Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Mouse in the Cave (Plato Blog Pt.2)

 Pleasure, the inevitable by-product of our civilization...A new world, whose only preoccupation will be, how to amuse itself. The tragedy of your time, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want. ~Inspector Shrink, from Monkees' Head.

Our only preoccupation will be how to amuse ourselves.  That certainly fits, whether we use Huxley's Brave New World or Neil Postman's philosophies.  I think it's quite clear that Inspector Shrink's quote is quite correct.  There are two types of people in this world, people who consume entertainment, and those that support them.  We have lost our ability to produce anything, for the most part.  Some specialization still takes place, the scientists who develop the small microchips in our cell phones, or the antibiotics that cure us from disease.  We make those things.  But put me in front of a rod of molten metal and tell me to make a screw out of it, and I'm dumbfounded.  Certainly, those things are made by robots now anyway.  That way we don't have to get our hands dirty and can spend more time talking about last night's American Idol. I certainly do appreciate the many pieces of machinery that makes my life easier, but I say this with the full knowledge that I am not using that time to forward the progress of man, to payback the makers of society with anything substantial with the time I have saved.  No, I am using it finding things on the Internet, or watching the same reruns on TV over and over again.  I would argue that the vast majority of time American's spend on this Earth is used pursuing ways to amuse ourselves, or working so that we may have the money to  take on that pursuit.

A prime example of this in action, squeezed down to 11 minutes for our inspection, is the Phineas & Ferb episode "Attack of the 50 Foot Sister." Take a moment to watch it on Youtube.  Okay, Candace is obsessed with going to the Midsummer Carnival to enter the auditioning for "Flawless Girl" cosmetics. Along the way she runs into Mr. Odda, who is the host of the Oddball show.  As she realizes, both of these companies make money on taking advantage of the insecurities of today's youth.  One by showing off the aberrant objects of the world to make normal people feel better ("at least I'm not like that,") while the other uses modern communication to project an image of perfection, that which can only be attained by purchasing cosmetics from their company.

On the way, Candace stops to ridicule her brothers, Phineas and Ferb, who are trying to help a friend grow a giant watermelon (at the expense of hanging up the shame curtains).  In this sense, the brothers, using their chemistry lab, are the producers, the makers, as Ayn Rand would put it, of this world, while their older sister ridicules them, until she needs their growth elixir for her own superficial needs.

This seems to be the case in reality, as well.  A recent Facebook status by one of my friends describes complex mathematical calculations he took in order to plant a tree that would provide the correct amount of shade for the house, the garden, etc...  For which he was called a geek, a dork, etc... However, if calculations such as this is not done, the shade can kill gardens, and not enough shade can bring sunlight in on a home and cost hundreds in electricity bills.  The thought processes behind planting a tree, the science behind it, is the antithesis to the people controlling the images in the caves.  For producing, or thinking, saves money, creates time saving efforts that has nothing to do with entertainment.  This is the free man living his own life outside the cave, and for which the self-absorbed inside of it are insanely jealous.

Back to Phineas & Ferb for a minute, the other character in the program who consistently builds machines for himself (usually for superficial reasons, which is a paradox to my theory), is Dr. Doofenshmirtz, the evil scientist. His creations are as awe inspiring as P&F's inventions, but his are supposedly used for world (okay, Tri-State Area) domination. However, the boys' also have a hint of wrongness to them, as Candice is always trying to get them into trouble, as if by them creating a portal to Mars, they are doing something wrong against society, or at least Mom's rules. It's amazing how the inventors and thinkers of the shows on the Disney Channel are ridiculed or stereotyped as wrong or evil.  Stewie is done the same way in Family Guy. Those that think are anti-social, awkward, even evil, and those that are rich are so through no thought of their own.  They are stupid, without morals, and always anti-environmental. It's also interesting that the majority of shows on the Disney Channel, the main characters are head actors(tresses) in bands, on television shows, in fixtures of entertainment for teenagers everywhere. Hannah Montana, for instance. Or Icarly's crew on Nick.

In short, those that create or support entertainment are lauded, and those who produce non-entertaining things, or those that impede entertainment, are ridiculed. All this from children's television. How much of this is internalized and brought into adult culture? Where scientists and thinkers are ridiculed and branded as anti-social or perhaps even evil (or sent off to Iceland as in Brave New World),  while entertainers and those that contribute nothing substantial to mankind are lauded as role-models and heroes.  Would that the construction workers working high upon the Brooklyn bridge get as much praise as Kobe Bryant playing an hour of ball and getting  thousands of dollars. I would rather be the worker, standing on the apex of the bridge, looking out over the ocean and seeing the sun rise upon New York City, and know that below him is a structure that he helped to build, to form with his own hands, than to entertain the masses endless staring at the glowing flames, the images from the screens, the television and the computer, the shadows on the walls.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Plato, The Monkees, and Jumping Dandruff

"The tragedy of your time, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want" ~Inspector Shrink, from The Monkees Head

If Bill and Ted ever stop by my house in their phone booth, I need to borrow it and bring Plato back to the present and, given my advanced knowledge of Ancient Greek, the conversations we would have.... He would be amazed, I think, with our houses, with the lights and electricity, air-conditioning, all the comforts we have. But I think, after looking at our lives, he would conclude that we haven't progressed much since his days at the Academy, where he would argue with his students and reveal truths about mankind. Specifically, the passage in The Republic, where he creates the analogy of "The Cave."

Imagine Plato sitting in the town square, trying to engage his students in a conversation. Amongst the idyllic manufactured town park, the planted trees, the statues of the local hero, the ancient philosopher sits unable to carry on a lesson in metaphysics, because someone is sitting in their polished crimson sports car blaring music, the female accountant is talking on her cell phone about plans for tonight, the electronics store is showing the football game on the new 50 inch flat screen in the store window. Then there's the kids walking behind their mother, but who often bump into things because they have their heads buried in the latest Pokemon game on their Nintendo DS. But of course, Plato doesn't know all this... all he sees are lights and sounds and images being projected on the walls. For that's what we have, our own walls, projecting unreal images onto themselves and into our minds. We live, unchained, seeing the images that others wish us to see, on the wall.

What Plato doesn't realize is that the metaphor that he used is correct, but incomplete. Seeing the reality of things, the "forms" outside the cave, the man comes back in, tries to tell his friends about the outside world. And it's not that they don't believe him, they simply find it boring. There's so many other wonderful things going on in the images, who cares about the sunlight and the flower and the perfect chair. It's all about the images. So, the man realizes that he now is free, and that he can now take advantage of his knowledge. He goes up to where the images are made, kills the people controlling the fire, and makes his own images. Further, he allows those watching to determine what images they see, as long as they pay him a monthly fee. In the cave then, there are two kinds of people, those that produce the entertainment, and those that consume it.

A break to tie in the quote at the top.  While looking for the exact wording of the quote above, I chanced upon IMDB's page on the Monkees' movie Head, which had a page of quotes.  Among which was the follow up of Peter Tork's conversation with the philosopher in the sauna.  The swami is included on the Head soundtrack, but Peter's communicating this to his fellow band mates (which is overlooked just as the man in the cave's communication was), is left out.  Here that quote is in it's entirety:

We were talking with the Master regarding the nature of conceptual reality. Psychologically speaking, the human mind, or brain or whatever, is almost incapable of distinguishing between the real and the vividly imagined experience. Sound and film and music and radio. Even these manipulative experiences are received more or less directly and uninterpretative by the mind. They are cataloged and recorded and either acted upon directly, or stored in the memory, or both. Now this process, unless we pay it tremendous attention, begins to separate us from the reality of the now. Am I being clear? For we must allow the reality of the now to just happen, as it happens. Observe and act with clarity. For where there is clarity, there is no choice. And were there is choice, there is misery. But then, why should I speak, since I know nothing?

It further solidifies Peter Tork as the wise fool, the Rousseau-ian Noble Savage, as it were. He becomes the free man, the one who has looked outside of the cave, or, as the Monkees have deemed it, the world in which the band was manufactured, created, and manipulated, and has come back into that world to tell his band mates how they may become free. Of course, much as the metaphor ends for Plato, the Monkees realize they can never be free at all. They are trapped as characters, as images on the wall.  And in real life, the characters of Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and others, become those they portrayed on Television.  As Tork said in the boxing ring, "I'm the dummy. I'm always the dummy."  Moving on...

The entire quote from the inspector is:

Pleasure, the inevitable by-product of our civilization (cut scene of a butcher pounding meat)...A new world, whose only preoccupation will be, how to amuse itself. The tragedy of your time, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want.

After this, the Monkees are taken into a scene where they are dressed in white, and are encouraged to jump up and down in what looks like hair. They are dandruff you see, for a shampoo commercial. I wonder what Plato's opinions would be on the suppositions made by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.  A government that not only provides justice and peace, but controls it's subjects through the pleasures it seeks.  Much like baby Robins following a worm dangling from their mother's mouth.  In order to get the entertainment we desire, we would give up our liberties and our freedom and our education all to be happy.  The philosopher kings would be exiled, to Iceland, as Mustapha Mond reveals to Helmholtz Watson at the end, and the commoners will all be perfectly happy never to achieve self-awareness, as long as their free supply of drugs and religion-sex is unabated.  But we were talking about dandruff...

Because the scene where the Monkees become dandruff is as telling as the rest.  Imagine the Three Tenors having to do such exercises just to fulfill a contract.  The Monkees must sacrifice their dignity in order to pursue their music.  Which brings the money they can use for drugs and other entertainment.  They become the amalgamation of society, both consumers and producers of the entertainment they so are addicted to.  As viewers of the images on the cave wall, they become puppets for the image makers, as well as images themselves for others watching on other cave walls.  There is no freedom here.  No sunshine, no perfect forms, only illusion. 

I guess I need to split this into two posts, because the making, selling, and consuming of entertainment develops into an economy that is quite interesting, and is best laid out in a Phineas & Ferb  episode. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Persistence of Memory of Food

....or what not to get at Arby's.

My family will say that whenever I talk about a vacation I've been on or a place I visited, I will link that memory with food I ate while I'm there. They're quite correct, as there is no other combination of smell, taste, and texture, that will bring up memory responses as quickly as food. If you ask me if I've ever been in an Earthquake, I will happily tell you about the 7.0 Earthquake that hit Bear Lake on the other side of Los Angeles, where we were visiting for the month. Aside from going to Disneyland (which was much more hype and not enough substance, but that's another blog altogether) and seeing the sites of LA and falling asleep on the traffic-clogged interstates (I think it was Jet Lag), I will tell you about the hotel that we stayed in, near the airport, and how, when the Earthquake hit, I saw the pool water move from one side of the pool to the other in unison, as if a teeter-totter were underneath it. And I will tell you about reading C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and how much I enjoyed it. But mostly, I will tell you about the exquisite Danishes they had in the Hotel Lobby for breakfast. Cheese, Cherry...I have had no better Danishes before or since, and no that I Think on it, the sleepiness probably had something to do with blood sugar.

And I can tell you about the Nachoes I had at Mustang Valley Elementary school, of which I have never found their equal, or the homemade salad dressing I put on the Fiestadas when we had them. Fiestadas...mmmmmm.... there were times I sat in the middle of my college classes craving a Fiestada with the veracity of a pregnant woman.

I've talked about other foods in blogs in the past, such as the Hot Ham & Cheese sandwich from Hardees', or the Tripledecker Pizza from Pizza Hut. I will leave these to my other writings.

Why I'm writing this... I went to Arby's to try out their Angus Beef, Bacon and Cheese sandwich, as it is similar to the three cheese sandwich they promoted back in the 1990's. I remember the last time I had that sandwich was in Milledgeville, around 1999, and the flavor was exquisite. This time, however, while the beef was good, I had to hunt to find any cheese, I got two bites of bacon, and the sandwich was much smaller than I remembered. Perhaps this is the lesson to be learned from food, that the memory of the sensual aspects of an object is often times inflated and will only cause an anticlimactic feeling afterward. Very rarely is something as good the tenth time as it is the first. We must continuously be looking for new variety, and savor those memories so that when a certain spark of synapse travels through the brain, igniting a smell or taste or other memory, it will be all the more pleasurable. We cannot recreate the past, only create new memories for what is to come.