One of the topics that I brought up early on in my latest theology and culture class was the issue of the self and the shifting terrain of the soul. The 'erasure of the self,' a term I used from Mark I. Wallace, is an issue of real importance to the realm of the religious in my opinion. Our understanding of what it means to be human, how we think or perceive of the condition of human nature, and particularly, the body and soul dualism that has generally been regarded as given. For most of our history in Western civilization we have operated with a classic view of the self, gifted to us by the Greeks etc., the idea that the 'soul' is subjective and exists outside of matter. There has been a lot of re-thinking of these concepts, and above is yet another from Iain McGilchrist, asking whether or not the use of the term soul has any value or currency in the world today--spoiler--he thinks it does, but redefines it nicely I think.
(There is a blank spot in the video because of music copyright issues but you can listen to the piece yourself via another source)
This lecture is part of an ongoing series created by the RSA to consider spirituality anew in the 21st century.
As many may know, one of my ongoing jobs is at an art school in the advertising department where I teach on words and concepts and ideas in the world of ad and design. I'm fortunate to be able to explore any number of topics in most of the classes I teach and it allows me to indulge my own fascination in things like the origins of swearing, how language works, where ideas come from, design and culture--so many things really.
Some where along the way I came across the work of Steven Heller , a man with a storied career in the world of visual and graphic design. He has written something like 120 books on issues related to graphic design and visual culture, covering a mind-boggling range of topics.
My latest read has been his book on the swastika. Swastika: Symbol beyond redemption? is an exploration of the origins of the symbol and its transition to symbol of evil. It's a provocative work that has been called polemical. It's a fascinating into controversial territory taken from a very personal angle. You can read an interview with the author here, which might deepen your curiosity, beyond the provocative icon he explores the book is also a great tool for thinking about how symbols work in society.
And here is a talk he gave on totalitarian regimes and their use of propaganda which is really worth a look and listen.
Adolf Hitler was a logo.
I'm back teaching--the never-ending cycle of the school year:). This time it's the required and general theology and culture class, exploring the intersections between various elements of culture and theology. Yesterday we broached the topic of theology and where we all 'speak from.' All of the 21 students in the class declared that they came from some kind of conservative church background whether it was pentecostal holiness or fundamentalist or something else. I realized as we were talking that there was a huge chasm between where they are even now and where I am. Even though some of them are definitely in process and re-thinking their theological perspectives, they are not even close to thinking about things in the way I have been the past few years--back to the drawing board I think, I'm going to need to fill in some gaps, not to get them to think like me, but so that they can understand more clearly the trajectory I am sketching out with regard to the dynamic between theology and culture.
I assigned a Mark C Taylor book for a theology read, About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, it's a tough book, as much of his work is, but I have a feeling that this will leave them little more than confused--'this Derrida guy is interesting...' was about the most positive comment I got yesterday. That's not to say that the class feels contentious or even resistant, just that there is so much material that I have digested that I doubt has even been on their horizons, reference points and conceptual ideas that don't even register, and this makes it necessary to re-think how I am going to teach this one. I don't want to dumb things down, but I need to figure out an accessible way of speaking about all this stuff.
It made me a little unsettled inside I must admit, having nothing to do with any of the students or their positions, but a reminder that I am just not living in this particular world and I wonder if I have the energy to keep on engaging, I don't particularly want to argue about stuff--I don't mean that therefore everyone should just think what I think, it's more about the environment itself--whether it is the best fit for me at this stage in my life. Of course the tyranny of the paycheck is a factor and I freely admit that, but it's not worth it if, in the long run, I am engaging in conversations that frustrate me.
What am I saying? Essentially I am saying that I feel that I don't fit in any of the religious situations I find myself in at present and am wondering what to do about that because in the long run it is not healthy for me--you'd think I would have this shit worked out by now...apparently not.
I have a book called The Wes Anderson Collection, by Matt Zoller Seitz, which explores Andersons film, via essays, interview and an expansive visual record of his almost obsessive commitment to detail. it's th evisual component of anderson's films that I am drawn to, don't get me wrong, I love the stories in and of themsleves, but it's the wya they are told visually that holds such joy for me. When I'm feeling uninspired, I often look at the book, just to marvel at the fantastic stuff that gets put into his work.
I recently came across a mention of Dublin-based graphic designer Annie Atkins, who does a lot of graphic work for Anderson's films, as well as other films. She creates some of the elements that Anderson puts into his films which makes watching them such a delight--the world is complete, down to the minute detail.
His most recent Grand Budapest Hotel has been called a 'return to form' personally I wasn't aware that he had lost form but there you go, to each his own. I watched this film with geelful delight and revelled in it's mischief. Ralph Fiennes was just perfect in his role and his character arc perfectly complimented the quirky and somewhat dark threads of this particular story. You can check out a lot of Atkin's work here and you'll see the amazing work she does.
A serious amount of words have been devoted to Noah, Darren Aronofsky's non-biblical/biblical blockbuster. I have been interviewed by a number of publications, and been asked to weigh in on Hollywood and religion, the ruckus over the licence taken with the biblical text etc., and a host of other things related to culture and the Bible. As I said in all the interviews I participated in, I don't look to Hollywood films to affirm or negate my life, nor am I threatened by another version or interpretation of a particular story, and that more importantly, I would watch Noah because it was an Aronofsky film, not because it was about Noah. Hence my disappointment with the film was not with the way it dealt with the Flood narrative but that it was a piss-poor movie in my mind.
Now I realize that this film was unlike many of Aronofsky's prior projects, this was a big-budget studio film with all the prerequisites that come with a venture like that, not the least of which is the need to deliver big on spectacle and spectacle that follows certain rules of the genre, so no problem there, big scenes, I mean creation of the world, humanity's evil, the destruction of the world by water, talk about fodder for a CGI wet dream--and even that didn't bother me. But it felt that none of this did anything to expand Aronofsky's abilities as a film-maker.
Noah is a genre film of a particular type and it touches on what I think is America's greatest fascination--apocalypticism. The apocalypse hangs over American culture like a blanket, covering virtually everything with this trope that the world must end and out of it a new world built upon values that were always missing or latent in the previous one. Of course, there are links to biblical ideologies in this, but you don't need a 'biblical' story to see it, it's everywhere in American pop culture. So Noah is almost a no-brainer. And the latent ideas that the film teases regarding the environment, industrialization, humanitie's destructive tendency are grist for the apocalyptic mill, so why not mine it. It seemed no different to me than the re-appropriation of other mythic tales--Thor, Hercules etc. all of them fully adaptable for the expression of contemporary cultural fears about how we interact with life, the planet and each other.
What really bugged me, and where it really lost me as a viewer, was in the look and tone of the film. The minute Russell Crowe as Noah is striding across the wasteland in boots with laces and leather soles and his nemesis is fashioning steel whilst wearing a version of a welding mask, and handling an early-gun prototype, and they are all dressed like outcasts from a distressed linen and leather factory, you lost me--all I could think of as I sat there was Book of Eli meets Transformers (those stone encased fallen angels-concrete versions of Optimus Prime if you ask me) meets One million years BC.
It seems to me there is a lot of over-inflation in terms of both attacking and defending this film from different sides of the religious community, but they all seem to deal solely with the story essentially in its narrative form. I've read theological attacks and defences, seen it described as a midrash, on and on, and that's all fine, but a film isn't just the spoken world, its the visual and musical accompaniment, that expands the world the film-maker wants to draw you into, and I found myself uninterested in journeying into this tale, in fact I felt pushed out of it by most of the choices it made in all three realms, but particularly the visual and musical--again, I usually enjoy the work of film composer Clint Mansell, who has composed the music for all of Aronofsky's films, but this had to be the most turgid and un-interesting of them all.
I have never been a big fan of the block buster genre anyway, I don't need that much spectacle and noise, so I should have known. I think I would have preferred a low-budget telling of this tale, and I'll go back to Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain to keep my Aronofsky juices flowing.
At the Trade Show during the tech section of SXSW, I spent a fascinating afternoon exploring the various technologies, software solutions, inventions and other tech paraphenalia on the convention floor. Much of the stuff on display was connected to data management and analysis, and scattered amongst it all were innovations from all over the world. Down one particualr aisle we came across a crowd of people talking and laughing and generally making a big hubbub. Turned out that they were interacting with a new mobile video-casting technology called Beam. Essentially a big monitor screen set at eye level on wheels, it was a remarkable experience to chat with someone ocated elsewhere, have them 'walk' along with you and interact in a very relaxed way. It sorted of reminded me of something that might have been utilized in Spike Jonze's Her.
The device showed up again yesterday at the TED conference in Vancouver. Afriend of mine who is attending, posted a picture of Tim Berners Lee interviewed Edward Snowden, and Snowden was 'on stage' via a Beam device.
Of course web-conferencing is nothing new, what is new is the recovery of partial mobility. Given that communication is more than a 'talking head' enterprise, it is still surprising how much of a humanising element the simple mobility, size and height of the device offers--it represents something of a communication shift in my mind, probably more in the mind of the reciever than anything, but a shift nonetheless. There has been chatter of late, that we have come to the end of an invention cycle in terms of new devices--i.e. with smart phones and tablets etc., there is not much else we need in terms of device innovation. I don't know if that is true or not, who knew we 'needed' what we have now, and I feel that we are never as sure of what is ahead of us as we would like to think. Regardless of that conversation, it seems to me, that innovation, at least in the immediate, will be focused a bit more on making our interactions with technology more 'real.'
For instance, Apple's shift away from skeuomorphic design (Skeuomorphism is a catch-all term for when objects retain ornamental elements of past, derivative iterations–elements that are no longer necessary to the current objects’ functions), the opting for a more flattened design approach to our interface with it's technology would seem to represent an awareness that our familiarity with it no longer requires a referencing of old technologies to make us feel comfortable. Beyond this it seems we might be getting a slew of things to make us even more seamless in our interactions.
Now let me say that I am not a 'singularity' disciple, the idea that one day artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence radically changing human civilization and nature seems a little much to me, and smacks of an apocalypticism that threads through much of American culture, like the ghost of a particular religious influence. So when I speak about this, I do so with a bit of a amoral perspective, I try not to be a Luddite or blind appropriator, but as I look around I simply see more and more ways in which technology is being woven into the fabric of our lives and ultimately perhaps, under our skin. Like most technological shifts we will probably do our best thinking about it after the fact, once we have embedded it and experience both the losses and gains. In the meantime, Beam is a remarkable device that allows for a more flexible and fluid engagement with human and machine.
As for Edward Snowden, he said something about surveillance and Internet freedom. The right to data privacy, he suggests, is not a partisan issue, but requires a fundamental rethink of the role of the internet in our lives — and the laws that protect it. "Your rights matter,” he say, "because you never know when you're going to need them." You can follow that conversation here.
I just got back from a week in Austin, I took a group of theology students to the SXSW Music Conference, to explore the role that music plays in culture and to examine the potential intersections with theology. It was a lot of fun, SXSW is unlike any other event you are likely to attend-it is part mardi-gras, part festival, part trade show--with film, technology, music as principle threads in an increasingly expanding menu of potential engagements. We went for the music component, although the film and tech parts of the thing were still in evidence, but my focus was on music. I feel that music functions, like some other aspects of popular culture, in implicitly religious ways, and we were there to expose ourselves to that potential and reflect on it. We spent the mornings in a classroom, and then the rest of the day and long into the night hitting the streets of Austin to listen to music. The thing about SXSW is that the whole town turns into a music venue and even if you don't attend official SXSW music events there are hundreds of other venues to hear music as musicians of all kinds, from all over the world, come to Austin to contribute to the glorious cacophony of sounds emanating from every corner of the self-proclaimed 'weirdest town in texas.' It is a little weird--mullets are worn without irony, tie dye also, it's Texan with a twist-fiercely independent, self-aggrandizing and a whole lot of fun. it's also not the faint-hearted, there are loads of people, many in various states of drunkenness or other altered states, at all hours of the day--think mardi-gras meets coachella meets trade show and you are halfway there.
I saw some great music and some overhyped bands. The NPR showcase at Stubbs BBQ featured LA's Perfect Pussy (best band name, but the music didn't connect, too derivative and too small in scope for the outside venue--punkish, but not threatening enough--Eagulls--yawn! But then, out of nowhere, Kelis, yes, Milkshake Kelis, who hit the stage with a 6-piece horn section, opened with Nina Simone, and then proceeded to turn a venue full of NPR hipsters into a funky, freaky dance party. She was followed by St. Vincent, who was the opposite of Kelis--music as performance art--all robot moves, distance from the audience, the removal of traces of humanity, and everything on stage choreographed and digitized--but wow, what a show--the woman can play serious guitar, and her recent collaborations with David Byrne seem to have infused her new work with a sense of theatricality and invention that only adds to the interesting contours of her musical horizon. After that, Damon Albarn, unfortunately hampered by long stage turnover, curfew and bad sound, but playing some of his newest stuff from his forthcoming solo effort--not a bad night's music, and that was just the evening, we had spent the bulk of the afternoon in a bar listening to an entirely different set of bands.
Girl guitarists, were the thing I noticed most--really good players, electric players, innovative, creative, pushing boundaries and sounds. The Clash/Joe Strummer influences seemed to leak out from many venues, it was seldom referenced, but if you've been around music you can detect those things and I marvelled at how many times I heard a lyric line, a musical sound, of groove that echoed them. Pop music is self-referential and mines itself over and over, not a bad thing, just part of the dynamism of the form to my mind.
Where did we get with the theology conversation? Well, I think we got somewhere, I have no 'evangelistic' thread, I'm not trying to convince anyone of the correctness of my thinking, just trying to get people thinking more expansively about the intersections, busting open conceptual ideology that gets in the way, thinking about any and every aspect of life in partnership with theological conceptions, and meeting life where it happens, which is in the marketplace and not the classroom. we discussed so much--technology; the reframing of bodies and sex; consumer capitalism; ritual and religion, explicit and implicit; fashion; and so much more.
It was tiring and invigorating and I hope to go back next year for more!
Real time connection via a mobile, and average human height, device that can join your group and experience virtually what you are experiencing in another location--lots of wild ideas at the tech trade show.
There has been a lot of web chat about neil Young's Pono pitch, higher quality sound etc. I think that ship has sailed a little. I also think that the quality he argues for is actually already available in some devices, but that being said, it is worth noting that pop music has never been fully about sound quality, yes, certain sound qualities are lost via digital technology--losses and gains are part of the technological equation, but I am not sure these are the criteris via which most people experience music--it is emotional, visceral--it's car radio, cassette player, stereo record player, earbuds, its what moves you. This conversation about sound reminds me of an anecdotal observation I made many years ago on the road--there was often a distinction between the UK and US sound people--the Americans were much more technogically aware and equipped, lots of meters, white noise indicators, --the Brits tended to go for the feel--my motto was 'if the bass drum sound moves your rib cage it was the right sound', I'm not sure most people get beyond that aspect of music-austin was a lesson in that, all too often a band transcended a crap sound system by energy, vision and musical zeal and made everyone in the room forget about the other stuff--I mean none of that offensively, I applaud Young's commitment to premium sound experiences, I just think that ship may have sailed, if it was ever launched in the first place. My first purchase as a kid was a Dansette mono record player and it sounded like the best thing in the world to me when I played my records on it in my bedroom and was carried out of my working class world into the realm of the gods by Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield and Van the Man.
Henry Hargreaves and Caitlin Levin use food as an artistic medium. They have created a series of food maps using native foods that somehow do more than demonstrate a particular nation's food choices and offer a little cultural insight as well.