An Unlikely Appeal

What do you think of when you think of the 1920’s and 1930’s in America? I think of what a lot of us would probably consider to be the marks of the essence of the era: classy dress, big band music, swinging jazz, and gangsters with tommy guns in violin cases. The image of the gangster with the wide-brimmed hat, in fact, continues to be the stereotypical image of the gangster today, pervasive in games like Mafia Wars, and influencing comic book villains. There’s something about the action of speak-easies and federal law enforcement trying to capture villains who have committed atrocities such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that appeals to our storytelling.

Similarly, I remember my father’s fascination with Westerns. I grew up with episodes of Gunsmoke periodically looping in the background. The U.S. Marshal staring down the villain who was doing evil in his town, and ultimately winning in the street because he was the faster draw: That was my father’s idea of a good adventure.

Still today, I’m attracted to a certain amount of action in my escapist entertainment. For me, it’s espionage and spy stories, complete with their fair share of blowing up secret bases and foiling plans to take over the world. Or, just a good dose of come-uppance to the ethically depraved, as delivered ala Jason Bourne.

Yet, when I designed the set for a 1930’s noir style murder mystery show in college, the focus wasn’t on violence, but art deco and glamorous costumes. The entire show had no tommy guns or gangsters to be found, yet was as quintessential of the time period as any other production. Similarly, a tour of the International Spy Museum will tell you that the lives of spies are frequently quite without action, contrary to the assassinations and car chases portrayed in film. And, while the Wild West was wild, it was more so the wildness of the survival struggle between man and the elements, rather that pistols in the street at sunset.

My point is that, for some reason, we find the introduction of violence onto these stories and time periods to be addictive, even glamorous. Lives of daring adventure, in which one’s life might end at any turn, draws viewers and readers into the tale, although they are poor representations of historical accuracy. Which leads me to wonder: why is this sort of violence attractive to us?

In fact, any time I’m confronted with violence in storytelling that draws me into the story, I’m a bit amazed. I say that because, philosophically and theologically, I’m a pacifist. That is, I don’t think violence is ever a good answer to a problem. That being the case, why does it draw me into the movie theatre the same as any of my friends? I’d like to think that I’m not susceptible to this, but I obviously am.

Of course, my diet isn’t a steady intake of action films or James Bond novels. And, there is a point where too much is too much. I wonder if this attraction exists in Eastern cultures as much as it does in the West, or even if it is as pervasive in the rest of the West as it is in the U.S.?

Perhaps we’re all wanting the lifestyles of adventure that break us out of our day-to-day routines? Perhaps we all wish we were a bit more than we are. more heroic? In fact, maybe this plays into the nature of a hero somehow. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo Attribution: fabbio

Reality Overload

I skipped one of my usual weekly podcasts today because the topic was reality television. The host was upset about the fact that a football game had messed up the timing on his DVR recording of the season premiere of one of his favorite reality television shows.

And, while I resonate with this guy’s pronounced distaste for football, I have to sort of chuckle about the fact that someone gets that upset over a reality television show.

Although, I shouldn’t. A few years ago, I wrote an op-ed piece about the reality show competition, Fear Factor. Without all of the clever verbage, I’ll give you a synopsis of the article: I find the show to be a base play on the worst of human emotions and not only to be a complete waste of time, but also to be harmful to the poor soul who watches it. Although I had written about many controversial topics in the weeks preceding that, there was a letter to the editor from a reader vehemently angry that I had chosen to speak poorly of that show.

I seem to recall a television producer saying in an interview once that the draw behind a reality program is that the audience feels closer to the people because it’s not fiction. And while Hollywood’s recent regurgitation of film-remakes and new old origin stories proves that there are absolutely no new ideas in the mainstream film industry (and yet they continue to make money), a constant diet of reality programming seems to me like a diet of constant non-fiction without any imaginative, illustrative stories to enrich our lives…an experience I had all too extensively during grad school.

Now, I have to press pause, though, and admit that I have watched…and even enjoyed…reality programming. Most notably, I’m still quite addicted to a new weekly episode of Cops. I’m not sure why. Certainly, listening to the excuses created by the people being arrested is entertaining. I think, though, that the best thing about a show like Cops is that there’s conversation during the show about cultural problems and how our legal system alternately works and then doesn’t.

Still, I have to admit that Cops is a guilty pleasure. I’m not sure if there’s a line between a reality game show like The Amazing Race, and a documentary-style program like Cops. I’m likely guilty of enjoying the very thing I speak against. I do think, though, that if reality programming and sports are the only things I’m missing from the fossilized yesteryear of cable television, then I’m glad I’m missing out. That’s just not the sort of thing that sounds attractive.

Photo Attribution: me vs. gutenberg 

The Privilege of Remembering

There are a lot of things I remember about life that were, quite honestly, humiliating. Things that I have thought that I would be quite content to never remember again. Moments in which I thought I was being “cool,” or when I was completely oblivious some social norm and thus ridiculed by those around me.

There are painful moments that I would have liked to have avoided, as well. Relationships falling apart despite my efforts to salvage them. Having a huge life choice implode, leaving me directionless. Watching family members die. Watching friends make poor decisions.

I don’t want to forget those moments, though. As much as they hurt, I don’t. I don’t want to forget the stupid mistakes I’ve made, either, because that’s how I know to not duplicate them. I don’t want to forget my stubborn refusal to let go of negative things at times, even though I know they’re wrong. I don’t want to forget this because I plan to win over those impulses one day.

And, most of us have watched someone…or we know someone who has…struggle with the demon of Alzheimer’s. The terror that comes with not knowing one’s place in the world, to not be able to remember one’s past.

There’s a point to all of this rambling. The point is this article that I read over the weekend. To summarize (but read the article, because this is stuff that you need to know), research has built on existing knowledge of how memory works (from a bio-chemical perspective), discovered that chemical reactions can be selectively targeted, and, with the application of proper pharmaceutical intervention, be disrupted, resulting in (theoretically) the ability to obliterate memories with precision. Yes, this article is from a reputable source, Wired Magazine. Like I said, read it.

You’ll find that they specifically cite the potential applications to addiction recovery. I suppose that makes it sound attractive. I’m left, though, with a sinking feeling, a mind reeling with so many reactions that I’m not certain where to begin.

When I reached my epiphany about the beauty of inter-disciplinary thinking, it came with the realization that I didn’t have to choose any of the plethora of interests that I had explored in my life, academically or vocationally. I realized that all of them could work together. This came from remembering all of the experiences that I have had with them. Some of those experiences were painful at the time, and I would have rashly chosen at one point to forget them if I could have. Those experiences, however, make me who I am, and, were I not able to remember them, I would find myself quite adrift. I would be quite a different person. One could say (arguably) that the person that I am would cease to exist.

Of course, this pre-supposes that one recognizes personhood as more than a physiological reaction of chemicals and electrical impulses, that personality and mind and emotion are recognized as being more than the sum of their parts. The article references that many things can no longer be taken for granted when the reality of memory is questioned. This smacks of a post-modern philosophy. What I’ve always found unusable about post-modern philosophies such as this one is that the assumption that each individual can create their own referent of reality leads to a complete disintegration of cultural ethics as a natural end result. That is, the assumption that no such thing as absolute truth exists holds the attraction that no one needs to be wrong, yet holds the potential for a seriously slippery slope to questioning the societal foundations that are the boundaries between us and anarchy. It seems that this philosophy is coloring supposedly impartial scientific research in this case.

Empiricism has it’s value, but I’ve expressed my concern previously that we worship science at the expense of the humanities. Not everything can be enslaved to logic. Passion, emotion, the arts, spirituality, all have enormous value (and, ironically, this has been proven in empirical studies). Most religions that I have studied intentionally place emphasis on markers. That is, observances or physical structures designed to help one remember an event. This is built in to these religious systems because there is a danger perceived in one forgetting these events. Whatever your religious bent, or absence thereof, I would argue that there is something to be valued in this practice. This is why we build monuments to wars and national tragedies…to remember those who have fallen, to recall why events occurred, to observe our history, lest we doom ourselves to it’s repetition.

A widespread application of this pill, either for it’s minimal benefits or it’s potential evil in the wrong hands, seems to me a hellish, cyberpunk nightmare come true. Our rush to medicate away every problem because we perceive it as an easier solution than doing the difficult psychological work of dealing with an issue, has led us to this: a surgical removal of a critical part of what makes us human. Even our traumas give us something that we can build upon to be stronger. When we examine the things that form us into human beings, especially into human beings of character, I am hard-pressed to conclude that the easy events are ever the most positively formational.

I remember an episode of Heroes in which a character known as “the Haitian,” who had the ability to erase memories at will, was partnering in an interrogation of an older gentleman. At the instruction of his partner, the Haitian erased the memory of the day the old man had met his wife. A look of horror went across the man’s face as he whispered, “I can’t remember…” I’m still shaken as I remember this scene. The calculating manner in which such a supreme torture could be administered, and the devastating, lifelong harm it would cause. To have the memory of one’s dearest loved ones and family removed is the most horrific abuse of power that I can imagine. I see little difference in someone doing it by choice: our science has merely empowered us with a new manner with which someone may cut apart their lives and reduce their humanity (likely regretting it later), and potentially do it to others, as well.

I’m struck with Lewis‘ profound observation that, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. We worship our ability to construct our scientific advances and assume control of every aspect of our frail human existence, falling before its altar as we look to it for deliverance, praising the perception of power that we think we have given ourselves.

We look to the construction of our own designs for salvation. I fear we will find it an insufficient savior, indeed.

Assuming we remember that we tried.

A Few Moments Ago

I was watering a plant. I water this plant every weekend. Yet, for some reason, I leaned in close this evening as I did so. Something different happened: I smelled the plant. You know the smell that I’m talking about: soil and living green leaves engaged in their oxygen purifying gift to us. That smell took me back to my childhood in a rural area: an instant of nostalgia that unexpectedly paused my evening. 

I wish my evenings paused like that more often. How can one water a plant and not smell its scent? Are we really that busy?