So I threw my back out and remembered I had a blog I could waste some time in bed on. And haven't posted on this in months...but I still don't have a camera to take pictures of my work so I figured I'd bite my thumb at copyright policy and put up some of the essays I've done at Harvard this year. It's not all of them, but it is what it is. The first is from my Cosmic Evolution class with prof Eric Chaisson (that I highly recommend everyone in the world to take a class with), the next three are from my film class this past semester, the one before that is on Dawkins (it's pretty pissy), and the two before that are from my Economic philosophy class last fall. I'll probably regret it later, but I have a feeling no one's going to plagiarize me then publish it...I'm not good enough to plagiarize from anyhow. ASAP I'll put some damn art up here.
...And Vishnu Awoke:
An Examination of the Closed/Oscillatory Models of the Universe and Their Implications
< C. Vail - May 6, 2008 - Cosmic Evolution >
“Can we actually know the universe? My God, it’s hard enough finding your way around Chinatown.” – Woody Allen
“Nothing can be created from nothing.” - Lucretius
The cycle of birth, life, death, and regeneration has been a theme in the science, religion, and mythology of virtually every culture since the dawn of human civilization. Epitomized by a multitude of symbols such as the wheel, the ouroboros (a serpent devouring it’s own tail), or the rising and setting of the Sun and the Moon, the human fascination with the cycle of life and death observed in nature and biology has infused the ethos of every society on Earth. And it’s no wonder; life and death are a personal matter, something that every one of us experiences. Taking cue from the observation of the seasons and the regeneration of plant life, many cultures have pondered the hope of human rebirth after death. But what of our universe? It is widely accepted today that our universe had a beginning – a definite point before which there was nothing (or something extremely minute) and after which there was the initiation of spacetime and all the matter and energies in it. It is also widely acknowledged that our universe has evolved and is evolving, and is expanding (even accelerating in expansion). So does a birth of our universe denote a potential death of it as well? And what came before our natal “Big Bang”, if anything? It is after all somewhat difficult, even for the most stoic empiricist, to accept that prior to “the beginning”, a mere 14 billion years ago or so, there was simply Nothing, not even time, and then suddenly the origins of a complexly structured Everything burst forth, irrationally. In addition, our own knowledge of life leading inevitably to death (even in non-biological objects, such as stars) begs the question – what death, if any, would the Universe undergo; would anything subsequently occur or come to exist? Theoretical physicists and cosmologists have pondered these questions, but the sheer deficiency in data or knowledge of the events that spurred the Big Bang leave the study of the topic in the murky territory of speculation and guesswork. Models have been proposed of an oscillatory universe, collapsing upon it’s own weight and giving way to a “Big Crunch” or a “Big Bounce”, in which the energy of a collapsed universe causes a rebound Big Bang and thus starts the process all over again. Other theories have been proposed of a cyclic universe that do not necessitate a collapse due to an unsustainably high-mass universe, an assumption that has several snags. All theories have their own obstacles and glitches, but in their propositions we find beguiling solutions to the biography of our cosmos. In this paper I shall lay out the bare bones of these theories, noting their faults as well as their strengths, even present a few undeveloped brainstorms of my own, then briefly consider the implications of the theories covered through the lenses of science, philosophy, and religion. But first, I would like to address the inspiration of my interest in the topic, a legend found not in any scientific journal or textbook, but from a passage in an archaic and spiritual work.
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor these kings, nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” – The Bhagavad Gita
In the ancient Hindu text known as the Rig Veda, a story is told of Vishnu, the utmost god of gods, a being so glorious that to view his true form is to see the most brilliant, beautiful, and hideous aspects of all the cosmos, and a mere second of this spectacle is the ultimate revelation. In the Vedas many parables of Vishnu and his various avatars are recounted, but in a relatively minor section of the Rig Veda quite a contradictory tale of Vishnu is told, one in which he exists in the form of Brahma, the creator, the ultimate knowledge. The story goes that Vishnu spends all of eternity in a largely unbroken state of slumber. His dreams comprise the entirety of the universe, and all within it. When Vishnu falls to sleep, the creation of the Universe begins, grows near infinite in size and complexity, and evolves in consciousness. According to this myth, considered fairly trivial in the scope of the Vedas, my story, your story, and the story of our universe is all an invention of Vishnu’s vast imagination. A common enough creation myth as creation myths go, but then – Vishnu awakes. Every so often (often as in multitudinous eons between multitudinous eons), Vishnu is roused, but for a moment, and his dream – that is the immeasurably vast cosmos of his creation – ends, just like that. That universe, and every invention within it, simply ceases to exist. But, as quickly as he has been stirred, Vishnu descends again into a deep slumber, wherein another universe is created anew and progresses toward infinity. This has always been and will always be, with the arrows of time stretching out into eternity in both directions. Perhaps with each new creation Vishnu’s visions advance in structure or perfection, but this is not speculated upon in the hymn. The myth itself is only a very minor point in the tome, as if it was barely worth mentioning and meant to be regarded as a negligible, if intriguing, proposition. But this anecdote has caught the author of this paper’s curiosity and led her to more acutely explore this idea, as it mirrors (if on a more metaphysical scale) the stimulating and philosophically gratifying concept of a cyclic universe, which it is my aim to explore in more scientific terms through this thesis.
The Astrophysical Realm
Western scientific conceptions of the universe, up until the last century, could be grouped most commonly into some form of the Steady State Theory, or a static and unchanging universe. More recent hypotheses of our universe’s origin and future generally fall into one of two categories: open or closed. The open model is more generally agreed upon (for reasons that will later be described), by and large disregarding what came before the Big Bang and instead positing the evolutionary future of the Universe. The open model establishes itself on the principle that the Universe is expanding, a verity first confirmed by Edwin Hubble in 1929 (showing that the radiation of the bulk of galaxies around is are red-shifted by the Doppler Effect, and thus are receding from us and likewise from every other point in the Universe, as there is no universal center point), and that the matter and energy we know today to exist arose from the cooling and spreading out of dense and extreme radiation which dominated the Universe for a time after the Big Bang, corroborated by the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1965 (though predicted seventeen years prior by Gamow and Alpher). During this time, dubbed the Radiation Era, no matter (at least baryonic matter, matter made up of protons and neutrons most familiar to us today) could form – the severe temperatures of the radiation hindered atoms from forming, particles from bonding. But then, as the Universe continued to expand, the radiation cooled, it’s wavelengths widening, and matter began to form, first in the form of the simpler elements (helium, hydrogen, and H’s isotope deuterium), then breaking up and re-bonding into the diverse range of compositions that surround us today, and indeed of which we ourselves are composed. The majority of elements that together formed our Earth, our atmosphere, and our bodies were created in the belly of forming stars. According to the open model and as maintained by modern astrophysics, this expansion occurred first in one big rush just after the Bang, a massive inflation overwhelming gravity and besting the speed of light, and since has continued, albeit at not such a startling rate. But this inflation has not remained steady. According to observations of Type 1A Supernovae, the inflation of spacetime is accelerating, a discovery puzzling cosmologists and rivaling the advocacy of the closed model, detailed below. Spacetime in such a universe is invertedly curved in a “saddle” shape. An infinitely expanding universe would eventually come to a “cold death”: when the distances between objects in space become so vast that radiation from one object could not reach another, and stars and galaxies die, as they do, until nothing but a cold and immense emptiness could exist. Of course, such a fate would only occur in the most distant future, and by then surely our Earth, and probably humanity with it, would have been obliterated by the death of our parent star, scheduled to begin in about 5 billion years. Even so, one must admit that the postulate of the universe meeting a cold and empty doom is rather dismal.
The Open Model implies a universe with an explicit instigation and an infinite future, a verdict I, along with some in the science community, find troubling to accept, and which the following theories grapple with resolutely.
Though empirical evidence contradicts the foundations of the Closed Model, it’s implications are ideally rewarding; it just “feels more right” in the abstract sense. In the Open Model, the Big Bang burst was forceful enough, and it’s composition’s total density and mass low enough, for the expansion of the Universe to persist into eternity. But to have faith in the Closed Model, we must convince ourselves otherwise. The Closed Model requires that the Big Bang was not strong enough to maintain a propulsive momentum of expansion and that the density and mass of that initial material, and therefore of the matter in the Universe today, is higher than the Open Model proponents suggest is true. In a Closed Model universe, momentum from the Big Bang will eventually run out, entirely consumed, and expansion will sojourn. But as indicated by the cosmological principle, and even according to simple Newtonian physics, nothing can remain indefinitely at rest, and change is a manifest omnipresence in all things. So the cessation of expansion will herald a new route: the gravitational pull of the mass of the Universe will cause a contraction of spacetime. Matter will break down in a reverse action of it’s evolution, eventually reducing back to a hot, dense era of radiation, and ultimately collapsing momentously in the opposite of a Big Bang, called the “Big Crunch” by some theorists and the “Big Bounce” by others. In a “Big Bounce” the contracted universe would eventually reach a singularity (or near-singularity) at which point the laws of relativity would change, perhaps bursting spectacularly once again outwards in time and space, creating essentially a new universe out of the same components. Due to the Principle of Uncertainty, it is unlikely we would be able to ascertain which lifetime of the Universe we are currently living in, as would it be difficult to determine if the basic structure and laws of each universe between Bangs would remain the same, or if each universe would be erratically different from the last. There are various theoretical models that have been proposed to resolve the snags in the Closed Model, notably one involving the nature of quantum foam at a near-singularity put forward by physicist Martin Bojowald just last year. In an article entitled “What Happened Before the Big Bang?”, Bojowald’s theory is fleshed out under the auspices of quantum loop gravity: a singularity is not necessary, Bojowald states, for a Big Bounce, but a near-singularity, at which the effects of gravity alter. Part of this alteration entails a repulsion – a repulsive force so strong that the Universe is bounced back out into spacetime.
The main dilemma of the Closed Model is the so-called “impossible” singularity. A singularity is in essence a point below the governance of the Planck Scale in which the laws that determine the actions of matter and energy in our universe as we know it break down – into what is a mystery. This is the dilemma Martin Bojowald and others aim to get out of. All we can truly ascertain is that approximately 14 billion years ago this enigmatic ‘bang’ set into motion all of existence, but we are a far reach from understanding exactly what happened in that moment of universal eruption, and indeed what existed, if anything, before that moment. Scientists must determine probabilistic outcomes from the milieu of theoretical equations and the modicum of observational data. In a field where elegance and simplicity is favored over a convolution, “likelihood” and consistencies between data and theory are the closest we’re getting to facts. We must ask the questions before we can expect any answers. The question of cosmological timeline is a question of finite vs. infinite space and time. Here we can distinguish space and time, not necessarily taking them as the package deal of spacetime. For example, in some models, space (matter, abstractly) can be finite, while time is infinite. This is the case for a closed model universe. In other models, such as the widely accepted open and accelerating model, time is finite (or at least had a finite beginning) and space is infinite. In the latter instance a singularity of infinite matter of an infinite density is supposed for the origin of the Bang.
But in the closed model an infinite singularity is not necessarily required. While the whole of the universe can be bound in an infinitesimal (but not infinitely small) and super-super massively dense morsel, a finite though enormous amount of space is necessary for the cosmos to be compressed back into a Big Crunch or Bounce. But even singularities of infinite compaction and density are merely roadblocks, not a termination. Michael Heller elucidates in his essay “Cosmological Singularity and the Creation of the Universe”:
The singularity theorems have been proven with the conceptual environment of the precisely defined model of spacetime, and saying that some histories suddenly end at the final singularity only means that the curves representing these histories have reached the edges of the model. It is true that, in the case of the initial singularity, these histories emerge out of nothingness, but it is nothingness from the point of view of the model. The nothingness, in this sense, is only what the model says nothing about. What is outside the model, the model itself does not specify. (Heller 6)
The Big Blunder
In this paper, we have focused largely on the enigmatic events of an exceedingly distant event. But here I’d like to digress for a moment to a more contemporary incident. Let’s fast-forward roughly 14 billion years and some-odd months, nearly to our present day. It was early April 2008. A twenty-one year old undergrad sat in her classroom, her professor detailing the specifics of the final paper assignment, to which much weight is given on the final grade for the class. The professor articulated that the paper should not be merely a regurgitation of research, but should include some original idea, formulated by the student. ‘Original?’ thought half the class. ‘Sure I know more than the average layperson about what’s going on up there in the universe, but I’m no astrophysicist, and I sure as hell don’t have any Nobel prize-worthy ideas kicking around in the cobwebs of my brain.’ Choosing to disregard for the moment this ‘original idea’ thing, which was more than just a little bit intimidating, the young student skimmed the topics she’d studied in this course for a good thesis subject. She chose the idea of a cyclic universe model, for two reasons: a. there were several instances in class when the professor mentioned the idea and noted that, though there’s very little evidence for it, a cyclic model is “metaphysically satisfying”, and the student agreed, even bringing up the idea in another class, aptly, Intro to Metaphysics. b. On a recent excursion to “the world’s largest bookstore” (supposedly a Barnes & Noble in Midtown Manhattan), the student had purchased, on a whim, two books on the subject. One was Endless Universe, by Steinhardt and Turok, their theory discussed above. With the requisite research material and youthful curiosity at her disposal, the student began browsing information on cyclic and oscillatory universe models. But she still didn’t know quite what to do about that “original” part. Until one night, a week or so later, when a premise dawned on her: What if the fabric of spacetime, which supports all of the matter and energy in the universe, thins and weakens as it expands? From there, pieces of the puzzle come tumbling out; a weakened spacetime could eventually become so heavily warped by the gravitational pull and mass of extremely massive objects, until eventually supermassive (small but heavy) black holes reigned, smaller objects and particles having been caught in their gravitational field and ingested, perhaps strengthening the black holes by increasing their density and mass, etc. From there it could be conceived that the taut pull of spacetime around the holes would give way to a sort of tug-of-war, in which slightly more massive holes would eventually win and “ingest” the contents of the surrounding holes, until eventually all there was left was a single hole, infinitesimally small and dense, carrying all of the matter and energy of the universe, and eventually sucking up spacetime itself, which must be a something, since a nothing could not be a sort of scaffolding like spacetime is, and therefore it must be eventually subject to the same laws of physics as other matter and energy and succumb to gravitational pull. Ultimately this black hole, or “singularity hole” as the student believed she had coined it, would be so massive that the spacetime supporting it could no longer hold it, and it too would succumb. But here, something, especially something so massive and dense and radiative as all of the universe, something could not exist in nothing, with no support, and in fact a complete singularity of infinite density and mass could not exist alone, so this singularity hole would then by necessity erupt, in essentially another Big Bang, the fabric of spacetime erupting along with the radiation and matter.
For several days the student toyed with this idea, writing down questions to look up answers to, such as What evidence do we have that the universe is relatively homogenous?, and Do black holes gain a stronger mass, therefore further warping spacetime and strengthening their gravitational pull, from the matter and energy they ingest? Diagrams were doodled while on the train, discussions had with friends about the theory (the student’s friends being mostly fine artists, these were largely one-sided discussions, with the friends gazing back blankly upon the student’s recantation of her theory). The student flip-flopped between convincing herself that this idea had absolutely no merit and could be flippantly discredited as ridiculous nonsense by anyone with an ounce of actual knowledge in physics and conversely fancying the idea a pretty good one, at least in this most bare-bones theoretical form.
Then arrived the day of reckoning. It was a Tuesday. The student, finally able to borrow her boyfriend’s computer and go down to the library to study, skimmed what she had already composed of the paper, several pages of research “regurgitation”. She was ready to testify her theory onto paper, in all its painstaking intricacy, but first she had to seek out some specifics online. Just a quick stop to good ol’ Wikipedia to check out the article on black holes and – what’s that? A singularity hole? Why, that’s a term I thought I had come up with, the student thought. What could that possibly be? The page came up, “Big Crunch” its headline. Well I know what the Big Crunch scenario is; she smirked, but read it anyway. Apparently the student had indeed not truly understood the Big Crunch scenario, for there it was, in all its menacing triumph:
“Eventually all matter would coalesce into black holes, which would then coalesce with each other; the unified black hole singularity is the big crunch singularity.”
“Well good lord, that’s nearly exactly what I had come up with!” the student suppressed a shout in the dry silence of the library. “Like, suspiciously reminiscent. How could I make such an immense oversight? Does this mean I’m smarter than I thought, or simply blind enough to have forgotten reading about it earlier then convince myself of its originality? This can’t be!”
But it was. And so the student’s grand idea was defeated. And it didn’t even take an astrophysicist to knock down the idea; just a one page, could’ve-been-written-by-anyone Wikipedia article. By some dastardly naïveté the student had devised a theory of the universe that already existed, albeit with nearly proper physics and all.
And so goes the story of my “great original idea” for this paper (I bet you didn’t guess that ‘student’ was me, did you?). Oh, I could recount some of the other ideas that passed through my head, but they all fell exceedingly short of educated probability. Instead I hope I have encapsulated information on this topic from a surfeit of resources into a somewhat more easy to consume abridgement. But I would also like to introduce another discipline into the ring of discussion, that of theology and philosophy, and the import of our scientific findings on these fields of belief.
The Metaphysical Realm
Half buried to her flaming breast
In this bright tree, she makes her nest,
Hundred sunn'd Phoenix! When she must
Crumble at length to hoary dust!
Her gorgeous death-bed! Her rich pyre
Burnt up with aromatic fire!
Her urn, sight high from spoiler men!
Her birthplace when self-born again!
- George Darley, “The Phoenix”
This paper has hopefully provided an abridged analysis of the current major conceptions of the nature of our universe’s lifetime. The first conception, the open/accelerating model, has largely eclipsed the opposing arguments, as the evidence found from current observation of our universe is more concurrent with the open model. But the thought of a universe doomed to an eternal and cold death is just a bit too heartbreaking to take abidingly. And this inscrutable dark matter and dark energy; it all seems too mysterious to be making any concrete verdicts, especially ones with such gloomy connotations. The other models we have discussed are a little more optimistic, and though the current data fundamentally discredits these models, in them there is left room for these baffling and unknown matters and energies: their presence cannot be denied, though their significances remain out of our grasp.
It has often been said that people only want to hear what they want to hear, and will convince themselves of untruths if those untruths are more agreeable or pleasant than the alternative, however much evidence the alternative harvests. This is not a common occurrance, however, in the fields of science. Scientists seek the empirical “truth”, regardless of it’s implications. But I am not a scientist, and I do not believe that our system can be defined wholly by objective and materialistic examination. As such, I have chosen, for now, to cheer on the concept of the universe I prefer, though I certainly take data and the knowledge of those much more erudite with earnest consideration. Though I have chiefly covered the subject matter of this paper through the language and resource of science, I feel it apt to mention, if briefly, the more metaphysical views of this topic. The implications of these contradicting possible fates of the universe can be viewed through the lens of science, as we have seen, but also through the lens of theology and philosophy. And their take on the Beginnings and the Ends of our cosmos should be regarded as valuable, seeing as how human society has been so shaped by belief systems based not on facts and figures, but on intuition and hope.
The legend himself, Einstein, once said "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind".
For the sake of brevity, I’ll somewhat imprudently lump the countless and diverse belief systems of the world into 3 broad categories: “Western” (Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), “Eastern” (Indian and Far Eastern religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), and “Atheism/Ontological Philosophy”. I’ll examine the implications of the Steady State model, The Open Model, and the Closed Models through the viewpoints of the western, eastern, and atheist/ont. philo. belief systems. It is helpful and interesting to look into cosmological models of the religions themselves, but here we are concerned with what each generalized type of faith would have to say about these astrophysical models we have been discussing.
In the “Western” and “Eastern” religions, and generally in theology as a whole, the question at hand is Why, as in ‘why are we here’, but to a lesser extent it is also How; ‘How was the cosmos created when put in accordance with our beliefs of Why?’ With atheism and ontological philosophy (or more specifically, physicalism), Science is the principle basis for the How questions, thus the question concerned is the oft-debated ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’
And now, for some presumptious estimations:
1. The Steady State Model: Once the most commonly held view of our universe, at least in essence, the predecessors to the Steady State Model supposed that the universe was static, and whether finite or infinite, it was unchanging and stable. The western Abrahamic religions formed by and large around a blend of the static universe model and something akin to the open model, beginning of course with a Creation.
2. Open Model (Big Bang expanding infinitely to Big Freeze or Cold Death): The Open Model is the scientific embodiment of Abrahamic cosmologies. A singularity prior to the Big Bang is appealing to Christianity, as it sounds akin to their creation myth, and it’s posit ‘before there was anything, there was nothing.’ Arthur E. Milne – “the creation of the universe demanded creation at a point-singularity. For the creation by God of an extended universe would require an impossibility, the impossibility of the fixation of simultaneity in the void – impossibility, that is, to a rational God. The paradox follows that the Deity himself, though in principle all-powerful, is yet limited by his very rationality.” (Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God. Oxford: Clarendon 1952 pg. 157) On secular philosophical terms, however, the Open Model is not one of hope. A Cold or Hot Death of the Universe and nothing beyond it into eternity is simply a metaphysical wretchedness.
3. Closed Model (Big Bang to Big “Crunch” or “Bounce”): It is in the mode of the Closed Model that Eastern belief systems find themselves at home. Eastern philosophies and religions, as well as quite a few western and African tribal religions and myths, have often referred to the “cycle of life” as not merely a biological process, but a cosmological one as well. Eastern religions are also more comfortable with the concept of infinity, it seems, than Western thought. The story of Vishnu cited at the beginning of this paper is just one example of this. The Closed Model also provides some interesting debate and ideas in the field of secular Western philosophies. The question of “why is there something rather than nothing” can be answered by the Closed Model as “probability – even inevitability”, an answer more adequate to some that find “because a God created everything” difficult to accept.
Until we discern the nature of these matters and energies more precisely (that is, when “dark” comes to light), the true biography of our cosmos cannot begin to be soundly writ, and our theories will remain in that hazy purgatory of speculation. Our aspirations to discovery will have to suffice in the meantime.
“If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will stare back into you.” - Nietszche
Bojowald, Martin. 2007 “What Happened Before the Big Bang” Nature Physics Journal
Chaisson, Eric and McMillan, Steve. Astronomy Today Benjamin Cummings; 5 edition (July 26, 2004)
Heller, Michael. 2000 “Cosmological Singularity and the Creation of the Universe”
Zygon Journal of Religion and Science 35 (3), 665–685
Milne, Arthur E. Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God. Oxford: Clarendon 1952
Nicolson, Iain. Dark Side of the Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Fate of the Cosmos. Johns Hopkins University Press 2007.
Randall, Lisa. Warped Passages: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions Harper Perennial 2006.
Smoot, George. Wrinkles In Time: Witness to the Birth of the Universe
Harper Perrenial, 2007 edition.
Steinhardt, Paul, and Turok, Stanley. Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang
Vilenkin, Alex. Many Worlds In One: The Search for Other Universes
Hill and Wang 2006.
Wikpedia. “Big Crunch” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_crunch
WEEKEND ----- Jean-Luc Godard
In his ranting 1968 masterpiece entitled Weekend, director Jean-Luc Godard explores the delusions and disconnections of the self; between others, the society, and the human race as a whole. Here is a world beyond even consumption, now the concern is merely waste disposal. Life is something shrugged off when lost, and while living, only the blind journey of the means to a selfish end matter. The story, if it can be called as such, follows a couple named Roland and Corrine through a weekend excursion to kill Corrine’s mother and collect some wealth in the process. But here the cliche applies that it is not the destination that is important, but the journey. Much of the film is spent with Roland at the wheel, careening through the countryside amidst seeming apocalypse. Later the car is destroyed and Corrine and Roland must complete the journey on foot, running into reenactors spewing poetry, garbagemen haranguing with Marxist ideals, and a confused pianist. Finally they meet their goal, but after all that to-do it is hardly the climax, and their happily ever after is swiftly stolen from them when they are kidnapped by a band of psychedelic terrorists. References and symbols abound, but even without them the message of the film is clear: everything is wrong with us humans, so disturbingly wrong that it’s literally a joke. Shame on us! Laugh it up!
Early on in the film we find ourselves scandalized as an audience, no longer objective and detached observers but the butt of Godard’s cruel joke, the recipients of a blunt and lampooned thumb-biting. The scene, surely one of the most memorable in the film, follows our young couple, off on a mission through the country roads toward a goal most immoral and foul, as they are trapped for about ten minutes in a brash and absurd spectacle of a traffic jam, a mile long pileup that throws the audience into a frenzy of queasiness, humor, and sociological satire that foreshadows the condition of the entire film to come.
Our main characters Corinne and Roland coerce their convertible sports car through the mess with a proud obstinance. Behind the traffic jam is an undeveloped, untilled meadow, in stark juxtaposition to the traffic jam occurring in the foreground. Here, the corroding civility of humanity, at the mercy of it’s own greed and industry, trapped at a standstill of its own selfishness, and there the uncorrupted (by human touch) and pure perfection of nature. A sustained shot of what seems like an endless line of cars, identical in their predicament, yet each is unique and each individual expresses their distinctiveness, as in families passing the time blithely with board games or in the case of one woman, confronting the problem with absurd logic, as we see her car is turned facing in the opposite direction of the traffic, as she and another driver scream at each other in blame. Horns blare, just a little too loudly, a little too long, and tear at the nerves. The incessant procession culminates finally with a spectacle of horror; though the image is repeated continually throughout the remainder of the film, this is the first time we are exposed to it, and with quite a overture to preface it – a gruesome car wreck, wherein multiple cars are crumpled and cockeyed, torn like tin cans and even flaming in parts. A handful of bodies spatter the ditch off the road, mangled and covered in blood, some disembodied. A policeman nonchalantly waves traffic through, and relieved drivers anxiously make their way through the ghastly scene, disregarding the horrors on the side of the road in favor of their own belated routines.
Enflamed automobile remains and their correlative corpses litter the landscape...prophets of pending demise, surrealist momento mori...yet our protagonists and indeed it seems all citizens of this too-familiar dystopia are largely unaffected by these scenes, unaware even that, at least statistically, their probable and likely imminent deaths will follow suit. Selfish is too kind a word for these characters. Each on their own pettish quests for self-indulgence, they remain blind and unquestioning of their surroundings until an external being obstructs innocently, interferes violently, or otherwise encumbers their path toward a generally superficial end goal. In such cases, senseless brutality often ensues until the obstacle is eradicated (typically via gruesome and appalling – to the viewer, but not to the characters – execution).
Weekend’s flashy satire and seething anger tell an energetic critique of contemporary society, as relevant today as it was in 1968. This is not a constructive criticism, but a bare knuckled brawl with society’s repressive standards and orgiastic violence. Here Godard is at his best, throwing us all in the ring with him, and taking no prisoners.
C. Vail 4.4.08.
SHAME - - - - Ingmar Bergman
Bergman’s 1968 film Shame explores a side of war often not dealt with in film, the psychological warfare fuming innately in us all, let loose by the will to survive. While other ‘war’ films examine the horrors of the battlefield, and often the dramatic torment of a soldier in combat and his forlorn love back at home, Bergman turns a keen and brutally honest eye toward the depths we will resort to in order to save ourselves, and in lieu of saving ourselves, the act of clawing others down around us so that we may remain on highest ground. Shame follows one couple in a nameless country whose lives are slowly fractured and their inner demons exposed by the fanatical and absurd war that has overtaken the nation. Eva and Jan Rosenburg, played with exquisite intimacy by Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann (two of Bergman’s favorite and recurring actors), were once musicians in the local orchestra but now make their meager living off of selling berries they grow on their farm on a small island. Jan begins the film hypersensitive and somewhat pathetic in his cowardice, and Eva, the stronger and more responsible one, comes off callous and cold. As the war invades their quiet lives, we watch Jan’s disquieting transformation into a vengeful savage and Eva stripped of her armor and losing her faith, her morals, and ultimately her last hope. Eva ponders the question: What if this is all a dream? Surely the person having this dream will wake up and be ashamed of us.
Bergman writes on Shame in the book Images: My Life in Film:
“Once the outer violence stops and the inner violence begins, Shame becomes a good film. When society can no longer function, the main characters lose their frame of reference. Their social relations cease. The people crumble. The weak man becomes ruthless. The woman, who had been the stronger, falls apart. Everything slips away into a dream play that ends on board refugee boat. Everything is shown in pictures, as in a nightmare. In a nightmare, I felt at home. In the reality of war, I was lost.”
Eva and Jan’s lives have slipped out from under them; their identities, their hopes – and what is left isn’t as gallant as perhaps they had supposed. Civilized airs are shelved for the savagery of the simplest human emotions – jealousy, humiliation, desire (especially a desire for normalcy, however mundane it may have been).
An essay on the intimacy of a personal apocalypse, Shame brings to light the desperation that forces even good people to resort to a barbaric selfishness, the shame before your god as you enter through the gates, whether they be pearly or fiery, with your tail between your legs. Eminent scholar Adam Smith claimed that the driving force of the human race is self-interest, and that all morality and ethical behavior stems from an attempt to impress or appease an “impartial spectator” which for some materializes as a watchful god. But Smith finds hope and humanity and the operational mechanics of a functioning society in this self-interest; in Shame Bergman finds only disappointment and humiliation, and shows the human struggle as one that is hopeless and bleak.
With the legendary Bergman directing and writing, and renowned cinematographer Sven Nykvist capturing the intimacy and anxiety of Bergman’s vision, Shame carries the heavy weight of it’s namesake emotion through long shots, quick and disruptive cuts from scene to scene, and light and shadow. The film, shot in black and white, takes place largely outdoors in a somewhat barren landscape. Though our characters Eva and Jan Rosenburg live on a farm, it is hardly fruitful or teeming with livestock, and the weather is perpetually cold and wet. In the few happier moments, sunlight pours over Eva’s skin and dances in her flaxen hair, and the couple imbibes in a rare glass of wine. Eva lets down her rigid guard and shares her fears and hopes with her husband. Here the camera locks in on Eva’s face and does not let go, closing in on her reflective expression and showing only Jan’s back, even as Jan speaks. At first the shot lingering over Eva for such time goes unnoticed, but it begins to overstay its welcome and the viewer longs to see Jan’s face in response. This longing remains denied, affecting a significance to the conversation. At last, the shot cuts. Jan and Eva slip under the table and make love. But this joy is fleeting, and the next scene bursts apart their contentment with an epic finality, setting off a series of events that Eva and Jan do not, cannot escape. The cut startles, breaking the calm both to the viewer and in our protagonists’ lives. Like the best novelists, Bergman knows that the most loved characters must be broken, must come upon utter tragedy, their facades and perfections destroyed and martyrdom disallowed. The viewer’s empathy for the characters curdles as their dignity is lost in defeat, the true casualty of this strange war.
Made at the height of the tumultuous Vietnam War, Shame, like Godard’s Weekend, is a protest, but not simply of war, which is not an external occurance but a web constructed by all those involved, individuals all. Both films point fingers of blame at the average citizen: the hypocrites, trapped in their own theories and objections; the profiteers, basking plumply in their immunity; and most of all, the average-joes, namely us and represented by Eva and Jan in Shame, holing ourselves up in our thin skins and simple pleasures – what we don’t know can’t hurt us. Shame is particularly relevant today, for an American audience. We all assure ourselves to be impervious until terror pierces our ordinary lives and confronts us with our own worst fear: honesty. In our impermeable bubble, war had been a one-way street since Vietnam here in the U.S., a distant solution for distant threats. But seven years ago that bubble, that fortress, was penetrated and our most feeble symbols became our armour. What has followed is a strategem of terror concocted from within, and we have made quick work of defeating ourselves from the inside, wearing ignorance like a shield. This nameless war-torn country Eva and Jan call home is no dystopia - merely the dark period so many nations inevitably discover themselves in. The war in Shame has little bloodshed – until the final scene almost no corpses are shown, but everyone is a casualty. In the scene following the romantic picnic and playful romp described above, we see Jan emerging from the outhouse, and where sex is heavenly, shitting is animal, and we are brought back down to reality. Eva is occupied with feeding the rabbits, distracted perhaps by the hope of raising her own family. The calm of ignorance is broken - just then a jet screams through the air, explosions erupt all around them and their farm, flames sear through the woods nearby, Jan and Eva duck for cover. A plane is hit, a man ejects and parachutes down to the trees below, and Jan’s true colors are shown when he tries to convince Eva not to help the man. It’s dangerous, who’s to say he won’t just kill you, he tells her, but she simply looks at him in horror and insists that it is the only humane thing to do. We do not see her find the man, but when she comes back opposing force soldiers burst into their driveway and interrogate her, and Eva tells them that the man was already dead when she found him. In a parody too achingly familiar today, the soldiers then, after a fit of terror-inducing inquisition, break out a camera and inquire Eva on film in a chipper tone, “How does it feel to be liberated?” Liberated, annhilated, the two are more synonymous today than ever before. The sharp, jolting editing of this scene when juxtaposed with the tranquility of the steady camera, bright sunlight, and close portraiture shot of Eva in the previous scene throws the viewer into the same unsteady agitation that befall our protagonists.
Eva and Jan once not long ago lived off their art, enjoyed their mundane lives and casual relationships. Jan even had an affair, it is insinuated, with an opera singer. But now there is no time to go chasing women or playing music.
“Soldier: Where do you belong? Whose side are you on?
Jan: I don't belong anywhere. We're musicians.
Soldier: You were musicians. There aren't any orchestras any more.”
In times of war, it is said, the luxury of art becomes difficult if not impossible, but also the most crucial. Beauty and aesthetic have no home on battlegrounds; they become petty nostalgia of a time to which there is no return. Bergman explores this in the antique shop in the city where Eva and Jan purchase a bottle of wine from their friend, a man at the very edge of his wits now that he’s been drafted into the war himself. The couple, in good spirits, looks around the shop at memories of eras more lavish and comfortable, of romance and royalty. They meditate on a porcelain music box, playing a jaunty and genteel tune; they seem to get lost for a moment in memory. They have traveled to the city to sell the berries they grow; berries themselves signify a small, sweet luxury, however meager, much like Polanski’s The Pianist, in which a family on the verge of severance and death camp internment buy a caramel with the last money they have, slice it into pieces, then share in the experience of savoring the small extravagance, knowing it to likely be their last, and well worth the humility of relinquishing their last bit of wealth, and with it, their last fragment of hope. The berries Eva and Jan grow and sell so quickly out of in the town seem to be snatched up in the same longing for normalcy and simple pleasure by the people of this country so enveloped in the anxiety of the war around them.
Bells are everywhere in Shame; jarring alarms, fraught church bells, tinkling music. Bergman uses them as a soundtrack; at times it is a minor tinkling in the background, in other times it takes center stage, connecting Jan and Eva to the romanticized past through a music box or fracturing the landscape with blaring sirens. Perhaps it is the anxiousness of a country in fear, a momento mori, signaling impending trouble and ruin, or marriage bells, reminding us that this film is truly about two people and their struggle for truth and intimacy, only reached in the final moments, when all faith is lost. Perhaps the bells are trying to shake the characters awake from this nightmare.
Bergman’s shrewd protest engages us not because of the action and obvious dramas of war, but because of the tragedy of watching how war reduces the prosaic day to day man to shameful cowardice and debauched vengeance. The classic final scene of Shame finds our characters Eva and Jan Rosenburg in a refugee boat, and it as though they are passengers floating through the haze of the River Styx, bodies bobbing like corks on the surface of the water around them, their only means of movement to push the corpses away with an oar, a necessity so appalling that the boatman solemnly surrenders his pride and right to life, tumbling off the side of the boat and slipping silently into the murky water. It is aching in its unethical repulsiveness, but the necessity of it plays a tug of war with our emotions. Shame is brilliant in its candid and frank, though at times pessimistic, view of humanity.
Bergman, Ingmar. Images: My Life In Film. Arcade Publishing, 1995 edition.
Skammen (Shame), 1968. Sweden, Ingmar Bergman (writer and director)
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Book Jungle, 2007 edition.
Wiladyslaw Szpilman. The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945. Picador, 2002 edition.
C.Vail May 9, 2008 History of Film – final draft
Every Man is an Island...and Together We Make Up a Continent
Altman’s Nashville and American Identity
Director Robert Altman, notorious for his large ensemble casts and layered, candid dialogue, truly outdoes himself in 1975’s Nashville. A pseudo-satire on American excess and celebrity, Nashville collapses under it’s own farcical weight, transforming in the process into a heartbreaking, merciful portrait of American humanity. It does so under the guise of two structural themes: on the one hand, following the country western music business in it’s own Hollywood of Nashville, TN, and on the other hand, a political campaign heralding a desperate need for change during the U.S. bicentennial, just after the exodus of U.S. troops in the Vietnam War. It is through the lens of these two themes that Altman asserts his sardonic take on American behavior and thought. This paper will explore Altman’s allegations on the part of American society put to film during this influential era of the nation’s history.
Using the reference of the twenty-four track recording process used frequently in music recording as a scaffolding for his narrative, Altman follows 24 characters through their mingling and merging experiences over roughly a week in Nashville, culminating in a finale concert celebrating the U.S. bicentennial at Nashville’s apposite Parthenon monument. The diverse personalities are all allotted their own plotlines and backgrounds, interwoven by a series of events common to their stories. Narratives are blended and layered like the mixing of a record; dialogue and storylines overlap and interrupt one another. Nashville utilizes few close-up shots, tending toward larger, more distanced shots to capture the swarm of characters churning about in the crowds of the music performances that connect the film. When Altman does close in on an individual, it carries a special significance.
Robert Altman has a particular adoration and awe for his heroines – it is in their modest and exposed moments that Nashville finds tenderness and sincerity. Most notably through the character of Linnea Reese (played by Lily Tomlin), a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children who reluctantly falls into infidelity by the pleas of a womanizing folk-rock singer, Altman illustrates the facets of the female, and human, experience. Along with the superb performance by Tomlin, he touches on a sensitivity to the demands and burdens of motherhood and marriage. A scene revolving around the dinner table at the Reese home illustrates the unwearied love Linnea has for her children and the impatience the paternally inept husband Delbert Reese exhibits around them. Linnea’s son animatedly describes his day at the swimming pool; he beams with pride telling Linnea how he was such a good swimmer that the other kids nicknamed him “Goldfish” – Linnea beams back lovingly. Her children, though possessing communicative obstacles, seem to be the only characters in Nashville exempt from the contrived superficialities of the musical and political game around which Nashville revolves.
In one of the most affecting scenes of the film, Tomlin sits in the back of a bar, watching her suitor play a serenade dedicated to her. While other women in the bar, who have all had their run-ins with Tom (the musician), convince themselves that the song is for them, the viewer knows from precedence that it is truly an ode to Tomlin’s character. Wearing a modest white jacket (a juxtaposition to the flashy garb plastering the majority of the cast), Tomlin is illuminated under a single white light in an otherwise shadowy bar. This halo of light is an intimation of the esteem the viewer has bestowed on Tomlin’s character Linnea, whose reserved simplicity and maternal compassion counts her an exception to the crowds of wanna-bes, desperate for stardom, and country music celebrities, glittering in their gaudy costumes and secretly concealing psychoses brought on by the onus of fame. As Tom (played by Keith Carradine) croons “I’m Easy”, the song that won him and the film an Academy Award, the camera slowly closes in on Linnea, creating an intimate and enthralling shot. Linnea’s face contains overwhelming emotion within one look, the ache of desires unfulfilled playing tug of war with her moral sensibility. While Nashville buzzes with rowdiness and clamor for the bulk of it’s two and a half hours, this scene and it’s quiet profundity causes the viewer to hold their breath and simply watch Linnea’s face. The subsequent infidelity Linnea finds herself committing is then all the more tragic to the viewer, for Linnea is one character in Nashville that is not over-the-top or desperate for celebrity. To see this upright and kindly mother fall into the same immoral trap the other characters call home is upsetting.
In another heartrending moment, a young wanna-be singer named Sueleen Gay (played by Gwen Welles) hopes to get her foot in the door to fame with a performance at a “smoker” gig, benefiting the primary election of politician Hal Phillip Walker. In a darkened saloon filled with wealthy businessmen and their checkbooks, a platform in the ceiling lowers mechanically to the floor, holding a pianist and Sueleen, made up in her showiest attire and a feathered cat-eye mask. We know from previous scenes that Sueleen is pitifully tone-deaf, and regrettably also completely unaware of such. We have seen Sueleen practicing artlessly in front of the mirror, padding her bra with socks, and professing to an aspiration of stardom with a demure naivete. So here she comes, lowered on a stage like Liberace, but embodying gawky inexperience. Aware of her lack of talent, we the audience squirm in our seats sympathetically. Removing her mask and superfluous cape-lette to reveal her bare shoulders and bare innocence, Sueleen begins to murmur the words to her song. At first the crowd is supportive, encouraging Sueleen to sing and move about the platform more confidently, but the pretenses of this encouragement are dubious: what exactly is it Sueleen is expected to do, since they’re clearly not egging her on because of her vocal capacity? Some men wave dollar bills, hooting licentiously. When no more clothing is removed, the crowd turns on her, booing her into mortification, and she abandons the stage. She is stopped by Delbert Reese, Linnea’s husband and the organizer of the musical acts supporting the Hal Phillip Walker campaign. Reese is desperate for the funds pending in the crowd’s pockets. He pledges to Sueleen that if she merely acquiesce to the mob’s wishes, being that she strip, that she Sueleen Gay will have the chance to sing with her idol Barbara Jean at the Parthenon the next day, in front of a huge audience. Shamefaced, she returns to the platform and begins to undress, tears welling up in her eyes. The camera follows Sueleen as she roams around the piano, but Altman keeps part of her body covered by props as if to bestow her some decency, and to further illustrate her timidity. Her body is not that of an exotic dancer, and she moves gracelessly, tugging off parts of her clothing and tossing them into the audience with no attempt at sensuality. The men in the crowd are not dissuaded by her awkwardness, instead they seem all the more enticed by her innocence. Bashfully, she removes the socks from her bra and tosses them; a spectator catches one and whirls it around triumphantly. She is most reluctant to take off her bra and panties, both the simple cotton type that are not worn with an intent for show. Finally, she stumbles about completely nude, just barely controlling her humiliation, and exits the bar. The men clap and whoop in applause. It is a most pitiful scene, wrenching at the viewer’s sentiment.
But Robert Altman’s proclivity towards investigating the troubled femme is largely overshadowed in Nashville by the broader subject at hand: America, and the American lifestyle of desire and excess. The American Dream – that you can choose your own identity of success and achieve it – has by 1975 become the American Delusion, wherein everyone pines to be somebody, regardless of who that somebody is. Celebrity is immortality, and the exterior must be flawless. The history of our young nation provides valuable insight into the development of this distorted belief system.
America, “founded” by Puritans who, though rigidly ensnared in subservient prostration to their Lord, were nonetheless insurrectionists in their own right. Rebellion from authority pulled them from their homeland in the hope of creating a theocratic utopia, a “New World”. America coalesced around this idyllic tabula rasa, and what has followed has only had 233 years to ripen. We often forget today how very young our country is; it is the treasured offspring of the world, and so quickly claimed supremacy with the conceit of an adolescent. “We must be doin’ something right, to last two hundred years...”, Nashville country star Haven Hamilton belts out as the film’s opening credits roll. The nationalistic patriotism exhibited in Nashville over the U.S.’s bicentennial anniversary is only a slightly amplified vision of this country; this country descended immigrants, impelled to leave their home countries for whatever reason and integrate their cherished cultural aspects while largely abandoning or becoming intolerant of those they find irksome. America has always been a bit self-important, and any opportunity to inflate patriotic pride is exaggerated; the Bicentennial being one case, the years that have succeeded the notorious 9/11 are another. America considers itself a celebrity among nations, and politically many costly deals or quarrels with other countries are rooted in enhancing our appearance internationally, often above the duty to improve internally. Writer Tom Wolfe muses upon this American disorder in the essay “Sorry, But your Soul Just Died”, from his 2001 collection Hooking Up: “The peculiarly American faith in the power of the individual to transform himself from a helpless cipher into a giant among men – that faith is now as moribund as the god for whom Nietzsche wrote an obituary in 1882.”
Appearance is primary. That is the American dictum. In the nation’s infancy, perfection entailed nobility and heroism; battle heroes were idolized. Through it’s puberty, the Platonic rationalism spurred by advances in science and psychology eradicated the mystical and divine. As Nietzsche broadcasted from Germany: “God is dead.” But once the ghost in the machine had been exterminated, humanity found they still needed a reason to live, faith in something, and ordinance by an authority. It is simply in our nature. . Darwin, though a man of considerable spirituality himself, assisted this crumbling of the Great Author with his theory of evolution right about this time as well. Coincidentally, this need correlated with the invention of film. With film, the simple man could once again become a god, larger than life. Makeup and costume transformed average men into dashing heroes and a run-of-the-mill woman into a stunning goddess. These new gods had their myths and stories, but they were also observable, “real”, unlike the old inscrutable gods that in their facelessness had become empirically doubted The subsequent elevation of man’s status through images, which became progressively an unrealistic personality and appearance, quickly led to the “Hollywood Syndrome” that Altman refers to (in an interview on Nashville years later). The basis of many of the characters of Nashville is the pretense of appearance, the appearance of perfection and popularity. Everyone wants to be a god, idolized and unflawed. But this desire attempts to deny human imperfection. Blemishes, both physical and psychological, can never be completely concealed. Nashville examines this paradox, satirizing the absurdity of a desire for perfection while somewhat indelicately exposing the reality of human flaw. The flaws Altman chooses to bare are those we hold most private: humiliation, immoral decisions and desires, and neurosis.
In Nashville there is little introspection, save for perhaps Tomlin’s Linnea, but Altman brings the blotches and stains of the characters to light expertly through the observation of relationships. Conversation can tell you a great deal about people, even when the conversations never reach a thoughtful depth. Body language speaks almost louder – take for instance the scene in which “Opal from the BBC” sits down privately to talk with Bud, Haven Hamilton’s business-minded son, at Hamilton’s party at the cabin. Opal, drawn to a charming face, can’t believe it when Bud tells her he isn’t a country singer, merely a businessman. Bud is timid and modest, but nonetheless likes the offer of attention from a pretty woman. He answers her questions candidly and without affectation, grinning coyly and fiddling self-consciously with his hands. Opal looks for a moment to be bored; she had hoped that he was someone “interesting” (i.e. famous). Surely you’ve wanted to become a singer, what with you father and all, she teases him. Not really, he says, but Opal perks up again when he divulges that he wrote a song once. Oh, I’d love to hear it, she beams, clutching her microphone and recorder. Innocently flirting, Bud begins to sing her his song, leaning in to her with starry eyes. He sings quietly, sweetly, and Opal begins to fall into the romance of it for a minute, her eyes gazing adoringly, leaning closer towards him. But soon her eyes wander, she sits more upright, and she squints into the distance having heard a name. Her neck bends forward, and her eyes widen. “Is that Elliot Gould?” she interrupts, Bud still crooning to her tenderly. “It is!” She perks up, stands. Bud stops singing, rejected. Opal scurries out of frame to the party to talk to someone “worth” talking to. That transition of interest, illustrated entirely with her eyes and body language, speaks multitudes about the kind of person Opal is and what her true ambitions are.
In a recent issue of Newsweek, an article on Niagara Falls by David Gates entitled “An Artifice For America” begins:
“The first European to see Niagara Falls didn’t enjoy it. ‘When one stands near the Fall’, wrote Father Louis Hennepin (who did so in 1678), ‘and looks down into this most dreaded Gulph, one is seized with Horror’. If you’ve ever been there, you may know the feeling. Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon may also inspire that sense of mingled awe, terror and human insignificance the Romantics called the sublime. But unlike those places, Niagara Falls is unceasing, deafening, destructive motion – one of these centuries, in fact, it will destroy itself.”
Reading this the author of this paper finds it difficult not to make a correlation between Gates’ description of the Falls and the unremitting stubbornness of America, a sort of self-destructive force bounding through the political and cultural process with an unparalleled tenacity.
But perhaps this self-destruction is merely a symptom of growing pains. Nashville takes brazen assault at America’s blunderings, but not without empathy. As two and half hours of character development culminate in the climactic political assassination of music icon Barbara Jean (a prescient foresight of John Lennon’s murder several years later), the crowd and our characters buzz about in a frenzied panic. Opal from the BBC, amusingly, has missed the episode and scuttles about asking, “What happened?” Haven Hamilton, with a sudden stoicism (though alarmed, as he was also hit with a bullet), shouts onstage, “Y'all take it easy now. This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville! They can't do this to us here in Nashville! Let's show them what we're made of. Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!” Hamilton is desperate to keep the American spirit, whatever that is, alive in this moment of horror that so unexpectedly arose amid patriotic celebration. He thrusts out the microphone to whomever will heed his call. “Albuquerque”, though a minor character, has not had her voice heard, her story told, and takes up Hamilton’s pleas. Timidly at first, she begins to sing “It Don’t Worry Me” (heard earlier as one of Keith Carradine’s songs), her voice wobbling nervously. Soon, though, she gains conviction, her voice piercing stalwart through the still harried crowd. Linnea’s gospel choir, already onstage, joins in, adding vigor and beauty to the song. The enormous American flag behind the stage sways loyally in the breeze. Now Altman takes us into the crowd, focusing the camera not on the 24 characters we have come to know throughout the film, but on the other faces. The people of Nashville: parents and children, law officers, average citizens - Americans. Albuquerque’s voice swings eccentrically, pushed by a force of nature; a force of rectification and necessity. Nashville ends with a zoom-out of the stage, the flag, and the crowd, Barbara Harris (Albuquerque) leading the crowd in chanting: “It don’t worry me…no, it don’t worry me. You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.” Though Altman spends much of the film mocking the disgrace of the American Dream, the zenith of Nashville is one of communion, and yes, patriotism. And the comedic agony of the foregoing satire makes the sincerity of the conclusion all the more poignant.
Nashville, directed by Robert Altman. 1975 U.S.
Gates, David. “An Artifice For America” Newsweek May 2008
Wolfe, Tom. “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died” Hooking Up, Picador 2001
Paper 2 Nagel/Dawkins
Dawkins, Nagel, and Some Implausible
Leprechauns and Fairies in a Garden
Can you really question the validity of an abstract or ineffable god, whether or not you prescribe to the belief? Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett think so. But where they go wrong in their argument is not in the diallelum, or regression into Whys ad infinitum (as most philosophers inevitably fall into, head over feet), but on the issue of quite the opposite – exclusivity.
Writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins spurred a venomous feud in the scientific and philosophical community with his nervy antitheist book The God Delusion, published in 2006. Calling on Darwin’s ghost (one wonders if Darwin would have sponsored such a brash unbeliever as Dawkins) as well as a number of scientific resources to back up his case, Dawkins blisters away for 416 pages with all intentions at crucifying God. Such a petition is sure to stir up controversy, but the real feud occurred, surprisingly, from within the atheist circle, as philosopher Thomas Nagel took offense to Dawkins’ decree, Dawkins cohort Daniel Dennett rushed to his comrade’s side, then evolutionary geneticist and philosopher H. Allen Orr spat back at Dennett’s supportive review for Dawkins’ book, upon which Dennett subsequently spat back at Orr, and the whole embittered battle continued incessantly, becoming with time less newsworthy but never losing steam.
It would appear that there are two sides to this argument: there is the side of Dawkins and Dennett, who claim absolutes and stand confidently behind their ‘evidence’. Then there is the side of the unconvinced skeptics, Nagel and Orr, equally well versed in the ways of science and philosophy, but highly critical of Dawkins’ and Dennett’s bombast, discrediting their certitude without falling down the slippery slope of relativism. As one who has often skied those slopes, my subjective estimation is that I can only go along with Nagel and Orr. Dawkins’ conviction in his ‘facts’ is a little narrow-minded, and his immodest demand for the jettison of any and all super-natural or as of yet scientifically ‘unproven’ beliefs is quite frankly a bit bullheaded. Champion quantitative science all you want, it’s fascinating, it’s the most interesting credo since monotheism and pantheism before that, but one must tread lightly when claiming evidence against the mystical. Evidence? Evidence is far too strong a term, isn’t it, for subjects like science and religion – oh, they do try, but can either side truly claim EVIDENCE for or against the existence of an abstraction such as God? No, of course not, and even an intellectual pointing to this and that as an objective, absolute clue in either direction is a delicate matter. Orr says it well in his rebuttal to Dennett’s rebuttal to Orr’s irritation to Dennett’s support of Dawkins’ book (stay with me here): “Dennett's first argument, from his letter to The New York Review of Books, is that the quality of religious thinking is so poor that one needn't bother with it. This is such a bizarre way to defend a book about religion that it's hard to know what to say. But surely we can agree that if one's conclusion is that religion is indefensibly stupid it's probably best not to start from the premise that religion is indefensibly stupid.”
Both Dawkins and Dennett aim to convert theists into atheists, yet both begin their arguments against the existence of God with a flippant hand – you know it’s ridiculous, they address the readers, so here’s some scientific dogma that proves you wrong – scoffing at the multitude of reasons why humans have chosen to believe in something they can’t empirically prove since before the time there was any way to empirically prove a thing to be this or that, and instead spotlighting the delinquencies of belief. Certainly a good deal of religious individuals have not been allowed to chose their beliefs or search for what feels best, or have blindly followed a belief system for the ‘wrong’ reasons. And certainly disputes over paltry and subtle (and often culturally appropriated) disparities in religious belief have been the grounds of many a needless war, persecution, and tragedy. Dawkins lists these problems at length in the book. But these problems are more due to humanity’s flaws, are they not, than to the possibility of an ethereal creator? It is after all the greed, want for control, insecurity and selfishness that unfortunately buds in a good deal too many Homo sapiens that causes minor misunderstandings to elevate full-throttle into horrific events. And for reason’s sake, one can’t simply brush off the array of sociological, psychological, personal, cultural, traditional and philosophical reasons why religions exist and why a majority of the human species always have and continue to align themselves with these systems as simple and obtuse ignorance. But Dawkins has vindication, he claims, for this faux pas in human judgment: his permittedly reasonable theory of memetics is called up as another rival of religion in The God Delusion. The grand Pooh-Bah of antitheism uses memes as motives for the spread of religion, described woundingly by Dawkins as “mind viruses”.
In the newest edition of the book, Dawkins added a preface no doubt in response to the surely innumerable rants he’d received after the first edition. As many critics of the book had attacked the piece for being sub-par on a scholarly level, he noted that he did not reference, academic or otherwise, outside writings and sources wherein the author subscribed to a belief in God without having ‘rationally’ and ‘logically’ deduced enough proof of God’s existence to satisfy their own mind. He then asked “Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” Debasing though the question may be, I’d like to argue it. Partly, no, you do not, at least to disbelieve in leprechauns. But a belief is much like an opinion. It is not fact, as Dawkins seems to get confused about at times, but somewhere between the line of belief and fact there is some fuzzy truth, be it even subjective truth, but invalid it is not. To disprove the existence of leprechauns, however, as he’s trying to do with this diatribe on God, YES, you really must read up on leprechology. Especially if you don’t believe in it right off, because just as Dawkins so discredits theist believers that assume that there is a God, one should absolutely get out there and ask around a bit What’s this supposed God like, Why’s everybody so into ‘him’, and What’s ‘he’ ever done for you? I wouldn’t consider it impossible for me or Dawkins, unversed in leprechology, to find upon some research into it all that leprechauns aren’t what we thought they were, aren’t those strange fantasy trolls molded from racial stereotypes about the Irish at all, but something based on a credible experience that got blown way out of proportion (see any parallels here?). But Dawkins is having none of it. He’s no expert on personal religious experience, but he just knows it’s all an “impoverished idea” and a “mistake”.
Nagel probably makes more sense of it than I do: “But God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God. If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them... All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.”
Back on the scientific front, it should also be pointed out that Dawkins and Dennett ignore the alternatives to a single Big Bang theory of the evolution of the universe. It’s worth mentioning, at least, that models, even a model proposed by renowned physicists with an overwhelming amount of statistical corroboration (see The Endless Universe, by), have been proposed that suggest that this is not the first universe to have transpired in space-time, that perhaps there have even been an infinite number of Big Bangs and expanding and evolving universes before ours, which opens a door to more possibilities of chance and probability, even more than 14 billion years of evolution, and even, if you’re open to it, an answer to the question “how can God, a being complex enough to have intention and power, exist a priori – who or what created God?” Though it’s all enough to make you want to fall back on the “Turtles all the way down” story, I think it should be accounted for as at least another rabbit hole in the muck of evolutionary materialism.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins seems to be largely taking on the Christian God, but, probably because it’s been such a headlining topic in recent years, his haranguing tirade of a book confronts the theory of Intelligent Design with the wrath of a scorned lover. Admittedly, Intelligent Design is far (light-years away) from bulletproof, but it’s a relatively new idea that frankly never hurt anybody, not like organized religion has anyhow, and hasn’t had time to ‘evolve’, mostly because it’s been backed by maybe not the most...credible... individuals.
But intellectually speaking, the main predicament with Dawkins’ argument is that he denies the Design case it’s own line of reasoning – he battles the question of God and design with weapons of materialism and science, but fails to see that scientific rationale isn’t going to dissuade believers, for after all that’s not truly the language they speak. You cannot argue the case against God with scientific proof because it is the nature of God that God is beyond scientific understanding. Both sides, that is the Big Bang theory coupled with the evolutionary theory and on the other side the creationist theory, fall at a catch-22 at their point of origin, where both become unknowable and infinite singularities. True, it does seem a bit too easy at times to throw in the “well, God did it”, or “because God made it so” or “because there is nothing beyond God, He defies human explanation because he is beyond our capable understanding”. It’s certainly a tough one to beat, but not because it provides a satisfactory answer. Likewise Dawkins’ stringent materialism falls short as we approach the point of origin, that is the origin of life, and it certainly can make no claim to satisfy the Why question, but only the How, and even there it’s shaky at times, tip-toeing a bit around the biological exceptions to the rule. Dawkins’ physicalism so bitterly bashes a spiritual arcanum that it leaves even the most stubborn skeptic of religion a little sympathetic to the Design argument. It seems that Dawkins doesn’t merely want the objective truth, whatever the answer may be; he’s staunchly anti-god, anti-faith, and anti-spiritual, pummeling down religion with every bit of empirical ‘evidence’ he can get his hands on. He fails to acknowledge the very youthfulness of modern science, especially evolutionist biology and general physics, and the incredibly deep roots of myth and mystery ingrained in the human experience since our species first gained self-consciousness. Flawed as it is, one can hardly argue the seductiveness of a case for design, especially one that makes some attempt at meeting both humanity’s desperate hope for a purpose and possible afterlife AND modern empirical findings with implications difficult to ignore. Even as someone who does not subscribe to the idea of design, there is nobility in it, having a go at universalism, is there not? It seems somewhat an unwise choice for Dawkins to dispute so harshly this attempt at a happy medium, unsound as it may be, when the globe remains largely populated by religious literalists and fundamentalists, blindly submitting their lives to historically inaccurate and highly outdated works of myth and fiction – it is not proponents of Intelligent Design that rush into violence at an insult stemming from misguided semantics or knotty translations, after all. So why all this sound and fury, Dawkins, when you yourself cannot build a sturdy construction of your own argument? The controversy over Dawkins is the surprising amount of challenge he’s received from even the most cerebral of his fellow atheists. Nagel frankly and smartly lays out his issue with Dawkins’ obstinacy: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…I hope there is no God...I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and is responsible for…the overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.” Nagel points out that there is a distinction between believing in the supernatural and miraculous and leaving some room for the possibility of further discovery. Dawkins is counting his hens before they’ve hatched, reducing possible explanations running the gamut of philosophical query into the yes, we should admit it, pretty limited and freshly unearthed principles of modern science. His confidence and stringency regarding the scientific substantiation he so unflinchingly leans upon is the mark of a puerile scholar and is vaguely insulting to the pragmatic school of atheism he cavalierly alleges to command. Simplistic reductionism, additionally, is insulting to philosophy itself, and hey, even scientists love a little mystery. Consciousness, as we know, provides us a captivating enigma of a test subject – we know consciousness to exist, it’s existence proven by our very awareness of it, and yet, try as they might, reductionists have failed to deduce a neurological origin. Does this mean consciousness proves the ‘supernatural’? Of course not – perhaps neuroscience, now still in relative infancy, will someday pick apart the electrochemical processes so exhaustively that we’ll find it –whatever it is. But isn’t this all just as deterministic and fatalistic as the argument for God? And at least the God argument has some hope to it, some intention. Like Nagel, I’m hoping we don’t find that be-all, end-all answer, not from either side, because as best I can make out, it’s the inquiry and investigation that’s the fun of it all. Best not to lose hope in the diallelum.
At the beginning of The God Delusion, Dawkins quotes his friend Douglas Adams, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” This quick piece of wit makes a better case for Dawkins’ argument than the next four hundred pages do, yet...what if you’re the one who sees the fairies, quite convincingly, at the bottom of that garden? Is it really worth someone’s lifetime to try to convince you that you do not see them, that they are not there, that you are simply wrong? Could they convince you?
C. Vail Vail 1
Oct. 20, 2007
The Case For Capitalism
Capitalism is seen as the dominant, and most successful, economic system working in today’s world. Indeed it has led the countries that have embraced it to a higher level of financial stability than those countries that have denied it. In this paper I will make an attempt to argue the case for capitalism; first in theory, then in true-life application, then critiquing it from the opposing side.
Theories of capitalism
First several relevant proponents of capitalism, specifically libertarian capitalism, will be briefly described, in chronological order. Their arguments and theories provide a strong case for capitalism.
We begin with Adam Smith, the father of classical economics and, I believe, the strongest line of reasoning regarding capitalism, though that case may be due to the fact that his theories far predated our current globalized system and perhaps are not adequate or applicable to modern reality, though his ideas appear logical, just, efficient and encouraging nonetheless. Smith contended somewhat controversially that self-interest was the leading human factor in a successfully perpetuating system, citing that an individual’s quest for the approval of an “impartial spectator” along with sympathy (which has been viewed by many as paradoxical) defines limits and justifies what is right and wrong as a sort of spontaneously occurring societal moral code. He argued that division of labour allowed increased production and efficiency, believed that an “invisible hand” guided and balanced the free market, and proclaimed that government interference with the economy be very limited, allowing however such things as a judiciary system, public education, and others discussed further under The Role of Government section. Through a dissatisfaction with mercantilism the beginnings of modern capitalism were borne, with Smith as the leading theorist.
David Hume, a social theorist and Smith contemporary in the 18th c., laid his theories of justice regarding property and rights in his book Treatise of Human Nature. In it he compares humans with other animals; specifically that of a lion, with natural ability and ferocity necessary for it’s survival, and of a sheep deprived of such advantages but with a compensatory moderation of appetite, and finally the human whom naturally has been given neither ability but instead the intellect and competitive spirit to create or fabricate it’s own weapons and industrial or agricultural means of production. Human interdependence allows the species survival – he writes: “Society provides a remedy for these...inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented; by the partition of employments, our ability increases: and by mutual succor we are less expos’d to fortune and accident. “Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.”
Thirdly, the 20th c. scholar Friedrich A. Hayek makes his case for the free market (and against communism, socialism, and totalitarianism) with a somewhat abstract description of the two types of order that form the collective of society. He deemed these “made order” and “spontaneous order”, also using the Greek terms “taxis” and “kosmos”, respectively. Hayek explained that spontaneous order is ever-present and for the most part incompliant to conscious direction, that no amount of planning or control can avoid spontaneous order (debunking communism and totalitarianism), and that competitive capitalism plays both games in a balance perhaps as justified as it can be: “The farm, the family, the plant, the firm, the corporation...all the public institutions including government, are organizations which in turn are integrated into a more comprehensive order.” I.e. – “central direction”, though necessary for efficient organization towards a goal, is always at the hands of a larger and largely uncontrollable spontaneous order. Those who maintain “function” in this order chance better for survival, being more conducive to the maintenance and efficiency of the order. He writes, “To maintain that we must deliberately plan society because it has become so complex is...paradoxical...The fact is, rather, that we can preserve an order of such complexity not
by the method of directing the members, but only indirectly by enforcing and improving the rules conducive to the formation of a spontaneous order.” – Hayek, pg.241
In the second half of the 20th century, economic theorist Milton Friedman greatly influenced American economic thought with his libertarian ideals, trumpeting competitive capitalism during the “Reaganomics” era. Friedman believed that in a free market society the role of the government should be limited (see below, in Role of Gov’t), as economic freedom is a necessary (but insufficient, he argued) condition for political freedom. He advocated deregulation, privatization, and a libertarian laissez-faire policy, and claimed that competitive capitalism could “free” communist and/or totalitarian regimes in struggling countries, citing the benefits that competitive capitalism has created in the countries that have embraced it. His effects on economic theory can still be seen today in Bush’s politic, especially in heralding privatization and spreading western ideals, though Friedman’s views on a minimized government interference and monopolization brings up many more questions regarding today’s government. Friedman writes, ”Exchange can bring about co-ordination without coercion. A working model of a society organized through voluntary exchange is a free private enterprise exchange economy – what we have been calling competitive capitalism.”
The Role of Government/ Property and Rights
Libertarian capitalist thinkers agree on a minimized interference in economic workings from the state/ government. However, they also ponder the pragmatic reality and tend to concur on the necessity of some government, and this topic is really what defines libertarian from state from social theories. Most of the scholars considered in the opening section of this paper appear to agree on the particular roles which the government should fill with regards to the economy, with some
divergences on the subject of the definition of property and the rights and laws to adhere to property.
Robert Nozick speaks at length on the topic of defining a “just acquisition” of property, addressing a just acquisition as one that adheres to the provisions of the law. He also muses on the justice of transfer of property, stating that a property’s history of
acquisition must also have adhered to the provisions of the law, and he insists that a rectification between just acquisition and transfer history is necessary in order to define the garnering of property by and individual as “just”. Nozick claims that equality in property is against the idea of liberty for the individual, and that “patterning” based on need or moral merit is unfair, and argues rather that the individual’s market value itself is the only judge, this being his argument against socialism and welfare. Nozick’s ideas are incompassionate and unhumanitarian, but lend themselves well to the realities of competitive capitalism, specifically in today’s market.
Adam Smith championed laissez-faire policy, ie. “let them do”. His idea of the purpose of government was limited to the maintenence and protection of the people, and it was allowed little intrusion into the realm of economy. However, it has been said that his book Wealth of Nations could justify the FDA, the Consumer product safety commission, mandatory employer health benefits, environmentalism, and “discriminatory taxation to deter improper or luxurious behavior”. This falls under the category of what Nozick would have claimed to be unlibertarian “patterning”, as Smith puts a limit on the accumulation of wealth. Smith also advocated public education, a judiciary system, and possibly a standing army. The individual’s self-interest, resulting competition for resources, and the invisible hand of market balance take care of the maintenance and smooth continuation of the economy.
John Stuart Mill comment on the importance of law and the benefits garnered by the individual by living within the society and under the law: “...everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct toward the rest.” This conduct, he explains, consists of 2 principles: not injuring the
interests of another within his rights, and bearing his own share of labor and sacrifice for the greater good. Beyond these, a capable being of understanding should be allowed the freedoms and consequences of society. Mill on the when the law must interfere: “Whenever...there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty and placed in that of morality or law.”
Freidman argues that government should be limited from complete control of the market, but that it does have its role, especially in law: “The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom b/c it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.... “These then are the basic roles of government in a free society: to provide a means whereby we can modify the rules, to mediate differences among us on the meaning of the rules, and to enforce compliance with the rules on the part of those few who would otherwise not play the game....as a Supreme Court Justice once put it: ‘My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin.’” (Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom)
Perhaps Hayek clarifies it best on the part of libertarian capitalists: “[The] particular function of government is somewhat like that of a maintenance squad of a factory, it’s object being not to produce any particular services or products to be consumed by the citizens, but...to see that the mechanism which regulates the production of these goods and services is kept in working order. The purposes for which this machinery is currently being used will be determined by those who operate it’s parts and in the last resort by those who buy its products.” – F.A. Hayek, Made Orders and Spontaneous Orders, pg. 239
How does one measure the success and justice of an economic system in the modern era of globalization?
The aforementioned theorists speak at length on the topic of justice regarding economy. However, I feel that there is a discrepancy between their rather abstract and at times antiquated theories on the subject and the reality of today’s market in regards to “justice” or “ethics”, and that there is little correlation between the two. So instead of remarking on their concepts, here I propose to list several quotes, figures, and statistics from more contemporary scholars and economists. All advocate and promote the positive effects of the current capital system on global economy, some in regards to standard of living (which in itself is a subject that should be critiqued and defined at length), and hopefully all with adequately referenced statistics. I do not list
statistics or quotes by critics of capitalism, as I feel that is left for another argument, perhaps another paper.
“Individuals have economic freedom when property they acquire without the use of force, fraud, or theft is protected from physical invasions by others and they are free to use, exchange, or give their property as long as their actions do not violate the identical rights of others.”
James Gwartney and Robert Lawson et al.
Economic Freedom of the World: 1996 Annual Report
“First, we must consider what "standard of living" means. Economic historians would like it to mean happiness. But the impossibility of measuring happiness forces them to equate the standard of living with real income. Real income is money income adjusted for the cost of living and for the effects of things such as health, unemployment, pollution, the condition of women and children, urban crowding, and amount of leisure time.”
Clark Nardinelli. “Industrial Revolution and the Standard of Living.” http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/IndustrialRevolutionandtheStandardofLiving.html
“There is, to be sure, much poverty and starvation in the world, but nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that poverty is increasing. Over the same period during which population has grown from 3 billion to 6.1 billion, total world production has grown much faster than population, from $6.5 trillion in 1960 to $31 trillion in 2000. (All the dollar magnitudes I cite, from the Penn World Table or any other source, will be in units of 1985 U.S. dollars.) That is, world production was nearly multiplied by five over this 40-year period, growing at an annual rate of 4 percent. Production per person—real income—thus grew at 2.3 percent per year, which is to say that the living standard of the average world citizen more than doubled.”
Robert E. Lucas Jr.. The Industrial Revolution: Past and Future. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis 2003 Annual Report. www.minneapolisfed.org/pubs/region/04-05/essay.cfm
“In 1990, there were roughly 472 million people in the East Asia and Pacific region living on less than $1 a day. By 2001, there were 271 million living in extreme poverty,
and by 2015, at current projections, there will only be 19 million people living under those conditions.” David Brooks, NYTimes, November 27, 2004 “Good News About Poverty”
“Walk down most roads in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, or Latin America, and you will see many things: houses used for shelter; parcels of land being tilled, sowed, and harvested; merchandise being bought and sold. Assets in developing and former communist countries primarily serve these immediate physical purposes. In the West, however, the same assets also lead a parallel life as capital outside the physical world. They can be used to put in motion more production by securing the interests of other parties as "collateral" for a mortgage, for example, or by assuring the supply of other forms of credit and public utilities.”
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital
http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2001/03/desoto.htm from Finance and Development, quarterly magazine for the IMF, March 2001
Robert E. Lucas Jr.. The Industrial Revolution: Past and Future. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis 2003 Annual Report. www.minneapolisfed.org/pubs/region/04-05/essay.cfm
“The decrease in the number of hours worked per week and the decreased participation of children and the elderly in the workforce are also predicted by free market economics and proponents see capitalism as the explanation.” Robert J. Barro, "Macroeconomics", MIT Press; 5th edition (1997),
Capitalism Under Fire: The Critics
Critics of capitalism claim that, while in theory a free market is a gratifying concept, in working application to reality it leads to unfair economic distribution, dangerous amounts of power awarded to very few in the higher ranks
of the working hierarchies and little or no power to the workers themselves, and that the rise of globalism is increasingly turning in favor of monopolies, which are in direct contrast to libertarian freedoms and the “free” component of the free market, injuring and even expelling individuals’ abilities to compete in the smaller or local scale of the market.
Proponents of socialism reject the concept of capitalism, claiming that its hierarchies of power are unjust and unfair, and create unjust discrepancies between economic classes. Hayek provides perhaps the most basic argument against ordered systems like socialism, showing that socialists believe that it is possible for an entire population to conform to a rigid system and to altogether abandon self-interest in favor of the greater needs of the whole. This has proven largely true with the stern implementation in socialist countries, for example East Berlin, in that such a model cannot be entirely accepted, and often leads to totalitarianism which in turn takes much power away from the individual. Some critics of capitalism argue that there is an alternative grey area between libertarian individualism and collective welfare for the whole, such as notable scholar Noam Chomsky.
In addition many religious conservatives and traditionalists argue against capitalism, notably the Vatican, which issued this statement regarding it’s position on both socialism and capitalism: “The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with "communism" or "socialism." She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of "capitalism," individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.206 Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for "there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market." From: "Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2425 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P8C.HTM#-2FX
Manufacturing Order: Chomsky vs. Capitalism
C.Vail Dec. 4, 2007
Scholar Noam Chomsky, though a linguistics professor at MIT, is perhaps most well known for his radical outspoken opinions on the failures of the U.S. government and capitalist economy.
This paper first presents Chomsky’s strongest critiques of capitalism, focusing on the control of media and the idea that capitalism strips individual liberties and produces wage-slaves dependent on essentially forced labor for survival. The second section attends to his proposed solutions to the problems created by capitalism, and in the third section I offer my own critique of Chomsky’s weak points.
Capitalism uses deceitful and underhanded methods of control to eradicate individual opinion/decision making in the public, thus creating a model populace of brainless consumers that further the bourgeois’ excessive means.
“An alternative conception of democracy is that the public must be barred from managing their own affairs and the means of information must be kept narrowly and rigidly controlled. That may sound like an odd conception of democracy, but it’s important to understand that it’s the prevailing one.” –Chomsky, Media Control, pg.6
In his books Media Control and Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky denotes a new term – the “propaganda model”. Chomsky argues that the mass media, now owned by corporate monopolies, work in a similar fashion to the business models of the rest of corporate America, at the expense of objectivity and impartiality, and quality. The result runs on efficiency, profit for the investors, and biases sold to their investors. The government is another supervisor in the equation, and those news stories that may rub against the grain of the administration are disposed of, and more often not even considered.
Politics of fear and control of the masses through terror are another way to manufacture consent, such as the consent of Americans to go into a needless war. Notably beginning with the Cold War, Chomsky states that the Iraq War is the most terror-manufactured war yet: “Throughout history, the standard device to mobilize a reluctant population has been the fear of an evil enemy, dedicated to its destruction.” – chomsky Deterring Democracy 1992
Professor Chomsky lays out his admiration for fellow linguist and philosopher Wilhelm Von Humbolt in his short work Government In The Future, which, unless otherwise noted, is the source of any quote followed merely by a page number.
The state tends to “make man an instrument to serve its arbitrary ends, overlooking his individual purposes.” –Humboldt, quoted on pg 9
‘If a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instructions rather than by his own interests and energy and power, “we may admire what he does, but despise what he is.” Pg 13
According to the capitalist free market, people are supposed to know what they need and what makes them happy, which in turn shifts the market, production, and prices accordingly. However, it is becoming more and more apparent in today’s era of advertising, technology, and consumer madness that the masses seem not to know what they want until the market tells them. Polls, advertising, focus groups, and conglomerates are signaling a failure of the “free market”, disallowing it to be free and furthering the gap in society between the impoverished majority and the extravagant few. A rising tide does not lift all boats. Those living in the ghetto are kept down, live off the gov’t –welfare, public housing, etc.- how the cycle of poverty perpetuates, and why this major social group is unable to pull themselves out, and mean little when it comes to political matters. In a speech given by chomsky this year on the topic of modern economics, specifically reagonomics and Milton Friedman, chomsky explains how in this polyarchy, the past few decades have been diligently spent widdling away at the right of the people to participate in the decision-making of the country. This ranges, he explains, from the study performed through the Harvard school of gov’t that shows that decrease in voter participation has to do with an decrease in information flow to the citizens, i.e. media restraint of information and outlet of propaganda...to the workforce, where, he notes, computers and mechanized workforces are being pushed not merely out of desire for increased production and efficiency, but out of a disdain and fear of human input. The managers and supervisors remain in charge; there is no skilled workman to make the decisions on the small scale, anything that could decrease cheap productivity. “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
Capitalism has corrupted it’s foundations of classical liberalism, which intended the freedoms of the individual to provide opportunity for all and opposed monopoly, deceitful mechanisms of gaining power, and bureaucratic hierarchies to shut out the mass public from gaining entry to their economic freedoms by their own talents, skills, and means. Capitalism breeds wage slavery, another means of control that strips the individual of her democratic, liberalist freedoms.
On this topic, I believe that Chomsky best utilizes quotes to further discussion, and below are transcripted the preeminent and most succinct to be found in Chomsky’s Government In The Future:
Classical liberal ideas, a la Adam smith, which triumph an individual’s freedom but for the means of good and not for amassing excess, “in their essence, though not in the way they are developed, are profoundly anticapitalist.” Pg 15
Chomsky describes classical liberalism: “Its doctrine is that state functions should be drastically limited...more deeply [it] developed from a certain concept of human nature, one that stresses the importance of diversity and free creation, and therefore... is in direct oppositions to industrial capitalism with its wage slavery, its alienate labor, and its hierarchic and authoritarian principles of social and economic organization. At least in its ideal form, classical liberal thought is opposite to the concepts of possessive individualism that are intrinsic to capitalist ideology.” Pg. 21-23
“Democracy with its motto of ‘equality of all citizens before the law’ and liberalism with its ‘right of man over his own person’ both would be shipwrecked on the realities of the capitalist economic form.” – Rudolf Rocker pg 16
Chomsky quotes then opposes Karl Polyani: “It is not for the commodity to decide where it should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used, at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be consumed or destroyed.” Chomsky: “But the commodity is, of course, in this case, human life, and social protection was therefore and minimum necessity to constrain the irrational and destructive workings of the classical free market.” Pg 17
And on wage slavery Chomsky quotes Linguet: “It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm laborers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live. It is want that drags them to those markets where they await masters who will do them the kindness of buying them. It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get permission from him to enrich him...He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune. These men, it is said, have no master...they have one, and the most terrible and imperious of masters, that is, need. It is this that reduces them to the most cruel dependence.” – Simon Linguet in 1767, pg.17-18
Chomsky proposes, albeit ambiguously and not without an impractical share of idealism, some means of solution to the failings of capitalism that he criticizes so elegantly. Below I survey two broad ideas that I find to be the mot relevant of his prescriptions for our society:
Decentralization of authority hierarchy
Though I disagree that Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist worker unionization is an immediate and realistic goal for the U.S. at this time, a revised delegation of organizations and indeed the U.S. government focusing on a model of decentralization is a powerful idea that must be paid more consideration. Unjust hierarchical discrepancies and unreasonable control of governmental figures and business trading by monopolies is the main disparity between our current model of industrialist capitalism in use today and the more justifiable liberalist model of capitalism made by others like Adam Smith. This unwarranted excess of megalopolization is causing the economic gap between classes to widen successively with each decade, with unlimited overindulgence allowed to those in the upper classes and more and more limitations made to those in the lower classes to push themselves out of indentured wage-slavery. The middle class is swiftly disappearing, and radical steps need to be made to regain a balance between the classes before the system collapses in on itself and becomes feudalistic or totalitarian.
“We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves...an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.” – Winston Churchill 1914
“Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular,” - David Hume
Disbanding/ decentralizing the control of the media by monopolies
As we are currently living in the age of information, media is taking a central role in the way we live our lives, and the way we base our opinions and decisions about our political role in the world. Miraculously, the internet remains untaxed and largely unfiltered/uncensored, and is therefore a main staple for many Americans from which to educate themselves on current issues. However, the internet is also an unreliable source in many instances, and since anyone can post information there is little way of distinguishing that which is founded on truth and what is hearsay or opinion. Other forms of media, such as the television and radio news, and the newspapers, have also come under suspicion as a of late as much of these outlets are being bought out by monopolies that have heavily biased investments elsewhere, thus leading to a certain filtering or leaning of many outlets towards one side of the spectrum or another. Chomsky writes at length on this topic in his book Manufacturing Consent, mentioned above.
It is also interesting to note that unlike the war in Vietnam, when televised footage was just starting out and came chiefly unfiltered and explicitly direct into your own living room, the footage of the war in Iraq has been kept closely limited and filtered, and even the soldiers overseas when speaking to loved ones at home are censored from imparting many details about the realities of the war. Numbers and data given by the press and administration fluctuate ambiguously, and, like the scenes of Baghdad seen on the news in the 1990’s, much footage of this war remains at a distance, separated from the human level.
In addition, I believe it is noteworthy to add that media entertainment has become increasingly powered by advertising and celebrity, leading to a kind of widespread cultural attention deficit disorder wherein it is becoming less and less of a topic to even speak about, let alone investigate with some attempt at objectivity, the real social issues around the globe.
However, as an addendum to Chomsky’s “strongest solutions” I feel the need to mention that this is where I find his writing the weakest. The professor of linguistics does a spectacular job at pointing out the fault lines at which U.S. capitalism is weakest, but makes little attempt at determining clear and realistic solutions to these problems, and those solutions he does muse upon are brittle at best. This is more than somewhat disappointing to me as I so admire his clarity in criticism, but to me the means of disentanglement and reparation from these issues are a good deal imperative and of the essence. Following are what I believe to be his most vulnerable points and most feeble resolutions.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is that Chomsky’s libertarian socialist utopia would be an externally constructed culture, a made order, and that realistically the workers of the world are not going to unite and assemble this singular and complex model of organization anytime soon, and that even on that happenstance an order so systematically composed with no supervisation would promptly fall like a house of cards, as have most externally constructed orders of “taxis” in history, whatever fault it be to.
Libertarian Socialism sounds like an oxymoron for a reason; balancing individualistic liberties and equality for all is a knotty impossibility and an age-old philosophical matter of debate. If there is any one message to take from this course, that would be it. While Chomsky’s hypothesis gleans individuality for everyone, liberty and freedom for all on one end, parts of it are tinged with Marxism – the downfall of socialism, beyond its inefficiency, is that, while it pushes many up to higher level of sustainable livelihood than they would otherwise be granted, it calls for many others who have been living in an upper class to sacrifice their power, anything deemed to be an excess, and their status for the benefit of the masses. These people do not want to sacrifice these things, and after all these are the folks in power. History has shown that in socialist societies, the aristocracy assumes exception from sacrifice and continues their glut of power and possession, notably to the point of tyrannical dictatorship and totalitarianism.
Most impractical and naive of all, like too many poetic theories before it, Chomsky’s assumes that we are beginning with a tabula rasa society, that deeply imbedded traditions and norms can be disposed of by a clean, quick, and sanguine revolution (by whom?) and that directly after such a revolution, which has no historical precedent let alone realistic ideations, the people will come together and organize in a methodical system of categorized unions and assemblies in which no one will abide by the law of human nature that tends toward selfishness or greed for possession or power. It would be no quick work to transform a society so enraptured by technology, industry, and efficiency into one of collectivity and equality organization, and it isn’t a long stretch to hypothesize that there are many individuals who are more psychologically comfortable with their terms and conditions being weighed by others, or those who may appeal to being led or controlled rather than take a front seat to govern themselves.
In short, Avrom Noam Chomsky’s criticisms of our modern society are precise, lucid, well-researched and exceptionally inspiring, but his attempt at a dialectic proscription for future transformation falls quite short of an adequate alternative, and at once it is important to take in his brilliant evaluations of the glaring blemishes of our society, but having done so, one must look elsewhere for hope at a viable approach for the future.
Chomsky, Noam. Government In The Future.
Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda
Chomsky, Noam and Herman, Edward S. Manufacturing Consent.