Paradox Now

Considering that I’ve only just managed to finish watching the film today, I feel like now I’m better able to write a (good) blog post. So here it goes.

I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming number of hypocrises, contradictions and ironies dispersed throughout the movie. Most notably in the extreme hypocrisy of the American Army, who say they are intervening against the Communists in the name of liberty and democracy. But clearly, death and destruction are the only real results of American involvement within the Vietnam War. While the Vietnamese go about their daily lives, soldiers swoop in from the sky, gunning down Viet Cong and innocent civilians alike.

Moreover, it seems strange to me that they choose to assassinate Kurtz of all people. Amid the group’s many senseless killings and the Army’s slaughter of native Vietnamese en masse, spending all that effort, time and lives to terminate one crazy individual seems like a task put together by, well, crazy individuals.

Is Kurtz the only empty or “hollow man”? Not so; many other US troops seem hollow as well. The filmmaker near the beginning of the movie, who films the soldiers as they run past, transforms the war into popular entertainment back home. Deprived of some much needed R&R, the group stumbles upon a Playboy Playmate show, where sex-deprived men oggle over women they will never be able to have–meanwhile, innocent lives are being taken. This just goes to show how empty their values are.

These are just some of the obvious ones. Another one would be at the beginning of the movie, where The Doors’ song “The End” plays. The list goes on and on…

As the people in my seminar know, I do have an unhealthy fascination with paradoxes and irony.



Eating from the Tree of Knowledge? A Dilemma

To know or not to know–which one is the best option? Is “civilization” really better? What does the word “civilization” really even mean?

For me, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness addressed some thoughts that have been going through my head recently and put them into novella-form, especially in regards to the whole light-dark paradigm. We usually see light here as being “good”, illuminating the way forward, while dark represents a state of blindness and ignorance. But one can easily see how this book completely turns this on its head: this so-called “light” is often a way to reach unfathomable darkness.

Indeed, many writers that we have read in Arts One attempt to look at humanity’s origins as a way to base their arguments (e.g. Rousseau, Paine). For Rousseau, a return to nature seems to be best for humanity; all “progress” that we have made over the past  millenia of our history have led to greater and greater atrocities stemming from the fact that we have left this natural state. Yes, we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and have been kicked out of the safe shelter of Mother Earth, left to our own devices to construct for ourselves synthetic jungles out of concrete.

They say that to be in darkness is to be blind; but couldn’t having too much of this so called “light” also be blinding as well? Overall, very interesting book, so I’ll have to look at it more in depth since I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I’m not quite sure what side of the ignorance = bliss vs. knowledge = enlightenment argument that Conrad falls on, if does in fact have an opinion either way.

All in all, I see remarkable similarities between this book and Daoism. In short, Daoism is much like, if you will, “Rousseau-ism”–i.e. a return to the state of nature is best for mankind. Marlowe, in talking about how the Company men at the station were all fightening to obtain higher status within the station, yet pointing out the sheer absurdity and pointlessness in doing so, is uncannily similar to Laozi’s rejection of status hoarding and hedonism. It makes you wonder if this civilization thing really is a good thing after all. In the words of the Daodejing:

The five colours blind men’s eyes. The five tones deafen men’s ears. The five flavours spoil men’s palates. Running and chasing make men’s hearts mad. Rare goods confuse men’s ways. Therefore the Man of Calling works for the body’s needs, not for the eye’s. He removes the other and takes this.

(note the use of the “other”…. already in use in Classical-Era China! Yeah yeah I know it hadn’t even been conceptualized yet)


In her book, Wollstonecraft asserts many progressive ideas about women, arguing that they are not merely dumb, emotional and sexual “pleasure-makers” but full-fledged persons who have the same God-given rights as men do. So in other words, there’s a lot of things I like about her. But then there’s a few things that I don’t.

But first, a throwback to a couple of weeks ago.

Fanon in Black Skins, White Mask discusses among other things how an oppressed group of people who, since they are denied value by being “themselves”, are forced to pursue this concept of the “other”. In particular, the black man is forced into two roles, and you can call it what you like–two others, two imagoes, or two “descriptions” (as Hacking would assert) and so on, which are: the savage Negro or the black-turned-white man, which can otherwise be referred to as the white-washed black man in contemporary colloquial speech.

Essentially, Fanon just wants black people, among other things, to be comfortable in being themselves, without the pressure of conforming to some ideal placed upon them by an externality (I know this is oversimplifying it immensely, but bare with me). In the same way, Wollstonecraft tries to break some imagoes of women in writing The Vindications of the Rights of Woman.

However, in breaking all of these stereotypes, she has created another one in their place, and this is what I think does not make her a full feminist. For Wollstonecraft, the ideal woman is the Mother (with a capital M). A better education means better Motherhood, and a better Motherhood entails better-educated children.

Yet in projecting this ideal of Motherhood, I feel that not only is she still in a way boxing women in, but she is contradicting her arguments as well. If women have equal rights as men, shouldn’t they also have the right to refuse to be a mother? Couldn’t society better profit from educated women in some other way, rather than relegating them to this motherly ideal? This is where I’m not quite sure how to feel about Wollstonecraft. I know she mentions that women shouldn’t be confined to the house (and maybe even dabble in politics and other male-dominated professions), but how can she, after all that she has argued for women, insist that the goal of all women are to be good mothers?

Stepping into the River of Personhood

Hacking’s book Rewriting the Soul is an example of what I think philosophy has finally managed to accomplish in modern times: reconciling empirical science with pure thought. It’s like breath of fresh air. He uses the case studies of people with dissociative identity disorder to discuss what it means “to be a person”, among other things.

His conclusion (I think… since I’m still pondering over this book) is that not only are we shaped by our memories, but by the “descriptions” that are placed on ourselves by an externality and even ourselves. Also, we don’t just act, we act with intention. If I punched you, an outside observer as well as the victim of said punch are both likely to ask, “Why did you punch him/me?” Various answers could be given: maybe because I don’t like you; maybe because I have a mental disorder; maybe because you were also punching me; or maybe because I was trying to stop you from killing another human being. All these descriptions change the way we think about actions.

I think Hacking applies this to personhood too. So it’s not just the memories that shape who you are–it’s how you describe yourself, which is based on how other people describe yourself, which is based on how you describe yourself, which is based on… well you get the point.

I wonder, then, how Hacking would respond to the age old problems of what it means to be a person, such as Heraclitus’ “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” as well as the Ship of Theseus–if a ship made out of 100 planks sails out into sea, and returns having all of its parts replaced, is it still the same ship? At what point did it cease to be the Ship of Theseus?

I have a feeling that Hacking would respond to both these problems similarly: it is the same river, and it is the same ship. For what is a river, really? Not only is it just a stream of flowing water, but this concept of “river-ness” is a description constructed by humans and placed upon naturally or unnaturally occurring phenomena. It may be different in composition, as in at any given time new water is swiftly flowing in replacing the old, just like how humans are composed of their own “water”, i.e. their memories. But at the same time, we have created the social construct of what it means to be a “river” and have used it as a prototype, as Hacking said–e.g. a flowing body of water, located in one place (i.e. not subject to teleporting randomly from one spot to the next), deep enough for ships to sail on, may freeze over in winter, etc.

Likewise for the Ship of Theseus. Even though the composition of the ship changes over time (the planks), it still manages to fit with our construct of what it means to be a “Ship of Theseus”. And even though it may come back to port completely transformed, according to Hacking, it can be said that it is the experiences it has gone through that have shaped just exactly what the ship “is”. It may be a different ship in terms of composition, but we still consider it as the same ship because of the construct. If that makes any sense.

So the way that I see it, Hacking seems to argue X + Y = Z, but over time as the ingredients X + Y change or are added upon we might get something like X + M + N… but that still equals Z. I am still Brendan, but that Brendan is certainly very different from my 12-year old self. Or even the self that was 2 seconds ago typing this sentence.

Anyway, we all know that it’s best to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so if I ever by some freak accident bump into him (maybe at UBC since he used to teach here… in the 60’s) then I will definitely ask him!

Pebbles in the River–Random Thoughts on Fanon and the Secret Agenda of ArtsOne

Fanon’s book White Masks, Black Skin speaks of how the Black Subject is forced, either wittingly or unwittingly by the colonizer, into an inferiority complex who will hence strive to imitate the culture of the colonizer.

In the same way, the Black Subject’s culture and mores are like the black stones on the bottom of a white water river. Day by day they are washed over with the culture of the White Man, gradually chipping them down. Gradually shining them (i.e. making them white). Those stones who manage to chip away–those black men who break free of their native country and culture–are washed down the river, swept away in the torrent of the White Man’s culture, rejoicing in their new-found freedom. Yet it is not so easy for a pebble to reattach itself to its source-stone.

I do believe that Fanon’s book is a product of its time. For example, his proposition that “a normal Negro child, having grown up in a normal Negro family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact of the white world” (122) is I think quite irrelevant to modern society.

However, I’d like to give more credit to Fanon than I think a lot of people are giving him. In particular, his usage of the term “the Other” is quite fascinating. It’s a commonly heard phrase nowadays that in the colloquial language has become synonymous with “discriminating”–i.e. to “Other” someone means to divide or separate, to draw a line in between two perceived groups of people with pejorative connotations. Fanon seems to do a semi-reversal.

In his quote: “His [the black man’s] actions are destined for the ‘the Other’ (in the guise of the white man), since only ‘the Other’ can enhance his status and give him self-esteem at the ethical level.” (132), the Other is now seen as a telos, an end goal so to speak. He uses the term almost antithetically to the modern usage: that the Other is not perceived as something to be feared, ridiculed, hated, an anti-telos of sorts, but is rather viewed as something good, positive, meaningful.

In this view, Henri Christophe in Cesaire’s The King of King Christophe can be seen as a pebble in the white waters of European culture, striving for to be the Other. What was once the “Other” in the bad sense of the word has now reversed itself and has become the telos of his new nation, for his hubris drives him to strive for that prestige and wealth which the white culture will bring him. Freud might call this reversal of affect; some sort of desire (wealth and prestige of French culture) is pushed down into the unconscious but manifests itself in the opposite way (enmity towards French culture)–but then again Freud is Freud, and I think we will leave it at that.

At the end of the day, I can’t help feel that all this is just pointless nonsense–albeit interesting pointless nonsense. Having read all these works of literature that all have ties to structuralism, I’m getting the feeling that ArtsOne has a secret agenda of persuading its readers that there’s no free will.

Not that I have a problem with that.

Dress, Balls, Flirtations and Quizzes

There’s a great many things that Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen isn’t. An interesting novel to read is one of them.

On the other hand, Northanger Abbey in my opinion is somewhat of a good social commentary on the times, but not just of 19th century England but unwittingly of 21st century culture as well. One can’t help but replace Miss Thorpe’s talk of “dress, balls, flirtations and quizzies” on pg. 20 with the fashion, clubs, and grinding of the modern era. Still have yet to find out what all this “quizzing” is about though.

Anyway, this remarkable similarity between the way that the characters in the novel act and the way that the people I know in real life act is what I took from this book. For instance, the way the characters talked with an air of false friendliness and a healthy dose of unnecessary superlatives is all too familiar. Behind all the flattery and niceness, who really is your friend?

Another parallel between the book and the modern age that I found is the popularity of new media produced by the ever-improving printing press and how that relates to the new media of the 21st century. Just like how the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media have redefined the way we think and act and have caused quite a bit a controversy is similar to how the impact of mass printed books sent ripples down society. “The printing press will be downfall of humanity!” they said, is no different than UBC President Stephen Toope saying that Twitter is “the greatest ill facing the world today.”


Magical Truth

Apologies for the tardy blog post–it won’t happen again.

Anyways, I felt rather confused about Alejo Carpentier’s book The Kingdom of This World. In fact, I feel similar to how I felt after reading the Master and Margarita. Confused, unsure of what to do next… novels like these just seem to go way over my head. I much prefer straightforward texts like Rousseau and Kant.

While I mull over those thoughts in my head, I have been thinking about magical realism. I remember listening to an interview of Reza Aslan for one of his new books where he talked about the significance of ancient Middle Eastern parables/stories, stories like Genesis and such. He said that history as we see it today did not exist as a concept in the ancient Semitic mind. If you were to go up to an ancient Judaean, say, and ask “What actually happened?”, you’d be met with a blank stare.That’s because the goal of “history”, to them, it not to present fact, but to present truth.

For instance, if I said along those lines, “Joe is so kind he’d give up his jacket to the homeless”, I’m not actually saying he would do that, but rather I’m trying to demonstrate the truth that he is extremely kind and unselfish.

I think this might be a good way of analyzing the events in not only this book but the Master and Margarita as well. For instance, if Macandal did not actually transform into all those animals, then what truth does this indicate about him? If Behemoth isn’t actually a demon at all, then what does he mean? What does all this so-called “magic” actually say about reality? Quite a bit, probably. But unfortunately, I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.



In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau seems to be arguing that which is a double-edged sword: humanity’s limitless capacity to understand and reason allows us to think all of these wonderful “thoughts”–but on the other hand, it allows us to manufacture desires that we are incapable of fully quenching, and which therefore is the cause of violence and strife between humans. I kept thinking to myself that I’ve heard of something similar elsewhere.

Thanks to Asian Studies 100, it was then that it occurred to me: Rousseau, although differing of course in many ways, seems to be arguing what Laozi, the so-called founder of Daoism, said many centuries ago. Daoism rejects the social constructs that humanity has made for itself and argues that we should abandon it because it is not natural, for nature does not rank beings in hierarchies as humans do. “Naturalness”, they claim, involves freeing oneself from selfishness, desire, and appreciating simplicity (characteristics which I can easily see Rousseau’s nascent man exemplifying). A metaphor for naturalness is pu–meaning an uncarved block of wood–which represent’s man’s original nature, before the imprint of culture.

However, I feel that although Rousseau explains in depth of what he believes, he does not offer much in terms of how one should return to this state. Chinese philosophy, and Daoism is no exception, is generally much more practical in this sense, providing guidelines on how to live a good life. Laozi says that one must live life in a way that almost mirrors living in a state of what Rousseau might have called “artificial” nature: one is to live away from the big cities, not venture far from his hometown, live a humble life (“he who knows he has enough is rich..” ch. 13 Daodejing), etc.. With his desires softened, he will live a happier life, says Rousseau. But, would he still be human? Rousseau says no; Laozi offers no comment, since he does not quite explain what it means to be human.

In other words, Rousseau could lay the basis of what a “happy” life could look life, while Laozi offers a way of how to actually live it.

Yeah, that title was pretty bad.


Bulgakov’s Warning

Must we look at Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita as a critique of Soviet society? There’s no doubt that it can be viewed this way, but what characterizes truly great works of literature (as opposed to, say, Harry Potter or the Hunger Games) is that the reader can approach the same text yet draw different conclusions. So what interest could Bulgakov possibly be writing for?

With the book mentioning devils, Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth), Pontius Pilate, Behemoth, Judas Iscariot, Woland (Satan) and so on and so on, it seems this book is ripe with Christian themes. Could this book possibly also be a critique of how Russian society (in Bulgakov’s time) rejected theism for atheism?

In the first chapter, we are met with two characters who deny the possibility of there ever having existed a Jesus Christ. Satan, under the guise of the professor Woland, criticizes this view and goes on to foreshadow the fate of these two characters: Berlioz, who will supposedly later slip on Annushka’s spilt sunflower seed oil and get decapitated by an oncoming train, and Ivan, who will end up in a mental hospital. A rather sad fate for these two, who, since they do not believe in God and hence reject the idea of “sin”, therefore ironically reject Satan himself.

Another instance of this warning of “godlessness” that perhaps Bulgakov is hinting to is that of the psychiatric clinic in Chapter 6. When Ivan is explaining to the doctor of how he knew Woland was the murderer all along, of how he already knew how Berlioz’s beheading would happen and how he also met Pontius Pilate earlier that day, how are we to analyze this? Is this simply a crazy man talking about Pontius Pilate, the man supposedly responsible for condemning Jesus to death? Looking through it using this lens, perhaps Bulgakov is satirizing contemporary Soviet society: perhaps he is describing the common notion of how religion was seen as a “mind-virus”, a sickness, disease, hallucination, vision, something “supernatural”, something that would wind you up in an insane asylum, much like how Ivan was. There are many other instances of these scenes elsewhere.

Again, this post is not meant to expose my religious beliefs (if any) or biases but perhaps those of Bulgakov. I will try to remain as neutral as possible. I am neither saying that I agree or disagree with Christianity (or any religion for that matter), however I’ve noticed in our seminar group quite a bit of contempt towards this sensitive issue. Some people have put a lot of thought into believing what they believe in, and for you to dismiss it as hogwash not only makes them feel like trash, but also shows your ignorance of what their belief actually entails. I hope that you all can express more respect for something that a lot of people take very seriously and not approach it in such a blatantly dismissive and immature tone.


Antigone’s Box

A good friend of mine once told me about how he thinks other people view the world. He sees people constructing boxes around themselves that are given any number of labels–“Christian”, “Buddhist”, “Atheist”, “Male”, “Female”, “Homosexual”, etc., in which we place ourselves and other people. We like to think that by being in our little box we are in an exclusive club of sorts, and others who are in different boxes should either stay put in those boxes and get away from us (especially if that box happens to fall within the realm of social undesirability), or should be forced to leave their box and conform to ours.

We do tend to categorize other people, don’t we? We even do it to non-human entities and ideas as well. But why are we like this? I can easily see how this urge to categorize arose through our evolutionary descent–those who were quicker to put predators in the “danger” category were more likely to survive. It also allows us to make swift judgments about particular circumstances without giving it too much thought. But could this categorization be the downfall of society?

I think I’m beginning to sound a bit too hipster for my liking, so let’s get back to Antigone’s Claim. How do we categorize Antigone? One of the core topics of the book is that we can’t simply dump her into easily recognizable categories. Is she a woman? Is she a man? Both? Neither? The more we try to define her, the more undefinable she becomes.

That, I believe, is one of the great terrors of humankind: the inability to easily put people into familiar categories. The inability to judge leaves us helpless.

One final point to mention: I find it slightly humourous that we’re even discussing the fact that people don’t always fall into categories! Isn’t it obvious that this is the case? I know for a fact that most of us say that we are all “special” and that we need to emphasize “individuality”, and yet go on to continue to stereotype, generalize and categorize. Hypocrisy of the highest calibre.

Much love,