Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Making a Distinction

My father used to describe my mother's characteristically circular argumentation as "illogical". It is however a debating technique with a pedigree that dates back to the finest logicians of the middle ages. Thomas Aquinas for example, counselled his students that "when you meet a contradiction make a distinction".

In common parlance this is known as moving the goalposts. The more sophisticated practitioners don't just move them they simultaneously re-construct them, or more subtly, re-describe them. My mother on the other hand limits herself to turning up the dial on the emotional content of the discussion at hand - this has the effect of sharpening the background mood for all participants, making the exchange of neutral rationalisations an increasingly unlikely outcome.

I might have come to regret having a parent like this but for the fact that I increasingly have to deal with similarly-disposed logicians in my professional life. Instead I find that my childhood experiences have left me remarkably well-equipped to anticipate the direction that life's goal-mouths intend to shuffle off in, a skill that nevertheless leaves me prone to bouts of frustration and more occasionally, a debilitating sense of futility.


Following some links on my blogroll yesterday I came across a deliciously un-reconstructed critique of branding by Professor Terry Eagleton. It's worth reading for this comment alone:

"Branding used to involve stamping your symbol on the flank of some dumb creature, and nowadays involves stamping it across their T-shirts."

Eagelton, a believer in an absolute (albeit historicist) good, regards all instances of branding as a fair approximation of absolute bad. You might say that any sort of trivialisation is a mortal sin to those that regard knowledge and virtue as conjoined twins. For commentators like Eagleton, perhaps the greatest offence that marketers make is meddling with dynamics that they only partially comprehend and control.

Personally I don't habitually wear those binary goggles which make cultural artefacts appear either as predominantly a force for the good or as the vile tools of Moloch.

Nevertheless in an earlier blog entry Brands and Evil I rejected the notion favoured by American pragmatist tradition that evils are lesser or rejected goods. Evils, I argued, are a more or less inevitable by-product of most empowering goods. So when Eagelton characterises brand marketers as muggers that pose as vicars, it's rather like suggesting that every priest in the Catholic Church signed up the first instance in order to get a piece of the cassock-lifting action.

The truth is that neither the consumer or the brand owner has all the power. Brands are often just the marketplace in which the negotiations between them take place. The advantage that the brand has is that of being in situe when the consumer shows up.

Another piece by James Suroweicki which appeared in Wired recently attempted to quantify the decline of brands by pointing out that the premium enjoyed by SONY-branded DVD players has fallen from 44% to 16% in the last five years. Suroweicki suggests that brands are no longer much use as "insurance against missteps" in an economy where performance counts more than anything else.

Now you might say that the relations between the sexes are going down the route - performace first, loyalty second. But hold on, whatever the realities of our behaviours we still have reputations to manage in the court of public morality. Likewise corporations. In our inter-subjective society we care first and foremost about what everyone else thinks. Private morality is the dog that this particular tail wags.

A hearty welcome to my blogroll for my colleague Joël Céré . I suspect he might appreciate another little gem of a paragraph from Eagelton's review of Wally Olin's book On Brand:

"When Olins tells us that under Napoleon, ‘the whole of France was rebranded’, he is clearly unaware that this kind of boneheaded comment is usually to be found not in a sleek Thames and Hudson volume, but among a coachload of American tourists who miss seeing the Acropolis flash by their window because they are too busy fiddling with the air-conditioning."

Monday, November 29, 2004

Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)

Audiences have seen enough movies about conmen plotting a big sting to know that there are usually two cons going down - the one that the writer describes in the story and the one he or she is trying to perpetrate against the audience. Nueve Reinas (9 Queens) attempts to short-circuit our familiarity with the genre by introducing a third, dummy con into the mix. The snag is that that there are only two shysters in the foreground and once we become aware that the story is attempting to surreptitiously incriminate one of them, the other becomes the prime suspect by default.

Generally the problem with this sort of plot is that the best bit is inevitably the middle, where the possible resolutions you can speculate on have reached a peak. It's downhill from there on and the final revelation is necessarily an anti-climax, like being shown how a particularly impressive magical trick was done. Last year I reviewed Matchstick Men with the observation that "the twist comes along like a sledgehammer" which somehow shatters the emotional meaning of all that has passed before. Nueve Reinas avoids that particular banana skin. It is the first Argentine film that I have seen that is unobtrusively scored and lacks strong currents of both melancholy and nostalgia. Indeed there's a good deal of bad natured fun throughout and the elaborate plot is structured to ensure that the tension levels are evenly spread. (Fabian Bielinski's script was picked as the winner of a competition.)

There's one pivotal moment in the film when Marcos appears to open Juan's eyes to all the chicanery going on around him on the streets of Buenos Aires. It is this revelation of all-pervasive mendacity and theft that forms the message of Nueve Reinas over and above the mounting narrative complexities. Bielinski wrote his script before Argentina defaulted on its debt and the local credit system ossified - as such it is highly predictive of the final agonies of an economy poisoned by pilferage and plunder.

This sort of film always tempts you to immediately rewind to the beginning for a second, in-the-know viewing. Movie scripts like that of Swimming Pool and Sixth Sense that are effectively designed to hoodwink us (without actually being about confidence tricksters) usually have one or two key moments when the conterfeit truth is spliced into the action. Nueve Reinas doesn't really have one or several of these blindingly obvious moments which make us wish we had been more attentive and sceptical. In fact the opening scene needs an explanation if the rest is to be ultimately credible and the story doesn't do us the service of providing one. I was also left pondering how many incidents were included primarily to distract and inveigle me as a member of the audience - and so were not absolutely essential to the successful conclusion of the swindle carried out on screen.

There's one other small issue of plot logic that leaves an aftertaste of dissastisfaction at the end. What have the schemers actually gained?

Cosmic Reproduction

Scientific theories make an infinite set of predictions of which only a finite set can ever be tested. (a.k.a. "The problem of induction".) Humean scepticism led us to accept that we can't definitively prove any theory correct, but Karl Popper qualified this by insisting that a single observation can demonstrate that it is incorrect. He therefore insisted that the test of a good theory was whether it could be falsified.

More recently, Alan Sokal's reponse to the anything goes relativism of Feyerabend has been to point out that hardly anybody is systematically sceptical and relativistic in everyday life - so why should we treat scientific knowledge any differently to ordinary knowledge?

A quick summary of theoretical physics' biggest contemporary dustup can help us see how these ideas are being applied in the field. It will also allow me to reiterate my point about how relativism is itself rather relative.

The key protagonists are Leonard Susskind originator of String Theory, and Lee Smolin whose alternative approach goes by the name of Loop Quantum Gravity. They are not so much fighting out of different corners as sliding around different parts of a Möbius strip, occasionally embracing, occasionally catching the other with a glancing blow.

The things they agree on are actually very significant. For example, both men are convinced that universes reproduce giving rise to mutated offspring that differ in the values of the fundamental constants of nature. (Universe clearly isn't a word that was ever supposed to have a plural. Multiverse, coined in 1960 by Andy Nimmo is the term typically employed to overcome this semantic hurdle but Susskind suggests we use Megaverse as the collective noun, given that multiverse has been variously used to refer to both the set and the members of the set.)

If you thought dark matter (the stuff that hypothetically makes up most of the mass of our local universe and yet is as yet un-observable) might pose problems for a discipline that self-consciously progresses by observation, then just imagine the extent of the theoretical conundra posed by the idea that most of reality is behind a cosmic horizon we are unlikely ever to be able to transcend.

The stakes are suddenly very high: "If a large body of our colleagues feels comfortable believing a theory that cannot be proved wrong then the progress of science could get stuck", Smolin warns.

His tetchy exchange with Susskind began over the question of how significant it is that we ourselves are here in this particular neck of the megaverse. Susskind supports the Anthropic Principle, which states that the shape of the particular universe we inhabit is the way it is precisely because we are in it. Smolin says this is unfalsifiable and therefore "outside science". (Though it's clear that as cosmology reaches beyond the visible universe the boundaries of science are being inevitably tested, and rigorous investigation now cohabits uneasily with equally rigorous speculation.)

Smolin is convinced that the primary mechanism for reality reproduction is bouncing singularities. The abundant presence of carbon in any universe is the ideal condition for the formation of stars massive enough to collapse into black holes that go boing. Carbon-based lifeforms such as ourselves are a side-effect.

"Pah!", snorts Susskind - even Stephen Hawking now admits that black holes don't lose information so if they are where new universes are conceived, they would be born in a pristine quantum condition with no memory of the initial state, like offspring with no determined genetic resemblance to their parents. Susskind theorises that the megaverse is instead in a state of eternal inflation, which constantly spawns new pocket universes as it grows. Most are inhospitable to life.

The two would appear to agree that our own universe is untypical, but crucially Smolin asserts that the untypical is probably typical overall. This counterintuitive idea is justified because in any fitness landscape the distribution of variants peaks around small regions of parameter space. A typical universe would therefore appear untypical amidst any randomly selected group. (It's intriguing that both men also seem to assume that maximum reproduction is the only measure of fitness. Could there not be some other selection pressure?)

This argument is occuring at the point where classical determinism is being distorted almost beyond recognition by the infinite potential represented by multiple worlds. Intuitively I side with Smolin in the debate, not because I feel I know that black holes rather than eternal inflation account for the proliferation of multiple realities (although it is a vaguely cooler idea!), but because his theory is the more background independent of the two: "The view of time evolution that Susskind wants to preserve is tied to the existence of a fixed background...Eternal inflation is also a background dependent theory, indeed, some of its proponents have seen it as a return to an eternal, static universe."

In my view there is also a kind of fitness landscape of knowledge in relation to available information - this might perhaps be the fundamental nature of reality. All knowledge is therefore relative, because the fixed background scale is entirely implicit - potential not actual. Knowledge and value are also relative to the environment in which it is constructed. In another world with different constants "something else goes" (to paraphrase Feyerabend), and it remains to be seen whether the scientific methodology can stretch to bring coherence to all possible alternative realities.

Meanwhile, in our world we simply have to judge things by how reasonable they are. There's no fixed background rulebook just for us. Nothing else I believe in makes sense if this is not in fact the case.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I have just reacquainted myself with Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir's archly ambivalent hall of mirrors from 1975. An interval of over twenty years has passed since I last watched it on Betamax. As an early teen this movie and the story behind it completely captivated me. It's a film that flirts with you, and to an adolescent boy any kind of flirtation, however unskillful and Anglo-Saxon, is utterly mesmerising!

It's undoubtedly a very beautiful and canny piece of film-making, but the symbolism now comes across as more heavy-handed than coquetish to me - e.g. those wretched enigmatic swans drifting elegantly to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.

I also found that the wheels of supposition and speculation appear not to spin quite so giddily now that I know that Joan Lindsay probably made it all up. It seems that she wrote a concluding eighteenth chapter which was removed from the book and not published until 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock, though this is one mystery that actually works precisely because it doesn't depict UFOs or people walking towards the light. (Or worse still, gang rape.)

Weir's film version is a study of sexual sublimation that is itself a presentation of apparent historical fact through the medium of dreamy sublimation. In much the same way that Pop Art both reflects and propagates the signs of America, Picnic at Hanging Rock reflects and propagates the mystery of refined and tamed femininity, juxtaposed with that of un-refined and un-tamed nature.

Anne-Louise Lambert played Miranda as an ethereal exemplar of cloistered girlhood - the epitome of everything I then wanted to put on my pedestal. She even rolls her head and screws up her lips like Diana Spencer did when standing next to Charles the day they publicly announced their engagement.

There's no denying that this film haunted me for a long while. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age or disposition in order to be deeply touched by this sort of arrant nebulousness. It is ultimately an ecstatic rather than an ironic piece, spinning until all sense disappears, shining as pure and empty.

The DVD encodes a director's cut which, unusually, has been tightened up through the removal of seven minutes from the original release.

Business Ethics - soft targets

If it wasn't for the backbone of prescriptive law, our society would probably have gone ethically floppy a long time ago.

In addition to the threat of punishment and censure, game theory and higher cognitive emotions (such as guilt) also ensure that civic behaviours tend in the aggregate towards the collaborative and trustworthy. (except in vibrant places like Guatemala of course!)

Beyond these skeletal structures most of what passes for ethics in our society is actually more akin to manners - attitudes that are aware that others are watching. As individuals we are conscious that one way or another we have a reputation that derives from other people's previous encounters with our conduct, and we deploy our manners to make favourable first impressions.

At a theoretical level ethics has been mottled by determinism and relativism. Thanks largely to Nietzsche, it's now comparatively difficult to make a case for ethics as a branch of epistemology or indeed of metaphysics. In practice we're back with Aristotle, who regarded ethics as a branch of politics. And of course the whole point of politics is contention. (Or problem solving, according to pragmatists.)

Meanwhile, out there in civic society the moral community rendered by mass participation in the media is one of village idiots. We judge our compatriots as if they were our neighbours in a small town. And so the hype is put into hypocrisy.

So, in this context it's a bit of a mystery to me why anyone would assume that corporations should lead the way in terms of moral agency. After all, although companies are aggregations of individuals and so to some extent can be expected to behave like them, the law has things to say about the ultimate goals of companies that act to increase the gap between the good manners on the surface and the selfish beast within. Individuals are theoretically far freer to choose their own ends.

Modern westerners live in a society where people are encouraged to make up their own minds about morality within the framework of existing law along with some basic private rules bastardised from the old foundations of ethical behaviour (say the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Buddha). Most are thrown together into commercial organisations that exist in a far more explicitly competitive environment than most individuals are adapted to, and which have to tailor their manners primarily towards the simulated morality of the global media village.

Ethics are something that civic society needs to get a firmer grip of - at present we collectively suffer from the nagging suspicion that morality is either a superstition or a contrivance and the widespread notion that ethics commence where self-interest ends is actually neither correct nor particularly helpful.

We can't really expect commercial enterprises and organisations to continue to shoulder most of the blame for the wider moral confusion and apathy within society as a whole. It's just too easy (and trendy) to feel morally superior by making scapegoats out of big companies.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Grasshopper

I am in the midst of reading all of Anton Chekhov's short stories in chronological order. So far I have completed 17, written during a three year period, 1884-1887. The sixteenth was the first to contain anything like a sharp note in the last paragraph. The rest have been evocative vignettes featuring characters living not so much at the margin but within the cracks of nineteenth century Russia, individuals caught in the act of confronting the cruelties of personal, social and metaphysical indifference.

The last story I read, The Grasshopper, was also the longest so far and focusses on people whose predicament is, on the surface at least, more modern and opportunity-laden.

The lead character is Olga Ivanovna, a worshipper of false idols, who is eventually exposed as something of a false idol herself. I don't know anything about the origins of this story, but I find it hard to believe that Chekhov never made the acquaintance of a lady like Olga.

She belongs to that class of people in which men and women can aspire to become distinguished. Olga is a multi-talented social groupie in an arty, chattering crowd. "Whatever she did...turned out to be artistic, graceful, charming...even if it was simply tying someone's tie". She paints, she plays the cello and she accumulates talented men around her. Indeed in Olga's circle "there were no ladies present because Olga Ivanovna considered all women, except actresses and her dressmaker, trivial and boring".

However, somewhat out of character, she has decided to marry a comparatively dull doctor called Dymov. "Amidst these favourites of fortune, who, while perfectly urbane and well-bred, remembered the existence of doctors only when they were ill...Dymov seemed like a stranger, superfluous, small."

Olga adores her quirky medical practitioner but lacks any sturdy connection to his world and his goals and the relationship is weakened by neglect. She is mystified by his geeky colleagues, observing of one - "Surely it must be a bore to be such an insignificant person with such a puckered up face and such bad manners?"

Dymov is the noble savage of this tale. Chekhov deftly deploys him to undermine the prevailing view amongst Olga's family and friends about what it means to be a person of significance. It's hard to tell exactly how much bitterness there is behind this satire. Olga pursues an affair with a painter friend that barely gets beyond consummation - they seem to recoil from each other's mediocrity. Olga and Dymov's domestic life unravels and Dymov dies after a suicidal act of sacrifice that highlights the true meaning of distinction. Olga is left rueing a missed chance and a lost celebrity.

(I have since discovered that Chekhov's close friend the landscape painter Isaac Levitan was the model for Olga's lover Ryabovsky. Olga herself was based on Levitan's groupie, a young unmarried teacher called Lika Mizinova. In real life it was Levitan who was married not his pupil. Chekhov was of course himself a doctor. 11/1/05)

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Limbic Gringos

One of the supposed differences between 'primitive' peoples and modern westerners is that while the former see the world in terms of their own society and 'outsiders', the latter have (for the last half century at least) aspired to a universalised view of humanity.

The trouble with the gringos is that they have a primitive collective unconscious - a culturally overpronounced limbic system. Even when they use the language of universality they do so in a rather blinkered and self-serving fashion. Most of the time though, the US-and-them, frontier mentality pokes through, unnervingly.

Broadly the Western world knows that injustice is the fate of anyone or anything that finds itself outside the moral community. Whereas liberal-minded westerners have allowed in all kinds of human former deviants and are now even considering the case of the great apes, non liberal-minded westerners (many of whom are located on the other side of the pond) are retreating into their homestead and planning a whole host of new evictions and exclusions.

Monday, November 22, 2004


I was up until 5:30am on Saturday glued to an entertainingly nasty Danish film from 1998 which exhibits a canny complicity of dramatic and representational styles.

Festen (The Celebration) is the evil twin of Babette's Feast. The moral of Thomas Vinterburg's tale seems to be that if a Danish friend kindly invites you along to a family reunion at a nice big house in the countryside, whatever you do, don't go.

And I thought Boxing Day at Heron's Farm was painful. Actually, in terms of sheer simmering resentment and overall combustive possibility I was much reminded of the plenary gatherings of los de León Martinez that it has been my unenviable privilege to attend.

This is sinister funny rather than black comedy. The camerawork is detached, in the style of The Office, (it was shot on video then blown up to 35mm film) a highly mobile method that flits between characters and scenes. Vinterburg has carefully ensured that most of the personalities in the ensemble are revealed to us as richly complex and real people, even though we only perceive them through a swirl of glimpses.

For me the most fascinating character in the mix was unzipped younger sibling Michael (played by Thomas Bo Larsen - definitely some berserker blood in there.) Arriving as a more or less unwelcome guest, by the end he has effectively inherited the throne.

Roger Ebert sniffed contrasting notes of farce and tragedy in the bouquet. The director's achievement here is in using the raw techniques of the intimate on-the-fly documentary to hold onto our credence in the realism of what is a fundamentally absurd, messed-up situation.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Emperor and the Assassin

Like Hero, The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing Ke Ci Qin Wang) shows us how the King of Qin became the first Emperor of a unified China after confronting a would-be assassin in his inner sanctuary. Rather than a balletic, wirefutastic lunge we get what looks like a drunken midnight assault on the Central Line - the assassin lurching and slashing as the King runs and ducks, all the nearby bystanders pretending that nothing much is actually going on.

Both of these films appear to follow Western genre expectations only to turn orientally inscrutable. The Emperor and the Assassin is a three hour marathon that one critic has preemptively described as "a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions", but in fact it's clear that the Chinese don't have a well bedded down equivalent of the tragic form. I was reminded more of Ben Hur and The Godfather. Indeed, the King of Qin is something of a Michael Corleone figure in this old fashioned epic - a man led on to ever greater atrocity (and loneliness) by the goading whispers of his ancestors. Except that they turn out not to be his ancestors after all, so he could have saved himself the trouble.

My enthusiasm for the experience of watching this film waxed and waned as it progressed. In the midst of one of its well-contrived subplots you briefly feel the thrill of exposure to a true classic. As such the narrative structure is more novelistic than cinematic. There are isolated pockets of dramatic tension and structure but the sum is somehow less than the parts. It might actually have made a better mini-series.

The passing of time is especially mishandled. The King's mother and lover both look too young for him. The former suddenly turns grey before expiring, but prior to that there have been few other obvious temporal markers to clock onto.

Characters like the Marquis and the Assassin seemed worthy of more development and exposure, and yet overall the cutting room floor was underused. When you stand back and take stock it's all build-up and little resolution, but perhaps this is the cost of treating myth as history. Hero at least had an obvious nationalist agenda to push; Chen Kaige's film is far more ambivalent about the "unification of all under Heaven."

The costumes, sets and combat sequences are all realist in texture, but a number of the key scenes involving the main characters are actually quite stylised and theatrical. Once again it's clear that subtitles aren't an unlimited key to understanding Mandarin dialogue, especially when you can't easily detect the articles or the stresses. In one part the sort of noise I would make if someone slapped me on the back unexpectedly is translated as "it is beautiful".

Li Gong is luminously beautiful like her compatriot Zhang Ziyi. She will play Hatsumono opposite the younger actress in the forthcoming Memoirs of a Geisha.


You get a strong feel for the imaginative intentions behind Rashômon when you read some of the online reviews. (Four to be precise.) At least two that I have come across clearly state that the movie presents the viewer with a set of different testimonies, and that in each one the witness admits to being the killer. Hey, that's not the same movie that I saw!

It's said that this was the first film to represent different subjective viewpoints with the look and feel of objective representation, thereby driving home the point that all human perspectives necessarily include all sorts of embellishments and distortions. For some this may come as disconcerting news.

Each alternative account of how a Samurai died in the forest after his wife had been raped by a bandit has been related at a trial and is then reported (mostly probably unfaithfully) by a woodcutter, who later himself reluctantly admits to having witnessed the crimes as they transpired.

"If we don't trust one another the world becomes a hell", moans the priest to the shifty-looking woodcutter. There's clearly some truth in each version Kurosawa presents us with; no doubt it was his intention from the outset to dump us into a maze that we can't escape by simply picking a winner.

The most treasurable part of this film is its highly evocative scenery. Here the backgrounds stealthily curl around and envelop the interplay of human psyches in the foreground. This was also the first Japanese film to point the camera directly at the sun, an effect used in conjunction with music to heighten the forboding demeanor of the setting.

The differing versions of how the Samurai ended up patas arriba are all being gloomily discussed at the ruined Rashômon gate of Kyoto in the midst of a torrential downpour - a scene with Shakespearean overtones - whilst the forest in which the alleged crime occurs is depicted as a locus of primeval irrationality, practically a fourth player in the key events, refashioning the dramatic triangle into a rectangle.

Tajômaru the bandit reports to the police that it was in fact an unexpected breeze that suddenly altered his state of mind unleashing carnal intentions.

The Samurai's wife, played by Machiko Kyô, is a chameleon-like being, acting out the best and worst (male) projections of womanhood. Her performance reminded me of Brigitte Helm as Maria (and the Robot)in Metropolis.