Thursday, October 15, 2009

"The Net is Vast and Limitless": An Analysis of Ghost in the Shell's Ending (Development of Film Expression Final)

Shot One
Shot duration: 48 seconds

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Shot size: Initially an extreme long shot with the Major displaced into the distant background behind a tall and imposing mound of books -- a far more ancient and analog form of media than most of what is seen throughout the film, to be sure -- the camera dollies in to a close shot of the heroine, effectively making her and her plight seem more and more significant against the wall of media.
Sound: Audibly fizzling on, the camera pops and buzzes before falling silent. Off in the distance, an EKG monitor beeps out the Major's slow but steady pulse. The noise grows louder and louder the closer we get, and there can be no doubt about the Major's continued survival.
Contrast dominant(s): For the first few seconds, the flickering white fuzz of the camera is the contrast dominant, effectively drawing our attention to its lack of stability or fidelity. Afterwards, the Major with her stark white face and dark and lacy Victorian doll's dress draw in our eyes to keep focus on her throughout the shot.
Character movement: None to speak of. As far as we can tell, the Major is completely paralyzed, and metaphorically joins in every doll's inanimate plea for life. The only movement in the frame is the fizzling camera and the space-age microcosm in Q4, effectively drawing the viewer's attention to the movement of the camera itself.
Character proxemics: Sitting upright with her head tilted and her body crooked and weight unevenly distributed, we are made to understand that the Major no longer has control over the movement of her own body anymore, but has been carefully positioned on the chair by someone else. Because the chair and environment she is sitting in is comfortable, and because she is surrounded by life preserving medical technology, it would seem safe to say that this person is sympathetic rather than hostile.
Camera movement: Sitting perfectly still for roughly 15 seconds while the camera turns itself back on, the camera starts to dolly in with slow incremental steps at an animated doll's walking pace, but increases its speed and length of its steps the closer it gets to the Major.
Camera angle: Shot at an eye-level, it is here important that we be perfectly square with Motoko so we can look into her eyes and perceive her silent plight.
Depth of field: Split into a straightforward background, middle ground, and foreground, the background where the Major is seated off in the distance remains the focal point of the shot. In this respect, the long distance, the split wall of books in the middle ground and the wooden table in the foreground act as visual barriers obstructing proper view of the Major, a problem neatly resolved by the moving camera.
Lighting: As per cyberpunk's film noir influence, this shot is lit in low key with lighting emphasizing the environment rather than the characters. With the brightest light simply falling on the floor in Q3 and Q4 and highlighting the obstructing wall of books in Q1 and Q2, the picture looks bleak for the Major. However, off in the distance a faintly angelic aura surrounds her, so it seems premature to predict her untimely demise just yet.
Color: Shot in a simulated color filter that desaturates all colors of their natural vibrancy, everything in the room is tinged in sick-looking shades of brown that make everything look lifeless, antiquated, grim, and grainy. Even the Major's face looks white and pale and her dress dark and funereal as she sits still and lifeless. Even so, by failing to film the colors with reliable fidelity, the viewer is clued in that the picture this camera gives is unreliable, and that there's more to the story.
Screen graphics/composition: An evenly balanced shot displacing the Major into the distant background the wall of literary media in Q1 and Q2 dominating the frame from the middle ground. Here the diagonal front-to-back leading lines are both stacked against the Major and draw the eyes back toward her. A compositionally static image of a lifeless room, the only developments in the frame are the movement of the space-age microcosm in Q2 and the motion of the camera.
Editing style: Making a startling straight cut from pitch-black nothingness to a new scene, the viewer is self-consciously aware that the camera is visibly being turned back on. Exiting the shot in a straight jump cut to a more reliable camera, the viewer's attention is drawn to the role of the camera in mediating the story.
Time: Given the unexplained nature of cuts, it is almost impossible to tell how much time has elapsed between them, but as the emphasis of the shot is on motionlessness, time is not as important as it would normally be.
Subtext: After her near assassination, the Major has been reduced to the doll's plight of pleading for real life. But as a cyborg living in a hyperreal world of manipulatable media technology, in a more symbolic sense this has always been her plight.

Shot Two
Shot duration: 14 seconds

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Shot size: A full shot of the Major, this shot emphasizes the whole of her being in returning to life.
Sound: With only the EKG monitor still faintly beeping, the Major is completely silent for her reawakening with only the faint rustling of cloth audible throughout. Off behind the camera, a door opens and the voice of Batou greets the Major upon perceiving that she is now awake.
Contrast dominant(s): As the wearer of a vibrant emerald dress and the brightest refractor of the desk light in Q1 in the Major remains the contrast dominant throughout the shot.
Character movement: In a move evocative of all the terror and fascination brought by timeless stories about dolls being brought to life, the Major suddenly jolts upright with a very strange and enigmatic facial expression. Slowly lowering her head and shoulders to get a good look at her current body, Kusanagi bends her hand in a position just a few feet in front of her face and inspects her palms and fingers a long time to make sure it's all real after all.
Character proxemics: Still basically the same as the last shot, here Batou's offscreen position carefully opening the door signals his role as caretaker.
Camera movement: None to speak of. Here, as in most of the shots in this scene, the emphasis is placed upon the motion of the characters in an inanimate setting. From here on, there will be no camera movement until the final shot of the scene.
Camera angle: Shot from a low angle that makes the Major seem tall and imposing, we suddenly wonder how we could ever have imagined that one of Japan's greatest cyborg hackers would allow herself to get wiped out so easily.
Depth of field: Shot with a closed and angular form that makes the distance between planes feel compressed and the shot feel claustrophobic, little movement will be possible for the Major until she mediates it.
Lighting: Illuminated by the bright glowing desk lamp in Q1, the stark contrast between brilliant light and deep shadow, the lighting makes that shot feel both resplendent and hopeful, and dark and claustrophobic. Above all, the light from above gives the Major the halo effect that makes her appear angelic. What indeed is the power and potential of a modern angel amidst a dark society?
Color: A brilliant explosion of emerald color that makes everything feel vibrant and full of life, here we are signaled that from now on the picture the camera is giving us is reliable, and that life and movement is, in fact, possible.
Screen graphics/composition: Compositionally weighted toward the right by the leading line of the tall, dark, and oblique desk, the viewer's eyes are kept in Q2 and Q4 where the Major is sitting. Tied in to life-support machines in Q1, Q2, and Q4, the relation of the Major to a technologically oriented society is here emphasized.
Editing style: After the surprising jump cut already described, this shot cuts to Batou to emphasize his presence and the exact nature of his role in her recovery.
Time: Edited with slow pacing that allows Motoko ample time to begin movement, after a chronologically ambiguous beginning the continuity of time between this shot and the next one is relatively straightforward at the pace of a normal conversation. This use of time and pacing will continue throughout the scene unless otherwise stated.
Subtext: Startlingly coming to life out of a state of inanimate existence, the Major must determine whether or not any of this is real. Having done this, she must get now used this strange new mode of being analogous to that of a living doll reborn into the world with old memories and new subjectivity.

Shot Three
Shot duration: 11 seconds

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Shot size: A medium shot of Batou as he enters the room, this shot is expositional in nature.
Sound: Initially, only the Major's concerned but strangely childlike voice requests a status report and "maybe an explanation for this body" with a tone of urgency. Closing the door behind him, the wooden door makes its characteristically solid ker-kunk. Afterwards, Batou's voice explains with a tone of resignation that "It was all I could get on the black market. Not my taste, really."
Contrast dominant(s): Wearing a bright red shirt that stands in contrast to the emerald room and occupying the position of greatest light refraction, Batou is the primary contrast dominant. The secondary contrast dominant is the thick and seemingly well-defended technological fortress concealing the Major (it's only the chair and medical equipment, actually), which is also brightly lit, and signals that he is being forced to justify his presence and actions.
Character movement: Looking to the Major with a facial expression that conveys that he is both sympathetic and friendly, Batou is holding a doorknob with his left hand, and a beer can with his right hand. Briefly turning his head as he closes the door behind him, Batou begins his explanation with a slight look of embarrassment, shrugs his shoulders, and walks off the right side of the frame.
Character proxemics: With Batou facing the Major, who remains concealed by the aforementioned visual barrier, the emphasis is placed upon the ultimately friendly terms of their relationship. Even so, the Major's recent merging of consciousness with the Puppet Master has placed distance in their relationship as it remains unknown how exactly he relates to this new being. He therefore stands a few feet away from her throughout the shot.
Camera angle: Shot from a low angle, Batou is made to feel imposing despite his good intentions.
Depth of field: With the bulk of visual data occupying the well-fortified foreground, Batou occupies the only visually remaining open space in Q2 and Q4 in the middle ground. Behind him, only a sliver of background in the room behind him is visible before he shuts the door. An angular image with confined space and closed form, this shot feels very claustrophobic.
Lighting: A fairly dark shot with deep shadows, the relative position of the characters are the areas most brightly lit, effectively highlighting their relation to each other.
Color: Against the emerald environment, the reddish hues of Batou's shirt, the rubber tubes of the medical equipment, and the closed door stand out as the points of greatest interest.
Screen graphics/composition: A compositionally dense image visually weighted toward the left in Q1 and Q4 where the Major is sitting behind the symbolic technological fortress, the viewer's eyes move over to Batou in the empty space in search of visual relief. Balancing the shot in this way, Batou's presence is made to feel warm and welcoming.
Editing style: This shot makes a straight cut to Batou sitting down to continue his explanation with the first visible shot of the Major's reactions to him.
Subtext: Batou, old comrade to the Major in Section 9, has rescued the Major from almost certain death, but has done so under conditions not entirely under his control. Now he must explain what happened during the period the Major was taken out of commission.

Shot Four
Shot duration: 26 seconds

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Shot size: A close shot of Batou with the Major in the middle ground, here it is important that we simultaneously see the reactions of both.
Sound: Throughout the scene, Batou's grave but resigned voice can be heard explaining what happened after "the incident." Beside this, incidental noises like the rustle of cloth on the table, the unbuckling of buckles, the opening of a beercan, and the EKG monitor can be heard in appropriate places.
Contrast dominant(s): Illuminated once more by the bright desk light, the Major occupies the main contrast dominant of this shot. Against this bright light, the deep shadow covering Batou creates a secondary contrast dominant.
Character movement: Taking a seat upon the desk positioned to the Major's right, Batou continues his explanation with a posture of resigned disappointment about the verdict of recent conflicts between Section 9 and Section 6. Meanwhile, the Major unbuckles the straps behind her back that tie her into the machines, doing so with a certain erotic fluidity of grace. Finishing this, the Major's eyes and face grow downcast with a look of discontent. Batou, becoming angry as he describes the irresolution of politics as usual, cracks open the beer can like it was a grenade, and looks quite irate. Raising the beer can to his lips, Batou lifts his head upward as if to put things into perspective as he slowly sips the contents until the end of the shot.
Character proxemics: Facing each other only at an indirect 90 degree angle and sitting roughly half the room apart from each other, the emphasis is placed upon the personal and communicative distance that has come between the Major and Batou. These are, after all, not easy things to talk about.
Camera angle: Shot at an eye level, the equal importance of both Batou's and the Major's emotions are here emphasized.
Depth of field: Split into a middle ground and a foreground with no real background, Batou occupies the foreground in close proximity to the viewer while the the Major occupies the middle ground at some distance from camera.
Lighting: Illuminated once more by the bright halo effect of the desk light, the Major appears graceful and enlightened while Batou is covered in shadow and remains in the dark.
Color: In this shot, the bright white shade of the lighting becomes the dominant color to emphasize the contrast between light and darkness.
Screen graphics/composition: An evenly balanced shot with Batou on the left side in Q1 and Q3 and the Major on the right side in Q2 and Q4, the emphasis of the composition is upon the equal import of the character's emotions.
Editing style: Cutting to the opposite side of Batou's face, which is brightly illuminated in directional proportion to the Major, the editing emphasizes the importance of her role in his life.
Subtext: Politics as usual is going completely nowhere, but the newfound wisdom and power attained by the Major in her synthesis with the Puppet Master creates the bright potential for her to do things that under the old paradigm could simply not be done.

Shot Five
Shot duration: 5 seconds

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Shot size: A wide closeup of Batou, this shot is chiefly concerned with his own feelings about recent events.
Sound: As Batou lowers the beer can, it makes its characteristic sound of liquid flowing on aluminum. Starting out in a whisper, Batou remarks upon the perceived missing status of the Major's cyberbrain in a tone implying that he will keep her presence a secret.
Contrast dominant(s): Illuminated by bright light shining from the Major's direction, Batou's face is the contrast dominant throughout the shot.
Character movement: Looking upwards with the beer can still pursed to his lips, Batou seems to be looking at things from a higher perspective that allows him to let go of the anger. In the narrative context of the film, this makes sense because in an earlier scene in the film, it was revealed that cyborgs like him and the Major metabolize alcohol in seconds. They drink alcohol, therefore, not so much for its recreational value, but because it's something that links them back to their basic humanity. Releasing the anger, he slowly lowers the can and lowers his head, turning directly to the Major to reveal her perceived fate.
Character proxemics: Still sitting at the same literal and figurative distance, some of the communicative distance is bridged by Batou turning his head back in the Major's direction.
Camera angle: Shot at a low angle, Batou's role is again made to seem imposing to the Major despite benevolent intentions.
Depth of field: Split into a straightforward foreground and background, Batou occupies the foreground in Q2 and Q4 while the wall of books occupy the background in Q2, Q3, and Q4.
Lighting: Brightly lit by light coming from the Major's direction, Batou's face appears bright and resplendent with only a few shark shadows creeping across the surface. In this, the Major's role of being a source of light within his life is emphasized. The wall of books in the background, meanwhile, appear dark and imposing, practically disappearing into the shadows.
Color: Filled with dark and almost phantasmagoric colors of black, brown, and pale green, the bright light accenting Batou's skin tone emerges quite vibrantly, and seems to emphasize the connection with his humanity.
Screen graphics/composition: A shot balanced to the right where Batou is sitting in Q2 and Q4, the sole emphasis of the shot's composition is placed upon him.
Editing style: Cutting to a shot of the Major as she is sitting, the emphasis of the editing is placed once more upon her feelings.
Subtext: Batou, a determined and faithful friend, refuses to allow the burden of his anger to dehumanize him, but instead looks at things in terms of the bigger picture. Faced with hostile elements that would be disastrous for the Major if she were discovered, Batou can be relied upon to keep a secret, but is a bit imposing and presumptuous about the Major's own decisions in these matters.

Shot Six
Shot duration: 23 seconds

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Shot size: A close shot of of the Major where she is sitting, this shot places the emphasis back on the Major and her feelings.
Sound: Initially, only Batou's voice can be heard gently asking the Major "Okay with you?" After a silent pause, the Major excitedly remarks with her childlike voice upon her admiration for the house's decoration (the Japanese tend to dislike direct conflict and confrontation, and may suddenly change the conversation to avoid one). Courteously inquiring whether this is Batou's safe house so as to place the compliment directly upon his shoulders, Batou responds with the equal compliment "You're the first person I ever brought here." Extending the generous offer "If you want to... You can stay as long as you like," the Major responds with her own adult's voice in a tone of heartfelt gratitude: "Thanks, but I'd better go."
Contrast dominant(s): Returning the colors back to their initial bright emerald state, the Major resumes her position as the contrast dominant for the same reasons given in the second shot.
Character movement: Sitting perfectly motionless in the same downcast and discontented position she was last seen in, it's difficult to tell what exactly is going through the Major's mind, but whatever it is, it's really intense. Remaining still for quite some time, the Major lifts up her head to glance around the room with bright eyes as she admires the decoration. Turning her eyes toward him with an ambiguous look at word she is his very first guest, she turns an open and receptive face in his direction as he begins to extend his invitation to stay. Lowering her face in the same position as before, this time her eyes show melancholic gratitude as she politely declines the offer.
Character proxemics: Still looking away throughout most of the shot, the communicative distance between the Major and Batou remains unbridged until she chooses to bridge it.
Camera angle: Shot from a high angle, the Major is made to seem pushed down and imposed upon partly by Batou, but mostly by a hostile society that would destroy her if it could.
Depth of field: With only a foreground, this shot feels tightly confined and claustrophobic. In this, the shot emphasizes society's confining pressure upon the Major, resulting in a lack of space for life and movement.
Lighting: Lit in a comparatively high key with vibrant lighting and the halo effect, the few shadows that creep across the surface of this shot are quite striking. While definitely a dark shot, its darkness comes more from the camera angle than the lighting.
Color: Returning to the emerald explosion of the second shot, the colors remain just as vibrant, which strikingly contrasts with the gloomy and downcast feeling throughout the shot.
Screen graphics/composition: An evenly balanced shot with closed form, the tight composition of this shot adds to the feeling of claustrophobia and confinement.
Editing style: Cutting to a shot of the Major standing up to walk out the door, the editing style of this shot shows the Major to defy her own confinement in bold willingness to face a hostile world.
Subtext: In contrast to Batou's sense of resignation, the Major is painfully aware of the great injustice that has been done to her, and of her own confinement within a hostile society. Nevertheless willing to show gratitude to her generous host, she is still compelled by the nature of her eternal quest for truth and of her own state of being to leave in search of something greater.

Shot Seven
Shot duration: 5 seconds

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Shot size: A medium close shot of Batou and the Major as she stands up and begins to walk out, the emphasis of the shot is placed upon Batou's lack of either resistance or reaction to her efforts at departure.
Sound: After the abrupt clip-clop rustle of the Major quickly rising to her feet, the only audible noise is the determined tapping of her footsteps upon the floor.
Contrast dominant(s): Occupying the position of greatest illumination, Batou remains the primary contrast dominant throughout the shot despite his lack of movement. Second to Batou, the glowing bookcase in Q1 and Q3 occupies the secondary contrast dominant, effectively foreshadowing the Major's decision to merge with the 'Net. The third contrast dominant is the Major herself, whose emerald dress appears as the darkest subject in the frame.
Character movement: Swiftly rising to her feet, the Major walks directly forward in the direction of the exiting door with eyes and pacing of resolute determination. Batou, by contrast, continues to sit motionless in the same position with an expression of wistful resignation throughout the shot.
Character proxemics: Facing each other only at an indirect 90 degree angle, Batou and the Major are shown to be moving in different directions from each other, and hence are now at cross purposes.
Camera angle: Shot at a straight angle, once more the emphasis of is placed upon the feelings of both characters.
Depth of field: Split between an on-screen background and middle ground and an off-screen foreground, the Major occupies the foreground, Batou occupies the middle ground, and the bookshelf in Q1 and Q3 occupies the background.
Lighting: Lit in a very low key, even the light issuing from the desk light now seems very pale with the Major's departure. Now shadows creep encroach upon almost everything in the frame, giving it a dark and phantasmagoric appearance.
Color: Amidst the now dark and pale emerald room, Batou's red shirt is the brightest color in the frame, but even that appears quite pale. This is indeed a dark and serious moment.
Screen graphics/composition: An evenly centered shot balanced to the left where the bookshelf is standing in Q1 and Q3 and Batou is sitting centered in all four quadrants with his weight shifted to the left (his right). As such, the emphasis of the composition is placed upon the Major's eventual destination and Batou's role and feelings in relation to it.
Editing: A relatively swift cut compared to other cuts in the scene, the editing style of this shot emphasizes the abruptness of the Major's departure. Cutting to Batou's more vocal reaction after she has walked past, it is emphasized that he finally found the courage to say something.
Subtext: Determined to leave in order to continue her quest and make good use of her newfound abilities in spite of a hostile society, the Major quickly rises to leave, and Batou is not going to stop her if she does not wish to stay.

Shot Eight
Shot duration: 9 seconds

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Shot size: A full close-up of Batou with the Major in the walking away in the middle ground, this shot emphasizes his resolution to preserve some semblance of the relationship, or at least understand why she is leaving.
Sound: Speaking with a tone of urgency that stops the Major in her tracks, Batou inquires about what the Major and the Puppet Master had talked about (preferring to communicate with the Major alone, the A.I. used his hacking skills to cut Batou out of the feedback loop), and whether he is "still there, inside of you."
Contrast dominant(s): Illuminated very brightly, Batou's face is the primary contrast dominant of the shot. The Major's emerald dress, meanwhile, continues to stand out vividly against the dark terrain in Q1 and Q3, so she is the secondary contrast dominant.
Character movement: Looking both concerned and genuinely interested, Batou remains in the same position as before with his head tilted downward, but shows more nuance of expression while he speaks. The Major, meanwhile, only has time to walk forward one pace in the shot before stopping abruptly to listen.
Character proxemics: The Major, now with her back turned to Batou at quite some distance, does not display interest in continuing their relationship, but is nevertheless willing to stop and listen. Batou, meanwhile, is still facing her at an 90 degree angle, so they are still at cross purposes.
Camera angle: Shot at a straight angle, the importance of both Batou's and the Major's feelings are emphasized although the Major's motivations remain unclear.
Depth of field: Split into a foreground, middle ground, and background, Batou occupies the foreground in Q2 and Q4, the Major occupies the middle ground in Q3, and is walking toward the door in the background in Q1 and Q3. In this the emphasis is placed upon Batou's proximity and the Major's increasing distance.
Lighting: Illuminated by the bright and radiant light of the halo effect that practically radiates off him, Batou's apt questions come across like a sudden epiphany. This realization of the Major's true significance is deeply reminiscent of Peter's realization that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16:13-20), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13), and the appearance of Jesus to the two pilgrims on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection (Luke 24:13-32) all combined into one. Otherwise, the lighting is as shadowy and low key as a Rembrandt painting.
Color: As in shot five, the emphasis of the color is placed upon the effect of the light upon Batou's skin tone, and has similar significance. Now it is apparent that Batou will retain both light and humanity even after the Major's departure. Otherwise, the colors of the room are as dark and phantasmagoric as ever.
Screen graphics/composition: Compositionally, this shot is balanced toward the right where Batou is sitting in Q2 and Q4 to emphasize the gravity of what he is saying. The left half of the screen where the Major is standing in Q3, meanwhile, is both open and unobstructed, allowing her fluid freedom of movement.
Editing style: Cutting to a rather striking shot of the Major with intense and unnaturally powerful eyes, Batou's questions prove to be more apt than he knows.
Subtext: Finding the courage to ask the Major about her newfound identity before she leaves forever, Batou discovers the resolve to retain his humanity after her departure in the realization of her full significance (and, by implication, his as well).

Shot Nine
Shot duration: 30 seconds

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Shot size: A wide close-up of the Major with Batou sitting in the middle ground, this shot emphasizes the Major's face and expressions as she responds to his query.
Sound: Speaking in a tone of soft-spoken anticipation, the Major asks Batou to remember "the voice we heard on the boat that night." The voice in question was the disembodied female voice of the Puppet Master, who in an earlier scene startlingly interrupted a philosophical conversation about technology and the desire to transcend the human condition by quoting 1 Corinthians 13:12. Referring to the preceeding words in 1 Corinthians 13:11, the Major quotes them in a tone of solemn exhilaration. The entire passage of scripture referred to is as follows:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:11-12 English Standard Version)

In this passage, the apostle Paul teaches that the effect of the final resurrection upon human consciousness will be deeply akin to growing up, the inherent limitations of the human condition overcome in humanity's elevation to see the world as God sees it. In this and other passages, Paul strongly hints at the doctrine of apotheosis, an idea that has since become widely accepted in the Orthodox church and other Christian denominations. Well, says director Mamoru Oshii, perhaps the effect of the Internet and other information technologies can be deeply akin to this, the inherent limitations of geography and institutionalization upon human consciousness overcome by central networking. Of this promise, the Major is the firstfruits that promises a much larger crop. As the Puppet Master himself earlier predicts, "After the merging, you will bear my offspring into the net itself." For this reason, the Major goes on to boldly conclude in an excited tone: "Here before you is neither the program called the Puppet Master nor the woman that was called the Major." By saying this, the Major has effectively declared her reborn status.
Contrast dominant(s): With her vivid white eyes, deep black hair, and vivid lighting, the Major is the primary contrast dominant of the shot. Second to the Major, the spinning lime microcosm in Q3 is the secondary contrast dominant, effectively signaling that that what has happened to the Major is a microcosm of what will happen to the world. Batou, meanwhile, in his dark and contrasting colors is the third contrast dominant.
Character movement: Looking straight into the camera in overt violation of the fourth wall, the Major's eyes and face are slightly downcast as she recalls the incident on the boat and remembers the scripture she is reciting. Lifting her eyes and face to reveal their true glory and intensity, the Major declares her own rebirth. Behind her, Batou continues to remain motionless, effectively signaling that he does not feel personally threatened by her.
Character proxemics: The Major, looking toward the camera with unnaturally intense and powerful eyes, has discovered an incredible source of power and dominates the frame. Batou, meanwhile, occupies the position of power as the tallest subject in the frame, which makes sense considering this is his house. In this, the potential conflict of power between the Major and Batou is signaled, which explains why she must leave.
Camera angle: Shot at a straight angle, no additional support from the camera is required to make these two look very powerful.
Depth of field: Split into a foreground, middle ground, and background, the Major occupies the foreground in close proximity to the camera in Q2 and Q4. Batou and the microcosm, meanwhile, occupy the middle ground in Q1 and Q3. And in the background is the wall, desk light, and medical equipment in Q1 and Q2. In this way, the depth of field ranks subjects in importance by their proximity or distance from the camera. By positioning such a powerful being in close proximity to the camera, the viewer is made to feel threatened by the Major and her presence.
Lighting: Lit in a low key with deep shadows and eerie light, the viewer will have no trouble finding the ghost haunting this Victorian household in Q2 and Q4.
Color: Filled with dark and shadowy shades of emerald, the colors of this shot make Batou look out of his element and the Major deeply in hers.
Screen graphics/composition: Balanced to the right side of the frame, the composition of the shot lends extra weight and gravity to the Major in Q2 and Q4. The open spaces surrounding Batou's region in Q1 and Q3, meanwhile, make his presence seem light and unimposing, a technique emphasizing that he is making no effort to coerce or restrain her.
Editing style: Cutting to a shot with the same mise-en-scène as the eighth shot in this scene, the editing from this shot emphasizes Batou's bemused and sympathetic reaction to what he has just been told.
Subtext: Having merged with the Puppet Master, the Major has attained a leap of consciousness that could very well change the course of history and what it means to be human. She must leave, therefore, to pursue this course of action wherever it may lead her.

Shot Ten
Shot duration: 15 seconds

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Mise-en-scène: This shot uses the exact same setup used in the eighth shot of the scene, only the actions are different.
Sound: Batou, bemused perhaps by the subversive potential of his friend toward a a stagnant society, lets out a small laugh with his nose. Taking a deep breath to speak with the greatest enthusiasm, Batou tells the Major that "You'll find a car key in the left pocket of that dress." Offering her whichever one she likes (yes, Batou is a car fanatic), before he he can tell her the code, the Major interrupts with "2501", the project name of the Puppet Master. At that, the Major sincerely adds "Let's make that our password, for when we meet again."
Character movement: Making a smile that clearly shows his bemusement, Batou's head tilts downward as he laughs in contemplation of the sheer potential of the thing. Lifting his head in radiant joy, he proudly makes the offer of one of his automotive treasures without a hint of reluctance or unhappiness. After all, some sacrifices are definitely worth it to see a matter through to a greater outcome. The Major, turning her head 90 degrees back in Batou's direction, thereby shows her sincerity in her promise to meet Batou again after she leaves.
Character proxemics: Still essentially the same proxemics as the eighth shot, by turning her head back in Batou's direction, the Major bridges some of the communicative distance between them.
Editing style: Cutting to a shot of Batou's safehouse from an outside view, the emphasis of the editing is placed upon the reality of the Major's departure.
Time: Because the Major is not shown opening the door, stepping down the steps, and so on, the transition between this shot and the next one compresses the time of her departure.
Subtext: Having gained a certain measure of understanding about why the Major is leaving, Batou's reaction is very sympathetic, and he extends her a very generous final gift at their parting. The Major, meanwhile, promises to meet him again, so it seems likely that she will continue to watch out for Batou in the future.

Shot Eleven
Shot duration: 17 seconds

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Shot size: Initially a wide exterior shot of Batou's safehouse, this shot is a set-up for a close-up of the Major as she walks on screen from Q4 to Q2 and Q4.
Sound: Throughout the shot, the sound of chirping crickets can be heard. Speaking in a voice of quivering trepidation, the Major wonders out loud "And where shall I go now?" With the beckoning call of the wind blowing through the air, the Major answers herself in a tone of confident resolve "The net is vast and limitless."
Contrast dominant(s): Brightly lit against the dark backdrop surrounding her, the Major is the contrast dominant of the shot.
Character movement: Walking forward with a look of anxiety and trepidation evocative of "Hansel and Gretel", the Major pauses and lowers her head to audibly ponder her present course. Feeling the wind rustle through her hair, she lowers her head even further with a facial expression of confident resolve as she remarks upon the vastness of the net, and stays that way for the rest of the shot, her hair fatefully blowing in the wind.
Camera angle: Shot from a low angle emphasizing the Major's power compared to our own, when the Major looks frightened, the viewer feels frightened too. When her expression changes to confidence, the viewer feels confident about her prospects as well.
Depth of field: Split into a foreground and a background, the Major occupies the foreground in close proximity to the camera, while Batou's safe house is distant behind her in the background.
Lighting: Lit in pale and ambiguous sunlight that could mean either early dawn or late sunset, the Major's lighting remains bright and crisp amongst the hazy landscape of uncertainty.
Color: Against the pale colors of her environment, the vibrant colors of the Major appear striking and vivid.
Screen graphics/composition: Compositionally, the balance of this shot is weighted to the right where the Major emerges from the direction of the dark and looming trees in Q2 in Q4. In this way, the shot makes visual reference to "Hansel and Gretel", a story about lost children whose values become insecure upon leaving home and entering a dark and haunted wood.
Editing style: Cutting to a shot of the Major standing on a tall precipice overlooking the information age metropolis, the editing style emphasizes the Major's discovery of security in her values and her mastery of the technologies it is built upon.
Subtext: Leaving Batou's safe house in a state of anxiety and trepidation as her values are brought into conflict with a hostile and uncertain world, the Major's plight is deeply reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel as they leave home and enter the dark and haunted wood. Realizing that the net is a vast and limitless domain she can gain mastery over, the Major determines to merge directly with the net in an act of mythic apotheosis.

Shot Twelve
Shot duration: 26 seconds

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Shot size: A wide shot of the Major overlooking the information age metropolis, this shot emphasizes the Major gaining mastery over its technological domain.
Sound: With the tolling ceremonial bells and the beating of ceremonial drums in the rhythm of a solemn procession, the final images on screen take on a more somber tone. Throughout Ghost in the Shell, a series of haunting choral wedding songs filled with deeply mythic imagery symbolic of the union of the Major and the Puppet Master are played in the background, and this is the beginning of "Chant III - Reincarnation", the third and final song in the series. For Japanese audiences, this song continues to play on through the credits, effectively emphasizing the film's mythological elements. American audiences, meanwhile, are treated to "One Minute Warning" by The Passengers (an electronic side project of Brian Eno and Bono of U2) at the end credits. An introspective IDM track, this song places the emphasis upon the film's technological elements. Throughout this shot, the sound of electronic beeping noises used in all kinds of consumer technologies can be heard off in the distance, sonically signaling the flow of information and commerce throughout the metropolis.
Contrast dominant(s): As the darkest subject in the frame, the the Major upon the hill is the primary contrast dominant, while the metropolis below is the secondary contrast dominant. Once the camera tilts in to pull the Major out of sight, the city is so visually saturated with information that it is almost impossible to identify the contrast dominant.
Character movement: Standing aloft overlooking the city with her left hand on her hip, her right hand resting upon her skirt, and one foot forward, the Major never moves, but keeps the view throughout her time in the shot.
Character proxemics: Placed in the position of power overlooking the technological metropolis, the city is shown to no longer be any threat to the Major, but rather, by way of its information technologies, it is her domain.
Camera movement: Slowly tilting in from a shot of the Major in Q1 and Q3 to the vast city skyline, the emphasis of the shot is placed the Major's immense domain by way of the net.
Camera angle: Shot at a high angle that makes the viewer see the city as the Major is currently seeing it, we too can sense the immense feeling of power and exhilaration that comes with such a scenic view.
Depth of field: Split into a foreground and background, the Major is standing in the foreground in Q1 and Q3 and is overlooking the vast city in the background in all four quadrants. In this, the emphasis is placed upon her distance from the city and the hostile society it represents, which is no longer able to harm her.
Lighting: Against the pale sunlight, the lights of the city appear bright and vibrant, pulsing with visual information. The Major, by contrast, is lit in a low key that makes her appear as the hidden shadow lurking above.
Color: Making extensive use of pale but glowing shades of purple, blue, green, and yellow, the colors of this shot emphasize the city's dense and pulsing saturation with information and the relation of city light to the sunlight of the rising or setting sun.
Screen graphics/composition: Compositionally, this shot is balanced toward the right, with leading lines moving in a diagonal down to up left to right motion. In this way, the viewer's eyes are prepared for the final frame of the shot with tall skyscrapers off in the distance. An incredibly dense shot saturated with visual information, the buildings of the technological metropolis arranged like a giant circuit board, the relation of the city to the net is thereby emphasized.
Editing style: Gradually fading to black into the credits, the editing style emphasizes the enduring nature of the city before the viewer, which will continue to linger on long after the credits have faded.
Subtext: Having overcome the threat of a hostile society by way of her merger of consciousness with the Puppet Master and mythic apotheosis onto the net, the Major stands aloft upon the towering precipice to look out upon her vast domain, an immense technological metropolis pulsing with life and information.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On "Smashing Economic Idols"

The following was posted in response to an article by Julie Clawson titled "Smashing Economic Idols" (link). Apologies for repeating the same words in a single sentence, I tend to make this mistake in less formal writings.

While I sympathize with your general intentions in this post, I'm afraid your statements "I'm a capitalist. I'm not anti-globalisation. [sic]" create an irreconcilable textual contradiction to the contents of the targum of Romans. The first rule of capitalism is that it must expand or die, and it is precisely this imperialistic "narrative of growth" that the latter critiques. So the host of the radio show on which you were interviewed expresses concern with your ideas believed to express "that people [should] stop or lower their consumption." This is understandable, since it is precisely within the transfer of commodities that capital, resources, and sign-values are redistributed within capitalist society, a fact obscured by the process of commodity fetishism and its tendency to obscure the nature of relations between producers and consumers. If your mircrocosmic actions of eschewing consumerism are applied on the macrocosmic scale, either by way of the categorical imperative, or by the apt maxim "the personal is political", then you have already implicitly posited another means of wealth redistibution for which you must account. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

I understand you are a feminist theologian, which is a very good thing to be. On that note, I am reminded Simone de Beauvoir's brilliant arguments in The Second Sex, in which she ultimately traces the dialectical oppression of woman as the Other to the "imperialism of human consciousness", itself rooted in the human quest for transcendence. Naturally, this tendency toward patriarchal oppression of women in the name of imperial transcendence comes at a stiff price (pun intended), insofar as it constitutes an enforced misrelation of the sexes that obscures their true nature. Within this framework, it is man's dialectical act of propping himself up as the Subject and woman as the Other within personal and social relations that constitutes this misrelation. Now, if we trace Beauvoir's reasoning back to Soren Kierkegaard's "The Sickness unto Death" by way of Sartre, we realize that this oppression of the Other is a state of despair (and hence sin) insofar as "despair is the misrelation in the relation of a synthesis that relates itself to itself." Applying Kierkegaard to give a whole new dimension to Beauvoir's line of reasoning, it is shown that man's quest for empire-building as the Subject of history ultimately leads to false transcendence and despair, insofar as he has tried to upstage God as the true Subject of history, the One who can grant ultimate transcendence. The Christian, then, should challenge any imperialistic framework by which people are denigrated as the Other as a form of idolatry, because Jesus recognizes no one as the Other, but as one of God's children. Whence then, this failure to criticize the institution of globalized capitalism when its naked apparatus of corporate degradation and exploitation of Southern peoples as the Other in the name of imperial transcendence stands right before your face? Shall we neglect our brothers and sisters in the global South, the current epicenters of Christianity, in the name of Northern propriety? I urge you, therefore, to put long hard thought into the macrocosmic implications of your political and theological ideas.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Cosmic Movie Screen: On the Central Themes of Hinduism (Comparative Religions Homework)

Hinduism is an ancient religion that has had a lasting cultural influence on the Indian subcontinent. While it is difficult to date the origins of Hinduism with any certainty, its influence may begin as early as about 1500 B.C., or as late as the between the 6th or 4th centuries B.C., depending on one's view of the relation of the Vedic period to Hinduism proper. Even so, Hindu scholar Arvind Sharma points out that "If the term is used to denote the beliefs and practices of all those people who now consider themselves Hindus, then Hinduism might turn out to be older than civilization, as Negrito and proto-Australoid elements can be identified even in present-day Hinduism. If Hinduism appears uncivilized at times, it is because it is older than civilization." [1] Whatever one's views of Hindu origins, its lasting and pervasive influence over Indian culture is indisputable. Beyond India, Hinduism has gradually rippled Westward ever since copies of Indian scripture began to surface in Europe in the 18th century to enthusiastic response. This enthusiasm would reach its height in the 1960's as religious seekers and counterculturalists looked to the East as a source of mystic spirituality, which has traditionally been eschewed by mainline Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Since then, Hinduism has had a subtle but pervasive influence upon the Western religious landscape. Whether looking Eastward to consider the predominant religion of a rising global economic power, looking Westward to trends in contemporary religion, or simply chatting with an Indian friend on Facebook, it helps to have a good working knowledge of Hinduism.

At present, there are four main schools of Hinduism, Absolutistic Hinduism, Theistic Hinduism, Activistic Hinduism, and Militant Hinduism. Absolutistic Hinduism is a deeply contemplative tradition heavily influenced by Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), who "while yet in his teens, underwent a spontaneous mystical experience; as a result of it, he finally left his home and spent the rest of his life on what is known as the hill of the holy beacon, from which he never descended." [2] Employing ascetic renunciation of the body and mind, Absolutistic Hinduism seeks knowledge of the essential unity of the self with the Absolute or Godhead, and remains extremely popular among Hindu intellectuals. Theistic Hinduism, by contrast, is an intensely devotional school whose major figure was Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886), a mystic "who experimented, with dazzling versatility, not only with various forms of Hindu theism but also with Islam and Christianity." [3] Emphasizing devotional worship of both God and Goddess as a path to union with the Divine, the mode of Theistic Hinduism is more experiential than intellectual. Teaching the essential unity of all religions combined with a strong catholicity of outlook within Hinduism, Ramakrishna's views of Hindu inclusivism have become a highly influential voice on the subject.

Where the previous two schools tend to emphasize mystical practice over social action, the next two schools place keen interest in the social implications of Hindu belief and practice. Activistic Hinduism is a school of Hinduism championed by Mahatma Gandhi "characterized by nonviolence, courage, faith in God, truth, ecumenicism, self-sacrifice, social service, and a whole constellation of similar virtues pursued for the good of all or savodaya--to use Gandhi's expression." [4] Apparently having taken very good notes from Leo Tolstoy's classic The Kingdom of God is Within You, Mahatma Gandhi organized some of the most successful movements of nonviolent resistance in history, effectively playing a crucial role in gaining India's independence from the British empire, and inspiring other like-minded movements. For the Activistic Hindu, the work of striving for, and implementing, a just society through social activism is itself a path to God-realization. Militant Hinduism, by contrast, shares in Activistic Hinduism's concern for social activism, but not in its commitment to nonviolent methods. Operating with a praxis emphasizing religious nationalism above universal tolerance, Militant Hinduism is perhaps best exemplified by the debate between Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gandhi over whether the martial setting of the Bhagavadgita should be taken literally (the position of the former) or allegorically (the position of the latter) in relation to Hindu activism. In 1992, Militant Hinduism reached a head with the destruction of a mosque believed to have been built upon the site where Lord Rama (of the epic Ramayana) was born, an event Arvind Sharma likens to Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon. [5] On the extreme end of Militant Hinduism is fundamentalist Hinduism, which holds that the Indian constitution unjustly favors minority groups above Hindus, and that toleration of non-Hindu religions must be earned by conformity to its standards rather than given. Like most fundamentalisms, fundamentalist Hinduism walks the razor's edge between postcolonial resistance to globalized capitalism, and putting the Other in their place, that is, the place chosen for them.

Hitherto, two consistent strands run throughout these very different schools of Hindu practice, binding them together in common belief. The first, and most important strand is that human life is a quest for the realization of the essential unity of the self with the Divine, because the Divine is within all things. Where we are conditioned to regard ourselves as separate and distinct from others, the cosmos, and the Divine, these distinctions are ultimately illusory because the Divine is everything. As Arvind Sharma puts it, "The successful culmination of this quest leads to the realization that we ourselves, in reality, are the ultimate ground of the universe on which the drama of creation is being enacted, like a movie on a screen. We are like the screen but have wrongly identified with the characters on it; because of this wrong identification, we seem to undergo the experiences of the characters with whom we have identified--the empirical self." [6] Because of this illusion, our lives are bound up in false desires that keep us imprisoned within samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. The final and ultimate telos of a human being, therefore, is moksa, the attainment of liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth to become fully at one with the Divine, free from the limitations of subjective constitution. Of course, this way of looking at things stands in marked contrast to the Abrahamic religions, in which the image of the transcendent creator God is imprinted within all human beings, granting them God's moral attributes and the capacity for relationship with God and others, but none of God's ontological attributes (i.e. omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience). Within these religions, the saving acts of God take on the prime importance, and final salvation comes when God raises the dead to life body and soul as fully constituted subjects in eternal right relationship to God and others. The problem, therefore, is relational in nature, with the introduction of sin causing the image of God to tarnish, so that the glory of relational connections have become distorted and obscured. What these differences illustrate is that how we define the problem of the human condition plays a crucial role in how we define its solution.

Which brings us, then, to the second strand of common belief among these four schools of Hinduism, that of pluralistic inclusivism within Hinduism and toward other religions. In practice, this means that there is no one set path toward the ultimate goal applicable to everyone, but rather that there are many paths to the Divine. Whatever is said about the beliefs of one Hindu may not hold true the case or another Hindu, but neither is any less Hindu than the other. Conversely, there is no real reason to assume that adherents of other religions are any less far along in this quest than Hindus are, or that Hindus should distance themselves from their beliefs. Consequently, syncretism is a common tendency within Hinduism even as the beliefs that arise from such a synthesis may not ultimately resemble those of the parent religion. Throughout its history, India has been conquered by various empires who introduce foreign religious and cultural elements. Faced with the challenge of such cultural and religious groups, Hinduism has historically adopted a strategy of accommodation and synthesis to assimilate the invader into the fold. Unable to accomplish this in the case of Islam during the medieval period (ca. 1000-ca. 1800), a period of immense culture shock ensued, resulting in a rigidified caste system, longstanding rivalry between Hindus and Muslims, and an efflorescence of intense devotional poetry. Later, with the British empire's subsumption of India (ca. 1800-1947) came Christian missionaries, who sought to introduce Christianity on a much larger scale than previously attempted by the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala (a community which may date as far back as the apostolic period of the first century). While the idea of imperialists for Jesus is really embarrassing in my book, the cultural and religious legacy of British colonialism is deeply ambiguous, producing more ambivalent reactions. In any event, Muslims and Christians pose a distinct challenge to Hindu inclusivism insofar as they prefer to remain the Other rather than opt for full inclusion in Hindu religion and society. This may be seen, for example, in clashes between Muslims and Hindus, or the ongoing persecution of Dalit and lower-caste Christians by Hindu fundamentalists. Over the next century, Philip Jenkins expresses grave concerns of escalating religious violence in India as Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity make inroads among Dalits, lower-castes, and tribal groups at the fringes of Hindu society, a trend which has already brought violent backlash from Hindu nationalists. [7] Such developments in the foreseeable future will surely test the limits both of Hindu toleration, and of its reputation for such abroad.

While Hindu religious tolerance seeks to be comprehensive, it would be a mistake to assume by the same token that it is an 'anything goes' religion. Guiding Hindu practice are the twin concepts of karma and dharma. Karma is the "principle that explains the experiences that befall one... the doctrine of karma... states that actions produce consequences commensurate with their moral quality, which may fructify over several lives. The individual involved in this cosmic process is called the jiva, a ripple in the cosmic ocean of samsara." [8] At some stage in the game, the doctrine of karma became linked to one's birth and standing within the varna system, which ranks classes from highest to lowest as "the intellectual (brahmana); the warrior and administrator (ksatriya); the farmer and trader (vaisya); and the laborer (sudra)." [9] In addition to these four varnas are the Dalits ("the downtrodden"), a group of "outcastes" comprising some 15-20% of Indians traditionally relegated to the realm of abjection to carry out labors regarded as ritually polluting. [10] While the three leaders formerly mentioned were strongly opposed the institute of untouchability, [11] and the Indian constitution and The Prevention of Atrocities act provides formal legal sanction against political and economic violence and discrimination against the "scheduled classes", the widespread persecution of Dalits remains a serious concern in contemporary India, particularly in rural areas. Whereas the tendency of the medieval period was to rigidify the caste system in the wake of the Muslim threat, today the opposite development is to soften the boundaries between varnas under the influence of modernity. But while one's varna may no longer bind their destiny, the irresistible influence of karma is held to operate throughout.

Closely related to karma is dharma, which may be defined as "the guiding principle one identifies as one's own specific duty as a member of a particular class (varna); in a particular stage (asrama) of life; and in pursuing a particular goal (parusartha) consistently with one's humanity (sadharana dharma) as expressed in universal values such as charity, purity, and so on." [12] Where the philosopher Immanuel Kant would ask "What ought I to do?", dharma seeks to answer precisely that question. In the traditional mode of Hinduism, one's dharma depends upon one's varna, so that a brahmin has a brahmin's duties, a vaisya a vaisya's duties, and so on. For better or worse, here there can be no doubt as to one's identity or what is expected of them. However, as the caste system fades, a particular passage outlining a set of dharma binding upon all varnas grows in importance. "Duties common to all castes are patience, truthfulness, restraint, purity, liberality, self-control, not to kill, obedience toward one's gurus, visiting places of pilgrimage, sympathy, straightforwardness, freedom from covetuousness, reverence toward gods and Brahmins, and freedom from anger." [13]

If every Hindu is to reverence the gods, then what are the gods like, and how does this relate to the quest for oneness with the Divine? Like the projected drama of the human condition, the drama of the gods plays out on the screen of the cosmos. But unlike those unfortunate humans that identified with the illusions onscreen, the divine actors and actresses are fully aware that they are the screen, and that they are distinct neither from each other's performances nor from the Director. The scenes and acts will come and go in their due time, but they will give their all to the show. The four principle manifestations of deity are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer, and Shakti the Mother-Goddess and divine-feminine principle. These deities in turn may hypostatize and sub-hypostatize into thousands of gods and goddesses which the Hindu may worship as they have an affinity for. For example, while the present author is not a Hindu, he admits a certain affinity for Kali, whose dreadful countenance, accessories including "a strange skull-topped staff and... a garland of human heads", terrifying mannerisms, and stylish demon-slaying win her major Goth-cred. As it so happens, the cult (ritual worship) of Kali is going very strong, and is much more benevolent in praxis than the late-blooming, slave-driving, human-sacrificing Thuggees of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But for those not inclined to the dark passion and maternal love Kali embodies, there's always the ever-popular Krishna and Lord Rama. But the big secret of all this, which isn't really a secret at all, is that there really is only one God, because the real is one. This is made explicit in a dialogue between the Hindu sage Yajnavalkya and Vidagdha Sakalya. Answering Vidagda's query as to how many gods there are, Yajnavalkya starts with 3,306, and counts down to one.

Finally, every observant Hindu reveres the Vedas. As a rule, direct attacks on the Vedas, and iconoclasm of the symbols of the Vedas (i.e. the cow), are the domain of religious rivals of the Hindus such as the Buddhists, Sikhs, and Muslims. As Arvind Sharma puts it, "One can... trace the destiny of Hinduism with the Veda first as its integrating, then its organizing, and then its legitimizing principle... A Hindu may not denounce the Veda, but he or she can renounce the Veda." [14] In the literal sense, the Vedas are a group of four Sanskrit works, of which the Rig-Veda is the most important and influential. In its final form (ca. 1200 B.C.), the Rig-Veda is a set of songs of sacrifice to the gods of the Aryans, who obtained victory over the Dasyas with the help of the war-god Indra, culminating in the development of "cosmic speculations that search for the oneness of all being." [15] Of course, most Hindus do not know Sanskrit, and because the highly oral culture of the Hindus holds the work to only retain its holy power in its original spoken language, the average devout Hindu may hear many very powerful and holy things at a recitation of the Vedas, but these likely have little to do with what is actually written down. Hence, the Vedas as text are of far less importance than the "Vedas" as the Hindu symbolic, and it is under these that Hindus unite in common identity amidst their many differences.

Endnotes:

1. Arvind Sharma, "Hinduism" in Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced By Preeminent Scholars From Each Tradition edited by Arvind Sharma p. 36
2. Ibid. p. 14
3. Ibid. p. 15
4. Ibid. p. 17
5. Ibid. p. 55
6. Ibid. p. 14
7. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity p. 182-185
8. Arvind Sharma, "Hinduism" in Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced By Preeminent Scholars From Each Tradition edited by Arvind Sharma p. 22
9. Ibid. p. 25
10. Robert E. Van Voorst, Anthology of World Scrptures: Eastern Religions p. 45, commenting on the Laws of Manu 10.51-57
11. Arvind Sharma, "Hinduism" in Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced By Preeminent Scholars From Each Tradition edited by Arvind Sharma p. 17
12. Ibid. p. 25
13. Institutes of Vishnu 2-1.17. cited in Robert E. Van Voorst, Anthology of World Scrptures: Eastern Religions p. 45
14. Arvind Sharma, "Hinduism" in Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced By Preeminent Scholars From Each Tradition edited by Arvind Sharma p. 17
15. Robert E. Van Voorst, Anthology of World Scriptures: Eastern Religions p. 28

Monday, September 28, 2009

Through the Stargate: Thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey

The following is re-posted from a thread at the Christian Anime Alliance (link). Having previously posted that I was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey that night, my friend ich1990 and I started an exchange. My post is made under GhostontheNet.

ich1990: I am curious, what did you think of this movie? Personally, this movies popularity seems to me to be like a case of "The Emperor's New Clothes". Everybody says this is one of the best movies of all time, etc., etc. I seem to be one of the few people who thoroughly disliked it. Maybe in the '60s this was cutting edge cinematography, but those monkey suits didn't age well.
GhostontheNet: Well, suffice to say, a lot of stuff went down in 1968, and a lot of narrative-shifting Rubicon films came out that year. In the horror genre, for example, 1968 saw Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead, two films that revolutionized the genre by removing temporal and geographical distance from contemporary settings to make them the site of horror, blurring the boundaries between monster and family until the two became more or less indistinguishable, and assigning an adversarial or incompetent role to patriarchal authority figures formerly regarded as potent to stop the monster and restore the status quo. Needless to say, that opened up many new possibilities for social critique in the horror genre, as quite a number of critics since Robin Wood have agreed. In regard to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think the film does an excellent job of capturing the anticipation and anxiety of the period. It is indeed one of the most terrifying and exciting movies I have ever seen. The famous Stargate sequence is often noted to have had a deep resonance with the counterculture, who were experimenting with drugs to challenge mainstream Western values and ideologies. But where many Christians have taken the Reaganite view that counterculture is dangerous, and its influence is to be stifled, I think Francis Schaeffer was wiser than his monstrous progeny when he said that the counterculture was asking the right questions, but not finding the right answers. (For more information about Francis Schaeffer and counterculture, read this article from Ship of Fools.)

At first glance, 2001: A Space Odyssey may seem threatening to Christians insofar as it uses evolutionary themes to pose the question as to whether life has meaning. Perhaps like the Planet of the Apes series, it may employ such themes to deny teleology in favor of nihilism. However, a closer reading of the film reveals it to be steeped in Christian imagery that is employed in a way that is helpful to persons of faith. One of the central images of the film is the ancient technological monolith, which is tall, thin, black, book-like, and serves as the medium of transmission of an advanced civilization. This we may take as Holy Scripture, which serves as the medium of revelation of God, who rules wisely over heaven, and seeks to reign "on earth as in heaven" in similar Wisdom. At the climax of the film, the book is opened (so to speak), and the pure light of the Word (Logos) is startlingly revealed. Finally, at the very end of the film, an infant Christ figure is born and comes to earth, the Word made flesh who dwells among us to change the course of history.

So what on earth does that have to do with drugs and counterculture in the 60's? I think one of the major reasons illicit drugs and sexuality has been such a juggernaut is because of the cultural legacy of Protestantism in regard to its denigration of Christian mysticism. For a generation hungry for mystic spirituality, but denied it in the mainstream churches, the options were basically either to look for sex and drugs close to home to open the doors of perception, or to look East where mystic spirituality is more culturally encouraged. I think that for one of the first lost generations, the generation in which Blind Faith sang "Can't Find My Way Home" in reference to "Hansel and Gretel", what they were really seeking was mystic union with God. You can see this in films like Easy Rider, in which an agnostic pilgrim funded by a lucrative cocaine deal discovers faith in a surprising assortment of holy sites that would not ordinarily be thought of as such. Perhaps it is inevitable that through the dark forest we wander into the gingerbread house before we find our way home. In this respect, 2001: A Space Odyssey provided, and continues to provide, an important signpost along the way.

So yeah, it isn't a perfect film by any means. The ape costumes are pretty silly. On the other hand, the political satire inherent in these scenes of early humans going apeshit and inventing the implements of war and domination are quite delicious in light of the contemporaneous Vietnam war (a war rooted in post-colonial conflict). Assuming we missed the point, the relatively small distance in the jump cut from the bone to the spaceship cues us in that we have not nearly made so much "progress" as the stark modernist decor of the misse-en-scene would lead us to believe. As far as personal gripes with the film, I basically have two. My first gripe is the way the film relegates women to the most trite and inane roles in the frontier of space exploration, reinforcing the patriarchal attitude that they are not capable of handling such important responsibilities. This film would have had remarkable power to challenge this tendency of earlier science fiction films, but instead, it reinforced it. My second gripe is my incredulity towards the naive overconfidence of the protagonists in HAL's infallibility. This is to a certain extent encouraged in the film narrative, but as a computer user in 2009 frequently facing crashes and the blue screen of death, I find this to be one of the film's most unbelievable elements.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On the Importance of Religion (Comparative Religions Homework)

Question: What is it you take the importance of religion to be? Is it crucial for one to live a good life? Is it necessary for one to be religious to be ethical, or a good person?

Answer: On the whole, religion assumes the task of the symbolic mapping of the subject, the noumena, the numinous, the ethnos (here defined as any people group with shared culture), and the other/Other. Within this symbolic mapping, objects or subjects that defy normative patterns of classification become figures of abjection, described by Julia Kristeva as a perilous no-man's land between object and subject. Among abjects, some are identified as numin by way of their capacity to arouse corresponding apprehension of fear and fascination in the subject, and are labeled as "taboo". The word "taboo" literally means 'charged with power,' hence abjects that are taboo are a source of potential danger. In these rudimentary stages, the numinous is encountered as the "daemonic", an unknown and unmapped heterogeneous mixture of powers ranging from the benevolent (as in Socrates' guiding divine voice, or "daemon") to the hostile (as in Judeo-Christian descriptions of hostile spirits as "demons", a term reflective of the more perjorative use of the word in late Hellenistic culture). As repeated encounters with the numinous are made under varying cultural conditions, ways of avoiding the dangerous elements and establishing benevolent contact are discovered, effectively bringing about a categorical shift from the abject to the sacred. Whereas secularity must more or less adopt a strategy of cultural repression in regard to abjection to maintain its "rational" purity mapping, religion alone can mediate the encounter and reconciliation with abjection by way of the sacred. Through this capacity for reconciliation, the benevolent potential and importance of religion is incalculable, far outweighing the negativities related to its capacity for the misplacement of abjection.

Is religion crucial for one to live a good life, then? Immediately, I must dispense with this framing of the question, for the indefinite article "a" in connection with "good life" obscures its connection to philosophical inquiry into "the good life", that is to say, the best way to live as a human being. Certainly religion is not essential to living "a good life" in the sense that food, water, shelter, culture, and companionship is. Indeed, these days many people seem to be living nicely without it, and ask "What is the purpose of religion for us? Why do we need it?" However, as Keiji Nishitani observes, "Our ordinary mode of being is restricted to these levels of natural or cultural life. But it is in breaking through that ordinary mode of being and overturning it from the ground up, in pressing us back to the elemental source of life where life itself is seen as useless, that religion becomes something we need--a must for life." (Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness p. 2) Within the encounter with abjection is an encounter with the nihility, or nothingness that lies at the home-ground of existence. This is the reason Julia Kristeva's inquiry into abjection from the standpoint of abjection in the teeth of both religion and modern "progress" ultimately ends in overt nihilism. Even where one encounters the obvious somethingness of the numinous, its incalculable demands terrify us with the knowledge of the underlying nothingness at the heart of our being. Hence, "religion upsets the posture from which we think of ourselves as telos and center of all things. Instead, religion poses as a starting point the question: 'For what purpose do I exist?' We become aware of religion as a need, as a must for life, only at the level of life at which everything else loses its necessity and its utility... When we come to doubt the meaning of our existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us." (Ibid. p. 3)

Socrates is famous for the saying "The unexamined life is not worth living." While critical of Athenian theology for what he argued were its distortions of deity, from his commissioning by the Oracle of Delphi to his brave death under accusations related to his religious beliefs, Socrates himself embodied the religious quest. In contrast, secularity, by way of its refusal to face abjection and the nihility that lies underneath, is shown up to really be another variant of the unexamined life, and hence has no legitimate claim to represent the good life. Only the nihilist, absurdist, and naturalistic existentialist can legitimately say they have faced such threatening realities head on and remained non-religious. But these views never claimed to embody the good life, only to live out the existence into which they were flung. It stands to reason, then, that either the good life does not exist, or religion is a necessary precondition to its attainment. For those who have experienced the fullness and satisfaction of a benevolent encounter with the numinous, this claim is really not so far-fetched.

Is it necessary, then, for one to be religious to be ethical, or a good person? Insofar as ethics in practice is dependent upon the choices of the subject, it is not absolutely necessary for the ethical person to be religious. Philosophers like Kierkegaard indeed argue that a grasp of the ethical mode of existence is a necessary precursor to the religious mode of existence, rather than the other way around. At the level of moral ontology, the inquiry into what exactly constitutes a moral principle and gives it validity, it could easily be argued that religion is necessary to give ethics their substance. Secular theories of ethics are typically constituted on this or that appeal to human power, but this fails to provide foundation for moral confrontation with said power. For example, if human rights are constituted by one's society, then are those societies that do not recognize human rights legitimate, and could a society simply decide that such rights no longer have any force within its jurisdiction? If we are to take the other as an end (telos) in themselves, then something about their being must have a telos in the first place. No description of bio-physical processes includes having a telos, so it would seem that taking a person as an end in themselves constitutes a recognition of the numinous within them. In this respect, then, religion is necessary for ethics.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hayao Miyazaki's Boot Camp and the Hyperreal

The following is re-posted from a thread at the Christian Anime Alliance (link). My post is made under GhostontheNet.

Shao Feng-Li: Having experimented with digital and CG technology on Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki has gone back to basics for Ponyo, which is made up of a stunning 170,000 individual hand-painted frames. He says he has seen none of the landmark digital animations of the past two decades, including Toy Story and Pixar Studio’s recent smash Wall.E, despite being friends with Pixar’s creative director John Lasseter.

***

“I can’t stand modern movies,” he winces. “The images are too weird and eccentric for me.” He shuns TV and most modern media, reading books or travelling instead. It is no surprise to find that the multimillionaire director’s car, parked outside the Ghibli studio, is an antique Citröen CV, an icon of minimalist, unfussy driving.

Ghibli’s creative engine house is a reflection of its founder’s preoccupation with authenticity and distrust of popular culture. New talent (the studio has just added another 150 animators to its 270 full-time staff) is tested out in a sort of animation boot camp, where the use of cell phones, blogs, iPods and other electronic devices is forbidden.

“Young people are surrounded by virtual things,” he laments. “They lack real experience of life and lose their imaginations. Animators can only draw from their own experiences of pain and shock and emotions.”

He is known to lecture constantly on the need to find harmony between the human hand, eye and brain, and the ever-expanding computer toolbox. Ponyo, he says, is partly about living without technology. “Most people depend on the internet and cellphones to survive, but what happens when they stop working? I wanted to create a mother and child who wouldn’t be defeated by life without them.”

***

Here's the link to the article: http://timmaughanbooks.com/2009/05/08/miyazaki-speaks/

GhostontheNet: I guess you could say this is an example of hyperreality and its discontents. For those unfamiliar with the concept of hyperreality in semiotics and post-modern philosophy, the term refers to social situations in which the simulcra or simulation of reality overshadows reality itself in importance, and human consciousness is unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In illustrating this concept, Jean Baudrillard cites a scenario from Lewis Carroll of "a society whose cartographers create a map so detailed that it covers the very things it was designed to represent. When the empire declines, the map fades into the landscape and there is neither the representation nor the real remaining – just the hyperreal." (Wikipedia, "Hyperreality" <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperreality>) Naturally, Wikipedia is itself an excellent example of this principle in action. But then, what indeed is the world we live in if not a place where the cartographer scenario has come to pass? Miyazaki's efforts to show that his life and work are "real" is filled with irony, but completely understandable. Here is the man who has built his own media empire of fantasy, who has constructed a theme park analogous to Disneyland. Disneyland, of course, is of great interest to Baudrilliard, who writes:

The Disneyland imaginary is neither true or false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It's meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the "real" world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusion of their real childishness. (Ibid.)
Having built close ties to this notoriously hyperreal media empire, Miyazaki disavows these ties by stating that contemporary cinema in general, and Pixar's films in particular, are too technological to be real/authentic. Rather, to show in an article that is presenting a simulated representation of him that he is living a completely real and authentic life, he is presented as doing the following. 1. He drives in an artificially constructed antique vehicle with an equally artificially constructed sign-value of "minimalist, unfussy driving." This distinguishes him from those who drive artificially constructed contemporary vehicles with an equally artificially constructed sign-value of 'flashy, glamorous driving.' 2. He only consumes media through an analog, rather than digital medium. Of course, these days books are written, edited, and published through digital means, so the illusion of escape through the analog medium is itself a creation of the digital medium. And, as has often been noted, books are a simulated representation of reality, not reality itself. 3. He frequently travels away from the artificiality of Japanese culture to immerse in the sights, sounds, signs, and representations of other regions. Of course, the fact that most of these regions are probably reachable by airport and the interconnected tourist industry probably means he will find himself in just as much of a hyperreal environment as when he started.

How then, do Miyazaki's films take on the characteristic of the real and authentic? Apparently, first and foremost, by isolating his animators from electronic culture in a secluded "boot camp" away from mainstream Japanese society. Naturally, mainstream society is often quite alarmed by those who withdraw to such seclusion, because it signals their isolation from reality. Nevertheless, the animators feel very powerful experiences of "pain and shock and emotions" in boot camp, so their grasp of reality is very good. Still, it must be emphasized that cultists and fringe groups who have similar experiences under similar conditions do not have a good grasp of reality, so why Miyazaki has the magic touch, and they don't, nobody really knows. 'Technology stifles the imagination,' says Miyazaki, citing the many films he has not seen over the past few decades, because their images are too "weird and eccentric." That such 'weirdness' and 'eccentricity' could signal a high level of imagination is a thought lost to the talented director, who himself has been ascribed the cultural sign-value of "weird and eccentric." That the "real" Hayao Miyazaki considers himself to be no such thing is of no great importance, because the public image constructed by representations of him in the media has overshadowed the man himself. Sorry Miyazaki, the matrix has you.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shadows on the Movie Screen: My 13 Favorite Films

1. Nosferatu the Vampyre directed by Werner Herzog
2. Sleepy Hollow directed by Tim Burton
3. Pan's Labyrinth directed by Guillermo del Torro
4. Edward Scissorhands directed by Tim Burton
5. Let the Right One In directed by Tomas Alfredson
6. Ginger Snaps directed by John Fawcett
7. Dawn of the Dead directed by George A. Romero
8. The Dark Crystal directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz
9. Suspiria directed by Dario Argento
10. The Ring directed by Gore Verbinski
11. 28 Days Later directed by Danny Boyle
12. Batman Begins directed by Christopher Nolan
13. Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Transylvanian Passion

(The following was posted in response to an article by Pastor Daniel Gabriel titled "Dracula, Christian Vampire")

Ok, but if you ask me, the vampire deserves the pathos he has been given in the 20th century. If Stoker’s Dracula is purely demonic, it is largely because he has aroused the latent potency of the women he comes into contact with, which spells ‘bad news’ for the imperialist patriarchy of the British Empire. As Robin Wood observes, “The ultimate horror of the novel is horror at the possibility of the arousal of female sexuality. The virtuous Victorian woman was, after all, supposed not to enjoy sex but to endure it, perhaps praying to pass the time and distract her mind from the inherent disgustingness of the operation. Sexuality is also energy, power, activity: sublimated, it is the source of all creativity, pleasurable work, achievement. If women become sexual beings, who knows where it might all end?” (Robin Wood, “Burying the Undead: The Use and Obsolescence of Count Dracula” in Barry Keith Grant, The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film p. 373) For Stoker, the only viable solution to this “problem” is ‘naughty vampires, we penetrate you now,’ just one more set of murders in the name of so-called “Christendom”. Well, I suppose there is Mina’s “redemption”, in which she is quarantined behind a circle of sanctified hosts, presumably to put away that typewriter of hers and take it cringing like a good girl once the brave, strong men dispatch the wicked vampire that captivated her so. So while it’s definitely rooted in a type of Christianity, I don’t think it reflects very nicely upon the gospel in this day and age.

Is it any wonder, then, that as attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, the legitimacy of empire, and Western Christianity’s unfortunate tendency toward paternalism all change, the vampire becomes more humanized, the women become stronger and more determined, and the boys look rowdy and ridiculous? A lot of Christians like the characters in stories to be cut and dry good and evil because it implies the existence of absolute moral truths. I, however, like ambiguous characters, because it implies they are both made in the image of God and fallen to reflect that image to a greater or lesser extent. After all, with the exception of Jesus, are not the very prophets and saints of scripture deeply ambiguous? The reason the romantic vampire troubles us so is because he or she embodies precisely this ambiguity, forcing us to come to terms with the human condition. The vampire wants to be alone and away from fellowship, and cannot endure the power of holy things. But at the same time, he or she wants warm, deep connection with women and/or men through a sacred bond of blood, and so offers a one-sided communion of bread and wine of which the vampire themselves cannot partake. Not surprisingly, it was precisely this kind of warm sexual connection that Victorian society grew to fear even in the context of marriage, because it implied that woman should not be drained and dominated over, but regarded as a vital and spiritual thinking subject in her own right.

Of course, all this business about the vampire being unable to get in contact with his or her creator, and his or her tormented hell on earth opened vital questions about the relation of God to the vampire. Was it that the vampire had abandoned God, God had abandoned the vampire, or may God yet save the vampire after all? Applied more generally, it became a vital question about the relation of God to humanity. Has humanity abandoned God, has God abandoned humanity, does God even exist, or may God yet save humanity after all? Taking the vampire as a symbol of fallen man and fallen woman, if we are to answer “yes” to the fourth option in relation to humanity, then we must answer “yes” to the third option in relation to the vampire. In this respect, I rather like Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in which Dracula rejects God, becomes a vampire, builds a small army of dangerously sexual women, leaves Jonathan with a few uncomfortable things to explain about his business trip in Transylvania, goes out dating with Mina while she’s engaged to be married, pinpricks the patriarchy but is cornered by it, cries out in his final moments “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, but is saved by brave Mina, and goes to heaven anyway. You see, that’s the kind of story that implies that divine grace might actually mean something, no matter how screwed up we are.

In this respect, I definitely prefer the rich and complex romanticized vampire to the flat demonized vampire Bram Stoker must keep proper Victorian distance from. If Kierkegaard could take Don Juan and his 1001 ladyloves as a symbol for wild but redeemable passions reaching out for meaning and salvation, I may certainly do so with Count Dracula and the figure of the vampire. Not so for the bland and bourgeois Jonathan, who would doom himself and Mina to an existence with neither passion nor redemption for mere money. He is like the man Kierkegaard describes when he writes:

In the end, therefore, money will be the only thing people will desire, which is moreover only representative, an abstraction. Nowadays a young man hardly envies anyone his gifts, his art, the love of a beautiful girl, or his fame; he only envies him his money. Give me money, he will say, and I am saved. But the young man will not run riot, he will not deserve what repentance repays. He would die with nothing to reproach himself with, and under the impression that if only he had had the money he might really have lived and might even have achieved something great. (Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age p. 41)
So Anne Rice’s vampires are the passionately undead embodiment of existential despair reaching out for a God who may not be there? Anne Rice herself broke through this despair and became a Christian, and her dark phantoms light the path of how she got there. So Twilight’s roguishly handsome vampire is just a bit silly because he has been defanged for mass consumption? The fact that he affirms the power and potency of God-given female passions, and is a rather direct Christ figure means that I will not make fun of it, even if the cutting of the film was so bad that it took my eyes out of commission for three hours after fifteen minutes (ow!). And just when you think romantic vampires are losing their bite, along comes the underground hit movie Let the Right One In, which features a vampire girl named Eli who bites hard, kisses sweetly, and gives the bullies a right good thrashing. Being itself the product of a Christian novelist, Eli is a Christ figure in her own right, and at one point in the novel Jesus himself invites her to come home. So maybe if we Christians decided to put our woody stakes back in our pants and stopped wanting to literally or symbolically penetrate anyone who disagrees with us, we might actually realize that Hallelujah!, this is popular material addressing central concerns related to the message of Christ right out in the open, and in a significant way, and be real ministers of the gospel for a change. Or we can just go back to chasing our shadow to the ends of the earth, that’s always popular.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fearing the Forest for All the Trees

This is the squeamish feeling
The child's fear of going into the forest
For fear of unspeakable monsters and wild beasts
And the city of gingerbread tricksters
Home now is a word undefined
And its meaning must be improvised
But though we wander, we are not yet lost
For while the birds eat all our breadcrumbs
We still have our memories
And God's grace to guide the way

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Crow that Wished to Be a Songbird

I am the crow that
Wishing to be a songbird
Pretended to be a nightingale
When the other crows heard this
They laughed me to scorn
And then descended in a murder
To shatter my fragile wings
And devour me whole

Making my escape
Through the hollow of a tree
There I waited inside
Until courage again found me
Emerging from the bark and looking around
I noticed the songbirds were puzzled
By the sound of my course voice
Which was sung as if it might
Actually possess some beauty

Some of the songbirds made laughter
And some of them took pity
But none saw within my birdsong
Any measure of remaining dignity
And as to my own flock
Now they have abandoned me
And would rip me apart if ever they found me

Now I stand before you a broken crow
An unwanted thorn in the side of mediocrity
Unrecognized and unknown with a shattered jigsaw feeling
Scavenging the world for scraps of identity
But I know I'm not alone, and I know we're ever ready
To confound that dowdy flock with a sharp-honed nerve
Because we're painted birds by our own design