Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Tron" redux: why care about the lower life forms?

My buddy Dave writes:

One of the themes in Percy Jackson is the disregard that many of the Gods have [for] their children, and in general for mortals. They don’t seem to care who is hurt, or what happens to anyone. In your Tron write-up, you wonder about what happens to a program if we delete it, and why should we care.

Yet in Biblical stories, or religious epics in general, don’t Gods kill large populations, and treat mortals horribly at the slightest whim? Isn’t this a recurring theme in religious mythological narratives? (Maybe excepting the New Testament... Still pondering on that). Why should God (or ‘The Gods’) care about the lives of mere mortals?

In that sense, [don’t] the multiple levels of reality in the Tron Story work even better? Why should you care about the existence of programs? Why should [Thomas] Covenant care if he behaves horribly if the Land is really a dream? Why should entities on a higher plane give a [rat's] ass about entities on a lower plane?

Why, indeed?

Any given religious tradition, whether we look at it in terms of scripture or ritual or art or food, displays a wide range of attitudes and assumptions about humanity, the cosmos, and the living things around us. Buddhism, for example, seems rather ambivalent in its attitude toward animals. Animals are sometimes cited in Buddhist literature as exemplars of how to live in suchness (when tired, sleep; when hungry, eat), but are also cited in cautionary tales about attachment and lack of wisdom (see, for example, the kama-dhatu, or desire-realm, which animals are thought to inhabit). Buddhism teaches a reverence for all sentient beings, but along comes Nan-chuan, who splits a cat in half to make a point. The same ambivalence toward lesser beings can be seen in the varied set of traditions known collectively as Hinduism. Many animals play sacred roles in the cosmic dance of Hindu mythology, but ancient Hindus sacrificed horses, and many modern South Asians, far from being vegetarian, are avid carnivores, even if they avoid beef. In East Asian folklore, animals can be wisdom figures or stand-ins for human idiocy.

In the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 6:6 says, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." But in the Christian Bible, in Acts 10:13, we read of Peter's vision of the descending sheet that carries trayf animals upon it, along with the whispered command, "Arise, Peter. Kill and eat." The point of the vision is Christian supersessionism (doing away with kosher laws is a metonymy for doing away with Mosaic law in general), but the literal import-- that all animals are fair game-- still remains. Even if we remain focused on the Hebrew Bible without bringing the New Testament into the picture, we see God's ambivalence toward his creations: he constantly makes and renews covenants with them, but he also wills or allows their destruction, often on massive scales.

I'd say that religions in general offer no clear picture or guidance when it comes to the question of human attitudes toward animals, or the divine's attitude toward fragile, contingent mortals. "Tron" may very well be hinting at a similar ambivalence. When Clu is comically destroyed at the beginning of the 1982 movie, we're not meant to mourn his death: he's just a creation of Kevin Flynn's, after all, and a rather goofy one at that. But by the end of the movie, with Flynn himself having experienced the brutal realities of cyberspatial existence, we viewers are left to wonder whether we, as creators, hold more power and responsibility than we thought. In the "Tron" universe, humans bring these e-entities into being, essentially throwing them into an arena where they will receive no quarter.

So yes: the wholesale destruction of creatures by creators is a recurrent trope in scripture and mythology, but so is the idea of the preciousness and interconnectedness of creation. "Tron" gives us a cosmology whose ambivalence is little different from what we find in the major religious traditions.

I suppose the Thomas Covenant analogy (for those who don't know: Thomas Covenant is a leper from "our" world who doesn't believe in the reality of the alternate universe he finds himself trapped in; he misses many chances to act nobly and heroically as a result) can be thematically connected to the "Tron" universe only insofar as Kevin Flynn and Thomas Covenant begin their adventures not believing in the reality of their respective alternate worlds. But that's where the stories part ways: for Covenant, the reality of the alternate universe remains forever in doubt, but he tables the question in favor of the paradoxical stance that he should act nobly regardless of the alternate universe's ontological status. In "Tron," by contrast, the viewer is left in no doubt that Flynn hasn't hallucinated his experience in cyberspace.* He cannot but be changed by what he has discovered. If "Tron" is implying that this cosmic chain of being is real, then we don't have the luxury of treating those little e-beings, with their picosecond-long lives, as dream artifacts-- much for the same reason that we can't view ants the same way once we understand their position in the larger ecology.

So the metaphysical and ethical issues are, in my opinion, very different between the Thomas Covenant and "Tron" universes. For Covenant, the central ethical issue is, at least at first, whether the alternate world is real, and whether his actions in that world therefore have any real import. For Kevin Flynn in "Tron," the discovery that cyberspace is a real, physical place, and is as much a "vale of tears" as normal human existence, prevents him from viewing his own anthropic reality the same way ever again. Or so the preview for "Tron: Legacy" seems to imply. In "Tron" itself, Kevin Flynn's hearty "Greetings, programs!" doesn't give one the impression of a man who's been through a frightening plunge into a brutally Euclidean (maybe I should say "Boolean") world, but the preview for the 2010 film says that Flynn was on the verge of revolutionizing science, medicine, and religion. While I can't say for sure, I'm guessing that Flynn's revolutionary insight, based on his time in cyberspace, was that we're living the Simulation Hypothesis, and that we enjoy a type of connectedness with the cyber-realm that we didn't realize was there. But once we've looked "down" into the cyber-realm through the lens of the Simulation Hypothesis, it's only natural to look "up," and to wonder about our creators.

(Will Disney seriously push polytheism? I'll be curious to see how all this gets marketed.)

*Stephen R. Donaldson, the author of the Thomas Covenant adventures, has been challenged several times by his fans as to the objective reality of this alternate world. Donaldson insists that he hasn't provided enough evidence for people to think of the Land, or any other realm in the alternate world, as real. Frustrated readers cite the fact that Donaldson changed his point-of-view characters at several points throughout the various novels, which strongly implies that the alternate universe is experienced by more than one mind-- a good sign that it's objectively real. Donaldson has responded with-- in my opinion-- gibberish about shared dreaming, archetypes, and such. But he stands firm in his belief that the alternate world's reality remains in doubt. He is the author, after all, so he knows his own intentions. I guess.



Charles said...

"The point of the vision is Christian supersessionism (doing away with kosher laws is a metonymy for doing away with Mosaic law in general)"

What do you make of Christ's statement in Matthew 5:17 ("Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.")?

Kevin Kim said...

Good, fascinating, and potentially dangerous question.

I don't think the New Testament, taken as a whole, presents us with a single, clear, inarguable picture of the significance of Jesus and his teaching, but it seems that some form of supersessionism is at work-- whether it's a radical re-understanding of Mosaic law as an earlier nomos requiring "fulfillment," or a vision of Mosaic law as something that needs to be cast aside in favor of a totally new paradigm, as many Christians interpret 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." The doing away with the kosher/trayf distinction would be consistent with this second view, I think.

Verses from the gospel of John are often cited as a source of much supersessionism-tinted antisemitism throughout history: the gospel's polemical style often jabs an accusing finger at hoi ioudaioi ("the Jews"), though there's a great deal of scholarly debate over whether the Evangelist was painting "the Jews" with a broad brush, or was using that phrase to set a particular group of Jews apart from the Johannine circle.

Strangely enough, a very interesting discussion of Christian supersessionism has been going on over at Lee's blog, A Thinking Reed, though without Lee's using that particular term. The first comment to this post indicates some optimism that a non-supersessionistic hermeneutic is possible.

Personally, I think radical reinterpretation of supersessionistic scriptures is really the only way to go in modern times; otherwise, Christians seem committed to viewing Jews as benighted Pharisees and Sadducees-- a vision of (certain strains of) first-century Judaism that was probably a caricature even in the first century.

We do have to remember that the majority of the earliest "Christians" were in fact pious Jews (as Jesus himself was), but as more non-Jews began to enter the movement, a large and divisive question arose as to how Jewish this new movement was going to be. As you know the New Testament actually deals with this question in some depth. I haven't made a study of it, though, so I'm not exactly sure how much I can say with confidence about how that debate played itself out during the first and second centuries.

As for Lee's posts (and the interesting comments appended to them):

Christianity's constitutive anti-Judaism

What is Christian anti-Judaism?

By what authority?

Israel and the Church

A good question to ponder is whether supersessionism implies mere replacement or replacement-through-destruction. A related question is whether replacement equals destruction. Call it the Kenobi Conundrum: Kenobi tells Luke that Anakin's turning to the dark side, marked by his change of name to Darth Vader, constitutes a betrayal and murder (or, somewhat more abstractly, a destruction) of Anakin. By one way of reckoning, Anakin Skywalker still exists; by another, he's essentially dead and gone. Did Vader's supersession of Anakin constitute a true destruction of Anakin (as Kenobi contended), or was the original Anakin still recoverable (as Luke instinctively believed)?