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Everything You Know is Wrong! or Escape from the Kingdom of the Proknows

“Everything we know” said Hillary Clinton would win the nomination, Barack Obama couldn’t, John McCain was finished and The Patriots would win the Super Bowl, but The Oracle of The Matrix would tell us it ain’t necessarily so!

There’s a line from a sketch by the comedy group Firesign Theater: “Everything you know is wrong!”  This much I know.

Recent events have me pondering this line.   I’m tempted to speak like the Merovingian in “The Matrix: Reloaded,” and declare it as the only real truth, but modify it thus: “Everything we know is wrong!”  or “What ‘everyone knows’ is wrong!”

There are people who “know.”  Call them “professional knowers,” or experts, consultants, gurus, etc.  In the media, we call them, as a group, “punditocracy,” “the chattering classes,” or “denizens of the blogosphere,” — or shall we call it “the blowhardosphere”?  Every field has its experts.  Let’s call them “ProKnows” — one characteristic of ProKnows is to coin phrases.  Politics is rife with ProKnows.   Some of them have bona fide credentials — degrees in this or that, or experience covering politics; others have forced their way into the public forum through tenacity, or high volume or because they provide quotable copy for other chatterers.  And yet, particularly in the past year or so, the one thing we really know about this crowd is that all of them have been consistently wrong.

Just think of what the ProKnows “knew” at some time in the past year:

  • Hillary Clinton will walk away with the Democratic presidential nomination because of her name, her connections, her money, and the army of ProKnows at her beck and call, but she can’t win in November;
  • Okay, so this Barack Obama guy has thrown his hat into the ring, but he doesn’t have a chance (see previous item); besides, he’s black, or not black enough, and he has that unfortunate name, and nothing to his name but a nice speech from 2004; only starry-eyed neo-yuppies longing for the next JFK will vote for him;
  • John McCain has no chance to win the nomination because he’s too old, the Christian Right doesn’t trust him, he spoiled his independent creds by pandering to the Christian Right (that doesn’t trust him), his campaign stumbled early on;
  • Rudy Giuliani’s (short-lived) front-runner status, despite his divorces, and pro-life, gay rights positions, proves the Christian Right doesn’t matter any more (even though John McCain won’t win because of the Christian Right), and besides, once people get a look at him, they’ll drop him (actually, that turned out to be the case);
  • Mike Huckabee’s success proves the Christian Right still matters;
  • Mike Huckabee’s success proves the Christian Right doesn’t matter any more;

Some of these declarations were contradictory, while others were nearly universal, such as “Hillary is inevitable.”

I like to go back to “The Matrix.”  For me, not all roads, but a representative sample, lead to “The Matrix.”  Agent Smith, Neo’s archnemesis in the trilogy, keeps declaring the inevitability of his victory and Neo’s defeat and death.  He’s wrong repeatedly — although ultimately kind of right, but that’s another topic.  Also central to “The Matrix” is the battle between the computer programs named The Oracle and The Architect.  The Architect is the archetypal ProKnow: Even though, by his own admission, he has failed six times to create a flawless Matrix, he still searches for the technological fix, the more elegant equation, the extra bit of data that will somehow lead to a stable, infallible system based purely on everything “knowable.”

The Oracle, the archnemesis of The Architect and guru to Neo and his crew, possesses her own “knowledge,” but it is knowledge that escapes the known and the knowable, a.ka. the empirical, the verifiable, the quantifiable.  As she explains to Neo, The Architect’s job is “to balance the equation,” hers: “to unbalance it.”

We, the ProKnows, find ourselves often just like The Architect: confounded by what escapes our cultivated, quantifiable or at least rationally comprehensible “knowledge.”  And so, when we find ourselves, for instance, watching the New York Giants defeating the flawless New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, we witness the limits of our ProKnow knowledge, and fumble for some empirically feeble answer, such as “the Giants wanted it more” or “they found a way” (“life finds a way” sayeth the chaos theorist in “Jurassic Park”).  In other words, there was something beyond the playbooks, something we couldn’t draw on the screen with X’s, O’s and arrows — something that unbalances the equation.

Let’s go now to the final scene of “The Matrix: Revolutions,” the end of the trilogy.  The Oracle sits on a park bench, basking in the blazing new sunrise created by the child-genius Sati in honor of Neo.  Seraph, the Oracle’s faithful companion, asks the Oracle about this improbable outcome:

“Did you always know?”

“Oh, no,” the Oracle says, the sun illuminating her face, “I didn’t.  But I believed.  I believed.”

Coming soon: More examples of “everything you know is wrong.”

 

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Deconstructing ‘Beowulf’

Near the end of Robert Zemeckis’s film version of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf,” the now aged title character laments the end of the Age of Heroes. “The Christ God” has killed it, he complains to his loyal lieutenant, by filling people with fear and shame.Such a statement couldn’t have appeared in the epic itself. Mikhail Bakhtin noted in his essay “Epic and Novel,” which is included in “The Dialogic Imagination,” that epics take place outside of chronological/historical time. “The world of the epic is the national heroic past: it is a world of ‘beginnings’ and ‘peak times’ in the national history, a world of fathers and of founders of families, a world of ‘firsts’ and ‘bests.’ The narrator of the epic is “speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible, the reverent point of view of a descendent. In its style, tone and manner of expression, epic discourse is infinitely far removed from discourse of a contemporary about a contemporary addressed to contemporaries …” Not so Beowulf, in its film version a world of lasts, of fathers without heirs, who beget only monsters.

From this perspective, it’s clear that Zemeckis’s movie is not a film epic, in the sense of Peter Jackson’s monumental “Lord of the Rings.” Jackson’s success in the movie is to a great degree the extent to which he created a cinematic world purged of any references to our contemporary world. The world of “Rings” is a world where epic heroics and epic evil are altogether plausible. Vivid as the illusion was, we can’t place ourselves in the world of “Rings,” visits to New Zealand notwithstanding.

Zemeckis’s motion-captured world is quite easy to enter, especially the 3-D version. The director himself invites in, offering hints: “pass judgement here, folks!” Thus we’re aware of the Queen’s assessment of the merry goings on of Hrothgar’s kingdom. She wears a constant expression somewhere between mourning and disgust, with occasional bemused tolerance. We share her low opinion of Hrothgar when she spits in his face in full view of the drunken thanes. We revel in our superiority as Western contemporaries as we witness the men’s loutish treatment of women and disapprove of it. We easily see Hrothgar as more clown than monarch.

We also catch on fairly early in the story that Beowulf himself is a braggart, spinning a tale about sea monsters to explain losing an epic swimming race. We learn that he changes the number of slain monsters with each telling of his story, and we, as privileged viewers, get to see the real reason for Beowulf’s lost race: dalliance with an underwater seductive demon. (I couldn’t tell if that one was the same as Grendel’s mother or another one.) We know darn well Beowulf is spinning his own tale when he returns from the cave with a rather feeble story about what happened to the precious sword and dragon-horn flagon just bestowed upon him.

And we know darn well that Angelina Jolie, “the sexiest woman alive,” is Grendel’s mother. Who else but the reigning queen of mythic sexuality could so successfully depict a mythical seductress? No epic hero would have his sword/phallus liquified as does Zemeckis’s Beowulf, but we, the contemporary audience nearly seduced ourselves by Jolie’s legendary lips (at least the men in the audience) can sympathize with Beowulf’s failure to complete his mission.

As she reels him in, Grendel’s mother entices Beowulf not just with her dripping, curvy form, but with the promise of “the greatest song ever sung,” and indeed, “the bards will sing of this,” is a refrain throughout the movie. The songs actually create, or at least prop up, reality in a very modern sense. When Beowulf tries to tell his faithful lieutenant the truth about what went on in that cave, the sidekick cuts him off. Beowulf slew her; after all, that’s what the song says. This is a Beowulf after Jean Baudrillard’sSimulacra and Simulation,” a media creation better than the real thing, well, certainly more heroic, i.e. a “real hero,” a figure no longer real to us.

We bring to “Beowulf” all our experiences of contemporary action “heroes,” men whose status builds more upon body count than any exercise of virtue, and who are, in any case, too jaded and self-conscious to fit into the epic as Bakhtin describes it. There can be no heroic Beowulf alongside Captain Jack Sparrow.

 

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