Thursday, February 24, 2011

Album Review: Black Materia

Admittedly, I'm not well acquainted with rap. BUT I'm a huge fan of this album. This is the basic premise: "Mega Ran" took the soundtrack from Final Fantasy VII, remixed it, and rapped the story of the game to his new beats. It is astounding.

Now, I know what you're thinking. That's great for all you losers that have played this game, but can a normal person like me enjoy this music? First, no one is above playing Final Fantasy VII. Second, take this testimonial from someone who has never played the game:

"As it stands, I absolutely love it. It's telling this story that I'm assuming is the FFVII story in each track, and I'm captivated the whole time. And since I haven't played the game or know anything about it, perhaps that's why I feel this way. Like the old radio shows in which they'd tell stories each week. Each week a new entry in the saga, which would have people huddled around their radios each week just waiting to hear the next exciting chapter."

The beats are amazing, and Mega Ran manages to make the story compelling and poignant. He uses the original music with such innovation and skill that his work and Uematsu's come together in a perfect synthesis.

Now, I've written about how video games can be art, despite what Roger Ebert may say. But this is a new point in that argument. I believe that art begets art. Art makes us think and see things differently, so it creates more art. As Levinas would say, "Fecundity begets fecundity." (This is the premise of my brother's serial "Fanart Friday" posts on his blog.) You can see that in how Paradise Lost (and pretty much every book written in the West) is inspired by the literature of the Bible. The Tempest is a response to Faustus. Everything is a response to Shakespeare.

Black Materia does more than just retell the plot of Final Fantasy VII; it recontextualizes Final Fantasy VII. The game came out in the pre-9/11 world, and in the beginning the main character is a mercenary in a terrorist group. They go out of their way to have no casualties, but they still tackle the problem of their age by blowing up the industrial buildings of Shinra. Black Materia takes the issues and dilemmas of the game and examines them anew in this age of terror. The slums of Midgar become indistinguishable from American slums. In "Cry of the Planet," the ecological crisis and political turmoil of Gaia become that of our own.

Buy this album, it is so worth it:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mathematics is Imaginary and Science is Poetry

 RenĂ©e Descartes pointed out a problem with how we know things. He realized that our senses can be deceived, and therefore, we cannot completely trust them. So he tried to find the most basic truth and build a logical paradigm based on that undeniable truth. This led him to write his now famous line, "Cogito, ergo sum;" "I think, therefore I am." We know we exist because we know we are thinking.

But Descartes also assumed the inherent truth of mathematics and logic, which is where I have to disagree with him. Numbers aren't real. They're made up by humans. You will never see a 7 in its natural habitat; it can only exist as a construct in our minds. Likewise, there really aren't five apples on any table. There are individual items on a table that we have chosen to all call apples, and since we have lumped those items into the same category, we might as well assign them the abstraction of being a group of five. But really each item is distinct from the other and from the category of "apple."

Just because numbers don't really exist, however, does not mean they aren't useful. I'm so thankful for numbers. They make life easier and they're handy. But even within the logical system of numbers that we've made for ourselves there are things called "imaginary numbers" because they are illogical. But they are just as useful as rational numbers. Electronic engineers use them all the time.

Now I'm going to talk about science. First, science is not absolute truth. In fact, it's founded on the fallacy that if we observe one repeated action, that action will continue to repeat as we have observed it. But that's okay. There is no system of intellectual inquiry that will perfectly lead us to absolute truth.

Next, science is not impartial. No one impartially decides to become a scientist. They either have a passion for the field, they're pressured into it, or they think they'll make more money from it than from some other career. There is some reason apart form science why scientists decide to do what they do.

Science is also partial when it comes to its application. An acoustician, if she were truly impartial, would not care if a concert hall had adequate echo or enveloping properties. She would just be interested in studying the effects of sound within the chamber. A biologist, if he were genuinely impartial, would not be concerned with conservation, but how all these animals and plants are disappearing just for the sake of knowing.

But doing science is like reading poetry. We take in sensory data, and then apply a meaning to it. We quantify (there are those made-up numbers again) the information available to us, be it a text or "raw facts," then we pass that information through the filter of our culture, ideology, personal history, and methodology to produce an interpretation of that information that stands independent from it.

Once again, this is not to say that science is not valuable. Clearly it is. But we need to be frank with ourselves about the subjectivity of even the "hard" sciences. The earth has no objective value besides what we, as humans, assign it. In the universal scheme of things, it really doesn't matter if we blow it all up or fry it all to ash through global warming. But it means very much to us as humans if the earth passes away. In fact, to us what is the universe without an earth?

In order to approach real truth, science and the humanities need to be informed by each other. If we abandon either field of inquiry, we resign our understanding to chaos.