Trouble in Paradise: June 2019

Friday, June 28, 2019

non-fiction: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Todorov -- or why philosophy isn't enough





Transcript:

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Todorov. Stay tuned to find out why they are interesting, but also not enough.
<intro>
Hi my name is JdH and in this video I will discuss Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Todorov. I will tell you why those three thinkers are very interesting and how their ideas kept me busy at a certain time. 
Why philosophy? That’s the simple basic question. At a certain level it helps us understand the world around us, because starting with meta-physics it’s all about the fundamental building blocks of lifenot the literal stuff like protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, muons, gravitons or even amino-acids, DNA, cells, neurotransmitters and all that. Philosophy is concerned with the building blocks of our experienced lives, first and foremost from our individual perspectives.
After 2000 philosophy became more of an obsession in The West, because it somehow has this promise that it will help us understand more about life and our condition. I fell for it at the time, I studied it for a while and so did many others. Fueled by the promise of wisdom and the movies of Woody Allen.
But what did we get out of it, besides a grade-list and time better spend (assuming that the alternative at that time was guzzling beer and watching movies)? For me at least it had a distinct beginning and end, because to me philosophy was interesting because of the difficulty and the promise, but it wasn’t enough about the stuff of life. 
If you look at one of the best sci-fi-series ever (Star Trek): the entire Vulcan society is based on logic, which is a branch of philosophy. It was instated officially on the planet Vulcan, to avoid the collapse of their civilization. Before that time Vulcans worshiped a variety of gods and there had been extreme violence and constant warfare. Even though logic and the mind-melt makes Vulcans seem superior it does come at a price: from a young age on Vulcans are conditioned to repress their emotions. To have and show emotions is an illness in Vulcan society. 
Of course, Vulcan society is a fiction, but it illustrates where philosophy begins and ends, because philosophy is about systemizing (logic) but there’s no room for emotions, which is the stuff that makes us human, which makes us interesting and makes life worth living, because very simply put: we are emotional beings. 
Philosophy still has its place and I also think it’s important, because it instills a certain way of thinking and it does give us a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The first philosopher that I was exposed to was Kierkegaard when I was about 19. Remember the music that we listened to back then (Nirvana, Radiohead, Pearl Jam). It was both melancholy and bad boy, it was music by talented people, it was highly original and all that but most importantly they had this whole attitude that we were on the brink of discovering our own truth and know-all. To some degree philosophy tied into that, because it was the path less traveled and it might lead to some great insights.
Of Kierkegaard I only remember a handful of things. When he was young he asked himself this very simple question: why do anything?The reasoning was this: his life was good as it was and there was little prospect of it ever getting any better. At the time I lived in the big city, shared a house with a few others and I would be going out most days of the week. These days I write about the weekend-junkie and how we need that to re-establish equilibrium, but those days that was the whole pursuit. By living like a junkie (with money borrowed from the government) I was convinced that I was inches away from some great truth and all that. The money and the time ended at some point, but I still look back at that time as well spend.
Kierkegaard reasoned that it wouldn’t get any better. In his case it was probably true, because he wrote these words at a time when writing was limited to the few. And getting these kinds of thoughts published might be a privilege for an even smaller group. I’m sure he was rich, which made these things possible – there was no necessity like there is for the rest of us. Despite that very obvious fact, I recognized the feeling, because if you look at the way our modern society is organized: it’s pretty good. 
Granted, there are places on this earth where it’s pretty bad, the poor countries, the dictatorships, and all that, there’s the 1% and 99%, climate change – but apart from that, for most of us: the basics of a good life are covered and we can be sure that it always will be. For this very simple reason we [as in our generation] somehow lack this intrinsic drive to go out and try to change the world. 
It would be unfair of me to say that people who have less, do have a better drive and a better motivation, because for most who have less and who work two shitty jobs to make ends meet they may have no choice, and there might be little prospect of ever changing their situation. 
What I’m getting at is more of a state of mind, maybe it’s better to compare our predicament to pirates who have sticks for limbs because then to just carry on is enough. It’s us who are left to ourselves in that we need to look for purpose and to construct those larger narratives. And this, to me, is all part of that whole feeling that Kierkegaard expressed and that I experienced myself when I was 19 why do anything?and it also touches on some of the bigger social issues of our times: depression, anxiety and all that. 
Nietzsche is a whole other ball game. It’s the whole morality of wishing for most hardship, the idea of existentialism in that it’s us who provide meaning to our lives by committing to this or that, it’s the idea of the super human who is less concerned about what others think, but does what he himself believes to be the right thing, the idea of maximum expansion instead of survival of the fittest, the statement: “When life’s ascending, happiness is the same as instinct.”, ….with drunken moon eyes[when you have that feeling that some great insight is at the tip of your mind, most notably when drinking wine on a free day, I chased that feeling for years until I came to accept that there’s always proximity, but never actuality— you’ll never reach that point…. but there’s fiction and a larger narrative that will help us understand more of our condition….]
What is done out of love, always occurs beyond good and evil,” “Freedom is that one becomes more indifferent to difficulties.”. These ideas and statements are much of what Nietzsche comes down to, even though his texts are elaborate and hard to read (like most philosophy) – in my opinion most of his other ideas are lost to history. 
Todorov is a story apart, because his theories are based on historic accounts and by way of analysis of accounts of others. His book that I studied back in the days is Facing the extreme.I have talked about this before, so those who know me, most likely know the story. In this book, the accounts of survivors of concentration camps are analyzed, with the idea in mind to find out what remains of human morality in such a setting. In other words; what is needed to keep it all together. The conclusion is a triad (like many structures that are strong and easy to follow on both an intellectual and a gut level): dignity, care and life of the mind. 
This is what makes Todorov different. There’s no initial personal investment, I mean, he must have heard the stories, but it must have been second hand, although he might have been Jewish, I couldn’t confirm that. Kierkegaard talked about his feelings when he was young. And he talked about depression and anxiety, which links it to our times, because these are some of our big themes. Then there’s Nietzsche, who’s more of an idealist, in the sense that he constructed many and original ideas about what it takes to keep it all together, mostly on an individual level, but it doesn’t resonate with anything deeper, anything more meaningful. 
To me, Todorov is the one who binds these two together. Even if it’s just the setting that evokes emotions for every person. Dignity is about walking with pride and not being prohibited in wanting to do what you want to do (as an individual). Care is about caring for and being cared for (social). Life of the mind is finding a pursuit that keeps us occupied on an intellectual and emotional level (individual+social). 
In philosophy another person is capitalized as an entity called the Other, but to me, it seems that this is as close as it’s going to get when it comes to acknowledging that we’re more than Vulcans, that many of our drives and impulses are emotional and the very basic fact that we are social beings. 
And this is exactly where philosophy falls short. Just after 2000 it seemed that it was more than that that it has a spiritual component and that it somehow would help us find ultimate fulfillment. It would be unfair to state that I haven’t gotten anything out of it. I liked the pursuit, I liked the idea of wisdom, but on some level I just didn’t have the patience that’s needed to read works of philosophy. Most of these books are hard reads that require a lot of effort and that for some reason are not written with the reader in mind. 
When I write my fiction, that’s what I have in mind from the start: the story needs to be interesting, with strong characters, decent story-lines and a plot that leads to some sort of silver lining. I think that the best works of fiction contain some sort of silver lining, because on some level that’s what we all look for: some sort of reassurance that there is a bigger picture and that everything will somehow be alright. 
One of the last books of philosophy that I studied is A secular ageby Charles Taylor. One of the conclusions that this book reaches is that we have lost our capacity for accepting magic and enchantment. Instead, we have analyzed everything to death and in a way this work proves that philosophy and science don’t have all the answers. The answer is that we don’t know everything and for that reason it makes sense to believe in a bit of magic and to believe that we still inhabit an enchanted world. 
At the same time I tend to look at some of the movies of Woody Allen. Some of his movies are really good and others are really bad. One of my favorites is Whatever works– the title itself is the personal creed of its protagonist and this is more a kind of practical philosophy. This statement is repeated over and over again, and because of that it gets the quality of a mantra: by repeating it more and more, you start believing it more and more. Of course, it has this degree of silliness to it, but at the same time it acknowledges that a creed is personal and for that very simple reason it literally is whatever works. Is that philosophy? No, because it’s too simple. But in a popular sense, it most definitely is, maybe more so in our current times.
So there you have it: my analysis of why I believe that philosophy ultimately isn’t enough. Granted, it will help you analyze the world around us and find some sort of system, but where it falls short is in the realm of our interconnectedness, our relationships, emotions and human connections. What we need are stories the kind of stories that teach us about ourselves and the world around us. 
<outro>
You may want to try some of mine. You can read a new entry every week. For free. 
This is JdH speaking to your from the Caribbean.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Non-fiction: Mega Brain, or our mind as one of the last frontiers




Transcript:
Mega Brain, or how we can develop our mind to the fullest extent. Stay tuned to find out why this book matters.
<intro>
Hi, my name is JdH and this video is about the brain, and more specifically the Mega Brain. I read this book just after 2000. I was about 18 and on some level the story stuck. I enrolled in college for a while, but spend most of that year working one shitty job after the other. It was a good life experience and a way to figure out which direction to head in the future. This book was one of the life-lines that sparked my interest in the brain and to some extent in psychology. A few months ago I re-read part of it and I realized what got me hooked back then: the statement that the mind is one of the last frontiers. 
It’s one of those statements that sticks, and for good reason: we only have a rudimentary knowledge of a lot of systems: the brain, both chemical and structural, but also the human body, earth’s ecosystem distribution of wealth, and even things like the nature of happiness and all that.
In the introduction the author spoke how he went off into the wild when he was younger. He would be all by himself for days or weeks on end, and at some point he started having visions when he was without human interaction for extended periods of time. The author talks about how it got him writing the most amazing fiction for days after the kind of fiction is at its strongest when it’s not congested and flows freely. That same state of mind was what he was after in this book. 
There was talk about brain wave inducers and sensory deprivation tanks. At the time there was little scientific evidence as to the effect of those devices. For that reason, some of the ideas were more like their own kind of science-fiction and in all honesty, it was a bit out there.…For that reason I skimmed parts of the book, but there were some ideas that were original and they seemed very plausible… There was this one idea in particular that made a lot of sense: external waves can juggle our brains, after which the brain re-establishes a new equilibrium that’s more coherent and more creative. I’m not sure whether that’s really what happens, but what I do know is that the make-up of brain is such that it usually operates as a unit – there are areas that are active in specific cognitive tasks, but when it comes to the more complex tasks, or memory; it’s not located in one portion of the brain, but it’s spread out over the entirety of the brain. 
The interesting part now is that now, thirty years after this book was written, scientific evidence has become available and these devices are now used to treat some of the modern psychological illnesses: ptsd, depression and anxiety. I read one review where a user reported that the retention period to revert to a previous brain state became longer, the longer he used the device. This means that it changes our brain, but slowly, and who knows, it might be able to do something very effective in the long run. 
It isn’t exactly like living in The Matrix, but maybe it’s the closest thing to date. Towards the end of Mega Brain it’s stated that these machines can be regarded as tools of authenticity, because they help our brains to function at a higher and better state. This implies that depression and anxiety simply aren’t a kind of default mode of the brain. 
It also states something else, and I would almost say that this one is common sense just these machines are not enough though: to develop our mind we need enriched environments. We need to engage intellectually, be it studying formally or informally, picking up an instrument, sports, writing but we also need stories; great fiction. The kind of fiction that gives you a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
So there you have it: Mega Brain. Read it, if you can get your hands on a copy. If not, start with my fiction that you can read online. I try to upload a new story every week. 

Signing off, this is JdH speaking to you from the Caribbean.
<in screen: read my fiction, for free, jelmerdehaan.blogspot.com>

Friday, June 14, 2019

Non-fiction: post 90s groove - Lebowski, Shrink and Lions for lambs

video here
Transcript:
Introduction: Lebowski, Lions for lambs and Shrink…. Stay tuned to find out how these works dug into the post 90s groove….
<Intro>
Hi my name is JdH and this video details much of the vibe of the first decade of 2000 and in my opinion it was captured perfectly in these seminal works. First off, the 2000s were an era in which a lot happened it was the era with the internet-boom taking off, it was the era leading up to Obama as president, but it was also the era in which the economy started to decline and a new normalcy asserted itself. 
Lebowski and Shrink swung to two ends of that new spectrum. The Dude is the ultimate under-achiever who has somehow held on to a life that’s half in and out of the system, because he might resort to some shady business from time to time if needed. On the other end there’s the sometime over-achiever Henry, a successful therapist who has become dispirited in his job and who deals with this fact by smoking a good amount of weed.
Both stories get more meat as they develop. Lebowski introduces a whole range of colorful characters that somehow explain how a man like The Dude lives it’s interesting and very entertaining, because at some level we would all like to live like The Dude and his friends. They are all under-achievers, but they are this in a grand way. It’s at that level that the story works, but that’s also where it stays: it’s all at the surface. 
Shrink is more nuanced, because we soon learn that Henry isn’t just stuck in his job, but that he’s also mourning the death of his wife. This gives the story a layer that’s relatable in a very different way – it gives insight into grieve, that we have all experienced, be it close or far. At the same time it gives urgency to life: to make sure to enjoy all the moments that we have together.
Lions for lambs is more serious and it cruises somewhere in the middle, but it ends up with the same basic premise: what we do may not matter that much in the greater scheme of things. The story at the surface is about The End of history: wars need to be won so that democracies can be instated and this will secure a safer world. It has to do with a very specific definition of history: that of history being World History where all our efforts are focused to secure liberal democracies. 
Lions for lambs has three separate story-lines that take place at the same time. A senator selling strategy, cadets fighting Iraq, and a teacher-student on politics and putting yourself on the line. The punch-line is that it’s futile to go and fight in a warfrom an individual perspective, because most people don’t the reasoning is very simple: we prefer to play things safe. 
On the other hand, that reasoning kind of swings both ways. Go to war, risk death, but come back a hero and go to college for free, versus: no risk of death, no free college and debt until age 40. This mechanism comes back later on as well when the interviewer decides not to expose a bogus theory, to avert loosing her job. Is that lack of integrity? On some level, but I fully understand the reasoning. 
Maybe that’s exactly the existential dread that we try to deal with ourselves and we do this to some extentthrough fiction. The Dude is a caricature, Henry is more real, but still a thick and fictional character. The characters in Lions for lambs are more indistinct and more like us, but at the same time they aren’t, because most of us are not senators, journalists, cadets or studying political science. 
That’s why those stories appeal to us at a more profound level. At heart it’s all about the same thing: feeling stuck and making the most of it. We see how different people with different lives deal with this same problem.
And with this where it links up with all the big themes of our times: the great recession, the idea that we’re all equals, loss of religion, individuality that has gone too far, the idea that everything needs to be fantastic all the time, the idea that all our time needs to be spend being productive, the idea that more and higher education will solve all our problems, and so forth, and so on. 
These are just some of the themes of our times and they can’t be explained and solved in one video. And they can’t be solved in one novel. But a lot of stories combined may help us understand more about ourselves and the world around us. That’s why these movies work and why fiction in general is so important.
<outro>
Anyway, my name is JdH and these were just some of my ideas. If you want more, watch more of my videos and read my fiction that’s freely available. A new story every week.
Signing off, JdH speaking to your from the Caribbean.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Non-fiction: world outlook in the 90s: The X-Files, Blade Runner and The Matrix

World-outlook in the 90s: the grim view of X-Files, The Matrix and Blade Runner

This week I uploaded another video. The transcript is the one that I originally recorded, but during editing I deleted a good deal of it. According to Stephen King that's what draft 2 is all about: draft 2 is 'draft 1 - 10%'. 


Transcript:
The X-Files, The Matrix and Blade Runner…. Stay tuned to find out how these three works of fiction changed the world-outlook in the 90s and beyond….
<Teaser>
Hi my name is JdH and in this video I will discuss how The X-Files, The Matrix and Blade Runner very subtly tuned into the vibe of the 90s and how they colored our sense of reality from then on. 
First off, I must admit that I’m a big fan of all three of these works: in a way these works of fiction were like music that I could return to from time to time – they were much like those songs that we all know and that resonate with us, but that were also products of a certain time, because they overlap and their stories work along much of the same vein and the same mechanism. At certain times ideas, themes and obsessions just seem to pop up. [tunes: Back in black ACDC, Sweet Child of mine Guns n roses, Zombie, Cranberries]
That is music, and the topic of this video are movies and series and my area in particular is fiction —the written word and beyond.The magic of all of these works of fiction comes down to much of the same thing and links up with this very simple premise: everyone has a talent, but it takes hard work and dedication to bend this talent into success. These works didn’t just happen, but they were the product of a lot of hard work, a bit of inspiration and a keen sense of what was actually going on at a certain time and place.
It doesn’t mean that The X-Files, Blade Runner and The Matrix weren’t singular, because this is where it links to one of the general effects of these works: they vastly bend our perception because many people watched and enjoyed them and were exposed to their vibe and ideas. 
The X-Files bend government conspiracies and extra-terrestrial intelligence into normalcy, The Matrix was all about this idea that our whole lives might be nothing more than a simulation or a dream and Blade Runner shows us a post-apocalyptic future where we have created droids (called replicants) to do the work that we don’t want to do ourselves and those replicants eventually evolve into copies of human beings that only have one definite distinction: droids expire after three years. 
This bend perception has become a new normalcy and currently we’re at the brink of embracing Virtual Realities that will surely bend our perception beyond a fiction. If these three works of fiction taught me anything then it is that fiction and for that matter our perception of reality are much broader than fiction being just a novel. A movie is fiction, music is fiction, video-games are a fiction and to some extent any cultural expression is a fiction, because they all share some of the same basic ingredients: inspired by creativity (or talent), but made into something great by hard work and perseverance.
There’s something else there as well and that’s that works of fiction always touch on reality, on current themes, but they also continue where other great works left off, or where they might have left a loose thread. We need that to make sense of things and many times new works are sold as a mix of previous works. The idea of alien life in The X-Files was ultimately based on (Flash Gordon, ‘36). The idea of a dream within a dream as explored in The Matrix is a poem (Poe). The idea of a droid serving humans was thought up by (Asimov). 
At the same time, the tone, pace and theme have definite similarities. All three works link back to film-noir with poignant detectives that operate in grey cities that are cloaked in a never-ending November Rain —and even if the rain stops and the darkness cedes —in a way it’s still there and this is where these stories are at their most potent. Then their main drive is completely existential: Fox Mulder (The X-Files) and Neo (The Matrix) are after the same question: what is the truth? Deckard (Blade Runner): what is a replicant (which in a way is just another kind of truth)? 
What also connects these works is the personal investment of each protagonist: their existential well-being depends on an answer —possibly most notably for Deckard, because at the end of the movie it looks like he’s asking himself whether he himself is a replicant…. Fox Mulder wants to know whether his sister was abducted when she was young when she disappeared and was never found…. For that reason it’s existential that he finds out whether aliens are real or just a work of fiction…. Neo wants to find out whether he himself lives inside The Matrix…. 
From the point of view of the story this all makes sense: all three protagonists are underdogs, which gives them the kind of hurt that we can easily relate to, because we have all been there in one way or other and we feel compassion for those that are down on their luck. This is also the depth that these stories reach and the way in which they relate to the era that started in the 90s and that stretches out towards our current times and beyond: our world is a strange one and we desperately try to understand it. 
This is also a keen distinction: aiming for understanding comes before mastery and it’s both timeless and contemporary, because most of us are struggling to get by, while very few of us are out in the fields well before to herd to tame the land and to attain some sort of mastery. And wherethese works are masterful is in that the problem is ultimately never solved, which results in an arc that drives the suspense beyond the consumption of these works of fiction and for that reason they start to inhabit a very small part of our subconscious, because they get usto think what if…. And in a way we continue dreaming the fiction that was laid out before us. 
What about the noir element? How does this help us and how does this relate to our lives and our condition? The 90s were more stable than our current times, but still there was turmoil, because the cracks of the economic boost that started after ww2 were becoming visible – an economy based on endless growth. In a way it’s just like life and just like anything else for that matter: at some point there’s an end.
Is all this a grim outlook? Maybe. Is it a practical outlook? Very, because on a subconscious level it makes us face reality and in a way deal with the fact that we will reach a plateau at some point in time. Is this outlook still contemporary after 20 years? Definitely. Look at the 1% and the 99%, populism, right-wing governments and a blind believe that the free market of capitalism will solve all of our problems. 
The pursuit of wanting to find the truth is something that keeps us going and in a way this pursuit is more important than any conclusion —it might even be stated is that asking questions like these (in moderation) is what keeps us mentally sane, or to put it another way that relates it to way we try to make sense of cognitive neuroscience: name it then tame it. We roughly know which areas of the brain fire up for specific tasks, but we lack the understanding as to how the brain as a whole works. But still by labelling these distinct parts, and identifying when they fire up, every person in the room will agree to the fact that these are the small steps that are required to attain a rudimentary understanding. That’s exactly the level below the surface at which The X-Files, Blade Runner and The Matrix helps us understand ourselves —not in definite terms, but on a less articulate and a more emotional level. They all entertain, but they also label and help us understand the world around us in one way or other. 
That’s another part of the appeal of these three works (and I can’t stipulate this mechanism enough) – and which makes them like any work of fiction that has the ability to move us on an emotional level and influence how we live and how we perceive the world around us. There’s the story at the surface, but underneath it there’s also the stuff of life that we can directly relate to. There’s the definite attraction between Mulder and Scully, the same attraction between Deckard and Rachel, and this is something that we have all dealt with at one time or other. And then there are the small bits and pieces of everything that lies in between.
I could go on and on, but I would just say: go and watch these works of fiction if you haven’t already…. Or watch again, if it has been a while. These works are very entertaining, but they are also stories of hope that will help us understand the world around us and for us to find a way with the world and ourselves. These are high standards, but they are of the same standard that I try to attain in my own works of fiction…. What is your opinion? What do you like about any of these works of fiction? Leave your comments below…. 
<ending>
If you liked this video, you may also like my fiction: you can read a new story every week. For free.
Signing off, this is JdH speaking to you from the Caribbean [the land of sun, sea and sand].