Against Hillary: Notes On The Future Of 2016

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Against Hillary Clinton

Image via PolitiFact.

In 1954, a now-forgotten study was conducted that, looking back, reveals more about political thought than most voters care to admit. At a time when the debate surrounding human nature was not so imbued with meaning for ordinary folks, psychologist Muzafer Sherif wanted to see what human competition – and its evolutionary analogue, cooperation – might look like in its ‘purest’ state. Of course, this is impossible to truly test, for a variety of reasons, but it is possible to get clues, or at least be nudged a little closer towards them, if one merely puts one’s biases aside and looks at things anew.

Perhaps the hidden purpose of Sherif’s study was to look at group bonding over seemingly trivial things – emphasis on ‘seemingly’, as there’s an inner reason to words, rituals, and motifs which is frequently ignored. For the first portion of this test, he organized two groups of children in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma, into a kind of summer camp, yet run in such a way that one group couldn’t guess the other group’s existence…at least not for a while. They were both supervised, but not excessively so, and thus left to find their own meaning. Despite being thought of as ordinary children, each group quickly developed an identity, a set of ‘arbitrary’ values, an agreed-upon hierarchy, and in-group cooperation as they staked out territory and passed the time hiking, swimming, and playing games. One group thought of itself as fighters who never cried. The other group adopted an almost puritanical refusal to use foul language. They both had rituals, songs, games, and territories they’d patrol, enjoy, or simply mull over. Yet as soon as the groups learned of each other’s existence, they quickly became even more tribal, growing upset when ‘their’ land was infringed upon, further emphasizing their own rituals, challenging the interlopers, and even starting fights with weapons that had to be taken away by the adults.

Now, it could be said that at least a part of all this was ritual war: an extension of men’s competitiveness into realms that only symbolized violence, thus serving as a safe outlet for ordinary urges. Or it could be said to be an example of something far more sinister, which, had the adults not been involved, would have led to the pointless attrition one sees in tribal groups today. At any rate, something in the kids ‘knew’ to behave in ways quite like the more well-known, violent specimens in the anthropological record. To be clear, these were not children who were competing over precious resources. They were not pressured by the environment to do this or that. They were not raised without culture, but came from families who at that point in human history had seen some of the lowest rates of violence ever known. Moreover, they were screened for good health and psychological standing, meaning, they could not easily be called sociopathic, or be manipulated by one or two sociopaths … Continue reading →

The Object Of Objective Reality: Some Notes On Donald Hoffman

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Objective Reality Donald HoffmanA few months ago, The Atlantic published an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman arguing – albeit in a limited sense – against the notion of objective reality. It’s an interesting read, but only partly due to the science. More importantly, it illustrates an overlooked concept in pretty much all inquiry: that language, if ill-used or poorly defined, will ultimately poison good ideas, and generate new objects of study that simply don’t exist in the real world. In short, if people are confused by language, allowing words to invent or hide problems, scientists, in being a subset of people, are little different here. For this reason, Donald Hoffman falls into the kind of errors that even a layperson is familiar with, since they have in fact made the same mistakes themselves. The laity is inevitably corrected, however, since the real world is pretty unforgiving when compared to academia. Yet seeing just how he errs in such a low-stakes environment might shed some light on future questions: actual questions, I mean, and not the needless complications that scientists and philosophers can be quite good at.

Hoffman’s basic thesis is irrefutable: that organisms have evolved in a way that maximizes fitness, first, at the expense of things that they might have better valued under different circumstances. This, to me, is a re-phrasing of Leda Cosmides’s and John Tooby’s classic observation that ‘we are not fitness maximizers, but adaptation executors’. Yeah, the wording seems at odds with Hoffman’s thesis, but they’re in fact arguing the same thing: that we’ll do whatever it is that we’ll do, even as physical circumstances change, or (as with human beings) culture shifts and replaces older values. So, for example, whereas human beings value truth in the abstract, they are ill-prepared for what objective reality – in the totalizing sense – really is. They see sunlight, react to it emotionally, physiologically, etc., but cannot detect, say, radio waves, or ionizing radiation, because they have played such a minor role in most of human history, and have therefore had no utility, no way of capturing our biological attention. And this is true despite the fact that visible light accounts for a tiny slice of electromagnetic radiation, meaning, we are in just this one regard cut off from a huge chunk of reality. Then, when one tallies up the innumerable other evolutionary biases, it is clear that, for all of our curiosity, we weren’t built to inquire in just this way, and are using some fairly limited and imprecise tools for this purpose all the while organizing the universe along a survivalist bias that we ourselves have imbued into it.

Ok, so far, so good. Yet the issues start to come fast when these observations get mixed up with some wacky conclusions that are not at all a given from the above premises. Let us start, then, with this study on veridical perception, by Hoffman and others, and define the term in question. The word refers … Continue reading →

Critique Of Katsuhiro Otomo’s MEMORIES (1995)

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Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories kicks off with Eva in Magnetic Rose.

In reading the reviews of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories (1995), one might be particularly struck by what is not said: that, for all the ways that titles might recapitulate, refract, or even turn away from a film’s content, there is almost no discussion of what the title means to the work at hand. Yes, the word is uttered early on, and has an obvious, ham-fisted, 1:1 relationship to the first of the collection’s three anime shorts, but what about the rest? There is very little to say, really, since the others tackle different tropes, and have only a slipshod connection to one another in the fact that they’re the film versions of three of Otomo’s previously written stories. In brief, whereas the title could be said to cohere too neatly with the work’s first forty minutes, the last eighty, well, cohere not at all, despite containing some of its best material. Is this an issue? Perhaps, but since it’s the least of the film’s faults, I do have an idea of what it all means, and why Otomo made these artistic decisions. Yet instead of positing an unpopular claim, first, and bracing for the fallout, I will present the evidence, bit by bit, precisely as the film presents it, so that the sum is unassailable, and that the work’s poetic status might get the treatment of a more mechanical eye.

Memories begins with Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, a highly stylized tale of an opera singer, Eva, and her chief fixation: her prior life with Carlo, a famous tenor with whom she went on to win world acclaim. They are happy, briefly, until Eva loses her voice, then Carlo, and ultimately murders her former love in order to trap him in a cycle of unchanging memories. The details are slowly discovered by a crew of scrap collectors, of whom Heintz, a father seemingly on leave from family life, is the mysterious protagonist. They witness an SOS signal in deep space as Heintz and another crew member, Miguel, go on to investigate. Once landed, the two enter a Victorian-style mansion propped up by holograms and ‘genuine fakes’ that, once discerned, crumble and disappear. At first, they do not realize who the owner of this place is, as Eva zips in and out of the landscape, inducing hallucinations that tangle up her own life with theirs. In time, however, another crew member radios from their spaceship, and informs them of what he’s found. The hallucinations grow violent, culminating in the ‘death’ of Heintz as if he were Carlo, Miguel’s imagined fling with Eva, and Heintz’s own probe into his family, leaving the viewer unsure on the question of his daughter’s death. Magnetic Rose ends with Heintz floating in space amidst rose-petals, possibly dying, and possibly even accumulating, in Eva’s manner, his own memories, and waiting for the cycle to be broken by future explorers.

It is, to be sure, an anachronistic … Continue reading →

Film Review Of Woody Allen’s CAFÉ SOCIETY (2016)

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Woody Allen's Cafe Society Jesse Eisenberg Kristen Stewart

Woody Allen’s Cafe Society. Image via StarTribune.

Woody Allen’s Café Society opened in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas 6, a tiny movie house off of 62nd and Broadway which dedicated just one screen and two show-times to the film on its first night. A week later, it’s getting three screens at once in order to accommodate ticket sales that, while snowballing, yes, seem to still be coming from the pockets of an older crowd. There are married couples, mostly, old friends, and five or six young people in a room at capacity. The laughs, from what I could tell, come strictly from the first two. Oh, the last smiles, sure, if so goaded by the others, but does not quite share the first group’s humor. One knows what to expect. The other, likely having heard of Woody’s brilliance, once, sees a disconnect between this information and what is now on screen. One group’s smiling, holding hands, as if on the same date they were on forty years ago…and perhaps in fact are. The other, however, has no past here; has, to be sure, only Now, and thus cannot personalize Woody; cannot judge this film on the strength of masterpieces gone. One shakes its head – rightly! – at the ignorance of the first. But the other- ah, but the other can’t quite believe how much the past discolors the future, even as they, themselves, will eventually do the same, and denounce those too distant, too late to share their own peculiar bias.

To be fair, Café Society is a solid work, with some good moments and overarching artistic decisions. Yet it suffers, overwhelmingly, from what most of Woody’s films have suffered in the last two decades: massive self-borrowings that, instead of offering some new angle, tone, or shading of an old idea, merely repeat the thing with slight cosmetic differences. There are many – too many – examples of this, but perhaps a mere sampling is enough. The film opens with Woody narrating in trite terms, a la Manhattan, what the city – in this case, Hollywood – is ‘really’ like. But while Manhattan used these clichés subversively, developing Isaac’s character in a way that exposed his superficiality, Café Society’s narration is to be taken at face value, even when (as with the lesser portions of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) it is needlessly recapitulative. Other borrowings include the archetype of Bobby’s (Jesse Eisenberg) thug brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a dilution of Crimes And Misdemeanors and the lighter portions of Bullets Over Broadway. Another is with one of the film’s primary arcs, wherein Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) transforms into a person she’s always hated, a twist that’s right out of Celebrity, despite lacking Celebrity’s deeper comments re: happiness and wisdom, and how different the two really are. Yes, viewers might fill in the blanks, as they’re used to these concepts, but isn’t that a flaw: that an artist’s moves, techniques, … Continue reading →

The Freddie Gray Verdict: A Few Words Out Of Season

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freddie gray verdict

Image via DW.

A week ago, the first ‘true’ Freddie Gray verdict came back as expected: Not Guilty. The result? Three officers are now free. Three are still left, perhaps a touch emboldened. On some level, of course, it does not matter, since the acquittal of one – as history shows – is the acquittal of all. Yet the reverse is not true, for the guilt of someone in power is never (so it’s said) to be extrapolated to power itself: what it does, what it cannot do, and where the rest of the world must go when the thing’s exercised. There are, as far as I can tell, two reasonable narratives here, but in Freddie Gray’s case – as in all similar narratives – only one has really been discussed. It is truthful, yes, and quite damning of the forces involved, but also somehow less adamant. It is less whole. It is, in a word, less dangerous. And it goes thus:

A black Baltimorean with a string of drug offenses sees 2 cops riding their bikes, makes eye contact, and flees. Perhaps he was expecting this. Perhaps he has something illicit on him. Or maybe he’d already done it so much and without penalty that it is merely the ‘thing’ to do. At any rate, he is chased, arrested, and according to the police report, is “taken into custody without incident.” It is impossible to say why he ran, exactly, since only a pocketknife is found on him: a source of controversy given that Maryland law states Freddie Gray’s spring-assisted knife was legal, whereas Baltimore law says that it was not. Once inside the van, the trip to the police station involves 4 stops, including one which brings another suspect on board, while Gray – against official policy – is never buckled in. An hour later, he is in a coma with a severed spine and fractured vertebrae, and dies the following week.

Naturally, there are problems with the official narrative. First, it is odd for a seasoned drug dealer to run without provocation, especially at a time when he was simply visiting a friend rather than making a ‘business trip’. More likely there was some sort of altercation, or an unofficial policy of harassment targeting Gray and others. Yes, it’s possible he simply feared being searched, due to the knife, but that would only be to a non-consensual search which, given the circumstances, would have been illegal in the first place, a fact the cops would likely ignore, anyway, leading to a chain of events with a similar outcome. And while flight might have been a bad move on Gray’s part, the courts have always been ambiguous on whether the act of mere running from an officer is reasonable suspicion, while Baltimore’s police commissioner claims there is no explicit law against such to begin with. Moreover, the assertion that Gray was “taken into custody without incident” is a lie, and an important one, since … Continue reading →