Saturday, 28 March 2009

"The Labyrinth."

There is a Labyrinth. The corridors are long, dark, and confusing. They grow and shrink randomly. The walls move, shift, and change. The Labyrinth’s darkness is absolute. Thick blackness consumes your outstretched hand, too impenetrable even for the usual metaphor of ‘inky’ darkness to sufficiently convey the cloying visual suffocation. Every step is a leap of faith into the unknown; every movement accompanied by doubt as to whether the floor beneath you will remain solid or fall away leaving you to fall, fall, fall for evermore. There is No Exit. There is no entrance. You were born in the Labyrinth and all your life has been a slow trek through the dark maze.

There are voices. Other people, other souls lost to the labyrinth of the world. You can hear them now and then. Sometimes you feel them brush past. Sometimes you cling to whomever you may find, desperate for the merest contact with something – something other than the darkness, the walls, and the confusion.

The Labyrinth affects everyone differently. Some immediately stop moving. They decide that the Labyrinth is too deep, too convoluted to ever understand, let alone chart. They stop. They cling to passers-by. They live out their lives, alone or in groups. Some recognise the Absurdity of the Labyrinth and do their best to live out their lives in some helpful way. A rare minority choose to wander the winding paths forever, exploring every crevice and every dead-end. These few are the Cartographers. These individuals try to map the vast puzzle, hoping that the cartographic endeavour will yield some monumental insight, perhaps reveal why they are in there. Some of these brave explorers will even hope that the quest will reveal the ultimate purpose of the Labyrinth. Most know that there is no way out and that inevitably they will die within the shadowy corridors but that does not rob their mission of purpose. The Cartographers recognise the achievements of Orpheus, Icarus, and Promotheus though their attempts were ultimately futile. They admire above all the dedication of Sisyphus. Complete understanding of the maze may be impossible but that does not mean that partial understanding is without value.

And so these courageous few wander the maze and take notes on its twists and turns. But each one started from somewhere different. Each was thrown into the Labyrinth at a different point. They communicate with one another when they can but the Labyrinth is the size of a universe and different portions are charted in different ways. When the Cartographers do come across one another, groping through the black, their interpretations, even of the same sectors of the maze, are conflicted. They get frustrated with one another and groups go their separate ways. One group desires to describe the Labyrinth; to express how it makes them feel, what the walls are like, and write poetry forever trying to convey the sheer majesty of the immense structure that they have been confined in since birth. The other group wants to explain the maze; to grasp the metaphysical underpinnings of its existence and to lay down an accurate Ariadne’s thread so that other travellers might come through the labyrinth quicker and therefore come to a level of understanding quicker. The two groups call themselves the Dionysians and the Apollonians: the Humanities and the Sciences.

The Labyrinth contains a Minotaur. This beast is no entity condemned by the Gods, no Grecian monstrosity. Rather it is a Frankenstein’s Monster: a creature made by and made up of humanity. It is the surging crowd of Irrationality: a conglomeration of people lost in the Labyrinth who desire only that others should remain as lost as they are. A mob who oppose the patient methodology of the Cartographers. A group who believe that they see light in the darkness, who believe that the Labyrinth is not all that there is. The Cartographers battle the Minotaur at every crossroads.

The Labyrinth is vast. And everyone is trapped, wandering through the dark. The only way to chart it and the only possible way to reach some proximate understanding of its vastnesses is for the two groups of Cartographers to come together and share their knowledge. The only way to slay the Minotaur is for the Humanities and the Sciences to share their findings and battle the Irrationality together. The only way to explain the immense riddle is to put differences aside and communicate, one with another. Otherwise we are doomed to stay lost within our ever-shifting prison, the Labyrinth of Life.

Escape is impossible but that does not mean that we should remain lost.

Metaphor courtesy of E. O. Wilson. The extension of it and the random capitalisation are all mine.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Review - Daybreak

Battlestar Galactica ended on Friday night with an episode that highlighted the twin allures of the entire series: the first half was awesome space-battle action and the second half was a slow, philosophical character piece. Balancing the action and the character politics is something that the show has always aimed for, even if it meant the pacing of episodes or seasons was sometimes a little off.

Battlestar Galactica has been the best show on television for the past five years. Though it didn’t have the addictiveness of Lost, Battlestar has been more consistent. The show has had its share of bad episodes – mostly studio-requested stand-alone ones – but for the most part Battlestar kept a consistent level of quality, maintained a similar tone, and pursued the same mysteries since the show’s beginning. Lost only introduced the now-central element of time travel in Season 3/4: Battlestar has been taunting us with that Opera House since their first season.

Battlestar Galactica has always been a show about characters, which is why it seemed so fitting to have the finale explore the characters’ pasts through flashback. Throughout it has almost been incidental that the characters spend all their time on a space-ship fleeing from killer robots. Battlestar’s high-points have always been character-related: Gaeta’s haunting lament, Tigh losing his wife on New Caprica, Adama reuniting the Fleet at Kobol, Roslin and Adama reuniting on the Baseship, Lee and Kara’s torturous relationship, Cavil's self-loathing, Baltar’s trial. These aren’t to do with the plot but with the characters interacting. Like in Camus’ fiction, the setting is almost interchangeable: the characters would face the same dilemmas even if the show were set in the Dark Ages, World War II, or wherever. The plot is nothing more than a vehicle to drive the actions of the characters with the aim of holding a mirror up to the audience so that we might examine our own motivations and our own nature. The allegory is what has kept the fans coming back and will keep me watching my DVD box-sets into the future.

A lot of fans are bandying about the term ‘Deus ex machina’ in reaction to the finale. But considering the particular plot device used to wrap up all the loose ends, it seems as though the writers’ are getting the last laugh. Deus ex machina literally translates as ‘god from the machine’ and that is what the entire show has been about. The Cylons (or rather the Final Five) have always pursued their monotheistic vision which has driven the plot of the show. The last two minutes or so of the show were, for me, the only low point in an otherwise great two hours (the dialogue was terrible, the unsubtle moralising irritated me, Moore’s cameo was too jarring, and they played Jimi frakkin’ Hendrix instead of Bob Dylan!). But the epilogue was notable for one line of dialogue: at the very end Head Six and Head Baltar mention that It doesn’t like to be called ‘God’ and the camera pans into a montage of robots – a strong implication that ‘It’ is machine-like in nature. A literal deus ex machina: the God-machine. Accusing the writers of deus ex machina is playing directly into their hands.

I’ll miss Battlestar Galactica. Yes, the space battles were intensely well-produced. Yes, the politics were relevant and intelligent. Yes, the music was beautiful. But most of all I’ll miss the characters, even the secondary ones (I would watch a whole show based around President Lampkin and Admiral Hoshi). For five years the audience has shared their lives. For five years we’ve seen ourselves in them. Sad to let them go.

So say we all.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

"Ayn Rant."

The American upper classes are taking on the Ayn Rand inspired idea of ‘Going Galt’ - the super-rich deliberately not earning as much money to avoid falling into a higher tax bracket. In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged the hyper-productive members of society led by activist John Galt gradually disappear leaving the world to flounder in the wake of their departure. The principle invoked by America’s upper echelons is essentially the same: they deliberately stop working and stop earning so that they can avoid President Obama’s taxation borne of his economic stimulus plan. The idea is that when these hyper-productive members of American society disappear, the lower classes and the political lefties will realise how wrong they were and come begging for forgiveness. That anyone could think of this as other than intrinsically selfish actually repulses me.

Fox News refers to Obama’s increased taxation of the rich as a “war on success”. American pundits and commentators universally hold that the rich have earned their money and thus there is no reason for them to give it to the poor. The implicit premise here is left unsaid: that the poor do not work as hard as the super-rich. Is this true or is it incredibly naive? Doesn’t this completely overlook the fact that much of the lower classes in America are people who work more than one job (“uniquely American” as Bush would have put it)? Do the rich really think that the poor don’t work as hard as they do?

There is an incredibly naive view at the heart of this argument: a view which, I am ashamed to say, I once held. It is the view that all people have an equal chance in life. Should this be the case? Absolutely. Is it? No. The fact is that some people are born with different talents, with innate skills, and with genetic proclivities that go on to determine the course of their lives. If a person is born as a man, they will have more opportunities for success. If a woman happens to be conventionally attractive, chances are she will do better than a less attractive woman. If a person is born with a body for sports, he/she will do better than someone without that native talent. If a person is born intelligent, that person will probably end up earning more money: the Lockean idea of the mind as a tabula rasa is a myth. What determines these products of birth is luck. Luck puts a person in the right position to climb the ladder of success whereas the unlucky cannot even get on the first rung. It is simply not the case that everyone starts at the same place and that the lazy suffer while those who work succeed. It should be that way but it’s not.

And so laissez-faire capitalists and libertarians rely on the free market and say that anyone who fails in society has no-one to blame but themselves. That is not true. Most of the people who do not succeed, who stay poor, never had a chance because they were simply not lucky enough to be born with talents or privilege or the chance at a solid education. Maybe they were born without talents or without the resources to develop their talents; maybe they were born in a class where they had no chance at social mobility. The only fair way of determining a society is to put oneself in John Rawls’ Original Position and see the world without the determining factors of genetics and environment.

There is a central problem with Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged: what kind of people would step forward as ‘creative geniuses’? Who would hail themselves as a ‘foundation of society’ or a “superior mind”? What kind of person would think of themselves as the Greek titan Atlas? Any human being with an ounce of humility would not. The kind of people who would volunteer themselves as the glue of society are smug, arrogant people with a sense of righteous entitlement who, for some narcissistic reason, think that the world would stop turning without them. Anyone who decides to ‘Go Galt’ betrays their hyper-inflated and egoistic view of themselves.

This post may not be clear-headed and reasonable. It may employ rhetoric and offer a straw-man of the opposition. It may sound dogmatic and it may generalise. This is because the idea of ‘Going Galt’ makes me so angry. Suddenly the American upper-classes and the bankers and the stock-market traders are acting like they’re the victims, like they are burdened with helping the poor, when clearly they are the people who got us all into this mess in the first place. It makes me so angry to see these financial experts balking at the idea of helping people less fortunate and clinging desperately to their own stacks of money when it was their reckless spending and stupid baroque financial systems that brought about the misfortune of the poor people in the first place. To think that they could justify what is essentially selfishness by narcissistically claiming that they work harder than everyone else is a repugnant notion. It irritates me no end that the American right are advocating unfettered capitalism and relying on the free market to be our economic saviour.

There’s nothing more to say. The super-rich of America and other capitalist nations are selfish narcissists who refuse to see the suffering of people right in front of them and refuse to acknowledge that their monetary successes come from luck, be it luck of birth or luck of circumstance.

There is a reason Ayn Rand is not taken seriously in any politics or philosophy department.

Friday, 13 March 2009

"Cramer vs. Stewart"

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has been having a week-long contest with MSNBC and somehow Jim Cramer, one of that network's financial analysts, became MSNBC's figurehead. This interview is one of Stewart's best ever and I would advise you to watch the unedited version. The first 30 seconds or so of Part 3 are wonderful as Jon breaks from his comedic routine for just a moment and you see a glimpse of the frustration he feels at the economic system in America and in particular how the media treat it. For just a second you can see how angry it makes him to be one of the only ‘news’ anchors in America with real integrity. For just a second Jon Stewart shows the frustration at the economists and financial experts that we all should be feeling.

I am so glad that The Daily Show keeps broadcasting with its calm intelligence but I’m so upset that it should have to.