|Ivan Brady, Ph.D., Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus|
NOTES ON VIDEOS, FILMS
(1) "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY"
A few million years ago (the film has it at two million), a group of primitive man-apes are portrayed as struggling for survival in a harsh, barren landscape. Without warning, a tall black slab appears. It is utterly alien. It exerts a mysterious influence on its discoverers. The glimmerings of crude intelligence appear when weapons are born of bone. The bone phases into a bone-shaped nucelar-powered space ship -- representing a mere fragment of cosmic time. Our segment -- the "Dawn of Man" sequence -- ends here but the film continues. Touched by the sun for the first time in eons, the monolith screeches a powerful radio signal into space and then falls silent forever. Onboard the space ship Discovery, a human crew, unaware of the monolith's signal, and HAL, a self-aware computer, who knows the truth, are woven in a web of destiny. HAL murders all but one of the crew (Dave Bowman), who must then try to "murder" HAL. Humanity is regained by violence. In orbit around Jupiter, Bowman encounters and enters the monolith, passing through a dazzling vortex of twisted time and space, only to emerge in a hotel room, where he lives out the rest of his mortal life. Quickly a mysterious transformation begins....the moment of death arrives: Bowman is reborn as a Starchild. The astral voyager returns to the blue planet Earth.
The film is wonderful in its entirety and I suggest that you make your way to the local video store and rent a copy for a complete viewing. Our class focus lies with the brief "Dawn of Man" sequence. What makes it so interesting? Is it a story about you? In what respect? Do you normally see yourself in the long run of human ancestors? What do you need to know to make sense of the story? How can we judge its accuracy? When do we speculate? When do we compare the film with concrete facts? And what facts might those be? We need systematic thinking to organize and sort our experiences. We need to learn the art of asking the right question. We also need to remember that this production was created primarily to entertain. Scrutinizing it for good or bad science, for bias and prejudice, or for just plain silliness, defeats much of the original purpose -- what, in> literary terms, we call "the pleasure of the text." In a larger sense, this is a story that captures you, that draws you in, puts a lump in your chest, and may (if it strikes you just right) change your life. All good art aims for that. For our purposes, the film should be viewed more as an "art-i-fact." It tells us much about the makers and their society -- their views of themselves, their aspirations, and their conclusions about human prospects in general. Why doesn't every artifact speak clearly to us about the same things? How does archaeology attempt to fill in the gaps in information from ancient tools and ancient sites? This course will give you some tips. We also want to know more. Accounts of human evolution usually feature four important episodes: terrestriality -- a shift from the trees to the ground; bipedalism ‹ the acquisition of upright posture; encephalization -- the development of the brain, intelligence, and language; and, civilization -- the emergence of technology, morals, and society (see Misia Landau, Narratives of Human Evolution, 1991:7). How are these episodes represented in "2001"? Are they reasonably accurate as portrayed? How do you know? What information do you need to be able to make an intelligent anthropololgical interpretation of these problems as presented in the film?
What else might we pursue to some advantage? The black obelisk (the monolith) invokes the curiosity of the creatures that find it. Surely we can relate to that. It symbolizes the unknown in life -- the puzzle of strange artifacts, of material seemingly beyond our ken (like this course on the first day?). Other sub-themes of special interest to us include tool development and use -- bony leftovers from "the tearing of the flesh" in meals of meat can be thrown as weapons and modified for other uses as well. Did human violence evolve as a system of self-defense? Or was it more opportunitistic and offensive in the quest for food and the possibility of triumphing over rivals? Or some knowable combination of both? Bones and stones figure importantly in the early development of human tool manufacture. How do they relate to the evolution of weapons? Language is> another foregrounded element in this sequence. How does it relate to the evolution of tools? The film moves from an incredible silence on an African plain to grunting and squatting in groups to elaborately evolved communication in outer space. What happened in between? How old is a word? Where did the music in the space sequences ("The Blue Danube") come from in the long run? And what about the body shapes of the creatures, the food consumption patterns, the competition between groups, the implied evolution of social groups from ape to angel, and the development of advanced intelligence itself? This little sequence packs a story on it all. How will you use it?
(2) "BAMBI MEETS GODZILLA "
["Those who control the symbols, control us" -- Alfred Korzybski, 1933.]
This short film is a classic piece of American pop culture (like "2001,"> also from the 1960's -- a time when the Vietnam war and civil unrest were very much in the news). Why do we care if Bambi dies? Is Godzilla really a bad guy? What does our reaction to such things tell us about our relationships with other animals and the ways we portray them in thought and deed? About our attitudes toward authority and violence? Could the truly ancient idea of the "tearing of the flesh" in the animal hunt and ritual sacrifice have any bearing on our modern interpretation of this film? How is that related to the statement that we are all "culturally-constructed, symbol-using beings"? And to the problems of representation in primate ethology?
The "Bambi syndrome" is an important part of the interpretive context of this film for us. As the stereotypic deer, Bambi symbolizes all those things we associate with deer, including doe-eyed innocence, wilderness, and the natural order. Walt Disney's film Bambi has had a profound impact on American attitudes toward wildlife, nature, and hunting. Many people complain about the hunters killing such symbols. The hunters complain that the "animal rights" activists are full of overblown sentiment, among other things. The hunters are right about one thing: for all its saccharine sweetness and childish whimsy, Disney's film is probably the most effective piece of antihunting propaganda ever made (see Matt Cartmill, "The Bambi Syndrome," Natural History 6:6-12, 1993).
(3) "SHOCK OF THE OTHER"
In the present video, host David Maybury-Lewis begins the series with a visit to his Xavante "brother" whom he first met 30 years before in central Brazil. We are asked to understand the need to protect other cultures that are threatened by industrial expansion and to find a balance between cultural diversity and our desire to be like one another. As an extension of the same themes, the Millennium series team then journeys deep into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon where they seek to unravel the mystery of a small tribe called the Mascho-Piro who have chosen to remain hidden from the outside world. Through scenes of the decimation of the tropical rain forests, interviews with threatened indigenous peoples, and the narrator¹s reflections on the discovery of the Americas and other historical events, we can discover why so much is at stake when modern industrialism meets the tribal world.
(4) "A MAN CALLED BEE"
(5) "DISCOVERING HUMAN LANGUAGE: COLORLESS GREEN IDEAS"
(6) "AN ECOLOGY OF MIND"
(7) "A POOR MAN SHAMES US ALL"
(8) "STRANGE RELATIONS"
(9) "MISTAKEN IDENTITY"
The "social fabric" of tribal societies seems to incorporate the individual person into a powerfully supportive and demanding network of relatives and personal behaviors appropriate to group concerns, while that of "our" Western society is much more impersonal, defined and controlled more by institutions than personal networks of families, etc. Our system also regularly leaves certain individuals adrift in society -- homeless, claimless, bereft of the resources needed to re-enter a productive and sociable life; and it fosters alienation in other forms that tribal societies find completely unacceptable -- indeed, in forms that they may see as threatening to all meaningful social order. What makes us different from our tribal cousins? How do we calculate our identities as individuals? As members of social groups? What does our attitude toward the past have to do with that?
A major point made explicitly in "Mistaken Identity" should be clear to you: cultures that stress individualism over cooperation will define certain values differently. Attitudes toward the past are only part of it. The ways people conceptualize and actualize freedom is another interesting example. The Xavante, Paulo, says of his cultural legacy: "One path for all, yet each must walk it in his own way." Is that your view, too? A "good American" view, perhaps? Why or why not? Apply the same mental exercise to "success," "courage," and "happiness." These things are not the same for everyone or every society. Why not?
Some additional insight into the problems of identity construction can be gained by looking at the social and cultural contexts of reproduction itself. How do we name, legalize, incorporate, abandon, accept, reject, or nurture (among other possibilities) our babies in the long run? Babies carry it all. They become the activators of culture. They put society into motion as they grow and the hope is always that they will reproduce us in biology and culture -- the stuff that "matters" to us -- forever. We are thus keenly interested in what happens to this material of our own making. Every society has rules and expectations governing parent-child relations; every society makes something special out of this heart of the reproductive system; every society has an explicitly calculated view of how kinship systems "work" (how babies are "made," etc.) and how people will be expected to behave as participants in these systems (more "identity construction"). As it happens, failed kinship threatens every form of life. Adaptation and survival for whole cultural systems are put on the line when a society, for whatever reasons, can no longer reproduce itself.
You should be able to discuss these issues intelligently as a result of: (a) reading the asssignments in Ferraro on enculturation, socialization, and personality formation; (b) watching the "Mistaken Identity" video; (c) listening to the lecture in class on the "social fabric" of our lives and its influence on the problems of individual identity formation in our society; and, above all else, (d) thinking about these subjects as they apply to you and your own life.
(10) "TIGHTROPE OF POWER"
(11) "TOUCHING THE TIMELESS"
(12) "INVENTING REALITY"
(13) "THE FIRST STORYTELLERS"
This is a rather narrow view of myth (not to mention the ambiguity of what exactly nature "dictates" to our culturally molded species) ‹ it is a useful interpretation, but limited and certainly not above criticism. In other places, Campbell provides at least six different explanations of the function of myth: (1) to justify society; (2) to integrate human beings with society; (3) to integrate human beings with the natural and supernatural world; (4) to explain the nature of the world and our place in it; (5) to convey socially produced signals which allow us to adjust to life crises; and (6) to convey messages from what he identifies (following Jung) as the "collective unconscious" of all human beings. He is exactly right, however, when he talks about rituals as the enactments of myths, thereby linking myths to religion. But what about the "myth of the American frontier; the myth of Aryan supremacy? Campbell also counts as myths many themes and ideologies that do not involve the supernatural. Are these myths also associated with particular rituals? Does it make any sense to speak of "secular ritual" in this context? And how does art figure into all of this? Certainly there is entertainment value in ritual, including storytelling. And symbols are always manipulated for psychological effects. Can they be manipulated for political effects as well? Korzybski once said that "Those who control the symbols, control us" (see "Bambi..." above). Does storytelling, in the form of myths, help to maintain or restore order in society? How old is storytelling anyway? Does the material expression in art and ritual of abstract ideas about the nature of the world and our place in it have any simultaneously religious and political effects? Yes. But how?
Your task, should you choose to accept it before this paper self-destructs, is to put these pieces of information together in a sensible way and draw some conclusions about the interconnectedness of art, politics, and religion -- in modern and ancient societies. How does the Campbell video illustrate (or fail to illustrate) your conclusions? Your ideas about storytelling in general? Some related material will appear on the final examination.
(14) "THE ART OF LIVING"
The lesson -- at least a primary one here -- is that modern society separates art and daily life, while tribal societies fuse them. To a tribal culture, art can be as simple as the presentation of a meal or the posture of a warrior. It can also be bound up complexly with myth, religion, and political concerns. Rites of passage -- events such as puberty, marriage, and death -- are given great significance through the ritual functions that accompany them in the tribal world. The concern is generally with the place of individuals in society and the place of society in the wider world of other peoples, animals, spirits, places, and things. That is the stuff of life and of living on the planet. It needs to be celebrated and marked symbolically. In that connection, the Dogon say that "Death makes life precious...Death is the wind of life." What does this mean? In what ways do you think the people in this episode live life to its fullest? By contrast, Maybury-Lewis suggests that Western culture tries to deny death by removing all examples of mortality. Do you think that assumption is true? We dye our hair, get face lifts, and value youthful beauty. And speaking of beauty, when is it art? Note that every culture has its own definition of beauty. How does our culture define beauty? Long ago, heavy women were considered more desirable than slender women and a pale complexion was more preferable than being tan. What are other ways the Western standard of beauty has changed? Is it the same for men and women? If art can be considered as creative and imaginative cultural expression through a range of activities and objects, is the way we make ourselves beautiful an art form? Is it the only art form that is truly integrated in the everyday expressions of modern societies?
(15) "AT THE THRESHOLD"
Conclusion of the Millennium Series.
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