Saturday, March 22, 2008

L O S T & The Nature of Suicide



I think everyone feels a flinch of pain for TV characters who either commit suicide or attempt to do so. And it would seem that this empathic twinge is stronger for TV characters than for characters in a novel, I assume because of the immediacy of the visual element that isn't present in written form.

And I'm not talking about what the loved ones of the despondent person must feel, but the person who is actually attempting suicide must feel. But before I get to that, I'd like to differentiate between two types of this desire for death, so to speak.

We might call one of these "environmental suicide," though I'm not talking about the natural environment - I'm talking about the external factors that drive one to contemplate suicide: divorce, job loss, loss of a loved one, etc. - or a combination of all of these.

The other type we could call "internal suicide," which would be the result of any genetically pre-disposed brain abnormality that would lead to clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

I think regardless of what it is that drives one to suicide, I believe the feeling is the same: the apathy, the hopelessness, the longing for relief and release, the final resolve, etc. For someone compelled to suicide, depression cascades down upon you and covers you like thick engine oil, and time becomes like a viscous liquid, moving languidly like honey sliding from a spoon. And no one can experience the feel of the gun in the hand, the cold steel against the temple, or the warm bath and tempered slenderness of the blade.

It seems it is the former type with which we are dealing in the L O S T narrative, and this reminds me of the point made by Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus; namely, that judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

Clearly Michael, in Meet Kevin Johnson, has made his judgment, and it's clear that, for him, life is not worth living.

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But to some extent we can, if we are avid (i.e., obsessed) fans of the show, empathize with Michael's plight. If we put ourselves in his shoes, we might be able to get an inkling of what he must feel. Prior to the crash of Oceanic flight 815, Michael was estranged from his wife and son, and made earnest, if clumsy, attempts at reconciliation; then, after having just received his son back into his life, he crashes on a strange island full of mysterious and dangerous happenings, unsure of whether they can survive on the island or even get rescued from it; and then, just as rescue seems possible, a boat-full of enigmatic, secretive and apparently hostile strangers kidnap his son right before his eyes; and then, to gain his son back, he must deceive his friends and fellow castaways, and finds himself confronted with the ultimate quandary of killing two of them to save his son; and, once having left the island, he confesses to his son what he did to gain him back, effectively losing him again, finding himself in his pre-island predicament.

It would seem that Michael has come full circle, with all the lurching nausea of a roller coaster ride: hope, despair, hope, despair, hope, despair, hope, despair. I would argue that Michael's emotional journey far exceeds, in terms of psychological trauma, such things as divorce, job loss - or even the loss of a loved one. As horrible as it is to lose a loved one, the loved one is lost only once; the bereaved has one opportunity for grief, for closure, and finally acceptance. I think it's fair to say that none of us will have to go through what Michael has gone through.

In the finale of Season 3, we see that Jack is also on the verge of suicide.

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While we don't yet know what has driven Jack to this point, we do know that he had a turbulent relationship with his father, even up to his father's death (may we also call his father's death a sort of suicide?). Additionally, he had grown estranged and ultimately divorced from the woman he "miraculously" saved. During his on-island time, Jack was thrust into a stressful (to say the least) leadership role, and became the Shepherd of the lost flock.

In Jack's pre-island life, on-island life and even his post-island life, we see that Jack has a strong obsessive component to his personality. We could argue and speculate that Jack's predisposition to obsessive behavior and possibly alcoholism, combined with his experiences in childhood and adulthood, has led to his desire for death - his desire is a product of both internal and environmental factors.

This combination is probably even more lethal than in Michael's situation because of the deterministic element: most medical professionals would agree that abnormalities of brain function have a compulsive element in them that is not present in otherwise "healthy" individuals. Presumably, those without the brain abnormality possess a strength of will to withstand adversity that is diminished or possibly even absent - depending on the degree of mental impairment - in those with the brain abnormality.

We could also speculate that it was Jack's obsessive personality that brought him back from the edge of suicide - the car crash on the bridge. As he told Kate in the Season 3 finale: "old habits." Of course as we learned from Tom, a.k.a. Mr. Friendly, maybe the island won't let Jack kill himself...

John Locke tried to commit suicide after Ben shot him and left him for dead in the DHARMA Initiative open grave.

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Locke's life story is about the search for meaning, more so than Michael or Jack's story, and thus has more affinity with the Existentialist philosophers. But Locke's search for meaning is also about being "special." His desire is for others - perhaps even God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it - to realize this specialness and to value it. That's what would give his life the most meaning.

We know that Locke grew up in many foster homes after being abandoned by his parents. We know he was conned out of his kidney by his father. He was spurned by his love Helen after she found out about his dealings with his father. Has thrown out of an 8-story building by his father and broke his back, rendering him paralyzed. He was denied access to the walkabout tour, and then on the flight home he crash-lands on an island.

But then something happened. This was the best thing for Locke. When he woke up he was no longer paralyzed. He was "born again" on the island, a clean slate, the future open. He could leave all his miserable baggage behind and create his own meaning.

But Locke's Michael-like emotional roller coaster would continue on the island. First he became the shamanic warrior-hunter for our lost flock, providing food and healing psychological wounds (while Jack tended to physical wounds).

He felt he had some sort of communion with the island, that the island was "speaking" to him, and this made him feel very special. On-island Locke was much more confident and serene (most of the time) than pre-island Locke.

After discovering the Hatch, he discovered the "button," and this became his life's work and meaning. But then the Pearl station was discovered and this was a devastating blow to his belief in the reality of meaning.

But after the Hatch was proved to be real and imploded, he was again born anew and received a vision from the island inside his impromptu sweat lodge. He was on the scent of meaning again.

And when Locke heard from Ben, a.k.a. Henry Gale, that Ben was coming for him, he eventually decided to stay with the Others when it came time for the Others to abandon the Barracks and move on.

Additionally, Locke was able to hear Jacob, whom Ben had insisted was the real Man Behind the Curtain, thus prompting the ever-power hungry Ben to shoot Locke and leave him for dead. And that's when Locke decided to end it all.

But then "taller, ghost Walt" appeared and told Locke to get up because he had "work to do." Locke was special again...

We can see how this roller coaster ride could wear one out, psychologically speaking. Perhaps more than anything else, a human being's search for personal meaning in an impersonal Universe is the quintessential characteristic of what it means to be human. We are self-aware creatures aware of the fact that one day we will cease to exist.

Depending on our psychological and emotional mettle, we can handle all these ups and downs because we know (or at least believe) that both good things and bad things happen to us, and the wheel keeps spinning round. For most of us, most of the time, we can live with that uncertainty. We know that we will ultimately die, but we believe hat it's how we spend our time while we're alive that's most important. We value our lives so much that it's important to us to obtain more good than bad when the final tally is in. We also know that, in the grand scheme of things, our efforts and our accomplishments are ultimately meaningless.

But we can't at the same time value our lives so much and yet think that our lives are meaningless. Indeed, one's life has to have meaning in order for one to value it. If we feel our life has no meaning - and therefore no value - we are naturally driven to the "fundamental question of philosophy" - should I continue to live, or should I end my existence?

Locke had his ultimate weak moment in the DHARMA grave and apparently decided he should end his existence. Which one of us, if in Locke's same position, wouldn't do the same? Locke's lifelong search for meaning met with frustration after frustration. Locke kept bumping up against brick walls. I think many of us tend to forget this fact now that we're in Season 4 and are getting more into the over-arching mythology of the show, and away from the primarily character-focussed narrative of the first two seasons.

But is suicide ever justified? Does one have to take into account the feelings of one's loved ones? Is it cowardly to commit suicide, or does it take the utmost human courage to take one's fate into one's own hands?

Most mainstream religions believe suicide to be a sin - if not the ultimate sin. If God created you, and his spirit lives in you as if in a temple, then you don't own yourself - God does. You're leasing yourself, in a sense. If you lease a car and purposely destroy it, you're in for a lot of money, if not legal action!

But if you believe that the Universe is impersonal and unconcerned, and you have taken steps your entire life to create your own meaning, then when that meaning is gone and one is presumably of sound mind, then maybe the decision to end one's own life is the ultimate expression of courage and dignity. One is not being compelled to end one's own life; one is making a free choice.

We understand that it's different with clinical depression. We understand that one's will is compromised when in such a state. You're not yourself. Your brain is broken and it needs fixing. Your brain is a computer that has crashed and the best thing to do would be to call the Geek Squad and get it fixed right quick.

But one thing's for certain - the decision to continue to live or to end one's existence is not a light one; indeed, it is the most significant decision one can make.

Fortunately, most of us don't make that conscious decision every day. We make that decision simply by continuing to live our lives.



Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lost in Galt's Gulch


With the introduction of the Freighter's captain - Captain Gault - fans of L O S T have been digging around for literary references to the name. This Captain Gault has already been identified, and seems most immediately applicable to the overarching mythology of our favorite show.

But as other bloggers have pointed out, there is also a John Galt of a different type (and different spelling, of course): the John Galt of Ayn Rand's famous novel, Atlas Shrugged.

In this post I'd like to draw attention to the ethics of isolated communities; in particular, isolated communities like Ben's island and Galt's Gulch, where the "good guys" hole up and separate themselves from the rest of the world. But before I do that, I just want to draw some parallels between Ben's island and Galt's Gulch.

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Atlas Shrugged is a long novel that encapsulates Ayn Rands main philosophy, Objectivism, and John Galt especially embodies that philosophy. In short, Rand's (and Galt's) philosophy is:

Man - every man - is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

With this philosophy in mind, Rand's John Galt recruits the world's most successful business men - the "Captains of Industry" - to his cause, and seemingly spirits them away to Galt's Gulch: a secret enclave located in a valley in the mountains of Colorado, and is hidden from the rest of the world. Galt is able to recruit the best of the best - the real movers and shakers of the world - because in the Universe of the novel, the world is sinking into an orgy of collectivism and the inevitably increasing nationalization of industry by the governments of the world.

Aside from sharing a geographical similarity to New Otherton

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as team Darlton like to call it - both Ben's island and Galt's Gulch are invisible to the rest of the world. Ben's island seems to get its invisible properties from electromagnetism; whereas Galt's Gulch has a man-made (by Galt) high-tech invisibility screen, which is designed to prevent the valley from being found.

Both places elicit an atmosphere of "us versus them." And both leaders consider their people the "good guys."

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Ben is telling the truth when he says that the Others are the good guys. And let's assume that John Galt's philosophy is justified. So is it ethical to take the best, the most creative people from the world and keep them to yourself? Is it ethical to take their benefits to society away?

Do they have an inalienable right to rescind their gifts and use them in their own isolated community? Or are they obligated by some implied social contract to use their gifts and talents for the benefit of society?

Does a human being exist for her own sake, or does she exist for the sake of others? Or does she somehow balance existing for both herself and others?






Tuesday, February 5, 2008

L O S T & The Nature of Sacrifice


Well, the new season of LOST is finally here. Given last season's finale, I thought it would be interesting to explore the nature of sacrifice.

Many thinkers throughout the ages have discussed the phenomenon of sacrifice. I will be discussing the nature of sacrifice from a Nietzschean perspective. My thesaurus defines sacrifice as "an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy."

I think most people who aren't philosophers or linguists tend to classify the term sacrifice into two kinds: the kind as defined by my thesaurus above, and a kind that could be called "self-less" sacrifice. But I think that an easy bifurcation of this term, as well as other dichotomies like "good" and "evil", doesn't do the term justice. I think the phenomenon of sacrifice is more nuanced and that there are degrees of sacrifice.

First, let's discuss what may be called Charlie's "ultimate" sacrifice: risking (and ultimately giving) his life for the sake of our Losties; but primarily Claire.

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Clearly, Charlie was prepared to sacrifice his life because of his love for Claire (remember, he was motivated to do this because Desmond told him that if he didn't, Claire wouldn't be rescued). Many if not most people believe that love is unconditional - or at least self-less. But is it? We all like to think so, but let's see what Nietzsche had to say* about it:

"Our pleasure in ourselves tries to maintain itself by again and again changing something new into ourselves; that is what possession means. When we see somebody suffer, we like to exploit this opportunity to take possession of him; those who become his benefactors and pity him, for example, do this and call the lust for new possession that he awakens in them "love"; and the pleasure they feel is comparable to that aroused by the prospect of a new conquest."

In the paragraph immediately preceding the one quoted above, Nietzsche presents the stark contrast of "avarice" versus "love," where avarice is a sort of wanton greed and love is something generous and more sublime. But the point Nietzsche is trying to make in this quote is that one derives a certain pleasure from helping someone in need, someone who is suffering. It makes us feel good to do nice things. If it made us feel horrible to do those things, if there wasn't even an ounce of pleasure or satisfaction, I don't think we would do them.

Nietzsche was as much a psychologist as he was a philosopher, and in other places he talks about how we humans are "knowers who are unknown to themselves"; which basically means that many times we have reasons for action that are not in accord with the true reasons behind our actions. It's almost a Freudian view. We are adept at deceiving ourselves.

But the kind of love Nietzsche mentioned in that quote isn't the primary kind of love that motivated Charlie. Again, love can be thought of as a coarse spectrum or continuum, going from lecherous lust, to romantic love (a mix of the sexual and affectionate impulses), to platonic love (admiring and intimate, but not necessarily sexual). Nietzsche is describing all three of these (and would call both romantic love and platonic love sublimated versions of the sexual instinct) when he says:

"Sexual love betrays itself most clearly as a lust for possession: the lover desires unconditional and sole possession of the person for whom he longs; he desires equally unconditional power over the soul and over the body of the beloved; he alone wants to be loved and desires to live and rule in the other soul as supreme and supremely desirable. If one considers that this means nothing less than excluding the whole world from a precious good, from happiness and enjoyment; if one considers that the lover aims at the impoverishment and deprivation of all competitors and would like to become the dragon guarding his golden hoard as the most inconsiderate and selfish of all "conquerors" and exploiters; if one considers, finally, that to the lover himself the whole rest of the world appears indifferent, pale, worthless, and he is prepared to make any sacrifice, to disturb any order, to subordinate all other interests - then one comes to feel genuine amazement that this wild avarice and injustice of sexual love has been glorified and deified in all ages - indeed, that this love has furnished the concept of love as the opposite of egoism while it actually may be the most ingenuous expression of egoism."

Now, Nietzsche was definitely known for his frequent overkill, and it certainly offends our modern taste to equate love with egoism, but I think he's right - to a point. Let's look at Charlie again.

Charlie definitely wanted to possess Claire's love in the sense used above. Remember, he was jealous when he noticed that Locke was "stealing" some of Claire's attention away from him - jealous to the point of making a public embarrassment of Locke. Additionally, Charlie overcame his heroin addiction primarily as a result of his love for Claire.

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But what was the nature of that overcoming and that love? It's undoubtedly a great good that a person like Charlie is able to overcome an addiction; but he gave up one possession (the pleasure derived from the opiate) in the hope of acquiring another: Claire's love.

But what about Charlie's ultimate sacrifice at the end of Season 3?

We could say a number of things, since we don't know what exactly is going on inside of Charlie's head (thanks to Darlton), or even any other human being's head! Speculation runs rampant. But let's have a try at educated speculation.

We could say that since Desmond told Charlie that his flashes are jigsaw puzzle-like, and that the picture can change, that maybe Charlie is a betting man and was betting that Desmond wasn't seeing clearly, or was simply wrong this time.

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Or maybe he was thinking that making a go at a life with Claire, which of course contains the possibility of failure, disappointment, and depression - and therefore a possible relapse into drug addiction - would just be too difficult, too great a test for his mettle, and if he could end on a "high note" (remember the episode titled "Greatest Hits"?), he would at least have the satisfaction of knowing, before he died, that he would be remembered and revered by Claire and the rest of the Losties as an admirable hero. (Of course, that still remains to be seen, given the fact that we don't yet know what Naomi's people want with the Island.)

If Charlie derived no pleasure from Claire's love; if he derived no pleasure or satisfaction from knowing that amongst his island community he would be remembered as a hero; then what would be his motivation for sacrificing himself? What would be his reason(s) for action? Have you ever heard of the "BDI" formula? It's short for Beliefs plus Desires equals Intention (or you could say Intentional Action). Working backwards: one's actions are the result of one's desires; and one's desires are based on one's beliefs. For example, I drive down to Starbucks because I desire a coffee, and I believe I can get one there.

So Charlie swam down to The Looking Glass station because he desired to help Claire and his friends by securing their safety and returning them to their lives of normalcy.

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Charlie did this because he believed that doing so would in fact secure the rescue he sought. If Charlie didn't desire rescue for anyone, and/or he didn't believe that turning off the jamming equipment in The Looking Glass would secure that rescue, then he wouldn't have swum down there.

But Charlie's sacrifice at the end of Season 3 still seems different to us. When he surfaced in the moon pool to discover that it wasn't flooded, he assumed Desmond's vision was inaccurate and that he wasn't going to die. But once he was captured and tenderly interrogated by Bonnie and Greta, and he saw the flashing yellow light and the jamming equipment, he told the nice Other ladies that he was ready to die.

And even after disabling the jamming equipment and receiving the transmission from Penny and mumbled, "So much for Fate," he was still willing to sacrifice his life for Claire - and now Desmond, who would most certainly have died in the moon pool - after Patchy pressed a grenade up to the portal window.

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But can we say that Charlie's reasons for action were now categorically different than those Nietzsche talked about? Could we say that the initial shock of hearing he's going to die gradually faded to the point where he was in fact ready to die? Think about it: if someone came up to you on the street and said you were going to die in 10 seconds, you would be horrified and panicked. However, if you were on death row, and had time to get your affairs in order and make peace with your Maker, you would be more psychologically prepared for your impending non-existence.

Could it be that once this thought worked its way into Charlie so deeply that it became part of his motivational set - his character - even if it was now disconnected from its source? Can we call the fact of desiring the safety and salvation of a loved one a truly self-less act? And if we could, would that make it somehow more valuable or admirable? If it does, then why?

But we could argue that the original impetus was a selfish - or at least a self-interested - motivation. Does an action's value increase as the nature of the motivation for that action changes from selfish to something approaching neutral? If so, why? Does the concept of a self-less act even make sense? Are we simply deluding ourselves again?

Regardless, this analysis doesn't have to demean or devalue Charlie's sacrifice. The sacrifice still took place; and both Charlie and Claire - and all the other Losties - get something in return. In some ways you could call it a win-win-win situation: Charlie's last thought - that he will be remembered as a hero - is a positive one; the Losties (presumably) get rescued; and Claire at least gets to believe that Charlie was not only a hero, but loved her enough to sacrifice his life for her well-being.

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I ended up spending more time on Charlie than I had anticipated, so I'll analyze other characters in a subsequent post...




* All Nietzsche quotes are from his book, The Gay Science.









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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Would You Leave Omnium Island?

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Ben: I can show you things. Things I know you want to see very badly. Let me put it so you'll understand. Picture a box. You know something about boxes, don't you, John? What if I told you that somewhere on this island, there's a very large box... and whatever you imagined, whatever you wanted to be in it, when you opened that box, there it would be. What would you say about that, John?

Indeed. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Ben isn't speaking metaphorically. Let's suppose there is indeed a 'box' or some other mechanism on the island that is capable of doing what Ben says. Of course, this is a direct allusion to the box in Flann O'Brien's grimly funny novel The Third Policeman. O'Brien's novel was briefly seen in Desmond's possession in "Man of Science, Man of Faith". As with any allusion in L O S T, there is always rampant speculation as to the relevance of such an allusion: what does it mean for the show? Is it a key in unlocking the mysteries of L O S T? Is it a red herring?

The subject of the novel is about a murder committed by the novel's anonymous narrator and his accomplice. They murdered a wealthy recluse, à la Charles Dickens' Scrooge, for his locked cash box, rumored to have an inordinate amount of money it. But the accomplice betrays the anonymous narrator, who then embarks on a search for it. This search leads him to a surreal police station where a pair of policemen "do not confine their investigations or activities to this world or to any known planes or dimensions."

Eventually, one of the policemen leads our protagonist to the 'box' of The Third Policeman universe. Here's the description, after the protagonist and the policeman take an elevator down to it:

I saw a long passage lit fitfully at intervals by the crude home-made noise-machines, with more darkness to be seen than light. The walls of the passage seemed to be made of pig-iron in which were set rows of small doors which looked to me like ovens or furnace-doors or safe-deposits such as banks have.

I shall not recount the passages we walked or talk of the one with round doors like portholes or the other place where the Sergeant got a box of matches for himself by putting his hand somewhere into the wall. It is enough to say that we arrived, after walking at least a mile of plate, into a well-lit airy hall which was completely circular and filled with indescribable articles very like machinery but not quite as intricate as the more difficult machines.

"Is this eternity?" I asked, "Why do you call it that?"
"We call it that," the Sergeant explained, "because you do not grow old here. When you leave here you will be the same age as you were coming in and the same stature and latitude."

To my astonishment he went over to one of the bigger ovens, manipulated some knobs, pulled open the massive metal door and lifted out a brand-new bicycle.

"What else is there?"
"Anything."
"Anything I mention will be shown to me?"
"Of course. Did you ever hear tell of omnium?"
"Omnium? And what is omnium the right name for?"
"You are omnium and I am omnium and so is the mangle and so are my boots..."

The ease with which the Sergeant produced the bicycle...had set in motion in my head certain trains of thought. Sitting at home with my box of omnium I could do anything, see anything and know anything with no limit to my powers save that of my own imagination. Perhaps I could use it even to extend my imagination. I would improve the weather to a standard day of sunny peace with gentle rain at night washing the world to make it fresher and more enchanting to the eye. I would present every poor labourer in the world with a bicycle made of gold.

My nervousness had been largely reduced to absurdity and nothingness by what I had seen and I now found myself taking an interest in the commercial possibilities of eternity. I ordered a bottle of whiskey, precious stones, some bananas, a fountain-pen and writing materials, and finally a serge suit of blue with silk linings.

"I am going to take these things with me," I announced.
"In that case you will need a big strong bag," the Sergeant said.

We smoked in silence and went on through the dim passage till we reached the [elevator] again. I was very tired with my bag of gold and clothes and whiskey and made for the [elevator] to stand on it and put the bag down at last. When nearly on the threshold I was arrested in my step by a call from the Sergeant...

"Don't go in there!"
"Why?"
"The bag, man. The simple thing is that you cannot enter the [elevator] unless you weigh the same weight as you weighed when you weighed into it. If you do, it will extirpate you unconditionally and kill the life out of you."

I understood little except that my plans were vanquished and my visit to eternity unavailing and calamitous.


Generally speaking, this all sounds very familiar to Ben's interrogation of Locke in "The Man from Tallahassee":

Ben: Are you afraid it'll go away, John? Is that why you want to destroy the submarine? Because you know if you ever leave this island you'll be back in the chair?

I'm sure we can all empathize with Locke's apparent dilemma. Who wouldn't want to keep the use of their legs and remain independently ambulatory? Locke doesn't seem to be able to contribute to humanity at large, at least not in the same way as, say, a spinal surgeon like Jack; so maybe Locke's desire to retain his mobility would not be considered selfish.

But what about Jack? Clearly he can do much good in the world with his singular skill as a surgeon, and in the Season 3 finale he was even able to respond to human suffering while in the throes of his own 'dark night of the soul' as he seemed to resign himself to suicide. Would it be selfish of Jack to remain on the island, assuming he also knew the island's secret powers that were vouchsafed to Locke by Ben? If one has the power to save lives, is one morally obligated to use that power? Is refraining from using one's life-saving power equivalent to outright killing someone? Would Jack be considered to be the most dispicable of human beings by choosing to stay on the island? Ben, always the devil's advocate, presents a starkly convincing picture for Jack in the Season 3 finale:

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Ben: Let me ask you something, Jack. Why do you wanna leave the Island? What is it that you so desperately want to get back to? You have no-one. Your father's dead, your wife left you, moved on with another man. Can you just not wait to get back to the hospital? Get back to fixing things?

What would we do? Would we leave our comfortable lives, our lattes, our HDTV and spend our lives on the island, knowing that the unbelievable and unsurpassable things we could conjure up on the island must forever stay there?







Sunday, August 19, 2007

Communion or Collapse?

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Ben: Why are you so angry, John?

Locke: Because you're cheating! You communicate with the outside world whenever you want to, you come and go as you please, you use electricity and running water and guns...you're a hypocrite, a Pharisee. You don't deserve to be on this island. If you had any idea what this place really was, you wouldn't be putting chicken in your refrigerator!


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One of the running subtexts of L O S T is the relatively recent (since the Industrial Revolution) struggle between modernity and what could be called primitivism - a belief in the value of what is simple, or 'natural.'

Season 3 came to a close with the revelation of perhaps the epitome of neo-Luddism (or, given the apparent manipulation of time on the island, maybe the original Luddite), Jacob.

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The Luddites (named after Ned Ludd) were a group of English textile artisans in the 19th Century who opposed, sometimes violently, the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Neo-Luddism, usually employed now as a pejorative, refers to the resurgence of this type of resistance to the exponentially rapid technological changes of today. While they don't view technology itself as intrinsically evil, they do feel that technology somehow degrades the quality or dignity of our humanity. The poster child for the extreme element of this type of movement would be Ted Kaczynski (who bears a striking resemblance to Jacob; though no doubt this was intended by the writers of L O S T - Kaczynski even lived in a secluded cabin in Montana).

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Another modern, but more moderate, example of this type of thinking is evinced by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy:

From the moment I became involved in the creation of new technologies, their ethical dimensions have concerned me, but it was only in the autumn of 1998 that I became anxiously aware of how great are the dangers facing us in the 21st century. I can date the onset of my unease to the day I met Ray Kurzweil, the deservedly famous inventor of the first reading machine for the blind and many other amazing things.

In the hotel bar, Ray gave me a partial preprint of his then-forthcoming bookThe Age of Spiritual Machines, which outlined a utopia he foresaw - one in which humans gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology.

I found myself most troubled by a passage detailing a dystopian scenario...In the book, you don't discover until you turn the page that the author of this passage is Theodore Kaczynski - the Unabomber. I am no apologist for Kaczynski. His bombs killed three people during a 17-year terror campaign and wounded many others.

Much of my work over the past 25 years has been on computer networking, where the sending and receiving of messages creates the opportunity for out-of-control replication. But while replication in a computer or a computer network can be a nuisance, at worst it disables a machine or takes down a network or network service. Uncontrolled self-replication in these newer technologies runs a much greater risk: a risk of substantial damage in the physical world.

Each of these technologies also offers untold promise: The vision of near immortality that Kurzweil sees in his robot dreams drives us forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nanomedicine can address yet more ills. Together they could significantly extend our average life span and improve the quality of our lives. Yet, with each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually sensible advances leads to an accumulation of great power and, concomitantly, great danger.

While the neo-Luddites can be considered to be at one end of the spectrum, the Transhumanists can be seen as the other end. Just as the neo-Luddites have their extreme element, so do the Transhumanists; though the critical difference is that it's much easier to employ violence to destroy existing technology than it is to force as yet non-existent technology onto the populace. Transhumanists generally support the use of new technologies to enhance human mental and physical capabilities, and to ameliorate or eradicate undesirable aspects of humanity - disease and death being the big ones.

The Others could be considered to be the neo-Luddites, while the D.H.A.R.M.A Initiative could be considered to be the Transhumanists. Generally speaking, the Others want to 'get back to nature', so to speak; and the D.H.A.R.M.A. folks ostensibly want to enhance humanity, or at least prevent humanity from destroying itself. But apparently the mixture of the extreme elements of both sides resulted in a cataclysmic clash:

Ben: This is where I came from, John. These are my people - the DHARMA Initiative. They came here seeking harmony, but they couldn't even coexist with the island's original inhabitants. And when it became clear that one side had to go, that one side had to be purged - I did what I had to do.

It's been argued that the human race's evolution from quasi-nomadic hunter/gatherers to agriculturalists living in villages and towns, while presaging the onset of modern civilization, has been detrimental to both human society and the planetary environment at large. University of Reading professor Steven Mithen's latest book, After the Ice, treats this subject at length. UCLA professor Jared Diamond explores similar themes in his two bestselling books Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How human societies choose to fail or succeed.

The general theme is that technological advances have not only enabled humanity to flourish as never before, but that this flourishing has led to depletion of natural resources, social hierarchies that lead to marginalization and strife, and economic disparities. While this trend may be lamented by some, it would seem that it is an inexorable consequence of planetary evolution.

But since each of us is concerned primarily with the small picture, with the effects these trends have on us individual humans, the question seems to be: Is it possible to revert back to a more simpler time, to 'get back to nature', to live as if the deluge of progress had never swept us away?

Some would say no. But Ben seems to have done it; the Others he has recruited, those who have made 'the commitment', seem to have as well. But for some there may be psychological hindrances to this type of reversion. For instance, Mephisto mockingly offers Faust the following advice:

Right. There is one way that needs
no money, no physician, and no witch.
Pack up your things and get back to the land
and there begin to dig and ditch;
keep to the narrow round, confine your mind,
and live on fodder of the simplest kind,
a beast among the beasts; and don't forget
to use your own dung on the crops you set!


C.G. Jung believed that this 'simple life' cannot be faked, that an escape into this simple life is closed forever to someone who has not been driven to it by necessity. Someone who is firmly ensconced in modernity cannot slip into unsophisticated existence without serious psychological dissonance. Such a one cannot comply with poet Wallace Stevens' directive - "you must become an ignorant man again/and see the sun again with an ignorant eye" - meaning, one cannot really divest oneself of all the symbolic or abstract concepts attributed to all the variegated phenomena of life.

But the appeal is there, nevertheless. In fact, the inspiration for this post came from reading a passage from pseudonymous Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman, describing an enticingly pastoral, idyllic and somewhat psychedelic scene:

A record of this belief will be found in the literature of all ancient peoples. There are four winds and eight subwinds, each with its own colour. The wind from the east is a deep purple, from the south a fine shining silver. The north wind is a hard black and the west is amber. People in the old days had the power of perceiving these colours and could spend a day sitting quietly on a hillside watching the beauty of the winds, their fall and rise and changing hues...What could be more exquisite than a countryside swept lightly by the cool rain reddened by the south-west breeze!

So this societal struggle is paralleled on the personal level as well. We'll see how it plays out on L O S T over the next 3 seasons; but more importantly we'll see how it plays out in our own global society, and in the hearts and minds of each individual.








Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A Very Brief Hiatus

I must apologize for the dearth of posts lately.

I am currently teaching a class of blind students for a month, and it requires an almost-total commitment: mentally, physically and emotionally.

There will be more posts soon!

Thanks for your patience,

Juno

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sociology, Social Organization, and Sociopaths

In an era of unrelenting globalization, of the strengthening and expansion of the complex web of social, economic, cultural and political interactions, it seems that humanity has always existed in this way. But the history of the human species could really be said to be the history of social organization: what is the best way to organize society?

Now, I'm no anthropologist - or even a sociologist - so this post will be about drawing fairly general, and almost superficial, parallels between the world of L O S T and the milestones throughout the history of the world; more specifically, the human world. Perhaps we should begin with a sketch of human history from the time of our hunter-gatherer epoch. Before that, things are a little murky - at least for me!

A hunter-gatherer society - if it could be called a society - is one where the members rely for subsistence on the near-constant foraging for edible plants and vegetables and the hunting of various animals for protein. Modern humans would call this 'living hand to mouth' or 'paycheck to paycheck', so to speak. Hunter-gatherer societies were generally small, probably only consisting of less than 100 persons closely related. This very accurately describes our Losties, at least before they found the Swan Hatch and all of its modern provisions! Although after Hurley distributed the spoils, they seemed to have reverted back to foraging and hunting to some extent.

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Hunter-gatherer groups were generally non-hierarchical, egalitarian social structures. With our Losties, Jack may be the de facto leader of the group, but generally they have adopted a 'treat everyone as equal' philosophy, distributing Nature's bounty as equally as possible. The one exception is the anomaly of Sawyer. He's got more of the Ayn Rand-ian ethic of enlightened self-interest.

The next major step in the evolution of human society was the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. This effectively ended the previously nomadic lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers. The development of this type of subsistence led naturally to a more organized type of social organization; namely, settled villages with more formalized rules for social interaction. This seems to relate well to the Others, at least in their confiscation of the previously occupied Dharma Initiative barracks. We saw at the Flame Station that Mikhail apparently kept chickens and cows.

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The rise of agriculture and the domestication of animals allowed for larger and larger villages; and with the concomitant development of more and more advanced technology, this eventually led to States and Nations, which we still have to the present day - to present a very compressed summation of thousands of years!

But a more interesting comparison is between the Losties almost communist approach to organizing their 'society', to the Other's top-down, dictatorial approach to theirs. We now know that the top dog in the hierarchy is Jacob, who gives directions to Ben:

Ben: There's something you should know, John, before we go. Whether or not you think he's the Wizard of Oz, I can assure you that Jacob is very, very real. And we're gonna go see him, and he's not going to like it. In fact, I have a feeling he's going to be very angry. And that's why my hand was shaking; because he's not a man you go and see. This is a man that summons you.

But Ben is ostensibly the dictatorial leader of the Others. He has power over and directs Tom, Richard, Juliet; and he can stay Juliet's execution, even from the operating table.

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A telling example, similar to Saddam Hussein's reign, is when he tells Locke about the illusion he needs to maintain for 'his people', and the tenuousness of his claim to power:

Ben: Well, get this: there I was, shaking hands with Jack and thinking I'd give almost anything to come up with a way to stop him from leaving, because to let him go would be a sign of weakness, of failure, of defeat. People would see that. They would know it. And that, John, would be the end of me. But to kill him - that would be cheating, because my people also heard me make a promise, and to break my word - that would be the end of me, too.

Ben is even quick to order the deaths of Bonnie and Greta in the Looking Glass Station, as well as almost sacrificing Juliet when Jack flooded the Hydra station. Clearly, this type of perceived ruthless behavior causes mistrust and division within Ben's community, as Juliet demonstrated when she took the risk of confiding in Jack:

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Unless a dictator can maintain total control, he is liable to coups and assassinations. Under a dictatorship, the people suffer and revolt, and the dictator himself is under constant pressure and anxiety to maintain his stranglehold on power and manipulation.

On the flip side, a more communal or communist-type of approach ostensibly creates an atmosphere of egalitarianism. Hurley - and even Nikki and Paulo - represent this kind of approach to social organization. And even though Jack is the de facto leader - albeit reluctantly - he does try to treat everyone equally and magnanimously. This may be partly due to his reluctance to assert his dominance over the other Losties.

And a communal or communist-type of social organization is best described by the Marxist slogan of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." I'm using the word 'communist' with a lower-case 'c' instead of an upper-case 'C' to distinguish between the philosophy behind communism and the political animal it became under the Soviets.

I should also point out that Patchy's (or the "one-eyed maniac", in Charlie's words) namesake, the anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, had this to say about the nature of communism:

[The Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship - their dictatorship, of course - can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can only be created by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people, and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.

This characterization could really describe both the Other's organization and the Losties'. The pre-Ben Others might have organized themselves in a communist-type of community, and when Ben came along he instituted his own dictatorship.

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We have yet to find out just how the "island's original inhabitants" organized themselves, but I'll stick to this hypothesis for now.

Likewise, we've seen several instances in the Losties' camp where discontent and grumblings over Jack's leadership have reared their respective ugly heads. But clearly Jack is a much more magnanimous leader than Ben, and he never resorts to physical violence - or even Machiavellian machinations. Though one could argue that he is becoming increasingly 'close to the vest', especially with his questionable partnership with former Other, Juliet.

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But one could argue that Jack's apparent manipulations - or temporary secrets - are ultimately for the good of the group; whereas Ben's manipulations have seemed to benefit mostly Ben. Although in my previous post analyzing Ben's motivations, I noted that Ben may in fact have the interests of the island in mind, and it's been hinted that the island may in fact be the only thing standing in the way of the total extermination of the human race. But we have yet to discover if that is true.

So, in the world of L O S T, things aren't as clear cut as we would like them to be. I suppose that's what makes for good drama.

And in Through the Looking Glass, I think we may have - or at least may plausibly speculate - that there may be a merging of both camps - the Losties and the Others - in order to fight what Ben called "forces stronger than anything it's had to deal with in many, many years."

And if this consolidation happens, that opens up an entirely new can of worms in terms of social organization, hierarchy, and group dynamics. Not only will this new group have to deal with these issues, but they will still have to deal with the sociopaths within their respective contingents, and also with whatever these outside "forces" ultimately turn out to be.

Will this new group, if it does come into being, be able to not only coexist but marshal it's collective forces to repel this new sinister threat, the way the United States and the Afghani mujahideen attempted to do against the Soviets? Will they be able to coalesce into a harmonious society if they do in fact succeed in keeping these sinister forces at bay?

The new season will surely be rife with possibilities since the conclusion of this past season and its cliffhanger, and the introduction of a new plot device - the flash-forward.