Archive for December, 2013

December 29, 2013

Kieślowski’s Dekalog, sześć: a Study

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον.

ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.

– ΠΡΟΣ ΚΟΡΙΝΘΙΟΥΣ Α΄ 13:12

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

– 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NASB)

For the longest time I have preferred the English Standard Version as my go-to Bible translation, mostly because of the word usage and the general syntactic structure that seemed to “make sense” to me. But in this particular passage (which stands as one of my most favorite passages in all of writing), the New American Bible delivers, with the subtle usage of punctuation. Instead of “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” we get in the NASB “now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I also have been fully known.” The shift from the semicolon to the comma reminds me of the preference of Professor Ashford in Mike Nichols’ film Wit, where the comma signifies not a full stop, nor a separate thought apart from the first clause, but a transition – a mirror – between before and after, life and death. In the passage we see how “knowing” is not entirely separate from “knowing in part” and “knowing fully” because knowing is in itself made possible because “I also have been fully known.” The quick separation between partial and full knowing happens in an instant, like a face in the metro that evokes a happy memory. It is not some long intellectual process, but a happening, an eventThis is further confirmed in the Greek, where ἐπιστήμη (epistemé) is no where to be found. Rather, we are told of knowing as a kind of γνωστικός (gnōstikos), a special (i.e., secret) kind of knowledge that is already “known” (γνωστός), suggesting an event or an encounter. This event is not some result of a skill (as is suggested by epistemé, not to be confused with the almost-similar meaning in the Greek word τέχνη) but rather is unexpected – as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas likes to say, “of God who comes to mind.”

I think this subtle preference can be the key in understanding Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, sześć. The film became some sort of an enigma to me when I first watched it. I then consulted some websites that offered interpretations of the film, and I came across The Film Sufi’s brilliant interpretation, which kind of set me to have my own reading of the film. Let me lay out some sort of structure to this post: first, I will discuss the cinematic techniques that Kieślowski employs that provides us a window into the psyche of the characters involved, along with the extant themes of the film; the second part will talk about these themes in detail (though not in the degree that other blogs have done, who in my opinion are brilliant, such as Senses of Cinema, and of course The Film Sufi); finally, we will look into its intimate connection with our short exegesis we have done above.

Kieślowski is quite known for employing colors to convey thoughts. One is reminded of the scene in Dekalog, trzy, where Ewa crashes Janusz’s car unto a Christmas tree in the climactic scene of the episode:

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The colors do not only signal the dominant emotions in the scene – one of tension, anger, and resentment – but also signals the beginning of the high-point of the narrative: Ewa confesses in the station that she would have killed herself if Janusz left her in the middle of the night. In the penultimate scene we see Ewa flashing her headlights as goodbye to Janusz (it is interesting to note that Ew drives a red car, and Janusz a white one). In the final confrontation with the wife, we see again Kieślowski’s employment of light and color to signal a shift in the narrative:

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The light that emanates from somewhere (the window, but in this scene it is suggested that one can only imply that it was the window – the frame is brilliant for suggesting that the light is there, while not showing the source of the light), reminding me of Caravaggio’s The Calling of Mathew. That is to say, Janusz “turns to the light” in confessing to his wife and telling her that he won’t be “going out again in the evenings” (notice that he never promises; he just tells he won’t), thus keeping the Sabbath Day – in this case, Christmas gains an all-new and deeper meaning – holy.

So we are to treat colors not only as an evocation of emotions, but also cinematic cues that signal a shift in the narrative. We also see this in sześć, during Magda’s confrontation to a bruised Tomek’s confession of his love to Magda outside 376:

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The framing here is excellent: the window behind them is surrounded with red, with the light emanating from that very small space. Notice, also, that Tomek faces Magda when he says he loves her, and Magda looks on, away from Tomek’s face. The next scene shows Tomek partially illuminated by the light that emanates from the window. Notice that he wears blue (it is Tomek who wears the colorful clothes for much of the film, except for the date scene before the “events” in Magda’s apartment, where Tomek wears black and white) – this will be very important later on:

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The partial illumination obscures the bruise on Tomek’s right eye, suggesting a kind of naïveté that is either childish (you do not know better) or childlike (I just know). The partial illumination should also tell us the conflict within Tomek as he professes that he wants “nothing” from Magda (this, again, will be important later on). The next scene has Tomek running around outside the apartment in happiness as per Magda’s acceptance of his invitation to have a date (where the ominous God-figure makes his first appearance – a person in white overalls carrying a white bag and a brown bag). It is interesting to note that in this scene only the uninjured face of Tomek is shown, suggesting the childlike/childish duality we have mentioned earlier.

Again, we have said that colors signal not just emotions but events. This scene prefigures their date, which climaxes in Magda’s attempt to get him in bed and Tomek’s subsequent suicide attempt (or was it?). We have mentioned that Tomek, for the first time in the film, wears contrasting colors: black and white. What does this tell us? – that perhaps, Tomek is running up to a crisis – krinein in Greek means decision – as to whether he truly loves Magda or not. The face-to-face encounter may be too much for Tomek to bear, and the moment of choice comes up to him. Magda, on the other hand, coerces Tomek to sensualities, going as far as to attempt to have him in bed, which results in Tomek’s very premature ejaculation. We learn that Magda is trying to “teach him a lesson” that there is nothing more to love than ejaculation (but is it just that?), and she succeeds, albeit to disastrous results.

Another technique that Kieślowski employs is the use of close-up shots that focus on the eyes. More than just an emphasis on emotiveness and sincerity, these shots are also meant to tell us that character development is not done or does not happen with oneself alone – it is always with another person, to whom the character beholds his or her eyes to. In short, Kieślowski wants to show us the relational aspect of being human, and in terms of character development, the roundness of characters can only be possible with other characters in the narrative (even the Dostoevsky’s underground man was at some point relational). It is thus not an accident that Kieślowski focuses on the only aspect of the human face that has sharply contrasting colors – the eyes (white, and non-white, and in the most common cases, black and white). What, then, does this tell us? – that it is in the face, particularly the eyes, that we can see Kieślowski’s characters grow, in the moment of decision, of either this or that, of krinein.

What is particularly brilliant in the film is how Kieślowski juxtaposes eyes but separates them through mirrors and glass. Tomek’s use of the telescope is obvious; the first encounters with Tomek and Magda happen in the post office, separated by a window, and of course Tomek’s and Magda’s rooms can be perused because of the presence of windows. Despite this separation, however, there is always an opening and a “way” of being intimate: the telescope erases distance, the window in the post office has a hole where Tomek can see Magda face-to-face:

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(Notice in this scene that after this shot, we get to see Magda, but not through the opening – this will change in the final scene where it is Magda that sees through the hole. More on this later.)

Now, on to the more “juicy” part. All these cinematic techniques are meant to tell a story of human frailty, especially in the realm of love. Though some commentators have pointed out that Tomek’s love was pure, I stand by Spirituality and Practice‘s interpretation that Tomek’s innocence is shattered when they finally have each other face-to-face. This explains, in my opinion, the use of contrasting colors during the date scene – the most painful shattering of an idol is when you choose one over another. Tomek’s idealization of Magda (yes I think it was an idealization, because there was never really any “real” encounter between them) happens when it is Tomek that assumes the receiving end of Magda’s conception of love. This also tells us another thing: that love entails a decision that cannot be content with distance – notice Tomek’s godmother, who tells Tomek at the first part of the film that women also want “tenderness.” The interesting thing about the telescope is that it provides an illusion of intimacy and closeness; what we fail to realize is that inside the telescope there are numerous mirrors, and the more mirrors there are, the closer we can get. Paradoxical, isn’t it? Tomek was seduced to a naive kind of love. Surely he was right when he told Magda that he wanted nothing; what he failed to realize was that love itself also had a physical dimension, and it is this that one must choose to assume.

Likewise, Magda did not attend to the spiritual dimension of love, and resisted any kind of idealization of it. It was she who told Tomek that “there is nothing more to love than sex.” But after Tomek’s suicide attempt, we see a role reversal: it is Tomek that experiences the intensity of sensuousness in his suicide attempt (represented, again, by red), and it is Magda that now uses a telescope (a pair of binoculars) to watch over Tomek’s arrival.

So in the end, both Tomek and Magda are cases of human frailty – one too attached to sensuousness, and one too innocent to dwell in the world.

The final scene presents somewhat of an ambiguous end to the narrative. Magda visits the post office and finds Tomek working, to her joy. She approaches him and Tomek tells her “I’m not peeping you anymore.” First, it is clear that the roles have reversed. We now have Magda looking at Tomek through the hole in the glass:

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But the role reversal does not stop there. It is not as simple as Magda becoming Tomek and Tomek becoming Magda; notice the lighting in this shot – Magda’s face is partially illuminated. We also see Tomek’s partially illuminated face:

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What is interesting here is that the other scene where Tomek’s face was partially illuminated (we have pointed out above) had the illumination reversed. The scene before concealed the bruise that Tomek incurred at the hands of Magda’s angry lover. Now, we see, with the illumination, that the wound has healed.

What does all this have to do with role reversal? – They didn’t simply “switch sides,” but rather, they were transformed – conversio. This is the real reversal in the film.

For Magda, her face is illuminated halfway to tell us of the moment of choice that Magda had undergone. Remember the scene where her lover comes over, to which she replies “I am not here.” That was the moment of decision, whereafter she confesses through the phone (presumably it was Tomek on the other side, but I think it was his godmother) that he was right, that love really did exist.

For Tomek, the moment of choice reached its climax when he ejaculated (shades of Michel de Certeau’s “white ecstasy”), to which he left the apartment without his coat – a black coat. We have said earlier that Tomek lost his innocence in that event, so it would have been logical to have a white shirt left over. But I think this is where Kieślowski’s genius comes in: the black coat signified the loss of his black-and-white ideal of love and sex. So yes, he learns from Magda, but in the hard way. The suicide attempt was not guilt-driven, in my opinion. It was, above all, a baptism (notice the bowl that he uses to catch the blood).

So what does this have to do with the oft-repeated quote from the Corinthians? – I bring you to the final scene, where Magda passes by the post office and sees Tomek, through a glass:

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After which she goes in and looks at Tomek face-to-face through the hole. I think this sums up the film: how one learns to love not by calculating and by pre-empting any kind of definition of love (as both of the characters did), but by an event that is not of their doing, the forgotten “third term” in any relationship: God. It is this “third term” that sunders any corruption and adulteration of love (both of Tomek and Magda) and restores communion through conversion and encounter. The final line is telling: “I am not peeping you anymore.” While others have interpreted this as Tomek falling out of love, I think it just reaffirms the love that, perhaps for the first time, they now share: one does not need telescopes and distance to love; it is already in front of you, and the choice is there. Both of their half-illuminated faces tell us that both of them have chosen to love not just despite of but because of their respective frailties.

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December 27, 2013

Bioshock: Infinite – an Attempt at a Philosophical Interpretation; or, a Grad Student Playing a Video Game

Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis est visio Dei.

St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses

My mind has yet to comprehend the extent of the narrative that Bioshock: Infinite has presented. It remains for me one of the most engaging and thought-provoking narratives in the game world (I have not yet played the Mass Effect franchise so I cannot determine with finality that Bioshock presents the most thought-provoking narrative). I say “one of the most” because in my opinion, Snake Eater and Knights of the Old Republic remain the best narrative-driven games I have ever played. Infinite, however, fares well, and I have immensely enjoyed the game itself. The ending was quite unexpected, to say the least, and I have been wracking my head, trying to understand the more-than-fifteen-minutes of nonstop revelations in the final sequence of the game.

(Since this is about the final scene of Infinite, and since this is an interpretation of the whole game based on the ending, it is obvious enough that this post contains spoilers. Play it first and enjoy!)

(I have seen as per the comments in sites offering interpretations on how the DLC “changes the whole equation.” As a disclaimer, I have not yet played the DLCs so this interpretation is strictly within the bounds of the original narrative.)

To have some sort of “skeletal structure” in this post, allow me to outline what I want to accomplish here. The first part will present my own interpretation of the ending, drawing some of the insights from other people in the internet. The second part will try to synthesize the aforementioned interpretation philosophically, i.e., using specific philosophical lenses in order to flesh out some highly interesting themes that run throughout the game and not just the ending.

I will begin with the final scene before the screen goes black (pre-credits, as the post-credits scene shows Booker in his apartment on the 8th of October 1893 [which will be significant later on]). Those that have played the game and who have tried to understand the ending know the story: that Booker Dewitt was actually Zach Comstock in an alternate universe where he chose to be baptized after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Lutece (I will refer to “them” as Lutece only because they’re not actually twins; Robert Lutece is an alternate-universe version of Rosalind in her frequent time-jumping), feeling remorse for the events that led to the creation of Columbia and the murder of Lady Comstock (and of course her/themselves) and the ensuing chaos with the Vox Populi, decides to craft a sort of master plan that will eventually “end” the timeline where Comstock rose to power by killing him “in his birth.” The period between Lutece’s decision to “kill off” Comstock right up to the very end of the game constitutes the whole “linear” narrative of the game. The final scene shows Elizabeth (who is revealed to be Anne Dewitt, Booker’s daughter whom he sold off to “pay off his debts”) smothering Booker/Comstock upon finally realizing that “he was both,” thus effectively ending the timeline where Comstock rose to power.

But did it really stop there?

Notice, that at the absolute final scene, the Elizabeths – time-space permutations of herself – started to disappear upon Booker’s death. This suggests that the timelines have been closed off because Comstock ceased to exist at the moment where he was “created” or reborn. But notice how the screen cuts to black before the final Elizabeth disappears. Now this for me is the real cliffhanger of the game – we are left to wonder if the timelines where Elizabeth is actually Elizabeth (that is to say, how we know her in Columbia) are closed off forever.

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Now this is where things get interesting. Before Booker gets smothered, the Elizabeths tell him: “You chose to walk away, but in other oceans you didn’t. You took the baptism and you were born again as a different man.” This is very telling: there was only one timeline where Booker chose to walk away. All the other timelines had him take on his “new life” as Comstock. Why is this interesting? – Well, it might be conjectural, but one is left to wonder if the final Elizabeth who does not disappear indeed stays there because that will be the only permutation of Elizabeth that Booker will meet and see through to the very end. Notice the dress (the “first” Elizabeth that Booker meets in the tower) – she disappears, except for the Elizabeth who wears Lady Comstock’s dress. This tells us one thing: that Elizabeth couldn’t have gone to that point without Booker choosing to reject the baptism. Notice, also, that Elizabeth changes her dress after she kills Daisy Fitzroy. Before she kills Fitzroy, remember that Elizabeth opens a Tear in order to “revive” Chen Lin. And they never go back to the original narrative (hence Elizabeth’s warning “are you sure?”). What does this have to do with the ending? – That the Elizabeth that wears lady Comstock’s dress couldn’t have lived to the very end without her opening the tear during Chen Lin’s revival, which naturally needed the intervention of the Booker that chose to reject the baptism.

This is where I think things get metaphysically “wonkers.” What do these events tell us? – that no one could have stopped Comstock, because the final scene tells us that things are in perpetual cycle – Elizabeth stays, because Booker in an alternate universe chose to reject baptism, which led him to Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, which led to that point where Comstock is “killed.” But that doesn’t really “kill” Comstock – remember Elizabeth’s matter-of-fact statement in the lighthouse, that killing someone doesn’t really “kill the timeline” but rather is just one of the infinite number of narratives possible. Yes, Elizabeth might have pointed she sees through all the Tears, which might imply that she knows that killing Comstock will end the whole cycle. But we are forgetting one thing: Rosalind/Robert Lutece.

Lest we forget, they were the brains behind the whole elaborate scheme. It is highly implausible that they couldn’t have seen the extent of Elizabeth’s powers. They would have anticipated it. I think this is not mere conjecture. In fact, we get a “clue” in the very first scene of the game, where Rosalind tells Robert that she “doesn’t believe in the entire thought experiment.” Throughout the game we see Rosalind losing out to bets with Robert, suggesting a linear kind of narrative and a success to the experiment (the scheme with Booker kills himself in the final scene). But in the end Rosalind was correct: she would have disturbed the time-space fabric enough to have made the whole scenario unstoppable, including the extent of Elizabeth’s powers. She anticipated Elizabeth realizing her powers, and for Rosalind, this wouldn’t have stopped anything (in the end Robert was just a distraction to the narrative, which makes it all the more mysterious, in my opinion), even her and Booker’s attempt to kill off Comstock before everything unfolded.

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This brings us (finally – my mind was beginning to ache) to the second part of this post. The unstoppability of the whole system – the warping of time-space – reflects what Columbia represented: a hypercapitalistic society. A friend pointed out that the fact that Columbia was “high above the clouds” represented capitalist society’s attempt to break free from the material conditions that determined the social class. Even the “highest abstractions” – represented by the clouds – aren’t enough to remove oneself from the material conditions of existence. It masks them, like the clouds that obscure vision. Marx himself talks about the shortening of turnover time (the time it takes for capital to become gains, in perpetua) as the driving force of the capitalist mode of production. This is represented by Lutece’s “tinkering” with the time-space fabric – the very attempt to become efficient produces its own contradiction: it becomes more and more uncontrollable. This, we learn, becomes the driving force of American exceptionalism – the post-credits scene has the date 8th of October 1893: in that same year, the world trade fair in Chicago was held. It was curiously named “the world’s Columbian Exposition.” The fair has had a profound impact in the globalization of the market – the flashpoint in Marx’s description of Capitalism, also mentioned in the Communist Manifesto:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

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This brings us to the other interesting point in Infinite: the religious angle. A lot of people, understandably, have been offended by the caricature of religious fundamentalism in the game. I think that the portrayal of religion in the game revealed a deeper, more disturbing consequence of the unstoppable machine of capitalism: even “religious purity” is subsumed under the system. We need only to be reminded by Marx, again in the Manifesto, of the ruling class’ “simplification of class antagonisms.” We see this in Columbia itself, where Comstock disenfranchises the poor and the non-white, portraying them as “other.” But in the end, even Fitzroy is eaten by the system by playing into the class antagonism by the ruling class. And isn’t this the “hallmark” of fundamentalism? – the simplification of class antagonism. Liberalism has reacted to it by negating any antagonism (and I think a connection can be made with Rapture in the earlier Bioshock games), but does nothing to address it. “Religion” in this sense also functions as a literary device to represent this simplification of antagonisms. Worse, religion becomes the “opium” (read: vigors) by which this antagonism is enforced through the language of the pious.

It is furthermore interesting that the date in the post-credits scene – October 8 – also tells us that the events where Booker might have finally broken free from the grip of the system comes after the conclusion of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (which was also part of the Columbian Trade Fair) on the 30th of September. Scholars have pegged this event as the “birth” of interreligious dialogue, but also the beginning of the globalization of religion, i.e., the subsumption into the cultural logic of capitalism – how “Eastern” religion becomes a construction of the West, and in turn the “East” re-constructing itself vis-a-vis the Western construct. It is of no surprise that the Boxer Rebellion figures in the game: this also represents the fetishization of the East.

What can we learn from this whole exercise? – that human agency – represented by Lutece – can only go so far to attempt to stop the machination of capitalism. This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done; notice in the game that everything is structured according to human agency – time-space is multiplied infinitely according to human choices. Perhaps Infinite tells us that the answer lies not in the centrality of human agency. This jives in well with Marx’s conviction that human essence must not be conceived in terms of abstract sensuousness, but with social relations, as we see in the Theses on Feuerbach. If we look at The German Ideology, we in fact see a focus on the production of the conditions that will allow for revolution to take place. What does this tell us? – that human persons are still agents of change, and indeed they can change society – “to change the world” as with the Eleventh Thesis – but only after abandoning the idea that human flourishing in itself is the finality of action. We then understand Elizabeth’s and Booker’s exchange nearing the end (which is referenced in the beginning before the first scene begins) in a more profound manner: E: “are you afraid of God?” B: “I’m afraid of you.” That is to say, one should be afraid of putting human agency at the center of everything, because it leads to nothing but ruin.

What is it, then? – Here we begin the discourse on the relation between man/woman and nature, pointed out by Marx in the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts. Even Irenaeus foresaw this: the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God. It is through vision that man becomes “aright,” but God precedes the vision. It is not merely about man that man becomes him/herself – it is for something other than him/her. It is in this that God is “fully alive” – when man is finally reconciled with him/herself in, with, and for others. Forgiveness (the high point of religious ecstasy in Infinite), then, is not about “having life anew,” but it is about possibilizing the irruptions of the divine, which man and his or her agency can never control.

It is with this thought that we finally end this long and arduous exercise.