Trey Parker and Matt Stone – Mystics in Cyberspace

Next to me are two books: Kind of Minds by Daniel Dennett, and The Essentials of Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. The twelfth edition, water damaged, makes claims tentatively offered and supported by ancient mystics qualifying everything, as if they might be saying too much by saying anything at all.

Contrast that with Dennett’s claim, “You great, great…. Grandmother was a robot! Not only are you descended from such macromolecular robots but you are composed of them: your hemoglobin molecules, your antibodies…”

Both volumes fall apart in my hand, literally.

(‘Literally’ – as if writing something down, making it literature, which certainly must be the underlying assumption of the expression, makes it really true.  The expression ‘literally’ entails so many implicit assumptions regarding the primacy of mental activity and expression over the thing itself, but I digress.)

Dennett uses robots metaphorically here.  The biological being who created robots is now described as that which is created, the terms of the metaphor becoming an odd example of circular reasoning.  This is not at all what he is talking about.  He is pointing beyond the expression, and that extension of meaning is precisely the point.  It’s not that we can’t get there from here; here is all there is.  Dennett’s insistence on this point makes me aware that I have given short shrift to the here and now.  Focusing on Kenny’s out-of-body experiences of death and rebirth, I missed Kyle’s moments of wisdom and failed to follow Trey Parker and Matt Stone into the twenty-first-century gaming world.  Here.  Now.

Here. Now in Toronto two brothers are sitting on a couch fighting over the console while I help their grandmother set up for dinner.  They are having some difficulty keeping up with their cousin who complains, “That isn’t fair.  I’m not … What are you doing?”  The cousin is playing with them from Mexico City.  The oldest of the three, eight years old.  He’s going to quit if they don’t start playing fair.

Distances are diminished in this gaming world that is as familiar to these three boys as the four-square painted on the asphalt in playgrounds of yesteryear, and today.  These three cousins get together apart from cyberspace and might play four-square, their physical world seamlessly integrated across North America and through cyberspace.  These boys are not robots.  Robots are just their tools, not unlike the spoon I use to serve soup.  Dennett’s reductionism isn’t helpful in figuring out what is happening here. The cousin in Mexico is now thoroughly annoyed.  “I’m hanging up now!”  Felt-space is bigger; for these boys it’s the entire continent and their playground.

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A third way, not the middle ground

We are too used to thinking in binaries: black and white, true and false, here and there.  I particularly enjoy ‘here and there’ because it’s clearly a position.  You’re standing here, and then you walk over there, and then that’s suddenly ‘here’.  I’m not espousing relativism:  there is truth, and I would say an absolute truth (that is as absolutely unknowable) as nevertheless true, and absolutely other (Levinas).

Perhaps the operative word with the third way is ‘way’ for mere humans.  And you have to walk it to know what it’s like, what’s to be found.  I’m sounding like a new age yogi when, in fact, I don’t even do yoga, though that would be a good idea.

I’ll get up and turn on a yoga Youtube video now – will probably just watch it, not actually do the exercises – but instead watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss how they proudly ruined television:

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Trey+Parker+Interview+2014&&view=detail&mid=DF845FF305384EE06255DF845FF305384EE06255&&FORM=VRDGAR

We’ll have to come back to this and speculate as to why South Park becomes a movie, a puppet animation, and now video games – they really are artists, and artists will try anything – but now I want to focus on the nature of mysticism, to what neuroscience has to offer to our understanding of what is beyond our understanding.

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Kenny – Getting on with it

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1989–90

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018, on view October 20, 2018–November 2020 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, photo by Elon Schoenholz

I’ve been implicitly comparing to Jesus.   Kenny the super-hero but just a humble kid who opens us to understanding infinity – maybe even making Jesus make sense.  Yet accused him of being a deceiver, created all this time in 3D animation and reduced to 2D.  Of course, Kenny doesn’t exist except as a cartoon.  My complaint was with the artists all along, and not deception is involved, just artistry and a business decision.   It’s faster to create him and all South Park in 3D; a workflow issue, more efficient to work in 3D and then transfer those images to 2D….  I saw this as deception.  My next question now, at least, is, What does it matter?

I’ve been puzzling over that for a few weeks.  It matters, at least to me. The medium informs our consciousness and with consciousness or even unconsciously impacts the matter.  There is a reason the creators decided to take the 3D, easier to produce, to 2D at least as the apparent aesthetic.

While I argued that2D and 3D is all anticipation and memory in our experience – only tangentially related to our actual present existence that we can’t fathom (because that requires a thought and in the instant it is thought it is past, just a memory) — still it’s our material.

There is art history and art isn’t progressive,  so the expression “history” is misleading.  Ancient Egyptian encryptions and pottery aren’t less sophisticated than Barbara Krugger’s work at the Geffen in LA, even though Krugger’s work is more accessible to me – physically just a few Metro stops from here and aesthetically I get her work implicitly and Egyptian pottery I’m always trying to ‘read’.  We’re pasting a timeline onto a mesh of perceptual experiences that are present at least before we process them, perceive them in time.

I want to NOT read Krugger’s work.  I’m going to try to just be present so that a letter in the alphabet is a pure sensation.  That, of course, might prove impossible but I’m going try anyhow.

Approaching things another way, recently I’m trying to read South Park as I would a 3-d text, although I promised at least myself earlier I was done with South Park altogether, that it’s time to go on.  So soon…

 

 

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Thanks to the Franciscans

Working through a text with the Franciscan group Canticles Campus, I’m led back to the work of Duns Scotus, and his concept of  an unknowable “true self” that Thomas Merton took up.  (See The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton, by Daniel Horan, pp. 101-105)  There is certainly a problem here in my method of investigation.  I’m attracted to a philosophical concept developed by one man (Scotus), taken up for another (Merton), explained by a third (Horan).

And what does this have to do with Kenny?  Probably nothing.  Kenny’s big point is not about death, that has no long-term meaning for him (and maybe not for us – think reincarnation, “born again”, “life everlasting”,  if not Kenny, or Scotus).  His complaint is about dying – that if “fucking hurts”.  That’s the main point: dying has meaning, but death? not so much.

Of course, I need to go back to the original sources, but before I do that (and it might take me years) let me just say that the attraction here for me is the claim that we cannot know our true selves, set out in  formal logical terms by Scotus and in poetry by Merton.  That seems intuitively correct, whereas up to now I’ve only approached it phenomenologically (i.e. as with our ‘felt-world’).

It is in the experience itself that we find meaning, and that is what we cannot know:  To the things themselves!  was Husserl’s call, away from logic and he was a master of logic, no slouch on that score.  We make this encounter with anything, even death, in the experience and only after in reflection, performing the “phenomenological reduction” – a term that just now finally makes sense to me because I do finally see it as reduced.  However, we can’t encounter that which is making the encounter.  We will always be strangers to ourselves then, and then also God will always be a stranger as we are the image, but there is the word. We can know that much.

(Here, try this:  we might consider phenomenology as God’s own method, at least one method.  Some have seen God’s eternal perfection in numbers, so beautiful the way they always and necessarily work. It is an eternal truth that two plus two always equals four.  But life isn’t about necessary truths; it’s an experience.  In the logic of life, could God experience God-ness as a dynamic image – and a stagnant image is mere idolatry –  experience life as lived until God became the created as well as the creator?  Sorry if this is obvious to everyone, and has been answered satisfactorily, and I’m just catching up here…)

To throw in yet another author (and metaphor), James Finley:  “Here methods, techniques, ideas, and spiritualities of themselves are of little use.  We must not stand in the burning house with a dictionary thinking we are safe because we are frantically looking up the definition for a fire distinguisher!” (Horan, 114)

True, but I don’t see the urgency.  Try the metaphor of contemplating a flame or a campfire that will burn itself out in time.

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Over Kenny?

Joshua Tree night

I’ve got to let go of Kenny.  South Park has been going on twenty-two years and I’ve been obsessing on Kenny nearly that whole time.  Kenny keeps dying and dying and living again.  That never bores me actually, but maybe I’ve had enough.  There are books to read…  I need to take a walk…

On a walk I encounter this-ness, haecceity – you gotta love this God.  This tree, this stone in my shoe, the smell of the wet bark.  The infinite is lonely and mostly empty space, and before all that lonely and empty space there is just a little matter here and there throughout the universe.  Or so we’re told and I believe it.  But there is here and now (that I keep reminding you, reminding myself, is past but it feels here, it feels now.  It’s not the logically necessary specious present; it’s what is felt, the phenomena.  I pay attention: this tree, this pebble in my shoe…)

My complaint against God is that our all-knowing God seems to be such a slow learner.  All those millennia where biological beings developed sensory perception and experience, we soon gained the knowledge that pain hurts.  Was God just standing outside creation, observing, tweaking this and that cosmos when life began?  With life came pleasure and pain.  Was that God’s first tickle, first breath, but maybe God was somehow outside of this creation until fully identified with the creation.  In Christianity we call it “the incarnation”, when God became one of us, although in all humility we must allow for at least the possibility that there is an ameba Christ, a plankton Jesus.

Christian teachings would have it that the particular human experience is most identified with God, the messy birth, breast milk on God’s infant lips.  And maybe only in the crucifixion, when the God-Son experiences personally and intensely and definitively death, that everything was changed because God experienced pain and death as a phenomenological truth – no turning back on this, God.  Yeah, death sucks but at least then the pain stops, at least if you’re the one who is dead.

(I think of Mary at the foot of the cross, that she might not have ever got over that moment, how absent she seems in all the resurrection scenes because she didn’t care so much about the magic trick, another resurrection.  Okay.  Welcome back, son.  But they’ll do it all again, and nothing you’ve done changes that for anyone, even for you.  You’ve still got the holes in your hands, and the slit in your side, for God’s sake…)

Yet as discussed before, we exist in the present while we can only know what is just past, even if we experience it as present.  That’s the difference between us and God, a big difference.  We enter into this knowing, or something akin to knowing, when we shut up and are still, quit putting things out there which are artifacts of the present even as we are still working on them, even a single word we speak.  The Word is different than our words, beautifully expressed by the Jewish practice of refusing to express it, spelling it with a dash marking an empty space, G-D.

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Printed books are the new media that still fascinates me – new if your perspective includes hieroglyphics. Mine does.

Marshal McLuhan and friends identified how the Guttenberg Bible, the first printed book, created a social and political revolution known as “the Reformation”.  Once everyone could own their own copy of the Bible, hold it, interpret it themselves, it wasn’t a big leap for Jesus to become their “personal Lord and Savior”.  Jesus was less a man of the crowd, feeding the crowd; now Jesus was a friend there in the privacy of one’s own home, helping everyone who can read to understand the Word up close, personal. The priests and pope are not­ so much mediaries as meddlesome.

The media is the message, was McLuhan’s catchphrase. (Understanding Media; The extensions of Man, 1964)  Moveable type and mass printing changed everything. Then came the radio. Franklin D. Roosevelt used that well with his fireside chats, taking politics out of the public square and into everyone’s living room.  Then movies, brought faraway places into every small town.  Then television, with white people learning more and more about themselves in the privacy of their living rooms, while African Americans often gathered and watched white people, laughed at them, critiquing their lifestyle.  It was a different experience for racially segregated new medium, as Bell Hooks has so brilliantly identified. (Reel to Real; Race, class and the Movies, 2008)

Now digital media.  Now South Park, created using 3D animation but taken back to 2D animation in its look, media moving backward, reversing its progress, time’s arrow bent backward.  Why.  That’s a question for the creators, why use a more advanced technology to create an older aesthetic appearance?

Obviously, it’s just a tool.  The use of 3D as the first step, computer-generated technologies make animating the characters a faster, if more expensive process.  Yet, the real advance is the aesthetic appeal of the characters, not the process, taken even further into a primitive paper cutout look with South Park’s Canadian characters.

McLuhan was just half-right.  The medium extends our ability to imagine and create, but one medium doesn’t supplant another and there’s a dialectical relationship between medium and message.  Some call it art.  Modern graffiti artists may use spray paint, the gesture and motivation akin to a cave painter and Davinci painting a fresco.

McLuhan saw progress as time’s arrow but it isn’t anything without our imagination.  We make time; rocks don’t.  Only living things can conceive of a narrative structure.

But that’s not nothing.  We do make time, a narrative.  Time might be one of the great inventions of biological beings.  History.  The notion of progress or regression.  Making sense of sunrises and sunsets, days ‘passing’, birth and death.  We make sense.

I’m running out of time here.  To be continued…

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Digitize this…

Yesterday I was trying to explain this to some students.  They work with digital media. They create it.  So I thought they’d get it if I could just get it out. It didn’t go well.

Here, let me try again here.  Let me start by defining time consciousness.  It’s different than time.  It’s our consciousness of time, how we experience it, that is not as absolute time (whatever that is) but as a human being in time experiences time.

Digital media makes the structure of time consciousness clear.

The structure of time consciousness, as the German philosopher Edmund Husserl pointed out over a century ago, (and taught Heidegger but that’s another story) goes something like this.:

Think about a bell ringing.  You might anticipate the bell ringing, then someone rings the bell but you hear its reverberation and process it in your mind at least a nanosecond after it actually rings, and then you enjoy the reverberations.

So the structure of time consciousness is:

  • the anticipated future which doesn’t exist yet, just as the past and the specious present don’t exist anymore.
  • the “specious present”, specious because in the moment it takes to register the present sound in consciousness it’s already past, and
  • the remembered just-past….

We exist, we know (rehash Rene Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am”) because, if I wasn’t in existence I couldn’t be thinking. But there’s no ‘now’ to this conscious existence.  Like the sound, there is anticipation,.  Then there’s the sensation or thought that occurs,  but as we sense it and think it and it is registered in consciousness it’s  just-past.  Then there’s recollection.  It has a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end, but this is constructed around a present that we can’t actually bring to consciousness.

There may even be the thought of the ‘now’ but, like sound, we anticipate it, we think about it in time and that is a process, thus taking time and in time, time passes.   There’s no now in this that is actually present.  It’s already past, a reflection on what we refer to as now, that has already past.  It exists as an idea we had, we might still hold, but the experience itself of the thought is past as soon as we think it.

What is actually present doesn’t share this narrative structure.   It just is.  That’s where we live, or so we assume.  That’s where we have the experience, but we can’t think about that without it already being past.

The time that we are conscious of, that’s all just what is remembered or anticipated.  There’s no ‘now’ now because in the thinking about it it’s already past.

Yet we live here; we just can’t experience it consciously or think about it in the now of narrative structures because we exist as bodies.  Bodies (us) do have a narrative structure.  We are born, we do exist now, and we live on until we die.  We can make wild imaginative variations on that structure.  But it’s gapped.  We are conscious of the structure but the ‘now’ that is the epicenter of the structure is like a black hole only more so (really less so – there’s not even dark matter there.)  The gap is the present, but as soon as it’s brought to mind it’s not ‘now’ now.

Digital media takes us back to this ancient truth.  There’s ‘now’ now that is the imagined narrative that the media presents, but it is riddled with gaps in the code.  Between the x and the o in our digital reality nothing exists, except we exist.

Without a beginning and middle and end in itself, this gap in the code has infinite breadth and width and depth, insofar as it doesn’t share the narrative structure.

We might picture it as a gap but the gap has external dimensions.  The very idea of a gap is my lame way of bringing what is infinite into the narrative of this expression, this text, that also has a beginning, middle and end. (I’m almost done here.)

So my students create code.  They make out of this infinite-lived space an  image, a game, a storyline.  They give it worldly dimensions.  A narrative.  But they just make this stuff up, out of nothing.  Really.  Infinite nothing.

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Nicholas Carr writes…

Ten Years ago, when Nicholas Carr wrote a prophetic article for Atlantic Monthly “Is Google Making us Stupid?” my students were all on it.  They often express concern about their media use, which I find frankly heartening:  They are using their critical faculties to critique their own practices.: One way or another they are all creating websites and are online many hours a day.

I’ll paste in the links to Carr’s article below, in case it’s true:  we’ve become so stupid we have to have the links provided or it’s just too much work.  I know I feel this way today, and it’s only 10 a.m.  I’ve already been clicking away on my laptop for three hours.

Then Carr took on the neuroscience of it all with The Shallows; What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Way before the Russian Investigation.  OMG Obama was still president.  A hundred years ago.

So here it is: his book lying on the keyboard of my computer.  I’m going back to print media more and more, as are some of my students, even as they’re creating video games for the rest of us.

That’s what struck me as entirely reasonable, thinking about why Parker and Stone use 3D animation techniques to create a 2D animation look.  New media doesn’t supplant old media.  The old becomes more artfully practiced and preserved, bookmaking a treasured skill, as are illuminated manuscripts.

Nostalgia?  I think not.  Carr writes: “For some people, the very idea of reading a book has come to seem old-fashioned, maybe even a little silly – like sewing your own shirts or butchering your own meat.” (p.8)   Silly?  Tell the good people who’ve organized the alternative-currency TimeBank online, they regularly hosts events that teach you how to sharpen your own knives, not just design and sell your handmade clothes.  You’ve got Etsy.com for that.

http://echoparktimebank.blogspot.com/

Mend your clothes.  A little silly?  Don’t dismiss these young eco-friendly craftspeople; they are deadly serious and just might help save the planet stitch by stitch.

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Cartoon Physics and what’s really real

The irony isn’t lost on me here:  I’m talking about how digital media allows us to recognize how the narrative structure of the story, and even of our lived lives, is something we make up.  There’s nothing absolutely real about it (and we’ll try to unpack what absolutely real might mean) except in our perception that is structured narratively – and only because we’re alive.  It has a beginning, middle and end we perceive just as we perceive ourselves as having a beginning middle and end.  The thing is, we make all this shit up.


There’s a rich intellectual analysis of this with respect to the social revolution that occurred with the invention of the printing press, that parallels the ongoing social revolution that occurred with digital media.  Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Elizabeth Eisenstein and Neil Postman all identify the transformation of “manuscript culture” to “print culture” with the invention of the printing press.  In manuscript culture every copy is an original in its own right/rite, a kind of performance of the word, copied and yet one-of-a-kind.  Illuminated manuscripts make the distinctive quality of each copy obvious; another scribe might illuminate it differently.  The embellishments point to the possibility (really a fact) that there are also errors and omissions, so that each copy is unique.

Each copy is an imaginative variation on that which is copied.  It strives to preserve and inevitably transforms that which is copied.

Animation has that in common with the older technology of copying printed material and carries into the present these practices of copying/illuminating.  I’m not asking you to pardon the pun; the bifocal expression is exactly the point and that’s what these ancient texts are called – illuminated manuscripts.

Even the rules of physics give way to imaginative variations, what becomes known as cartoon physics.  The huge boulder falls on the roadrunner, he gets smashed, but the force isn’t enough to kill him.  It just has to work for comedic value, not according to normal laws of physics. The comedic principle is made explicit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) when Roger squeezes out of handcuffs while Eddie is trying to free him, in order to help Eddie out with the task.  Eddie asks, “Do you mean to tell me you could have taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?” and Roger explains, “Not at any time.  Only when it was funny!”

So Marshall McLuhan’s famous edict, “the medium is the message” makes intuitive sense, it’s a catching meme, and he just seems to forget half of the communication in this expression: the audience’s perception is a vital part of the medium.  It has to strike us as funny, scare us, or touch our hearts, and we have to think about it, no matter how shallow it is and how shallow are our thoughts. Our interpretative faculties are engaged even when we’re spaced out in front of the television or our computer screens.  Whatever happens when we watch a program only happens because we are watching. It only makes sense because we make sense of it.

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