Sunday, October 31, 2010

TEDx

(After putting out a few ideas, I couldn't complete the streams of thought I started. I'll continue to do so in the next few days. No bumper stickers here.)
Is enlightenment googlable? Or will there come a point in time when it will be? Won’t it be cool to one day wake up and ask google what’s the meaning of life and get the perfect answer needing no further interpretation. The answer we’ll read and go… ohh, yes, of course. Is it even an appropriate question? For there is a somewhat na├»ve presumption here that there can be one final state of enlightenment as against a more reasonable view that there can only be a constantly evolving world view that attempts to become more and more holistic – every new theory containing the truth of its predecessor. It’s nothing more than a catchphrase, really, that I often use. The underlying question is can we attain all knowledge there is to attain, or at least have a straightforward easy access to it? Will that knowledge by itself bring happiness is another question, altogether. Philosophical questions are questions raised by children that even scholars fail to answer.
I am asking questions here, meandering from one point to another, not trying to join the dots conclusively, not giving out bumper stickers or giving out too many. I am trying to use known stories as metaphors of some new ideas. I am also trying to build a case for the responsibility of an artist and a storyteller as the viewfinder, searchglass, microscope, telescope provider. In Zen, they say, before you study Zen, rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains, while you are studying it, while you are going through the motions of refuting and deconstructing and experimenting with life and truth, rivers are not rivers and mountains are not mountains, and once you get enlightened, rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.
We use words like cheeks, colour, inside, elephant, breakfast, toothpick, God, etc cetera everyday. But say, do you reckon a sentence like this has ever been formed before? After finishing an elephant for breakfast, all that the Gods longed for was a toothpick. Add to that some sexuality, and you have what the standups use for a blush effect. Let’s add… vagina. After finishing an elephant for breakfast, all that the Gods longed for was a toothpick and a vagina. Or the God appeared at his breakfast table, and his cheeks turned the colour of the inside of an elephant’s vagina.
Known takes us to the unknown. What we are struggling to find is a permutation. It’s amazing how we expect the very words of our finite vocabulary with their nearing infinite combinations, of course, to suddenly one day arrange themselves in a way that they will yield the perfect final answer to… well, life universe and everything. Maybe its just an equation we’re looking for? Maybe it’s a number? 42? But as Deep Thought in the Douglas Adams classic suggests – 42 IS the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. But what IS the question? For all we know answers are already out there, but are we entering the right search keywords? Are we asking the right questions?
The classic Borges story wherein the greatest cartographer alive is summoned by the king to make a map of the kingdom – a precise map with the smallest of details – the ultimate googlemap – the all encompassing answer after which there can be no questions – the cartographer sets out on this highly ambitious project like we have, adding detail after detail to the ever growing map… and by the time he is done charting one area and has moved on to another, the first area has started going through some modifications – and for the map to be perfect, the changes have to be accommodated. The map keeps growing across time and area, till it replaces the kingdom itself.
Now, it’s farfetched to imagine that the World Wide Web will replace the world itself anytime soon, but it’s imaginable that someday we might hit a point in time, where all of an individual’s memories, dreams, experiences and emotions can be archived in cyberspace. Once while working for an idea creation company, I’d created a simple idea for a cellphone software – when you get the software, you feed in forms somewhat on the lines of the EQ and other tests people take up online, but far for extensive than those. It probably takes hours to fill it up, it asks you everything it can ask you. Likes, dislikes, habits, behavior, aspirations etc. Now a unique code containing all this information is put up on a giant server. The next step is that you set up a level of connection you want to make – ranging from business finder to a little cheesy soulmate hunter. Now each time you pass a potential soulmate – sharing maybe your tastes or ideas or worldviews… in a bus or a mall or a party, both your phones beep, and give you an option of messaging each other. So often must we be crossing people, who otherwise would greatly enhance our lives or we theirs. I thought it might be a good idea to not miss out on them. Guess it might be scary for some people, but they won’t buy this in the first place.
The number of people we come across in direct contact every day, either physically or virtually, are perhaps the number of people our ancients met in their entire lifetimes. The amount of cultural exchange that has happened in the last decade itself surpasses past centuries. Human history is being documented and archived like never before. The tools for recording personal histories and experiences are available to more people than ever before. The difference between the tools used by professionals and those available to consumers is fast diminishing, and practically all of it is being put up in cyberspace.
I have been greatly inspired by Isaac Asimov’s story The Last Question. The supercomputer keeps evolving along with the human race, growing in capacities, diminishing in size, till at one point the collective human mind fuses with the super computer in hyperspace. The last question asked here repeatedly is “Can entropy be reversed?” Meaning loosely whether energy getting dispersed off be brought again, somewhat like asking can a tree become the seed again? The computer replies with the refrain, “There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.” That is a fair answer to a lot of our questions today.
I think of the map story as an interesting metaphor for our quest of finding meaning. I guess the answer will either have to be the scope of the question itself – this infinitely vast place we meander in or maybe, just an arrow sign, a pointer. But historically, it has failed us over and over – this attempt at final answers, for the idea seems to be fundamentally flawed – a map that exactly mirrors the universe has to be shifting, expanding, contracting, transforming, and it’s pretty obvious that this can be achieved only with the rigour of scientific thought open to challenge and rethinking. But along with that we also need to know the art of looking at it, the angle, the approach, the perspective.
As a corollary to the monkeys typing randomly at the typewriter, let me share an analogy a friend has given. Say you were to throw a handful of grain on a patch of floor, what are the chances that they will fall in a pattern that looks something like your face. The chances of something like that happening do exist however impossibly rare they might seem to be. One can probably test this with a software with a white grid and a few hundred pixels that get randomly dispersed on it with each click – the virtual version of seeing trains, faces and rabbits in clouds. Probably it holds in its godzillion combinations, a few hundred patterns that “mean something” to us. But what about the patterns that don’t resemble anything we have previously seen before? I am trying to suggest that they are just as unique as the ones that do mean something – if you were to try and recreate the same random arrangement again by a randomizing click, the chances of getting it again will be just as rare.
Seen from within, the pattern, however random will seem to carry “meaning”.
So instead of joining the dots, it might be more reasonable to appreciate the dots for what they are – spontaneous, random, ever changing. If I were to read to you a line from Eliot “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, has it begun to sprout?” … “what does it mean?” is a reasonable question to ask. But if I were to play you some Beethoven… it would be senseless to ask a question like “what does it mean?” All art aspires to the state of music… to the point where experience is not hindered by context. The context, as we know, is this – we are an insignificant bunch of atoms on this tiny wet rock going around a feverish star in a galaxy of billion other stars, in a universe of billion other galaxies. Nature is not teleological – it does not have a predetermined purpose or design. In other words, we would arrogant pricks to believe that the universe led up to us to be able to answer questions about itself. In absolute randomness, things came to be and here we are trying to make meaning out of some very obvious meaninglessness. We have found some amount of meaning by ways of looking and experiencing. I feel culture, with all its songs and euphemisms, plays a huge role in bringing this sense of stability.
I find romance in the trinity of Satya, Shiv, Sunder – we ought to find out whats true, how do we know what’s true? What do we do with it once we know whats true? What’s ethical? What’s moral? And while we are at it, might as well make it beautiful.
So we have a giant wiki mirroring the giant world, but we need another map to be able to read this map. We learn to see through poetry and music and art. Through stories and parables. Culture is the refresh button. A man is being chased wild through the woods by a vicious snake. He keeps running till he reaches the edge of the cliff… in Hollywood they call it the page 66 of the screenplay… this is where most chases take place in the film… so he starts climbing down the cliff, loses balance and clings on a strong branch of a tree jutting out of the cliff. He looks down and sees the ground is not too far, and just as he is contemplating whether to take that leap or not… all of us know that point in life, whether to leave that high paying job or not, whether to move to a new place or not, whether to marry or not… the ground is not too far below, in the worst case scenario he’ll break a bone or two, but surely survive it. Just then he hears a lion’s roar coming from the ground below. He doesn’t see the lion, just hears the roar. So now he has the snake still closing in, the roar of the lion and the branch he is clinging to has begun to dangle too. In the midst of all this, he spot a lovely blossomed cherry on the tree, he plucks it, eats it and attains bliss.
Most of you must have heard this parable many times before, and that’s a part of my illustration. We need metaphors to access facts. Imagination to access the truth. And the subject of intuitive experience takes us to the most fundamental questions of all. Why do we feel pleasure and pain? Food, sex, well being of kin and other activities encouraging sustenance and reproduction are awarded with an inbuilt incentive of pleasure. Sorrow and pain are warning signs at a core level. Why should we continue to reproduce and sustain? What are we? Are we an individual or a cumulative – a system – a colony? We are born sterile, but within hours are inhabited by billions of bacteria. We have more bacteria in our body than cells, and its reasonable to think that we won’t survive without them. Is it also not reasonable to imagine that the cumulative that we call mind, is made up of functions of many chemicals, living cells and bacteria. In other words, our some of our thoughts just might be what the bacteria want us to think.
If we were to look at the resemblance of collective intelligence at the level of a single cellular lifeform, it won’t seem like a totally absurd proposition.
This is from Wikipedia. Cordyceps Unilateralis is a parasitoid fungus. The fungus's spores enter the body of the insect, usually an ant through respiration, where they begin to consume the non-vital soft tissues. When the fungus is ready to spore, its mycelia enter the ant's brain and change how it perceives pheromones, causing the insect to climb up the stem of a plant. Infected ants bite the leaf veins with abnormal force. The fungus then kills the ant, and continues to grow as its mycelia invade more soft tissues and structurally fortify the ant's exoskeleton. More mycelia then sprout out of the ant. When the fungus is ready to reproduce, its fruiting bodies grow from the ant's head and rupture, releasing the spores.
Seems like a very complicated way of achieving something that could probably be done rather simply. Seems like something only humans do. Like the Rube Goldberg illustrations.
It’s a great story that nature tells us and perhaps it needs no further reinterpretation. But there are hundreds of thousands such stories already out there that do. Seemingly random and absurd, without great morals to take away or bumper stickers to wear on t-shirts. While science is busy unifying theory and make enlightenment googlable, art ought to be busy finding the right search keywords, the right questions and the unique ways of looking. It’s the job of the artist as a scientist to discover and deconstruct, as a philosopher to reflect and challenge and as an artist to show us if it’s beautiful or not.
Thank you very much.
(Update: A ver. 2 of this talk became my INK Talk, here- http://recyclewala.blogspot.in/2013/11/there-is-no-free-will-but-you-have.html)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Suicide Note

Even though I am far from finishing the whopping 1904 pager Suicide Note of Mitchell Heisman, it has been a very stimulating read so far. There are some lapses in logic and fundamental assumptions - like the comparison of ethnocenticism and anthropomorphism to what he calls viviocentricism (life-centredness) - such comparison is fundamentally flawed, for the negation of ethnic inequality and human superiority still builds from the basic assumption that all life "wants" to continue.

This obsession with bumper stickers and coherent meaning has been oppressive, and at best, just fun. Yet these reminders to find meaning in apparent (and usually obvious) meaninglessness are compelling. I think it all boils down to that basic choice, which for most of us, unlike Heisman, is a default one. The choice to be. Once you begin with that assumption, you can build your way up to curiosity, joy, survival and maybe even altruism.

I am approaching the final production schedule of my feature film "Theseus' Ship". I am about to shoot the part in which the monk Maitreya is fasting unto death. As death closes in, he is forced to re-question all the ideas he has taken for granted. Its safe to assume that death is our only certainty, and inexistence the primary fear. Its in the face of this fear, that transcendental signifiers like god, heaven and soul need to be invented, and attempts are made to produce coherent views.

I was amused at Heisman's observation of the Bible's attempt at imagining infinity. He points out that even with the best of their ambition to imagine infinity, the writers of Bible could only imagine a god who looks like man, lives beyond the clouds and a world that is only a few thousand years old.

Meanwhile, "Theseus' Ship" will perhaps be the first film to allude to Charvaka and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Images will be up soon.