Just as the Haitian earthquake was followed by a welter of religious interpretations (fundamentalist Christians blaming sinful Haitians for it, Vodoun practitioners weighing in on the events, etc.), so the Japanese quake-tsunami-meltdown trilogy is offering evidence of humanity’s interpretive propensities.
You may have already seen the YouTube troll video satirizing right-wing Christian responses, which scandalized so many viewers that the young videomaker has apparently gone into hiding. I won’t link to it, since it doesn’t really deserve all the hits, but it’s easy enough to find. The gist of it is that “God is soooo great — we prayed for him to smite his enemies and there he did, smashing those godless Japanese to smithereens.” A lot of viewers couldn’t seem to tell the difference between satire and the real thing, which apparently follows Poe’s Law: one can’t satirize fundamentalist religion without it being taken by some as the real thing, because there are enough instances in which the real thing is as bad as that (Glenn Beck being only the tip of the iceberg).
I’ve been studiously avoiding reviews of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s new metaphysical heist thriller, wanting to see it for myself (intrigued by its premise) before I start to see it through other people’s eyes. Today I saw it, and I’ve now scanned some of the reviews and a bit of blog commentary (see links at bottom).
With films as complex as this, I tend to reserve judgment for a while as I let myself process them, consciously and otherwise. But one of the ways I process them is by letting myself be guided by their apparent visceral effects on me (which is consistent with a process-relational understanding of cinema, i.e. understanding films in terms of the relational processes they set in motion). So the following comments are still largely unprocessed, or rather they’re very much in the process of being processed.
In Chapter Eight of Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett asks: “Are there more everyday tactics for cultivating an ability to discern the vitality of matter?” and, in response, mentions allowing oneself
to anthropomorphize, to relax into resemblances discerned across ontological divides: you (mis)take the wind outside at night for your father’s wheezy breathing in the next room; you get up too fast and see stars; a plastic topographical map reminds you of the veins on the back of your hand; the rhythm of the cicada’s [sic] reminds you of the wailing of an infant; the falling stone seems to express a conative desire to persevere.
What I like about this is not so much the argument for anthropomorphism (specifically) as the implied and more general argument for ‘morphism’, that is, for allowing one’s imaginative capacities — the capacities to take on and think with images — to build the forms of one’s perceptions and conceptions of the world. We’ve lost this ability somewhat since the decline of the epistemologies of resemblance that characterized the pre-modern and Renaissance imagination (according to Foucault and others). The ability to read the “signatures” of the world is something poets, of course, have not forgotten, but it’s also something that semiotics (of the Peircian variant) holds, or should hold, as central to the ways sense is made of things.
As for anthropomorphism, as John Livingston taught me, there’s nothing unusual about it. Dogs canomorphize, birds avimorphize, humans anthropomorphize. All of these morphic practices can be tested by trial and error for their validity in specific circumstances. The idea that something that looks somewhat like me and acts in some ways like me is like me is a reasonable starting hypothesis for a relational epistemology and ethic.
Best gift received: Carl Jung’s Red Book. Very beautiful, with nice overviews and interpretations by Sonu Shamdasani. If this doesn’t revive an interest in Jung, I don’t know what can (though, as I’ve argued, we’re overdue for a new, more integrated theory of imagination).
Stupidest film to show on an airplane that’s just spent two hours sitting on the runway, on a Christmas day when another plane has almost been bombed by an attempted terror attack, with news of it available on CNN on another channel on Jet Blue’s free television and video service: District 9. Not that the film itself doesn’t have its redeeming qualities — there were enough to keep me watching it instead of switching to CNN like the person next to me — but the waves of adrenaline and cortisol flowing through the plane don’t exactly make for a relaxing ride.
What did I make of the film itself? Its reptilian aliens look B-movie hilarious, but the filmmakers deserve credit for thinking they could get us to sympathize with them. They are clunky stand-ins for refugees and illegal aliens of all kinds, from the bantustans of pre-Apartheid South Africa (where the film was made) to the Gaza Strip, and therefore an echo of (the much better) Children of Men, and the rapid-fire montage of cable-news/reality-TV/surveillance-camera action aesthetics gets a little wearying. One of these days someone influential will articulate a natural/organic/holistic aesthetic for film viewing which, like the slow-food movement, will begin to cultivate a shift in audience tastes away from the Peckinpah/Tarantino/Woo/Lucas/Spielberg/Scorsese/Cameron trajectory and back, if not to an Antonioni/Tarkovsky/Angelopoulos slowness, at least to something less jarring than today’s norm.
As for me, I’m happy enough sitting in a large room facing only the shimmering blue screen of Derek Jarman’s Blue. With its immersive, poetic soundtrack, it’s the best antidote to all things Action.
Just by linking Carl Sagan’s eloquent little Pale Blue Dot to the teachings of Gautama Buddha, James Ure’s Buddhist Blog brings out the buddhism inherent both in Sagan’s words and in the imagery of the Earth from space. That imagery (as I’ve discussed before here and here) is multivalent, but Sagan’s spin on it — the pale blue dot as “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” on which “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives” — deepens its ability to carry useful meaning. That ability will one day exhaust itself, if not turn into its opposite, but for now I don’t think it has. “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled [. . .] the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner [. . .] Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”
Today was the 23rd anniversary of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine. I had been invited to give a sermon at a nearby Unitarian church connected to both this anniversary and the May Day (Beltane) that’s coming up in a few days, and my thoughts, in preparation, revolved around how both of those dates, along with Earth Day four days earlier, combine a significance in cyclical time — the ritualized time by which people shape their daily, monthly, and annual life rhythms — and in world-historical time, that is, the time of events that have redefined humanity’s relationship to the world at large.
Earth Day 1970 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 both served as moments of recognition of environmental risk and hazard. Earth Day instituted the practice of large-scale political demonstrations and teach-ins on the environment. The 1970 Earth Day involved about 20 million people in the US; the 1990 Earth Day, at the peak of the ‘second wave’ of environmental activism, is thought to have involved 200 million participants in 140 different countries. Earth Day’s evolution thus offers a kind of gauge of the popular pulse of environmental awareness, and with its institutionalization into childrens culture, a gauge for the struggle over how our kids’ attitudes towards nature develop and, in turn, for how they may put pressure on us to change our ways.
Chernobyl, on the other hand, was the single most important shock to a system (the Soviet) that was eventually brought down by the events it triggered. This was especially the case in Ukraine, where it catalyzed an environmental movement that ultimately mutated into the national independence movement. More so than most environmental disasters, Chernobyl remains mired in debates over its impacts. The International Atomic Energy Association’s 2006 report (co-authored with the World Health Organization and the UN Development Program) cited data suggesting that no more than 4000 cancer deaths can be traced to the radioactive release from the Chernobyl accident. In response, Greenpeace International produced a report citing scientific data that the number is really between 100,000 and 200,000. Victims’ groups, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and even previous WHO reports appear to line up on the side of Greenpeace in this debate. Critics on both sides dispute the other side’s research methods, their use of epidemiological data, estimates for escaped nuclear fuel (which the IAEA puts at 3-4%, while others have claimed that 50% or even almost all of the reactor’s fuel escaped into the environment). See here , here, and here on the “body count” and other controversies.
One of the more oblique threads I’ve been pursuing on this blog has to do with what new media are doing to aural and musical information. Music is, of course, much more than information: it is embodied affect (in a Deleuzian sense) that carries, channels, activates, mobilizes (sets into motion), transforms, and disseminates cultural meanings as well as culturally imbued bodily affects. In the process music imprints feelings, sensations and meanings into our bodies and, at the same time, outwards into the world that it describes, inscribes, and infuses with rhythm and aural texture. It fills and organizes the spaces of resonance between bodies, but also ‘spaces’, or reterritorializes, our own sense of ourselves – as Deleuze and Guattari’s oft-quoted opening lines to “Of the Refrain” suggest.
Dan Visel’s piece on music & metadata has gotten me thinking about how musical metadata — “things that are outside of the text, but still of primary importance to how we read a text”, which in the case of music includes titles and information about the performers — are becoming part of a more fluid and oceanic datasphere. When I was growing up, the access points to the musical universe were radio stations (a few, like the original CFNY, among the dozens available in the Toronto area), record stores (a few, like the Record Peddler, whose employees I could trust for their cool tips), and a handful of magazines (like Toronto’s Shades and a few of the other free art and music zines, most of which have left not a shred of evidence behind themselves in the digital era). I used to have to keep listening, sometimes for half an hour or more, to find out what it was that I liked on my favorite college radio station, and if I wasn’t listening closely I could miss it — the metadata were so scarce. But once I heard it I knew what to look for (on a trip downtown to the Peddler), and once I bought the album, and maybe a copy of New Musical Express or Trouser Press that featured an interview with the band, I was as metadata-rich as anyone I knew.
This is a summary I provided to a grad student who was starting to get into this area. It’s very introductory and far from complete in its coverage, but since there’s so little out there on this topic, I thought it would be useful to post it. It’s also a bit biased towards literature that’s relevant to religion and religious experience (since this is what the student was working on). Comments are welcome.
The topic of the imagination had been out of fashion for a while in the humanities, especially as textual and semiotic approaches (structuralism, poststructuralism et al) came to dominate cultural theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Gradually it’s been coming back, but without any consensus on what it means or how it should be dealt with. The following are some of the threads of thinking that, to my mind, need to be drawn together in a coherent way in order to make contemporary sense of ‘the imagination’ or, as I prefer to call it, the imaginal. They are pieces of a much larger puzzle that is far from being solved.