Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

In the first few minutes of Moulin Rouge, the film by director Baz Luhrmann, two major references are made to the history of the cinema. The first is to Auguste Lumière and his 1895 film about a train arriving in the main Paris train station. For many, this film was one of the first documentaries, and it plays on the stark realism of trains, travelling and everyday life. In a shot reminiscent of that early and important moment in film history, Ewan MacGregor arrives in Paris in 1899 in search of love, liberty and bohemian culture. The use of Lumière is as much of a statement about the cinema as it is an exploration of how we tell stories through films. Moreover, this is one of the central themes of Moulin Rouge — does narrative still work in a postmodern age that often relies on cynicism and overstated irony?

The other reference in Moulin Rouge comes from Meliès whose early films were seen as fantasies because he used sets and had little interest in shooting images from “real life. After a brilliant sequence of singing and dancing from Nicole Kidman and McGregor and when it has become clear that they are falling in love, they march out into the night and stand on the rooftops of Montmartre. Shooting stars appear (much like Peter Pan and other Disney movies), and as they sing we see the moon smiling in the distance. The moon is drawn exactly as Meliès drew it in the 1890’s film, Man on the Moon.

The question is why would Luhrmann make such explicit use of these references? Why in fact does he make use of hundreds such references throughout the film? Why create this wonderful phantasmagoria of popular culture quotes? Luhrmann not only uses the history of the cinema but also the history of rock music and of musicals in general. No line in this film is spoken, delivered or framed without alluding to or explicitly invoking prior forms, genres and styles from other forms of popular cultural expression. At no point do the actors depart from their highly stylized representation of a world dominated by romanticism and the desire for pure love.

The only director of equal stature, who has come close to this depth and playfulness, is Dennis Potter. It is clear that Luhrmann has watched Potter’s work. It is also clear that what we have with Moulin Rouge is a film that explores the very essence of the narratives that dominate the cinema and music. “The Singing Detective which is Potter’s most famous work and which to me is one of the most powerful television series ever made, does not use song in the same way. (Although Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven is very similar to Moulin Rouge in the manner in which the characters break out into song — Steve Bochko tried to imitate this on American TV and it didn’t work). But, Potter continuously referenced not only popular culture but literature and theatre as well. Moreover, Ewan McGregor acted in a Potter production, “Lipstick on Your Collar, which is about the British army.

Luhrmann playfully explores popular culture’s obsession not only with love, but also with the love song. At the same time, he examines the power of loss in all the genres of our culture. For, at one and the same time, Moulin Rouge celebrates the romance and beauty of innocent love with the pathos of love lost. The simultaneity of loss and love is such a powerful metaphor that one would be hard put not to find this metaphor circulating through most of cultural production in North American society.

Early in the film, McGregor breaks out into a song from The Sound of Music (“The hills are alive with the sound of music) and the same words are repeated numerous times throughout the film. It is as if The Sound of Music stands for all musicals that the cinema has ever produced. More importantly, it is the audience’s familiarity with the music and the score that is so crucial. It shows, at the same time, the connectedness of culture and the universality of music as the crucial link between different periods of time and radically different narratives.

Mouin Rouge deserves to be studied repeatedly. Luhrmann has taken the music hall, cabaret, the circus, opera, and the grand tradition of popular theater exemplified by productions like Cats and melded them together. Although this kind of self-reflexivity often leads nowhere, in Mouin Rouge, Luhrmann has unveiled a wonderful strategy for examining the images and sounds that surround us. Take stories that we are familiar with and redesign them. Recontextualize how the stories are told in order to foreground their role and impact on the social context in which we live. Mouin Rouge is a beautiful movie not the least because it also uses digital effects to create the sense that we are in Monmartre — although at the same time, it is clear from the start that we are watching a set.

Here is a quote from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that neatly summarizes some of the strengths of this film:

"Bam! The next hour is a riot of color-saturated images, commedia
dell'arte- paced comedy and musical set pieces scored with overfamiliar pop tunes. Cancan girls perform to "Lady Marmalade," Kidman descends from the rafters on a trapeze and vamps "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Material Girl." Broadbent camps his way through "Like a Virgin," and McGregor dons lederhosen and warbles, "The hills are alive with the sound of music . . ." Nearly everything in the movie is appropriated from somewhere else. Professing their love, Kidman (her singing voice is high and thin) and McGregor (his is much better) launch into a medley of tunes that's obvious and redundant: "All You Need Is Love," "I Will Always Love You," "Silly Love Songs, " "Up Where We Belong." Even the dialogue is taken from song lyrics…

The context for learning, education and the arts (2)

This Entry is in Five Parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

Let me begin by quoting the head of IBM, Lou Gerstner in reference to Deep Blue, the computer developed to play chess at the grandmaster level:

“Deep Blue is emblematic of a whole class of emerging computer systems that combine ultrafast processing with analytical software. Today we’re applying these systems to challenges far more vital than chess. They are used for example in simulation — replacing physical things with digital things, re-creating reality inside powerful computer systems? (“Think Leadership? Vol. 3, No. 1, 1998: 2)

Now, what is important here is not only the references to Deep Blue and very fast computer systems, but the assumption that the replacement of physical things with digital things re-creates reality inside computer systems and by extension in reality itself. This may well be true and may well be happening, but we need to examine the implications of the claim and locate this claim within a cultural, social and economic analysis. And we need to become quite clear about the meaning of the term simulation which is used most often to refer to an artificial environment that either replaces the real or in Jean Baudrillard’s words become the real. Simulation as I will use it refers to the creation of artifacts, their use and their integration as well as co-optation into an increasingly digital culture.

“And soon we’ll see this hyper-extended networked world made up of a trillion interconnected, intelligent devices — intersecting with data-mining capability. Pervasive Computing meets Deep Computing? (Gerstner: 3)

I will return to the implications of this quote through a variety of different routes. Historically, the advent of new technologies in the 20th century has generally been paralleled by claims of social effect and cultural transformation and these are synoptically represented by the continued influence of Marshall McLuhan on present thinking about technology and its effects. I will not examine McLuhan’s ideas in great detail, suffice to say that many of the assumptions guiding his cultural appropriation by a variety of writers, commentators and politicians do not stand up to scrutiny of a rigorous kind. For example, McLuhan’s famous statement that “The Medium is the Message? grew out of a report that he wrote in 1959-60 for the Office of Education, United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was entitled, “Report on Project in Understanding New Media? In it McLuhan analyses media such as television using the tools of cognitive psychology, management theory and economics. For McLuhan, media include speech, writing, photography, radio, etc.. And he is puzzled by why the effects of these media have been overlooked for as he puts it, “…3500 years of the Western world? (McLuhan, 1960: 1)

McLuhan searches for an explanation and much of the research for the project is prescient and fascinating as well as a precursor to the publication of “Understanding Media? in 1964. When it comes to the famous aphorism about the medium and the message, McLuhan reveals a rather interesting foundation for much of his later research.

“Nothing could be more unrealistic than to suppose that the programming for such media could affect their power to re-pattern the sense-ratios of our beings. It is the ratio among our senses which is violently disturbed by media technology. And any upset in our sense-ratios alters the matrix of thought and concept and value. In what follows, I hope to show how this ratio is altered by various media and why, therefore, the medium is the message or the sum-total of effects. The so-called content of any medium is another medium? (McLuhan, 1960: 9)

It is clear from this statement that the medium is actually the subject, that it is human beings whose sense-ratios are altered by participating in the experiences made possible through the media. It is not the content of the communication, but the encounter between the medium and subjectivity that alters or disturbs how we then reflexively analyse our experience. Although the medium is the message is generally interpreted in formal terms and although it has been appropriated as a generalization used to explain the presence of media in every aspect of our lives, McLuhan is here playing with cognitive and psychological research as it was developed in the 1950’s. More importantly, at this stage, he is avoiding a binary approach to form/content relations. He is effectively introducing a third element into the discussion, namely, the human body.

The context for learning, education and the arts (1)

This entry has five parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

The context for learning, education and the arts has altered dramatically over the last few years as has the cultural environment for educators and artists/creators. Part of what I would like to do here is examine the intersection of a number of crucial developments that I think have transformed the terrain of technology, education, art and culture.

This is a grand claim and I would be the first to admit that we are being incessantly told that change has become the major characteristic of the late 20th century. But, I do think that we are witnessing shifts which will have a profound effect not only on the social and political structure of Western countries but on the ways in which In which we see ourselves, act upon and within the communities of which we are a part and how we create meanings, messages and information for the proliferating networks that now surround us.

The one important caveat here is that although I am concerned with the transformations we are experiencing, I will in no way claim that we are undergoing a revolutionary change. I tend to see history as evolutionary, which in no way precludes dramatic shifts from occurring. As intellectuals, artists, technology developers and educators, I believe it is our responsibility to become active within this environment and to develop the critical and creative tools to respond to the ongoing evolution of an emerging aesthetic of interactivity in which aesthetic goals are linked with ethical goals and are based on a perspective of caring for both the individual and the larger economic, political, ecological, social and spiritual circumstances that create contexts for the individual. (Carol Gigliotti;Bridge to, Bridge From: The Arts, Technology and Education? Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 2, April-May, 1998 p.91)

Our cultural claims about the various factors that produce change tend to be linear, the line being one that moves along a fairly straight, if not narrow trajectory from the less complex to the more complex. The approach that I will take looks at the displacements that are created by the movement from one phase to another, movement in this instance being more like transportation framed by what Bruno Latour has described as connections, short circuits, translations, associations, and mediations that we encounter, daily. (Bruno Latour, Trains of Thought, Common Knowledge, Vol. 6, # 3, Winter, 1997, p. 183.)

So, I will begin by exploring the various conjunctures and disjunctures created by the presence of digital technologies in nearly every aspect of the cultural context of the early 21st century. My goal, however, is not an overview, but rather, to raise as many questions as I can in order to introduce increasing levels of mediation both to our understanding of the digital and to our creative transformation of the digital into various media of communication.

To be continued.....


Geographies of Dissent (Final)

Another vantage point on this process is to think of various communities, which share common goals becoming nodes on a network that over time ends up creating and often sustaining a super-network of people pursuing political change. Their overall impact remains rather difficult to understand and assess, not because these nodes are in any way ineffective, but because they cannot be evaluated in isolation from each other.

This notion of networks may allow us to think about communities in a different way. It is, as we know possible at one and the same time for the impulses that guide communities to be progressive and very conservative. There is nothing inherently positive with respect to politics within communities, which are based on shared points of view. But, if the process is more important often, than the content, then this raises other issues. The intersection of connectivity and ideas leads to unpredictable outcomes. Take fan clubs for example. They generally centre on particular stars, films or television shows. They are a form of popular participation in mainstream media and a way of affecting not so much the content of what is produced (although that is happening more and more, Star Trek has continued as a series on the Net) but the relationship of private and public discourse about media products and their impact. Over time, through accretion and sheer persistence, fan clubs have become very influential. They are nodes on a network that connects through shared interests, one of which is to mold the media into a reflection of their concerns.

More often than not this network of connections is presumed to be of greater importance than the content of what is exchanged. This is classically what Baudrillard meant by the world becoming virtual and McLuhan, when he claimed that the medium was the message. Except, that they are both wrong.

The process of exchange, that is the many different ways in which people on shared networks work and play together cannot be analyzed from a behavioral perspective. Take FLICKR for example. There is nothing very complicated about this software. It was developed by two Vancouverites and then bought for 30 million dollars by Yahoo. The software is simple. It allows users to annotate photographs that they have posted to the web site. The annotations become an index and that index is searchable by everyone. The reason Yahoo paid so much is that over 80 million photographs had been uploaded and there were hundreds of communities of interest exchanging images with each other. Most of this is completely decentralized. The web site just hosts the process of community building.

The same elements attracted the News Corporation to and Rupert Murdoch paid over three hundred million dollars for that site or should I say community. Communities become currencies because there are so few ways to organize and understand all of the diversity that is being created within the context of modern-day networks. This is not because the medium is the message; rather, it is because the media are inherently social — social media. And in being social, they reshape modes of human organization and most importantly, the many different ways in which collectivities can form and reform.

(Please note: The last three entries, Geographies of Dissent were presented in a different format at York University, at a conference of the same name.)


The Euston Manifesto (2)


As I mentioned in a previous post, the importance of the Euston Manifesto for liberal thinkers cannot be underestimated. The authors attempt to reach out to people of all political persuasions and to recreate the political centre. Their commitment is to democracy and to democratic thinking.

"The present initiative has its roots in and has found a constituency through the Internet, especially the "blogosphere". It is our perception, however, that this constituency is under-represented elsewhere in much of the media and the other forums of contemporary political life." (From the preamble)

They provide a clear explanation of their orientation:

For democracy

"We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold."

One of the most important elements of their argument is the separation of church and state. This appears often and is a founding principle for their manifesto. The fact that the manifesto reaches out to people of all political persuasions is very important. The time has come to carefully rethink how people who support the principles of enlightenment thinking can take part in national and international debates about the many challenges which face us from the deterioration of the environment to unstable governments.

The key to solving some of these issues is the learning process. Ironically, although there is some mention of the educational system in the manifesto, not enough is said and more stress needs to be placed on how education can play a positive role in developing world views that are connected to optimistic and utopian social and community models.

Television (NCIS)

In the previous two posts, I began to draw a map of all the connections among a variety of television shows which concentrate on terrorism. The connections are not only at the level of plot line, but among actors who move from show to show.

The following MISSION STATEMENT appears on the CBS web site:

"The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)--the Department of the Navy's (DoN's) primary law enforcement arm--is in the midst of a transformation. No longer is the traditional reactive law enforcement model adequate given the complex and increasingly blurred terrorist, intelligence, and criminal threats to our Navy and Marine Corps. To counter the evolving threats, NCIS has implemented a new, proactive strategic plan, which emphasizes preventing terrorism."

The mission statement blurs the connections between TV drama and reality, an in-between or middle space within which the "war on terrorism" becomes an overarching metaphor for how TV relates to and depicts everyday life. These connections are all foregrounded by what I described in the previous post as some fatal flaw that is always discovered about the terrorists, a flaw which leads to the situation being resolved, even if (as in "24") some people die.

The question is, what is the purpose of this retooling of television drama and storytelling? What does this suggest about the intersections of popular culture and real life?

Television (The Grid)

"The Grid" is a British/American co-production with Turner Network Television, Fox and BBC. One of the stars is Dylan McDermott who was a lawyer on the David Kelley show, "The Practice." The Grid is about a counterterrorism cell in much the same way as The Unit is about a counterterrorism cell in much the same way as another show "Sleeper Cell" is about counterterrorism — and across all of these shows, the same plot lines are used. To varying degrees they are all based on the original formula developed by "24" which combines various levels of incompetence with seemingly inpenetrable terrorists groups who seem to be invincible until a fatal flaw is found.

More soon......

Television (The Unit)

Many of the new shows on television this season deal with terrorism, heroism and the hidden dangers of post 9/11 America and the effects of 9/11 on the world. None quite matches "The Unit" which uses all the elements of every spy show ever broadcast on primetime. These range from a secret unit that no one can know about to levels of heroism and competence that exceed the norm of any human being — a combination of Superman, James Bond and the apparent science and precision of CSI. Best of all, the army community in which the unit lives with their wives might as well be the set of "Desperate Housewives."

Does this add up? Yes, but only because David Mamet's scripts are so theatrical and characters talk to each other with a purity of expression that sometimes borders on the poetic. All of this is brought together by the main male character in The Unit played by Dennis Haysbert who played President David Palmer in "24".

If all of this seems like it is connecting, wait until I finish the map.

More soon..........

The Age of Six Feet Under (2)

In today's New York Times, Joan Didion describes her shock and grief at the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. It is a very moving article about pain, loss and the ways in which the death of a loved one bring memories and feelings to the surface that are often buried and sometimes inaccessible until the shock of death rears its head. In an age (zeitgeist) which as a friend of mine recently said, pathologizes everything that is related to the body, health and death, Didion's piece brings personal confession, the confessional into the foreground. As she explores the confusion, the sheer magnitude of death and the finality of everything that surrounds it, Didion tries to bring the craft of writing forcefully into play while also recognizing that nothing she says will fully explain the complexities of what she is going through. At one point, she mentions a strong urge to make a film, to create images as a way of explaining what is happening to her.

Most of the plots of Six Feet Under centred on confessions of guilt, pain, incomprehension and of course, death. The personal became public — emotions otherwise hidden away in the private worlds that we all inhabit were brought to the surface. This confessional mode is audience-centric. Confessions reveal that which is normally hidden. But confessions are only possible if someone is listening. Didion's piece is as much for us as it is for her husband. We are the transitional listeners who allow her to regain some control over the loss. In a fictional TV show the dead can be brought to life and can listen and react to their loved ones. It is that fiction which is at the heart of all confessions, because they are ultimately for the living, for the living who still have memories.

The Age of Six Feet Under

The title of this blog entry is also the title of a new book that I am developing for the University of Chicago Press. One of their top editors is an old friend and we have been talking about the extraordinary degree to which the contemporary environment in North America is dominated by various forms of hypochondria, paranoia and anxiety. This is more than post 9/11 worries about terrorism, although there is much to be concerned with, including the challenges of confronting the dystopic vision of modern terrorists. Hypochondria, for example, has become a social narrative, a way of talking about the world through the lenses of fear with respect to the human body, nutrition and disease.

The book will also explore the television series, which in its narrative content and character development is not only superb television, but an exploration of precisely all the issues that surround mortality, love and apprehensions of death. While these may seem to be grand themes, almost clichés, the program manages to move far beyond the rather limited story-telling 'body' of television into a profound examination of the dynamics of family life.

So, the book will be an in-depth study of the show and an exploration of of how mediascapes build the infrastructure to support anxiety in the digital age.

My intention is to provide extracts of the book on this blog as I write in order to get feedback and suggestions.

Learning from Popoular Culture (2)

Chris makes the following point:
"What strikes me about these debates is that the center seems so western and middle class. I don't think the phrase "popular culture" has any meaning at all and by extraction maybe popular culture itself is meaningless."

This is an interesting point. Popular culture as a term is probably too broad and overly general to mean that much. Nevertheless, from a social and societal point of view, the term has become a "category" that is both provocative and a continual part of debates about the direction in which most cultures are headed. India has a strong base of "popular" cultural activity in film, if the measurement for that — millions of viewers — is acceptable. During my recent visit to Shanghai I was amazed at the proliferation of popular cultural artifacts from Western DVDs to local shows on television many of which were built on soap opera principles. The more profound question is whether people are learning from the experiences that they are having. And, this question needs to be at the center of debates about culture in general. There is a superb article by Joel Garreau in the Washington Post on this debate. It was reprinted in The Vancouver Sun, Saturday, July 16, 2005. This is the link to the Post


Learning from Popular Culture (1)

Steven Johnson's new book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter popularizes an argument that has been at the core of debates in communications and cultural theory for over thirty years. The argument is that analyses of popular culture cannot be reduced to a simple and uni-dimensional approach. For the most part, the analysis of video games, for example, has focused on their negative effects upon children. There may be some validity to suggestions that young children are not able to discriminate with enough acuity to explore the differences between real life and gameplay. The counter argument is that a great deal of what we describe as play among children is filled with violence and aggressive behaviour. In general, and Johnson makes the same mistake, it is difficult to come to conclusions about the impact of the media both on children and adults.

It would take a long and detailed empirical study not of the behaviour of individuals, but of their reactions to the experiences of engaging with popular cultural artifacts. Note the two words, reactions and experiences. How long does it take you to articulate your reactions to a television show or to a film? Furthermore, which part of your discourse reveals the truths about what you are saying? The complexities of analysis and reflection surrounding these issues are rarely dealt with in the popular media. Rather, in a lovely irony, the popular media generally trash their own activities pointing to the dangers and never analysing the audiences they make claims about other than through the most primitive of survey tools. I would argue that we know very little about the impact of the media and popular culture and I therefore welcome Johnson's intervention in the debate. As with any analysis, it would take more than a simple set of generalized assumptions to really investigate what happens when viewers engage with various aspects of popular culture. In any case, popular culture is not a monolith. There are as many counter-arguments as there are arguments about its value and relationship to everyday life.


Can machines dream? (Part 4)

Ronny Siebes of the Free University of Amsterdam continues the debate
* I think that we are both convinced about the limitations of the current way of doing science and especially the reductionistic approach.
* Also I agree with you that the mind is more than the physical brain itself. Now I remember again an insight that I had some time ago. In my viewpoint (I read it somewhere but do not remember the reference) the individual brain without communication is only a bunch of meat and blood. The brain *needs* input, and that input is culture (and nature).
Also culture *needs* humans and can be seen (metaphorically) as a collective mind. Therefore I would like to see our individual minds as the individual brains fed by collective input, and the collective mind is the collective input plus all the individual brains. Therefore only looking at the biological brain does not allow us to understand the way our individual 'minds'work.
If you want to do that, one needs to combine the insights from not only neuro-physiologists, but also sociologists, psychologists, antropologists and artists (and probably many more).
To make my point and to come back to your original question "Can machines dream", I can now, given the insight during our discussions, say the following:
* Dreams are events that happen in the physical brain, but can only occur when the brain is also a mind (meaning that it had input from outside itself). Therefore to understand dreams, it is not enough to understand the brain, but one also needs to understand culture.

* Currently machines are brains without (or with very limited) input, so therefore at the moment a machine cannot dream because its culture is not rich enough (or it is still not able to see/hear/feel human culture). The Internet (and especially the Semantic Web) will be the collective mind of the individual machines and also provide input to them. So, when the Internet becomes culturally rich enough, machines will be able to dream too.

Ron Burnett responds

Networks are representations of collective engagement and of community in all of its variations. Whether they are a collective mind is an intriguing question. Is a family with six members a collective mind? How would that collective mind be represented? Perhaps this discussion needs to move to questions of networks and what they mean.

Part Five… 


Can machines dream? (Part 3)

Quoting Ron Burnett
One of the metaphors we have been discussin is that the brain is like a computer and that human memory stores information much like a hard disk. There is simply not enough evidence to suggest that the metaphor works. So, machines cannot dream because among many other things, we don’t have an adequate definition of what the mind does when it dreams. All we have is the language of metaphor and description, a semantically rich space that cannot be reduced to any single or singular process.

Response from Ronny Siebes, Free University of Amsterdam
I agree with your statement that there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that the metaphor works. But that does not 'prove' that machines cannot dream. I would like to turn your argumentation into my favor. We are limited in two ways which has one cause namely we humans can only understand complexity by breaking events up into simpler things (reductionism) and we pay the price by losing an overview of the big picture (holism): first we do not know what dreaming is (complex event), second, we do not know what kinds of events can emerge from complex structures like the Internet. This limitation is the reason that we still don't know if dreaming can physically be expained and we still cannot find out whether complex structures like computer networks (e.g. the Internet) can dream.

Ron Burnett
I think that we are agreed that there is very little evidence, in the scientific sense for dreaming (although we all dream). Don't misunderstand me, I support and am excited by research into the brain. I do think that the Internet is one of the best examples that we have of complex networks that far exceed their original design in scale and effect. I am not sure given what you have said, how we can overcome the opposition between holistic approaches and reductionism.

Part Four…

Can machines dream? (Part 2)

Quoting Ron Burnett, Emily Carr University
Imaging of the brain can provides pictures of the connections between different parts, but imaging cannot provide details of what Gregory Bateson has so aptly described as the set of differences that make relations between the parts of the mind possible. “The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a non-substantial phenomenon not located in space or time… (Bateson, 1972: 92)

Ronny Siebes, Free University of Amsterdam
If I understand you correctly, you mean that our imaging techniques only allow us to make snap-shots of a fixed state of our neurons (by doing terrible animal experiments) or energy levels (PET, CT, MRI or EEG-scans). I agree with that.

Besides this I still believe (rationally) that every state change has a physical cause, and therefore a physical change in neuron-activity also has a physical cause. I'm not sure what Bateson and you exactly mean by 'difference', but allow me to give my definition by introducing another example: difference is like a comparison between a high and low pressure areas in the weather domain. We 'see' wind indirectly by experiencing that the trees are moving. Also when we make satellite pictures of the clouds and measure other things like pressure and temperature, we can see that there is a 'difference' between the values of these properties when comparing the high- and low pressure area.

However this is not enough to *explain* the reason (cause) for this difference. Physics only allows us to come up with theories (models) and when they describe reality precisely (by doing direct or indirect observational experiments) we assume that we know the reason for the difference. In other words, physics only provides detailed discriptions and models of the input and output behaviour of certain physical 'objects' that we experience in reality.

Like wind, 'thoughts' and 'dreams' and other mental utterances of our brain are, in contrast with snap-shots of mental activity, words used for pointing to eventsand processes. A dream is only a dream when there is something going on, meaning that a snap-shot is not enough to describe it because the process includes transitions between the states.

Again, physics is limited in this sense that it can only try to explain the difference between two snap-shots of our brain (where the difference could indicate that the person was dreaming), by giving a detailed descriptions of the state of the objects that can be seen on the snap-shots and come up with theories that caused the changes.

To conclude: Although I know that we humans are able to experience events like wind and dreams, we have to deal with a limited toolkit (science) that only allows us to look at snap-shots and come up with theories that explain the causal differences between those different states.

I agree that difference is a non-substantial phenomenon but therefore it can also not be investigated by science and therefore must be researched by another method. I do not mean that non-scientific investigations are less important than scientific ones, however I am personally limited to the use of rational (i.e. scientific) argumentation in a discussion about our brains. I am completely aware of my limitation :-) and also am convinced that science allows us to explain only a (perhaps very small) subset of the things we experience.

Response from Ron Burnett
I agree that science provides us with models and that inevitably there are limitations to what can be described. The distinction for me is between investigations of the brain and how we research, talk about and explain the mind. The brain is a physical, biological object. It is in the simplest sense, matter. The question is whether scientific research into the brain using more and more complex imaging technologies ends up creating metaphors that overwhelm the complexity of what the mind does.

Science reduces to idealize which is what I understand by modeling. Rationalism looks at cause(s) and effect(s). In these instances, (for the purposes of this debate) the danger is that the many elements that make up the human body, from homeopathic pathways to the immune system as well as the complex networks of interaction between neurons that constitute brain activity, will be reduced to function (alism). Reasoned argument is essential, but can a reductive argument work here?

So, is it the limitations of science itself that we are discussing? Or are we dealing with models and paradigms that tend to focus on what can be researched and from which extrapolations are made that lead in potentially dangerous directions?

A large measure of what we describe as intelligence is derived from our own, quite self-reflexive understanding of thought processes. We understand intelligence from a very subjective point of view. We know very little about how the electrical and chemical activity of the brain translates into intelligence. We do know that we are capable of incredible mental feats. For example, our use of language is just one of many activities we engage in for which we have a fragmentary understanding. There may well be a part of the brain, for example that deals with language, but as Edelman and Tononi point out, it is likely that the complex processing of information of this sort is distributed throughout the brain.

This means that it takes millions of interactions among neurons across networks connected in millions of predictable and unpredictable patterns and ways for a simple sentence to be formulated. Ironically, we can only hypothesize that the sentences so produced actually relate to the thought(s) we have had. (Ramachandran, & Blakeslee, 1998)

Part Three…

Can machines dream?

This series is in FIVE parts.

Ronny Siebes is a researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam. He and I met recently in The Hague and the ensuing email exchange represents only a small facet of the longer discussion that we had.

Ronny Siebes
I thought about the question you asked "Can machines dream" and have the following answer:

First, I would like to give my definition of what human dreaming is. Most humans know that they sometimes dream and may remember what they have dreamt, like the images, sounds or other impressions. Obviously, these things like pictures are not really there in the head because we don't have eyes in our head to look at them and if we had, it is too dark to see it (Dennet:). I'm not an expert on neuroscience but I guess that the brain works like this: images (encoded in a parallel bundle of light beams) that our eyes receive trigger a set of neurons that are responsible for interpretating visual input and these interpretations are stored in our memory. When we dream, parts of our memory become active and are manipulated by a script generated by fears, angers or other chemical impulses.

For this information to be remembered, the outcomes of these manipultion processes which are generated by the scripts are stored back again into our memory. Our consciousness (whatever that may be) walks through our memory and recognises that there is new information, namely the new stuff that was added by the dream process.

Computers are also able to receive, store and manipulate information from the outside world. For example, take a computer that has a web-cam connected to it and stores the bitstream on a hard disk or other kind of memory. It is easy to build a program that reads out the bits that represent the movie and to manipulate it. This manipulation would currently be very rude (for example just change some colors, or cut/copy- and paste some shots), but also very advanced like algorithms that detect scenarios and are able to replace objects by other objects. These manipulated movies can be stored again and after a while be 'played' (my free definition of becoming conscious) in a macromeda or windows media player.

Thus to summarize my point: if we describe human dreaming by its functional properties, we can apply it to its artificial counterpart.

Response by Ron Burnett

Imaging of the brain can provides pictures of the connections between different parts, but imaging cannot provide details of what Gregory Bateson has so aptly described as the set of differences that make relations between the parts of the mind possible. “The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a non-substantial phenomenon not located in space or time… (Bateson, 1972: 92)

Difference is not the product of processes in the brain. Thought cannot be located in one specific location; in fact difference means that the notion of location is all but impossible other than in the most general of senses. Bateson goes on to ask how parts interact to make mental processes possible. This is also a central concern in the work of Gerald Edelman, particularly in the book he co-authored with Giulio Tononi (2000) where they point out how the neurosciences have begun to seriously investigate consciousness as a scientific ‘subject.’ (3) Edelman and Tononi summarize the challenge in this way:

What we are trying to do is not just to understand how the behaviour or cognitive operations of another human being can be explained in terms of the working of his or her brain, however daunting that task may be. We are not just trying to connect a description of something out there with a more scientific description. Instead, we are trying to connect a description of something out there — the brain — with something in here — an experience, our own individual experience that is occurring to us as conscious observers. (11)

The disparities between the brain and conscious observation, between a sense of self and biological operations cannot be reduced to something objective, rather, the many layers of difference among all of the elements that make up thought can only be judged through the various strategies that we use to understand subjectivity. Edelman and Bateson try and disengage a series of cultural metaphors that cover up the complexity of consciousness.

One of these metaphors is that the brain is like a computer and that human memory stores information much like a hard disk. There is simply not enough evidence to suggest that the metaphor works. So, machines cannot dream because among many other things, we don't have an adequate definition of what the mind does when it dreams. All we have is the language of metaphor and description, a semantically rich space that cannot be reduced to any single or singular process.

Part Two…

Hypochondriac Culture (6)

Imagine the following. There is a sudden change in your body temperature. Your heart starts to beat more quickly. You begin to sweat. You have read about the symptoms of a heart attack. You beging to think that you are having a heart attack. Your anxiety rises. The combination of fear, fantasy and a catalogue of symptoms that you have heard about through our culture pushes you closer and closer to a panic attack.

Hypochondria is rarely a personal or private expression of symptoms and behviour. It is a private pain that has its roots inside image-worlds that are packed with information. In this case, information about symptoms may produce them.

Hypochondriac Culture (5)

What happens when you eat junk food? Although most diets in the United States and Canada are based on a variety of prepared and junk foods, the reality is that people continue to eat as if their actions will produce no effect. The contrast between the fetish for health and the disregard for nutrition is one of the central paradoxes of Hypochondria.  

Part Six

Hypochondriac Culture (4)

In cultures devoted to the body, there are any number of different ways in which hypochondria manifests itself. One of the overwhelming cultural concerns of the moment is what is being described as an epidemic of obesity. The response has been an epidemic of diets, diet movements and articles in magazines and newspapers about weight, body shape and health. I am not suggesting that a population that is generally overweight is a good thing. I support healthy living and exercise and so on. The challenge is how to explain weight, the body and biology in such a way that people do not get scared and worried about their health. Fear of the consequences is only one of many possible ways in which individuals will come to grips with the challenges that they face. But, fear can overtake the process and in fact lead to a defensive or stoical response. A fatalistic attitude is not the answer, but if the odds seem too great, and the fear too strong, why attack the core of the issue? Weight is as much about overeating as it is about an inability to "see" the body, to see our own bodies.

The aesthetics of body image -- how we hold to and understand our own sense of self, will not be solved by just losing weight.



Hypochondriac Culture (2)

Hypochondria is an insidious disease because it is a silent and often invisible part of the suffering of so many people. It is centred on fear and misinterpretation. Hypochondriacs are constantly worried about a variety of symptoms that they read into their bodies. A minor pain is scripted into a major illness and leads to thoughts of death. Yet, to describe this process as a disease is perhaps a grave error. The psychology of fear is not easy to pin down. Since so much of medicine is concerned with cause and effect, the idea that someone could imagine an illness seems to be outside of the pragmatic medical context of searching for cures. Imagination is the key here as is a process called projection. It is easy to imagine any number of problems in the complex biology of the human body. It is easy (but the consequences can be dire) to project an external problem into an internal space. At one point in some "jottings" that were found among Sigmund Freud's papers, he made the comment that "space is a projection of the psyche". What if the hyponchondriac body is an aesthetic projection? I will respond to this question in greater detail tomorrow.

Part Three