the aliens, they appear to us not as a sudden jerk of surprise to inspire fear, but these grey beings gradually appearing to us from the ether, even on the second largest screen in the whole city, we can barely perceive their outline over a period of two minutes the cinematography gradually makes their outlines distinguishable from a grey and cloudy mist. We don't know if we're su  supposed to fear these beings, but they are awesome and terrifying. They are as unfathomable to us as the divine.

As we begin to learn about them, their unknowability only increases. the stoicism of these beings seems eternal and unchangeable. They wait with seemingly infinite patience for a human to begin processing an understanding of their nature. Because it is not only the appearance and communication that is different from ours, it is the nature of their identity, and their very consciousness. These are not individual beings but a single collective being whose physical touch is part of its own language. By a mere touch, it can communicate the nature of this eternally consciousness to a linguist like Amy Adams's character who like us all cannot process memories except backwards. So therefore their memories are not only of the past, but of the future. They do not move through time, they experience all time but the present simultaneously, their memories being of both future and past.

This is science fiction, and very much fiction, but this is not science as we generally understand it, with its generally incontrovertible physical material. The philosophy and science this movie deals in is neither astronomy nor linguistics, it's metaphysics, and a metaphysician or a philosopher specializing in time and memory, trained in Plato and Kant and Heidegger and Bergson would probably be much better equipped to appreciate this movie than any linguist or scientist whose training would prevent them from understand that there may be states of being out there which transcend the scientific laws upon which they've based their life's work.




Mini-Cast #16 The Re-Arrival Part IV - first third

Warning: Here be massive spoilers.

So what then... what has arrived in Arrival?

Like I said last week, it's not a great movie by the metrics of Sarris and Kaufmann, or even Kael, but those film critiques were critiquing for another era more influenced by old notions, they wouldn't have understood the future - even if I wonder whether many of their predecessors of the 19th century would. Many reviewers thought the movie ineffably moving and human - moving it absolutely is, it seems to levitate from beginning to end in a state of grace almost Christian. But human? Most definitely not. Even the surprises are unsurprising, the characters behave not as human beings but servants to plot devices. But what a plot...

In the face of a plot this overwhelmingly mystical, the kind of fully realized and evolving characters one gets in Ozu and Altman would only get in the way. The point of movies like this is not the people, but the metaphysical states of mind to which people are capable of ascending.

What makes Arrival much more than a mere gimmick is not the twist ending, it's the nature of the idea it posits. An idea whose baroque grandeur is matched by the romantic magnificence of the visual way it conveys it.

The aliens in Arrival, the squid-like heptopods, communicate with an alphabet written in the vaporous ink they secrete, an alphabet that looks much like Eastern calligraphy. Like Chinese and Japanese, their written language is pictographic, but the pictographs are so nuanced that when computers processes the data of their language, each word comes up with the potential to mean a relative infinity of words, because as it turns out, their pictographs are so complex that each letter conveys an entire sentence. A particularly knowledgeable listener will immediately hear the kinship in this idea to what's probably the most famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius. But this idea takes this Borgesian concept to its next logical step, and discovers a visual style to match its vastly magnified sublimity.




Thursday, November 7, 2019

Mini-Cast #15 - The Re-Arrival Part III

So let's finally talk a little bit about Arrival. Not so much about the movie but about how the theater presented it. There are extremely mild spoilers in this podcast, the next will have many more, but consider yourself warned.

When I got to the theater, there were multiple academic speakers before the movie: a linguist, a philosopher, and an astronomer. ...Sounds like the beginning of a joke... and in some ways it was. The linguist said that she had never seen the movie, but she'd read a few summaries and proceeded to tell a few spoilers. The philosopher said that he'd both seen the movie and read the short story it was based on, but he'd have rather a different movie get curated in this science fiction series, and proceeded to tell us still more spoilers.

After the movie, the linguist told us how incredibly much she hated the movie. She said that the movie was based on what's called the Whorfian theory of language, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - which according to a website called 'Science Direct' is a kind of linguistic theory of relativity. The meaning behind it is that the particular language you speak affects your conception about reality. Old conceptions would posit ideas such as because German has so many compound words, Germans have become more adept at understanding elusive states of being. Whereas the French have an institution called the Academie Francaise, which exists to keep the French refinement of language in its famously refined state, and very slow to evolve. So, according to this theory, Germans would find it very easy to understand inner experiences, while the French are very good at understanding outward experiences, physical and sensual. Is there evidence for it? Well, perhaps in other eras when extensive education was not nearly so widespread, the inherent properties of the language helped thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau develop very materialist, polemical conceptions of how to improve the world, while Kant and Hegel developed world-conceptions that were extremely metaphysical and speculative. But now that we've thought through all these theories for more than two-hundred years, now that so many educated philosophy students read French and German equally well, now that ideas and experiences of the French and Germans have cross-polinated so extensively, what difference really is there? Everything which Germans know, French know, and vice versa. And the EU is such that simply being French or German involves immersion in one another's worlds. So this is just one example of the strengths and, more obviously, weaknesses of Whorfian theory.

This professor said that the Whorfian hypothesis is thoroughly discredited, and in a purely linguistic sense, this makes perfect sense. Language literally serves a descriptive purpose, and therefore must always be extremely mutable. To embrace the Whorfian hypothesis seems to my extremely brief acquaintance with it a denial that the human brain is able to master new concepts. Maybe it's true that older generations will have a harder time understanding new ideas from foreign places and world-conceptions, but future generations will have assimilated these new concepts their languages and grappled with them their whole lives. Over enough time, any foreign concept can become familiar.

But even if the Whorfian theory has been discredited, theories which sound like it in other fields have not been discredited. Most obviously to me, the famous theory of Orientalism by Edward Said, which posits, among other things, that Westerners cannot possibly understand the inner experience of what it means to be from a part of the world which Westerners have exploited, and therefore when Western artists try to portray other parts of the world in art, it is necessarily a narcissistic, exploitative appropriation, however accomplished. Again, this is vastly oversimplifying an endlessly commented upon field of study. So we'll simply agree: no, no one will never apprehend the physical, real time, inner experience being from another part of the world. However, learning about other places and people and peoples in ways that are both immersive and respectful, imagining one's way into them, that is an undeniable part of the human experience and a necessary occurrence in peaceful co-existence. Even if Orientalism is entirely true, it would be in the self-interest of both the former colonizer and former colonized to disbelieve it.

One theory obviously has roots on the Right, the other roots on the Left. In spite of the fact that Edward Sapir was a Jew whose mother tongue was Yiddish, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - reached independently by both Sapir - the teacher, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, the student, the theory itself comes from around 1928, and like a lot of thought during this period, its fermentation clearly has some shared roots with some very objectionable nationalist ideas. Whether or not Sapir, or Whorf believed in any other objectionable ideas of that period, it's not hard to imagine that the Whorfian theory's most fervent believers could quite easily posit that some languages are intellectually inferior and therefore their speakers cannot properly understand concepts of superior languages - even though one of the theory's founders was a Jew whose mother tongue was Yiddish and obviously spoke German and English with native fluency.

So with regard to Orientalism, there are, of course, essential understandings of the human experience which are alien to one part of the human race and not another, so it's just one similar fall down the slippery slope of extremism to alleging that because one part of the human race has essential experiences another part doesn't have, then that part of the human race is by definition superior.

One could of course counter that given with all the notions of superiority which people of color had to contend with for the last two-and-change millennia, white people, the master racists, should be in no position to complain and still have all imaginable material advantages of structural imbalance to fight against the racism of other races.

But, of course, consider that unfathomably deep black hole in leftist syllogisms that was Communism. In the 20th century, it was not necessarily the rich or even the middle class who suffered worst at the hands of the Russia's Bolshevists or China's Kumchuntang. Occasionally the wealthy even learned how to parlay their privileges and connections to remunerated collaborators with the Communists. But while Communists made sure to liquidate the middle class and exile the upper class twice over, Communist liquidation ultimately knew no social class, and I guarantee that the poor constituted the vast majority who starved in the Great Leap Forward and Holodomor. So if many of Orientalism's nephews and stepchildren fail similarly when put into practice, do not suppose that people of color will be failed by them any less than white people.

Or, maybe, by some miracle, both theories will eventually be proven correct. If one does, why then not the other? But if both theories end up being correct, then do not expect that we have anything like the scientific or technological knowledge to prove them yet. We might even have that proof in a year or two, unlikely as that is, but what would prove them, as ever, is data, and the statistical sets and models coming from our computers and routers is quintillions of times more complex than anything we've yet seen in human endeavor. It becomes clearer every day that we stand at the beginning of a change to human life as sweeping as the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. It occurred to me that perhaps we should call it 'The Re-Arrival.' What has re-arrived? We will talk about that in the next, hopefully final, episode of this first multi-episode series of our new model.

Mini-Cast #14: The Re-Arrival Part II


So just before the age of the industrial revolution and mass production, religion became dismissed by famous intelligentsia like Voltaire and Frederick the Great as a backward world-conception, while freedom and equality became the watchwords of this soon to be three-hundred year era within whose exhausted end we now seem to exist. But what mean freedom and equality in an era when we are completely addicted to screens that collect data about our every choice with nearly as little autonomy over our ability to ignore the screens as slaves? The human mind will soon be mapped, mastered, even recreated by this scientific force built by we ourselves. A monument to human achievement so great that it clearly has potential to be millions of times more powerful than any of us, and therefore is already changing the nature of humanity as drastically as literacy changed pre-historic man; and changing us in ways we'll never begin to fathom until the changes happen.

So on that bright note, let's change gears for a moment and speak of something that seems a lot less lofty; the movie which started these speculations: Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams. I don't know if Arrival stands anywhere near the semi-summit of my personal pantheon. It's not generally my kind of movie... but I do know that when seeing it on the giant screen of the Parkway Theater, I had a sublime experience and had it in spite of everything about the movie but its ideas and images executed on the most elementary level: its characters are not characters, they're two-dimensional mouthpieces for incredibly basic sentences to emit gimmicky plot exposition which itself only exists to set up its concepts and images, but what concepts and images! I don't want to reveal too much, but there were so many moments in this movie whose images science and language inspire in ecstatic ways that only religion could previously provide.

Science fiction is so far from my preferred genre. Einstein famously said that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people. You can judge the size of my mind for yourself by listening here, but if it's a small mind who prefers discussing people, then my mind is proudly miniscule. Most of my day is spent think about other people and trying to understand what thoughts motivate their actions - whether they're people I know, or people I read about. I read a lot, but I am a person, and as most people do, I often prefer the company of people; so when not among people, I prefer reading about people. So I guess it follows necessarily that I generally prefer realistic stories about human behavior to stories based about ideas. To me, the ability of humans to portray themselves and understand how to create their own best lives is the height of human achievement precisely because it perpetuates us and gives us the most stable environment from which we can grow our human potential to its maximum size. But once part of our potential grows to an imbalanced size, it's impossible for the imbalance not to destroy many parts of the human plant which are smaller.

As I said in our very first podcast, art is a societal seismograph. It's impossible to look at the art of any period without some insight into what its creators and audiences were thinking, feeling, and sensing. The stability of viewing the world in realistic terms can often feel like a prison from which there is no release or escape, so if there's none of either, then the only other option is to change our perception of the prison itself - and the first step in the process of changing our prison walls is to find a way of perceiving the prison that transcends its walls - meaning to find transcendent concepts. But anybody who wants to destroy the prison first has to perceive that there's a life outside the prison walls. And therefore, since art is the most direct way we perceive meaning, these concepts of transcendent possibilities will show up in art long before they show up in life. Obviously before billions of humans could adapt Christianity, a book had to be assembled that evangelized a transcendent concept of an infinite being who controls infinity - obviously meaning the Bible. Dante wrote a work which speculated it possible we can perceive a map of the entire afterlife, and not in Latin but in vernacular Florentine Italian, and relatively soon thereafter countries began codifying their regional dialects into national languages. Milton portrays a rebellion against God, and soon many millions begin throwing God away entirely. Wagner portrays a world where a man from a hero race can becomes a hero who overtakes the Gods, and soon the entire German people act as though they all expect to be sent to Valhalla tomorrow. George Lucas conceives of battle stations so powerful they can destroy entire worlds and then.....

(pause a beat)

Show up in life these concepts inevitably do. Eventually, no matter how hard you try to perceive the prison walls differently, the walls still reveals themselves sometimes as a prison, and the more they do, the more disappointed we grow at the lack of change.

We still have no idea of how science will affect the world, let alone science fiction. But particularly in these eras of newfound instability, it lets us imagine how the instability affects our world, for good and ill. What is undeniable, however, is that science is potentially a force as powerful or more powerful than the divine, because it can conceivably work all the miracles and abominations which our ancestors once imagined God did routinely upon earth, and do so in reality.

Much more often than its devotees want to admit, science fiction is necessarily short on human qualities. It has to be. If the subtleties of the characters or prose are what's most memorable, that means that the concepts and images of science fiction have not imprinted sufficiently on our memories. Perhaps you might as well write realistic fiction. In this way, science fiction is no different from other, extremely different, forms of conceptual fiction from previous eras: romantic poetry and opera, religious art, religious texts themselves. All of these are usually short on human-size qualities, and are so by necessity. The best of it is inevitably larger than life because it must create entire alternative worlds, so if they want to to illuminate the possibilities of something as large as our own world, their world had better be the same size. As the rules of our own world change, science fiction can posit, both metaphorically and literally, the different ways the changes will affect us.

I very much like the company all the various nerds who prefer all this transcendent stuff to the life-size, they're inevitably interesting people of imagination who can conceive of the world differently from the mundane way it is. But I fear their ideas very much. I fear the facet of human character that would so rock the human boat that they would deliberately throw over a large quotient of passengers from the deck for the alleged betterment of all who remain. Perhaps the fault is mine, but it is nevertheless my fear.

Once these new ideas, be they intersectional or libertarian, communist or fascist, Jacobin or Ultra-Royalist, enter the human bloodstream, they don't leave, and until a new balance and stability is found that takes them into account, Noah's Ark seems as though it will sink along with all the animals of the earth. Noah's Ark is clearly one of the original conceptual fictions, but a deluge that destroys the world from human iniquity is now a very real possibility, and there is a lot of conceptual fiction which shows how it can happen.

Mini-Cast #13 - The Re-Arrival - Part I

Martin Scorsese said that Marvel movies are not cinema and how the fuck are people still talking about this a month later? In any other era, this controversy would have lasted two days - thirty years ago, a journalist might ask Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini about superhero movies, gotten a fifteen-minute rant, and everybody would move on because before the internet, there was a finite boundary between comic book nerds and the general public. Nobody gave a shit who Bergman and Fellini were who weren't cinephiles to begin with. But whereas the cinephile generations used to hang out at the movie theater or even video stores, nerds generally hang out on the internet now, where everybody can instantly learn what everybody else has said and thought, and re-generate each other's outrage in perpetuity; so by an old-fashioned guy stirring a nest of sexually frustrated hornets, the internet has now assumed battle stations, and in Scorsese's defense, Marvel got even more vitriolic excoriation from Francis Ford Coppola, Ken Loach, and Pedro Almodovar. It's like the 2016 election for movies, seemingly almost demarcated by generation, with the outrage of one side further feeding the other's outrage.

Is Marvel cinema? Who gives a shit?! Why should Marvel fans care whether the work they love is the equal of work that 99% of them couldn't care less about? The Marvel movies are not just movies, they're part of an enormous franchise that includes comic books, novelizations, video games. I frankly think it's a disservice to both cinema and Marvel movies to call them cinema, because if Marvel movies are cinema, and let's hold out a possibility that they are, but if they are, then cinema is not powerful enough to stand as its own justification. Comic book movies are just an arm of comic book franchises and not necessarily the most powerful arm either. So in that regard, they are almost uniquely porous in the movie world, and to describe a comic book franchise in a single term requires its own definition which I don't know how to provide.

But it's one thing to exclude Marvel from the pantheon. Marvel movies are generally not shit, but they're not exactly earnest attempts to capture elusive poetic truths about the universe either. It's not a scandal to allege that Marvel movies are much more entertainment than art. It is, however, a scandal to say that the most artistically ambitious works of speculative and conceptual fiction - be it science fiction, fantasy, or counterfactual history, is anything but cinema or art. It's one thing to dismiss sensational, violent superhero movies where everything is solved by an explosion caused by people in plastic costumes, but are we really going to dismiss to dismiss The Day the Earth Stood Still, La Jetee, Dark City, Forbidden Planet, Grave of the Fireflies, Her, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Princess Mononoke, Brazil, Stalker, Metropolis, A Clockwork Orange, Ugetsu Monogatori, Children of Men, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pan's Labyrinth, ET and Close Encounters, Toy Story and WALL-E, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Pinocchio and Bambi, The Wizard of Oz?!? Dismissing all that as something less than the great cinema among great cinema is impossible.

Werner Herzog, the visionary German filmmaker, declared that we are an age starved of new images. It's difficult to imagine what he means in this culture where our minds are so bombarded by the pictures we see on screens. But go onto Google Art sometime, look at the religious images of Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Albrecht Durer, Andrei Rublev, Cristobal del Vilalpando, and all their greatest peers. Or look at the great cathedrals and the great mosques of the Islamic world. Imagine for a moment being a peasant who would never be able to conceive of such images until they saw them with their own eyes - the infinite is revealed to them. They have experienced a moment of the sublime. And for people in such positions, every difficulty of their lives may become bearable from the humility inspired by that moment.

So how are so many of us, fraught with constant worry about planetary doom, but with no religious belief to console us, supposed to feel that humility before creation that could be the difference for some of us between life being bearable and life only being worth ending? We need that sublimity, but we know too much now, religion can no longer provide it for us. In the centuries following the enlightenment, many millions, particularly Americans, have thought personal liberty and freedom of choice the avenue to provide it, for surely no one knows better how to be the cause of our own happiness than ourselves. But a narrow majority of the world is now more or less free from dictatorship, and even if not free even by the standards of 20 years ago, they are still vastly freer by any standard than they even were in 1960. So the frontier of freedom has basically been crossed, yet billions still find living a basically miserable experience. One in four people experiences depression, one in five live in poverty. It would seem by some statistics that just in 2017, 970 million people experienced a mental disorder, and just one in twenty people live with no physical ailment at all! What point is there in freedom of choice if freedom has come this far, only for us still to have so little idea how to use that choice to better people's lives? Still other people think that equality and justice is the worthiest goal and will get us most of the rest of the way to providing that sense of relief from life's agony. For the moment, all I can say to that is that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all thought the same thing. Clearly, the world has such wildly divergent definitions of what constitutes justice and equality, what peace can there be between people if we can't arrive at basically agreed upon definitions of these most essential concepts to human well-being?

Our new frontier is no more social justice than it once was social class. Our new frontier is science. the objectives of social justice and liberty, however disagreed upon, are limited by the crude matter of reality. At the end of their roads, there is no revelation, no transcendence. Perhaps these goals are all the more worthy because they place humans at the center of human's own endeavors - as I suppose we all should. But whether from the coding of our brains or because our intuition about of the nature of existence is genuinely right, the vast majority of us are compelled to believe that there is a world beyond the mere things we see, and therefore, however much some of us believe in liberty and/or equality, half or more of humanity seems programmed leave mundane objectives like a good life by wayside when they perceive something far beyond this life. Just as monotheism held us in sway for thousands of years, so then will science. The universe, or multiverse, or whatever is out there, is still so incredibly unexplored that however material-based science seems now, we can't help but see within it possibilities of transcendence and infinity.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Turandot's Challenge Part 2 - halfish....

What you're hearing in the background is an AP video from 1998 of rehearsals for a production of Turandot in the Forbidden City of Beijing, directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China's greatest film directors: Turandot produced in the grandest, most glorified manner by the culture who, by the standards of contemporary American values, should be most offended by it.

A century ago, all the European/Marxist notions of class were largely irrelevant in North America. It's not that notions of social class weren't as true in America as elsewhere, but America was a continent in which millions had the opportunity to transcend their low station of birth, and eventually, hundreds of millions did. And in almost the precise opposite way, the Soviet bloc too transcended stations of birth, upper and middle class holdings were completely repossessed, their owners driven into exile, imprisonment, and quite often liquidated. Such is history's brutal lottery.

So in due time, East Asia may develop all kinds of ways to transcend American intersectional notions of race and identity. While East Asia is encyclopedically diverse in linguistic dialects, it's far less diverse in skin pigmentation than any place in the Americas save Canada due to its mostly northern latitudinal placements. And therefore, hundreds of millions less people would be defined by their physical identity. In light of that, the challenges of hailing from this side of the world are so vastly different from ours. In a place like Japan, identity may eventually become so mutable that new generations may one day feel next to no impediments to self-discovery, while in a place like China, questions of identity lie at an extreme crossroads. Depending on the beliefs of who China's absolute ruler is in any given era, identity in China may in our lifetimes become as mutable as in Japan, or so immutable that the problem vastly transcends mere questions of identity.

In Japan, the ever-increasingly popular conceptual practice of Ikigai, whose closest translation seems to be 'reason for being', entails that extreme uniqueness has a continuously growing acceptance in Japanese cities - whatever the clothes, whatever the hairdo, whatever the hobby, it grows increasingly unjudged and even celebrated. Part of what's shocking about this is that it's happening in Japan! We in the West often, and not completely without reason, think of Japan as the world's most shame-based culture. I suppose necessity is the mother of invention; but consider that just in the last two years, the Japanese education ministry added sexual orientation and gender identity to its national bullying policy, taking precautions about properly educating its teachers about the challenges of LGBT+ youth. The next year, the Japanese government started covering everything about gender reassignment surgery but the hormone therapy and legalized people with gender dysphoria to change their gender. In June of this year, the ruling Liberal Democrat party introduced the LGBT Understanding and Enhancement bill. LGBT activists correctly argue that none of these reforms go far enough. But this is all just in two years, and in the last four years, same sex marriages have been recognized in twenty-six separate cities and prefectures, and two more are due to recognize them in 2020. If a culture known for centuries for its shame and conformity is so ready to change its understanding of a concept that such drastic reform can happen so quickly, how much further can it go?

On the other hand, China shows little such progress, which is especially shocking because opposition to homosexuality seems to have been a Western import, brought only to China in the 18th century. Yet China has taken to this Western-oriented opposition as few Western countries currently do. Polls list Beijing as the single least accepting major world city of homosexuality.

......

In the 20th century, Soviet Marxists used their idea of a society without classes as a a cudgel, with a network of informers that led to the murder tens of millions. In the 21st century, China could use their social credit system to attempt a society without identities, with a video and computer surveillance system that could imprison and murder the millions who don't conform to it.

Morality has no monopoly, and

But the Rite of Spring tells its story in the most base of human musical urges - dance. Turandot tells its story in the most grandiloquent and incorporeal of musical urges - song. Stories of tribes are told through dance, stories of civilizations are told through song.



As the Rite of Spring does with absolute music, Turandot is a pass of the baton, but the baton has yet to be picked up. It is a challenge to the musicians of the East: Do better than us. Tell your story to the world in your own voice.

End with Peking Opera