Friday, May 28, 2010

I Have Too Much Work to Be Anxious About All This Mess

A close friend has recently come into some conflict with his very religious parents, and it’s made me think about some of the reasons why people are religious. Dylan Moran in his last comedy tour, much of which is floating around youtube, put it very precisely: Religion is a ritualized anxiety about death.

The subject came up in conversation with a younger colleague of mine who studies Heidegger for a living. She asked if I wasn’t concerned about what will happen to me after I die. I said I had enough things to concern me while I’m alive, and I can at least narrow that list down by using surrounding evidence to think of what’s most probably going to happen to me. I look in my bank account to see how much I’ll have after the rent check comes through. I prepare my doctoral thesis outlines and notes to work on writing that. I go through manuscripts that come into my publishing company to see if they’re worth disseminating. There is clear evidence in the world for all these tasks with which I am directly concerned. There is no evidence at all of what will happen to me after death, so I see no reason to waste my time in idle speculation when there are blogs, stories, and philosophy to write.

I’m an atheist when it came to most personal aspects of God. For me, death is a kind of recycling. Life is the most interesting way I’ve come across so far of keeping meat fresh. I’m quite happy with eventually becoming a meal for a forest glade and a flock of worms. Do worms come in flocks?

I’m digressing a bit here with the worm comments. People who believe fervently in religion often end up in quite violent arguments over who can be right. Religious conflict is driven by a particular conception of truth that many people seem to think is universal, the only kind of truth there is. Imagine a scenario something like this. A bunch of people are in an apartment having an intense argument about how many chairs there are in the room. Moe says there’s only one chair. Kamiko says there aren’t any chairs at all. Julia says there are three chairs, but that they’re all part of one big chair anyway. Fred says there are two chairs, that you can only sit on one at a time, and is terrified by anyone who sits on one chair and rests his feet up on the other. Padma says there are so many chairs in the room that she can barely move, they’re all in the way.

They can’t all be right, because it’s clear that when you look around whatever room you’re in, you can plainly see how many chairs there are. Anyone who tries to disagree with this obvious truth is stupid, because you discover it through simple attention. Now, replace the word ‘chair’ with the word ‘god,’ and you’ll see how the confusion arises. Naively religious people, like my friend’s parents, think gods are like chairs, and that it’s an obvious truth what kind of gods there are. What I hope my funny example, and draft of a standup comedy routine, shows is that there are many different kinds of truth depending what it is you’re talking about. A truth about God/gods is not the same kind of truth as a truth about furniture. And you end up in very silly positions if you think it is the same kind.

Is God a chair? Or perhaps a comfortable futon? A dining room table? Or the floorboards themselves? Find out eventually. Or not.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Perfect Way to End a Story, But It Will Never Happen

I discovered a while ago that Steve Carell is likely to leave The Office when his contract is up at the end of the 2010-11 season. I think it’s clear that the show itself would have to end at this point. Michael Scott is the show’s central protagonist and the point around which all the major action of the show revolves.

The Office is past its prime, generally speaking, but is still one of the most entertaining and well-characterized shows on American television. Seven years is a terrific run for any show, and all the actors can look back on it as a point of high quality in their careers. This would be true for the successful post-Office careers of people like Carell, Craig Robinson, Ed Helms, and Ellie Kemper. It would also be true for the people who will be utterly forgotten or typecast beyond all hope of return like John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Mindy Kaling, and Rainn Wilson. I’m not sure what will happen to B. J. Novak. Perhaps he’ll become a time traveller.

The most interesting part of an Office finale for me is how it’s going to end. Taking a cue from the original British version would be no help. Having run for just two years before Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant began their other projects, Extras and the Ricky Gervais Podcast, the UK Office ended with Tim (US=Jim) and Dawn (US=Pam) getting together, an event the US version long moved past.

I had a wonderful idea how the show should end, but I think you’ll agree when you read it that it would horrify almost all the fans of the show. Then again, it could also be executed very happily and optimistically, though not without a good chunk of unhappiness. And combining laughs with gnawing depression is what The Office is best at.

I took my jumping off point to be the current plotline involving Sabre printers being defective and catching fire when carrying out large jobs. It’s plausible that, with the story of Michael’s illicit relationship now having been wrapped up, the last episode of the season would concentrate on the rest of the staff discovering the Sabre hardware scandal. The next, and presumably last, season would then see the fallout of the scandal on the Sabre corporation. This could set off a chain of corporate blunders and coverups that would eventually lead to the collapse of Sabre, the parent company of Dunder-Mifflin. The seventh season would end as Dunder-Mifflin goes down with the corporate ship and everyone loses their jobs.

An extended epilogue of the last episode would show what happened to the different characters. Jim and Pam move to Philadelphia, where Jim gets a sales job with some other office supply or furniture sales company and Pam stays at home with the kids for a while. I also see Pam getting pregnant again. Dwight would retire to his beet farm, Angela following doggedly with Dwight’s child, not named Morpheus. Darryl would get a job in another warehouse, bitter after his brief brush with the corporate lifestyle. Andy would find himself rewarded for his initial activism on the printer scandal with a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission, an office which would prove to be even more insane than Dunder-Mifflin. Kelly would callously manipulate her way into a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission during the investigation of Sabre. Ryan would mopishly become her househusband.

Oscar and Stanley would find other, equally mundane, jobs in the Scranton area, and Stanley and his former mistress Cynthia would get married. Kevin, Phyllis, and Meredith would remain unemployed for the foreseeable future, although Kevin and Phyllis may begin a relationship. Creed would disappear into the Canadian wilderness. Toby would commit suicide.

For some reason, I’m imagining that after initial awkwardness is overcome in social situations, Michael and Erin getting together. They had a very nice moment after her breakup with Andy, and I want to see how that develops. And they would try to get the Michael Scott Paper Company off the ground again, perhaps diversifying into office supplies of all kinds.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Love of Richard Nixon

A conversation I had last week reminded me of how much I really hated Richard Nixon. My friend Jeremy and I ended up discussing politics, particularly the policies of various US Presidents. I expressed my somewhat ambivalent opinion of George W. Bush: If it had not been for September 11, he would never have been able to invade Iraq, would have passed immigration reform, and go down in history as a moderately successful one-term President. I have more respect for the person Bush had the potential to become, rather than the person that the situations of his time made Bush.

There was also a pretty funny joke about how William Henry Harrison probably should be left off any qualitative ranking of US Presidents, as he was dumb enough to die of pneumonia within a month. And I learned quite a few interesting and unsavoury things about Andrew Jackson and what could have been the Five Nations Autonomous Indigenous Region in the state of Georgia.

Then Jeremy asked me about Nixon. An initial comparison to Bush was possible, but I quickly dismissed it. Bush jr may have done some awful things in office, and made some terrible decisions. But I still believe that he was doing what he thought was best, and that he is actually a genuinely morally decent individual, at least regarding intentions.

Richard Nixon never made a decision that was not driven by resentment, spite, and hatred. He ran the Presidency as a personal fiefdom, purposely setting out to ruin and destroy anyone who opposed him. He took every political conflict personally. He was the major political motivator in crushing the liberatory ideals of the 1960s, if not in direct causation, then in inspiring and organizing the conservative, reactionary vanguard against them. If he had been elected in 1960 instead of Kennedy, he would have done what Curtis LeMay told him and started a nuclear war with Russia that would have destroyed at least half the Earth.

There has never been a democratic leader in the West more harmful to his people and more disgraceful to the status of his office than Richard Milhouse Nixon. I said to Jeremy that I don’t believe in God, but if there is a God, I hope that he invented a special hell worse than any that had already been established, to send Nixon to. He would probably have been strapped to a chair and forced to hear Allen Ginsberg poetry, recitations of atheist humanist essays, and Doors records for the next billion years before behind annihilated, dispersed into the sweet release of entropic oblivion.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Welcome to Jam

Chris Morris, Britain’s most brutal and uncompromising provocateur satirist, created a six episode sketch show several years ago, called Jam. The sketches are not what most people call funny, and are mostly terrifyingly disturbing. The tone of sketches are unsettling, with most of the rhythms of comedy removed, and the cinematography sometimes starkly from another world. Here’s a sketch typical of its unsettling insanity, where a man comes to fix a television that has had lizards pouring out of it for the past day.

And this one, which is just plain strange.

I encourage you all to see all the Jam that youtube has to offer. But it’s not for the easily (or possibly) offended, or those whose personality isn’t already disturbed enough to find this funny. I laughed like a beast, especially the man who launches himself into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment by being shredded to sludge in a woodchipper.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Television that Keeps Me Watching TV

I’ve been very impressed by the new season of Doctor Who, especially Matt Smith, who embodies the role of the Doctor in a way that implies gravitas, joy, and strangeness, sometimes all at once. I find him much less self-consciously pop than David Tennant, which endears him to me, though perhaps not to all the casual fans of the show. Steven Moffatt’s ability to craft such an involved and complex story arc is quite a selling point as well. For all I admire what Russell T Davies was able to do resurrecting the show in the first place, his season arcs were usually a little too simple, amounting to little more than teasers for the finale. This year, the Doctor is discovering clue after clue about the nature of the mysterious cracks and silences in the universe that seem centred around new companion Amy Pond and the oddly insular town of Leadworth.

Treme has been remarkably engaging television for me too. I particularly like the show’s favourite asshole, Steve Zahn’s Davis. Davis is a pompous musician and radio DJ whose uncompromising exuberance and total inability to tell how people will react to his actions before he does them combine, little by little, to ruin his life. In the second episode, he got fired from his radio job after letting a local musician sacrifice a chicken live in studio. By the end of that episode, he got his second job as a desk jockey at a hotel on Bourbon street, but lost it after directing a group of twentysomethings in New Orleans with a church group cleanup crew to a bar outside the hotel’s designated comfort zone. It didn’t help Davis that they didn’t make it back to the hotel for two days.

As a Spaced fan, one of the happiest things we experienced was that the US remake of the beloved show was never picked up. However, I realized this week that there is an American Spaced, and it’s called Community. It’s not just because of the inter-generational unlikely friendships in an eccentric environment, though the nuanced and self-aware characterizations of the protagonists and Greendale College residents is key to its charm. Edgar Wright is a rare director, in that he knows how a camera movement can tell a joke. And the creators of Community understand this as well. One recent episode saw the campus collapse into a paintball war zone, and the climactic last battle of Jeff and Britta with their deranged Spanish teacher Señor Chang would have just looked kind of silly and lame if it had been filmed with an ordinary series of camera shots. But the slow motion of Chang’s entrace, the low angles at which the diminutive teacher was shot, and the kinetic flow of Britta’s attacks and Jeff’s escape heightened the surreality of the moment. It’s still a very revolutionary, and very difficult technique for a camera to be made so pivotal to the humour of a scene. But Spaced and Community have successfully achieved that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Selection of Thoughts and Random Happenstance

Every so often, I think to myself that I should sit down and write a blog entry. But between my thesis work, fiction writing, publishing ventures that show increasing promise, I haven’t actually sat down and written anything. So this week, I’ve written several short entries at once, and scheduled them to appear on the blog as a series of short cuts: weird things that have received cursory treatment in my facebook statuses and tweets, but that haven’t quite merited the sustained attention of a full blog entry. Maybe some unity can be made from the madness. That unity would be my life.
Terrifying Bestial Gyrations Apparently Sell Hockey Tickets. Monday morning, I went to the market to buy food, which is a pretty normal thing to do. However, at the intersection where my supermarket is, there was a nine foot tall bipedal bulldog epileptically rocking back and forth with a sign advertizing that there was a Hamilton Bulldogs minor league hockey game that night. The weird thing was that the bulldog was just rocking back and forth, and his enormous head was tottering like a bobblehead. It looked to me as if he was ejaculating in his pants over and over again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Finding Philosophy With a Mad German

So a couple of months ago, I had an insane idea. I’m working on my doctoral thesis right now, a philosophy of ecology. It’s a way of thinking about nature that focusses on the contingency of human existence, and the continuity of humanity with nature, understanding humanity and its technology as a natural creation. All this involves re-thinking concepts of nature, subjectivity, life, and existence. Even though I won’t start actually writing this for another four or five months, and don’t expect to finish for a year and a half, I’m already thinking of the sequel.

The doctoral thesis, which I hope to publish as a book of philosophy, will work as a framework for an ecological ethics. And I want to approach ethical problems differently than the tradition of philosophy tells me I should. The traditional approach to ethics is to look for universal and wide-ranging normative principles that can be applied to particular situations. The problem is that I expect that my concept of existence won’t be amenable to such a dualist ethical thinking.

Instead, I’m thinking that an ethics based on characters would work better. In an ethics based on normative principles, one meets a situation and asks what universal imperatives apply here. In an ethics based on character, one asks what kind of person would you become by acting in different ways. Now think about working in a framework of ecology, thinking about problems of ecological destruction. The kind of person you would become in dealing adequately with these problems would be a human whose existence and personality included all the creatures and ecosystems around you. You would think about yourself less as an isolated human body, and more as a field of interconnected activities. The question now remains: How does one learn to think in this way?

My suspicion that most people would consider insane is that I can find the answer by engaging with art. In particular, I intend to work with the art of Werner Herzog. I’ve always been aware of his giving animals, architecture, landscapes, and forests prominent roles in his films. Sometimes, the actions of these elements are key expressions of the aesthetic structures of the entire films. Herzog’s films themselves are bodies that include non-human actors among their most important constituents. They are bodies where multiples species and ways of being intersect in clear and creative ways.

His protagonists often become other than human over the course of the story. Sometimes they journey among forms before returning to a similar shape to that as which they began. Sometimes, they try to impose their rigid human shapes on worlds alien to them, like the jungle, or the Antarctic, with mixed results. There is nothing necessary about the success or failure of conformity to non-human forms, or trying to force a non-human form to conform to one’s own. There is no universal principle to be found: success or failure of a plan of differentiating or imposition depends on the situation. Sometimes, it’s a matter of contingent features beyond the actor’s control, dumb luck. Sometimes, it’s the protagonist successfully anticipating contingencies.

These ethics do not deal with rules and applications. They deal with characters and situations. I’m not sure how successful my own philosophical project here will be, but I am hopeful that I’m onto a very productive path.