Monday, November 5, 2007

Science fiction and the culture of naham

I will be giving a talk at DANAM (Dharma Association of North America) in November 2007 on "rasa as culture theory." Understanding culture in its essence as the attempt to go beyond the "culture" we apparently inhabit to another transcendent realm of bliss, I discuss one film, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, as an example of the theme of (almost?) all science fiction of the past 50 years at least: the trope of the extra-terrestrial as stand-in for the material, bodily human that we inevitably oppose to a self that owns and is loved by that body. Ironically, the robots, ETs, and vibrating monoliths of Battlestar Gallactica, 2001, Solaris, Forbidden Planet, and the Replicants of my chosen film all aim, in the end, only to show what it is to be human. To be human is to be a body, and body is seen most clearly when it shows itself as other than human. And yet bodies are concerned in their innermost stories and essence with that other thing that makes us human. That is (as my old teacher Raja Rao told us) the abhuman. The search for the abhuman is the story of all (almost all?) science fiction just as it is the theme of all fiction in general. It seems so beautiful to me that at the instant we love a woman, or yearn for God, or even feel profound disgust at the horror of it all, we tell tales of archetypal love and strife and striving; we put it all on the line to tell a story to the King (as Shakespeare said). Culture is that story, refined in the quiet moments that follow passion. Part of contemporary culture is science fiction, and it deserves more respect and more consciousness than it has been granted by the gatekeepers and censors who pass on what counts in the media maelstrom of the 21st century. I do not have time, energy, or expertise to prove the point, but I do claim truth for the intuition: what all the Others of science fiction seek is not other than what I, and the dancing girl of Samkhya, and the demon at the feet of Visnu seek in what we do. A retrospective of AI, Minority Report, Gattaca, The Matrix, and even potboilers like Independence Day, would show the thing clearly. We celebrate the Self in seeking it, and the more we recognize just how far from humanity we are the clearer we see what it means to be human, and how we can live that only by losing it in the act of making--or being made--art.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Mathematics and culture

William Byers' How Mathematicians Think (Princeton, 2007) states that the deepest motivation for mathematical practice rests on the fact that "There exists that which cannot be expressed yet we must express it." (p. 120; italics in original.) He amplifies this as "putting the ineffable into words, describing the indescribable, or expressing the inexpressible." Exploring the example of the "infinite," he finds that historically two clusters of characerizations are found: on the one hand the infinite is boundless, endless, immeasurable; and on the other hand it is complete, whole, perfect, and absolute. The first cluster belongs more to the context of expression, the second to the intuition of the wholeness that lies beyond expression. In my terms, the indescribable infinite belongs to World Two, and the attempt to say the infinite in terms such as "immeasurable" to World Three, the realm of culture and specifically mathematical culture. Godel's incompleteness theorem is a paradigmatic example of mathematical culture because it shows that "within the context of logical thought one can deduce limitations on that very thought." (Byers, p. 282). This is quite similar to the argument in the Samkhya Karika that leads the highest embodied intelligence (sattvic buddhi) to see that "I am not, I have nothing, there is no self in me" (naham na me nasmi, SK 64).

The self referentiality of the Samkhya text closely parallels that of Godel. This seems to be a general feature of (genuine) culture. There is always self-reflection in the service of self-transcendence. We are bound into the world of duhkha but that suffering life contains within it the possibility--indeed the necessity--of a beyond. Great ideas in mathematics parallel the great realizations of figures like the Buddha and Patanjali (of the Yoga Sutra) that show the limitations and thereby the potentialities for release in our World One of constriction and pain.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Buddhist and Hindu postmodernism

I have long thought that much of modern and postmodern thinking can be categorized as "Hindu" or "Buddhist," depending on whether or not it allows the possibility of transcendence. Of course taken historically or philosophically that is not an easy question, and I think it is quite clear that many forms of Buddhism do allow for transcendance. I think the location of the Buddha's enlightenment at the moment of seeing the morning star figures this "going beyond." So when I use the rubrics "Hindu" and "Buddhist" I do not intend the terms literally. Rather, I mean that modernism and after divides fairly well into tough-minded cultures of suspicion, avid to dissolve or deconstruct all experiences of a beyond into sexual, political, economic, or gender interests, and tender-minded cultures of mysticism and ecstasy that believe in the reality of those moments of flight into joy surpassing our worldly understanding. Psychoanalytic and Marxist culture criticism fall into the former category, most of the counterculture and New Age (e.g., Jeff Kripal's Esalen, the sixties, etc.) into the second.

Where does postmodernism lie? I think that "officially" postmodernism is "Buddhist;" it wishes to eliminate anything essential and allow only the webs of difference (and consequent deferral) that most of its cannonical texts describe. In my usage, postmodernism tries to dissolve World 3 culture, i.e., culture that points toward experiences of enlightenment, into World 1, the realm of suffering (duhkha). But (in my view inevitably) postmodernist thought finds itself confronting moments reached ostensibly through its own deconstructive methods where the beyond breaks through, or at least beckons. Several of these occur in the thought of Jacques Lacan, which I think is why Derrida attacked him so severely. The structure of postmodern or poststructural thinking rests on a grid of oppositions that fail to capture any essential "self" in our material or intellectual worlds. In (real) Buddhist terms, there is a "failure to find" (anupalabh-) any permanent or self-subsiding entity there. Lacan's concepts of "the real" and "jouissance" raise the posibility of a transcendence that cannot be named or found. Transgressive within the patriarchal repression that has arisen within postmodernism Lacan's ideas suggest to me the relationship between prakrti and purusa in the Samkhya Karika. The nay-saying of self reached by prakrti (nasmi na me naham) points with overwhelming force at the seeing and I-ness that prakrti knows with all her being she is not. Lacan's "real" seems to me to be like this, something we can never know, and that we know more and more fully that we cannot know as we become wiser. On the other hand, the more sharp becomes our knowledge the greater becomes the bliss that rises from this understanding. Thus the real and jouissance are inextricably connected.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Cultural embers

The purpose of culture is to remember and create pathways from World 1 (the realm of suffering, duhkha) to World 2 (fulfillment, joy, enlightenment). As such culture is a "world of its own" that I call World 3. Tantra makes it very clear that this culture (including its version of "culture of the self") must be recreated at every moment, and that otherwise it tends downhill towards decay and ossification. A movie I saw last night pictures old culture at a moment not exactly of decay but of dying down, like a wood fire fading to coals. The Hermitage Dwellers is a recent Dutch film in Russian about three old and one young employees of the great St. Petersburg museum who find there a world apart from the continuing darkness and deprivation of the city (still "Leningrad" to the old people who lived through the German siege in the 1940s). The art gives off an afterglow of its original esthetic power and exposure to it--standing close by as if next to a dying fire--is enough to warm the souls of the museum "dwellers," but only if they take regular and sustained doses. Standing next to Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son" the young man, a former soldier with a guilty conscience, irradiates himself with the blissful moment of forgiveness that the art work shows, and the painting seems to translate him into a state of redemtion that is deep and genuine if also partial and fleeting. This, the film seems to say, is the most that old culture can do, give a modicum of comfort and distant intimation of transcendence to men who did not experience the original World 2 moment on which the work rests and lack World 2 moments of their own that these old beauties might find ways to touch more vitally. One thinks of the women in T.S. Eliot's museum "talking of Michaelangelo" or evening-clothed bourgeoisie at the Vienna opera immersed in the "Magic Flute."

Where is new culture today? Do others feel as I do that the last upwelling of nutrients from a lasting World 2 happened in the 1960s? The last great classical composers worked fifty years ago or more, and in popular music where are the equals of the Beatles, Velvet Underground, and Bob Dylan (aside from Mr. Dylan himself, who does not decay musically though he's now post sixty-four). Literature may be an exception here, though surely not in the English novel. And painting, while subject to the same drifiting lack of center (predicted by the great Yeats) does have moments of fierce originality of vision in the work of men who are physically old but still young in art (Cy Twombley and Brice Marden are two). Overall, though, there seems little but afterglow at which to warm our spirits. The only hope I can see, the same hope that was always there, lies in breakthrough to new Worlds 2. At any rate the old culture tells us, admonishes us, that breaktrough is possible and refuses our drift to the couch and the grave.