Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino

This is a peculiar film.  Its appeal is hard to argue against, and it is harder still to ascertain the reasons for the said appeal.

The characters are all outlandish, cool in an urban-ghetto way, witty and never lost for the right word, and very, very opinionated.

Enough has been written about this film. I want to focus on a peculiar feature of this film which seems to have been missed in all the reviews that I have read so far. Remember that this film won the 1994 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

My theory is that "Pulp Fiction" is a film about the mundane details of American lifestyle and culture. It imagines some lurid story-lines to describe some common, crass, low-brow experiences in the United States which may seem perversely delightful to a literate audience. Watching Pulp Fiction is like being at the zoo.

The film contains self-conscious references to the following entertainingly kitschy aspects of American culture:
  • Los Angeles
  • A heavy dose of unusually profane language
  • Plenty of drug use
  • American fast food.  In fact there are many monologues and curious plot-twists about cheap food in the film: cheeseburgers (especially the quarter-pounder with cheese!), milk shakes, fries, "Sprite", diner breakfasts, "blueberry pancakes", pop-tarts, ...
  • Big cars and the American love of automobiles
  • Brawny prizefighters
  • Dumb girlfriends
  • An ironical reference to war veterans gloating over their stories
  • An exposition that American names are meaningless ("Butch", "Bonnie")
  • Motels
  • Choppers.  Not just any regular motorcycle, the American travesty that is a "chopper"
  • Over-the-top fetishes (the "gimp")
  • Face piercings
  • Suburbia: lawn hoses, "graveyard shift wife", big garages, "gourmet coffee"
  • The "nigger" culture of gangs, gambling and drugs
  • Having cereal for dinner while watching TV
  • An overindulgence in gadgetry: e.g. the useless CCTV at home
  • Shallow decor (the inside-out restaurant)
  • The "twist" dance and rock-and-roll music
  • Bible-thumping while doing everything the Bible forbids
The film made fun of Americana in a lighthearted, entertaining way.  All the characters in the film are moral and intellectual imbeciles and it provided a morbid kind of pleasure to watch these street-smart bozos messing up.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Un-Charitable Activities

God-men (and God-women, for that matter) of India are well-known for their social and charitable activities.  They have vast empires of educational institutions, low-cost hospitals, herbal medicines and condiment shops, etc.  They also participate, or help start, afforestation drives, water-body cleaning operations, drug de-addiction centers, etc.

Many people therefore understandably consider the God-men as noble souls who are doing so much for the poor and helpless and the suffering.

There are many glitches in this sweet narrative:

1. These activities are frequently used to get grants of land and other benefits from the government.  India might be secular in theory, but in practice politicians want the God-men to be on their side during elections.  They therefore find it easy to grant favors to them.  All religions are subject to an equality of appeasement in India.

Of course, the land and tax benefits are not coming from the political party's coffers, they are coming from the public.  It is a genius move to do campaign spending from others' pockets.  And given the charitable and religious nature of the project, nobody dares object.

If the government doesn't grant the favor, God-men and their organizations have been known to just take over the land.  Just like that.  If the authorities try to evict them, there is the threat of riots.  "How dare you defile the scripture/idol/holy-ground?"  Religion gets a free pass where normal business would get roadblocked.  Establishing a large hospital and a medical college not only gets the God-man a steady stream of revenue, he usually gets to build these institutions without huge upfront costs.

2.  It is not the God-man's altruism which makes him do it.  In fact, it isn't even his own money that is spent on these activities and "charitable" projects.  It is donated money, donated effort, but it is the God-man who gets to bask in the subsequent applause and adulation.  (As an aside, charitable in this context usually means that one's contribution to it is considered as charity and may be tax-deductible, not that the God-man is being very charitable in operating it)

Is the God-man to be applauded for spending at least part of the donations on such projects, and not keeping all the money for his own amusement?  This is a complicated question.

Firstly, the projects are not started with venture money (so to speak) already in place.  Most of these projects are funded along the way.  That means, the projects are designed to attract future donations.

Secondly, the existence of such projects guarantees good PR for the God-man, employment of his cronies, and long-term engagement of a significant number of people.  The God-man regards his investment, if any, as a business expense to increase his, ahem, market capitalization.

Also, for all his purported compassion, the God-man's comfort and pleasure come first.  Rest assured that a God-man who doesn't have an air-conditioned mansion to himself won't be in a big hurry to install ceiling fans in the village school.  Moreover, God-men don't usually go build primary schools and clinics in the poorest regions.  They instead go for the more lucrative business of higher education (and make no mistake, these are cash-flow-positive businesses) and hospitality (special rooms with extra facilities for non-resident-Indians!) near big cities.

3. It should be considered a colossal failure of governance and the democratic process that people, instead of participating meaningfully in the elections, and contributing to their own well-being via paying taxes and getting a return on that, choose to instead give their hard-earned money to a charlatan who then does with it as he pleases.  The government is still at least somewhat accountable to the people.  The God-man is beyond reproach, beyond questioning, beyond audits, beyond requests for information.

The state is happy about this state of affairs.  It has an easy out from providing basic services like education, sanitation, environmental protection, healthcare, as many of these activities are instead taken over by these unaccountable dictators.  This perpetuates poverty and disenfranchisement.  People no longer think that they need democracy or that the government is effective or worth criticizing, and the politicians are only too happy to agree.  It doesn't take long for a society to go from "God will save us" to "Only God can save us."

4. The fundamental business of a God-man is to offer solace to the distraught, and to do this, he has to encourage and continue an attitude of superstition and belief in the mystical.  Yes, people need solace in times of distress, and they might therefore need faith, but why does India need so many God-men?  Even if a belief in God is bogus, it can still be an individual matter not requiring any money or a greedy middleman.  Why is God big business in India?

I believe it is because people are desperate, and illiterate, and easily manipulated.  And their desperation is milked by propaganda and unscrupulous God-men.  Charitable activities are a part of this propaganda.  And because these merchants of solace diminish a demand for real governance, literacy and genuine, institutional changes, the desperation and helplessness and mental slavery continue.

A God-man is like a drug dealer, as Marx said in other words.  The fact that a drug dealer also operates another business, say a garment factory employing some poor people, should not make us venerate him.  We should, instead, realize that his empire depends on keeping people addicted to what he is providing.  We should keep in mind his primary business.  People paying the God-man for their fix, and the God-man only using a part of that money for himself, is no cause for admiration.

Or wait, it is probably admirable as a business strategy.

PS: Check out items 3, 49 and 50 in the list of "104 humanitarian works" being undertaken by Sant Ram Rahim and his organization.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Sinister Side of Spirituality

Spirituality is generally misanthropic in that it finds normal human pursuits of wealth, prosperity, romantic love, attachment to family, formal education, social status, etc. as misguided.

Spirituality has a close cousin in environmentalism in that it finds human progress as a catastrophe for the planet, it disregards rigorous science in favor of feel-good theories and it advocates a return to more earthy or native lifestyles; being vegetarian, going organic, practicing yoga (as an aside, I wonder how "yog-aa" has become the normative pronunciation in recent years) and alternative medicine, etc.  They have a romantic view of primitive cultures, and consider them healthier, no matter what the facts say.


The sinister side of this world-view is this: spiritualists and environmentalists gloat over every new disaster that befalls humanity.  Human suffering, whatever the cause, is proof to them that radical change is needed and that their perception that the world has gone haywire is correct and justified.

They might feel "compassion" at others' suffering, but this compassion is tinged with "understanding" and condescension.   A part of them is exceedingly glad whenever a seemingly unmanageable disaster strikes a region.  Be it a tsunami, an outbreak of an infectious disease, a widespread food contamination, a newly discovered side-effect of a much-used chemical, a conviction of a CEO of a successful company, a failed spaceship launch, and so on.  They feel vindicated and happy when the "other side" messes up.

To be happy when people are happy, and to be sad when they are sad, is antithetical to spirituality.  Spiritualists inwardly glow and gloat when others are sorrowful, and they are miffed when others are joyous and dancing around.  Similarly, environmentalists feel happy when they hear yet another news that a particular GM crop has been banned.  And they feel agony when a scientific paper lays out evidence that the GM crop is indeed safe and makes economic sense.

This kind of criticism can be levied at any philosophy and world-view.  But it is especially noteworthy in relation to spirituality because spirituality is, ostensibly, all about love and freedom.  But in practice, it frowns upon vast sections of humankind and finds their passions and desires as worthy of condemnation (code-worded as "non-judgmental understanding").  And environmentalism, for all its rhetoric, may be cruel in its effects (ref: the campaign against vaccines).

When someone suffers a heartbreak, for example, the spiritualist finds it an opportune moment to talk or reflect about what "real love" is and why "romantic love" is doomed.  When there is an industrial disaster, the spiritualist finds it to be just another symptom of a "dark age" in which material pursuits have overtaken our "higher" impulses and how Gaia is protesting in agony.  A devalued currency is proof to them that monetary theory is hogwash and that everybody should revert to barter.

For a spiritualist or an environmentalist, disasters are good news.  It affords them a fresh lease of self-righteousness and piety ("I'll pray for them").  Their confidence in their esoteric theories is renewed.

After all, if worldly people are happy and content, they must be wrong.  So, the suffering of worldly people is very welcome to them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Introversion, Insecurity, Exhaustion

Introverts get exhausted by interaction.

Why?

There are people who are otherwise energetic in life, they accomplish things, but they avoid interaction with other people.  They do fine at functional interactions: going to the bank, making purchases at the store, dealing with the plumber.  They generally also do fine doing business with people when the hierarchy is clearly defined: when it is clear who is supposed to be respected or followed.  They are able to take orders, and they are able to direct their subordinates.

But when it comes to interacting with friends, relatives or peers, introverts find it very hard to have "fun" or to feel energized by the socialization.  They find it taxing and exhausting.

Why?

Let me make the claim here that introversion is essentially a symptom of feeling inadequate.  This inadequacy might be the result of not having received enough love as a child, of early social rejection as an adolescent, of one's social class, or of a deep-rooted inferiority about one's physical attributes.

Introversion lends itself to poetry, literature, intellection and to similar solitary activities.  An introvert is, justifiably in my opinion, regarded as less attractive than an extrovert.  An introvert feels flawed.  Usually people go by one's evaluation of oneself.  If you don't feel good about yourself, neither will others.

Introverts might give the impression that they are good listeners, but they are usually listening to narratives inside their own head, thinking of what to say or how to respond.  Others' words bounce off their heads, rarely generating passion, feeling or interest, unless the conversation is about them.

It is not much fun being around an introvert, because he, sooner or later, wants to be left alone.  Hence, a cycle of introversion might quickly become self-perpetuating.  Introverts don't like being with others, others detect this and therefore are not attracted to introverts, introverts see this as rejection and retreat further into their shells.

Why is interaction exhausting for an introvert?  Due to the feelings of inadequacy, the introvert is usually playing a role when with others.  When alone, the introvert can be himself, without any judge or witness.  But with others, the introvert is trying to protect his fragile ego.  This means that the introvert is being on his guard, careful about what he says or how he comes across.  He sees interaction as a battle.  He already feels inadequate and in need of approval and validation, and to be asked to interact is to be again put at risk.  In conversations, he is self-effacing, generally agreeable, slightly opaque, somewhat stressed.

The introvert rarely disagrees with others in a way that puts his ego on the stake.  He keeps the conversation mundane and inconsequential.  He is most comfortable with impersonal topics which do not require any movement or activity in his emotional core.  It is hard to have a heart-to-heart with an introvert because the introvert will quickly put on his shields and deflect.  When a conversation turns to personal topics, the introvert starts to take a principled stand and to thinking and talking in proverbs and quotable quotes rather than have a nuanced understanding of the individuals involved.  It is hard to criticize a principle, so the introvert remains safe and immune.

Due to this defensiveness and enactment and "performance" during an interaction, it drains the introvert.  Non-introverts are relatively more accepting of themselves, and they can be more spontaneous.  Interaction is not as much of a chore for them, because they are not having an agenda.  The introvert, on the other hand, has an agenda: to protect himself, to come across as agreeable, to find a way to get out of the interaction before too long, etc.

The introvert also is usually very judgmental.  He secretly judges everybody as inferior and shallow.  In a way, it is another tactic of his ego trying to protect itself.  He might find others charming and engaging in cheerfulness and frivolity, and he might secretly want to as well.  But because he is unable, due to his fear of rejection, he finds it easier to denounce them as less evolved than him.  This secret denouncement makes him feel good about himself.  It might even be said that he needs to be constantly judging others for his ego to have some nourishment.  He cannot just be in a conversation and be engaged in the subject.  He compulsively focuses on the people and what flaws he can find in them.

The interactions then become even more fake and tiresome for him.  He is being pleasant and even witty while inwardly looking down on others.  The others detect this, sooner or later, and want to get away from the introvert.  The introvert sees this as evidence of his evolution: in his mind, the reason other people avoid him is because they feel unworthy of him.

With peers, the introvert is generally ill-at-ease.  He looks forward to the comfort and safety of his solitude.  He doesn't like to be the subject of others' observation.  An introvert is usually very hesitant and embarrassed to have his photograph taken.  He feels awkward when someone gives him a gift, or tries to emotionally reach out to him.  In a way, he doesn't want to exist emotionally for others.  An "exposure" (photographic or emotional) gives rise to the possibility of others looking at and evaluating him.  He is not comfortable with that.

In short: an introvert does not want to be evaluated.  Because he evaluates others constantly, he imagines interactions as evaluations of himself in the eyes of others. And therefore finds them taxing.

An introvert can open up only when he has complete trust that he will not be rejected.  Most introverts do not have such a trustworthy person in their lives.  Their prognosis is bleak because they push people away very quickly, and only a rather persistent individual can break through to them.  Even therapy might not help them much, because though the therapist will expose their private self and accept it, that is scant guarantee that someone else will.

I believe the first experience of acceptance for a child is from its parents.  If that acceptance is inadequate, various neuroses can develop and no subsequent acceptance will be found good enough.

...

I have tried to analyze the "introvert" as an archetype.  In most of us, the attributes of introversion exist to some degree.  And the above analysis is therefore probably applicable to us to that limited degree.

Introversion is not a death-sentence.  It can be, however, quite difficult to overcome.  Starting from an awareness of one's fragility, one can slowly come to accept oneself as lovable.  One must not emphasize only one's strengths as compensations which make one "lovable in spite of", but regard one's other attributes as acceptable too.  To disregard/repress one's unlikable self is exactly the error which we should be trying to avoid.  The narrative has to change from "I don't like this about myself," to "I am this curious mix of attributes."  Stop being your own worst critic.  Accept yourself as a colorful human being.

It is to be expected that one will want to spend time with some people, and not as much with others.  A die-hard introvert, on the other hand, doesn't want to spend time with anybody.  A non-introvert might be choosy as to who he interacts with, but his interactions are more relaxing, energizing, and more open and vulnerable and personal in nature.  An introvert's interaction is more like an algebra lecture: replete with averted glances, hidden variables, unknown agendas and unsolved equations.

A movement towards accepting oneself also will mean that one starts finding others lovable.  One will no longer see others as objects ready for one's judgment and criticism and condescension, but as varied kinds of flowers and birds and apes.  Then interactions have the potential to become explorations where one can relax, be oneself, and give others the space to be themselves as well.

And for those of us who are not as introverted: when you come across someone shy or anxious, be kind, and be someone that he can regard as safe, trustworthy and non-judgmental.

Be his friend.  He needs one.  At least till he becomes his own friend.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Superego and Morality

A few days ago, I had a stimulating discussion with a friend about finding and adhering to one's core values.  We wondered about the modern predicament of having no strong values to guide one's actions.

This predicament naturally leads itself to pleasure-seeking, short-term, impulsive behavior.  With no long-term goals, the pleasures of stimulation, attention and validation (the infantile pleasures) become prominent drivers of one's life.

Humans are unique in some ways.  The most important obviously being the role our frontal cortex, the conscious mind, plays in our survival and genetic success.  The training of a human mind takes twenty to thirty years.  This training imparts linguistic, social and vocational skills important for becoming a stable, synergistic and useful part of the human society.  This education is, at its core, utilizing the present for the future.  It is an investment of time.  "Delayed gratification", "planning" and working toward a better future are some of the hallmarks of being human.

This essentially human perspective about time and that the future is in many ways more important than the present requires a moral, frictional apparatus that prevents one from just going after immediate enjoyments and addictions.  This apparatus propels us to do the right thing even if that is difficult, rather than what just seems pleasant and comforting.

This apparatus, colloquially termed as the "conscience" prevents us from becoming self-serving, hedonistic, sociopathic individuals who live for nothing more than the next "fix".  Society, culture, religion, family all instil in us that certain behaviors, even though pleasant, are not "good", and that harm will come to both oneself and others in the longer term if one just follows the path of pleasure.

Freud divided the human intentional apparatus into three parts: the id, the ego and the superego.  Even though Freud's theories are not scientific in the strict sense, they are useful and illustrative to analyze and understand human behavior.

In simple terms, the id is the "animal" in us which seeks gratification, the ego is the "individual" what gets trained to become a social individual with feelings of pride, guilt and suchlike, and, and the superego is the "influence" which keeps the ego from collaborating with the id.

The ego has to be prevented from becoming the id's partner, because then the individual can become a cunning animal who seeks gratification via manipulation and dishonesty, for example.  The superego ensures that the ego suffers pangs of guilt and shame if it tries to go that way, and that it feels pride and the pleasure of righteousness if it refrains and resists temptation.

The superego is the conscience.  The superego, to be effective, has to have a basis which is larger than the individual.  It can be based in loyalty to one's family, in devotion to one's religious tradition, in one's sense of honor of being part of a group of people, and in an imprinted belief that the universe is not just random, but that it is fair and that righteousness carries a reward.

From the Wikipedia description of the Superego:
The super-ego aims for perfection.  It forms the organized part of the personality structure, mainly but not entirely unconscious, that includes the individual's ego ideals, spiritual goals, and the psychic agency (commonly called "conscience") that criticizes and prohibits his or her drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions...
The super-ego works in contradiction to the id...
The super-ego's demands often oppose the id’s, so the ego sometimes has a hard time in reconciling the two.
Modernity, for all the good it does, demolishes wholesale the bases of a healthy superego.  Family gives way to individuation, religion gives way to atheism, community gives way to atomization, and metaphysical beliefs are realized as truthy but false.

Modernism, Existentialism, Nihilism, Atheism are all related in the sense that their guns are all pointed in the same direction: at a derived conscience and morality.  All proclaim, in various ways, the absence of a meaning higher than oneself.  Atheism claims that there can be nothing but "individual morality", existentialism claims that there can be nothing but "individual meaning", and Nihilism claims nothing really matters.

Some individuals are alarmed at this lack of conscience in themselves, and wonder if there is a way to nurture a conscience in them as an adult.  In other words, whether an adult can undergo "moral education".

I believe the answer is in the negative.  The ship has sailed by the time it is seen from the harbor and when its ugliness makes you want to repaint it.

Values and meaning cannot be consciously created because the ego cannot sustain itself.  In the ego's battle with the id, it needs something that it considers higher, sacred or sacrosanct in its battle.  The ego can convince itself and train itself to be opposed to the id, but it's not designed to work that way.  It is too much work for the ego to be moral on its own.  If it has created some rules, it knows that those rules are self-created and it can also therefore break those rules.  The ego can be trained to fear legal consequences, but that is legal education, not moral education.

The conscience cannot be conscious.

Many consider the modern age to be a "moral vacuum".  They are not wrong.  The response to them that one can create one's own morality ignores difference in emotional force between the ego-based-morality and the superego-based-morality.  Ego-based-morality is much, much weaker than a morality based on a deep, subconscious sense of right and wrong.

The "hero" is absent in the modern world because the basis of heroism is the superego, and that is weaker than ever.

The destruction of the superego is partly due to the advances in human knowledge.  We know a lot about the hollowness of culture, the hokey bases of religion and spirituality, and the fraud that is patriotism and nationality.

But what is behind the destruction of the family?  I believe that the reasons for the breakdown of family in the modern world are economic.  This is a far more complex topic than I wish to cover in this essay, but in short: technology, globalization, industrialization, and urbanization has made it financially untenable for a family of many generations to live together.  From a default of grandparents+parents+children+grandchildren living in one house, we have now "progressed" to a single individual earning, cooking and sleeping by himself/herself.  Pets are not the answer.

While one is still young and under the supervision of one's parents, the parents (hopefully) act as tangible enforcers of the superego.  They act as moral guardians to the id of the child.  They act as the custodians of its future.  As soon as one is eighteen and anonymous and unaccountable, say in a large city or in college, what is to prevent the id from taking over?

In the absence of superego, morality will break down and it is breaking down.  Law will take the place of morality.  Increasingly draconian laws will become common.  Mass surveillance by large institutions will take the place of community supervision.  Addictions and mental disorders born of loneliness and boredom will reach epidemic proportions and will be controlled by media, chemicals, threats of financial ruin, and prisons.

It is not possible to go back to a past in which God and Country still rule our hearts and minds.  The battle between the ego and the superego has been won.  The battle between the ego and the id is going to be a stressful, uphill struggle for the modern individual.  The ego is now burdened not just with function, but with supervision.

Most will be defeated, a rare few will drop out and form alternate communities and bow to new gods, and the ones who manage to overcome will need to continually overcome, and thereby feel perennially exhausted.