I recently came across this passage in an essay by Colin McGinn. It explains the enslavement of human beings in the film The Matrix from the perspective of their robotic masters:
The Matrix naturally adopts the perspective of the humans: they are the victims, the slaves — cruelly exploited by the machines. But there is another perspective, that of the machines themselves. So let’s look at it from the point of view of the machines. As Morpheus explains to Neo, there was a catastrophic war between the humans and the machines, after the humans had produced AI, a sentient robot that spawned a race of its own. It isn’t known now who started the war, but it did follow a long period of machine exploitation by humans. What is known is that it was the humans who “scorched the sky”, blocking out the sun’s rays, in an attempt at machine genocide—since the machines needed solar power to survive. In response and retaliation the machines subdued the humans and made them into sources of energy—batteries, in effect. Each human now floats in his or her own personal vat, a warm and womblike environment, while the machines feed in essential nutrients, in exchange for the energy they need. But this is no wretched slave camp, a grotesque gulag of torment and suffering; it is idyllic, in its way. The humans are given exactly the life they had before. Things are no different for them, subjectively speaking. Indeed, at an earlier stage the Matrix offered them a vastly improved life, but the humans rejected this in favor of a familiar life of moderate woe—the kind of life they had always had, and to which they seemed addicted. But if it had been left up to the machines, the Matrix would have been a virtual paradise for humans—and all for a little bit of battery power.
Why do human beings reject an edenic paradise “…in favor of a familiar life of moderate woe—the kind of life they had always had, and to which they seemed addicted…”? This is the subject of the opening chapter of Robert Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.
Harrison finds in Odysseus an ideal case study of the human condition. Why can’t he rest content with the Goddess Kalypso on her island paradise? Why is he restless? Because he cannot be carefree:
What Odysseus longs for on Kalypso’s island—what keeps him ina state of exile there—is a life of care. More precisely, he longs for the world in which human care finds its fulfillment; in his case, that is the world of family, homeland, and genealogy. Care, which is bound to worldliness, does not know what to do with itself in a worldless garden in the middle of the ocean. It is the alienated core of care in his human heart that sends Odysseus to the shore every morning and keeps him out of place in the unreal environment of Kalypso’s island. “If you only knew in your own heart how many hardships / you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country, / you would stay here with me and be lord of this household and be an immortal” (5.206–9). But Kalypso is a goddess—a “shining goddess” at that—and she scarcely can understand the extent to which Odysseus, insofar as he is human, is held fast by care, despite or perhaps even because of the burdens that care imposes on him.
Human beings reject Edenic paradise because of our longing for the active life, which Harrison defines with the help of Hannah Arendt, who sees at its core three things: labor, work, and action.
Labor is the endless and inglorious toil by which we secure our biological survival, symbolized by the sweat of Adam’s brow as he renders the earth fruitful, contending against blight, drought, and disaster. But biological survival alone does not make us human. What distinguishes us in our humanity is the fact that we inhabit relatively permanent worlds that precede our birth and outlast our death, binding the generations together in a historical continuum. These worlds, with their transgenerational things, houses, cities, institutions, and artworks, are brought into being by work. While labor secures our survival, work builds the worlds that make us historical. The historical world, in turn, serves as the stage for human action, the deeds and speech through which human beings realize their potential for freedom and affirm their dignity in the radiance of the public sphere. Without action, human work is meaningless and labor is fruitless. Action is the self-affirmation of the human before the witness of the gods and the judgment of one’s fellow humans.
I broke down and saw Avatar last week, 3D glasses and all. It was well worth the price of admission. I wish I could say the same for the concessions. But all in all, I had a great night at the cinema.
Avatar is a really great cinematic experience. The story did have a little bit of a mix between Dances With Wolves and The Lion King sort of feel, but still overall it was enjoyable, fun and engaging.
I was reading some reflections on John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them, which took me back to Avatar. Leithart notes the kind of self-knowledge Adam acquires, not merely knowledge of the other creatures, in the naming of them. This is because in naming the animals Adam discovers “his own dissimilarity before them,” so that “with this knowledge, which makes him go in some way outside of his own being, man at the same time reveals himself to himself in all the distinctiveness of his being.” Some will likely see Avatar as pantheistic in its spirituality, and that may be correct, but the interconnectedness of human beings and the natural world, and a resulting sense of living gratefully before God can all be had without blurring the Creator/creature distinction.
I also think that Avatar has a unique take on the body/soul relationship, one more nuanced than I’ve seen in any blockbuster that I can remember. There is a sense in which the main character is more himself in his genetically engineered Navi body. But that body is specifically engineered for him (well for his brother who is a twin and has the same DNA). While there is a possibility of life in a new body, one which is specifically fitted with a particular human being in mind, there isn’t a disembodied personal essence that is able to exist eternally on its own. In a technicized culture with all manner of virtual realities abounding everywhere you turn, or click, this identification of our body as our self is refreshing. Perhaps even more intriguing is a new body, yours and new all at the same time, in which you are more yourself than you could have known was possible. Perhaps this is what 1 John 3:2 is getting at…
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.
Brooks is no fan of the Tea Party movement, but he clearly sees its potential to shape the coming decade’s politics. Put it in the “ignore at your own risk” file.
This is off color and hilarious, vintage Stewart…
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There is no racism without a language. The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word…Racism always betrays the perversion of man, the “talking animal.” It institutes, writes, inscribes, prescribes. A system of marks, it outlines space in order to assign forced residence or closed off borders. It does not discern, it discriminates.
-Jacques Derrida, “Racism’s Last Word”