Rust Cohle and Naked’s Johnny

As I watched Rust Cohle in True Detective, it occurred to me he reminded me–in some ways–of another character I had found memorable; Johnny in Mike Leigh‘s Naked, . Johnny doesn’t seem to have a quite as philosophically inflected take on life as Cohle, but his dialogue delivery makes his lines epics of rage and dry cynicism.

As Roger Ebert described him:

From the way he talks and certain things he refers to, we gradually conclude that he has had an education – is an “intellectual,” in that his opinions are mostly formed from words, not feelings….It’s not that we like him or approve of him, but that we must admire the dogged way he sticks to his guns and forges ahead through misery, anger and despair.

The Wikipedia entry for Naked notes:

Intelligent, educated and eloquent, Johnny is also deeply embittered and egotistical: he will fight and provoke anyone he meets to prove his superiority. His tactics of choice in verbal interaction are based on a particular form of intellectual bullying, uniformly directed at people less cultured than himself, and summed up in domineering, scholastic barrages drawn from eclectic sources. His overall behaviour is reckless, self-destructive and at times borderline sadistic, and shows a penchant for aggressive sexual domination at least twice throughout the film. He seduces Louise’s flatmate, Sophie, simply because he can, but soon gets tired of her and embarks on an extended latter-day odyssey among the destitute and despairing of the United Kingdom’s capital city.

During his encounters in London’s seedy underbelly, Johnny expounds his world-view (which in different instances seems to be fatalistnihilist or transhumanist) at long and lyrical length to anyone who will listen, whether Archie, a Scottish boy yelling “Maggie!” at the top of his voice he comes across in Brewer Street, or Brian, a security guard of acres of empty space, ‘a post-Modernist gas chamber’, whom Johnny marks down as having, ‘the most tedious job in England’.

Johnny’s condition[edit]

It is subtly hinted throughout the movie that Johnny’s unusual personality and behaviour could be the result of a variety of (presumably undiagnosed and untreated) medical conditions, including manic depression and whatever it is that causes him to experience episodic, severe headaches. In the scene in the top room of the flat, where an obviously concussed Johnny mistakes the landlord for someone else, Johnny seems to portray a young boy fearful of physical and maybe even sexual abuse from an adult, hinting also at a probable very early cause for his outlook and behaviour. These conditions are certainly affecting him physically, so much so that one of the characters he meets thinks he is about 40 years old, when he is only 27.

 Here are some of his epic rants.

Exhibit #1:

Louise: How did you get here?

Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.

Exhibit #2:

Louise: So what happened, were you bored in Manchester?

Johnny: Was I bored? No, I wasn’t fuckin’ bored. I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.

Exhibit #3:

Johnny: Has nobody not told you, Brian, that you’ve got this kind of gleeful preoccupation with the future? I wouldn’t even mind, but you don’t even have a fuckin’ future, I don’t have a future. Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up. Are you not familiar with the book of Revelations of St. John, the final book of the Bible prophesying the apocalypse?… He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead so that no one shall be able to buy or sell unless he has the mark, which is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, and the number of the beast is 6-6-6… What can such a specific prophecy mean? What is the mark? Well the mark, Brian, is the barcode, the ubiquitous barcode that you’ll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie, and every fuckin’ barcode is divided into two parts by three markers, and those three markers are always represented by the number 6. 6-6-6! Now what does it say? No one shall be able to buy or sell without that mark. And now what they’re planning to do in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society, what they’re planning to do, what they’ve already tested on the American troops, they’re going to subcutaneously laser tattoo that mark onto your right hand, or onto your forehead. They’re going to replace plastic with flesh. Fact! In the same book of Revelations when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?… Chernobyl! Fact. On August the 18th, 1999, the planets of our solar system are gonna line up into the shape of a cross… They’re gonna line up in the signs of Aquarius, Leo, Taurus, and Scorpio, which just happen to correspond to the four beasts of the apocalypse, as mentioned in the book of Daniel, another fuckin’ fact! Do you want me to go on? The end of the world is nigh, Brian, the game is up!

Brian: I don’t believe that. Life can’t just come to a stop.

Johnny: All right, I’m not saying that life will end or the world will end, or the universe will cease to exist. But man will cease to exist! Just like the dinosaurs passed into extinction, the same thing will happen to us! We’re not fuckin’ important! We’re just a crap idea!

Jacob Bronowski on the Missing Shakespeare of the Bushmen

Jacob Bronowski–who so entertained and edified many of us with The Ascent of Man–was very often a wise man but he was also Eurocentric, a weakness that produced astonishingly reductive views about the ‘East’, about ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’ societies. This inclination is noticeably on display in his dialog The Abacus and the Rose,¹ in the course of Professor Lionel Potts–making Bronowski’s case–introduces Dr. Amos Harping  to the beauty and creativity and cultural significance of science:

HARPING: Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples with their marvelous aert and skills and vital intelligence?

POTTS: Who will assert what? I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant? You are tipsy with sentiment, Harping, or you would not compare them with the  man who reads your proofs. The Bushman and the peasant have not been cowed by science, Harping. They  have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough–one that they can work with and live by beyond the leve of the Stone Age. They have failed because they did not create a mature view of nature, and of man too, Harping. My God, you talk, you dare to talk, of their marvelous art. Since when have you been an admirer of Bushman art, Harping?

HARPING: That’s a pointless question, Potts. I have always admired it.

POTTS: Then why did you give me Rembrandt when I asked you for a painter?  Why do you, Dr. Amos Harping, lecture to your students about George Eliot and not about Indian folk poetry. Because you know that Rembrandt is a more mature artist than any Bushman, and George Eliot than any folk poet. I don’t understand you, Harping. How can you be so blind to the evidence of your own practice? You try to enrich the emotional appreciation of your students–how? By discussing Shakespeare with them; and Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. How does it happen that Shakespeare was not born in the bush–or Conrad or Lawrence? Every work that you present to your students as masterly, as profound and sensitive, was produced in a society with a high standard of technical sophistication….Do the great works of man ever come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia?….Where were the books written that most deeply express and explore the humanity of man? In the Athens of Sophocles, in the Florence of Dante, in the England of Shakespeare. Yet these were not simple, ascetic societies…they were the most highly developed technical and industrial societies in history.

I will leave these excerpts here without comment, except to note Saul Bellow‘s “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” quote and Ralph Wiley and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ responses.

Notes:

1. Bronowski, J. 1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.

True Detective: Eight Points of Contention

I finished watching True Detective last night. I found the finale deeply disappointing but I can’t say that I was surprised; the show had seemed incapable, over the last few episodes, of sustaining the portentousness it had built up in the first three or so installments. I still think the show was outstanding, but I don’t think it delivered on the promises it held out as it began (and it especially did not capture the tragic mood of the haunting title sequence; see #1 below.)

Here are some observations, in no particular order, that attempt to sustain that claim:

1. I understood True Detective to not be a murder mystery but rather a tragedy about two deeply flawed men; given that, the ending was hokey and cliched, descending into Hollywood-style redemption, sweetness and light. The finale should have ended with the ‘final showdown’ in Carcosa. This failure was made even more acute with the contrast provided by the opening few minutes of ‘Form and Void‘, which were absolutely chilling and showed True Detective at its best.

2. There was a brooding Gothic atmosphere in the first four episodes that faded away in the last four; from the moment the show jumped to 2002, it lost its distinctive mood and became more conventional.

3. Matthew McConaughey‘s acting intensity started to diminish; I think he was struggling with maintaining the Cohle facade and the strains of that showed in the last couple of episodes. By the end, even his make-up mask seemed like it was fading and slipping.

4. The show’s template was a little well-worn: angry, violent, male detectives, serial killers, female victims, abusive families, small-town USA as locale for horror. (I hope that in its forthcoming seasons we see interesting and distinctive variations on these, including some different periods as well.)

5. Cohle‘s invocation of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche–among others–was well-done in parts, but also felt forced at times.

6. Disappointingly, nothing was ever made of Audrey Hart‘s drawings; this was a strange red herring to throw into the mix. Especially because Mart Hart consistently showed himself to be such an unhinged, violent protector of his female ‘property’: his assaults on Lisa‘s date, Cohle, Audrey’s boyfriends.

7.  The epic six-minute gunbattle in ‘Who Goes There?‘ A wonderful, dramatic, action-packed sequence that wasn’t all that consequential in the ‘resolution’ of the plot. It didn’t have to be; but it would have been nice to have had that scene invested with a greater importance.

8. The detective work that Marty puts on show in the season finale could have made more appearances; all too often, the clues that came Hart and Cohle’s way were all too easily obtained. Two classic instances of this: a) Charlie Lange provides valuable clues on three separate occasions; each time, he is abruptly drafted in to provide these and then shunted out, his task of providing momentum to the show’s narrative accomplished b) we are asked to believe that a geriatric lady, living in an old-folks residence, not only remembers a paintjob from many years ago, but also the color of the paint used, and a distinctive facial feature on one of the painters.

In the end, True Detective was still a very good television show, but the promise it held out initially wasn’t realized.

The Police Precinct as Augean Stable

Over the past few years, I have met some–very personable and intelligent–young men who seemed possessed by the same passion: they wished to join the police, to “serve their community”, to “give something back”. They knew the police forces they wished to become members of were dysfunctional and corrupt, but that was precisely why their service was called for; they would work “with” their fellow policemen to reform it “from the inside.” These young men were not lacking in sincerity, not one bit.

I knew these young men with varying degrees of familiarity. To those that I felt comfortable enough with to be blunt and plain-spoken, I offered the following response: give up the ghost; run, not walk, away from police work; hang on to your humanity. To the others, I merely said “Good luck,” shook hands, and kept walking.

The eager would-be internal reformer is not cognizant, I think, of just how endemic police dysfunction is, how widespread the anomie among its forces’ members. A fresh-faced aspirant who joins the police will be first routed through the police academy, where he will be exposed to its particular brand of indoctrination into the language and methodologies of policing, now made ever more confrontational and violent. But the academy is mild fare compared to what awaits him at the precinct.

In the precinct, our budding hero will meet the embittered veteran, bitter and caustic, survivor of brushes with angry residents of urban neighborhoods, pesky city administrators, hypocritical, officious, autocratic Internal Affairs’ investigators, ignorant, nosy media persons; his is a world populated by opponents of all stripes; the criminal is only distinguished from this cast by his overt and explicit commitment to resisting the police. The rest are nuisances. And so, tragically, is the community the veteran has been policing.

The veteran will provide our naif with his first serious education in the realities of police life; he will come to see, over a period of time, like the rest of his “brothers” do, that the police are alone in their task, that the world “outside” is not made up of folks like them who need protection but instead is just one indiscriminate mass, perhaps only distinguished by their relative obedience in complying with police directives to shut up, speak when spoken to, open doors, close windows, recite the alphabet backwards, empty their pockets, lie on the ground, or get out of the car.  He will come to view himself as a beleaguered hero, desperately in need of empathetic understanding; he will resent, and be angered by, those who do not talk to him in accordance with this self-image; he might repress this sensation for a short while, but it will soon  manifest itself, perhaps in his over-enthusiastic handcuffing or subduing a “suspect”, perhaps in his brusque speech, perhaps in his willingness to understand his work as soldier patrolling hostile territory, as entailing inevitable casualties and collateral damage.

Our apprentice will be all too soon disabused of his innocence; he will soon be auditioning for the role of grizzled precinct veteran.

 

 

 

 

Marty Hart Comes Undone

The fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective–”Who Goes There”–is justifiably famous for director Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s epic six-minute tracking take of a gun battle gone spectacularly, violently wrong. There is another scene in the episode that should be just as famous: Marty Hart‘s epic, rage and profanity-filled meltdown on finding out his wife Maggie has left him (after his paramour Lisa Tragnetti has ratted him out to her.)

A recap: Hart comes home to find packed suitcases and a note waiting for him. He reads the note–with no voiceover for the viewer–his face contorted by shock, anger, and fear. He then calls Lisa to find out if his worst fears are true. The next couple of minutes are absolutely terrifying.

Marty’s conversation with Lisa is as horrifying as it is because we witness the shocking transformation of two humans–formerly bound by sexual intimacy and shared confidences–into creatures possessed by a seemingly boundless mutual hatred. Hart is forced to channel his anger through an impersonal instrument, the phone, but it is visibly and viscerally present in his expressions, his bulging veins, his reddened visage, his clenched teeth; it is the closest I’ve seen a human being come to embodying a controlled detonation.

Marty’s anger is especially frightening because we know it is animated by fear. To Marty, Lisa has transformed herself into something dangerous and vicious; she is capable of great damage and harm; she has suddenly revealed a power once hidden; she is unafraid to use it. Marty is terrified by her, petrified by the knowledge he has consorted with such a monster. She is now beyond the control he thought he exerted over her; their past intimacy now appears as mere prelude for this betrayal. Marty is floundering; he has had the wind knocked out of him by Lisa; through his rage, he attempts to find a grounding in a bewildering new world.

But most frighteningly of all, Marty’s rage is impotent. He cannot shovel sand back into the hourglass; he cannot roll back Lisa’s communique; he cannot undo his affair; he cannot even bring Maggie to the phone. He rages and rages, not just at Lisa, but at himself, at the arrangements of this universe that place the past out of reach, that expose us again and again to such terrible finality. He can curse and commit himself to the deadliest of acts, but only for the future. The past is done and dusted.

Our daily composure is commonly understood as an elaborate construction, a holding back of the forces that fray us around the edges and threaten to pull us apart; it is often unable to resist the various insults sent its way. At those moments, we ‘lose our shit’, we come undone; we slump, the accumulated tension too great to bear. Watching another’s decay thus is frightening because it reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility; it tells us we may suffer a similar fate, unable to take refuge behind our daily facade of normalcy.

Don’t be a “Crabby Patty” About AI

Fredrik DeBoer has written an interesting post on the prospects for artificial intelligence, one that is pessimistic about its prospects and skeptical about some of the claims made for its success. I disagree with some of its implicit premises and claims.

AI’s goals can be understood as being two-fold, depending on your understanding of the field. First, to make machines that can perform tasks, which if performed by humans, would be said to require “intelligence”. Second, to understand human cognitive processes and replicate them in a suitable architecture. The first enterprise is engineering; the second, cognitive science (Vico-style: “the true and the made are convertible”).

The first cares little about the particular implementation mechanism or the theoretical underpinning of task performance; success in task execution is all. If you can make a robot capable of brewing a cup of tea in kitchens strange and familiar, it does not matter what its composition, computational architecture or control logics are, all that matters is that brewed cup of tea. The second cares little about the implementation medium – it could be silicon and plastic – but it does about the mechanism employed; it must faithfully instantiate and realize an abstraction of a distinctly human cognitive process. Aeronautical engineers replicate the flight of feathered birds using aluminum and jet engines; they physically instantiate abstract principles of flight. The cognitive science version of AI seeks to perform a similar feat for human cognition; AI should validate our best science of mind.

I take DeBoer’s critique of so-called “statistical” or “big-data” AI to be: you’re only working toward the first goal, not toward the second. That is a fair observation, but it does not establish the following added conclusion: cognitive science is the “right” or the “only” way to realize artificial intelligence. It also does not establish the following conclusion: engineering AI is a useless distraction in the task of understanding human cognition or what artificial intelligence or even “real intelligence” might be. Cognitive science AI is not the only worthwhile paradigm for AI, not the only intellectually useful one.

To see this, consider what the successes–even partial–of engineering AI tell  us: intelligence is not one thing, it is many; intelligence is achievable both by mimicking human cognitive processes and not; in some cases, it is more easily achieved by the latter. The successes of engineering AI should tell us that the very phenomena–intelligence–we take ourselves to be studying in cognitive science isn’t well understood; they tell us the very thing being studied–”mind”–might not be a thing to begin with.  (DeBoer rightly disdains the “mysterianism” in claims like “intelligence is an emergent property” but he seems comfortable with the chauvinism of “intelligence achievable by non-human means isn’t intelligence.” A simulation of intelligence isn’t “only” a simulation; it forces us to reckon with the possibility “real intelligence” might be “only a simulation.”)

What we call intelligence is a performative capacity; creatures that possess intelligence can do things in this world; the way humans accomplish those tasks is of interest, but so are other ways of doing so. They show us many relationships to our environment can be described as “cognitive” or “mindful”; if giant-lookup machines and human beings can both play chess and write poems then that tells us something interesting about the nature of those capacities. If language comprehension can be achieved by statistical methods, then that tells us we should regard our own linguistic capacities in a different light; a speaking and writing wind-up toy should make us revisit the phenomena of language anew: just what is this destination, reachable in such radically dissimilar routes–’human cognition’ and ‘machine learning’?

DeBoer rightly points out the difficulties both AI methodologies face; I would go further and say that given our level of (in)comprehension, we do not even possess much of a principled basis for so roundly dismissing the claims made by statistical or big-data AI. It might turn out that the presuppositions of cognitive science might be altered by the successes of engineering AI, thus changing its methodologies and indicators of success; cognitive science might be looking in the wrong places for the wrong things.

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.

Notes:

1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.