Archive for September, 2003

Buffy

Monday, September 29th, 2003

I guess it’s time for me to come out of the closet, as a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not that I was ever trying to hide it; but most people who know me assume that my favorite show of the last half-decade or so would have to be The Sopranos, about which I only have a ho-hum attitude (I mean, it’s not bad, but I don’t get what the big deal is — I can take it or leave it). Buffy, on the other hand, I find both beautiful and sublime. For one thing, Buffy had the best horror plots of anything on TV besides the early seasons of The X-Files, and the first two years of the great and sadly forgotten Millennium. For another, it provided a welcome alternative to the pallid romanticization of vampires which has gotten awfully old and tired and trite recently, what with Ann Rice and the recent Dracula knock-offs and all the Goth stuff. (I suppose you might call Spike a romanticized vampire, but Spike was punk rock, and not at all Goth or Ann Rice-y; even if Drusilla is).
But what really made Buffy for me – what really makes any TV series work for me, in fact – was the affect and the characters. Affect: the way the feel of alienated adolescence (well, alienated middle-class white adolescence, at least) was transmuted with and by the contamination of monsters; the plot of impossible longing, as epitomized by Buffy’s relationship with Angel, but felt by the other characters as well, certainly by Buffy’s friends, and also, I think, by the vampires and demons; the way the show played between “normality” and marginalization (there’s a big part of Buffy that just wants to be “normal,” i.e. fitting into the paradigms of family and the school pecking order – this is something which of course she isn’t and cannot ever be, but the show got a lot of its power by tracing the line between the desire to conform or belong and the need to reject and rebel, which I think affirms singularity more powerfully than a simple show of unproblematic rebellion ever could.
As for the characters: Buffy is sort of a joke in the movie that preceded the series; but Sarah Michelle Gellar’s portrayal succeeded in splitting the difference between the “hot babe” vapidity that seems to be de rigeur these days for anything that’s supposed to appeal to a teen audience, and a sense of existential displacement that is crucial to the role of the Slayer, and which I’ve never seen anything like, anywhere else. Aside from that: I’ve always adored Willow, in all the transformations of her character, and I can’t help identifying with Giles (call it my academicism, if you must; but I’ll also mention that Anthony Stewart Head and I are almost exactly the same age, having been born just about six weeks apart).
I’ll only add that the reason I’m going on at length about Buffy now is this. During the seven years the show was on, I never managed to watch it regularly; I only caught individual episodes now and again. Now I am systematically working through the entire series on DVD (well, the first four years are out now, year 5 is coming out in December, year 6 in summer 2004.. and I presume year 7 eventually).

Rational Mysticism

Friday, September 26th, 2003

John Horgan is my favorite science writer. His books The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind were both valuable for their lucid explanations, and their hard-headed skepticism and debunking of hype. The former book cast doubt upon scientific claims to be on the verge of discovering a “theory of everything”: the latter suggested that current research programs like evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and artificial intelligence were far from probing adequately the mysteries of the mind, In his latest latest book, Rational Mysticism, Horgan turns his attention to “the border between science and spirituality.” Specifically, he looks into explorations of mysticism made by a variety of researchers, from religious scholars to neuroscientists to psychologists to self-experimenters (a category that overlaps with the others). The emphasis is mostly on mystical states of consciousness: their physiology, their relation to other forms of experience, and the kinds of (extra-scientific) truths they may convey. This also involves detours into (briefly) parapsychology and (more extensively) psychedelic drugs. Any discussion of spirituality and mysticism quickly turns into a morass, but Horgan is very careful in avoiding both mystical dismissals of scientific rationality, and reductivistic scientific dismissals of spiritual experience as rubbish. He is rightly skeptical of New Age claims to transcendent truth; but this is in pretty much the same way that he is skeptical, in his previous books, of scientific theories that make extreme claims about the nature of being, life, and the mind on the basis of very slender empirical evidence. Horgan (again, rightly, to my mind) finds much to admire in such figures as Susan Blackmore (who combines a Buddhist perspective with a refusal to be taken in by vapid claims for parapsychology and the like) and the late Terence McKenna (of whom Horgan gives an affectionate portrait, bringing out the humor and irony that underlay McKenna’s often extravagant theories). The book’s conclusion, with which I can only agree, is that neither mysticism nor science can explain (or explain away) the mysteriousness and sheer weirdness (as McKenna liked to insist) of being; but they can both lead us to appreciate these qualities more. Personally, I found the parts of the book where Horgan deals with psychedelic drugs the most interesting, because of my own psychedelic experiences when I was younger. On the other hand, I seem to be utterly devoid of any craving for a larger truth, or for a consolation for the pains of existence, that most often drives the mystical quest, and that Horgan admits to feeling himself. The only form of “spirituality” discussed in the book that has any emotional appeal for me is (again) McKenna’s quest, not for God or nirvana or some sort of ultimate enlightenment, but for novelty. (The question of “how is newness possible?”, which McKenna addressed in his own wacky way, is of course the same question that animates the philosophies of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze).

Bangkok Dangerous

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

Bangkok Dangerous, by the Pang Brothers, is a superb gangster film about a deaf-mute hitman. The story is resolutely lowbrow and generic: violent, sentimental, and sententious. The narrative drifts for about half the movie, and then powerfully coalesces into a revenge plot. The music is pounding, unsubtle, and relentless. Much of the story is conveyed without dialog, and the visuals are amazing, filled with jerkily moving handheld camera, extreme closeups, jump cuts, deliberately mismatched shots, affective montages, abstract use of (grimy and murky) color, scenes shrouded in darkness, and unexpected shifts of perspective (one of my favorites was a shot from the POV of a gecko standing upside down on the ceiling). The Pangs’ stylization is as extreme as John Woo’s, but going in totally the opposite direction: where Woo is gorgeously poetic, with precisely articulated violence and an elegant sense of melancholy, the Pangs are like down ‘n’ dirty grunge rockers, mixing emotional rawness with an unexpected (but still raw) tenderness and vulnerability.

Babylon Sisters

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

Paul Di Filippo is one of the most wackily inventive of contemporary science fiction authors; his latest short story collection, Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans, envisions scenarios ranging from human beings genetically reengineered to be parasites living within the bodies of enormous spacefaring organisms, to designer drugs that filter your perceptions so that you seem to be living within the paintings of great artists, to living books which are genetically spliced and selectively bred to generate new texts (and thereby, new ideas). The collection is a bit uneven. Some of the stories are little more than throwaways, or the short-story equivalent of standup comedy one-liners; but even these are quite amusing as they ring changes on standard SF tropes. At his best, however, as several times in this volume, Di Filippo is what I can only call a comic visionary, as he proposes radical transformations of (most interestingly) biotech to outrageous and hilarious effect. When it comes to imagining the possible transformations that new technologies offer us, Di Filippo gives us a welcome alternative to the grandiloquent, self-aggrandizing fantasies of the Transhumanists.

File sharing (copyright infringement) is not theft

Monday, September 22nd, 2003

Despite what the music industry likes to say, the Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that copyright infringement “does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud… The infringer invades a statutorily defined province guaranteed to the copyright holder alone. But he does not assume physical control over copyright; nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use.”
So, even if file sharing is not protected under fair use (which I believe it should be), it cannot be equated with stealing either. (Via Techdirt).

Skin

Sunday, September 21st, 2003

Shelley Jackson has announced a “mortal work of art”: a text written by her, to be tattooed on peoples’ bodies, one word per person. The work will not be published in any other form, and “the full text will be known only to participants, who may, but need not choose to establish communication with one another.” (Via Die, Puny Humans). The participants ” are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments.” Consequently, the work will not be immortal, but will perish as the people whose bodies bear it pass away.
I’ve long admired Jackson’s prose, both her hypertext works (like Patchwork Girl and My Body) and her printed volume of short stories, The Melancholy of Anatomy.
But this new project is so beautiful it takes my breath away.

Whitehead (continued)

Saturday, September 20th, 2003

I have continued my exploration of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead by reading Science and the Modern World (1925), together with the first half of Isabelle Stengers’ commentary
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What Genes Can’t Do

Saturday, September 20th, 2003

What Genes Can’t Do, by Lenny Moss, doesn’t quite deliver on its title’s promise of a thorough critique of genetic determinism. The book is much more limited in its scope than the title would suggest. But within its own boundaries, the book does argue cogently and make some important points. Moss is a philosopher with a background in cell biology; he’s able to go into detail on both the history of biologiy, and on current work in the field…
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Double Vision

Friday, September 19th, 2003

Chen Kuo-Fu’s Double Vision, a Taiwanese/American co-production, mixes genres to brilliant effect: it’s a combination of serial killer/police thriller, supernatural horror, and family melodrama, with a bit of cross-cultural-misunderstanding comedy thrown in for good measure. A Taipei cop with a traumatic past, whose life and career are a mess (veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung) tries to solve a series of murders with both high-tech and mystical Taoist overtones, with the help of an American FBI man (David Morse). The cinematography is fluid and elegant, and the plot is genuinely shocking as well as creepy, as it continually shifts its ground (and the genre expectations it arouses), moving from police procedural to splatterfest to subdued melancholy to an absolutely hallucinatory and delirious conclusion. The overall affective tone of the film is pessimistic and anguished, though it also manages to project a balance between spiritual yearning and extreme skepticism in a way that I’ve neve felt or seen before. (This is tied in as well with the film’s theme of inevitable misunderstandings between American and Chinese culture; my own cultural preconceptions obviously limit my understanding of the film, but this is something that the film explicitly addresses with Morse’s character). All in all, this is a rather grim film that nonetheless gives a great deal of pleasure through its continual inventiveness and surprise. It fuses art and pulp to provide continual astonishment. Double Vision is sufficiently original that I have trouble describing it any less abstractly that I have here. All I can say, really, is that it provides both intensity and wonder; what more could I ever ask from a film?

Evolution of Music

Tuesday, September 16th, 2003

In the Science section of today’s New York Times, there’s an interesting and (as usual) problematic article about the evolution of human beings’ “ability to enjoy music”. All human cultures seem to value and make music; this is a problem for evolutionary theory, because music “does nothing evident to help survival.” How could it therefore have evolved?…
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