Interstellar, intentionality, etc.

interstellar8(Here be spoilers for Interstellar)

There were moments in watching Interstellar where I was at the edge of my seat – but not quite in the way that you would expect. These were moments where the movie had the possibility of derailing itself by making the plot take one of the many dumb turns that space movies often take. The fact that it didn’t, and that my critiques of it are limited more to smaller details, is something of a minor miracle. Most movies of this ilk follow the path of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where some of the individual ideas and art direction are interesting, but the overall product is pretentious crappolla.

Anyway, Interstellar is a hard science fiction film directed by Christopher Nolan, set in the near future where ecological disaster is quickly rendering the Earth uninhabitable. The mysterious appearance of a wormhole in the solar system gives NASA the opportunity to send manned probes through it in the hopes of finding a planet capable of sustaining human life. A followup mission is sent to recover the data from the three probes that turned up positive so that either a) the information recorded from the black hole on the other side will lead to the development of propulsion technology capable of getting large colonies off of earth, or b) the mission crew will restart the human race on one of the planets by way of reproductive technologies.

Matthew McConaughey is Cooper – the man recruited to be the pilot for the mission. His determination in the mission springs from his desire to save, and eventually be reunited with, his daughter, Murphy. Indeed, this relationship is really the crux of Interstellar; in spite of a plot implicating the fate of all humanity, the movie is more concerned with the nature of the relationships which come to define us, and whether the people we love can and should be sacrificed for the greater good, if the circumstances are grave enough. But this, of course, feeds into a more cosmic question which the film implies: are we creatures meant to be oriented towards the true and the good, or are the things that are important to us merely byproducts of evolution which natural selection, being utterly indifferent to things transcendent, may one day prune away from us?

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The Matt Damon effect

This is the first thing that Interstellar gets right – the human drama rings true. Few movies are interested in aping 2001’s icy post-humanism, but so many feel weirdly constrained by the genre, seeing deep space as a setting best used for recycling thriller/suspense tropes ad nauseam. Interstellar rather feels more like a melancholy western about pioneers braving the elements for the people they love – in particular I found myself thinking about John Ford’s The Searchers, which is similarly animated by a man in pursuit of a niece he has seemingly lost.

Case in point: around the middle of the movie, the crew must investigate a planet which is close enough to the black hole to produce a time dilation where one hour on the planet will be roughly equal to seven years outside it. Planning an investigation that will cost them only two years, they leave one crew member, Romilly, behind on the space station to continue studying the black hole. As you might imagine, catastrophe hits and the crew gets detained on the planet’s surface for longer than anticipated. By the time they make it back to the ship, over two decades have passed.

A lesser film would have had Romilly snap under the weight of isolation. Indeed, previous scenes indicate that he has difficulty adapting to space life. It would be easy to draw some tension over the crew dealing with a madman who has had access to vital equipment for years. It would be easy and possibly exciting, but in the end, just a meaningless case of cabin fever. Instead Romilly turns out to be just a tad more laconic and spaced out.

Interstellar instead saves the insanity subplot for Dr. Mann, whose probe landed on the  second planet the crew investigates. As it turns out, Mann’s planet is uninhabitable. Mann, knowing that the only way he could possibly be rescued is if he were to broadcast a positive signal, gives in to the temptation. When Cooper finds out that he has been lying, he attempts to maroon the crew on the planet and take the space station for himself.

This is more compelling: Mann, who is described earlier in the film as, “the best of us,” was called to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of humanity. But he always had the opportunity by making a false move that would put the species at risk. In these circumstances of isolation, ‘humanity’ seems increasingly like this vague abstraction in comparison to one’s own life. Mann ultimately chooses survival at the expense of his own humanity, and the movie heavily implies that this decision is abetted by the fact that, unlike Cooper, he has no particular attachments or relationships that ground him.

Mann’s predicament is a sympathetic one, and it serves to reinforce the broader themes of the film.

Or consider the plot twist that the crew was never seriously supposed to save the humans on Earth. All that was a lie meant to motivate them to get off the Earth and start a colony elsewhere. In a lesser film, this would be the final twist. The film would either end on a note of tragic disillusionment as the crew accepts their grim destiny, or the film would pull a massive deus-ex-machina to avert the situation.

Now, Interstellar does feature an unlikely, near-miraculous solution to the problem. Cooper falls into the black hole and winds up in a tesseract constructed by the beings who created the wormhole. There he realizes that gravity is a force that can move through time, and uses binary and morse code to communicate with his daughter in the past, giving her the information she needs to get the race off of Earth.

But this isn’t a Deus Ex Machina: for one, it is within the realm of the possible that the film establishes. But perhaps more importantly, the film has thematically been pushing for this conclusion.

To get to that, it’s worth making a bit of a philosophical detour.

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Incomplete Explanations and Intentionality

In a critical scene, Cooper discusses the nature of love with his fellow crew member Brand. Brand claims that love is something transcendent and objective. Cooper takes the view that it is a biological function which has a survival utility to it.

This brushes over a more general philosophical issue.

Unlike other phenomena, human thought and action has a characteristic which is unique to them: intentionality. This is a fancy way of saying that they are ‘about’ something. A rock is not ‘about’ something, but a thought is always a thought ‘about’ something, and a deliberately chosen action always has an object that it is ‘about’. So there are two orders of explanation that must be taken into account here: the causal explanation of the thought/action and the intentional explanation.

To give an example: say I’m reading a book, and spontaneously have a thought about my father. The causal explanation would be to say that something I read jogged my memory, prompting the thought. Perhaps one of the characters is similar to him. We can further refine this explanation by going into the details of all the perceptual/cognitive/physiological factors in play here. But this explanation will not serve to answer the questions of what my thought is about, whether the thing it is about is real or not, and what its nature is.

Or to put it in the terms that Gottlob Frege used in his book, The Foundations of Arithmetic: a psychological explanation for why humans believe that 1+1=2 does not replace a mathematical explanation of it. It does not give you any insight into the nature of numbers.

Any explanation of human thought and action which does not take into account the intentional content of these things is by its nature incomplete. And it does not suffice as an evaluation of truth or falsehood or moral good or evil, of this content. Its explanation may be a true one, but it only covers one aspect of the phenomenon in question.

The attempt to explain human behavior purely in terms of evolutionary psychology represents a massive failure to recognize this. Most important and characteristic human behavior does not have, as its intentional content, sociobiological utility. While getting married and having kids helps to maintain the population, and while there are deep biological impulses behind this behavior, it would strike us as really weird and mercenary if someone did this merely because of its social utility. What the actions of the spouses mean is something that supervenes on the biological reality that makes the actions possible.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Brand’s views are vindicated. It just means that a good explanation is one that takes into account the intentional world that humans actually live in, much like how an analysis of a piece of music must take into account questions of compositional structure in addition to the ‘physical’ reality of pitch, duration, etc.

But implicit also are more deeper consequences: if human/personalist goods are merely a function of utility, which is what really matters, then they can be sacrificed when they are no longer contribute to that utility.

interstellar9

Veritas Caritasque

More deeper still, what is useful for survival is not the same as what is true and good. Natural selection favors those traits that are conducive to reproduction and survival. While it is the case that having a decent grip on reality will likely increase your chances of surviving and producing offspring, to take this as the sole explanation of or desire to know is to say that our relationship with the truth is fundamentally incidental – and conditional. If survival should need to come at the expense of truth, then there’s no real reason for not biting the bullet. Actually, given that in this case our intellectual faculties are developed primarily for survival rather than truth, there is no epistemological guarantee that our notion of ‘truth’ is actually a kind of self-projection rather than anything real.

This is really the great insight of Friedrich Nietzsche. As he writes in Beyond Good and Evil,

The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating. And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include the synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable for us; that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live – that renouncing false judgments would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life – that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil.

His epistemological nihilism is the logical endpoint of the hardcore Darwinian and utilitarian theories of human nature that have been in vogue (although he would couch it more in terms of power dynamics). The only way to get out of the rut is to claim human nature has capacities that are not merely the result of natural selection at work.

You can do this without taking a turn towards the supernatural: Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos offers a good example of a secular approach (I’d still argue that classical theism provides the most convincing explanation, though). Anyway, this is why I stated near the beginning that Interstellar is concerned with the fundamental orientation of humanity.

The opening portion of the film shows a society which has forsaken truth. History textbooks are deliberately falsified in order to keep the population complacent and willing to live out their lives as farmers. The mission seems to represent a trajectory away from this. But the later revelation that it was carried out under false pretenses drives home that the mission really represents the perpetuation of this situation where survival is chosen over truth.

Thus things become a question, not just of whether humanity will survive, but more fundamentally what vision of humanity will be passed on. Interstellar ultimately wants to vindicate Brand’s views about the transcendent capacities of humanity. But, humans have fallen away from this vision. They are in need not just of survival, but of redemption.

Thus in order to be thematically consistent, the truly efficacious solution has to be the result of an act of gratuitous love. Cooper, throwing himself into the black hole so that the mission can succeed, symbolically renews humanity as he saves it. The love between him and his daughter becomes the ground zero of the New Earth. Call it sentimental and unlikely, but I don’t think you could change it without doing violence to the overarching themes.

All this goes towards explaining why I found Interstellar to be one of the most compelling sci-fi flicks I’ve seen in a while. It uses its large canvas to explore basic questions of what it means to be human.

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SPAAACE

The above screenshot almost looks more at home in an 80s or early 90s movie, and in a good way.

If there is one area of Interstellar that directly matches up with 2001, it is that they both are unusually effective in making space feel real. A large amount of this derives from their commitment to allow most of their aesthetic decisions to be shaped by the constraints of the hardest of hard sci-fi. The next time you watch 2001, pay attention to how amazing the sound design is.

In Interstellar’s case, there is an even more rudimentary reason: it relies more on sets, models and on-location filming than on CG. Things actually look like they have some substance to them. As icing on the cake, the movie was shot with actual film stock, giving it that now nostalgic texture that movies used to have.

When I think about it, it’s kinda weird that I now look upon these things as unexpected luxuries in a major motion picture.

And I totally want that robot.

Posted in pop culture and its discontents, SF/Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Fantasy VIII Retrospective (Part 1 of ????)

 

the melancholy of ff8

…..whatever.

Introduction

I’m rather resigned to the fact that the Final Fantasy franchise has left me behind. My inner manchild is no longer the manchild demographic they’re targeting, and whatnot. And I’m fine with that: it produced enough interesting stuff in my childhood and adolescent years. I don’t really need any more.

Because, if there was a geek franchise I could probably have been called a fanboy of growing up, it was Final Fantasy. Every new installment was an Event for me, anticipated for over a year in advance. I would defend their rather silly stories as actually being really deep and showing that games could be Art. I would log countless hours onto them, etc.

Now, in my most recent gaming post, I kinda criticized the JRPG genre for hiding clunky gameplay underneath lots of story and (especially) pretty graphics. And indeed, I find that as I get older, the rather repetitive, accumulative nature of the genre becomes less and less fulfilling. Part of this is because, unlike when I was 12, I often just don’t have the time to devote 50+ hours of my life to slowly maxing out my characters in order to see the end of a mediocre fantasy story. Something more immediately gratifying – like MegaMan – is more up my alley.

So the JRPGs that stick with me have in some way to go above and beyond the standard formulae in order to keep my attention. One manner of doing this is to so streamline things to the point where the D&D gameplay becomes dynamic and exciting: Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy XII are excellent examples of this.

The other way is to go the opposite direction in making the mechanics underlying the game very complex and ‘technical’. The game expects you to tinker around with it, figure out how things work, and develop an optimal strategy. A great example of this is the severely underrated Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.

Another example, is, curiously, Final Fantasy VIII

Now, Final Fantasy VII was a real game-changer (pardon the pun). It was one of the first video games to be made with the budget of a Hollywood movie, it elevated JRPGs from a niche genre into the mainstream, and turned the Final Fantasy series into a commercial juggernaut.

It was a lot like the Matrix, visibly affecting a lot of what came after it for better or worse. And, like the Matrix, it’s also pretty dripping in the 90s from a contemporary perspective.

Anyway, Final Fantasy developer Squaresoft had every incentive to play things conservatively for the immediate followup. But aside from similarly being a big budget, eye candy extravaganza, Final Fantasy VIII seems to pride itself on being unusual and baroque.

The result is something of a mess – arguably, FFVIII is not a coherent product. The game almost seems to punish you for wanting to play it normally, and to reward you for attempting to short circuit it. The story and setting show both a concern for worldbuilding and a complete lack of concern for the sort of cohesion that allows for things to make sense in the minds of the audience. The box attempts to sell it as a story, “based on the theme of love,” but the romance feels forced.

In spite of that, it is a fascinating game. FFVIII is one of those pop culture artifacts which are filled with interesting things to look at.

So my look at this game is going to be a bit experimental: I want to move through the game in sequence, commenting on its various elements and details along the way. I’m not entirely sure how many posts this will take (of if it’s even worth continuing; I wonder if this may just be too pedantic). But my current play through is bringing up a lot of thoughts, and I’d might as well try to jot them down.

Liberi Fatali

This is the opening movie that plays when you start a new game. It’s almost humorously overwrought, doing everything it can to convince the player that what will unfold will be epic, profound and full of gravitas. It takes itself way too seriously.

But it’s also pretty impressive. Although CG has advanced quite a bit since 1999, the artistry and attention to detail is still pretty incredible, I find. And it serves as an excellent summation of FFVIII’s rather unique (for a video game) aesthetic. Not to mention that it features Liberi Fatali on the soundtrack – a famous, early example of a game making use of a full orchestra and choir. It’s a suitably over the top accompaniment to the visuals, but similarly still remains pretty effective. Composer Nobuo Uematsu was already a Final Fantasy veteran by this point, and he made good use of the wider sound pallet that 1999 tech provided him with.

 Story wise, this intro serves to introduce us to the rivalry between Squall and Seifer (and the gunblade: their logic-defying weapon of choice).

CharVIII_SquallOur protagonist, Squall Leonheart. On the outside he’s a pretty standard stoic anime dude who takes his duties pretty seriously. However, we also get throughout the game a running interior monologue from him where he goes on about his insecurities, complains about the situations he gets thrown into, etc. This has him pegged by a lot of people as an angsty/emo whiner. But he’s kinda grown on me over the years. This time around I actually found some of his sardonic commentary to be pretty funny – it produces an effect similar to Kyon’s monologues in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzymiya (in fact, those two characters have a lot in common, now that I think of it…which would make Rinoa into the Haruhi of FFVIII…) And, honestly, most of us would likely seem a lot more obnoxious if people could listen into what we’re thinking.

Ff8-seiferSquall’s rival, Seifer. In a way, he’s sort of a prototype of the Hayden Christensen Anakin Skywalker (Attack of the Clones was still a couple years away at this time). Arrogant, hot-headed, impulsive and a bit of a misfit, he gets tricked pretty quickly into pulling a Darth Vader and turning on his comrades. But what I like about him is that he isn’t some ominous figure with a prophecy: he’s just a kid who gets mixed up in some pretty messed up stuff, like an ISIS recruit or something.

ff8-1Anyway, the actual game begins with Squall recovering from the head injury he sustained in the opening. It turns out that him and Seifer were just having a sparring match and things got a little out of hand. Practicing to Ominous Latin Chanting will do that to you. Shortly after Squall catches a brief glimpse of a Mysterious Girl passing through the room, his instructor Quistis Trepe arrives to pick him up.

quistis-trepe

Perhaps one of the more incompetent military instructors around. Most of her efforts seem to have been devoted to (unsuccessfully) attempting to make Squall into her bf. She can, however, shoot lasers from her eyes, so there’s that.

balamb gardenBalamb Garden

Oh yeah, I should probably explain where they are and what’s going on. Squall and Quistis are members of Garden, an international private military organization that trains teenagers (of course) to be SeeDs: elite mercenaries that countries and other interested groups can hire to do their wetwork and whatnot. Their particular home Garden is located in the island nation(?) of Balamb. It has a Jurassic Park inspired training arena with dinosaurs in it. Don’t ask about the implications all this would have for national and international law. Money can buy you a lot of things in FFVIII.

Anyway, we find out that today’s the day for Squall’s final exam. But it turns out that his head injury has prevented him from completing his prerequisite test, so the first task the player has is to wrap that up. Both of these things involve live combat, by the by. Which will require players to understand the….

Junction System

 Unlike in most fantasy settings, human characters are not naturally magical. There are a few exceptions – the dreaded Sorceresses – but for the most part people are pretty mundane. However, they live in a world with magical monsters called Guardian Forces (GFs) and have used them for technology that effectively functions as a sort of erzatz magic. This is the Junction system.

The player can ‘junction’ a GF to one of the characters (the game is pretty vague as to what this actually entails, but it seems to involve incorporating them into your mind). Having done so, the GFs abilities get loaned to that character. This includes the ability to gain magic spells, which are not really spells in the traditional sense, but rather consumable items to be used. The GF itself can also be called into combat if need be.

The spells also double as your equipment, because, if the GF has the right abilities, they can also be Junctioned to your character’s base stats. For instance, if the GF Ifrit knows Str-J, then the character junctioning him can also junction some of the spells he has stockpiled to his Strength stat, in order to raise it up. But the tradeoff is that you can’t deplete your stockpile of that spell in combat without also lowering that character’s Strength.

If all this sounds bizarre and obtuse, well, it kinda is. Your ability to enjoy the game rides on being able to understand the intricacies of it. But the beauty of it is that its a very hands-on approach to shaping your characters, making things a little more dynamic than just collecting experience and searching out the most powerful armor.

You can indeed gain experience levels, but the enemies will always have an experience level average to that of your party’s, so the advantage to be gained by doing so is nill. As far as I can tell, the only reason FFVIII still makes use of experience is to ensure that the combat difficulty is appropriately graded.

So, like I said, attempting to play this game normally will turn it into a war of attrition. You need to treat it like an oyster and shuck it.

Anyhow, Squall’s prerequisite test involves going to the nearby Fire Cavern to capture a GF. So him and Quistis head out on their way.

world mapThe World Map

So we get introduced to FFVIII’s World Map. World Maps used to be a constant of JRPGs but seem to have fallen by the wayside. It functions as an abstraction, meant to symbolize the characters traversing long distances. Like most World Maps, FFVIII’s is pretty small and barren. The island of Balamb in particular only consists of one seaside town, the Garden, and the Fire Cavern.

You’re not supposed to think too much about it, though: the player will zig-zag a bit over it in the course of what turns out to be a day in the game’s story.

But let’s think more about it: what if FFVIII takes place on a planet which is substantially smaller than our own? The local flora and fauna would be used to the lower gravity. A visitor from earth would practically be a John Carter. But I digress

fire cavernFire Cavern

I find it odd, how, in spite of setting up a rather untraditional fantasy setting, the game immediately throws you into a generic fire dungeon. As stated, your goal is to collect this guy – which leads me to ask the question: how do they manage to repeat this test for all the students? Are there just an indefinite number of Ifrits hanging out here? Also, I wonder how many students have died in this test. It seems like just one misstep will send you sliding into lava (and here we’re assuming that convection schmonvection applies).

The test is also timed, but the faculty are nice enough to let you choose your own time limit. Students who take too long probably just suffocate anyway.

NEXT TIME(?): Triple Triad! Final Ex—

Applejack-my-little-pony-friendship-is-magic-20527293-570-402: Now hold yer horses. Aren’t there a few ponies yer forgettin’ about?

basil1:Well, I—uh–

severian: Furthermore, you have yet to even cover my ascendance to the rank of Jorneyman, and yet you waste ink on the apprenticeship of a young man to what must be one of the most undisciplined and inefficient guilds I have yet laid eyes upon. But what else can one expect in this degenerate age?

basil1: Oh, what have I gotten myself into….?

Posted in Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

For the sake of the Kingdom

Patricia Snow has penned an excellent article in defense of celibate vocations at First Things:

In the short run, it does no harm and possibly much good to try to strengthen monogamous, lifelong marriage. But to think that this is the answer to the Church’s problems is to think as man thinks rather than as God thinks. In the long run, if the vertical to which the horizontal relationship of marriage is ordered comes down, not only marriage but the Gospel itself will fall. When the Church stresses relationships between creatures more than the relationship of the individual to God—when she treats marriage as an end rather than as a seedbed for vocations—the Gospel message itself is compromised. The hard Paschal truths at the core of Christianity are suppressed: the truth that the natural family is never fully commensurate with Christ’s new family; the truth that a man’s enemies will be members of his own household (Matt. 10:36) and that in order to be Christ’s disciple he must hate not only father and mother, wife and children, but even his own life (Luke 14:26). And in the atmosphere of tribalism, human respect, and sentimentality that ensues, an illusion of human sufficiency creeps in, an illusion that, in our human strength, we can meet one another’s needs.

[….]

In our relational lives there is only one absolute good, and that is our relationship to God, a good denied to no one, lay or religious, who seeks it, prioritizes it, sacrifices for it, holds fast to it. Relative goods, on the other hand—including health and success, marriage and children—man cannot demand. God dispenses relative goods as he sees fit, in order to help man find his way to the final good of eternal life with him.

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Questionable tastes

 

 

While I’m most often associated with fancypants stuff like opera, I do listen to more than my share of popular stuff. Here are ten recommendations I make for your desert island. You’re welcome.

moving pictures

 


Rush – Moving Pictures

In the circle of friends I had during most of high school, there were only three acceptable kinds of music you could listen to: classic rock, prog rock and metal. And, being a Canadian male born after 1970, I was (and am) contractually obligated to promote this prog rock power trio. Here you can listen to Geddy Lee sing in his characteristically chipmunk voice about sf dystopias where driving is illegal, how hard it is to be a rock-star, and, of course, Tom Sawyer. Essential listening for the acne-ridden fifteen year old boy inside of you.

c'est_chicChic – C’est Chic

Of course, as you might guess, dance music was something of a horrifying abomination to my teenage circle. Disco, hip hop, whatever: it was anathema. Which makes this album perhaps my greatest rebellion from my rebellious obnoxious teenage years. C’est Chic is perhaps the most powerful distillation of 70s disco on the planet. The perfect repellant against stoned metalheads and rock critics.

 

Yes-closeYes – Close to the Edge

But back to prog rock. This album contains only three tracks, two of which are divided up into individual sections called things like, “The Solid Time of Change”, “Seasons of Man” and “Cord of Life.” That alone should indicate whether you’ll like it or not. Everything in here is kinda pretentious self-indulgence, but it is such immaculately composed pretentiousness that you too can ponder The Solid Time of Change.

talk_talk-spirit_of_eden(1)Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden

Speaking of self-indulgence, this is what happens when you give an 80s synth pop band an artistic carte blanche, and they decide that they’d rather be making a moody, proto-post rock album. Like Close to the Edge, it’s an incredible piece of construction. But Spirit of Eden actually feels kinda heartfelt in its gnomic ruminations. I’m still not entirely sure what it’s all about, but I’ll roll with it.

abba goldABBA – ABBA Gold

No, it’s not even a guilty pleasure at this point.

 

mingus-black-saint-cover-1600Charlie Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Unlike the disco entries above, this conceptual jazz-ballet suite is perhaps undanceable. It’s composed to the point of barely even being jazz, making extensive use of overdubbing to weave dense layers of counterpoint, exaggerating the aesthetic laid down by Duke Ellington into a sort of hallucinogenic nightmare noir. The liner notes actually includes an analysis by the dude’s shrink. He says things like, “One feels deeply for the tears of Mr. Mingus that fall for himself and man. There can be no question that he is the Black Saint who suffers for his sins and those of mankind as he reflects his deeply religious philosophy.” Well, regardless, Mingus had his share of demons to wrestle with, and this is one of the most interesting psychodramas that managed to get recorded.

 

thelonious-alone-in-sf-frontcover-1800Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Alone in San Francisco

On the other side of the spectrum, this album is exactly what it says on the tin. The eccentric pianist has great fun giving a set of solo performances in his inimitable, wistfully angular style. “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie.”

 

 

Kate_Bush_The_Dreaming_CoverKate Bush – The Dreaming

For whatever reason, solo female artists have never taken up a substantial amount of my listening, and Kate Bush in particular is an artist that I never crossed paths with until recently. And now I regret that. The Dreaming is weird, but not in the annoying sense of being an affectation; underlying it is an aesthetic vision which is fundamentally eccentric, and kinda beautiful. The songs, telling stories of bank heists and Houdini’s wife, feel like funhouse reflections of pop, music hall, rock, etc. The typically 80s production sound only adds to the surrealism.

 

in the courtKing Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King

In a curious inversion to 90% of the listening population, I find the famous album cover to be slightly obnoxious, but actually enjoy the extended atonal noodling found in “Moonchild.” In a way, this album, the Helen that launched a thousand prog-rockers, really contains the entire prog rock landscape in miniature.

 

rip rig and panicRoland Kirk – Rip, Rig & Panic

Aside from being able to play several horns simultaneously, this guy sure is good at bebop, or hard-bop, or post-bop, or musique-concrete-bop, or whatever this album is. My jazz credentials are not all they could be.

 

 

 

 

 

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An update

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post – end of semester shenanigans will do that to you. But I’ll have finished my last exam by the end of Thursday, after which the following things might get posted on here (I make no promises):

– An actual update to my FiM Chronicles X series
– A Final Fantasy VIII retrospective
– Some pondering on the grace/nature issue and art

In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy Easter.

Posted in higher education | 1 Comment

Song of the Sea: Deeper Thoughts

song1

(in all this I am likely taking myself far beyond the intentions of Tomm Moore, but it’s his fault for making such a good movie)

It is often said that the advent of Darwinism effectively bridged the gap between humans and nature: we can no longer view ourselves as special or separate from other animals when we recognize our common biological origin.

But the curious thing is that, in the years since Darwin, modern western civilization has if anything become increasingly alienated from both the natural world and our own nature as humans. This is because western civ has been playing out the consequences of intellectual developments that stretch backwards in time a few centuries.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, it was generally understood that natural things had discreet essences; the natural world was charged with meaning. The task of the natural philosopher was to understand the essence and causes of things.

As natural philosophy began to develop into what we now recognize as modern science, two major developments occurred. William of Ockham denied that the essences of things could actually be known, and felt that this sort of language was at best a sort of shorthand for talking about aggregates of irreducibly unique individual things. This is often called nominalism.

The second is that philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon decided that, regardless of what your take on essences was, it would be best if we could bracket our consideration of them in favor of focusing on the quantifiable and manipulable aspects of reality. Thus we have the scientific experiment: intervene into the natural world and tease the secrets of its mechanical workings out of it. This knowledge then allows you to better predict and control nature. Hence why the early modern period is also something of a heyday for magic, which also operates under a motive of exercising control over things – it simply chooses methods which are highly problematic.

Anyway, the uptake of all this is that the idea of nature (including human nature) as being inherently meaningful gets gradually brushed aside, and wisdom-knowledge is largely replaced by knowledge as (technological) power. So progress becomes increasingly measured in terms of how we increasingly come to assert our own personal meaning over meaningless nature, which we slowly rise above through technological mastery and political reform. Compared to this, the development of Darwin is something of a red herring.

song2

What does all of this blather have to do with Song of the Sea? Well, this progressive alienation is, in essence, also an alienation from any sort of mythos. For the folk tale or the myth are all predicated on the assumption that humans live in a world of symbol and meaning that is larger than us, and to get by, we need to, like the natural philosopher, discern the essences and causes of things in order to play our part well. Song of the Sea, I’d argue, expresses this alienation we feel quite well. We find it harder to believe in selkies – not because we’ve grown to a better understanding of marine biology, but because our use of symbols feels arbitrary.

As I have stated in the past, I am of the view that our modern alienation and disenchantment is less a reflection of how reality really is and more of a spell that has been cast on us. And, indeed, Song of the Sea postulates that it literally is magic that is keeping all the faeries hidden from us.

You see, the goddess Macha couldn’t bear to see her son suffer, and so she drained him of his emotions. This had the side effect of turning him into stone, but no matter – soon enough she had fallen into a habit of sucking all the supernatural creatures of Ireland dry until very few were left. Now there are two striking things about Macha’s plan of action: the first is that it is very therapeutic in nature. The second is that, since the therapy reduces its patients to inanimate objects, it is in effect saying that the only way you can be “cured” is to not exist. Macha peddles the vice of despair.

Yes, despair is a vice. It is not an emotion; it is a state of being. It is, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, the sickness unto death. Yet, as the Danish philosopher said, the most subtle of states, which people can gradually succumb to, unbeknownst to themselves.

The virtue which despair is a privation of is hope. In the Christian tradition, hope is seen as the second of the theological virtues: the first theological virtue of faith is infused in the soul by grace, and the knowledge that this gives allows the believer to hope that he can attain eternal beatitude with God. These (along with the third virtue, charity) are called theological because they require the direct operation of God to be present in the soul.

It is often said that it is stronger to do without hope. Belief in God, heaven, etc. is easy; much more profound is to recognize that one’s own existence is like a candle that will one day burn out, that the world is an unsolvable riddle which is utterly indifferent to us, that you will do a better job of living your life and making the world a better place if you don’t have your head in the clouds like that.

I disagree. The man without hope has far less of a stake in things because all paths lead to the same grave. The temptation to take the easiest path, to take the road of compromises, is that much greater. On the other hand, the man who has a destiny really has been entrusted with a terrible responsibility. The one who believes that future generations have a fighting chance is the one who can put greater stake in them.

song3

Back to the story: the world of Song of the Sea is a world that has slipped into despair. The human family at the heart of it is in despair, having lost their selkie mother, Bronagh, to Macha’s curse. Her half-selkie daughter Saorsie must be reunited with her selkie coat in order to be able to sing the song that will redeem both the faerie world and her family. She succeeds, but the faeries still have to leave the human world. Bronagh still must be separated from her family.

Most of this action takes place on Hallowe’en, a holiday where the borders between the mundane and the mysterious are often seen as getting a little blurred. And, of course, Hallowe’en is All Hallows Eve, or rather the vigil before All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, the Church’s commemoration of the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. Indeed, by the climax of the story, the feast of All Saints has technically begun.

This three day period of All Hallowtide is seen as a particularly acute time to pray for the dead, that they may be released from purgatory. Indeed, the image of all the faeries, fully restored, triumphantly leaving the world behind is particularly apt.

But All Hallowtide is also a reminder that the dead are not cut off from us. The Church on earth, the Church in heaven and the Church in purgatory all form one Body of Christ. If the lines feel a little blurred on Hallowe’en, it is because they are in a sense always blurred. The dead are always with us.

In the denouement of Song of the Sea, hope has been restored to Saorsie’s family, even though the pain of loss remains – for hope is not an escape from suffering, but rather helps in its redemption. Even as the faerie world passes away into invisibility, its presence is paradoxically more operative in the world than it was before. Christ remains present even after his ascension into heaven, as are the saints who dwell with him. The essence of things has been restored. “Behold, I make all things new.”

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Academia as self-parody

In the middle of doing some research for a paper on Gerard Manley Hopkins, I happened to come across a quotation from an address to the MLA given by one fellow called Jonathan Culler:

If “love” were a pure, disinterested relationship, there would still be a question of whether this was the best relation to literature, but of course love is more likely to be just the opposite: a highly interested, obscure, desiring relation of overinvolvement. Love without aggressivity, transference, sadomasochism, identification or fetishism is scarcely love at all.

Yeesh. I wouldn’t want to live in that man’s world.

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7 Quick Takes (13/3/2015)

1

Nausicaa2p121
Over the course of 2014 I read throuh Hayao Miyazaki’s manga, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Strangely, I failed to mention this here.

Anyway, it was interesting to see Miyazaki operating in the realm of soft sci-fi. The combination of ecological themes, political intrigue and messianic prophecy recalls Frank Herbert’s Dune books, but aside from that, they’re very different beasts. Herbert’s vision of human existence is ultimately very materialistic and Machiavellian, whereas Miyazaki’s Shintoism and usual idealism is operative here. As you might expect, I find Miyazaki’s worldview more sympathetic than Herbert’s.

A more detailed look would require, as usual, a reread, but I enjoyed it immensely, and the second half managed to subvert a lot of the expectations I had built up.

2

pluto_03
Speaking of manga, one series which I followed but for some reason never finished is Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, which is a rewriting of the “Greatest Robot on Earth” story arc from Astro Boy. Urasawa shifts the focus away from Atom (Astro Boy) to Detective Gesicht, changing the genre into a detective story. I don’t remember much of it aside from liking it, and since I already have most of the volumes collecting dust on my shelf, it will perhaps be the next manga I take a look at.

3

Back in the fall I obtained a complete collection of John Milton’s poems by way of a gift certificate. I’ve been slowly making my way through it in fits and starts over the course of the school year. I’m currently reaching the end of Paradise Lost. I first read Milton’s epic as a teenager, and shortly after that lost interest in the poet.

Paradise Lost is sometimes contrasted with Dante’s Divine Comedy, them being seen as the ultimate Protestant and Catholic epics respectively. In spite of my ecclesiastical leanings, I find myself enjoying Milton more than Dante. The latter’s architectonic designs engage my intellect, but otherwise don’t move me too much. A lot of this likely stems from how Dante’s work is a medieval allegory, whereas Milton’s is a rewriting of the Genesis story as an epic tragedy (and this is where comparisons break down). Milton’s attempts at theodicy are not terribly interesting, but he does a good job of getting a lot of drama out of his cast, and I find that easier to appreciate, even as Dante’s theology resonates more with me.

4

One thing I’ve noticed is how Biblical and literary studies seem to have moved to opposing extremes of the spectrum. Literary theory still holds large sway over the latter field, which results in books and authors being converted into various structural patterns for the amusement and edification of a few English departments. Meanwhile, Biblical studies is dominated by the historical-critical method, which tends to bracket all considerations except figuring out the author’s intent (and possible identity), the historical context, and the redactional history of the text. There isn’t much patience for the sort of allegorical scripture commentaries you find in the Church Fathers.

The Church Fathers were operating under the assumption that the books of the Bible encoded meanings beyond what the authors themselves intended. This notion of a spiritual level of meaning is part and parcel of the Church’s understanding of the Bible, which is why the Nicene Creed can say that the death and resurrection of Christ happened, “in accordance with the Scriptures.”

That isn’t too different in form from what some literary theorists claim to be doing with their texts. The question is really whether the ontological and epistemological assumptions that you get your interpretive principles from are correct or not. In the case of Derrida, Foucault et al., the answer is generally – no.

 5

The two of the most disappointing classes I took during my undergrad years were on Science Fiction and Graphic Novels. Actually, I think most of my deep hurting with regard to English departments can be traced back to that one-two punch, where I found myself surrounded by some of the most obnoxious classmates ever, and taught by professors who had nothing interesting to say.

And that’s a shame, as I do think that sci fi and comic books are worth being taken seriously. Compared to Shakespeare and Milton, they’re relatively uncharted territories, too.

6

Christopher Nolan’s space travel movie Interstellar came out a few months ago. You might think that I’d have been all over that, but I still have yet to see it. For one thing, I find Nolan’s movies  to be workmanlike, but not quite worth the fuss they get. For another, it seems to be orbiting awfully close to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the orbit of films which attempt that almost inevitably decays, resulting in them burning up in the atmosphere.

Why is 2001 even a good movie? On paper, it sounds incredibly, indefensibly self indulgent. The best answer I can think is that it takes a genuine delight in the things it indulges in, and does a good job conveying it to the audience.

What strikes me as the most emblematic moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is acually the credits sequence. It features a reprise of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube waltz playing on the soundtrack while still, white-on-black title cards are shown. Curiously, when the sequence finally reaches “The End,” and the words fade to black, Strauss’ waltz is allowed to play to completion for a few more minutes over a completely blank screen. While other movies have made use of overtures and intermissions, I can’t recall any aside from 2001 which just allows the audio to continue for some time after the video has ceased. I could be wrong, though.

This little postlude could be seen as giving theater patrons a few more minutes to wrack their brains over just what the final twenty minutes were all about. But I tend to think of it as Kubrick inviting the audience to simply enjoy a few more minutes of the waltz. That’s why I find it so emblematic – it delights in the music for its own sake.

Why all the hard sci-fi stuff? Because it’s fun. Why does the Stargate sequence have to be ten minutes long? It looks cool. Normally these sorts of rationales would destroy a movie, but for whatever reason, 2001 remains watchable. Perhaps I am just tuned in to whatever wavelength Kubrick was operating on…

7

look at all this work

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It’s just a game, man

I don’t even know why people say Airman is so hard to defeat; just ignore the tornadoes, keep close to him and trade hits. His energy will run out before yours does.

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Identity salad

I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions that I’ve grown tired with the ongoing debate regarding whether its ok for orthodox Catholics to use sexual orientation lingo like gay, straight, etc. It seems like others are starting to get a little bit worn out too.

A little while ago, Dan Mattson published an article which had a certain exasperated tone to it (or perhaps I’m engaging in some self-projecion).  That provoked a kinda smart-alec response from Jeremy Erikson, which at least suggests that things are at a complete impasse by now.

Anyway, Mattson’s concern in his article is that sexual orientation lingo can have the effect of sexually ghettoizing people and preventing them from further growth in their spiritual life. That’s a valid pastoral concern.

The concern that you find amongst Spiritual Friendship types is that the whole, “I’m not gay, I have same-sex attraction,” language ultimately alienates the very people its trying to reach out to. That’s also a valid concern.

It’s a micro version of a more macro tension in evangelization, which requires a degree of inculturation. But inasmuch as form and content are related, there is only so much you can do to the form before you start (often unwittingly) altering the content.

That is the concern of Bill Maguire, who wrote in the Catholic World Report:

However, affirming the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality is not necessarily synonymous with affirming the Church’s understanding of the human person and human sexuality. And if we lack a proper understanding of the latter, we will inevitably undermine the very truths about the former that we wish to affirm and defend. And this in spite of abundant good will and sincere intentions to the contrary.

It is just here—at the level of what John Paul II calls an “adequate anthropology”—that Tushnet’s work falls short and undermines her otherwise laudable project. Tushnet’s attempts to depict an understanding of human sexuality that is essentially grounded in LGBT gender theory as being compatible with the Church’s teaching on sexuality—and the fact that these efforts are quickly gaining popularity and acceptance in Catholic circles—call for a substantial and unwavering critique.

And then he goes on to make his critique, drawing heavily upon John Paul II’s theology of the Body.

On that note, this academic year has been, among other things, something of a year of John Paul II for me; I’ve had the chance to study some of the recently canonized saint’s writings in more depth, including his famous theology of the body, which, like Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, is both one of those tomes that intellectual Catholics must Contend With, and is increasingly becoming the norm for talking about its respective subject matter.

I’ve previously expressed bafflement over the existence of this debate, and studying JPII has helped cast it into sharper relief for me, so that I at least think I have a better grasp of what’s going on here. A lot of people say that the only real sexual identities in Catholicism are male and female – and that’s true, but it’s often articulated in a fashion that leaves them open to the critique that they have a crudely biologistic understanding of sexuality that ignores the total person in favor of their plumbing. The theology of the body does do a good job of articulating that sexual anthropology in a much more personalist manner. So it allows me to see more clearly how, when you throw modern sexual orientation lingo into the mix, you risk making it more difficult to explain the rational behind Catholic sexual morality.

But that also stoked the coals for another train of thought I’ve had developing for a while.

If you read a fair amount of Eve Tushnet, you’ll notice that obedience is a big virtue for her – and it is worth defending, given its modern disrepute. And I noticed that Bill Maguire, in his critique of her book, took issue with how it acknowledges that the Church has the authority to dictate what you can and can’t do when it comes to sexual matters, but otherwise doesn’t offer a substantial explication or apologia of its teachings.

And I understand where he’s coming from. The Church herself got a little complacent over the centuries in assuming that there would be a culture of obedience that would be willing to receive her teachings. In the 1960s she said no to birth control. But that culture of obedience had already been swept away, and the ability to articulate the rationale behind the prohibition had withered. So people just ignored the Church.

As a result, a lot of work in the ensuing decades has been put into making Church teaching intelligible to people, and theology of the body is one of the fruits of that. So in one sense, the work of Tushnet et al comes across as paradoxically regressive, throwing a spanner in the works of the Church’s meticulously articulated anthropology.

On the other hand, I worry that there can be a kind of misguided optimism that can emerge out of the (otherwise laudable) desire to make doctrine as explicable as possible.  It can become easy for us to forget that we are all operating under limitations that make it necessary for us to learn obedience. Most of us have a doctrine or two that we just can’t make heads or tails of. Reading all sorts of apologetics material doesn’t help, talking with people about it doesn’t help, and we feel like we’ve just hit a stumbling block. The way we get by it is to trust that the Church knows what she’s talking about, and to hope that it becomes clearer down the line.

It’s pretty obvious that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is one such doctrine for a lot of people. There needs to be some breathing room here, and a recognition that repeated definitions of theological terms like “objectively disordered”, or “spousal meaning of the body” will likely fall on deaf ears. Naturally, you want people to come to a fuller understanding of the issue, but it doesn’t seem like something that can be strong-armed (please note, I’m not trying to say that there’s something wrong with the theological terms themselves).

Failing to understand this means that you risk being the new teacher who, after drawing up the perfect lesson plan, finds that it collapses under the recalcitrant reality of her actual first class.

This isn’t to say that you can’t ever critique the class for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It means, rather, that having a top-notch curriculum is only half of the equation. You can’t simply present it; you have to actually know how to teach it. And that’s where a lot of people drop the ball. I’ve read many Catholic articles on homosexuality that I agree with, but which I can’t imagine would have been helpful to me a few years ago.

Which brings me to a post  Tushnet recently had about some of the roadblocks to moving away from sexual orientation lingo:

And partly I’m so struck by the way Paris’s and Hannon’s analyses sideline any discussion of the mistreatment of gay people. The most painful parts of our shared experience are mostly invisible in their accounts. (If Hannon mentions anti-gay attitudes or actions at all I missed it. Paris does mention stigma, mistreatment at church, and discrimination, though quite briefly. She clearly thinks those things are wrong, which is refreshing…) If we can’t just bluntly say “because I’m gay,” a lot of those painful experiences become much harder to speak about. If you can’t call yourself “gay” it’s harder to describe or explain why you’re confused, scared, unwelcome, or stigmatized; even why you’ve been targeted for harassment, discrimination, violence, or rejection. And “Don’t call yourself gay”–which, frankly, is what 95% if not 100% of the practical recommendations of Paris and Hannon boil down to–helps to separate us from people with whom we might otherwise find solidarity. It encourages Christians who are same-sex attracted to view “gay people” as other, rather than as brothers to whom we have a special connection and responsibility. It encourages us to view our own positive experiences in gay communities, when we’ve had them, as something we need to completely reject rather than seeking ways to baptize what is good in those communities.

But also, as regards the specific subject of this post, we can note that the abuse suffered by gay people reinforces gay identity. If you share terrible experiences with someone, of course you will often feel deepened solidarity with them. If some aspect of your identity comes under intense, painful pressure, of course that aspect of your identity will be more important to you. And if gay people are a stigmatized class, everyone in the society ends up scrutinizing their desires to see if they might be a part of that class; any desire which deviates even slightly from what’s considered “enough” or “the right kind” of attraction to the same sex becomes a source of fear and shame. What we fear in our own psyches, what we’re ashamed of, and especially what we’re ashamed to offer to God, often grows bigger in the rich soil of our anxiety.

I think this gets close to the core of why this terminological debate has become so heated. Both sides more or less agree that the LGBTQ acronym will soon become so dense that it will collapse into a singularity and destroy us all. What Tushnet is highlighting is how getting away from all that can be an emotionally complicated thing.

If you’ve suffered with a particular group of people, then it is often the case that an attempt to disassociate yourself from the group will, instead of feeling like a moment of personal transformation, feel like a betrayal of the tacit solidarity you had. It’s difficult to feel like you’re being authentic to your true nature when you feel like a traitor.

That is at least part of the dynamic affecting this debate. Again, my point isn’t to say that these conflicted feelings represent the last word on the situation; merely that you need to take into account the baggage that people bring if you’re going to get through to them.

 

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