Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi was showing on television last night and I decided it was finally time to catch up with it. Unfortunately, the ‘twist’ in the ending left me with the unpleasant impression of having been led up the garden path and having had my time wasted by a monumental shaggy dog, or as Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian puts it, ‘shaggy tiger’ tale. Added to this was a not inconsiderable and uneasy whiff of neo-orientalism.

Like another critic, Will Leitch, I was disappointed that the author of the book on which this film is based wasn’t content to simply settle for a ripping adventure yarn of a boy on a boat with a tiger, but instead felt the need to indulge in extensive ‘postmodern’ pseudo-philophising.

Elsewhere, James Wood in a review of Yann Martel’s original 2002 book observes: “Nothing marks Life of Pi as a contemporary Postmodern novel more strongly than its theological impoverishment (for all that it seems to scream theological richness): instead of being interested in the theological basis of Pi’s soul, it is really interested only in the theological basis of storytelling. The former is or could be a day to day, lived reality; the latter is only a piquant but now familiar contemporary abstraction.”

life_of_pi Source


Just adding a few notes to yesterday’s post… Foucault mentions Freud, of course, as one the inheritors of the ideas of Epictetus and Cassian, but we could also include St Ignatius Loyola in this lineage with the intricate structures and practices he constructed around the ‘discernment of spirits’. ‘Discernment’ is the term retained from this phrase in an age generally sceptical (except in New Age circles) of the existence of a whole other world of spirits.

this site administered by the Loyola Press describes Loyola’s ‘practices of the self’ as follows:

Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us.

Ignatius set up a list of 22 rules for discernment – which would bring him into line with Epictetus’ rule based approach as well.

One might also mention in this context of the spiritual training of the mind, Eastern practices of ‘mindfulness’ which have been imported into Western culture via systems such as yoga and New Age meditation practices.

Between these poles of training in thought and training in reality, melete and gymnasia, there are a whole series of intermediate possibilities. Epictetus provides the best example of the middle ground between these poles. He wants to watch perpetually over representations, a technique which culminates in Freud. There are two metaphors important from his point of view: the night watchman, who doesn’t admit anyone into town if that person can’t prove who he is (we must be “watchman” over the flux of thought), and the money changer, who verifies the authenticity of currency, looks at it, weighs and verifies it. We have to be money changers of our own representations of our thoughts, vigilantly testing them, verifying them, their metal, weight, effigy.

The same metaphor of the money changer is found in the Stoics and in early Christian literature but with different meanings. When Epictetus says you have to be a money changer, he means as soon as an idea comes to mind you have to think of the rules you must apply to evaluate. For John Cassian, being a money changer and looking at your thoughts means something very different: It means you must try to decipher it, at the root of the movement which brings you the representations, there is or is not concupiscence or desire – if your innocent thought has evil origins; if you have something underlying which is the great seducer, which is perhaps hidden, the money of your thought. […]

In order to make this kind of scrutiny, Cassian says we have to care for ourselves, to attest our thoughts directly. He gives three analogies. First is the analogy of the mill (First Conference of Abbot Moses 18). Thoughts are like grains, and consciousness is the mill store. It is our role as the miller to sort out amongst the grains those which are bad and those which can be admitted to the mill store to give the good flour and good bread of our salvation.

Second, Cassian makes military analogies (First Conference of Abbot Serenus 5). He uses the analogy of the officer who orders the good soldiers to march to the right, the bad to the left. We must act like officers who divide soldiers into two files, the good and the bad.

Third, he uses the analogy of a money changer (First Conference of Abbot Moses 20 – 22). Conscience is the money changer of the self. It must examine coins, their effigy, their metal, where they came from. It must weigh them to see if they have been ill used. As there is the image of the emperor on money, so must the image of God be on our thoughts. We must verify the quality of the thought: This effigy of God, is it real? What is its degree of purity? Is it mixed with desire or concupiscence? Thus, we find the same image as in Seneca, but with a different meaning.

Foucault, Michel. ‘Technologies of the Self’. In Technologies of the Self. A seminar with Michel Foucault. Edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton,. Univ. of Massachusets Press, 1988, pp. 16-49.

Random thoughts in response
Since first coming across it, I have remained fascinated by Foucault’s discussion of Cassian’s metaphor of the money changer. It is such a strong and evocative image in terms of the work that can be done in relation to one’s own thinking and the careful work of sifting thoughts and ideas and verifying their applicability to various levels of existence.

Cassian argues that this work needs to be done and legitimated within a monastic framework of obedience and continual confession, but in a contemporary era, one could perhaps extract this technique from this restricted context and combine it with Epictetus’ notions of applying rules to these continually arising mental representations. One might also give some thought as to what system of rules one might most usefully apply.

At present, training is applied to a whole range of areas of existence, including mental activity. The kind of work proposed by Epictetus and Cassian might be more socially and personally productive than the useless ‘brain training‘ schemes one sees recommended at present to prevent decay in aging populations. As though humans were simply machines on a neo-liberal factory floor, to be maintained by mechanical means with no reference to general individual or social development, other than not imposing an intolerable burden on the coffers of the State.

More discussion in a radio program with views from a variety of experts, researchers and workers around the problems of open plan.


Is open plan a good way to work? – Life Matters – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). 6 July 2015

“Open plan is a popular in home design and offices but is it good to work in? Promoted as team-building, many workers complain that open plan is noisy and distracting so it’s hard to get the job done. No privacy is another frequent complaint. Designers are trying to address the negatives by incorporating a variety of work spaces. Is this enough or is the private office, with a door, still an object of desire?”

An example of the kind of building which is currently being constructed by universities in Australia. Interestingly, in this rendering, nobody actually seems to be doing any real work. And unless I missed it, there is a glaring absence of reference to the space that staff will be spending most of their time working in.

The teaching and public spaces are lovely, but what are the primary work spaces for academic staff going to look like? Contrary to public perception, perhaps, academics only spend a small proportion of their working time in classrooms.

I posted quite a while ago about academic blogging on this blog. Stuart Elden has just offered the following useful remarks (updating earlier remarks) on his blog with some links to other recent interesting posts about academic blogging.

Progressive Geographies

Sam Kinsley has compiled a list of Geographers that blog, and followed this with a post questioning their focus, an excerpt of which was:

It was a surprise to me how quite a few of those blogs, with some honourable exceptions, are tightly focussed conduits for personal research and are not participating in wider online/offline conversations. One of the big claims made for blogging in the noughties was, of course, that ‘social’ media precisely enable broader conversations. While the majority of those active geography bloggers I found use wordpress.com for their blogs they do not seem to use the ‘social’  functions such as ‘reblog’ and other conversation tools on the platform.

Jeremy Crampton and Clive Barnett have engaged with this question on their own blogs. Jeremy talks more about the sharing question, including that of platforms; while Clive offers some very interesting reflections about why his blog, Pop Theory, began…

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The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counterpoised to those intellectuals who were merely competent instances in the service of the state or capital — technicians, magistrates, teachers. Since the time when each individual’s specific activity begun to serve as the basis for politicization, the threshold of writing, as the sacralizing mark off the intellectual, has disappeared. And it has become possible to develop lateral connections across different forms of knowledge and from one focus of politicization to another. Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicization of intellectuals. This process explains how, even as the writer tends to disappear as a figurehead, the university and the academic emerge, if not as principal elements, at least as ‘exchangers,’ privileged points of intersection. If the universities and education have become politically ultra-sensitive areas, this is no doubt the reason why. And what is called the crisis of the universities should not be interpreted as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a multiplication and reinforcement of their power effects as centers in a polymorphous ensemble of intellectuals who virtually all pass through and relate themselves to the academic system.”
Michel Foucault. (1984) [1977]. , ‘Truth and Power’. In Paul Rabinow (ed) The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 68

Random thoughts in response

This very interesting reflection by Foucault resonates strongly today. Perhaps one could argue that the remnants of the old – perhaps romantic – figure of the intellectual as writer are now being thoroughly expunged from the system in favour of the new ‘politicised’ figure of the academic – but that ‘politicisation’ has perhaps changed in emphasis since the late 1970s when Foucault made this remark. If perhaps he was referring to political radicalism, this ‘politicisation’ is now skewed in the sense of being a functionary of governmental systems. Certainly this passage by Foucault is one that could bear more thought on its applications within a contemporary context.