Archive for June, 2018


Adopting Medieval Tactics to Promote Modern Science

This is one of those ideas that came out of the blue while thinking about current events. It’s no secret to anyone reading this in 2018 that there is an alarming reduction in fact-based thinking and discussion. Some of this is due to the highly-charged emotional times we live in. Some of it is also a long, slow decline in emotional connection to science.

I remember reading old 50s magazines and comics years ago. The nuclear age had just begun and the Space Race would soon be on its way. There was this idea that the future would be all space ships and laser guns. In short the future was an adventure and science would pave the way. Today is much different, of course. People use computers, cars and airplanes, but routinely deny the existence of climate change as well. In the past science was magical, but still understood as a human invention to make life better. Today, it seems to have simply drifted into background noise.

I think a lot of this has to do with a lack of proper communication of scientific concepts to the average citizen. As I mentioned earlier, a lack of emotional connection. People seem to understand that science exists, but not that it is a man-made phenomenon that is accessible to the average person. As result, interest has waned, competing ideas are coming into the foreground and America finds itself fighting to get students interested in science so that we can compete with the rest of the world.

A Proposal on Communicating Science to Citizens

Although not entirely the same situation, we do see an ongoing lack of interest in art education. Art is seen as something kids do in school, but no real effort is made to bring artists in line with small business owners on the scale of social respect. In fact, a life of art tends to come across as a sure-fire way to basically be broke all the time. This is bizarre because artists, be they painters, actors or musicians, are basically skilled in emotional communication. They provide emotive experiences that are designed to move audiences towards an idea or state of being.

This ability has been exploited in the past very effectively in the Medieval period in Europe. On the secular side of history, bards were also employed to create poems and songs highlighting important people and events. This was important because while the elites were well educated, the masses were largely illiterate. Written texts would have done very little for spreading information. Religious organizations went even further. First, they spread by identifying the holidays for other religions and presenting their own competing holidays. This is why Easter is a Christian holiday despite originally being a pagan holiday. It’s also why Christmas is celebrated during the winter solstice despite Christ himself having been born in the summer.

Re-purposing the holidays was only part of the equation. Once the people had been assembled, indoctrination had to begin. This began with chants and hymns, which were easy to remember, but expanded over time to plays and pageants. The plays fell into three basic groups: morality plays, mystery plays, and passion play. Mystery plays covered the history as presented by the Bible. That is, the birth of the universe, its death and the intervening events. Morality plays were as their name implies and were generally diverse, as seen by the play Everyman and the medieval plays of Saint Nicholas. The Passion plays were focused on Jesus Christ in particular. These plays were short, easy to understand and, at least in the case of Everyman, highly metaphorical. They were meant for an audience that had not yet been prepared for complex ideas or discussions.

Adapting Ideas to Science

It seems both science and art complement each other well. Scientists are more interested in uncovering facts and expanding knowledge, and artists are more interested in moving the hearts and minds of people. It seems both could adapt the tactics developed in the Medieval age to promote each other in a symbiotic manner in the modern age.

The first step is to identify holidays that draw major public interest, such as Christmas or the 4th of July. Scientific organizations can then organize and promote pre-holiday festival and celebrations. These events would offer free music and theatre presentations. Taking a cue from Medieval plays, they would be short and easy to understand. Comedy is effective, as well. Both the music and the plays would focus on science in some manner. Think Jonathan Coulton’s Mandelbrot Set, as an example for music. In addition, the celebrations should be replete with demonstrations of science. These demonstrations would displays meant to “wow” the attendees. The goal isn’t so much to educate, but amaze. The music and plays themselves are the educational aspect in that they would present easy-to-digest introductions to ideas, people and so forth (again, think Mandelbrot Set, or 88 Lines About 44 Mathematicians.)

Scientific organizations could expand on this by creating in-house positions for theatre groups and individuals. These individuals would act as resident “bards”. Their job would be to create music, poetry and writings that introduce important figures or events, illustrate important ideas and methods and so on. This would be a kind of expansion of general PR duties into the field of edutainment. In essence, someone from within the greater scientific organization would give some information on scientific advances, people or ideas and the bards and playwrights would compose something to present to masses. Imagine Friday nights at a college campus where there is a free concert by the Science building, or an ongoing tradition of lunchtime plays, all free watch.

This material would, ideally, be in the public domain. Since different organizations in different locations would each have their own set of theatre groups and bards, a great wealth of material would develop to share and adapt. These would be composed of plays, poems, stories, parables and so forth. Collections could be made and offered for free or a small price to add funds to the productions. One might also argue for a scientific “bible” which would contain various parables, lessons and stories of meant to draw the reader in. Theoretically, if this was done on a large enough scale, a large enough population of people would associate science with some positive emotion. The emotional connection would build and, hopefully, foster an ongoing interest and trust in science.

Appealing to the Non-Masses

There’s another idea that is somewhat complementary, if also somewhat cynical. During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Masques were all the rage. These were a specific form of theatre that merged together spoken theatre, song and dance. They were specifically made for a particular party event and even included attendees in their performance. Often, they glorified the host of the event and the attendees. Masque’s were the must-go events of their day and were exclusively the domain of those in favor with the court.

Much has been made, both publically and among the tech community, of the incredible position of the scions of Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos, as of this writing, is the wealthiest man in the world and has aspirations of being the first man on Mars. That is to say, achieving a goal that involves spending billions of dollars with no guarantee of return. Silicon Valley CEOs are phenomenally wealthy and, possibly, very self-satisfied with their success. They are also very interested in continuing their dominance in technology, which itself is a product of scientific research. Interested science and technology organizations could expand on the celebrations mentioned earlier to create exclusive name-only events for these privileged few. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the benefits of wealth?

Like the masques of old, these events would involve productions that glorify the attendees and hosts before transforming into a larger party. In addition, there would be more of the aforementioned scientific spectacles. Something to amaze, but also a possible venue for inspiring some form of argument for funding. Think of it overall as a celebration of successful people. The production feeds into the collective ego of those attending and in turn makes them amenable to arguments for funding this project or that supporting that legislative proposal. Parties are a great way to network and fundraise.

Summary

The current distrust of science and lack of scientific interest can be attributed, at least in part, to the lack of ability to emotionally connect to science, or at least associate science with some positive state. By looking to the past we can observe that there were problems with drawing people to a particular message or idea. Using the tactics of art, in the form of bards, plays and masques, we can see how secular and religious organizations promoted themselves to the masses and the elites. This allowed them to spread messages, secure support and otherwise fulfill their goals. These same tactics can be used to promote modern science and, one hopes, bring scientific literarcy and trust back into the public sphere where it belongs.

Thoughts on Shakespeare for Actors

Introduction

Years ago I was friends with an aspiring actor, one of many actors and pseudo-actors that try to make it in the film industry. He had started out as a software developer on the East Coast before having some kind of epiphany (or nervous breakdown) and realizing his purpose in life was to act. Naturally, discussions eventually turned to Shakespeare. I was expecting him to wax poetic on the Bard, but surprisingly, he dismissed Shakespeare entirely. In his mind, Shakespeare just was not relevant to modern society.

I probably should not have been surprised. Going through college, I myself was taught that Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers in English literature, but not much more beyond that. He was great because everyone said he was great. A sort of Elizabethan Kim Kardashian, as it were. It wasn’t until I found a video online of a speech by Ben Crystal, a noted Shakespearean actor, that I was able to really put the problem into words. Simply put, Shakespeare is taught in an incompetent manner. This essay, then, would be my response to that aspiring actor from years ago.

Research and Informed Interpretation

The reason Shakespeare is important for actors is because it exercises critical skills that actors should have in terms of research, analysis and presentation. Because of the manner in which Shakespeare’s works are taught, read rather than acted and discussed rather than witnessed, the works themselves come off a exceptionally dry. They appear to have no relation to the issues of modern life. As Ben Crystal makes clear, the genius in Shakespeare was in his storytelling abilities, not as some static poet (for the purposes of this essay, I’m excluding his sonnets and other poetic works).

Shakespeare and Class in His Theatre

Shakespeare is often taught as if he existed in some vacuum, but he did not. In fact, he had to appeal to two opposite classes of people simultaneously. I recall watching a documentary years ago that focused on designers and their thoughts on design. One designer mentioned that he liked to place customers for a product on a spectrum. By solving design issues for each end of the spectrum, he is basically assured that everyone in the middle of the spectrum will be taken care of as well. This is not unlike the problem Shakespeare himself had with his audience.

In Shakespeare’s day, the very poor were situated in front of the stage with the very wealthy surround everyone in privileged seats. If Shakespeare did not appeal to the interests of the wealthy, the theatre would not make money. If the he likewise did not appeal to the interests of the poor, they might disrupt the play, storm the stage or otherwise cause chaos. This would drive away the wealthy and give the theatre company a bad reputation.

Appealing to both ends of the spectrum is no mean task. The wealthy were well educated and expected high-minded language and themes of greatness. The poor were often illiterate and preferred bawdy jokes to monologues on the meaning of life. Both classes enjoyed poking fun at each other. This combined with Shakespeare’s ability to analyse and recreate human nature allowed him to balance these interests. Thus, we read Hamlet contemplating mortality with Yorick’s skull just before two illiterate gravediggers discuss how easily justice and salvation is bought for the rich while the poor are forced to live by the rules. Both classes can laugh at Dogberry, the night constable in Much Ado About Nothing. He’s a low-class character who tries constantly to appear higher than he actually is, thus making a fool of himself to both sides.

The above, of course, is a broad outline. For any particular play, any good actor should be doing research on the character, the character’s class and how the character is portrayed in relation to that class. Further, research should be done on how the character relates to that character’s self, the immediate social circle and the world at large. This informs the nature of the character and the potential experience for the audience.

Shakespeare and Acting Notes

The necessary research goes beyond the character in Shakespeare’s plays. For one thing, Shakespeare rarely wrote stage directions. This may be because of two important points regarding Shakespeare. First, he was constantly writing, being a very in-demand playwright and second, he worked with the same general group of people thoughout his career. This has given rise to the theory that he didn’t have time to write out stage directions, but rather placed them in the dialogue itself. For example, every “Oh” in Shakespeare would denote a point where the actor would be expected to dramatically emote.

For a modern actor to take advantage of this would require a lot of research into Shakespeare’s writing style, literary and dramatic trends of the day and so forth. Just reading (or speaking) the words isn’t enough. Thought has to be put into why particular words keep showing up or why Shakespeare wanted actors to speak certain words at certain times. Without doing this, the language falls flat.

Shakespeare and Modern English

Shakespeare spoke and wrote in what we now call Early Modern English. It is true that we can understand most of what Shakespeare wrote, but the use of the word “Early” is no joke. The reason Shakespeare was able to add so many words and phrases into the English language was because Modern English was only just being formed. There was a lot of room for defining and redefining words. As a result, many times Shakespeare will write something that made total sense to his time but is completely lost on modern audiences.

One example is in Hamlet. When Hamlet is confronted by King Claudius about the killing of Polonius, Hamlet mentions “a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him”. What modern audiences will miss is that Hamlet is making a pun on an event called The Diet of Worms which is a conference called by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521. Because there’s no reason modern audiences will understand this at all, the actor must find a way to relate the basic point while gliding over words that might distract and confuse from that point. This calls for imaginative adaptation from the actor, which is a critical skill in general. Needless to say, Shakespeare’s texts provide ample opportunity for this sort of tactic.

Summary

Shakespeare appears distant to modern audiences because of inadequate teaching methods. This has led many, including actors, to feel that Shakespeare is simply not part of their world and a relic of the past. Shakespeare, in fact, is a critical proving ground for actors because the effective portrayal of Shakespeare requires critical skills that serve actors well in any role from any author. An example would be researching the dynamic of the audience that Shakespeare was writing for. This is especially important with regards to class divisions.

Research must also go into how Shakespeare related information in his plays to the actors and how trends in his text reveal how he felt the actors should portray a role. Finally, a dramatic nimbleness must be displayed to enable audiences to understand the basic point of a text while glossing over material that is no longer accessible to modern viewers. All of these create a proving ground for actors and part of the set of reasons that all serious actors should have a high regard for Shakespeare’s works.

It’s too bad I didn’t think to come up with all this so many years ago when I actually having these discussions. Ah, well.

Social Media as a Totalitarian Framework

I read an interesting article over at the New Yorker titled “How George Orwell Predicted The Challenge of Writing Today”. One of the points made in the article was that totalitarian societies emphasize the intimate knowledge people have of one another. A sort of enforced closeness and awareness of the other person. Another aspect of totalitarian societies is that people are punished seemingly at random. It’s not so much who the person is or why the person is targetted, it is that anybody can be targetted for any time and any reason.

These two concepts stood out to me because, in essence, social media enforces both these ideas. Much has been made of the Facebook memo which declared that connecting the world is the most important thing, justifying any form of underhanded technique to achieve it. Further, anyone who has been online for more than a few months is aware of just how quickly denizens of the Internet will gang up on someone for the slightest misstep; no offense is too small for an overblown reaction. It strikes me, then that, however unintentionally, the social media tech giants have created a foundation for a totalitarian society. This is a foundation, however, with an important difference.

In previous totalitarian states, there was always a central body at the top. China is a perfect example of this. At the top of the heap is the ruling Chinese party in Beijing, which in turn is ruled by Xi Jingping. With the social media companies, however, there is no ruling party. It’s just a framework. Control goes to those who can game the system the best. Right now that would appear to be Russia. No doubt China will level its power on the world later as circumstances dictate. In the meantime, the tech companies will pursue their own, largely capital-based interests.

Silicon Valley has, for some time now, been in the thrall of a pseudo-Randian, neo-Libertarian philosophy in which making money is the goal and everything else is just a series of data points to manage. Despite outward appearances, Google, Facebook and others will happily make any deal that gives them more profit. Witness Google, which dropped their famouse “Don’t be Evil” slogan recently and only pulled out of a deal with the Department of Defense thanks to a public lashing generated by some of their own employees. Facebook, of course, has shown no such problem with ethics in general and Bezos has employees that pass out on the production line lest they be fired for missing a performance goal.

If the Trump administration were more aware of the possibilities it would quietly engage in back-room deals with these companies to give them the market profits they crave in exchange for access to the raw data that the tech companies have accumulated. Trump could protect them from legislative backlash and in return the companies could supply data, propaganda and surveillance. If the tech companies were smart they would quietly cultivate Trump’s favor. He’s not a complicated man. He likes people who idolize him and he does favors for them. It would not take much to learn how to control his favor. One could take things a step further and see the two forces working together to create a propaganda campaign for Trump as a permanent President.

I don’t actually think things would go this far, nor do I really want it to happen. It just strikes me American society is on the cusp of this idea, even if it is not the direction that things will ultimately travel. Still, one hopes one day some politician makes the same realization I have briefly made just now and works on legislation to prevent this very outcome from occurring. It’s clear things will likely not change without serious government intervention; the tech companies are just too entrenched.

The Misandrists: It’s… interesting…

The Misandrists by director Bruce LaBruce is… interesting. I’ve been mulling it over in my head for a few days now and I think in a way it needs to be taken more as an experience than a traditional story-driven film. By virtue of its director alone it is a transgressive film and an almost conceptual one. The closest analogy that comes to mind is Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, which was about the death dream of a dying drug dealer. Both films are intense, visual, helmed by extremely creative outside-the-box artists and films I have no intention of ever seeing again. This is not so much because I don’t think highly of the films. Rather it is because now that I’ve seen each once, I just don’t need to do it again. I think for those, like myself, who are raised on a relatively mainstream diet of cinema, watching these kinds of films is a good exercise. It is a way to view the world of cinematic storytelling through a new lens and be exposed to new ideas. A nice place to visit, but perhaps you don’t want to live there.

What follows in this article is a breakdown of things I noticed as I was watching the film, supplemented a bit by an after-film interview by the director himself. Because I came to the theater expecting a more traditional work, I kept trying to figure out how everything fit together. If the film is understood as a more abstract work, however, perhaps the traditional complaints will fall away. It will still be an intense experience, but there might be fewer questions about what is going on.

Storytelling

Dancing Nun

My issues really revolve around choices in scenes that appear during the film. These choices, for me, amounted to a lot of unnecessary misdirection. This might be partially my fault as I tried to understand where the film was going. As I mentioned before, a better strategy might have been to just absorb the film and mull the overall meaning later. That said, the first scene to take note of was the “Dancing Nun” scene. This was a moment when a nun, whose face isn’t seen, walks very purposefully and slowly before looking around and then breaking into dance. This happens for a moment, then the nun returns to walking purposefully and slowly again.

A couple things to note here. First of all, it’s established earlier in the film that the nun outfits are mostly just ruses. Unless there’s someone in authority nearby, the outfits are never worn. Secondly, there’s no real connection in this scene to the rest of the film. It’s just a strange non-sequiter. Perhaps it could be taken as a symbolic moment (perhaps some idea of being reserved and disciplined, but being unable to prevent loosening up once in a while.) Even if that were true, however, there seems to be no immediate connection to the rest of the film. As mentioned earlier, the very idea of wearing a nun’s outfit on a regular basis seems odd given that it was clearly initially worn by characters in the film as disguise.

Secret Nun

The next issue revolves around a cameo by the director himself. In one scene, a nun’s face appears and looks out into a courtyard where an event is taking place. That “nun” is the director in a nun’s outfit. The pupose of this moment made sense in the interview after the film, but it completely misled me prior to that point. In the interview after the film, Bruce LaBruce mentioned that he liked to make the audience part of the film. This “secret nun” moment was part of that. Essentially, the camera watches the nun look out the window and then cuts to view the courtyard from the nun’s perspective. The problem here is that, without the benefit of the after-film interview, it appears as if the secret nun is an actual character. I certainly took it that way. Until the interview, I really kept trying to figure out who this nun character was. I kept expecting to find out that this secret character was in fact controlling the events of the film while hidden way. Watching the film in this context made me feel there was a real unresolved storyline.

Big Mother

Speaking about unresolved, I feel there were some issues surrounding the character of Big Mother that were not properly laid to rest. In particular, there were a number of cues that seemed to me to indicate that Big Mother was heading towards failure. The first indication is very early in the film when one of the girls, Isolde, openly voices opposition to Big Mother’s policies. Doing this so early in the film sets the tone for a tale of authority versus resistance. This thread continues on with a discussion of rules about smoking. This is forbidden by Big Mother in the film, but everyone, including Big Mother herself breaks the rules casually. Thus Big Mother’s authority is false, even to herself.

To be honest, the whole environment Big Mother has set up feels cultish and artificial. The girls are regularly told stories that revolve around mythology and could easily have been made up. The exercise regimen includes pseudo-militarized chanting. Educational material is delivered with such heavy modification that it is reduced to propaganda. In a replay of the false authority issues mentioned earlier, the girls are shown as not even listening to the teacher. In the meantime Big Mother is extolling the virtues of prostitution as she prepares to enact a plan to create a pornographic film. One she admits needs to be done for money while declaring that it will also be her group’s manifesto.

The Ending

The above issues seem to mean the film is headed to an ending of disappointment for Big Mother. In reality, the plan ends in complete victory. Big Mother makes her film resulting, among other thigs, an ending scene showing the audience of her film inspired into an orgy. This didn’t make much sense to me from the standpoint of a logical plot, but the reasoning behind it was made clear in the after-film interview. The interviewer noted that Bruce LaBruce tends to end his films with orgies. LaBruce confirmed this and indicated that he likes to end films on a positive note, which for him would be an orgy. This is fine, but it is a significant break from all the cues being delivered throughout the film. This more than anything else brings the film into the world of magic reality. Essentially, it is a confirmation that the film is a conceptual exercise rather than a more conventional tale. Were I so inclined to see the film a second time (I really don’t think I will be), I would try to view the film through that perspective.

Conclusion

None of the above should promote the idea that I think the film is bad. It’s certainly the product of strong creative vision. I also think it was worthwhile to see the film if for no other reason than to step outside my regular diet of cinema. It’s important to be exposed to new and alternative ideas once in a while. For purveyors of mainstream films, I would recommend taking The Misandrists as a magic reality film. I feel, after some thought on the subject, that it is more of a presentation of a particular idea or theme rather than any traditional narrative. Audiences, particularly mainstream audiences, should absorb the film as an experience and try to understand the events seen in a somewhat symbolic or non-literal manner.

Please be aware, however, that no matter how you approach the film, it will be an intense and, in some parts, deeply unsettling experience. If you’ve seen Bruce LaBruce films before, you know what to expect. If you haven’t, well… good luck.