Prisoners (2012) Is Hobbesian As Hell

After seeing the thriller Prisoners, the title became obvious: everyone is imprisoning everyone else. Whether it’s child kidnappers or Hugh Jackman kidnapping suspected kidnappers, or even one kidnapper holding himself captive(?)  the film showcases how under duress people engage in terrible behavior, not limited to torture and zealotry.

Ironically, there is one group of people who don’t unethically imprison people: the police. Throughout the film they only make two arrests with one leading to no charges and another which probably would have led to the same thing. Likewise, by the end it’s the officer Jake Gyllenhaal who ends up saving the day.

If this isn’t some giant Hobbesian defense of the state I don’t know what is. Hobbes made it a point to say that people fight each other in a war of “all against all” and that only a leviathan, or central authority, can stop it. The film portrays seven people in a small Pennsylvania town who are either directly or indirectly involved in kidnapping and torture (as if kidnapping and torture is the norm) while the police’s only problem is not charging/killing enough people.

It’s a sad state of affairs when Hollywood portrays people as the problem and not the police themselves.

What The “God Spot” Argument Says About Our Culture

After recently hearing someone argue that we have a “god spot” or “god gene” which makes us religious, I was thinking about how troubling that kind of thinking was.

To quickly clear things up: we don’t have one. But even with the empirical evidence, this kind of thinking should not even make sense. Take something like sports, which goes all the way back to the origins of anatomically modern humans. As something that’s so old and important, does that mean we should have a “sports spot” in our brains? No; sports, much like religion, are a complex process that uses many different evolutionary aspects.

To use the (in)famous term, they’re spandrels: byproducts of evolution which form from other direct adaptions. There’s no reason to assume that a specific part of our brain is wired to play baseball or worship a certain religion, they’re possibilities that humans are capable of.

Which brings this to culture. Part of it is ideological on the part of those in power: as one article points out, genes are the new, old excuse for social problems. But part of it is a problem with our modernized culture. The irony is that things are so becoming so advanced that we start to assume that the technology is “natural” and thus our lives are “naturally” structured around it.

This is pure teleology, or the belief that contingent ends were based on natural purposes. As the idiot philosopher in Candide says, “noses were made to wear spectacles;” Of course people did not evolve finding glasses in the forest, it was a human invention. Likewise there is not necessarily a single part of the brain to explain complex behavior, it is various things expressed through our will.

And this is not to say that humans are mystical beings that can’t be reduced by science, what is saying is our lives are not necessarily designed for a natural purpose, whether through religion or technology.

More Young People Favor Socialism Than Are Libertarian

This blog will be guest-starring: MATH.

After getting bombarded with polls showing young people are supposedly overwhelmingly libertarian (both in the sense of social issues and private property) I felt I should do some research. For instance, a 2011 survey found that 49% of young people had a positive view of socialism and, as one blogger pointed out (but unfortunately I can’t find), more young people favor socialism than identify as Republicans.

So how does this compare to the supposed “libertarian streak” among millennials? Well the results are:

  •  Young People Who Favor Socialism: 49%
  • Guesstimate of Young People Who Are Libertarian: 33.3%

These results are not insubstantial for millennials but, like others pointed out, is probably true given young people favoring many “big” government programs.

Here’s the part with all the wonky math you should read (but can skip if it hurts your eyes):

First, how many young people are libertarians? Unfortunately we only have very bad indirect evidence, according to a survey of libertarians, 62% of them are under the age of 50, and a total of 22% of Americans either lean or are consistently libertarian. Likewise, we know from the census that 20-29 year olds make up exactly 13.8% of the population.

The problem is the libertarian poll includes all under 50 year olds as “young” (even though 30-49 obviously is not young) and using these metrics if we inject all the 18-49 year olds into the 18-29 sample (or take 13.6 of 13.8), it comes out to the absurd figure that 99% of young people are libertarian (which is both methodologically bad and contradicted by other finds).

My answer? Let’s just do the opposite: see how many 18-49 year olds are libertarian and apply that figure for 18-29 year olds. It’s not exactly accurate but it’s best method we have so far. We know for instance that 13.6% of the population are libertarian 18-49 year olds and that, (again from the census) 40.9% of the US population are 18-49. which means that it makes a figure of 33.3% and we’ll guesstimate that this applies for 18-29 year olds.

Apparently Silicon Valley Fascism Is A Thing

Yes you read the title correctly, as a Baffler article details, there is a concerted political movement from Silicon Valley techies to implement “a national CEO [or] what’s called a dictator.” Oh wait and it gets better, that’s the progressive (or as one member says “politically correct”) version of the movement, the less progressive sects of the so-called “Dark Enlightenment” are pro-eugenics, and see slavery as “a natural human relationship.”

Clearly they’ll get nowhere if they keep fighting, the neo-reactionaries need to meet somewhere in the middle, between a progressive Orwellian dystopia and a horrifying Dickean slave state.

The scariest part of this movement is that it is not just a fringe phenomenon, but has echoes in people like Peter Thiel, aka the billionaire investor behind PayPal and Facebook. Here is part of a Stanford lecture he gave in 2012:

A startup is basically structured as a monarchy. We don’t call it that, of course. That would seem weirdly outdated, and anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable. We are biased toward the democratic-republican side of the spectrum. That’s what we’re used to from civics classes. But the truth is that startups and founders lean toward the dictatorial side because that structure works better for startups.

In a sense he’s right, and confirms what Corey Robin said about the supposedly “libertarian” notion of right-wing freedom:

When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.  And that, I suspect…is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.

And perhaps that’s the worst part of the movement: the changing American culture itself. Appealing to 1984 and abolitionists from the past becomes useless when the new societal ideal is to make it big by being your own private dictator. That’s not to say most digital “peasants” will vote away their freedom, but when an irrational movement grows large enough, it has a better chance of taking power.

The Medium is the Crass Age: Cloud Atlas and Our Stoney Ends

Welcome to the Nightmaze

Where to begin?  In the year 2321 (After the Fall) when the grubby shepherd Tom Hanks and the saintly-spandexed Halle Berry talk in some broken Mark Twain dialect (is this the “true true” Aunt Jemima?), while running from cannibal Aztec warlords, not to mention NO-T.Hanks’ inner demon, a rock-n-roll leprachaun jealous of Berry’s baggage?  The Titanic “fell”, this T.anks!  Well, the film actually begins with T.hanks all matured into wisdom (proof of which is his vacant eye socket, plundered by an Aztec warlord), telling his tale to children by the fire. We have to wait 3 hours before we can see this sage grab Halle Berry’s granny ass, while they guffaw in well-earned smugness.  It wasn’t worth it.

However, the complete indecency of a film purported not just to entertain but to educate, and which goes about it through the misadventures of an ever-present but never visible cybernetic…

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Spring Breakers is actually Terrible

When I watched Spring Breakers (2012) it was almost like watching a reverse Rebecca Black “Friday”: it’s a pure form of what not to do for an indie film. While it’s been polarizing and recently better received by the indie film community, all the hype for how it’s Harmony Korine’s subversive satire of American culture falls flat on its face.

The biggest problem with the film is its mismatch between tone and character. On a tonal level, there is no comedy, dark or otherwise. It is, to quote some reviews, “deadly serious” and “take[s] itself seriously.” indeed, in many ways the film has the sincerity of a made-for-TV Hallmark drama.

But then come the characters.

In what seems like it was out of a play from Bertold Brecht, all the characters are pathologically flat. Indeed throughout the film they engage in the excess and debauchery of spring break like mindless machines without any kind of deepness or insight whatsoever. The immediate response then is “of course, that’s the point!” Well here lies the problem of Spring Breakers, it tries to be both completely serious while examining the internal world of characters who are empty. You can’t have it both ways.

The whole point of having unrealistic characters is to put a distance between the audience, so that they can critically analyze what their watching. As the Swedish novelist Elfriede Jelinek put it:

Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the “luxuriousness” of personality…The writer’s task is to block this maneuver, to chase us off to a point from which we can view horror with a dispassionate eye.

However, the seriousness of the film tries to remove this distance, making it contradictory. Thus it does not work, you can either have passionate realism or a satirical distanced critique, not both.

Spring Breakers tries to do both and fails spectacularly.

Has Zizek Ever Read The Dispossessed?

Whenever I hear Slavoj Zizek’s famous phrase “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” I immediately think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. As a best-selling science fiction book, it has been unapologetically presenting anarcho-syndicalism as an alternative to capitalism for 40 years now. In fact it was so unapologetic, Philip K. Dick called it a “political sermonette all gussied up with literary style…when you strip the style away, it’s all from the poli-sci department at the University of California at Berkeley.”

So can we please stop pretending like our society is brainwashed into submission when many of its renowned books actively challenge it?

A Unified Theory of Oppression?

If there is one thing many political ideologies have in common, it is that they attempt to end what they perceive to be oppression. And leaving aside very unorthodox definitions (like say religious fundamentalists’ “oppression” of liberal choice), it seems very clear that these ideologies, whether liberalism, socialism, ecologism, anarchism etc. have a common understanding for what oppression is. Indeed, one could say that it is a matter of degree for how much oppression should be eliminated, with ideologies like anarcho-primitivism and ecologism at the far end since they oppose any kind of oppression of animals and nature.

The question then is why has no one attempted to unify these oppressions into a common theory, in order to address them head on? In physics for instance, there are attempts at a theory of everything in order to understand the universe. This seems especially important for oppression given that to end it in all of its forms it is important to understand its various causes and functions.

The immediate rebuttal is “oppression” is just a word, and can describe any number of things which have nothing to do with each other. This is, of course, true in a sense. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out for patriarchy, many forms of oppression seem to predate things like the state or capitalism and can act independently of it. Thus a lot of political factionalism, or even complete differences in ideology, can be explained as an attempt to address different issues.

But this is not to say that there has been no progress in this issue. One technique to address multiple, overlapping oppressions has been intersectionality. Indeed, if this was just a vague descriptor then even this theory would not be viable. Of course oppressions vary extremely as do their causes and functions, but it is still worth trying to attempt to solve it as a single problem. As movements like Occupy Wall Street showed, there has been too much of an emphasis prior to the economic crisis on single-issues which often coincide and feed off one another. Without a proper understanding of oppression, activists will be trapped in an endless game of whack-a-mole where one form of oppression is restrained but another, inter-related one regenerates in its place.

The Irony of Lars von Trier: A feminist analysis of Nymphomaniac (2013)

After seeing the Lars von Trier’s controversial new film Nymphomaniac (2013)  (or really two films), I can say that it was generally watchable as a film (assuming someone doesn’t have an aversion to graphic content) but there was a tension between the  message of the film, which, in a poor film-making choice was told explicitly to the audience, and the actual content that was shown. Specifically, since the film dealt with women and sex, it is appropriate to use a feminist lens to analyze the film. 

As mentioned before, the film makes the strange choice to explain to the audience the point of every scene and the ostensibly pro-feminist message of the film. This is perhaps not without cause, von Trier has been accused of being a misogynist for the unfortunate outcomes of women in his films and making a film where a sex-addicted women falls on hard times would probably further that image. And while he is certainly no misogynist, it is hard to see this film as a feminist parable.

The film is takes place in the present where Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, is found lying in an alley and is given refuge by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and the two recount her life’s story, going into flashbacks of her youth. After she finishes her story, Seligman concludes that her fall from grace was the result of European society’s double standard for women.

This is particularly odd given Joe’s character. First she is explicitly illiberal when it comes to race, democracy, and equality in general (although without a central core that can identify an ideology). For instance when she is in a sex-addicts self-help group, she gives a rousing speech about how she is better than all the other women there and that societal standards for egalitarianism are wrong. It is also odd given her backstory: throughout the film, Joe never explicitly faces structural barriers as a women (at one point she even gets a job despite having no experience) and any sanctions come from her loved ones. For instance, Joe leaves her child alone from 2 AM to 6 AM alone to go to BDSM building, which almost results in the child’s death. After she does it again, her husband and child leave her.

Thus despite the proclamations to the audience, the film is not seen as a struggle of women in a patriarchal society; instead we are shown a reactionary struggling in a liberal society. Given the politeness of strangers, Joe’s illiberal character and easy achievements, and the hatred of her by her loved ones, it is hard to see it in any other way. von Trier also has precedent for using reactionary themes in his films. In Manderlay (2005), von Trier presents a slave plantation that is trapped in time in the 1930s and, after being liberated by an idealistic mob heiress, falls apart because of the dependencies of the former slaves (apparently von Trier never heard about the slave uprisings and mass escapes in general).

One can of course, make the argument that perhaps the home-maker structure itself was oppressive, forcing her to neglect her child, but among all the proclamations of double standards, this one was never pointed out. Indeed, what’s hiding behind the graphic content in von Trier’s film, is an oddly reactionary story.