And now this…

When I began a phenomenological investigation of digital media Kenny from South Park was my muse and talisman, a stress ball someone gave me that sat on my desk, still does.  The character that died in nearly every episode, speaks to me.  Ah, Kenny, how do I love you?  Let me count the ways:

First, for someone who loves movies, particularly animated movies, Kenny charms me.  For someone for whom the French expression for orgasm, petit mort (little death), rings true, Kenny’s little deaths resonate.  For someone with epilepsy and more than one near-death-episodes under my belt: Kenny, I can relate.

Yet the relationship between Kenny’s character and lived life is not merely personal.  Kenny’s storyline represents a truth revealed in digital media as a medium itself.  Timely. Just as digital media was coming online, a character created in 3D animation, then reduced to 2D for aesthetic appeal, captures a metaphysical truth revealed by the medium:  reality is gapped.  Pixilated.

It’s not obvious to biological beings, as it might be to a rock if a rock has consciousness, and might reflect on how rocks don’t necessarily experience consciousness as having a narrative structure.  They aren’t born, live, then die.  They don’t get up, do their day, and sleep.  However, lived life for biological beings, does have a narrative structure.  We are all about beginnings, middles and ends.    We sit down to eat, we eat, and then we finish our meal.  We’re born, live,  and then die.

It’s easy to miss the deeper structure of our own experience, that is infinite. Time really is relative, and the deep structure of the universe might not be contained within a narrative structure.

And now, there’s this:

Picking up a pen, taking a walk, and the image of a black hole

As Christians move toward Holy Week –  the celebration of the last supper, foot washing, bread and wine turned to body and blood – my own attention turns to the incarnate, away from infinity to the here and now.  I contend that, yes, it’s just-passed as Edmond Husserl pointed out.  Yet it’s what we have, who we are, very bodily creatures that laugh and eat and cry with bones that break.

The very bodily existence that is ours is our way to a consciousness that we also have infinite life.

The way I got there is not just thinking about Jesus; I also eat the bread, drink the wine, and in some very real way (it’s talked about as ‘transubstantiation’) this is Jesus.

It’s the petit mort, the little death as the French refer to an orgasm, that is as good as it gets.  It is truth, if not ultimate truth.  Incarnate.

It can also be as bad as it is because it can be so good and sometimes isn’t.  The churches get packed on Good Friday.  Sometimes church attendance is greater on Good Friday than on Easter, and I guess it’s small wonder.  It’s not a stretch for many people to believe we’d kill an innocent, and in a courageous death (because surely Jesus could have avoided the cross, could have got away) we stand there stripped, ourselves, naked.  Feeling sad, vulnerable and stupid.

So when I take a walk, when I pick up a pen instead of my laptop, new ideas come and old memories float through my mind.  This is not true every week, but it is certainly Holy Week.

And as I prepare, there’s this.

 

Try this: To decry academic philosophy is not to reject the practice of philosophic inquiry

I’m just trying to situate these ideas, that Kenny dies in so many episodes, and then with no explanation appear again, and that this is sensible enough.  Odd, but hey, it’s worked for 24 seasons, God knows how many episodes.  I’m trying to make this okay for Kant, in light of Kant’s sublime, or Hume or…

It might work  But that’s beside the point.  My real concern is that this works for me, and so, why?  If not, why not?  And for you the audience, me as part of that audience, it’s not only okay, it delights us enough that we continue watching.  For years.  Or at least enough of us are delighted that the series continues and Kenny isn’t written out of it.  Shit, he’s in his 30s.  I keep comparing him to Jesus but really, at this point, Kenny’s lived longer if you think of him as not resurrected, just keeping on keeping on.  That’s different than Jesus, the risen Jesus.

Irrespective of what Kant, or Husserl, or Heidegger have to say about it.  And, of course, they are all long dead.  They don’t have Kenny’s superpowers.

Does it make sense to us?  That’s the only question that matters really, at first.  It seems to, yes, it seems to make sense to us.  But do I love this work, this life?  That leaves me silent, and that’s a good thing.

A Problem in Philosophy

You so do not want to know what I’m reading…

It came to me as a question while reading Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness: why is this so correct and exact and yet not convincing?  Why do I need more than a philosophically sound argument, even one that I might judge to be correct in all its truth claims (even if it isn’t).

The issue may be one of practice, and philosophy is, in fact, a practice.  Phenomenology, beginning with the phenomenological reduction, is a precise practice.  It is satisfying and has led me to the more ancient practice of meditation, and seems almost indistinguishable from some meditative practices.

So this is not an argument supporting “the death of philosophy”.  I’m just arguing for philosophic practice to be one of embodiment and community, and the engaged philosopher.  There is indeed a philosophic community.  It is caricatured as a community of navel-gazers; that is how it is often characterized and ridiculed.  Maybe indeed the caricature needs to be appreciated for what it does, as any caricature does:  it exaggerates the actual traits that characterize the individual or the community.

The lack of extension, beyond oneself as an individual philosophizing and as a community that philosophizes, is what strikes me as problematic.  Yet here, with respect to time consciousness, we have a moment of intersection between physical sciences, theoretical physics, and neuroscience with philosophy.

Where can we meet and break bread together?

Well, yes, in movies.  See Babette’s Feast.

Try this: Mind the gap in the code

 

 

Rene Descartes’ argument known as the cogito (“I think, therefore I am”, 1637) was updated as “the brain in a vat” argument.  The gist of Descarte’s argument is that the subject’s knowledge of their existence is certain (phrased famously as “I think therefore I am”) because the “I” couldn’t think unless the “I” exists.

The argument was that personal reflection can lead to certainty, yet the updated argument calls the quality of existence into question.  If the subject was merely a brain sustained in a vat and receiving stimulation/information electronically directly as brain stimulation, yes, it exists and knows of its existence.  However, subject wouldn’t know that this information was direct knowledge of experience or mere data it’s being fed. The brain suspended in the vat could receive data of, say, a hot stove being touched by the subject’s hand.  That data would be interpreted as a direct experience, even if there was no such stove and no such hand.  Still, logically there must be a brain.

These experiences are time-based, both the imagined brain and Descartes’ original subject. It would take a very short time, a fraction of a second, for the data to be received.  That would be in time; it would take time, so data of the present moment would not be available until it was just-past.  That is Edmond Husserl’s brilliant insight. There would be no data of the present moment processed in the present moment.

We do, though, logically and necessarily exist in that present moment, if we are indeed able to anticipate an experience and process an experience:  future and past, though just-past.

There’s a hole in our knowledge of our experience, that hole being our direct experience of the moment in which we actually experience it.  I refer to it as a hole, which has measurable dimensions, when in fact there are no dimensions to the present moment because they are not empirically known, i.e. observable.

The gapped quality of data is precisely what is captured by digital media.  There is information, in the form of code, that relates to pixilated images and, gapped, similar to the way an alphabet relates to the sound of a word.  It’s also gapped, similar to our actual existence, though different than our perceived experience.  The gap is the logically known but impossible to measure present moment, presence.  Lacking a narrative structure, the present is, then, infinite.

My approach here is phenomenological – try to say that quickly – but here is the difficulty: the phenomenological description of the present moment is that of absence; it is past.  There is an ‘experience’ in the classical sense of that word that entails consciousness but by the time it is experienced it is just-past because the experience itself is time-based and it takes some time to register that experience in the brain.

It is rather an experience of absence to the present then, without structure, as we’ve described it above.  That is what we might be certain about, but certain about what?  Without the internal structure of narrative time there is an edge, being anticipation of a future moment and the just-past moment presented to consciousness as “now”.  However, as a presence in time it is not actually now by the time it is registered to consciousness.  It’s experienced as now but, in fact, is just past.  That’s Husserl’s story and I can’t see how it’s not a clear description of our experience.

Here we are:  Our being is in the present that is without structure, outside of a narrative, of experienced time consciousness.

Our experience of digital media is similar.  It certainly seems seamless enough but code is just that: coded with gaps between each piece of the code, that produces pixels with empty space between each pixel.  It can be wondrously manipulated, and manipulates us to experience this as a seamless experience, when in fact it is gapped.  Mind the gap.

Without structure, between each pixel, each piece of code, the gap replicates each moment where we may be conscious but, without the structure of the narrative elements of past and future, always also there in the present infinite space.

The abundance of movies about time travel, gapped reality, make-believe universes where games are played out — what is in the present moment comes into being and disappears — suggests we know at some level that digital media is playing with us, playing with our sense of consciousness, as we play.

And our growing sense that we are spiritual (open, infinite) if not religious (embedded in a tradition, and institutions) mirrors this coded reality.

Try this.   Spiritual…. period.

It can’t possibly be a coincidence (well, of course, it possibly can, but I’ll try to make the case that it isn’t) that the emergence of digital media directly relates to (if not a cause of) a huge shift in religious sensibility.  Coincidence does not indicate causation, I know.  Yet simple curiosity made me want to investigate whether these two things happening at the same time are related phenomena.  There’s a sharp decline in explicit religious affiliation, across North America and Europe.  There’s a sharp increase in people who identify as “None” – not atheist, which is a category they can check in, say, the Pew Research; they aren’t even committing to even that dogmatic tradition.

While I’m interested in digital media more generally, social media might be the most pertinent consideration here.  Social media dates back at least to 1973 when Dave Wooley and Douglas Brown at the University of Illinois created Talkomatic, a multi-user chat room that was a great success for the PLATO Systems online community, the Plato System, that dates back to the 1960s.  (Of course, I’m grabbing this information off of Wikipedia; see “Timeline of Social Media”.)

In 1973 I was sitting in a Chinese Language class with a group of smug young students who chuckled at our professor’s reference to the Christian Trinity as “the old man, the little boy, and the chicken.”  Only one young woman didn’t laugh.  When questioned by this incredulous professor if she believed in God, she stated firmly, “Yes, and I try to shape my life according to Jesus’ teaching .”  Silence. Were we incredulous or humbled? I can’t speak for the others certainly, only for myself:  I was both incredulous and humbled.

Fast forward to 2016, a Religious Studies class in an art college and now I’m the instructor.  (Again, I urge you to check out Wikipedia’s “Timeline of Social Media”.)  Linked in is nearly 16 years old, MySpace is 13 years old and mostly redundant with Facebook 12 years old… yes, there was a time before Facebook.  A student is presenting on the phenomena of “Spiritual but not religious” which, according to his straw poll, is the belief system of everyone in this class of mixed race, mixed gender identities, mixed ethnicities, and everyone way out of the closet.  Only one student, in fact, doesn’t identify as “spiritual but not religious”.  He is a DJ, long hair, engaged to a Satanist, and a strong Roman Catholic.  In fact, he’s going to present on St. Thomas Aquinas, and wonders if I’ve heard of this man.  (I had.)

What strikes me is not that there is exactly one person, now forty years later, who holds an explicit and strong Christian conviction.  What strikes me is that only one of my classmates held any spiritual commitment or practice forty years ago.  Now I’m looking over an entire class of tattooed artists and they all do.

And their lives together on social media is profoundly connected.

Recent Pew Research studies indicate that this isn’t generational.  The shift away from institutionalized religion to identify as “None” – no affiliation, not an atheist – is across all generations, just as the use of social media is intergenerational.

(To be continued….)

Jesus and Kenny in Infinity

There’s the claim in the Book of Revelation, written perhaps seventy years after Jesus’ brief earthly life and early death, that puts his life in the context of the eternal and ongoing creation.  The creation is historical, yet infinite:

I am making the whole of creation new. . . . It will come true. . . . It is already done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. —Revelation 21:5-6

The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same.

Sometimes a reference to Jesus Christ annoys me, as if Christ was Jesus’ last name replacing the designation “of Nazareth”.   Naming the town where they beckon was the custom, emphasizing a point of origin that is geographic, political, earthly and earthbound. Replacing “of Nazareth” with “Christ” might undermine our sense of Jesus’ as truly human, coming from a specific small town in a specific historical era.

And yet, that might be the point I miss.  The very same Jesus in history is for all time, and beyond time in the historical sense.  It doesn’t negate Jesus’ historical being, but places it in the very same context that I’m trying to comprehend as infinite.  Jesus’ revelation:  Our physical being is one and the same as our infinite being.

Like Kenny, but more like Jesus, we don’t die because we cannot die.

After effects – an analysis of ­mediated experience and time

I’m writing this, and indeed even when I’m not writing I’m living just beneath the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.  I see its lights on the hill from where I sit tapping on my keyboard.  There people like Einstein, Keppler and Hawkins are revered and their theories modeled.  I can catch a bus and be up to the observatory in a half hour.  As well as the equipment to observe the moon and galaxies, there are models of these bodies up there.  Every high school student who attends a public school in Los Angeles will visit the Griffith Observatory.  It is part of their science curriculum, a must-visit-in-order-to-graduate sort of event unless, of course, they are sick on the day of this class trip.  Students need to explore what’s out there.  I love this, all of it, the existence of the Observatory, all that it contains, but mostly the hiking trails up and around it, the bird sanctuary that is still in ruins from a fire, the path that takes one to the Hollywood sign.

In his extraordinary work, A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawkins explains to ordinary people how two projects in physics have come to disparate and incompatible conclusions that he tried to resolve:  “The general theory of relativity describes the force of gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe, that is, the structure on scales from only a few miles to as large as a million million million million (1 with twenty-four zeros after it) miles, the size of the observable universe. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, deals with phenomena on extremely small scales, such as a millionth of a millionth of an inch. Unfortunately, however, these two theories are known to be inconsistent with each other – they cannot both be correct.” (Hawkins, p.8) He was attempting to bring the two investigations together, because there aren’t two separate universes, that of the very big and very small.

Different methods

How it relates to this study of time consciousness is something else again; not an investigation of what is but how we experience what is, and even what isn’t, because our imaginary experiences are still experiences.  We needn’t go anywhere to explore this; no class trip is required.  I’ve been at it all day and haven’t left my apartment, though now when I look up at the lights on the Griffith Observatory I wish I’d made the trip, taken a hike.  Even monks need to engage in walking meditations.  Our bodies as inseparable from consciousness.  We’ll come back to this when we consider media.

However, now all one has to do is look very closely at one’s own experience, bring it to consciousness. The investigations of the very big and very small, and our consciousness of time should be consistent.  Otherwise, either the science is wrong or our analysis of our experience is twisted.  Given the brilliant minds at work in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, our analysis being twisted is most likely if they do diverge.  But perhaps they won’t.  We should be anticipating insight, not failure, at the outset.

Mind the gap

When I analyze my own consciousness of time, I recognize that time consciousness is gapped even if there is no consciousness of the gap.  In the case of media and stories, even the story of how we spent the last hour or millennium, and how we’re going to spend the next, there are gaps.  The narrative, one thing following another, is not how we experience the present.  We can’t even be conscious of the present because as soon as we call it to consciousness, it is past.  That’s the gap, the present, in which we of course live but can’t bring to consciousness.  We can only be present to it.

If this is merely a limitation of our human minds, so be it, but there is this apparent contradiction between the flow of events and the gapped quality of consciousness that we can analyze carefully.  It is also true of various media.  Between every note played in music is silence, and between every symbol in computer code is no-code.  The breaks symbolize something other than the code, and while the overall code has a beginning, middle, and end, it is riddled with no-code.  In every sentence there are words and with every word phonemes, and between phonemes… gaps. Silence.

Try This – an introduction

So now it’s become obvious to me:  I’m writing a book about time.  “Kenny in Infinity” is a chapter, the cartoon character Kenny my muse. 

Here’s the introduction:

This began as a study of new media, not so new now, that discloses aspects of experience we might reflect upon with new insights, given what new media discloses about, well, everything.

Try this.

Theoretical physics was born out of new means of perceiving what’s out there, these new means being new media.  Both the new physics and new media reinforce what careful introspection illuminates: time, and our being in time, spreads into infinity.  Our physical experience discloses narrative time, ‘one damn thing after another’.  But words fail us.  And between every syllable is silence.  Otherwise, it would be one long screech.

Between every note played in music is silence; between every word or at least every sentence, silence; between every symbol in computer code is no-code.  The breaks symbolize something other than the code and, while the overall code has a beginning, middle, and end, it is riddled in no-code.  In every sentence there are words and with every word phonemes, and between phonemes…  We have breath between syllables, and those familiar with meditation are aware of how noisy we are – our hearts beat, when we inhale, exhale, more noise – and everyone and our world suddenly seems noisy when we attempt to be silent.

There are scientific (measurable, replicable, falsifiable) theories, but here is what distinguishes theoretical physics from plain old physics.  On the level of experience, apart from theory, time consciousness might be all we have to work with.  In any case, that is what I’m working with here.

Our new time consciousness reflects, amplifies and illustrates ancient understandings.  For instance, “In the beginning was the Word…”   Fundamentalism is an easy mistake to make when you can hold the Word of God in your hands.

People accept the illusion of a text as timeless, associating the Word with a lot of words.  I still hope to hear the word of God in the person of Jesus through the medium of print or, better yet, read aloud, though now the printed page is largely usurped by the pixilated computer monitor.  We talked about a paperless office in the beginning of the digital era while creating the cloud of text and images.

Today I even participated in the Daily Office online.  These selections of prayers and scripture passages for the morning, noon and evening prayer, a practice going back to Constantine and monastic life in the third century, are recited aloud in communities, and flicker on my laptop as I pray with an online community, though there’s no one else in this room.

Walter Ong, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan all identified the relationship between language technologies and meanings.  Overstating it perhaps, McLuhan’s point that “the medium is the message” became a touchstone and then a cliché, but the point is still well taken.  There is a trace of the oral in the written text, a trace of the written word on the printed page, and in the pixelated images on my computer screen.  Yet, each medium is distinct and is both a vehicle and the road the vehicle travels upon when it comes to a new consciousness of what is real.

That’s life.  When sacred or even mundane symbols are pressed onto clay tablets, the clay itself contains remnants of living organisms.  Ephemeral words and the eternal Word are only adjacent. To identify the medium with the message might be straight out idolatry because these means of expression are human.  What is other than human, absolute silence, is divine.

But I have focused too much on the otherness of text and word associated with the Word.  It is incarnate.  It is other than other; it is also this.

Try this.

I close my laptop and put my phone out of reach.

Time Consciousness

Time consciousness is gapped.  There is no consciousness of the gap, only of the flow.  In the case of media and stories, even the story of how we spent the last hour or millennium, and how we’re going to spend the next, there are gaps.  We can’t be conscious of the present because as soon as we call it to consciousness, it is past.  That’s the gap, the present, in which we of course live but can’t bring to consciousness.  We can only be present to it, enjoy it, or not.

Between every note played in music is silence, and between every symbol in computer code is no-code.  The breaks symbolize something other than the code, and while the overall code has a beginning, middle, and end, it is riddled in no-code.  In every sentence there are words and with every word phonemes, and between phonemes… gaps.

There are scientific (measurable, replicable, falsifiable) theories, but here is what distinguishes theoretical physics from plain old physics.  On the level of experience, apart from theory, time consciousness might be all we have to work with.  In any case, that is what I’m working with here.