The Dark Knight and René Girard

Last week, I saw The Dark Knight. It was incredible, easily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year and probably in my Top 10 overall. It had a wonderful balance of action, good writing, amazing acting, thoughtful plot, and provocative questions. The questions it raises (and answers?) are, as you would expect from a good Batman movie, all about justice and violence and how much of the latter is permitted in search of the former.

A few months ago, that would have been all I perceived in the film. Recently, however, I’ve been going through René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, since I’d wanted to get a taste of his thought through one of his books rather than from a secondary source like Walter Wink. Anyway, I was nearly done with the book when I saw The Dark Knight, and was surprised when I saw the film explode with new meaning for me, unlocked by Girard’s concepts! I thought a brief exposition of the connections could be illuminating (and maybe inspire someone to read Girard, whom I now believe to be one of the most important thinkers of our time).

Attempting a one-paragraph introduction to Girard’s theses is silly, but here we go: his main idea is that there is a hidden principle that ties together all of human society, which stems from the fact that as creatures we are prone to mimetic desire, that is, we are prone to mimicking others’ desires, or desiring what others have. This naturally creates ever-building conflicts (which he calls scandals), and these scandals mount and mount until a moment when there is so much intrasocietal tension that people come to the verge of the “war of all-against-all”, since the only logical conclusion of “mimetic rivalry” is murder. In order to prevent such a catastrophic degradation into pure bestiality and to restore order, Girard thinks these tensions and energies are collectively focused in a spontaneous and unanimous redirection to a swift and violent “war of all-against-one”. This “one” is referred to as the scapegoat, initially demonized then subsequently divinized for his “ability” (through sacrifice) to bring calm to the community. This whole process, Girard says, is ritualized and then mythologized in such a way that the actual violent mechanism (the “single victim mechanism”) is veiled and invisible to the contemporary participants then the later receivers of the mythological tradition. In other words, the citizens who pick up the stones actually believe that the one they are about to murder, even though a moment ago he was one of the crowd, is now worthy of death.

Girard goes on to base some astonishingly profound claims on top of this foundation, which are worth exploring further if you have the time to read his work. He also supports his powerful anthropological claim in a way that I clearly don’t have the space to outline here – it truly is amazing when he examines the myths of the ancient world and compares them to the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition (which he thinks is the only tradition to see and expose the single victim mechanism for what it is – a second-rate and temporary solution to the main problem of human existence). Of particular interest for Christians, he unlocks a new and compelling way of reading Jesus’ words and the history of early Christianity radically nonviolently, particularly the Crucifixion. (Girard loves treating Jesus’ willing death, not so much a “blood sacrifice” in the sense as all the other ritual sacrifices which mask the single victim mechanism, but as an action that looks enough like it to dupe the “principalities and powers” into triggering the mechanism, only for it to backfire via the Resurrection and Jesus’ powerful exposition of their hidden secret for maintaining power). Finally, Girard thinks that in our modern society, thanks to the insights of Christianity, we tend to be characterized by “concern for victims” rather than a subconscious willingness to sacrifice them.

Obviously, a lot more could be said, but sooner or later we have to get to The Dark Knight. In the movie, Batman is wrestling with some essentially Girardian questions (common to superheroes, it seems). He sees the fundamental problem of society (Gotham) clearly – disorder, violence, and inaction, and attempts to counter these problems with his own brand of nonlethal (rather than lethal or nonviolent) crime-fighting. He soon discovers, unfortunately, that his actions only heighten the tension and spawn nemeses of greater caliber. This corresponds, I’d say, to Girard’s description of the multiplication of scandals and the move to a breaking point.

The breaking point comes in the form of the Joker, a mysterious individual who describes himself primarily as an agent of chaos, which is extremely interesting in a Girardian sense given that “chaos” is exactly what the single victim mechanism evolved to counter – so already we can imagine that perhaps one of the Joker’s roles in the film will be to instigate this societal mechanism. In fact, he does this on a number of occasions! His favorite games all seem to involve forcing supposedly-upright citizens into situations where it looks like sacrificing one (or a few) of their number will bring calm and restore order (the call to murder the Wayne Enterprises employee about to reveal the identity of Batman, the ferry dilemma, his speech to Harvey Dent, etc…). In other words, he is inviting the triggering of the single victim mechanism, even explicitly, as a way for Gotham to regain peace. But tellingly, this “peace” is only temporary – the next day, the Joker will be back with another escalation of tension and another demand. This is exactly how Girard describes the single victim mechanism – a violent and temporary reduction of societal tension.

It’s also interesting to examine the Joker in the light of Girard’s thoughts about Satan as the principle (rather than the “person” – Girard doesn’t want to award Satan with real existence-in-himself) behind mimetic violence (the violence generated by mimetic desire and resulting in the single victim mechanism). Girard sees Satan as maintaining power precisely through the operation of this mechanism (as the Joker does).

Another of the themes in the movie is Batman’s wrestling with the Joker’s argument that they are basically the same. Nemeses, true, but both costume-wearing crazies: one out to promote order and the other to destroy it. It seems that the Joker’s argument is really intended as a temptation for Batman to give in and use the same tools as his enemy (using lethal rather than nonlethal force). Girard’s theory speaks to this situation as well, when he talks about “mimetic rivalry”. Two people who desire the same thing eventually become hard-and-fast rivals – that much is pretty obvious. But he also explains that two rivals, supposedly different in every sense, through their intense rivalry generate a fundamental likeness as they are consumed by their rage against each other and eventually become beings with one main characteristic: the desire to defeat the other. And so the Joker invites Batman to succumb to this cycle, to descend into the facelessness of mimetic rivalry where the combatants have more in common with each other (via their combat) than not.

In all of this, Batman has to make decisions about whether to play the game offered by the Joker (and indeed, it seems the only option), or whether to reject the Joker’s starting assumptions. These questions are put not just to him, but to all the people of Gotham, especially in the ferry trial. The options: order at the cost of other people’s lives, or pure chaos (everybody dies). It seems sadly obvious to us, the viewers, that the former option is better than the latter. But Batman (and the people on the boats) decide to believe in a third option – the path of nonviolence and the willingness to be sacrificed. Of course, that path doesn’t always lead to a happy ending – though it did in the movie because of Batman’s skill in trapping the Joker.

But how does that help us? What if we were in the same situation, except without a Batman to perform our miracles? This is where faith in God is put to the test (or rather, where faith in God puts him to the test), and we find out what Jesus (and so many other innocent victims) felt like before being torn apart by the mob… But perhaps I should leave that an open question!

Well, I hope I’ve made it clear that there are some cool resonances between The Dark Knight and Girard’s theories. I haven’t done any research or exploration to see if the writers / director of the movie have read Girard or intentionally used any of his ideas in making the movie. Either way, The Dark Knight stands as a powerful representation of these important themes, and asks us to confront within ourselves questions about violence, scapegoating, and sacrifice.

The iPhone Era: Technological Adaptation and the Future of Human Evolution

When the original iPhone was released a year ago, I wanted one. The promise of being constantly connected to all the various sockets of the Internet into which I have plugged myself (news, e-mail, chat, social networks, information gathering, etc…) was seductive. Being able to work while not standing by a computer, or to keep tabs, in an up-to-the-second fashion, on my virtual communication stream – how exciting!

I didn’t get an iPhone then because of my imminent move to Kenya (where it would have been a bad idea to flash one of those around, even if it functioned), but with the recent emergence of the iPhone 3G, I decided to take the plunge, and see if this device was as life-changing as it was cracked up to be. Turns out, it is! But I’m beginning to wonder at what cost.

It’s no secret that technology changes us. A few years ago I reflected on the iPod’s effects on culture, and earlier this month, Melissa raised similar questions, with respect to Google. I had an interesting experience today, however, which proved that these changes can insinuate themselves into deep parts of our cognition.

I was walking down the street with some friends, looking for Los Hermanos, a great burrito place. I was in the general vicinity of it, I thought, but wasn’t quite sure of the cross street, and I was confused that I hadn’t seen the restaurant thus far on my walk. Well, I said to myself – that’s what I have an iPhone for! So I fired it up, Googled the restaurant, and had a street address in under a minute. 2026 Chestnut. “OK, what’s the address of this store here? 2016… OK, that means that Los Hermanos should be…” At which point, I looked up from my phone and noticed the large, brightly-colored sign hanging above the business not more than 15 feet from where I was standing. Yep, it was Los Hermanos.

It was very interesting to me that my first instinct, upon finding myself in a place where I expected to see one thing and saw another, thereby needing more locational information, was to use the Internet rather than my eyes. My eyes, having evolved to perform precisely the task I needed done (namely the gaining of local spatial knowledge) were passed over in favor of technology. Which meant, of course, that the more dangerous trade – my memory for Google – was implicit.

But why not trust to the skills that were bestowed upon us via our natural adaptations? Have we truly passed into an age where our environments are changing far more rapidly than our bodies can adapt? It certainly seems like it. But perhaps the more interesting question is, what will that do to our bodies? When we learned how to cook food our jaws decreased in size. When we learned how to wear clothes, we lost our hair (depending on your view of this adaptation). When we learned how to live in cities, we lost our natural keen sensitivities to natural phenomena. When we learned how to use dead plant matter to propel ourselves in metal canisters across the earth, many of us lost the proper functioning of our legs and other muscles. When we taught ourselves that interesting content can be delivered in the time span of a short video clip or a 3-minute radio single, we infected ourselves with A.D.D. while simultaneously dulling our senses to anything not flashing or brightly-colored.

… And I could go on.

So, what will happen when we learn how to never need to remember anything again? What will that do to our brains? What will it do to our ability to survive without our newfangled devices? (Imagine trying to survive these days without clothes, fire or tools!) What species will we become, with essential parts of our existence scattered around the world in metal boxes on fragile hard drives? No longer homo sapiens, the thinking human, but homo technologicus, the equipped human. And so we have to ask ourselves, do we want to evolve in this way? The benefits of ubiquitous and distributed memory are immense, but what are the costs? What will happen to our ability to spend time in Nature qua natural beings, qua creatures?

Maybe that’s what we should be thinking about when buying our new iPhones (and yes, mine is very shiny) – but either way, it’s certainly not what is being advertised.

Stand-Up Desk, Part II: Implementation

A few days ago, my dad and I were able to put together the desk. Luckily, we have a small hardware store just 4 blocks away, so we were able to go get materials at the spur of the moment. Said materials turned out to be:

  • (4) cuts of 3/4″ plywood at 11 3/4″ x 21″ (perfectly cut by a store employee)
  • (14) 1 3/4″ wood screws
  • (1) sheet of sandpaper

deskbuilding supplies

To begin, we sanded clean the edges and any ugly stuff on the faces:

Then, we pre-drilled the screw holes so that the later drilling would be easier and more aligned. We used 4 holes per side on the top, and 3 holes per side for the keyboard tray.

And, as we had hoped, it was easy to drill some solid holes in an exact way. Here we are with one side left to go…

And we’re done!

Here’s a shot of me on the inaugural run:

And for good measure, a closeup from the worker’s perspective:

That’s it! Now go build your own!

Stand-up Desk, Part I: Design

Like many computer programmers who spend upwards of 8 hours a day working with a keyboard and mouse, I’ve developed some physical problems as a result (classed as Repetitive Strain Injuries, or RSIs). In recent years these have gotten so serious I’ve been to one physician (mainstream and alternative) after another, looking for insight into the situation. Through that process I’ve gained an awareness of the supreme importance of things like correct posture and taking recovery breaks. I’ve also experimented with every kind of ergonomic device on the market, some of which do help. (Unfortunately, much of this is too little, too late–such is the price I pay for my unsustainable Internet lifestyle).

Well, my most recent epiphany in this process is that we humans were not meant to be sitting creatures. Standing, walking, and reclining are naturally the more ergonomically normal postures for us. And so I (and my dad, whom I recruited to help with the project) decided to try and put together a stand-up desk to use during my 8 hours a day of bondage. I had the further idea that, if it could be dismantled and fit into my 21″ x 11″ x 10″ suitcase, so much the better!

So, after taking measurements of my height and my ergonomically neutral hand and head positions, I put together this model in Google Sketchup:

Standup Desk V1

The idea was to build the frame out of PVC for easy dis- and re-assembly, and to keep the weight down. However, after taking a trip to the hardware store and playing around with various materials, it became clear that (a) the desk would be pretty wobbly unless it were crisscrossed with PVC supports, (b) the massive number of PVC connectors we’d need would fill my suitcase all by themselves, and (c) construction would be very complex and difficult. So, back to the drawing board!

Approaching the idea from a different perspective, that of the question “What’s the simplest possible way to construct a piece within the appropriate ergonomic constraints?”, proved very fruitful. Almost immediately we hit upon the idea of using just 4 pieces of wood to create a satisfactory design. Of course, what we gained in utter simplicity and the sturdiness of wood, we probably lost in overall lightness. Still, surprisingly, after looking at the new design, it appeared that it would be even more likely to fit in my suitcase than the previous version. In addition, it turned out that we could build this new design with 4 pieces of wood that were exactly the same size!

Standup Desk v2

The only other downside to this design is that it requires a table to stand on. Of course, finding a table or desk of the appropriate height (about 30″) shouldn’t ever prove to be too difficult.

So, this is the design we’re taking to Home Depot with which to get materials. All in all, I thought it was an interesting process, in which my natural desires to build a complicated and unworkable design were ultimately won over by something a lot more simple and obvious, which will probably successfully meet my criteria for a desk. Stay tuned: I’ll post another blog with pictures when we attempt to actually turn this into reality!

Photos from SF, Macomb, and Omaha

There’s a new photoset up at my Flickr page with some shots from my recent travels with Jessica and others. She came to San Francisco for a week, then I was able to visit her family in Macomb, IL. We rounded things out with a trip to Omaha, NE to watch our friend Peter swim in the Olympic trials. Anyway, check out the photos…

SF, Macomb, Omaha 6-2008

Summer of Rock 2008

Summer of Rock 2008I am very pleased to announce the arrival of the third installment of Summer of Rock, my annual summer music compilation. Summer of Rock ’06 and ’07 have been (I flatter myself to think) great successes, and I’m hoping this year will continue the trend.

As we all know, summer is a time for making memories, and nothing goes with memories like good music. From the high-energy, sunny days to the lazy, reflective and romantic nights, this compilation will be the perfect soundtrack to your summer adventures. I’m showcasing primarily songs that have been released in the past year, though there are a handful of older favorites.

Two songs in particular deserve special mention. “Ndikumaka” was recorded by a Tumaini kid (Rosemary) and myself while in Kenya, and is a wonderful example of the talent latent in those kids. “Hello” is a new Splendour Hyaline song (Splendour Hyaline is the band name for the songs David and I write and record). Be warned: it’s a non-final mix of a song from an album we are recording this summer, so stay tuned for the album’s release to hear the final version. (Both the Tumaini album and the Splendour Hyaline album will be available for download later this summer).

Here is the playlist (you can download the songs immediately below it):

  1. Let It Ride, by Ryan Adams (from “Cold Roses (Disc 2)”)
  2. No Sunlight, by Death Cab for Cutie (from “Narrow Stairs”)
  3. Viva La Vida, by Coldplay (from “Viva La Vida”)
  4. Skinny Love, by Bon Iver (from “For Emma, Forever Ago”)
  5. Coconut Skins, by Damien Rice (from “9”)
  6. Killing for Love, by José González (from “In Our Nature”)
  7. Apartment Story, by The National (from “Boxer”)
  8. Lovesong Of The Buzzard, by Iron and Wine (from “The Shepherd’s Dog”)
  9. Not California, by Hem (from “Funnel Cloud”)
  10. Come Out Of The Shade, by The Perishers (from “Victorious”)
  11. Baby, It’s Fact, by Hellogoodbye (from “Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!”)
  12. Ndikumaka, by Tumaini (from “Songs of Hope (Pre-Release)”)
  13. Here It Goes, by Jimmy Eat World (from “Chase This Light”)
  14. The Modern Leper, by Frightened Rabbit (from “The Midnight Organ Fight”)
  15. Not What You Wanted, by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (from “Baby 81”)
  16. Lake Michigan, by Rogue Wave (from “Asleep At Heaven’s Gate”)
  17. Hoppipolla, by Sigur Rós (from “Takk”)
  18. Leap Year, by +/- (from “Let’s Build A Fire”)
  19. Hello, by Splendour Hyaline (from “When Love Leaves Its Hiding Place EP (Demo)”)
  20. Why You, by Joe Purdy (from “Only Four Seasons”)
  21. Dash, by DeYarmond Edison (from “Silent Signs”)

Download and setup instructions (sorry, but you will need iTunes):

  1. Download the zip file here: Summer of Rock 2008
  2. Unzip the files to your desktop or some other location (this will create a folder called Summer of Rock 2008).
  3. Drag the folder into your iTunes software (typically, dragging it onto the “Music” label underneath “LIBRARY” is the safest way to do this — you’ll see a “+” sign before you know it’s OK to release the mouse button). This should copy the song files to your iTunes library.
  4. Finally, in iTunes, go to File > Import. In the file browser, navigate to the Summer of Rock 2008 folder, and select the file “Summer of Rock 2008.xml”. Importing this playlist file will create the playlist “Summer of Rock 2008” in your iTunes library, which you can use to play the songs in the intended order!
  5. Now, you can safely delete the “Summer of Rock 2008” folder and the zip file, as the song files should be safely organized by iTunes.

Unfortunately, doing things this way has its drawbacks as well as its benefits. The primary benefit is increased song quality. One of the drawbacks is that, in my version of the playlist, I have opted to cause some songs to end earlier than their actual finish time, to make the compilation flow better (for example, Lovesong of the Buzzard takes way too long to finish, and I modified its options in iTunes to end at 3:52). It will be up to you to do this if you want! It will also be up to you to burn a CD from this playlist to take in your car or wherever.

As always, the point of this compilation is to introduce you to new music and encourage you to buy songs and merchandise from the artists you like, through legal channels. If you are not open to supporting the artists financially, please don’t take advantage of my offering these songs for download!

Thanks, and enjoy! I look forward to hearing any comments. If the playlist or song files change, I will post a notification in this entry.

Re:Creation 2.0

It’s been awhile since I’ve attempted blogging. From Blogger to Movable Type to Teleios and finally to WordPress, I’ve done my fair share of writing and pointing at things on the internet. I decided that I miss it, and so here we go again.

I’m giving this blog the same name as my Teleios e4:online blog, because I really like it. For me, re-creation, or creating in response to the universal creative process God has instituted around us, is at the core of our purpose and therefore our identity as human beings. It’s amusing that the word “recreation” has come to mean something so seemingly superfluous as “arbitrary leisure activities”–but my goal is not to imbue that word with seriousness. Rather, a lighthearted, creative playfulness should characterize our attempts at integrating the various things we find about ourselves in this massive universe into our identities.

That’s what I’m attempting to do here, through thoughts, stories, or sharing random things that have piqued my interest or are just plain funny.

So, Welcome! Please feel free to subscribe to the RSS feed to follow this blog in the reader of your choice.

PS I’ve taken the liberty of importing all my blog posts in the past 6 years from various sources–my college Blogger blog, my MovableType setup, the short-lived, the Teleios experiment, and finally the “Hello! Fine.” blog I kept with some friends while volunteering in Kenya. They’re all mixed in together, but provide an interesting retrospective nonetheless. Don’t go back too far though–there’s some embarrassing writing lurking back there in the nooks and crannies of time.