Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tom's Official Cloud Atlas Review!

"The boundaries between noise and sound are conventions," aspiring composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) writes in a letter to a loved one. "One may transcend any convention, if only one can conceive of doing so." Cloud Atlas, enormous in its ambition, asks the viewer transcend the boundary between entertainment and art. Is this too much to ask of Americans?

The story covers 6 separate plots: 2 in the past, 2 in the present and 2 in the future. Each plot uses its own specific style of language. Goethe wrote that “progress has not followed a straight ascending line, but a spiral with rhythms of progress and retrogression, of evolution and dissolution.” In flipping back and forth between the styles of the different periods, we see that while the sophistication of technology and language may change, the richness of life depends not on one or other, but on the interaction of both--on our ability to use language to connect us to our world and each other.

Tom Hanks plays a primitive, Zachry, whose language, despite communicating effectively within the sphere of his tribe, is not elaborate enough for him to understand certain things about himself and the natural world. He does not always have the words to communicate what he feels inside, and so those feelings become repressed, are mixed together with his survival instincts, and projected out in the form of the devil figure Georgie (Hugo Weaving), who advises him to give up--look after his own interest rather than attempting further communication.

Book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) represents the polar opposite end of the spectrum. His mastery of the English language allows him to explain anything whatsoever that may happen to him, but he inhabits a world that he is unable to engage with. His attempts at communication, despite perfect style and delivery, all come up empty. We first encounter him at an upscale publishing industry party, wondering “Why would anyone want to become a book publisher?” He lives in a world in which language sets up new boundaries--in the form of hierarchical systems of law--as much as it has broken through old ones faced by Zachry.

Real progress--the kind that increases happiness--occurs when language helps us engage with the world and each other. False progress seems to do this, but its application is uneven. Boundaries are broken, but only for an elite few. We use language to define the boundaries between us as much as we use it to transcend them.

Tying both poles together is the story of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae)--a cloned slave-worker from the future. A resistance movement covertly takes the depressants out of her daily soapsac, and she gradually starts to question the rules she and the other clones live by. After going to great lengths to take over a broadcasting station, the resistance puts out Sonmi-451’s transmission to give society the evidence that fabricants are no different than purebloods.

In the climax of her story, Sonmi states: “Our lives are not our own, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future. Death, life, birth--everything is connected.”

A life is more than just the sum of the subjective emotional states the individual has experienced. Home and work are our lives’ two recurring dreams in that objective thought never takes place within either. In addition to these states of split-consciousness (home and work, public vs. private, male-female, servant-master, weak-strong, etc.), there is an objective, unified existence that we can experience also, if we so choose.

Real progress is the process of language bringing about a richer world. Language alone allows us to perceive the world from someone else’s perspective. And when we succeed in communicating our perspective to someone else, a new door opens for us both. We all benefit, both live richer lives, both become more human.

One recurring theme in Cloud Atlas, as with most any action film, is the struggle for survival. “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat”--society tells us over and over that this is the defining rule of our existence. But we also learn there is the hope of an alternative.
Just as primitive humans learned to view nature objectively, rather than expressing their subjective emotional states, so too modern humans are learning to view our own lives objectively, as parts in a greater narrative. “To be is to be perceived--to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.”


Thursday, November 08, 2012

A Cloud Atlas is the Territory!

This is a poem inspired by the themes in the film Cloud Atlas.
(Post's title is a play on Alfred Korzybski's phrase "the map is not the territory".)
Language is a castle in the sky,
owned by no one,
growing new towers with each new subject that enters.

In conversation, magic! a tower appears!

a horseman passing by a grave,
or perhaps the snot-green sea.

through metaphor they move from mind to mind,

resurrecting echoes of the past,
a mother’s love, a culture’s majesty

And in that ever-mysterious moment,

when I first learn to see through your eyes
I briefly escape my own mind’s walls,

and surrounded instead by culture’s castle,

observantly, I notice the castle rising,
propelled by the breath of giants.
Looking forward to reading the novel!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Update 12/4/12: Please also see for my more thought-out review of the movie.

What makes a movie work, makes it feel fresh? Conversely, what feels cliche, and just rehashes previously covered ground?

Taking an obvious (and given Disney’s recent acquisition, somewhat timely) example, why has Star Wars remained so relevant? Sure, it got everything right--the accent of C3PO, the music, the back and forth between Han and Leia--all that grips us in the usual way of the popular fads that come and go. And yet Star Wars never really left. There was something deeper about the effect that it had on many of us. Perhaps it was the way Darth Vader so perfectly embodied the theme of the struggle with evil--the temptation of giving in to our dark side that rules in the name of order.  Although Darth Vader was the undeniable “bad guy,” he also claims to represent “order”, flipping the traditional role of the “villain as outlaw” on its head. Sometimes, the rulers are the villains. In all of film, the character of Darth Vader best expresses the truth “power corrupts”.

So, “power corrupts”. Where do we go from here? I see Cloud Atlas as a far-reaching exploration of some possible answers.

Specifically, Cloud Atlas is a story of the soul in action. 

Unlike most movies that delve into history, Cloud Atlas tells the story of the voiceless--the African slave, the residents of a nursing home, the artificially intelligent slave of the future--those who have been "otherized" and “exiled from the civil world.” "To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.”  Cloud atlas explores the inverse side of the statement “power corrupts,” showing us the point of view of the victim. If power corrupts the ruler, what does it do to the ruled? And digging even further, how can one use his or her power to be redeemed?  

When Adam decides to help Autua on the ship, he loses his role as oppressor, and for the first time perceives a slave as a human. Soul is moving through him.

Cloud Atlas is smart enough to recognize that “all individuals are created equal” is not the “end of history,” as some have claimed. No, indeed, the work of the soul goes on, whether we see it or not. If you don’t believe me, observe neurosis (soul from below) and the process of economic globalization (soul from above). These processes exist independently of the conscious goals of individuals. What else but soul can be responsible?   

However, Cloud Atlas does not stop at modernity. Or perhaps, it realizes that we can only understand our present age if we are shown where we could be headed. In New Seoul, which is built above the mostly-flooded ground of old Seoul, we encounter a people who again face the same situation as Autua--voiceless, powerless, dehumanized--except Sonmi is not human. (Much like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica) Sonmi is a clone/computer hybrid (called a Fabricant in this story)--an organic body with a computerized mind. Is her story therefore different from Autua’s? Cloud Atlas does not back down from this question.

Tying it all together is the story of Zachry. The entire development of soul through the rest of film is personified in his character.

Zachry takes for granted that his instinctual reactions--to stay hidden, to murder the stranger, to kill the sleeping enemy--come from a power greater than himself. Not so for modern humanity. We would not make this mistake. We look inside first for all explanations of behavior, whether it’s to the brain through “learned behavior” or “repressed complexes”, or “unconscious archetypes.” However, trapped by our inward-looking, ego-centered bias, we become oblivious to the work of the soul. Zachry has not yet fallen into our ego-centered trap, and so is transformed by Meronym. He is open to new experiences in a way that we are not, and so her soul begins to act through him.     

It’s interesting Roger Ebert titled his review “Castles in the Sky.” I have just been reading Wolfgang Giegerich, who writes, 
“We remember Goethe’s statement that it was not he who made his poems, but that they made him. The creative person, in his creating, is building castles in the air, and is used by them for their need to become produced... ‘By its colorful tunes the lark blissfully climbs up into the air.’ Creativity means to trust the air, its absolute negativity, as the only ground upon which, as well as the only stuff out of which, great cultural works can be created.”  [ Giegerich. What is Soul? p. 184 ]
The Cloud Atlas Sextet can be interpreted as its own separate character that “needs to become produced.” Perhaps the characters in each era are “creative” in the sense that Giegerich talks about, that they are capable and willing to become the mediums for great works. They are the capable and willing builders of castles in the sky.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Soul Exists As Language: Introduction to Giegerich's Use of the Term "Soul"

    We moderns have no right to the term soul... Human existence is... only finite and a product of biological evolution... There is no room for the term soul. Of the original body-soul pair, only its one side, the body, has remained. ...
    The word psychology, properly translated, means “logos [account] of the soul.” The use of “psyche” instead of “soul” is a new import into scientific language, an artificial and abstract technical term and is clearly inspired by the wish that arose during the 19th century to avoid the traditional word and to cleanse psychology from all the above-mentioned metaphysical, religious overtones and feeling associations and implications of this word: to sterilize psychology. Or, to put it positively, it is inspired by the wish to get the subject of psychology a priori
into a scientific, positivistic straightjacket. [ Giegerich, Wolfgang. What is Soul? pp. 15-16 ]
    What ultimately had made psychology so attractive to many people at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century is the (of course usually unacknowledged, if not systematically denied) promise of learning the secret of the soul. The desire to get to know and understand the soul is the secret driving motivation behind the existence of the whole field, even if the field itself avoided the word soul. It amounts to a deception and self-deception to pretend that what people wanted to know through psychology was the dry facts established through tests, statistical evaluation of opinion polls, and experiments. ...
    Inasmuch as psychology is a
modern field of study and as such is grounded on the truth of modernity, it inevitably starts out as a psychology without ‘soul’. How then can the notion of soul come back into a field into whose very definition soul-lessness is built, and come back into it precisely as its root metaphor? ... But conversely: how can we want to do psychology if we have renounced the notion of the soul? ...
    One might want to see this terrible dilemma as our Scylla and Charybdis. But that image would suggest that we would have to try and see how to get somehow through these two monsters in between them, in other words, how to avoid them. But sneaking past them is precisely not the solution. Rather, we have to give both of them their due. They are not monsters, not dangers to be avoided by us, but our teachers, helpers. Precisely in their simultaneity--and Scylla Charybdis always appear together--that is, in their negating each other, they show us the way.
    The “psychology without soul” prevents us from ontologizing the soul as an existing mysterious entity. The soul must not be positivized. It does not exist. But this does not at all mean that it is simply nothing, a word to be struck off from our vocabulary. Paradoxically, the argumentation of Fr. A. Lange [ that psychology should be without soul ] itself stays stuck in the metaphysical, ontologizing mode of thinking that it wants to depart from. That he has to eliminate the soul altogether indicates the fact that he unwittingly [shares] the metaphysical belief in the soul as a substance. The only difference between metaphysics and Lange’s position is that the former affirms the idea of a substantial soul, while the latter denies it. It is as a matter of course that for us the soul is not a positive fact, an entity, or substance. As long as you view it as a positively existing entity, you have to dismiss it. ... To be sure, by having rid himself of the object of metaphysics, his thinking is no longer metaphysical. But because he only negated the metaphysical object while retaining the thinking in terms of thing-like entities, his thinking has become positivistic. ...

If, however, the negation is allowed to go all the way... the logic of the metaphysical substance then suffers a sublimation, distillation, a determinate negation, rather than its wholesale annihilation (elimination). The soul, instead of being dismissed, has in itself become logically negative. This is the effect and achievement of our Charybdis.
Therefore, let me here stress this once more, ... we do not conceive [the soul] as a thing-like object, a natural being or essence, a metaphysical substance, an entity, “the ghost in the machine.” It is not set up by us as a subject and invisible agent or stage director behind the scene. Nor is it viewed as a component or compartment of man and as having a substrate (such as the body, the human organism). We do not even say, “there is such a thing as soul,” “soul exists.” The use of the definite article (our speaking of “the soul”) must therefore not be taken literally. It seems to imply that a factual existence of the soul is posited and that it is set up as a substance. We must therefore always keep in mind that the talk of “the soul” is figurative speech, merely part of the rhetoric of psychology. It is a mythologizing, almost personifying, manner of speaking. When using it, we always have to imagine quotation marks around the expression. This means that we are required to think when we use the phrase, have to use it thinkingly, in other words, we must not fall for the seductive force of the mythological personification. If we took it literally and nailed it down to what it says, the wording “the soul” would be incorrect, even illegitimate. We use it it nonetheless because we are speaking, expressing ourselves, in language, and because the use of nouns conforms to the structure of our language... It would be far too cumbersome to always express oneself correctly here (psycho-politically correct), because this would make an unidiomatic use of language or constant qualifications and warning necessary. Political correctness always wants to solve the problems it finds externally and mechanically, by substituting “correct” names for “bad” ones. An exchange of labels. Psychology, by contrast, must put the burden of “correctness” on the mind, its having to provide the proper understanding for the same old names it uses, thereby following the ways of language itself which has always put new wine (new meanings) into old bottles (old words).
The gift to us of the idea of a psychology without soul is that it protects us from ontologizing or reifying the soul as a second entity besides the body. And conversely, the gift to us of our Scylla, i.e., the old metaphysical notion of the soul, is that it allows us to preserve the phenomenon that we as psychologists are truly interested in, namely the notion of soul with (1) its sense of value, importance, indispensability, (2) with its sense of mystery and otherworldliness (even if of course only a metaphorical otherworldliness), (3) with the fact that it makes a claim on us, immediately involving our subjectivity, our deepest essence, and (4) as something without substrate and not identical with any functions of the biological organism...
    If we take both our Scylla and our Charybdis together, we arrive at the idea of a logically negative autonomous or objective soul, where “negative,” on the one hand, and “autonomous or objective,” on the other hand, seem contradictory. Jung’s and alchemy’s idea that the major “part” of the soul is outside the body can now be understood to mean for our modern psychology that its notion of soul has logically cut itself loose from, and made itself totally independent of, the traditional body-soul pair and thus also from/of the human being as substrate personality altogether. Soul has become sui generis [ Giegerich. What is Soul? pp. 20-25 ]

   The soul exists only in language, but it does exist there! The structure of language is such that whenever we use language as thought (as opposed to communication), for instance, in religious ritual, in the creation of art, when we study psychology, etc.--there, we discover the work of the soul.
    However, Giegerich goes on to explain, as soon as the ego takes charge, soul-work ends. In the past, this problem did not come up, because “ego” is a modern construction. For pre-modern man, the concept of “ego” was unnecessary because individual identity was inseparable from ritualistic life, whether religious or tribal. They took for granted that certain behaviors (specifically rituals) arise communally. Not so for modern humanity. We look inside first for all explanations of behavior, whether it’s to the brain through “learned behavior” or “repressed complexes”, or “unconscious archetypes.” Trapped by our inward-looking, ego-centered bias, we are oblivious to the work of the soul.
    The work of the soul goes on, whether we see it or not. Giegerich points to neurosis (soul from below) and the process of economic globalization (soul from above) as the most visible manifestations of soul today.