News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Babel and the God’s-eye View of Reality

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Babel and the God’s-eye View of Reality

In a recent posting, biblical scholar Ben Witherington reviews the new film Babel. For Witherington, Babel’s power comes in its ability to provide what I will call the God’s view of reality by showing how seemingly random events fit into a higher, more ethical universe of meaning. The filmmaker seems intent on showing the ethical implications of actions that are disjoined by time/space.

I have not seen Babel yet, so my comments will revert to other movies, especially Crash, although I could have just as easily mentioned Syriana or Traffic. These two movies do not necessarily have the same subtext—dealing with actions and their ethical repercussion, but they do share the intent of providing a view of reality that shows the interconnectedness of events and human behavior. …

In the biblical book of Job, the apotheosis of the action is without doubt the vision that Job has of God speaking from a tornado. In his questioning of the rebellious and straight-talking Job, God questions him about his ability to see the world as God the creator and sustainer of creation does. God sees all and tends all; God sees how all things interconnect and views what no human could ever see, not to mention understand.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?
"Deck yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor.
Pour forth the overflowings of your anger, and look on every one that is proud, and abase him.
Look on every one that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked where they stand.
Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below.
Then will I also acknowledge to you, that your own right hand can give you victory. (Job 40:6-14)
I have chosen a passage that stresses God’s purported justice and His ability to bring to justice those that human laws cannot or will not bow low.

The passages preceding this one emphasize God’s omniscience, as well as His omnipotence. In the modern audience such passages might elicit something of a titter, especially if you’re disposed to a healthy skepticism. In terms of His omniscience, anyone who watches National Geographic or Animal Planet could answer God back and say, “Yes, we have seen those hidden things that once were hidden to human eyes.”

As to omnipotence, the scientist would point to the fact that physicists do indeed understand the workings of the forces at play when the cosmos was created. In fact, their knowledge is so profound that they can actually create the conditions and circumstances of that birth in the laboratory.

With these remarks as background, it is not difficult to see why filmmakers believe they can provide exactly that type of cosmic vision that God gives Job. The camera eye seems supremely made to depict reality “as it is.” For this task, the camera does not filter the information that it spies. Unfiltered, naked fact speaks from every frame since the camera cannot lie. As the truism goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Indeed, what better testimony to the ability of the camera to capture truth than those videos in which criminal behavior is caught on tape and then used in court, as in the Rodney King case? The attractiveness of the camera to capture the unseen crime, the hidden truth behind the façade of custom and human pretensions, has made its way into TV programs such as COPS and its spin-off spawn.

There is the difference, though, between a film and these videos, as well as their filmic grandparents, the documentary. The most notable difference is the staging that goes into any dramatic film. As every student of Film 101 learns, every scene contains exactly what the film’s director wants us to see. Every color, every thing in the film, not to mention the actions of the characters, are dictated strictly by the director.

Even given these dramaturgical and technical details, however, we could say that God does the same thing. If God is indeed in charge of time and history, then He arranges things as he sees fit and therefore can be seen as a film director writ in large letters.

Yet, the details of any film will always be limited by the human capacity to reach that state of ex-stasis (ecstasy) or point outside of time wherein s/he can view the entirety of events and their interconnectedness. Indeed, as you will know it takes several Cray supercomputers to handle the amount of weather data and perform the chaos theory formulae on it to get what anyone—including systems architects—would call information.

But there’s more to the story than this simple inability of the human bio-computer to handle the plethora of data that world events, and their apparent chaos, entail. This issue relates to the ethical dimension of events. That is, the power of Job’s vision is that God has the frame-of-reference, so to speak, within which to make sense of the seeming injustice and meaningless suffering that humans endure and inflict on each other. Indeed, it is God who makes sure that that cosmic balance and justice are somehow maintained.

The film Crash is perhaps a film that has the more modest goals in this regard. Through inter-related stories that switch back and forth between present past and (the illusion of) the future, we see how the actions of each character bring about tragic consequences. The film’s ability to travel through time, as it were—gives us a feeling of transcending those very boundaries that capture us in their confines. Isn’t an attribute of God called omnipresence? Isn’t this power of the artist to transcend these boundaries and take us with him or her in that shamanic journey an exercise in the theophanic vision that placated Job’s rage against his own and others’ unjust suffering?

For Witherington, Babel at least examines this moral dimension of the world and its interconnectedness—not in abstract sociological terms, but in specifically ethical terms. Witherington writes:
So what is the message of this film? Interestingly enough the director seems to be making another Biblical point, [sic] and not one connected with Babel. It is that bad actions always have negative consequences somehow, for someone. This is true for the person who fired the gun, and it is equally true for the nanny who takes the children across the border, when she is illegally in the U.S. So, are we being told that despite the fallenness and the chaos that there is a moral order to this human connnectedness, or at least moral consequences to immoral actions? Yes, I think that is part of the point. But this is a movie which one needs to watch several times to catch all the nuances.
For Witherington, then, the power of the film Babel shows that despite the apparent chaos ruling events and the world as we encounter it in the news, for example, there is indeed a structure and coherence to it. The panoptic vision of the film then is able to show us that structure because of its ability to span time/space and present the intricacies of each action in the very historical, social, and cultural circumstances in which they happen.

Isn’t this what God shows Job? That despite Job’s limited perception of reality—especially as seen through his own suffering—there is indeed a cosmic structure and ethical/spiritual meaning to the world that engages us often as chaos?
"Can you draw out Levi'athan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant for ever?
Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on leash for your maidens? (Job 41:1-5)
Leviathan here is the ancient symbol for chaos. Borrowed by the Hebrews from ancient Mesopotamian creation stories, it represents the primeval chaos from the creator-god forms order and all that we see and use in the world.

I just want to add one more remark in what is probably an overlong posting. This question relates to the issue of what’s to be done once I see the film? What happens after I witness the God-view that a film like Crash or Babel might give me? I want to suggest that the danger in any aesthetic artifact such as a film is that they might give the viewer the feeling that once they “experience” the God-view then they have nothing more to do. There’s no reason to change anything—in yourself or the world—since the act of being a viewer is enough.

Since I have the film, what else is needed? The film serves as a replacement for action. Knowing about something takes the place of action, whatever that might be. The options here might include a stoicism born from a feeling that “in the big picture it all makes sense so what I must do is accept it and do what I do.” There’s also the possibility that the satiation of the aesthetic experience may itself seem to satisfy any other ethical response, whether for moving on to practicing justice, say.

Not to put too fine a point on these random remarks, I respect and admire the artistic vision that tries to expand the limitations of artistic renditions of the human condition—expansions that attempt to create a bridge to the ethical dimension of our lives. Much like their literary doubles The Divine Comedy, War and Peace, August 1914, these films in their striving for the epic crash on the rocks of what the old-timers called the human existential condition. That contradiction of being beings in time capable of transcending time in glimpses and intimations but always called back to finitude and the anxiety that it inspires.

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