Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Act of Watching The Act of Killing

From director Joshua Oppenheimer's interview with The Guardian's Henry Barnes:
"If we have any hope of learning how these things happen and thereby preventing them from happening again we have to discard this fantasy that there are monsters out there," says Oppenheimer, "that we just have to be vigilant and lock them up and maybe kill them or put them in camps. 
"In calling someone a bad guy I reassure myself that I'm good. I elevate myself. I call it the 'Star Wars morality'. And unfortunately it underpins most of the stories we tell." [...]
"I care about him," [Oppenheimer] says. "It's hard to call our relationship a friendship. I was trying to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of a community of survivors, while Anwar was trying to run away from his pain, to build up a cinematic psychic scar tissue around his trauma. I may not exactly like him, but I have love for him as another human being."
To say that The Act of Killing is "disturbing," is of course an understatement, but what precisely is so disturbing about it?

Getting ready for their closeup...
From one perspective, what is so disturbing is the celebrity status that Anwar Congo and the rest of his "movie theater gangsters" have received for their murdering, torturing, and destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of "communists" in Indonesia almost 50 years ago.  To see Congo and his friends not behind bars but walking through cheering crowds and being interviewed on national television is almost as horrifying as watching them gleefully describe and reenact their crimes for "history," for Oppenheimer, and for us.

From another perspective, what is so disturbing is the role that the audience (Oppenheimer directly, the rest of us indirectly) play in these reenactments.  As A. O. Scott writes:
Who is directing who?
Some queasiness may linger at the thought of a Western filmmaker indulging the creative whims of mass murderers, exploiting both their guilelessness and the suffering of Indonesians who remain voiceless and invisible here. But this discomfort is an important indicator of just how complicated, how perverse, the cinematic pursuit of truth can be. This is not a movie that lets go of you easily.
Oppenheimer is right to argue that Congo and the rest of his friends and associates are not "monsters," and that to indulge in the "fantasy" of their monstrosity is to "reassure myself that I'm good."  But is this the argument of The Act of Killing?

The Act of Killing focuses, not on the structural causes of the purge, not on the role that the West played in supporting the purge (passively or actively), but on a handful of the individuals who perpetrated the purge.  These individuals discuss with Oppenheimer (who never appears onscreen, thus never allowing us to see how he responded to what was unfolding before his eyes) their love of American movies, the inspiration they drew from the violence of these movies, and how important it is and was to them that "gangster" means "free man."  As they move from discussion of movies to making one of their own it becomes apparent that, though they are now old men, these individuals nevertheless remain their teenage selves, teenage selves who still need to show off.  Given cameras, a crew, and a captive audience, their reenactments quickly escalate from displaying torture techniques to burning down a village.  As they construct scene after scene of interrogation, torture, and devastation—of each other and of whoever they can get to "volunteer," like children reenacting movie scenes as they leave the theater—the line between "play torture" and "actual torture" gets less and less clear and we become more and more riveted.

But are we riveted because we're hoping that the true depravity of their acts will finally become clear to them as they move from torturer to tortured, or are we riveted because with each wire noose they put around the neck of an "actor" we are forced to fear that we have paid tickets, not to a documentary, but to a snuff film?  Perhaps the answer is irrelevant.  For what catharsis and pornography have in common—from the perspective of the audience—is waiting for the "money shot," whether the final outburst be emotional or erotic.  Congo and Oppenheimer provide us with tease after tease until climax is reached in the end, but should this climax leave us feeling satisfied that even someone who confesses to have killed 1000 people with his bare hands is still capable of an empathetic revelation, or should it leave us feeling frustrated in the discovery that it is we, the audience, who have been reenacting what happened 50 years ago, reenacting the West's enabling of the conversion of ordinary thugs into extraordinary war criminals?

Oppenheimer has surely provided us with a truly thought-provoking documentary.  I only wish the thoughts provoked were closer to what he said in his aforementioned Guardian interview, rather than to what Anwar's friend Ady said in one of his many justificatory statements: "'War crimes' are defined by the winner."  And given Ady's readiness to be brought before The Hague, we should perhaps further be wondering whether The International Court of Justice, much like this documentary, would not merely provide Anwar, Ady, and the rest of them with yet another stage to act out their teenage fantasies upon.  Yet the ICJ, unlike this documentary, might lead to Truth and Reconciliation, rather than to John Waters-inspired musical numbers and forcing the children of the purged to relive the horrors of their parents in the hopes of making one or two retired torturers cry.
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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Women in Philosophy vs. Feminist Philosophy

Why isn't this on more syllabi? What do we intend when we do put it on syllabi?
Following my twitscussion earlier with Pauline Kaurin about my desire to try teaching an Intro to Philosophy class that consisted of entirely female philosophers, I discovered that the NewAPPS blog had recently begun the project of putting together a database of readings by female philosophers to be used for not only Intro, but for any philosophy class.

As Helen De Cruz explains:
It is still very common that students only get readings by male authors in their introductory classes to philosophy. This contributes to the image of philosophy as a boys only discipline. It would therefore be useful to have a list with readings written by women that are suitable for philosophy courses, such as general introduction to philosophy, philosophy of science, ethics, epistemology.
Needless to say, I am very happy to see that such a project is underway, and has already received many excellent suggestion on the Google Docs spreadsheet they link to on the blog.

However, one caveat Professor De Cruz mentions at the end worries me about this project.  She concludes:
In first instance, the focus would be on papers and book excerpts that are not overtly specialist or technical, suitable for intro-level or intermediate courses. Ideally, they should have made a significant impact on their field. They should be readings you have either already successfully used in class context, or envisage using.
I have emphasized the caveat I find worrisome insofar as it seems that, depending on how one understands the meaning of "ideally" here, the whole point of this project should be to overcome the philosophical, institutional, and historical biases that have precisely prevented women from having "made a significant impact on their field."

My concern then is this: Should this project/database be used to help philosophy professors to switch male authors for female authors without necessarily changing the philosophical topic and concepts under discussion, or should this be used instead to underline how the topics and concepts historically approved by philosophy have helped to make this project/database necessary in the first place?

I do not want to suggest that there is necessarily no value in opting for the first option over the second (or that this is what is currently being done here, as the database seems instead to currently be a mix of the two), as it is perhaps worthwhile—as I suggested on twitter in my exchange with Professor Kaurin—to do a sort of "Pepsi Challenge" with such a course and see if students notice/care/are affected by reading female-only philosophy texts without having been informed prior of the gender of the authors.  Similarly, would the gender of the professor have an effect on such a syllabus?  There is also of course the question of reinforcing gender essentialism in suggesting on the one hand, that female philosophers should or must write about or be used to emphasize female-specific issues in the history of philosophy, and on the other hand, that female philosophers cannot or do not emphasize such issues in their work regardless of whether that is their conscious or unconscious intention.

I am not therefore trying to criticize this project so much as call attention to an issue that I think needs to be addressed before we—as often happens—think we've overcome a historical error only to have reproduced it because we didn't successfully identify the error in the first place.

Relatedly, see also: Philosophy Has a Sexual Harassment Problem by Jennifer Saul
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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Curating a Philosophy Film Series

Roberto Rossellini: The Godfather of Philosophy & Film
My proposal to start a philosophy film series where I teach has been received with $500 worth of support.  I have had mixed success using films in my classes in the past, both in showing films in their entirety and in showing clips, but I'm hoping that self-selected audiences will be more open to watching philosophy on the big screen than students who thought they were getting some in-class nap time.

My criteria for choosing films:
  • First do no harm financially, i.e., screening cost must not exceed the budget (have to pay screening fees though, so no Netflix-ing)
  • While I do believe movies like Freddy vs. Jason have philosophical value (e.g., Freddy's Cartesian Rationalism vs. Jason's Humean Empiricism), such movies are better for the classroom than for extra-curricular film screenings
  • Should hopefully open students up to the idea that philosophy is useful, interesting, and relevant, so more Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein than I Heart Huckabees...
Films I've looked into screening thus far:

Hannah Arendt (Zeitgeist)
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (Zeitgeist)
An Encounter with Simone Weil (Line Street)
Suggestions from Twitterverse (in order received):
Suggestions from Blogosphere (please suggest films in the comments below)???
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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Elysium, Misanthropy, and Technophilia

Is the star of the movie the one looking away
from us, or the one looking at us?

As allegory, Elysium is less risible than its predecessor, in that it doesn’t equate apartheid victims to slimy space bugs. But it’s ultimately even less concerned with the social issues it pretends to tackle; any focus on wealth inequality or the failures of the health-care system basically evaporates once the heavy artillery comes out.
I do not wish to take umbrage with Dowd for having found District 9 to be "risible," criticizing him for suggesting that Neill Blomkamp's masterpiece about how we dehumanize minorities—say by likening them to "slimy space bugs"—was somehow laughable, but instead suggest that here Dowd simply doesn't understand what Elysium is about either.

District 9
In District 9 Blomkamp called attention not only to our ability to dehumanize those we consider to be alien, but how our alienation of others can become so engrained that we experience genuine horror at the idea of losing our sense of self by in any way mixing with said aliens.  As Sharlto Copley's Wikus slowly becomes one of the aliens we are made to witness the sad truth that, contrary to our idealistic hope that we can evolve a sense of empathy, it is only by such a sudden and violent transformation that we can take on the perspective of the alien, of the other, and see the world through their eyes.

In Elysium we find Blomkamp returning to these themes once more, only now the alien other is a human other, a poor, polluted, unhealthy other.  Yet here the central figure is already one of the others, for which reason the transformation that we witness is the obverse of that of District 9, as Matt Damon's Max becomes instead one of the elite.  The elite he becomes however is not of the wealthy, godlike Elysians, but rather one of their robotic servants.  If in District 9 we had the hierarchical dualism between humans and aliens, in Elysium we find instead a hierarchical tripartite structure of Elysians, robots, humans.  In other words, Elysium presents us with the idea that we are moving towards a future in which it is humans who are the aliens.

Clash of the Titans
The Elysian space sanctuary is thus a Mount Olympus, and, much like the Olympian gods of Homer and of Harryhausen, they see the humans below as mere playthings at best and as insects at worst.  Hence whereas Dowd believes that this movie is meant to be a commentary on inequality with regards to resources, I believe that this movie is meant to be a commentary on inequality with regards to identity.  If we cannot become gods, then we'll take becoming robots as consolation.  Anything to stop us from having to continue as frail, weak, mortal humans.

It is thus a mistake to think that the real social issues in the movie "evaporate[] once the heavy artillery comes out" as it is our fetishization of heavy artillery that is the real social issue at the heart of the movie.  Much like Pacific Rim, this movie centers around the plot device of being able to connect ourselves with machinery if we have any hope of achieving our goals.  It is no coincidence that I am only able to achieve my goal of writing this blog by connecting myself with my MacBook.  You likewise are connected to whatever device you're using to read this right now.

If we are concerned with wealth and health inequality today it is almost entirely because we are living in a world divided into technology-have's and technology-have-not's, as is the world of Elysium and as was the world of District 9 (remember the interest in the aliens was for their ability to create weapons much as the only remaining interest in humans in Elysium is for their ability to create robotic weapons). It is for this reason that Blomkamp is not dropping the ball when it comes to the issues that confront us but is rather addressing the issues beneath these issues, issues like our hatred of all things human and love of all things technological, robotic, cyborg.

And if you ask why we hate humanity and love the idea of the Singularity, Blomkamp has Damon tell us the answer over and over again: "I don't want to die."  For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death will we not part from our beloved dreams of machine immortality.

So go watch Elysium, but remember to turn off your iPhone during the movie.  You have a psychic link with it by now anyway don't you, so it's never really off is it?

Update: Our local NPR station's movie reviewer Ryan Wilson discussed this post recently on his show Take 5, which you can now listen to here:

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Communism vs. Capitalism: The Arcade Game

Because procrastination should be meaningful...
There's a specter haunting the arcade, the specter of Communism...

Use the Arrow Keys and Space Bar to help Karl Marx destroy the forces of Capitalism!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ought Or Not: Round 1

The new game show that's taking the internet by storm: Ought Or Not

The Rules:

In this game, expert judges (me and my phd) carefully consider whether something is ethical (ought) or unethical (not) based on ethical criteria (e.g., The Good, virtue, reason, ability to emancipate the proletariat, recognition of human freedom as transcending any and all reductivisms, etc.).

Up For Consideration:

Could there have been a more fitting first subject for Ought or Not?

The Case:

According to's About page:
"The concept of Hot or Not is simple, we show you who likes you nearby. At home, in the office, on the street, you can get to know new people!"
In other words, the website sells itself as a way to "meet new people" by uploading pictures of yourself and praying that other users of the site click the "heart" icon rather than the "X" icon.

iPhone App Screenshot
It is quite possible that one could find true love by discovering that someone hearts your face as much as you do, and that you heart their face in return, but it is also quite likely that were someone to meet you two at a party, the following exchange might happen:
Annie Hall (
Alvy Singer: Here, you look like a very happy couple, um, are you?
Female street stranger: Yeah.
Alvy Singer: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?
Female street stranger: Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Male street stranger: And I'm exactly the same way.
Alvy Singer: I see. Wow. That's very interesting. So you've managed to work out something?
Beyond the question of whether this website and its accompanying apps are designed to get you married, get you laid, or get you plastic surgery, there is the larger question of what could be described as the "Hot or Not" phenomenon.

According to Wikipedia, an argument between two Silicon Valley engineers over the perceived hot-or-not-ness of a woman they came across soon became an internet site getting 2 millions hits a day within 1 WEEK of its launch.  More than that, the very concept of "Hot or Not" can be found all over the internet, TV, and movies, from Paris Hilton's The Hottie & The Nottie to The Huffington Post's (among many other sites and magazines) Who Wore It Better?

"But you also love me
for my looks, right?"
"Students, please, no more peppers
The desire to know how others see us is of course nothing new, and certainly not something created by the internet.  But "how others see us" has clearly become more and more solely a question of physical attractiveness rather than of intelligence, personality, wit, or character.  It was only 60 years ago that Jean-Paul Sartre was seen as a sex symbol and yet today it's hard to imagine that Bernard-Henri Lévy dresses as he does to get you to yearn to see the size of his angst.

Furthermore, it is becoming easier and easier nowadays to exploit our narcissistic impulses through these online rating systems and the culture that surrounds them.  That states on its Privacy page that it does not allow anyone under the age of 13 to use its services suggests both that those 13 and under desire to use its services and that, considering the degree to which websites check such things ("Enter your date of birth and PROMISE you're not lying") people 13 and under are currently using its services.  Getting 13 year-olds to want to know how others see them is not hard, but letting them be judged by pictures they post for strangers on the internet rather than by the notes that are passed around classrooms helps to kill any hope 13 year-olds have that people will judge them differently when they get older while at the same time creating the self-fulfilling prophecy that "this is how the world works."

Attempting to get classmates to like me was hard enough.  Trying to get the internet to find me "hot" wouldn't have only been hard, but soul-crushingly impossible.  And somehow I doubt I would have responded by trying to find more open-minded individuals to share my time with rather than by going to the gym.  Or, more realistically, going to GNC, getting Creatine-d up, then heading to the gym.  In other words, the dream of a better world beyond my high school was the only thing that got me through high school, but the "Hot or Not" culture turns such dreams into the nightmare of a world where Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian reign supreme, where you shouldn't win Wimbledon if you're not pretty enough, where you dare not try to get a woman on a bank note, and where you cannot be a grad student in philosophy if you can't take a joke or two hundred.

Admittedly, when I was in high school I recall that my friends and I would often go to the mall after school and play games not unlike "Hot or Not."  Yet while we had the necessary misogyny to objectify any and all girls we came across, we nevertheless had the sufficient guilt to wish we didn't have to relate to girls in this manner and the sufficient shame to not want to publicize this behavior.  But the world of "Hot or Not" knows only misogyny and objectification and has never heard of guilt or shame.

Final judgment:


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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Love and Death: Blue Jasmine, Jean Améry, and Stella

I have long been a fan of Woody Allen films, and it is because of my fandom that I was able to be with my cat Stella when she died yesterday.

Cover of
I probably learned more about what it means to be Jewish from watching Woody Allen than I did from years of Hebrew School (in fact, South Park's Jewbilee episode would probably rank higher than Hebrew School as well).  What I also learned from watching Woody Allen though was the importance of the relationship between love and death (and not only because of his great movie Love and Death).

Woody Allen's latest film, Blue Jasmine, centers around the disintegration of Cate Blanchett's Jasmine following the downfall of her husband, Alec Baldwin as the Bernie Madoff-esque Hal.  It has not gone unnoticed that this film closely resembles Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, so much so that I have since been referring to it as Midnight in Tennessee Williams.
Cover of

In many ways Jasmine "depends on the kindness of strangers," and yet, more a Jean-Jacques Rousseau than a Blanche DuBois, Jasmine turns against these strangers at every turn.  This is most likely because to her, these strangers do not exist.  Throughout the film Jasmine relives moments of her time with Hal, a reliving that is so visceral that she re-enacts those moments to anyone who may or may not be present.

Comedically, this makes for many entertaining situations of confusion where those around her, unaware of her condition, are conscripted into a sort of bemused Greek chorus to her Penelope-esque lamentations.  Philosophically, this represents the world as it is experienced by those caught up in personal grief and tragedy.  As Jean Améry attempted to convey in his At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, to be tortured is to lose one's "trust in the world," to no longer "feel at home in the world," or, in other words, to become exiled.  This exile however is experienced not only in the wounds of the torture, but, vitally, in the experience of those around you telling you to essentially "forgive and forget," to "move on," both of which are simply nicer ways of saying "get over it already!"

Similarly, Jasmine is repeatedly told by her sister and by her sister's fiancé and his friends that she needs to "move on."  Though she is willing to go along with this for a time—whether in the form of daring to work for a living or, more realistically but just as absurdly impossible, finding a new Hal—Jasmine no longer lives in the world of work or of romance and is thus incapable of moving on.  Rather, like Améry, she has become fused with her suffering and is unable and unwilling to allow time to heal her wounds.  As Améry writes,
“In two decades of contemplating what happened to me, I believe to have recognized that a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral. Whoever lazily and cheaply forgives, subjugates himself to the social and biological time-sense, which is also called the 'natural' one. Natural consciousness of time actually is rooted in the physiological process of wound-healing and became part of the social conception of reality. But precisely for this reason it is not only extramoral, but also antimoral in character. Man has the right and privilege to declare himself to be in disagreement with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about. What happened, happened. This sentence is just as true as it is hostile to morals and intellect.”
There is thus an air of dread pervading Blue Jasmine, as the audience knows consciously what Jasmine knows unconsciously: time is not on Jasmine's side.  But we do not and should not mourn for Jasmine lest we become like those strangers she talks at throughout the film.  Rather we must appreciate this dark side of the world and stop telling those Jasmine, like Améry, or now, like myself, to look on the "bright side" instead.

Having lost Stella, named of course after Streetcar, I now similarly feel riveted to the moment of her death.  I am both here, now, writing this, and not here, not now, hearing Stella meowing for food while her claws click as she circles our fake wood floors.  When we came home from the vet yesterday I immediately went into "bright side" mode, started focusing on her no longer suffering from her stomach cancer, and began removing from sight the various remembrances of her death and of her life.  But this mode was soon overtaken by what Améry called "resentment."  I sobbed uncontrollably like a scared child as Stella was dying and I do not want to forget that pain or let that wound heal.

We were here for Stella's death because Woody Allen's film opened the Traverse City Film Festival, which meant we went up to Traverse City earlier than we had originally planned.  I am grateful that I was here to share that horrible moment with Stella.  A part of me died yesterday, a part of me named Stella, a part of me that will die anew each day.  Améry knew this pain, Jasmine knew this pain, and now I know this pain: What happened, happened.

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