Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Abuse of Light in the Films of Michael Bay and Spielberg

Much can be learned about American culture by comparing the abuses of light in the cinematography of Spielberg and Michael Bay films. In most of his movies, Spielberg works with the cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who favours an overabundance of natural, white light. His shots are often overexposed so that the milky white light washes out all of the surfaces in the scene. Given the attributes of Spielberg’s movies, including the sentimental nostalgia for childhood, the touchy-feely morality of secularized Judaism, and the over-reliance on storyboarding, this prevalence of white light represents God’s immanence and the religious imperative to make Earth resemble Heaven.

Meanwhile, Bay’s movies are conspicuous for their aversion to natural lighting, especially in indoor scenes: there’s almost always a fully-saturated, candy-like blue or yellowish-orange light source somewhere offstage, casting an artificial glaze over everything. Given the features of his movies, including the militarism, the jingoism, the crass subservience to macho stereotypes, the predominance of production values and the lack of artistic vision, this artificial light represents hollow, amoral materialism and the secular imperative to make all places resemble Las Vegas.

Spielberg’s Compromised Judaism

With these two iconographic uses of light, you have the worst of American religious and secular cultures. American Judaism and Christianity are so cut off from their mystical origins, so drained of their spiritual purposes, and so compromised in their integration with the secular forces of science, democracy, and capitalism, that their myths and moral messages are hideous, grating imitations of healthier versions. It goes without saying that a secularized Jew or Christian has no legs to stand on: they can chant their creeds incessantly only because they’ve mastered the art of compartmentalizing their thoughts and feelings, having now adapted to an environment consisting largely of computers, which have readily-inspected separate directories to store their information. These moderate religious folks don’t share the theistic mindset needed to breathe life into their creeds, because they’ve at least unconsciously absorbed the scientific, secular worldview. Accordingly, they save their myths only by interpreting them in literary rather than in theological terms. Morality and families are sacred, the moderates will say, because God carved his commandments into stone and handed them to Moses--except which of these moderates can explain why that religious metaphor should be regarded as any more special than the metaphors that are a dime a dozen in the thousands of novels published each year? Does the old age of a tradition sanctify its content? Obviously not, since the moderate religionist freely cherry-picks which religious tradition to observe and which to discard as the obsolete labour of ancient, uninformed yokels.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lovecraftian Horror and Pragmatism

I’ve referred to Lovecraftian horror a number of times in this blog and this calls for some explanation. To see the relevance of Lovecraft to the philosophical issues I’ve been ranting about, you need to be aware that there are roughly two kinds of secularists, the Nietzscheans and the non-Nietzscheans. The Nietzscheans, including American horror author H. P. Lovecraft, British writer John Gray, and existentialist philosophers, warn that what Nietzsche called the death of God, which is to say the ascent of modern science and of secular powers, was a revolution that demands a reassessment of our values. Nietzscheans stress the illegitimacy of those traditions and institutions that presuppose theism. By Contrast, the non-Nietzscheans, including most New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Jerry Coyne, believe that the rise of secularism doesn’t have such radical consequences. For example, these secularists often assume that the liberal value of a person’s sacredness is sustainable on an atheistic basis, even though that value derives from theistic myths. The non-Nietzschean secularist usually responds to the Nietzschean by saying that theists acquire their values in turn from the use of their own reason as they cherry-pick from scriptures, and from our prehistoric ancestors’ evolved social instinct.

Lovecraft's Cosmicism

Unlike the more optimistic secularists, Lovecraft worried about the philosophical implications of modern scientific findings. He dramatized his worries in weird short stories featuring super-powerful gods or aliens, whose motives are as unfathomable to us as are ours to ants. These extraterrestrials symbolized for Lovecraft the cosmic forces of nature which are just as alien to us, given that they’re not creations of a familiar, humane parent figure like God. The point is that modern science discovered not just the universe’s inhuman scope, but its impersonality and thus its inhumanity. Lovecraft used the existential abyss between his scientific characters and the inhuman universe to produce in his reader a sense of the truly strange. By “existential abyss” I mean our alienation from the rest of nature, given science’s disenchantment of it and our own need to enchant what we perceive by projecting anthropocentric categories wherever we go. Science is the eating of the apple and the source of our expulsion from Eden, and once we’re on the other side of the barrier, lost now in postmodern self-consciousness and skepticism, we’re no longer at home anywhere. To paraphrase what Milton says about Satan in Paradise Lost, hell travels always with us, since it’s a state of mind (see Book IV, line 20).

Lovecraft called his philosophical outlook “cosmicism,” using the inhuman aspects of the natural order to drive home the insignificance of our own ideals and pet projects. Our ambitions are pathetic vanities next to those of intelligent creatures who may well have prospered for billions of years and even now direct the course of galactic development. Even were there no such elder, squid-faced gods, the natural forces themselves have proved to be inhuman and thus alien to us, operating as they do on vast time scales, from subatomic particles to galaxies and perhaps even across multiple universes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Theism vs New Atheism Farce

The current incarnation of the dispute about whether there’s a god is a perfect storm of confusion.

The Players

On one side, there are the New Atheists, those who see themselves as zealous defenders of reason and of liberal values against fundamentalist religion and terrorism. Atheists proclaim that religion is thoroughly irrational and dangerous.

On the opposing side, there are the literalistic monotheists, sometimes called fundamentalists, who see themselves as conserving revealed transcendent truth against the demonic distractions of science and of liberal society. They maintain that faith or intuition accesses deeper truth than does reason, and that the liberal’s so-called defense of liberty is actually an excuse to sin. The literalists are joined by religious moderates who see no conflict between reason and faith, science and revelation, or liberalism and theism.

Then there’s the public’s misunderstanding of this controversy, as caused by the old media that profit by entertaining consumers with stories of sensational, ideally-endless conflicts. Journalists tend to report the social and political battles between atheists and theists, and also the latest scientific finding that has only ambiguous or tangential consequences for religion. Rarely do journalists investigate what’s really at stake in the controversy.

Finally, there are the cloistered professional philosophers who have lost credibility with the anti-philosophic public. Despite frightening signs of civilization’s collapse and despite their being equipped to shed light on issues that concern everyone, these philosophers prefer to practice a pseudoscience that’s equivalent to the counting of angels on a pinhead. They thus cede the floor to ideological partisans, to New Age hangers-on, and to profit-driven, bar-lowering journalists.

Buddhism and Existential Angst

In Happiness, I argued against the popular belief that our ultimate goal should be happiness. Our tragedy, I said, is that we’re equipped with high degrees of consciousness, reason, and freedom, which enable us to appreciate what I called Our Existential Situation (OES). This situation is roughly equivalent to our worst nightmare, implying that life for most of us is effectively hell on earth. Our situation as intelligent animals, thrown into the world, as the existentialist philosopher Heidegger said, is defined by ironies, by the world’s being different from how we’d prefer it to be. For example, theistic and New Age fantasies are all wildly off the mark, logically and empirically speaking. Those differences between our na├»ve, anthropocentric picture of the world and the modern scientific picture of it, are results not of any demonic design, but of the inhumanity of the natural forces that put us here in the midst of cosmic evolution.

In short, this is the worst possible world, from a humane standpoint. A Satanic dominion over the universe would be preferable to dominion by mindless natural forces, because Satan would at least be a person, albeit an evil one, and were personhood at the root of reality, we could at least take comfort that the universe and thus life and our position have meaning. Our purpose would be to serve as Satan’s playthings. Were this the case, we might even succumb to Stockholm Syndrome and come to approve of that demonic plan. As it stands in the Lovecraftian, scientific picture, though, there’s no such meaning and no such cold comfort. We’re alienated from reality and thus from ourselves, because we view the world through the filter of our ideals, which project onto the world what isn’t there, such as the ultimate propriety of our pursuit of those ideals. Our values are either means by which natural forces drive us to perpetuate some stage in a natural process or are free-standing creations of our imagination. Either way, our confidence in their propriety is usually wrongheaded.

Our most popular goal is to be happy, to be successful and contented with the pleasures we earn. This goal is certainly attainable to some extent or other, but we’re aesthetically, if not also ethically, obligated not to seek happiness as our ultimate good. Instead, we ought to be anxious and saddened as a result of our knowledge of OES. The existentialist’s remedy, of hopeless rebellion in the alien face of inhumane nature, is nobler and more aesthetically compelling than the Aristotelian reduction of our ethical purpose to our narrow biological function. Our biofunction is to stop investigating what’s really going on and to merely survive and sexually perpetuate our genetic code. If we do that, as most people in fact do, raising a family and committing ourselves to various delusions that serve that biological end, we become more or less happy, whether we’re rich or poor or whether we’re born beautiful or physically disabled. We then live at peace with ourselves and with the world, despite the fact that that peace is as obscene as the peace of slaves in the Matrix or in the philosopher Robert Nozick’s Happiness Machine (a thought experiment about a virtual reality simulator that caters to our fantasies, enabling a person to live successfully in a dream world that may differ drastically from the real one). 

The Buddhist Critique

So I averred in that article on happiness. There is, however, an interesting Buddhist critique of this grim existentialism, which runs as follows. My talk of OES, of a gulf between the conscious, free, intelligent person and the rest of nature assumes that that person is an independent, self-contained essence, detached from the world. Instead, according to the Buddhist principles of Interdependent Arising (IA) and of emptiness, there are no such essences anywhere in the universe: everything is in flux, ever-changing and interdependent. Instead of things, there are phases of processes. A person’s mind consists entirely of such flowing transitions, from one mental state to the next, with no unified self tying them together. There is no immaterial spirit or essence that is the bearer of particular thoughts and feelings. Therefore, there can be no gap between a person and the rest of the world; on the contrary, a person is interconnected with the world, since both are bound up in natural processes that unite them. For example, we breathe oxygen from the outer environment and exhale carbon dioxide which plants in turn absorb.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Embarrassment by Sexual Ecstasy

There's a paradox of human sexuality. On the one hand, wealthy, modern, secular countries are obsessed with sexuality in public places, meaning that references to sex are found in most messages carried in all forms of media, including books, magazines, movies, news reports, and advertisements. The obvious explanation is that sexuality is central to human nature, and so naturally sex is much discussed in open societies. But on the other hand, even in these liberal places, people are averse to divulging the concrete, personal details of their sex lives. Again, on the one hand, romantic love and sexual intimacy are ideals praised literally in most songs, poems, and paintings ever produced, and the marriage industry celebrates monogamous unions which are considered legally void without sexual “consummation.” On the other hand, while the value of romantic love in general is publicly affirmed, only arid signs of affection between partners are tolerated in public places. Even public kissing is scorned. You can hold hands or dance with your partner, but actual sex in public is, of course, typically illegal. You can carry a picture of your spouse in your wallet and wear a wedding ring to symbolize the exclusivity of your romantic love for your partner, but were a stranger to approach you and inquire about your spouse’s favourite sexual position, you would probably punch that stranger in the nose. So we praise sexuality and romantic love in the abstract, but we hide the actual sex. Why the discrepancy?