Notes towards a better interpretation of Plato’s Republic:

(I make use of books by Annas and Blackburn, but the following explanations are my own efforts after a recent rereading of the Republic.)

The first book of the Republic is similar to other dialogs of Plato in which the character of Socrates merely questions and prods other persons to explain their views. But in the Republic in Books II-X, Socrates will take over and then monopolize the conversation! His conversation partners most often (humorously) seem to to say in effect: Whatever you want Socrates; These are your opinions; You’re in control; That sounds fine. But this leaves some difficult real-time interpretative work for the reader, that is, the need to decide which of these many ideas and arguments expressed by the Socrates character in this long dialog about justice–which of these are good, which are lame, which are humorous, which are simply inadequate, which are authentic? A majority of the opinions/arguments seem to me to be inadequate/incomplete, though most will raise or suggest significant issues. But if the Republic is a large and seemingly loose patchwork, I believe that it is still carefully constructed for overall imaginative effect… else why would we continue to re-read it and repeatedly try to find and extract its main arguments and ideas? Much of its worth must reside, then, in suggestion and implication…

Book I: The scene is a new religious festival at the Athens harbor where a successful foreign businessman insists on befriending Socrates. Socrates asks the man about his retirement, and this person expresses what we might label a complacent-conventional notion of justice: He comes from money, but not too much. He has done OK himself, and so is not financially distressed in his retirement. He can take comfort in the fact that in his business practices he has not exploited or abused anyone; he gave fair return for whatever he was entrusted with. This attitude once expressed allows Socrates to gradually turn the conversation towards consideration of justice in the abstract. What is justice.

Thrasymachus, an intense but cynical youth jumps in with his excited claim that justice, obviously, is whatever one can get away with and still get ahead, socially. Society operates so as to allow the greatest success to those who are not tied down by any silly abstract notions such as justice. Justice is nothing more than social power or success. After Socrates employs some inadequate argument to counter and quiet this cynicism, other members of the audience ask that Socrates do a better job than this. Don’t just say that injustice is bad, don’t just moralize and claim that justice is good and will be rewarded, convince us rather that justice (as individual virtue) is inherently appealing and desirable. This somewhat personalistically-framed challenge, then, is what Socrates accepts as task: not to describe the just society or justice in society, nor only to describe justice as individual virtue. The conventional or moralistic defense of justice is too easy. Please explain the inherent appeal of individual-justice without relying upon conventional or shared social values… (And perhaps we should remember that the excited Thrasymachus does sit quietly enough through all of the succeeding patchwork, sit through a very long and often tedious discussion/monolog until eventual success, it must be, in Book IX and X. And if Thrasymachus can sit through this, how dare the reader complain…) Thus while the word justice necessarily would seem to imply other persons–the task as set here is strictly and ultimately individual: Why should I be just?

Plato’s first ploy (at 369, Book II) is to look at justice as it might be found within a society/city-state rather than in the one individual. And for this he will need to imaginatively construct a theoretical (ideal) society–though as this effort proceeds it should also become obvious to the reader that this hypothetical polis is not actually a very ideal society or state.

Founded on economic need, this city initially needs only four persons: full-time farmer-herder to provide food, full-time house builder and house maintenance person, etc. Then, importers to obtain goods from outside. Then this state will become slightly diseased because it wishes to add cooks, fashion, artist-imitators. Clearly, these persons beginning to enjoy themselves will in addition need a standing army, full time guardians. And since from among these defenders, the guardians, must also come the governors, the education of the guardians will need to be carefully supervised. But in this supervision of the mores and religion to be given to the guardians Plato himself obviously will become very moralistic and conventional in his talk as this proceeds through Books III-IV, developing in effect the image of a narrow-mindedly provincial-pious-conventional (if also moral) sort of city-state of the sort that Athens itself (–temporarily at least–) became when it condemned Socrates to die (not so long ago…)! For example, Plato insists that the children’s stories include no description of heroes afraid, that the religion taught include no appeasement of the Gods, include no description of the Gods doing anything imperfect or human-like. (Plato’s educational-conventional censorship becomes so extreme that he is out to purify the religion itself…! And is this not meant to be humorous?) That is, since Plato is monopolizing this conversation we will need to follow along, but we need not take this theoretical construct, this city-state as being an ultimate ideal, but only as one possible attempt to build a model, in this instance a polis developed via economic and moral-conventional guidelines.

At the close of Book IV Socrates says that his argument is complete, finished. Justice would be the (happy) healthy situation in the individual soul when reason, spirit and appetites are regimented properly, just as in the hypothetical-state, justice may be observed where the three groups of citizens with the morally-educated guardians at the top, each stick to their proper roles. His audience had objected previously that his hierarchal city would not seem to be very enjoyable or appealing to the members in any of its classes, but Socrates insists that he is looking for composite social well-being in this model. At 421, beginning of Book IV, Socrates implies that the moral strictness which he has been promoting may be the best/only way to prevent societal hypocrisy, to prevent citizens from seeming good but not genuinely fulfilling their social role. And in this paragraph he also suggest that he is not aiming for the (perhaps more democratic) situation of “farmers and happy feasters…” That is, while there may be other approaches to imaginatively construct an ideal society, he chooses this approach. It is the whole picture that matters, not whether each and every individuals is happy…

This then is Socrates’ first if also inadequate effort: An ordered city-state, or analogously, the one person–within which the better parts will be in charge.

Socrates is clear that such a situation does not arrive via legal or constitutional means. At 425 and following Plato’s opinion is clearly stated: A better and virtuous society must arrive via education and not via any attempts to shape a society via promulgated law. (And as such this would go against the prevalent sentiment in the United States, and might seem more congenial to Asian civilizations. But as will become apparent later in the Republic, both the unique content as well as the individuality of education will become, for Plato, all-important and essential. The conventional (Asian) approach to education will not achieve what Plato wants… Self-cultivation is a Confucian ideal, but Plato’ emphasis (later in the Republic) on individual aspiration toward acquisition of truth, this will become a Western educational ideal/norm.)

Socrates says that he is finished–but his audience are neither satisfied not inspired. They prod Socrates to go on in more detail about the training-in-common of the male and female guardians… (If Greeks were not ashamed of nude male athletes, they yet found humorous the seriously offered image of male and female guardians training together in the nude.) Elaboration on this topic should be entertaining at least… And Socrates obliges them by launching into an extensive set of arrangements for co-educational training.

Perhaps since equality is already accepted as being a conventional norm, Plato accepts the assumption that a strict gender-equalization will need to be implemented in these arrangements envisioned for the guardians: no marriages, all the children will be raised communally, eugenic encouragement of mating between those with the superior physiques, etc. It may be that the female is by nature the physically weaker sex, but some females, by nature, will be born to have the aptitude and aspiration to become guardians and rulers. I read the context here as humorous, the regulations as preposterous, but the note about gender equality as also genuine. And perhaps all of this extended section we should also read as something of a literary setup: If you enjoyed this idealized construct of a society strictly implementing gender equalization at the highest level, then you might find the next suggestion easier to take: These guardians must become philosophers. There must be method in place to insure that only philosophers are able to become rulers. Philosophers must be kings, kings philosophers.

Solon, Hammurabi, Solomon, the pharaohs, various kings… Few persons will suggest that their king or ruler OUGHT NOT to have practical-political wisdom. But this must be an opportunity Plato has been waiting for, his chance to add to his less than ideal city-state that element which of course, he is actually most interested in… This most important philosophy patch is pasted on at this point, and will be discussed in fairly interesting terms through the next few chapters.

The “guardians” in training to become governors need not just political wisdom but a complete/comprehensive philosophical education. When the primitive economic city needs protection and the guardian group is initially mentioned in Book II, these guardians, Socrates suggests (at 376–) in addition to physical qualities and high spirit, must also have another quality in their soul: the love of wisdom. Then a supporting argument, more or less humorous, is offered: This guardian group will be like watchdogs. But dogs are able to identify which approaching strangers are friends of the household and which strangers are not. Thus, dogs are by nature wise animals; they have both a love of learning and a love of wisdom… Since the guardians already have such inclination towards wisdom, the suggestion later (toward the end of Book V) that they must have a full and complete training towards philosophy, this is not so far-fetched.

But what does philosophy have to do with justice? Much of Book VI seems to offer opinion as to whether society at large ever might care about philosophy. Plato states that philosophy will never be popular, but then seems to say that this is not quite right. Philosophy could become more popular… And certainly this is what Socrates and Plato do initiate in the West: a more self-conscious awareness of the social value of the (philosophical) quest for truth.

Any reflective and literate society will probably have its individual and relatively isolated sages. These will be given some social respect. But Plato seems to have achieved something more than this with regard to his later Western audiences. What is his argument, and why has it (often) been effective, or at least persuasive?

What I give now will be my take on what may be Plato’s (deservedly, I believe) successful argument here, an argument only implicit in the text–not explicitly stated, and given here according to my own terminology.

I consider that the real perennial scramble for position is not between philosophy and poetry, but between religion and politics. How shall these two essentially different things accommodate and co-exist. Organizing for the sake of ordinary daily necessities versus teaching about whatever larger values and realities there might be which go beyond the daily necessities. These two must be distinguished because the difference is real and significant. This is the human condition, not just my intellectual scheme.

A strict Theocracy or Secularism, if either set out to eliminate the dual-realm issue will be most likely, in my humble opinion, to run into great evil. Better to coordinate as to who gets which territory. But even after amicable agreement, I also believe that there necessarily will remain certain minimal areas of overlap. That is, to attempt to define a just society, for example, without any mention, without any point of connection with “religion” or the supra-social, well, this is probably doomed to partial or more serious failure. And conversely, to try to define a religious life/society without due respect for the other side… A singular entity-plus-value-framework simply cannot control both human realms…

Thus my suggestion towards interpretation of the Republic: Plato says little about government, and he refuses to engage in lawmaking. He might even seems to avoid talking about many people in the abstract, about society as such. The purpose of the model/ideal city-state is to provide an analogy for talking about the structure of the soul of the one individual. But of course, ordinarily justice must include more than the one person. How can he avoid giving a definitive and preliminary social theory… And this would be, in my opinion, because he is exploiting/emphasizing/playing-to the overlap mentioned in the paragraph above.

That is, I would guess that Plato implicitly might agree (in common with Aristotle or other Greek democrats of the time..) that something like a mixed aristocratic-democracy provides the best opportunity for success, the best opportunity for common/social justice to develop and thrive in any polis/state. But if in fact the virtuous and desirable Greek city-state is quite fragile, tenuous, difficult to actualize…, Plato believes he has identified a secret ingredient, has found an all-important antidote which must expedite success.

Plato’s emphasis on ordered parts may be something of a corrective to too much democracy in a democratic polity, but as any reader will recognize, what Plato is most hoping for in the Republic is to sell philosophy. More practice of philosophy among citizens, philosophical governors, and quite theoretically speaking, philosophy (if given respect from both sides..) as functioning to delimit and specify a certain type of state-religion co-existence. Philosophy as a human endeavor exists in the same realm as the state, the polis, ordinary justice. But the kind of philosophy which Plato is advocating, because it makes direct contact with those eternal realities of contemplation, this kind of philosophy shares some territory also with the second realm, with organized or official religion.

The individual citizen which Plato is advocating for would be a philosophical explorer seriously seeking to become more at home among those eternal things, the forms. While this citizen may well be part of a just society, this individual also exists on the border, exists in the overlap with religion.

Because Plato provides this philosophical-individual connection inbetween the realms, his notion of social justice does in fact become (it would seem to me at least…) more complete/persuasive/exciting. Anyone (perhaps) may throw together a definition of justice based upon this or that type of social interconnection, but who else makes the attempt to describe what justice is, by forging an essential connection with realms beyond everyday human society.

But is this religious business legitimate if Plato is arguing as philosopher. Strictly speaking, perhaps not. I would suggest that Book X, for example, can be characterized as being Plato’s “faith.” And why shouldn’t a philosopher be able to have faith also… Prior to the final book Plato’s added “religion” is not explicit, though it may still may pop up… For example, the cave metaphor which begins Book VII is extreme: from shackles in darkness to the colors of our ordinary world. And then this enlightened person is to be forced to return to the cave to help (politically) those still bound in the dark cave! Is this a joke. No one would be willing to return to such deprivation. But as religious-like conversion this metaphor becomes more plausible. Having gained skills of perception one doesn’t loose that (spiritual sort of) ability if one must go back into the dark cave.

After some very long and tedious discussion in Books VIII-IX, the strictly philosophical conclusion of the whole of the patchwork effort seems to come at about 589: (Socrates has been describing how, with all disordered states as well as with the analogously disordered human soul–the results are bad, a mess, chaos and unpleasant, all the baser impulses running free–) But justice is more profitable. When the inner man… “takes charge of the many-headed beast (within),” training the cultivated plants but removing the weeds, and when the rightful inner governor (human reason), “caring for all the (inner) beasts alike will first make them friendly to one another and to himself, and so foster their growth,” then justice will produce some sort of appealing and happy condition within the individual soul. And this result, making individual justice appealing, was the original challenge given to Socrates.

This is a philosophical conclusion even if a little bit of religious language is employed here, about the divine part of human nature being subject or not to the brutish part of human nature… Justice is when the single human soul which has been educated into a good constitution, when this soul is NOT up-ended, not dragged about and enslaved to mean impulses and appetites, not coerced by the many headed monster. And perhaps this is fine as such, but it is still not very exciting. And so Book X would wish to complement this conclusion with enthusiasm of a more religious and personal nature; a faith appeal. And although even here there are a few sections that are somewhat tedious, Book X does work for me.

I read the lengthly discussion about the arts/imitators as simply stating Plato’s claim that philosophical/propositional statement must take priority over whatever claims to truth the artists may make. Or better than this, and following my own suggestion, this is statement of Plato’s faith that the philosophical quest is the higher of the two. He does after all conclude this section by saying that the imitators may plead to be re-admitted to his city, 607d. But the arts promote childish loves, they tend to disturb and distract because they always, of course, employ the senses, imaginative semblance. Intellect aims beyond the sensory, aims for peace and quiet. (Though of course we can also admit that low grade rational effort is responsible for a great deal of rationalistic garbage, obvious to anyone browsing the shelves of any university library!)

Like any good artist, Plato in the last half of Book X then concocts an elaborate mythic story in order to explicate what I am calling his personal faith as philosopher. The warrior Er dies and travels partways into the afterlife before he comes back to life. Having returned, Er is able to give an eyewitness account of the afterworld.

There are judges, there are two openings leading in opposite directions… There is strange Buddhist-like suggestion of transmigration of souls. Lots are cast on the ground (618 ff.) and these are to be associated with various patterns of life. The souls standing around are allowed to choose whether they want wealth, the inhuman powers of the eagle, etc., and then after they forget this choice, each will be born into the kind of life they have chosen. “No divinity shall cast lots for you… The blame is his who chooses.”

Er notes that the soul of Odysseus is present here, and is one of the last to choose his lot. (Odysseus is a fictitious character, not a real person, and Plato has just done a hatchet job on Homer for being prominent among those imitator-artists who are not to be trusted, but this is fine; and humorous by intent it would seem to me..) But this soul, “from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business.” This time around, Odysseus, with less ambition and perhaps less extensive wandering, and following, no doubt, Plato’s prescriptions for philosophy and a life of virtue within the confines of the ordinary life which he himself has chosen, should make it to heaven. Odysseus was, after all, one of those Greek heroes.

©Pkragt Feb 2019

Movie review: BlackkKlansman

This movie is not at all political, but I approve of its message.

What is it about? It offers a glimpse of Klan culture, and perhaps a glimpse of two Black cultures as well. But this depiction of culture is not very deep. The most telling feature of Klan culture might appear to be regular efforts on the part of minimally educated white men to impress other white men of comparable educational background by means of provocative and/or profane language. But this might also characterize the manner in which the culture of poor black men is often depicted in movies/TV. For good measure, some derogatory language about Jews is included, which attitudes are also Klan attitudes, but Spike Lee seems intent on (accurately, it seems) presenting a Klan boss, the historical David Duke, as a relatively mild mannered and polite person. The TV series CSI NY might successfully encapsulate racial, cultural conflict in its characters or stories; there is very little cultural tension or cultural conflict depicted in this movie.

If not about politics or about black or white culture as such, then is this movie about history? Starting from some basic historical facts involving a Colorado police department and the KuKluxKlan (in the 1970’s) the movie appropriately enough will dramatize and elaborate upon that bare history, and then add some modern as well as ancient historical framing. An elderly character speaks dramatically to a black audience about what he observed as a child. He gives his first-hand account of genuine history, the public lynching of a young black man immediately outside of the courthouse and just after being convicted and sentenced to die for the brutal murder of a white woman, 1916, Waco Texas, population 30,000, 20% black. (As a Wikipedia article mentions, a special article published by the NCAA about this Waco event may have helped to convert the public at large to the evils of lynching, but photographs of the huge Waco crowd present at this event evidence a complicit local populace.) This is the early historical bookend. On the other side is added some movie-adjusted tv and interview footage of a year past, a white supremacist rally and counter-rally at which a protester/bystander was killed.

Do these three historical points hold together as one movie–about history? Not as a movie about history-as-subject nor as historically-astute movie but rather, it seems to me, as message about a lack of adequate sensibility, about something which people are missing–an adequate sense of history. So the movie is an entertaining story which also makes a point about something important which is missing, this historical sensibility? But does the movie itself, does the director himself possess this important, this much needed historical sensibility?

I agree with the truism, whether recent historians generally share it or not, that modern history is difficult if not impossible to write. And this must be because we are still living, personally engaged, in that present. There must be some distance in time before the historical perspective can be achieved. Thus recent news events since they cannot have such perspective, are never really history-as-understood. They are still news. Similarly, in BlackkKlansman, an elderly character describes for an attentive black audience something from his past life. As narrated, this shocking event is not history either (according to my argument) just because it is personal. The needed but missing “sense of history” or historical sensibility, this cannot (in my opinion) be merely personal, local, self-serving.

And then the movie itself, of course, attempts to present an accurate historical view of Colorado Springs in the seventies, with its cars and houses (and maybe even attempts to depict its protagonists as thinking like people of the 1970s). But I expect that Spike will agree that this movie does not very profoundly grasp, historically, what the 1970s was like. Spike, myself, most people lack a healthy, profound historical sensibility.

But I still find the “message” of the movie here. Not by way of the character he plays but (with the help of some information gleaned from Wikipedia) in the actor, in Harry Belafonte himself, black singer with a long and successful career whom I hope and expect is the rare individual who has (or at least wish to use for my example here as someone who possesses) this much needed historical sense or sensibility.

The modern man-in-the-street, black or white, policeman, reporter, politician, filmmaker, film critic wants most to live in the moment; does not have the time or the desire to develop the historical virtue as personal ability. If developing an historical sense is going to slow me down then why should I worry about that. Until I come across a movie re-enactment of a humorous but historical event. Then one’s appreciation and one’s evaluation will be directly proportional to one’s historical sense, or lack thereof.

pk 2018

Movie-review Test: Interstellar (answer 2 of 3)

Though its focus seems to be on a very personal and almost solipsistic plot-line, the primary and lasting appeal of this movie is in the realm of ideas, and in the way in which it depicts a world, or world-view, in which modern science is included within a larger and humanistic (American) culture. Discuss…

Describe in filmic terms the presentation in this movie of the image or notion that the earth is not a suitable home-planet for humankind. Is the filmic image simple, consistent… If ambiguous, what sort of ambiguity is inherent in this notion/image? (Might supra-human energies help humans to fix the planet rather than leave it?)

If, as it seems, it is difficult depict a protagonist in film who is convincing as both a good person and a good scientist, why is this so? Is film too visual to depict science-type thinking; Is genuine science too weighty for a general (American) audience; or Are directors, like everyone else, science-phobic? Why are the only convincingly depicted scientists in this film the two secondary characters who are also bad scientists because they are one-dimensional scientists? Does the female NASA doctor-of-science undergo a conversion to humane-scientist? Does the main character himself undergo any conversion from practical pilot to scientist?

Bonus: Consider as specifically as possible the emotional effect of the father-daughter reunion scene. Is such an effect primarily due to visual, psychological, storyline, thematic, or else other causes?

The Great Gatsby (the movie)

In the novel of the same name we must largely rely upon the observations of a literary narrator, Mr. Nick Carraway, for our apprehensions of this new or natural aristocrat, Mr. Gatsby. We may as well trust this same narrator because, as he claims, he seems to possess a neutral, tolerant, and objective sensibility/personality-somewhat like the modern movie camera. But Nick also states in a couple of extreme phrases that he himself did not like nor exactly trust Gatsby. This phrasing must be Nick's own acknowledgement to the reader that he himslef (loosely speaking) identifies yet as a member of the multi-generational wealth-aristocry, and thus he himself will be genetically predisposed to deny the claims of any and all pretenders. Again, though, that element which essentially motivates Carraway's narrative interest in Gatsby, a certain fascination, is what effectively keeps readers hopeful...
The movie presents an engaging, careful, and interesting psychological transposition of the plot-content of the novel, but at the same time, and because this movie-version is psychological, it also must leave out that most significant (if largely implied) dimension of the novel which I will now label as being sociological. Similarly, if this movie does (and quite convincingly) explain the motivations and motives of a certain Mr. Gatsby, then it must also fail to adequately explain Gatsby as character in the novel, who, it seems to me, must necessarily remain partially inexplicable, and somewhat mysterious and/or mythical. As a respectful (and one might hope ultimately worthwhile as well...) interpretative-transposition of the novel into a different medium, I can admit that this movie works. But with such a positive evaluation we need to keep in mind that the movie may have, it does have, different themes, and is also less ambitious as art than the novel.
Though more indirectly and less emotively than in the novel itself, the movie's narrator, also called Nick, is so deeply affected by the happenings relating to one, Mr. Gatsby, that he requires psychological catharsis; A psychological journal-narrative allows him (and us, via cinema re-creation) to re-experinece this past. He adds the word "great" to the title of his just-finished journal, thus indicting his abiding respect-and at this point as well we might attempt to make the case that the film in various ways does cinematically wish to uphold a more ideal Mr. Gatsby... But it seems to me that because of its chosen psychological mode the movie hardly (that is, less obviously) leaves us with Gatsby as hero. Rather, the Gatsby character becomes unrealistic; the DeCaprio character dies out of touch with the real world... This cannot be heroic!
In the novel's Plaza Hotel scene things do begin to turn against the great Gatsby. Daisy reluctantly states her intention to leave her husband for Gatsby, but then, after some financial insults or insinuations made by her husband, Daisy is soon afterwards definitely inclining towards remaining with her husband-continuing in her present wealth and circumstance. Her reasoning here is not further explicated for our benefit, and readers must (and will) guess at what (sociological it seems to me) forces compelled her in this direction. (Marriage, like wealth-aristocracy, is also an institution...) But in Mr. Luhrmann's movie, this scene comes off as a more explicit and very psychological (if also more democratic) turning point:
Within this scene in the novel, Nick (observant as always) labels Daisy's husband a "prig," and then he also notes for a brief moment that Gatsby may have evidenced on his face a murderous sort of hatred (according to those bits of gossip going around about Gatsby-which Nick himslef doesn't believe...). Then Nick also states that the financial accusations made at this moment against Gatsby were not really so serious... But in the filmic version/transposition Gatsby will blow his aristiocratic cool long enough for all present to see. The DeCaprio character, Gatsby, seemingly commit a very obvious if also plebian mistake; he commits that proverbial flase step; his anger at being insulted seems to expose an essentialy cheap allegiance: Gatsby is not really an aristocrat. And then it is also because of this uncharacteristic anger (within the movie) that we may conclude that Daisy has excuse for rejecting him. Gatsby's demise within the movie begins here, but he himself dosent't seem to see this as clearly as the others characters already do...
Not so long after, in both film and movie, the narrator offers an imaginative re-consruction of Gatsby's last few minutes... as Gatsby is waiting by his swimming pool for a possible call from Daisy:

"I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves..."

Is this personal intrusion upon Gatsby's psychology or does the narrator believe (and accurately) that Gatsby himself recognized that he, Gatsby, must loose, must fail? The novel leaves much of this sort of questioning unanswered and so, ultimately, within the realm of the ambiguous.
There are certainly adequate grounds mentioned within the novel's own text for following a tragic or socially-deterministic interpretation; that is, Fitzgerald offers ammunition to those who want to follow the negative route: money, establishment, whatever, will never allow such a decent character to succeed. They did him in-as they always will. Wealth even has its two-time lackeys to do its bidding. And with its eyeglass-billboard ad the movie seems to prefer such a tack. (Those eyes fixed upon the poor neighborhood will soon be turned around upon the behaviors of a wealthy neighborhood as well...)
But some will still read the novel as giving support to belief that the Gatsby character, though failing with his feminine ideal, Daisy, has not come to the end of his ambitions nor abilities; That he might accommodate this major setback and still go on to act as the natural aristocrat. It was actually just a bit of unnatural or circumstantial bad luck that was his undoing.
pk(September, 2013)

Zero Dark Thirty

As a rule I do not write reviews about movies which I have only seen on TV screen or computer. In the present instance I break my own rule (and then some) by reviewing a movie which I haven’t seen. I am not really so worried about this since I notice via the Metacritic website that quite a few have given it high ratings, and because I have also now read (quite carefully) a few of the more articulate persons who have complained about the torture depicted in the movie. So with the indirect assistance of all of these competent persons I shall attempt to triangulate my attention upon the movie in question and produce if possible an even more insightful review than has been yet offered.

First, I expect and hope that this movie is about lack of intelligence and not just intelligence; that is, it must be not just about the rush to obtain that one item of pragmatic intelligence-where one self-declared enemy of the American State is hiding. In our own Reality as in this movie depiction there is a larger background, and that background is the two (largely self-interested) cultures of the Arab/Islamic Middle East and the English speaking USA. So my first thematic hint is to pay attention to the presentation of languages and to translators/translation in the movie. This interface must at least hint at a lack of intelligence in the non-pragmatic and larger meaning of that word. Lack of intelligence; problems with our supposed intelligence.

Why recently have the CIA’s director, or Senators, etc. not issued statements saying that this movie’s depiction of the role of the one female agent within this larger operation-That this is not historically accurate? (If, as historical, fact one female agent did succeed against the whole of the operational establishment, then twenty years from now this history in the history books will have a semi-mythic quality.) But I expect that as viewers we are smart enough to accept this central female figure as filmmaking choice, that is, sensibly and without making too much fuss we allow ourselves some residual ambiguity as to the ultimate historical significance of this one female agent. One emotional woman succeeds while cooperative and rationalistic pragmatism seems stymied.

Ot first consideration, the torture content and its inclusion as movie content may seem not to be analogous to the freedom which we have just allowed the filmmaker in choice of main character. Torture seems more than a plot point. Torture reflects negatively upon those who engage in it. One criticism, I suppose, of this torture content might be that this dubious activity must not be exaggerated because it will make us, the USA, look bad. But this, the patriotic complaint, is seldom the complaint given (unless by Sen. McCain). Instead, the complaint has been along the lines that if there was torture, we, being honest Americans, we want that torture exposed. But the movie errs in allowing torture to be essential within the plot line of the movie. Torture appears too obviously to be instrumental to pragmatic success. Such a complaint then accepts the success of our mission, but doesn’t want torture to have been (direct) means to that success. The director of such a movie must question torture as acceptable means rather than support torture to any significant degree within their re-created historical-narrative plot-line. Else people will say that torture is OK. Else this would be opposite to the direction towards which we wish society to go, towards which we should be educating people...

For any red-neck there certainly awaits within this movie a hook. But I believe red-neck patriots as well as other Americans will also be quite aware of the possibility of such a hook on their way in to the theatre. I hope to enjoy this depiction of historic American success up on the big screen but I also hope that my feelings in response will be somewhat measured, reasonable, sensible, Triumph, but not too much, else it’s just advertisement. We can guess then, and correctly, that this movie will not promote a too simplistic and purely one-sided patriotism no matter how enjoyable such a presentation could be for an audience. Expecting too much cheerleading our own patriotism will catch us...

But other reactions made to this movie demonstrate another less obvious hook. That juicy thing that looks like an insect floating on the water, the torture issue, is apparently so appealing that certain persons (the factual-rationalisically inclined ?) cannot but swallow it whole. -But to, first complete my larger point: Is not this second hook very similar to the first?

An excessive patriotism will not care about anything else out there, out beyond the borders. But as well, a nation pushed to the extreme of engaging in torture to gain “intelligence” means that other avenues for intelligence gathering must be sharply limited. It suggests national provincialism of some kind. The FBI may wish to torture their recently apprehended mafioso, but they can also quite easily monitor his previous contacts within this country, etc. We, the USA, engage in torture (it must be) because we remain so much in the dark as to what the culture of the Arab Middle East is, how its people think, are thinking. (If we had a network, or if money worked, then we might obtain intelligence like was done in the former East Germany.)

We torture because we are under duress but more importantly simply because we lack other methods. The torture issue then should expose our continued culpability as cultural ignorants. Why then do we understand (in the full meaning of that word-) so little about the culture which Bin Laden, for a while at least, was trying to influence?

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books Mr. Steve Coll claims that Zero Dark Thirty is disturbing and misleading. I appreciate Mr. Coll’s candor in his analysis and I may be setting him up as something of a straw man here in my pseudo-movie-review but I do believe he is one of those persons who have been hooked by this torture issue as topic; hung up on the one issue, caught.

To be strict or fair, in his article he is not reviewing a movie as much as much as he is reviewing the documentary and factual aspects of this same docu-movie, but even here I will stand up for arts prerogatives vis a vis Mr. Coll’s extensive resume in journalistic reporting, editing, and his Middle East experience. The movie does not claim to be the definitive interpretation of this elimination of one nasty terrorist, does it? Of course (as we both agree) these events are only partially digested, assimilated by us, American society, the culture victimized... But why theoretically might movie-art not contribute more towards this effort than journalism itself? I expect that this is what the director/writer are trying to achieve however much or minimally they succeed in their attempt. They are trying to help us interpret and not primarily interested in giving us conventional facts.

The TV-news mode of presentation is a ready means for the varied purposes of the cinematographer in a way that it is not for the playwright. The ordinary person on the street knows that the line between video news and reality is already blurred, and I believe that ordinary viewers of this movie as well, can also note to themselves, should they wish to do so, that torture is not good as means... Why does Mr. Coll nitpick? When will we ever have all the torture facts here, all the actual motivations?

Going out on a limb here... my psychological comment would be that an easy rationalism is as enjoyable as an easy patriotism. Ambiguity is is the more difficult route; either easy simplification is a hook, a distraction, diversion.

Mr. Tarrantino’s recent films may not ultimately contribute so much to our debate about problematic qualities of Nazism, slavery, violence, but I am also quite sure that that is what he would like for audiences to do... to grapple, even if he himself doesn’t solve. But the interpretative question must be whether the director’s cinematic product conduces at least in some small degree to improved awareness. If not, then the movie is at best entertainment, advertisement. Or else, as in recent news, background checks for gun buyers could be a good idea as law. But does this operate now as social excuse? Wouldn’t (if it were possible) awareness, evaluation of our own culture-good and bad-of guns/violence, wouldn’t this be more helpful. How about requiring a background check on American history and culture... But who is capable of such insightful, accurate discussion of one’s own culture? Who would listen to it? Who really understands those persons over there on the other side of the Mediterranean?

In part just because this movie allows the reality of torture to remain problematic I thus note that it probably wishes to deal with Reality rather than simplifying it away. ( To choose this subject matter and then avoid all inclusion of torture would be an even more bizarre alternative.) I give the movie a 7.5 to 9 and if after seeing the movie my evaluation moves outside that range I promise to write a movie-review retraction with full explanation.

I hope that Zero Dark Thirty does deal thematically (and to effect) with my preferred background themes of ignorance, lack of cultural understanding. The background issue even after the elimination of Bin Laden must yet be how the Western and Islamic worlds interact-understand one another. This remains hundreds and hundreds of times bigger as issue-(to phrase it rhetorically)-than whether we are abiding by our own standards of military-espionage interrogation.

Nova: Becoming Human

(three one hour episodes which can be viewed at the Nova website)
Director and writer, Graham Townsley

This is a carefully arranged and interesting overview of the latest scientific ideas about ancient human ancestry, from six million years ago through to Neanderthal remains. As a documentary it includes the now obligatory "dramatic" elements of exerpted sentences from real experts, video recreations of discoveries at the original locations, and also some imaginatively constructed footage of what such human ancestors could have looked like...if captured by the modern video camera. But thankfully it does also include more science content, it seems to me at least, than many other Nova episodes...

As something of a scientific illiterate (and I expect that much of my reading audience may in the same demographic) I remember that my own vague notions about human origins were significantly influenced by the Lucy discovery (1974-Wikipedia) as being a claimed link between early primates and human beings. But any such vague notions which I might have had are now out of date. New discoveries since the 1970’s require a new and better science...

A dogmatist for science might claim that scientific knowledge doesn’t change, that is, it was never wrong, rather, it simply improves. But also quite obviously, when a science is based upon a relatively minimal collection of fossilized skulls, skeletons, and chipped stones, and when a few new fossilized skulls and skeletons are discovered, this new material can change the “science” or the knowledge a great deal. And this is what is happening (or what must now happen) because of discoveries... some of which have been very recently in the news: skulls from Dmanisi Georgia, and the hobbit like remains from Flores, Indonesia found in 2003.

These three Nova episodes descriptively span six million years, but what I found most interesting (and telling, I would hope also) is observing the way in which a science can and must now re-configure itself (that is, the science of paleo-anthropology) just because of such new discoveries. Science, evolution science, is not at all a fixed or unchanging business.

The view now is that there were numerous bi-pedal walking-primates– since some half-dozen or more partial examples of these have been found from approximately 3 million years ago. But these were all relatively short in stature. What induced the need for a taller Homo erectus, such as the almost complete Turkana Boy skeleton (1.5 m years ago) which was discovered just a few years ago? At five foot three inches tall and nine years old (estimated from analysis of its teeth) he would grow to 6’2” or so. It is not difficult to imagine that such tall animals, could have walked out of Africa to Peking or Europe. But wait, the Dmaninsi specimens, dated to 1.8 million years ago, are small of stature. Did the short Homo erectus types from Georgia walk out of Africa also?

The Homo floresiensis remains from Indonesia are even more troubling. Should these actually be entitled to the categorization of the Homo genus if (and this is my uninformed insertion here...) they may have been human-like three-foot-high creatures who made use of stone tools, but perhaps human-like animals evolved from chimps/bonobos rather than the larger primates..? And what then might such a scenario mean.. as myth? When mythic resonances are too bizarre, then “explanations” may not even register...

But the more comprehensive and modern theory in human-origins science takes occasion from the geologic record of 200 thousand years of erratic and quite extreme climate fluctuation in African and the east Africa rift valley region. What prompted bipedal apes during this time period to become human-like tool makers? As Mr. Rick Potts enunciates his major theory just for this show’s video, the climactic up and down would have been mastered by a newer sort of species “adapted to change itself,” i.e., the new Homo erectus, a species able to handle such catastrophic African environmental change.

As bare idea, this of course is certainly quite interesting, but as explanation (as in scientific explanation) this strikes me as as being an explanation which may simply explain too much, that is, an explanation which cannot be genuine. Let me explain.

I made my way some years ago through Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, and this was also a time not too long ago when the future and its changeableness were actually foreboding. Walter Cronkite assured us that we would be OK, but whether we could cope psychologically with technological change was not (–as seems to be now) a forgone assumption.

We are now unafraid of change, unafraid of future technological complexities. But does this suggest that we have necessarily progressed, become more mature as such?

It was something of a truism for Emerson and Thoreau that increased communication would tend to result in less rather than more human diversity of character. If farmer and city-artisan remain separate, they also have disparate life experiences and thus develop different notions of the universe. Where huge numbers of people share the same Facebook or Twitter-type experience their life-experience becomes limited to such a shared and homogeneous similarity; They may become almost one individual living separate lives but within the one shared and artificial world...

It may be flattering to imagine that the ability to adapt to worldwide and instantaneous communication–that this is the sort of skill which explains the essence of humanness. But adaptability may itself be a reductive conformism, and not an explanation for any sort of cognitive breakthrough..

Another modern explanation, the fire theory, fire as catalyst for human social qualities, this seems similarly tenuous and at the same time (and likely unavoidably) grandiose. Again, as idea merely it is fine; but as explanation for eventual human traits it seems to me that it is being asked to carry too much weight. After all, I might prefer (as an artist) the notion that it was the creative and playful impulse from some one early individual playing around with rocks, learning stone sculpture as artistic expression–this was the breakthrough towards humanness. This would mean that the artistic impulse is that trait which is central in any scientific definition of what modern human beings are. I might further suggest that we orient our society towards promoting and paying properly for this most central and original of all human traits. Perhaps I not only developed stone sculpture as art and set us out on the path to humanness, but also passed on the stone-working techniques to my more practical clan fellows.. Art-consciousness is where it all begins...

Could the crossing pattern carved in the South African cave be the work of a budding computer scientist who was trying to conceptualize ON/OFF as the expressive foundation for a language? What do you make of the x shapes carved in the side of the cave?

Unusual discoveries mean that the science is wide open; the science isn’t complete; explanation is required. The dogmatic scientist may say that we know what the conclusion will look like: a genetic and strictly biological descent from primate to modern human. The more sensible humanist (such as myself) would prefer to insist that all of the sciences are contained among the humanities and that there is no one of the humanities (or sciences, for that matter..) capable now or in the near future of definitively and comprehensively declaring what being human means...

paul kragt 9/2011