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Rend/Render IV

TIFF Notes Summary Part IV

The seed of thought and action, the sapience at root of identity can be found deep in the obscure reaches of our selves. In every way, it’s where we begin.

Underlying the events of our lives are the actions prompted by our experience and history. A bit circular as logic goes, but bear with me. A minor paradox rests in the center of any question of agency. Spiritual agency, the overall power we have over our own fate, is the response to a hidden question, a nudge, an impulse. It’s counterintuitive. In a sense, we arrive at our destination before we begin our journey. We are subject to forces and influence all around us, near and far.

The transmission and replication of ideas — as with the discipline of Memetics — works as a framework worth applying to questions of point-source thought and action. The discipline has been abandoned as a useful tool for analyzing human evolution, but retains value as a metaphor.

Limiting myself to the broadest possible interpretation of Memetics, I’ll focus on influence as the force which moves the world. It is influence which lurks behind agency, purpose, and action. The struggle, in a very real sense, is to get free of the hold influence has on your inner world.

When directed with intent, influence is a living creature. Ranging wildly across time and experience, it’s surprising and predictable in turn. We catch a brief glimpse of its form and then it’s gone again. Made visible by wake or shadow, it’s a beast we recognize, a force we sense rippling through our lives.

Harnessing and exerting influence is a predominant function of the systems ruling culture today. These are behaviours newly evolved, adapted from the wider, more traditional realm of authority and control. Representing an all-encompassing accretion and collation of data, these new modes of executive action are empowering business and political authority in ways previously unimaginable. This state of play requires we make judgments about power and its nature.

Legitimate power is accountable to the future it creates. Illegitimate power is accountable to the moment, the trend, the cresting wave of scarcity and demand. Legitimate power has substance only when founded in values focused on sustainability and longevity. Illegitimate power holds few meaningful values.

When at their best, our lives are full of choice and opportunity. Yet this does not come free from cost. Current circumstance begs we ask to what we owe resistance. What will we agree to, cope with, struggle against, and fight to achieve? In answer, we make decisions about routes and paths, time and passions as we follow our curiosity and our dreams. In this way we make a world for ourselves, those we care for and those we love. Inviting strangers and friends to live alongside us, we choose and shape the boundaries of our own private nations. We share our traditions and our lives. The borderlands of these territories can be volatile, the boundaries temporary. It isn’t easy, holding borders against the unknown. Even the vigilant are overrun. It is, nevertheless, vital we are mindful of the ground we’ve sown, the ideas we’ve developed, the future we imagine, and the dreams we chase. Absent thoughtful consideration and reasoning, we are little but mechanistic mobile objects, reacting, responding, subject to vagaries. Opportunity lives in a space without certainty, a no-man’s-land. It is in this tenuous middle where we are most at risk.

Polarization, bickering cultures and sub-cultures, radicalization; these are but the most visible examples of some dangerous trends. A constant companion, our technology functions to ensure we are tracked and assessed, quantified and analyzed. People have been reduced to units of economic resource for the use of forces unseen. Our biases and passions are whipped to frenzy. We’ve grown accustomed to the unthinking pursuit of a thread, an interest, a trail of breadcrumbs dropped for us by corporate interests or an algorithm. We’ve become pieces in a game played with sophistication and finesse as never before.

En masse and in the context of a social landscape, techniques of influence achieve startlingly powerful outcomes. At risk is the very basis of human values, the crucial product of hundreds and thousands of years. While values and beliefs are not inherently sacrosanct or unchanging, they are rooted in function, community, shared benefit and shared burden. These delicate forces are being compromised, though unevenly, all over the world. We are in the midst of an unravelling of human traditions and values, belief and spiritual agency. The weaving of those remnants into sackcloth is a terrifyingly real possible future for humankind.

Looking beyond the present day and into a future we may not view with optimism or hope, it is important we remember this world is one we are making. We create the world with our beliefs, our values, and our dreams. The challenge here, the trick, is to find a path to the future we desire in a way we truly define for ourselves. In the context of spiritual agency, we are in a fight to master that future, to write our own story, and live it, within the bounds of a world forever seeking to dominate our potential and turn it to purpose. We must, if we are to preserve our humanity, recognize the forces at play, query the influences riding our confidence, our fears, and our aspirations. As we move through time, those small questions and minor changes of mind can move us. In ways unnoticed, or drastically, as from one side of the world to the other, a persistent disregard for spiritual agency will drive us in ways unforeseen though not inconsequential.

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Rend/Render III

TIFF Notes Summary Part III

Closing on us from the future is a primary challenge to our species. An empowering, potential-actualizing destiny for the human race is threatened. The current landscape of human existence is undermined by the pursuit of short-term, extractionary goals. Our awareness is inundated by noise and confusion. Our technology addicts us. Systems are designed to separate, divide and frighten us. What hope we have to shepherd our species beyond the problems on the horizon depends on the survival of the human soul. Spiritual agency is a vehicle for that journey and the throughline of these posts.

Agency is the power to exert control over your life. Spiritual agency is a more encompassing conception of that idea. At once, it is the specific authority of personhood while also an acknowledgement that life requires a deep process of actualization. It’s the freedom to think and to act based on factors inherent to your person. Agency is the foundation of identity and a birthright. Spiritual agency is the root of life, and a responsibility.

Running counter to agency is suffering. Suffering compels action, forcing reaction. As with chaos and order, light and darkness, these forces are forever in tension, always shifting. Agency helps create, while suffering is a destroyer. In an individual life, how great that destruction is often grows from the breadth and depth of the suffering being lived. These forces are interlinked. They demonstrate the power of suffering to compel acts of spiritual agency which inevitably end in annihilation.

Freeing yourself from suffering is a deeply motivating impulse. Getting free from suffering shifts some people only towards chaos and misery, perhaps driving their alcoholism, domestic violence, or self-harm. For others, it’s a matter of creation, of hobbies, of meditation. Any outcome is built of possibilities. In a normal life, freeing yourself from suffering is a matter of routine. In a homeless life, freeing yourself from suffering is a task nearly impossible to accomplish without self-destruction. As with even the simplest moments of our lives, options colour actions and choices. In this way, agency demonstrates its crucial role in human society. Tearing free of suffering is, appropriately, a definitive act of personal spiritual agency.

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Rend/Render II

TIFF Notes Summary Part II

People who’ve never been homeless look for the silver lining. An article of faith, it’s existence is assumed. According to this line, homelessness holds a lesson for the individual. It’s not a well defined lesson, nor is it quantifiable. There’s a lot of talk of fortitude, stoic values, and wherewithal. Promoting this notion, typically, are polite men and women, middle-class and comfortable, people who’ve never gone hungry except by choice.

The don’t-lose-hope bromide of the housed is a broken conception of life. Originating in the axiom hardship mines beauty, it’s a flawed belief. Eventually, the thinking goes, a soul will emerge from a chrysalis of suffering and pain, transported, transformed, a thing of notable beauty. That is not how suffering affects most people. Austerity is pain. Excess does not build strength.

The public’s understanding of homelessness is a bundle of flaws. A disfigured preconception casts us all as a type, as a generic embodiment of sub-human life. What humanity we are granted is but a dim reflection of the public’s willingness to see us, and their need for affirmation. The homeless live in permanent dusk, a state of interruption, incomplete. This stasis, raw economic disadvantage, is the intersection of system failure and schadenfreude. We are adjudged less than equal to any and measured by an unequal standard.

Homelessness is an alien existence. It’s a terror. For the homeless, there is no hero’s journey model of redemption, and no reversal to propel us into resolution. Relegated to symbol and type, we are denied normal in all its forms. What option remains for us? How, when systems have failed so badly and communication is impossible, do you bridge these worlds?

Tell me, what are the boundaries of your existence, as you perceive them? What is a normal life? What is it you hope for, dream of? Any place on earth you’ll find the answer is very much the same. Love, family, friends. Purpose, meaning, a future. This way, life is made livable, the spirit is nourished, the world broadens to the limits of imagining. These commonplace ideas are what bring people together.

Metaphor, symbol, and imagery all work together to access and link the real and imagined. Language, in this, is powerful yet insufficient. Nevertheless… For some, the diamond serves as a useful metaphor. It’s true, a diamond’s beauty and value is the result of the application of time, pressure, and expertise. Yet, left buried, uncut, and never brought to its potential, a diamond has no value.

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Rend/Render I

TIFF Notes Summary Part I

The films and media I suggested during TIFF22 present elements which piece together to describe a conceptual through line. They’re not tidy or concise. Relying on the audience’s foreknowledge of context is a habit difficult to break. As an expression of core ideas, the posts are not particularly well composed. Nevertheless, I put together the series for a reason.

Eleven posts. It’s not as organized a work as I typically expect from myself, but that’s as may be, seeing much of what I’ve posted is written in haste. The limitations I face are not mysterious. Homelessness takes from a person everything they have, just to survive. It needs a reserve of dignity and self-belief to struggle on, often grappling with no less a beast than annihilation. The easiest thing a homeless person can do is lean into oblivion.

Homelessness has a profound effect on a life. Arising as if from nowhere, questions of mental well being, physical and emotional health fly, jittering, across consciousness. Desperate poverty subsumes time and opportunity, crushing everything before it without mercy. Potential is subverted. Circumstance, lack, and absence direct events in an unnatural inversion of human living, a scouring of the spirit, irrepressible and overwhelming.

Aphorisms reassure us life is a journey towards wonder and beauty. We are implored to weather the difficulties and take heart when in our darkest moments. Homelessness is, eventually, a destination. Ruled by the whims of others, life as a homeless person settles into patterns of disconnection. Perception narrows. Dreams atrophy. Goals focus on survival. Potential dries up. An ongoing trauma unfolds. Life in a shadow-world of time without meaning or a future is a deadly struggle in overcoming apathy. In every moment, the factors we live under choose the frame and set the lighting.

Deep in the wilderness of homelessness, perspective and self-awareness come alive. A new reality, cold and vast makes way as uncertainty, fear, and grief set in. Fierce and intimate adversaries, the fight itself is an achievement. Fail to resist, sink momentarily into acquiescence, and you face final defeat. That way lies only emptiness, and an inevitable, grinding, death of the self.

Persevering in this wilderness is a challenge that strips away everything a person needs to get safely home. Life and human society are what make the world, but power and agency are what make life happen, and make it meaningful.

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TIFF Day 11

Film Recommendation / Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

‘Blade Runner:2049,’ is perfect.

It’s got everything I’ve been writing about. Whether that’s due to the nature of film storytelling, an inherent quality of human narrative, or my own knack for blending synchronicity and purpose, I cannot say.

Each of the elements I’ve mentioned, these ‘touchstones,’ work together in translating my own thoughts on the nature and value of sentience as explored in BR:2049.

Sentience is a cold word when used to describe humanity. It’s broad. It’s not coloured by feeling, or warmed by memory. It is sentience at the root of everything human.

Seeing I don’t have the time to write much fresh for this post, I’ll excerpt part of an email I wrote a few years ago. It doesn’t approach the whole of what I’ve intended this series of posts to present, but it starts the process, if you choose to imagine what it is I am getting at here.

...BR:2049 is presenting a series of questions on the nature of sentient life. On one hand, it poses the question of whether sentience is something other than a mechanistic system of input and output. On the other, it asks whether or not there is a soul, and what it’s nature and origin might be. If we attribute the greatest of human qualities to that which we think of as the soul, we can list as among it’s components: empathy, a capacity for love, forgiveness, a sense of justice, hope, courage, and the autonomy which makes those things meaningful. All these qualities, in humans, have been viewed as proceeding from the divine in man. The characters who most readily display these qualities in BR:2049 are all Replicants, or are synthetic. They are all governed by programs and rules imposed on them. These constraints all have the effect of undermining what might otherwise be celebrated as the organic development of a soul. If sentient life exists within a rigid framework, then can the elevation of a being’s existence become exceptional? Is it possible for the result of a program to be divine?
…consider here the character of Wallace, the man-god and rebel who persists in destroying the possibility of any human divinity other than himself. I’d love to spend some time applying the term hubris to his character and contrasting it with the imagery they chose to identify him with, the machine eyes which are the…is it antithesis(?) of the VK test indicator for empathy, the pupil, the iris. Is it that his character is so completely without empathy, without humanity, that makes him so aggressively Luciferian? Or is it his reliance on the technology that has built his base of power that has made him so? Maybe one day when I’ve got the resources to brush up on my essay writing (and the use of Biblical stories in film and literature) I’ll make an analysis. Until then I’ll content myself speculating about the connection between the greater eye and vision metaphor the movie opens with and the vision, memory and dream metaphor present illuminating the character of Deckard and Rachael’s child.

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TIFF Day 10

Film Recommendation / Reprisal (2019) x TOTDY (2019)

‘Reprisal,’ and ‘Too Old to Die Young.’ These series are included because I’m making eleven posts instead of ten. This has been a kind of ‘winging it’ effort, of necessity, and I made the mistake of thinking September 8th to September 18th meant ten posts.

There’s simply too much to say about each of these works to go into them in any significant way here. Also, I haven’t got the time to re-watch 20-plus hours of drama.

Vision is the touchstone here. It distinguishes each of these series’. They exist in crafted worlds, built for the purpose of story. Elevated by the vision of a creator, stories told with such a through-line offer us an experience distinct from what we might otherwise settle for. As it happens, vision plays a significant figurative role in both ‘Reprisal,’ and ‘Too Old to Die Young.’

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TIFF Day 9

Film Recommendation / Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

There’s not much most can say about Banksy but that he’s committed. ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop,’ is a piece of art manifesting this trait so well it becomes perfect in ways I don’t have language to describe.

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop,’ embodies influence, time, evolution, identity, reality, framing, context, fantasy, and humanity — all packed into an 80-minute-long spiel outlining a generalized sort of contempt for a specific sort of person.

The documentary itself is easy to lose sight of. It’s Banksy’s film yet he presents as only a subject. That shapes our perception, significantly.

It’s not his glib put-downs, or the questionable integrity of his narrative that grates on me; it’s a significant act of cruelty. It’s Banksy’s hand in the creation and birth of the entity ‘Mr. Brainwash.’

Artistry is the touchstone here. ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop,’ is a perfect documentary on street art, and a perfect composition of elements built to present its case.

(Perhaps a more accessible film would’ve been the choice to make. ‘Knight and Day,’ is a great one. It’s from 2010. It also offers high-quality meta engagement (sorry, pun), high-level artistry, and also a lot of fun action and laughs. Ignore all the roofy-ing! It really is just a harmless plot device, I swear. Seriously, though, these two films have a lot in common, and a lot to recommend them for this. ‘Knight and Day,’ is one of the few movies I keep on my list of favourites.)

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TIFF Day 8

Film Recommendation / The Yakuza Papers: I-V (1973-1974)

Narrowing the choice of film for today has probably been the most difficult of the project. There are so many options I might use that I considered writing about the use of lighting, colour, or genre. Instead, I just went all-in and chose a series of foreign language films from fifty years ago.

‘The Yakuza Papers,’ is a five-film series from the 1970’s. The quintet delivers so many of the elements making film important as a cultural product. Set in the world of Japanese organized crime, these films are an invaluable cipher through which to interpret the human experience.

It’s been a couple of years since I last watched these films. They are persistently engaging and sometimes shocking. Even when juxtaposed against your experience of ‘The Godfather,’ these movies will stand out as exceptional vignettes on life lived according to an outsider code.

Contiguity is the touchstone here. Nestling up against our own reality, drawing a line or connection in theme and context to events and characters, great films weave themselves into our own meta-realities.

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TIFF Day 7

Film Recommendation / The Sound of Silence (2019)

Sound in film has never stopped evolving. Musical accompaniment, voice, stereo and surround, the pairing of film with sound is core to our cinematic experience.

‘The Sound of Silence,’ is a film I have mixed feelings about. This, I think, is intended. The atmosphere of the film resonates within the viewer, playing across our perception of the moment and the space we are in.

The aural dimension of the film is subtle in its power. It evokes something within us, something not easily comprehended. By the end of the film, it’s as though we have drawn from us aspects of our self-perception, exposing the anchor points of our self image and self worth. This is a real accomplishment, and the filmmaker makes use of it by contrasting that knowledge and the amity we seek with the protagonist.

Sound, clearly, is the touchstone element here.

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TIFF Day 6

Film Recommendation / GWH (1997) x HH (2015)

‘Good Will Hunting,’ and ‘Hardcore Henry.’ Giving you both barrels here. One barrel is filled with a precocious writing team, the other with extreme violence as framing device.

‘Good Will Hunting.’ There’s so much packed into this film, it’s hard to focus on only one aspect. I’ll say only this: experiencing this film as a middle-aged man I recognize the talent on display in the writing of the script. It’s hard to believe two twenty-somethings produced such a well balanced, emotionally informed work.

‘Hardcore Henry,’ is an exceptional work of action cinema. It spends the first few scenes fighting its way past your preconceptions. The first-person camera work looks like a gimmick at first. The explosions, the guns, the sci-fi elements all work in collaboration to tell a story we need to hear.

Perspective is the touchstone here. Layering in the element of time, we have the opportunity to ask some important questions. If you’re not able to come up with any of these yourself, I have no idea what you’re doing here.

(If you’ve not yet seen ‘Hardcore Henry,’ I recommend not viewing the trailer and just watching it cold.)