God Made Me Do It

Today a Texas jury found Andrea Yates not guilty by reason of insanity for the drowning of her five kids. Frankly, in this country that seems to be turning increasingly Christian, I’m a little surprised she wasn’t found not guilty. And not because I expect the jury to be sympathetic to a woman who suffered post-partum depression or anything like that. No, I half-expected (well not really, but for the sake of irony I did) her to be found not-guilty because there is a Biblical precedent for parents being instructed by the voice of God to kill their children.

To me, the Yates case seems rather similar to the story from the Bible about Abraham nearly sacrificing his son, Isaac. I’m most familiar with this story via Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, but I think this phenomenon of God telling people to kill their children is fascinating.

According to Kierkegaard (and others), Abraham is the “father of faith.” The fact that he had complete faith in what God told him to do and was willing to do it set the template for how Judeo/Christian people should relate to God. That is, that God has a plan and that us mere mortal humans cannot possibly try to understand what He has in store of us but that ultimately whatever He wants from us is bound to be the best thing.

Abraham is a pretty major character from the Bible and based on my understanding, very few people consider him to be insane. Yet when it comes to Andrea Yates, the obvious answer is insanity. Why is that? I’m not sure. Because she is a woman? Because we no longer believe those Biblical stories? I really don’t know.

I just find it absolutely fascinating that nobody (as far as I know) has even suggested that God really did instruct her to kill her children. Granted, as an atheist I don’t think this is possible, but I really am surprised that with so many Christians in this country who claim such a devout faith and want to create laws based on their religion, they still decide to pick-and-choose when it comes to matters of faith.

During my senior year of college I wrote a paper that sort of delved into this issue (which reminds me that I really need to post some of those papers…). One of the “first American novels,” Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist by Charles Brockden Brown dealt with a man who was commanded by what he believed to be the voice of God to kill his family. Ultimately, it turns out that the voice was definitely not God (and was instead a man who was able to throw his voice), but how was Weiland supposed to know that?

What intrigues me about these cases is the ethical dilemma that arises: harming/killing children is considered to be one of the most horrible and “evil” things that humans do to each other. Yet as the “father of faith,” Abraham is given a free pass. Granted, in the end his son didn’t die, but that was only because God supposedly intervened to stop. The fact remains that Abraham did fully intended to kill Isaac, so as far as I’m concerned, that makes him just as guilty as someone such as Andrea Yates who also claimed to hear the voice of God, yet this time God (for whatever reason) decided not to intervene. And as Weiland shows us, how is anyone supposed to be able to really tell the voice of God from the voice of someone pretending to be God.

For all we know, Abraham really didn’t hear the voice of God, but could’ve been “insane” (as we’ve labeled Yates) or could’ve been the victim of a cruel prank (as is what happened to Weiland). Either way, it seems to me that blindly following faith and believing that God is giving commands resulted in a terrible lapse of judgment.

I am glad that the jury saw the Yates case for what it was. The poor woman was obviously not in a sane state of mind when she killed her kids. If Abraham was alive today and killed his son, I would’ve argued the same thing. Both were insane.

Wrong Things For the Right Reasons

So far Did Someone Say Totalitarianism is proving to be one of my favorite Zizek books. It doesn’t use as much pop culture examples (jokes, Hitchcock movies, Kafka, etc.), but focuses more on politics and philosophy and ethics. It’s been a long time since a book has caused me to think so much, and that’s definitely very cool.

I intend (and I know I say this all the time) to do a more in-depth review of the book and comment on some of my favorite/most inspiring passages, but something interesting struck me this morning.

Zizek was discussing how, when it comes to following the law, “doing the right thing [following the law] for the wrong reason [to fulfill pathological desires]” is about as “bad” as you can get. Generally people who do this (and right now I’m thinking large corporations and whatnot) view the law as malleable and something they can change if they exert enough pressure on lawmakers. What happens, then, is that the law is changed so that they can continue doing “wrong things” but still feel good about it.

On the other hand, doing the “wrong thing [breaking the law] for the right reason [to fulfill a higher ethical motive]” is the best thing to do. This would include things such as acts of civil disobedience, etc.

And then doing “the right thing for the right reason” is pretty uninteresting and doesn’t really touch upon any ethical dilemmas.

For whatever reason, this got me thinking about “killing in self defense.” Let’s say that someone was about to kill me and family/friends/etc. and in response to that I killed that person first, thus giving me an “out” with the law since I killed that person in self-defense. Nothing too extraordinary there. Let’s say, however, that the law explicitly allow killing in self-defense and the same situation occurred. I might have to go to jail, but my act would remain quite ethical since I did something (even the “wrong thing” [i.e. killing someone]) for the “right reason” (to defend myself and friends/family/etc.).

So basically, by allowing for these “ethical loopholes” in the law, we’re taking a larger ethical dimension out of acts that people do.

What does this mean in the end? Probably nothing. What does this contribute to the world of ethical philosophy? I don’t know. I’ve never delved into the subject before. I just thought it was interesting how we’ve created laws to remove certain ethical acts from our lives.

Zizek! The Movie!!

Zizek! movie poster
On Friday (Jan. 13th), I got to see the Seattle premier of new documentary Zizek! at the Northwest Film Forum. The film is distributed by Zeitgeist Films, a company I became familiar with because they also distributed the somewhat life-changing The Corporation. I’ve know that they were working on a movie about Slavoj Zizek, my favorite philosopher/theorist, but I wasn’t sure when it was going to be released.

Lucky for me, one of my friends asked if I was going to see Zizek! when it opened at the Northwest Film Forum (I didn’t know about it before she mentioned it), so I was able to make sure I caught the premier. Following last night’s showing, two professors from UW (Henry Staten and Marek Wieczorek) lead a discussion about the film.

The film itself was pretty remarkable, if for no other reason than the fact it gave me the chance to see what Zizek is like in person (as much as a documentary can capture someone “in their essence”). In order to do a more in-depth analysis of the content, I would have to watch the film again (and with subtitles — Zizek talks faster than anyone I know and with a slight accent). To briefly summarize, the film shows Zizek giving some lectures; spouting his ideas on philosophy, politics, and psycho-anal-ysis (as he wrote it — get the Freudian joke about “anal”??); playing with his kid; showing off his kid’s toys; watching, then critiquing, a television special by his mentor Jacques Lacan; and sharing his thoughts about three types of suicide (physical, emotional, and metaphysical).

Other highlights I’ve remembered as I’ve been working on this:

  • He makes a point about the fact that nowadays are worried about the end of the world and that they see capitalism as the final organization of human society. He made a great joke that went something like, “People are more likely to believe that the world will end than they are to believe that capitalism can improve/change.”
  • He thinks the world is chaotic, and that love is the end of the chaotic disaster.
  • He keeps his clothing in drawers and cabinets in his kitchen.
  • He admits that he is narcissistic.

I’m not sure if the film is a good introduction to the philosophical ideas of Zizek. My friend Aurea, who had never been exposed to Zizek before, fell asleep during the movie and was, I think, rather lost. I couldn’t necessarily gauge if others in the audience felt the same way. If I were recommend Zizek! to someone, I would do so under the in order that the person gets a glimpse at the personality of a great philosophical mind — not to get a crash course in Zizek’s theory. While there were some selected quotations from his works (which appeared on the screen for a too short of time — I could tell they faded before people had a chance to digest the quotes) and there were even some cool animations that attempted to visually explain important ideas, the film is a biography more than anything else. Any philosophy that may be absorbed would be by osmosis.

Summary by Prof. Staten

Following the film, Staten started the discussion by asking for a show of hands of people who had read Zizek. I would estimate that only 20% of the people in the audience (of maybe 100 people??) raised their hands. I was quite surprised by this — but I guess, as Staten suggested, there must be “film forum junkies” who trust the Northwest Film Forum’s judgment in movies and went for that reason.

Staten then provided some biographical information about Zizek that the film (strangely) didn’t mention, such as the fact that Zizek was involved in the Slovenian Revolution to overthrow communism. Staten believes that Zizek’s experience with communism profoundly marked his world-view, especially when it comes to believing in an ideology since nobody really believed in the totalitarian communist regime and the ideology that it purported to stand for. Although the country was supposedly communist, nobody really believed that communism was the solution, and they found ways to work around the bureaucracy.

Zizek’s experiences with communism and revolution seem to have had two especially strong lasting impacts:

  1. He is able to see capitalism from an outsider’s standpoint since he didn’t grow up with it.
  2. He actually participated in a revolution and is part of political history (unlike most philosophers who mainly participate in the abstract). This gives him an authority as a commentator that not many contemporary thinkers have.

Zizek’s involvement with the revolution and seeing some of his philosophy in-action makes him feel that most theory has a certain impotence to it and that it isn’t practical and whatnot. Staten feels that these feelings gives Zizek an “agitated, barely controlled mania” and causes him to refuse to be appropriated by the mainstream liberal consensus — he doesn’t want his ideas to be watered down or tamed. He thinks that cultural studies is an academic façade and that it pretends to be doing something against the prevailing ideology, but since it has been appropriated, it probably supports the system that it critiques.

Communism also shaped Zizek’s ideas about (false) utopias, a point he touched on briefly during the film. Zizek said that in a false utopia (such as communism), the situation is so without issue that you need a new space to survive. For Zizek, the only way to create that space is to imagine a way out. Staten believes that this need to imagine a new way out also adds to Zizek’s intense nature and forced urgency.

Zizek’s lived experience, Staten feels, makes him the most authentic thinker on the theory stage.

In addition to that biographical information and how it probably influenced Zizek’s philosophy, Staten briefly explained what he thought was one of Zizek’s more important and controversial (more or less) ideas: the obscene superego injunction to enjoy.

Conventional Freudian psychology about the id, ego, and superego argues that the superego’s function is to tame the id — that is, to control and repress desire. The superego is the “good” influence from society and functions as a conscience.

Zizek, on the other hand, believes that the superego’s real command is not “repress,” but, rather, “enjoy!” The pressure to enjoy ourselves is the true oppression of the superego, not the pressure to repress. Staten used the phrase “repressive desublimation” to describe this situation where the more freedom we think we have (i.e. that we really should enjoy ourselves all the time), the more we feel limited in our choices and oppressed.

I must that when I first came across this idea in Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (I think?), I found it quite profound. If you think about it, the pressure to be happy and to give in to your desires and actually enjoy yourself is much more intimidating than to simply repress those desires and go on with life. I’m glad that Staten explained this idea more lucidly than the film managed to.

As for Staten’s overall thoughts on the film, he had two comments:

  1. Why didn’t we get any Zizek commentary/reflection on all the toys he bought for his son? What does that say about enjoyment and capitalism?
  2. There was a moment of unprecedented, naked revelation by Zizek when he made a comment about how he feels like he is nothing at the core and that talking all the time gives people an illusion that there is something inside of him.

I’m not sure I found that statement as profound as Staten did (it reminded me, in fact, of something Patrick Bateman says in American Psycho), so I’ll have to think some more on that.

Summary by Prof. Wieczorek

Wieczorek started by commenting that his favorite book by Zizek was The Invisible Remainder (which I cannot find on Amazon).

He also felt that the film showed the fact that Zizek obviously feels the need to do his work, but then withdraws a bit in order to avoid becoming appropriated to too mainstream or too predictable.

He thinks that Zizek is, in a way, playing with the idea of being an analyst. He invents a symptom (for himself, for other things), which is a form of self-representation coupled with evasion.

Wieczorek also explained, more than the film did, about Zizek’s interest in Jacques Lacan‘s triangle of the Real/Imaginary/Symbolic.

He noted that the Real is what cannot be represented with symbolic language and that the Real is invoked through sublime horror.

He also commented on the fact that Zizek once mentioned how he doesn’t like the idea of people expecting him to be “the voice to tell us what is next in theory.” Wieczorek suggested that Zizek is avoiding being the Big Other and becoming wrapped up in a system a la Stalinism or a la bureaucracy.

Finally, Wieczorek noted what he sees to be the “ethical drive” that possesses Zizek and that such a drive probably relates to the Real and that it should be a cause for the left.

Questions/Discussion

What sort of criticism of Zizek exists?
There isn’t much serious critique, mostly because people (i.e. academics) treat Zizek as a clownish genius. They give him nicknames like “the Giant of Ljubljana” and call him an “academic rock star,” which belittles him (“a giant in a land of dwarves? who else is from Ljubljana??”).

There have been some more serious debates (apparently that took place around the turn-of-the-century), involving Zizek, Judith Butler, and Ernesto Laclau. Incidentally, Zizek and Butler are apparently friends (he calls her “Judy” in the film), but the debates (which continued on in journals [Staten could not remember the name of the journal at the time] and stuff) lead to a major calling out between Zizek and Laclau.

Another reason, one of the professors suggested, that there isn’t too much criticism of Zizek is because he is more of a moralist and existential thinker. He doesn’t do very substantive political theory, which leaves less room open for debate. He makes observations more than he tries to prescribe how the world should be.

Does the film represent Zizek as a clown (and thus reinforce the fact that he shouldn’t be taken seriously)?
The person who asked this question made a really keen observation: Zizek lived under a totalitarian system that nobody believed in. Then after the fall of communism, he found himself under capitalism, which everybody believed in. He sees parallels between the two ways of living, which throws him off balance.

As for the answer, Wieczorek seemed to believe that the film did portray Zizek as a clown.

Staten, however, thought that the representation was rather accurate, and that Zizek is somewhat eccentric. He wondered if Zizek behaved in such a way in order to expose the absurdity of the world and systems and whatnot.

Another audience member noted that the depiction of Zizek was very different from the depiction of Jacques Derrida in the movie about Derrida. While Zizek was eccentric and clownish and casual, Derrida commanded the audience’s attention and was very serious.

Staten noted that Zizek’s books are full of jokes and that as a writer, he is rather undisciplined and hard to follow. Some of his writing is crap, but some of it is good. This is a problem that Zizek creates for himself, and the film sort of points this out.

The question made me wonder if people viewing Zizek “from the outside” (i.e. haven’t read his work) might view Zizek! differently than those of us who are more familiar with him. We know he’s clownish and writes with a unique style, but that under all of that, he has some very important stuff going on. Those who haven’t read the book might only be able to see the clownish side of him. Maybe all of this concern about his representation as a “clown” or whatever is a convenient way of not talking about his ideas since they are somewhat radical?

Zizek’s self-representation
One of the main points of self-representation that people seemed to be interested in was the scene where Zizek critiques Lacan’s Psychoanalysis television special. Zizek claims to hate the special because Lacan seems to be too dramatic with his gestures and that everything appears too forced and deliberate.

This lead some people (there seemed to be agreement among lots of people about this — lots of nodding and people chiming in with their own observations) in the audience to wonder if Zizek was being a bit hypocritical since here he was, in a documentary about himself, being pretty dramatic with his talking and gestures.

Staten disagreed with this assessment of the film, and was convinced that Zizek’s gestures were more nervous and compulsive — not thought-out and dramatic, unlike Lacan.

As for Zizek’s critique of Lacan, Staten drew two things from that:

  • Zizek is not impressed with Lacan’s attempt to give importance to himself and his work.
  • Zizek feels the need to show his ability to critique Lacan.

This lead to some discussion of Derrida and how people who follow in Derrida’s footsteps tend to be very uncritical of Derrida’s work. This evidently really pisses Zizek off since people are always calling him a Lacanian and criticizing him for that fact. At one point in the film Zizek gives a rather angry response to an audience member who asks him if he might be following Lacan too closely and whether that limits his philosophy. Zizek vehemently points out that he is able to critique Lacan, unlike the Derrida people who basically worship him.

Zizek! vs. the film about Derrida
The guy who asked this question was, I thought, a bit of a PWM (presumptuous white male) of the academic variety. He pointed out that both the film about Zizek and the (aforementioned) film about Derrida both featured the subject’s name in the title, were made by grad students, were made by Canadians, and that these Canadian grad students were young female (a point which he seemed to be particularly proud of himself for noticing). He wondered if there was anything significant or telling about this.

He also noted that Derrida acted like Lacan did in the (aforementioned) television special on psychoanalysis.

I don’t recall how the professors answered this question (though I am pretty sure they dismissed any significance about personal details of the filmmakers). Basically, I thought the guy just wanted to hear himself do some amateur film criticism or something. Though he missed an important point: Derrida and Lacan share the same first name: Jacques! (sheesh, amateurs!)

“Buffoonery” disarms the audience? Is that a strategy for delivering his message?
Staten noted that living in communism in a totalitarian regime, there were tons and tons of jokes about the system and that those jokes were a way of saying something without really saying it. Thus, Zizek probably uses jokes as a type of cultural defense and that the “buffoonery” of the jokes always has an aspect of political allegory.

If Zizek is to be considered a moralist, how can he call himself a Stalinist? Can anyone connected with Stalin be moral?
I found it humorous that the guy who asked this question apologized for being an Aristotelian since it might make him too tied to the moral argument, or something.

In the film, when confronted with a similar question, Zizek notes that, though he seems to have a certain admiration for Stalin, he himself is indeed very pro-democracy. Further, he has written more about Stalin than pretty much anyone else. Staten reiterates this point, adding that Zizek’s analysis of the show trials in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is quite extraordinary and worth checking out. (Also, he mentioned that Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is one of Zizek’s best and most accessible works.)

He also cautioned us to critically wonder, “What does Zizek mean when he says he is a Stalinist?” Does that mean he really, genuinely believes in Stalin’s methods and philosophies, or does he say it for a different reason?

He recalled the scene in the movie where Zizek mentions the fact he doesn’t want to be absorbed into the mainstream, and wondered whether calling himself a Stalinist is a way of remaining dangerous to “moral”-minded thinkers.

Nonetheless, Staten believed this to be a dubious move and that by adopting such an association, Zizek definitely creates a shock factor.

That said, calling himself a Stalinist could also be Zizek’s way of explaining how an internalized Big Other could allow Stalinism to occur, and that maybe Stalinism isn’t unique to Russia or so difficult to occur.

Either way, Zizek is always provoking.

How would reading Zizek’s books differ from seeing Zizek in film?
For the final question, I am almost certain that the professors intended to call on someone sitting about two rows ahead of me (who had his hand up every time the floor opened for questions), but then some guy in the middle went ahead and barged in with his question. To be fair, the guy in the back waited a few seconds, as if he needed to be acknowledged more precisely (aww, what a polite guy!), so he did kind of blow his chance…

As for the similarities between Zizek in film and in writing: What makes him so frenetic and lively is his intelligence. This fact comes across in both mediums.

He produces a lot of thoughts and ideas and is very inventive, but not the most convincing, profound, etc. person. He would rather say something stupid than say nothing at all.

I think it was Wieczorek who said that reading Zizek was a cinematic experience that involved lots of vectors.

Overall Thoughts on the Discussion

I thought it was great to be around other people (even if it was just a slim portion of the audience) who knew who Zizek was and were interested in his work. The two professors from UW were obviously quite knowledgeable about Zizek, and I am glad I got to hear them speak. The discussion after the movie seemed to really focus on the filmmakers’ representation of Zizek as a clown/buffoon/whatever, which I got bored with, but then realized that the discussion probably should have focused on the film, anyway, and not Zizek’s philosophy. For people interested in filmmaking (which is a major focus of the Northwest Film Forum), the study of representation is much more valid and interesting.

The Real Of Meaning

(This idea was inspired by a comment Slavoj Zizek made in the movie Zizek!, which I saw tonight and I will post thoughts on soon. This tirade isn’t directed toward anyone, and it makes sweeping overgeneralizations. Consider it a polemic, in that case, and let it provoke your mind.)

It seems to me that a lot of people nowadays think that we are living in corrupt times and that our existence if devoid of meaning and that we take nothing seriously. These feelings of moral self-hatred propel things like the current conservative right-wing Christian movement. People want to return to “the good old days” and often seem overcome with nostalgia. I am not going to provide proof of these things right now, but if that is a real issue, I can expand upon them at some time.

I’m not sure why people feel this way, because, to me, our current era and whatever generation I belong to (I was born in 1981, so that makes me “Generation X” by some accounts and “Generation Y” by others) is actually more real and more genuine than other generations.

Take the way we talk, for example.

I remember in fifth grade I was introduced to the idea of sarcasm. A friend of mine, who had a friend who was a year older, informed me that in order to be a fifth grader, you had to talk sarcastically. Everything you said meant the opposite, basically. “Oh yeah, school was real cool back then.”

Granted, talking sarcastically was a way of setting ourselves apart from adults, who tended to talk more literally, but I think it also expressed some sort of deeper ambivalence we had toward the world. We didn’t want to say anything was certainly one way or another, and felt the need to leave ambiguity in our language.

Despite the fact sarcasm started, for me, as a thing fifth graders did, it remained almost a second language for me. I cannot think of a day that has gone by when I haven’t made a sarcastic comment. Sure, my grandma makes sarcastic comments, too, but I think it tends to be more prevalent in my generation. The dominance of sarcasm wasn’t just some isolated thing among fifth graders at Gatewood Elementary School.

I think that we are afraid of confronting the Real in our everyday speech — or, rather, we are afraid of superficially confronting the real.

If something is really “good,” we will say so. If something is so-so “good,” we will say it sarcastically. In order to confirm whether something is “good,” you have to ask, “Are you serious??” And even if we are serious, you have to ask again, “No, really?? Are you serious?”

When we do use precise, real, and meaning-filled language, we really mean it. For us, language loaded with meaning isn’t something we throw around.

Another example: love.

Granted, I cannot pretend to know how things used to be, but it seems that nowadays, telling someone you “love” them is a pretty powerful and meaning-filled experience. We don’t throw the word around lightly. We save it for someone when we mean it and when it is worth it.

Some argue that our generation is too promiscuous and that we lack values because we will have sex before marriage. Also, though, we don’t require that someone falsely tell us that they “love” us in order to have sex. Saying a meaningless phrase is no longer part of the act. When we say, “I love you,” chances are we mean it.

Nowadays, we take things more seriously and we don’t appreciate the historically empty way of treating serious issues. We may seem apathetic and indifferent, but I think that a lot of the time, that is merely our disgust in traditional way things have been done. We don’t appreciate the empty threats and empty promises.

As Zizek has said, ideology isn’t dead — it’s alive now more than ever. Instead of the ideology-for-ideology’s sake that has pervaded throughout history, we are taking it serious now, and it is frightening. As Lacan has showed is, encountering the Real is traumatic. Don’t mistake the shock for us being jaded or apathetic. Who knows what will come of it all.

Apocalypses Nowish

About a month ago I started reading a book titled How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. More than any other book I’ve read recently, Posthuman profoundly changed the way I think about the world and sort of put into focus some themes that I have been interested in for a long time, but never took as seriously as I should have.

The funny thing is that I’ve had How We Became Posthuman for quite a few years. I purchased it during my senior year of college when I was writing a paper about the connections between “techno culture” and environmentalism (“while (i= 1){print (‘be sustainable’);} The Loop of Sustainability in Technology Culture”). I decided to go a different direction with the paper than I first anticipated, so the book sat on my shelf. When I recently read a book by Slavoj Zizek, I noticed he mentioned the book a few times (in regard to Hayles’ theory of “flickering signifiers”) and decided it might be time to finally read it.

Perhaps sometime soon I will review some of the more important (to me) and interesting aspects of the book, but for now, I’ll summarize it by saying:

Throughout much of the twentieth century, humans and machines have become increasingly intertwined via computers, telephones, the internet, etc. Not only has this changed the way we interact with others (phone conversations, e-mail, instant messaging, etc.), but also how we interact with ourselves. The liberal humanist view may be fading as we start to ask, “What does it mean to be alive?” — especially in light of semi-intelligent machines and our ability to create new forms of live (be it biological or within a computer).

I also learned about the fascinating American Society for Cybernetics, which is, as far as I can tell, one of the most progressive and challenging group of scientists out there. You would think that they would only be interested in the mathematics and electronics and whatnot of cybernetics, but they appear (based on Hayles’ descriptions) to be just as interested in the philosophy of artificial life.

Of note, I learned about an article titled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.” Hayles seems to think (and I agree) that this article has the potential to revolutionize science. Basically (and this is rather implicit in the article), the researches showed that a frog’s reality is constructed based on the way its eye sees the world.

Taking that a step farther, we can conclude that the human eye probably works the same way. So what we (and scientists) “observe” about the world, isn’t necessary the “real” world, but rather the brain’s construction of it. As I told my friend in an email:

if the frog’s way of seeing the world is different than humans’ (in that it doesn’t really notice stationary things and fast-moving things e.g. flies make more of an impact), then it is safe to assume that the way humans see the world isn’t really as “objective” as we think. further, when scientists make an observation, they are doing so within the constructed reality that we, as humans, have created within our brains. make sense? therefore the scientist is always part of the system he/she is observing and cannot make observations outside of it.

The big idea here is that science should be a reflexive practice, and that the scientist should always consider himself/herself as part of the system that is being observed since the very act of observation influences the world the scientist understands.

This reminds me, a bit, of the uncertainty principle — though I think I value the idea of reflexivity more. Based on my understanding, the uncertainty principle deals with the act of measuring something and the philosophical idea that something can never be accurately measured. The idea of reflexivity says that something cannot be measured because measuring is only an observation made by an individual with a subjective existence in the world — i.e. nothing is objective.

Another theoretical topic that seemed to be popular among the cyberneticists was the problem of defining “information.” Of all the theories presented, the one that made the most sense to me had to do with the value of the information based on probability. For example, a piece of information that says, “The sun will rise tomorrow” isn’t very valuable. The probability that the sun will rise tomorrow is pretty high, so that information doesn’t tell us much. A piece of information that says, “There are U.F.O.s at White House,” however, is much more valuable. Prior to obtaining that information, I would have never (err, most people, at least…) imagined that there would be U.F.O.s or that they might be on the White House lawn. Since that information tells us something with a low probability, it is worth a lot more.

In addition to learning about the demise of the liberal human subject and about how the frog’s eye constructs the frog’s reality, I was also introduced to some interesting people and books.

I swear, reading about what went on at some of those Macy Conferences was just fascinating. These scientists were not only truly ahead of their time, but could also be characters as well.

My favorite was Norbert Wiener — the “founder of cybernetics.” The Wikipedia article on him is great (especially the anecdotes!), so check that out — it does more justice to him than I could even attempt.

I was also somewhat surprised to see that Margaret Mead was also involved in the conferences. In fact, her husband, Gregory Bateson was quite an influential figure.

There was another guy who really interested me, but his name escapes me now. Perhaps I will update this later with information about him…

As for books, How We Became Posthuman generates a must-read list for any wannabe or tried-and-true geek. Hayles, who is an English professor, manages to uncover and critique some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction written (as far as I can tell).

For the most part, I’m not a huge science fiction fan. That is somewhat of a lie, because I am a fan, but a lot of it tends to be formulaic and not very interesting. When it comes to fiction, for example, the most sci-fi stuff I read is Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood. Oh, and I also like Ray Bradbury. I like my science fiction with a dose of political critique or dystopia.

That said, Hayles book has re-ignited my science fiction spark, and since reading Posthuman, I’ve been more accepting and acknowledging of my inner sci-fi geek.

For example, for whatever reason, I’ve been putting off reading Philip K. Dick for way too long. In Post Human, Hayles does an amazing reading of at least 3 or 4 of Dick’s stories. She analyzes frequent themes in Dick’s works such as the schizoid android, paranoia, dreams vs. reality, etc. — all within the context of what it means to be human and what Dick is saying about the evolution of humans into a posthuman existence.

Hayles’ analysis lead me to the Wikipedia article on Philip K. Dick (twin sister who died! Communism! sodium pentothal! visions! amphetamines!), which only made me more certain that I needed to get some of his books and to proclaim that PKD may, in fact, be my favorite author, despite the fact I hadn’t read anything by him. (Though: 1. I loved the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall — both of which PKD wrote the original stories that the films were based on; 2. I’ve been meaning to read something by PKD for a long time, I was just daunted by his enormous volume of work and not sure where to start.)

I have since acquired a first-edition paperback copy of Dr. Bloodmoney (and learned about first editions in the process), as well as a newer (so I can write and take notes in it) copy of Bloodmoney as well as Martian Time-Slip.

Another book that Hayles mentioned in Posthuman that I had to check-out was Limbo by Bernard Wolfe. The book is out of print, so I had to order a first-edition of it from eBay. I have yet to read it, but the storyline (apocalypse, people who intentionally remove their limbs, texts that are misinterpreted, etc.) definitely intrigues me.

All of this talk of cybernetics, the end of humans as we know ourselves, and sci-fi books by extremely imaginative authors, and the re-embracement of my inner sci-fi geek has made me realize that I am quite interested in the idea of an apocalypse and dystopic futures. That seems to be a thread that runs through all of the stuff that really piqued my interest in Posthuman.

To further investigate this theory, I ended up buying both The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day in order to see whether I could do a bit of close reading with them. (Yes, I am a huge nerd — in addition to a geek!) I probably need to watch them again (which I can, now that I own them), but I must say that T2 is better than the first movie and it definitely has a lot more back-story to it. I have yet to watch Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

I must share, however, that during T2 I started to tear up during the scene in which the atomic bomb drops and the kids on the playground are incinerated. As much as I am interested in the idea of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, the thought of that much death and destruction, en masse, absolutely saddens me. And then I started transposing that playground scene onto the moments when the U.S. dropped two bombs on Japan and I felt even worse.

Looking back, I realize that I have always been rather interested in the idea of apocalypse. From movies like Akira to video games like Final Fantasy 6 (FF3 US) and Chrono Trigger, I guess there has always been a part of me that enjoyed things with an apocalyptic element.

I’m not sure what to do with this recent self-realization and self-reflection, but it’s always exciting when a book causes so much intellectual activity in your head. I don’t think anything I’ve read in a long time has caused me to think about so much and in such different ways. It feels quite invigorating.

Past Lives

For whatever reason, the topic of past lives has come up a few times in the last couple of weeks. In order to save myself the trouble of stating my viewpoint, I’ll post it here. I may go into more details at another time.

Being an atheist, I don’t believe in God or any of that stuff, nor do I buy into the agnostic idea of souls or whatever. I wouldn’t say, however, that I strictly believe in science or whatever. My beliefs on those “big questions” are rather nebulous, to be honest, and I am still trying to figure out what I think is true.

But on the topic of past lives: I do not believe that souls are reincarnated. I think when people have hypnosis that finds past lives (or however else people determine that stuff), one of two things is happening:

  • The “past life” is really some repressed idea in the person’s unconscious psyche (yes, say hello to Jason the Freudian). To the person, it may very well be “saved” as a past life and there are ripple effects of that past live in the person’s life, but it all comes from some sort of inner psychological goings-on.
  • The “past life” is really a simultaneous existence of the person, though in another dimension. What I mean by “dimension” is rather vague. Do I mean another universe using the Bubble Universe Theory? Or do I mean another dimension as in a hypothetical “sixtieth dimension” where reality is shaped based on different variables and whatnot? Like I said, I’m not sure what I mean by “dimension” here, but any of the possibilities seem more likely to me than the existence of a human soul that is reincarnated.

So there you have it. Don’t be afraid, however, to ask me this in person. I just figured since it seems to be a hot topic lately, I should get my thoughts out there.

Gothic Machinist

Christian Bale in The Machinist
(I had started writing this post literally months ago but sorta gave up so this is a super simplified version…)

Ever since taking a “Gothic American Literature” course in college, the idea of the uncanny has been one of my favorite literary themes. The idea comes from Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny.” The best way I can summarize the idea of the uncanny is: the familiar becomes unfamiliar. For example, you look into a mirror and you don’t immediately recognize it as yourself.

Another one of my favorite literary themes is the physical manifestation of psychological phenomenon. This is nothing unique or special, I realize, but I love it nonetheless for two reasons: I tend to think that a lot of illness is somewhat psychosomatic, or, at the very least, affected by your mental/emotional state (i.e. if you are feeling sad about something, you may be more susceptible to a cold or something like that); and since I view truth as a subjective matter, of course I would believe that a person’s psychological state could somehow manifest itself in their notion of reality.

All that said, I loved that The Machinist combined these two elements.

Without giving too much of the movie away, I’ll just say that understanding the idea of uncanniness and physical manifestations are key to this film. Or, rather, they make it much more rewarding. Christian Bale’s character has a mysterious past which is manifested in paranoia and insomnia (which indirectly results in the extreme thinness that, more than anything, got lots of publicity for the movie).

I liked The Machinist as a psychological study. The twist at the end isn’t much of a twist (or wasn’t for me, at least), but this is one of those movies where the ending matters less than everything that comes before it.

Thank God For Atheism

Over at The Huffington Post, a guy named Sam Harris has a succinct, and convincing (well, for me he’s preaching to the choir, so maybe I’m not the best to judge) defense of atheism and argument against belief in God, etc. titled “There is No God (And You Know It).”

At the same time, the current book I’m reading (For They Know Not What They Do by Slavoj Zizek) has raised some interesting points about Christianity as well.

So far, both works have suggested the same thing: (if he exists then) God is impotent.

From Harris’ piece:

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? … If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.

From Zizek’s book:

So what is revealed in Christianity is not just the entire content but, more specifically, the fact that there is nothing — no secret — behind it to be revealed … Or, to formulate it even more pointedly, in more pathetic terms — what God reveals is not His hidden power, only His impotence, as such.

I just find it really interesting that within 24 hours, I’ve read this twice.

As for Harris’ argument, I want to highlight some other very convincing points:

… “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence — and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.

What I really like about this point is that it refutes an argument against atheism that a religion professor I once had made. She said that atheism was a paradox because it had to acknowledge the existence of the thing it rejected. That is, atheists had to admit that God existed — or maybe the idea of God — in order to say that God didn’t exist. Or, in my more psychoanalytic Hegelian terms: they had to acknowledge the presence of an absence. Harris’ argument here, however, places the burden on the believers. I think that is much more justified.

Another commonly-made argument against atheism that Harris makes is that of arrogance/narcissism. I’ve had believers accuse me of being too full-of-myself for believing that I am the one solely responsible for my life and my existence and for thinking that the world revolves around my perception of it rather than believing that there is some God somewhere that is pulling strings and making everything happen. Harris rightfully calls the believers on their narcissism for thinking that they, as believers, earn a special status in the world that makes them better/luckier/worthy:

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is — and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Bringing some literary/historical arguments into the picture, Harris suggests something that I’ve been saying ever since I first went to church: Why is it that people assume that the Christian God (or whatever modern religion God/deity/etc.) is any different than “mythological” gods in ancient religions. When I asked this in Sunday School once, I remember the leader answering that it’s very likely that what the Greeks and Romans thought of as gods were actually the Christian God — that they just didn’t understand Him as well as Christians do. Okay, that makes sense — but if we allow for that possibility, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that maybe it’s the other way around — that the Christian God is really Zeus? That didn’t go over so well.

And finally, Harris makes my favorite point: that atheists, because they don’t have this “well everything is better in heaven and Earth is just a place to suffer” attitude, are far more compassionate than any “compassionate conservative” would ever hope to be:

Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. … That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion — to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources — is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity.

It is for these reasons, and many others, that I continue to call myself an atheist .

Gender Studies 101

Strangely enough, two of my daily reads, Salon.com and Slate, featured some “gender studies”-related articles yesterday. Reading them really made me miss college (which isn’t to difficult for me) and reminded me why I really should’ve been a women’s studies minor (which, it appears, my school has renamed to “gender studies”… there was a discussion we had during my senior year and it sorta of bothers me that it was renamed and may require a blog post in the future).

The Salon.com article, “Attack of the listless lads” is an interview with Benjamin Kunkel, who recently wrote a book called Indecision. Surprisingly, the interview was less about Kunkel’s book and more about Rebecca Traister’s (the writer of the story) desire to find out “what’s wrong with young American men” (and no, I do not take offense to that question).

Kunkel made some terribly fascinating points:

He suggests that dating around with the thought that it should lead to marriage (and doesn’t more than it does), has perhaps got men stuck in a vicious circle:

The idea is that dating should lead toward mating, and spread out before us is this array of choices that should lead toward a choice you can feel secure in. But I think the opposite happens. You become familiar with disposable relationships. So though they seem to be conducting you toward permanence and mating, in fact they’re just inculcating a habit of serial monogamy.

He also suggests that because women have made such gains in the workplace, that men feel inadequate and “unworthy” of dating the due to the “super-abundance of attractive, intelligent young women”:

I think men inherit — if from nowhere else than from the movies — the impression that in order to win the respect and love of a woman, you ought to be doing something meaningful in the world. And if you can’t hold your head up high in that sense, then why ask somebody to love you?

What I thought was the most interesting point he made had to do with consumer culture and the desire to always have something better. Instead of viewing love as a destiny, nowadays love is seen as a goal — a goal that can always be tossed aside once it has been achieved.

Kunkel explains:

Partly, a model of shopping has overtaken our experience of romance. Love, historically, has been associated with a sensation of destiny. It’s very difficult for us to attain a sensation of destiny where love is concerned anymore, because we think we can always look for something better, which is essentially a shopper’s mentality. There’s no destiny when it comes to buying pants or shirts or a dress. There’ll be the nicest thing you can afford this season. But then a new season will [bring] more attractive styles and you’ll actually be able to afford something better. I think that tremendous passion that we feel other generations had and that we missed was attached to a sense of destiny, and of permanent love that would survive changes in station and opportunity and fortune.

There is a bunch of other interesting cultural criticism in the piece dealing with things like bureaucracy, the “crisis of masculinity,” and “some mild sort of institutionalized promiscuity.” I’m not sure the interview makes me want to read Indecision, but it does sound like this guy has done a lot of thinking and has a fresh view on the male side of gender studies.

As for the Slate piece, what’s going on there is one of their Book Club discussions about Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs. (Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families by Pamela Paul and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.)

Discussing the book are Wendy Shalit of ModestyZone.net, Meghan O’Rourke of Slate, and one of my favorite authors/cultural critics, Laura Kipnis (who wrote the amazing Against Love: A Polemic. Kipnis also wrote Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, which I read parts of for my Advanced Media Studies class, so I feel confident in saying that she knows her porn! Also, she’s somewhat of a Freudian Marxist — two of, I think, the most impactful thinkers on the 20th century.

(Note: The second day of the book club discussion has already been posted, but I haven’t read that yet, so this will just highlight parts from day one.)

Kipnis, of course, makes the points that I agree with the most.

In her brief introduction/synopsis of Pornified, she makes this extremely witty remark:

… she’s utterly blinkered about the rest of society, or history, or politics; it’s as if sexuality occupied some autonomous world of its own. (Like a porn set.)

I just love that she compares the “world of its own” vacuum of Pornified with the porn sets that, undoubtedly, Paul criticizes. So smart!

I also like how Kipnis immediately kills the suggestion that porn has caused men to treat women badly. She notes that well before porn men were pigs. Kipnis dares Paul:

So, when exactly was the golden age of relationship bliss that Paul thinks porn has torn asunder?

She also channels some Foucault by suggesting that the more we rally against porn and sex, the more prevalent we make it in society:

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the two [mainstreaming of porn and abstinence-only sex education] aren’t exactly unrelated: They’re both products of a culture that’s deeply conflicted and hypocritical about sex… What comprises the majority of Web sites, aside from porn? Religion and shopping. A seething cultural compost of sexual prohibition and compulsive consumption… Public virtue and private lechery are also long-standing features of American sexual culture… We’re a culture that hates and fears sex, but can’t get enough of it.

Another assertion that Paul makes that Kipnis totally blasts is Paul’s suggestion that pornography is ruining men’s ability to have relationships with their girlfriends. Apparently Paul interviewed a number of men with girlfriends who claimed that, if they had to choose, they would take porn. This reminded me of some documentary/20/20-like show we watched during my media studies course in which a bunch of men sat around comparing stories about how porn ruined their lives. Please. They ruined their own lives, and if porn wasn’t the “poison,” I’m sure something else would have been. Similarly, Kipnis asks:

Yet Paul seems convinced that minus porn, somehow these guys would be fulfilling all the intimacy needs of their partners. Sorry, but who’s the compulsive fantasist?

Shalit makes some interesting points about the potentially self-destructive and self-hating nature of the “female chauvinists” (of Girls Gone Wild, etc.). She compares these women’s behavior with that of immature, sexually-driven, young men:

True, there have always been men who objectified women, but society also encouraged them to grow up at some point. But today, even grown women are taking their cues from the most immature males.

When she re-tells some of Paul’s stories of husbands who ignore their children while watching porn and a 21-year-old who wants to dump his 16-year-old girlfriend because she won’t get as kinky as he wants, I just cannot see how this is porn’s fault — yes, porn may make the problem more visible, but there is obviously something else wrong with these guys. To reiterate the point earlier, if porn didn’t exist, the dad would still be a bad father and the 21-year-old would still be objectifying his jailbait girlfriend.

Shalit seems to agree with this, and reiterates what Kipnis notes earlier:

As porn consumers become increasingly desensitized to viewing sex online, Paul shows how their tastes turn to the odd, the young, and the violent… I read Paul as saying that the availability and intensity of Internet porn is what’s new, and that because porn desensitizes us, we’d better wake up and pay attention… Is she implying that without porn, these men would be perfect partners?

But then Shalit falls prey to Paul’s horror stories and suggests that porn is indeed the problem:

I thought she was saying something far more reasonable: that if men weren’t learning about sex from pornography at age 8, or 10, or 13, then at least they’d have more of a chance to forge real intimacy with women.

… Yes, if it weren’t for porn, these poor men who were exposed to porn at an early age might have a fighting chance to forge real intimacy. Yes, these poor men who just need a chance! (Ugh!!)

Without reading Paul’s book, I shouldn’t comment, but it sounds like she is definitely trying to scare people into hating porn, and obviously it works. Shalit even admits:

At any rate, I found Paul’s stories quite shocking.

Nonetheless, I did find this statement by Shalit to be frightening and potentially true:

It’s like some big cosmic joke: The people who are supposed to be “sex positive” and enjoying their cultural freedoms are actually lonely and having terrible sex, whereas studies have shown that religious marrieds are the ones enjoying themselves the most. What’s happened? Perhaps without emotions involved, sex becomes boring.

I do see this happening — but again, I don’t see porn or being “sex positive” as the problem. I agree with Kipnis that it has more to do with hypocritical attitudes toward sex and the feelings of shame, excitement, perversity, etc. that they cause.

O’Rourke enters the debate as a moderator, or so it seems. She immediately (and rightly, I think), points out:

What I was struck by in each was how difficult it was for the authors—for all of us—to get past their (or our) own assumptions about porn and sex… There are murky issues just beneath the surface of each book. Yet those of us reading them quickly split along ideological (or gender) lines.

She also makes a rather bold suggestion that when it comes to the porn debate, perhaps women are the ones trying to force unrealistic fantasies on men. She asks:

Is men’s use of porn necessarily destructive, or is it simply women’s relationship expectations that make it seem destructive? Reading Pornified, I sometimes thought the women were simply allowing an unrealistic dream of imaginative fidelity to shape their response to their partners.

Additionally, she plays the devil’s advocate (or maybe not?) and asks whether porn is really as bad and degrading as conventional wisdom suggests:

I’m merely questioning the conviction that pornography is inherently degrading. Likewise, what if women who flash their tits on Girls Gone Wild are enjoying themselves—if not all of them, then a select few? What then?

She also tries to find a middle ground between Kipnis’ social/consumerism as the root and Paul’s pornography as the root argument. O’Rourke notes that porn is becoming so much more prevalent and so much more intense, that it cannot be ignored, as Kipnis vaguely suggests:

Porn doesn’t exclusively produce the relationship woes and female insecurities she describes. But in its new form it presumably contributes to the ongoing shaping of how we see the world and affects the behavior of those who use it.

Between the Salon interview and the Slate discussion, there is a lot to digest here, and I think it’s interesting that there is overlap between the two. How are relationships between men and women changing? And even how is sexuality changing?

My major critique of both of the pieces is that they are extremely heteronormative. I know from Against Love that Kipnis’ argument encompasses all sexual orientations, but in the Slate piece it is very geared toward men/women relationships. Where do same-sex couples fit into this? And how is the consumption of porn different for lesbians and gay men?

Lots to think about. Makes us all wanna be gender studies majors, eh?

Origin of Life

Puddle of algae
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the idea of universal common descent. I know there has been some recent questioning of common descent, but let’s pretend for a second that common descent is indeed the model — and even if it is not, the fact that life has basically come from one branch of evolution is still pretty phenominal.

My thoughts, however, have been less along the lines of “oohh everything is related to everything an intertwined and has a common history” (a la the whole “all humans descended from the same first humans so therefore everyone is good and the same”), but more about the fascinating aspect that since the first collision of proteins or whatever the made the first (or first three) cellular-type structures, that act of “life begining” has not happened again.

All life that we know of is carbon-based and somehow consists of cells and consumes energy. And that is all we know of “life.”

With the Mars Rovers treking across another planet and the new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter equipped with even more tools for trying to find “life” on Mars, I wonder what it is we are looking for? Obviously we are looking for carbon-based lifeforms that we are familar with — a plant, bacteria, an incest, an animal, etc. But for all we know, “life” on Mars evolved very differently so as it didn’t require cells or solar energy. Maybe “life” on Mars (or anywhere else in the universe, for that matter) is invisible to our eyes and instruments or lives in a different plane or existence due to it’s different base-atomic structure.

I wonder if there is any value to considering the definition of life. Could a star be considered “alive”?

On a related note, I wonder why evolution has only allowed sentient life (as far as we know) to happen once. Does the fact that humans exist as we do create some sort of metaphysical impossability for other animals to develop language as seemingly complex as ours? Can no other animals learn to create fire?

… I apologize for the “everywhereness” of this post and its rather abstract nature, but I do wonder what “life” is and how it came to be that “life” only started on Earth once. I’m sure the chances aren’t that high of “life” randomly starting, but it seems really strange to me. What is going on?