What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …) – more to genius than meets the eye (and ear …)

Christopher Hartney, “What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …)” (WEA Sydney, 28 October 2014)

What makes a genius? Is genius inborn in certain individuals, irrespective of where they live and what they do, or does a certain environment have to exist to cultivate genius? Is genius, especially the lone genius, a real figure or is genius a myth that tells us more about the society that needs the genius myth and what it values? Why do some societies need the genius and others not? Why is it that at particular times in a society’s development, geniuses may appear at the same time in the same arena of intellectual, artistic or scientific endeavour, as in the case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently conceiving of natural selection as the driver of evolution? These questions were all tackled in just under 90 minutes with varying degrees of success by University of Sydney lecturer Christopher Hartney at WEA Sydney as part of its annual George Shipp lecture series.

Starting with Voltaire and working his way through individuals such as Mozart, Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Edison, Hartney delivered a fast-paced lecture that pulled in insights from aesthetics, philosophy, science and religion. He explored different concepts of the genius such as the genius as hero, the genius as prophet and other stereotypes. Hartney also pointed out the phenomenon of concurrence in which two or more creative people, acting independently of one another, have the same idea at the same time: this calls into question as to whether people considered geniuses are genuinely innovative or are merely conductors through which ideas and inventions may come into being. Hartney then explored the social context in which genius may arise and noted that geniuses often are never fully integrated into their societies: rather, they may be antagonistic towards some aspect or aspects of the culture in which they live and tend to set themselves apart from it in some way. They may be considered eccentric, bizarre or socially maladjusted; a common cultural theme in Western society is that of the mad scientist who works on his (rarely her) own pursuing projects that promise both great revelations and discoveries for humankind and great disaster as well.

The talk was very dense with information and there was little opportunity for audience input for most of Hartney’s time until the end. I must confess that early on I felt a bit dozy and missed quite a bit of Hartney’s speech. Hartney was very entertaining and fluent, very sure of his topic and I imagine quite a few people who attended the talk must have been spellbound.

In the space of 90 minutes, covering so much ground, Hartney did not go into much depth into each aspect of his lecture: it was clearly intended as an introduction into the nature of genius and its complex relationship to society. There was not the opportunity to investigate why some ideas and inventions often wait many years, even decades, before they become reality or are mass produced for the public. There was also no time to explore why genius often comes in pairs, as in famous song-writing duos – think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney during The Beatles’ heyday, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, or Elton John and Bernie Taupin – or in founders of corporations such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Inc who conceived the idea of making personal computers as opposed to computers for businesses and organisations, or Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the founders of Sony. A third issue that Hartney was unable to investigate was why some creative individuals go unheralded while others take credit for their work, and why some people are brilliant at coming up with ideas but are unable to bring their ideas to full fruition: is the nature of the individuals themselves that their genius goes begging during their lifetimes or is it that society for some reason cannot accept their ideas and inventions at the time but is only able to accept them later if they come from somebody else?

Hartney concluded his talk by observing that genius is as much a product of nurture as of nature: genius may be genetic but it must be encouraged by a family upbringing and education that recognises and prizes individual ability and effort; genius needs interest and immersion in a particular field which may require and lead to isolation from others; genius needs to incubate, experience the moment of revelation and discovery, and then to develop and elaborate on the discovery and bring the concept into material reality and usefulness. This all must take place in a social context in which others are willing to accept the idea and give genius the time, space and resources to develop the idea.

On that open-ended conclusion, the audience cheered and I daresay many people were inspired enough to pursue the ideas in Hartney’s talk further.




5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked: cherry-picking easy targets to attack so as to look good

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp / Business For Scotland, “5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked” (September 2014)

At this time of writing, there remain just a few days to go until Scotland has its independence referendum and already the pro-independence and the anti-independence camps have escalated their war of words across the UK media to a shrill intensity. To counter some of the fear tactics and scare stories concerning how an independent Scotland will cope and thrive economically, Business For Scotland’s Chief Executive Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp has come out with guns blazing in a series of short videos, all of which can be viewed on Youtube, to explain how Scotland can pay its own way and fulfill its independence dreams. He concentrates on five scare stories that the No Campaign has been drumming up and which various Business For Scotland speakers and campaigners have had to confront the most in meetings and interviews, and demolishes the objections the No Campaign has raised. All the videos in which MacIntyre-Kemp takes apart the scare stories are very brief, running for less than three minutes each. They can be viewed at this Business For Scotland link.

In Video 1, MacIntyre-Kemp addresses the issue of bank bail-outs and points out that the two major banks in Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, were bailed out in the cities where they are headquartered or registered; that is, in the City of London and New York City. He ends his talk by suggesting that banks headquartered in Scotland should be nationalised and regulated so that they are not allowed to rack up huge debts and require massive multi-billion pound bail-outs.

Video 2 deals with the issue of who subsidises Scotland: MacIntyre-Kemp turns that assumption on its head by pointing out that Scotland contributes more in tax revenues to Westminister than it receives back. In Video 3, he tackles the issue of how Scotland will be able to prop up public services like pensions and asserts that Scotland will lock in increases  to pensions which will be based on increases in average weekly earnings. He argues that a revitalised economy will be able to arrest a brain drain of young qualified professionals away from Scotland and at the same time attract skilled immigrants and together these groups will provide a substantial tax base that will support pension payments to the elderly and the needy.

Currency is the focus of Video 4 as for the time being Scotland expects to continue using pound sterling after independence. MacIntyre-Kemp suggests the confusion over the issue of currency has been stirred up deliberately by Westminster to persuade people to vote No. Should Scotland opt for independence, the most likely scenario will be that the Bank of England will support currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK to help stabilise the economies of the two states. In the final video, MacIntyre-Kemp explains how Scotland will be able to pay its way as an independent country, pointing out that among other things it will not need a large defence force and will commit itself to creating a society with sustainability as a core value. He rounds off his series of videos by declaring that the issue of Scottish independence isn’t about the economics but about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike out and create a fairer and more just society that could serve as an example for others including the rest of Britain to follow.

The videos are easy on the eye – they just feature MacIntyre-Kemp against a white background over which figures and facts float temporarily to illustrate what he says.

I admit to surprise that in all of these videos MacIntyre-Kemp doesn’t mention the issue of North Sea oil and how much oil really is within Scotland’s maritime territories to its north. This is significant if Scotland plans not only to adopt Scandinavian-influenced social welfare policies which in themselves would cost a fair few cool hundred billion pounds a year but also to invest in renewable energies and eventually wean itself off fossil fuels. Even if there were enough oil to last Scotland several decades (let alone some of the more optimistic claims that the oil could last a century!), there is the problem of how Scotland will finance exploration and drilling for the oil and how it will be able to control revenues and direct the bulk of them into a sovereign wealth fund and away from unproductive financial transactions such as property speculation (which drives up real estate prices in cities and towns), various debt bubbles and ingenious but ultimately harmful financial engineering schemes that make money disappear into tax haven black holes or unscrupulous scamsters’ bank accounts. Even before all this, there’s the problem as to whether Scotland will be able to claim the oil resources in its waters on behalf of its people before the US or UK pressures the country’s government through under-handed tactics: in this context, for Scotland to assume that currency union will ensure stable economies on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall might be naive in the least.

Another big problem is that an independent Scotland cannot rely completely on oil resources whose market prices can vary from one year to the next depending on what other oil exporters are able to sell and the levels of global demand for oil. The country could rely on providing financial services and inviting foreign companies to establish factories (Scottish manufacturing having declined over the last half-century or so under Westminister rule) but at a cost of offering subsidies, tax relief and other incentives (like low wages, importing Third World labour and waiving or ignoring OHS regulations) to compete against the rest of Britain and Ireland. This could well pull funding away from building up a social welfare net for citizens, a sovereign wealth fund and renewable energy projects and into the coffers of foreign firms.

There is a very real possibility also that the EU will not accept Scotland as a member unless and until its government imposes an austerity package on its citizens and conforms to other EU, World Bank and IMF requirements. Even if Scotland were to agree to undergo austerity, forgo developing a social welfare net and to restructure its institutions according to EU, World Bank and IMF guidelines, full EU membership cannot be guaranteed.

The assumption that small European countries are wealthier than larger European countries is lazy: Greece, Ireland and Portugal are being squeezed by their crippling debt and austerity programs, and several EU member states in eastern Europe (Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia) are not exactly thriving either. About 1 in 5 people in Lithuania are living at near-poverty levels or below and similar proportions of the populations in Estonia and Latvia are also living close to near-poverty levels. Latvia is said to be losing 30,000 people a year as young adults are voting with their feet in search of employment. As for the wealthy small European countries, Luxembourg derives a considerable part of its wealth from being a tax haven as does Switzerland: hardly worthy examples for Scotland to follow.

Even so, in spite of what I have just said, I do realise the September 2014 referendum is a unique opportunity for Scotland’s citizens to decide on the future direction of their country. It will be a momentous event, one that may have flow-on consequences for what remains of the United Kingdom: it may well start conversations within England, Wales and Northern Ireland themselves as to their futures and devolving more power to the public away from their elites. As Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp says at the end of Video 5, independence isn’t just about economics, it’s about starting anew with a new set of values that stress fairness, justice, equality and sustainability.

The Pricing of Everything: a wide-ranging talk on neoliberal economics and its commodification of nature

George Monbiot, “The Pricing of Everything” (SPERI Annual Lecture , Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, University of Sheffield, 29 April 2014)

Here’s a wide-ranging talk pulling in issues and aspects of contemporary politics and economics, philosophy and the place and value of nature and natural environmental systems in a global civilisation dominated by the values of neoliberal capitalism, and delivered in impassioned style by journalist and environmental / political activist George Monbiot. Since 1996, Monbiot has been writing a column on environmental and political topics for the British newspaper The Guardian and a transcript of his lecture can be accessed at this link.

It’s a long talk, about 45 minutes in length, but clearly structured around a theme of how societies these days are so dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideology that everything, even natural ecosystems, has to be priced in monetary terms; and how this ideology now pervades nearly all social, political and economic institutions and structures. This is just as well as Monbiot does not rely at all on visual aids whereas most other people would read off a series of bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation. Monbiot’s delivery and the stage on which he strolls about might be likened to a one-man monologue drama: the audience has to focus entirely on him. Since he bangs on without notes and with very little pause, not even for a drink of water, one might think the danger Monbiot should have foreseen would be that his talk would wander off up hill and dale on pet topics; to some extent, that does happen. Fortunately he has considerable experience in public speaking and presenting his material, and his talk is much less dry than would be expected given its subject matter.

The talk begins with Monbiot’s explication of what neoliberal economics is (as he sees it), what it has done or not done, and how it has failed to deliver what its proponents claim it can do.  Free markets are held as a sacrosanct concept in being able to fulfill all social and economic needs more effectively and efficiently than any other economic system or ideology, and the role of governments is merely to ensure that markets are allowed to identify where needs are greatest and allocate resources to meet those needs without interference. Over the last 35 years or so, governments have retreated from actively regulating particular markets and economies with fiscal policies and relying instead on expanding or contracting money supply as mandated by Hayekian / Friedmanite monetarist economics. The result generally has been privatisation of the public sector, a concentration of wealth in the financial industry, the usurpation of the real economy (one that produces goods and services) with the financial economy resulting in the death of manufacturing in many First World economies, and greater socio-economic equalities leading to the shrinking of the middle classes and a rise in and spread of poverty across social classes.

Having failed to deliver what it was supposed to do, neoliberal economics through its adherents in governments, lobby groups, academia and various think-tanks has moved to the natural world to wring from it the wealth, natural and financial, to support its agenda. This trend in neoliberal capitalism to commodify, monetarise and generally shape and divide the natural world for easier consumption and devastation constitutes the bulk of Monbiot’s talk.  Had Monbiot stuck to delineating examples of how neoliberal economics preys, vampire-like, on the natural world, his talk on the whole would have been very good, even great. Out of the talk though wriggles out one issue that is at the heart of the neoliberal capitalist agenda: the drive for power and domination.

At this point, Monbiot veers away from addressing the issue of power directly and starts prattling about how progressive and social democratic parties have shot themselves in the foot by abandoning their core values and core audience in pursuit of votes and winning elections and ending up no different from the parties whose policies and programs they supposedly oppose. From there we end up in a woffle about intrinsic versus extrinsic values and Monbiot getting those rather mixed up with values that emphasise the autonomy of the individual versus values that stress collective needs over individual rights and freedoms. The talk ends in a call for people to “mobilise”.

I’m disappointed that at the moment Monbiot identifies power as the heart of the neoliberal capitalist project, he starts talking around it instead of pushing on and showing how the drive for power over resources and accumulating even more power has distorted our societies and culture and demeaned the practice and values of democracy, individualism and freedom as understood by 18th and 19th-century Enlightenment thinkers. Of course one could say that the desire for power over material resources and other people as commodities is as old as civilisation itself but only neoliberal capitalism would make a fetish and a religion out of a set of values and a mode of thinking that prefers narrow and selfish low cunning for short-term ends over thinking and feeling that consider the long-term interest and the interests of others as well as oneself. The curious detour into talking about how political parties and their interests have converged does not address the fact that all political parties now concern themselves with acquiring power and deploying it to their own selfish interests, collective and individual alike. Politics has become an industry and closed world unto itself with its own jargon, culture, particular forms of entry and access to new joiners (known in economics jargon as “barriers to entry”) and members whose careers are politics and being politicians, and who depend on sponsors (party donors, lobby groups and others with agendas of their own) for money, support and direction.

Equally Monbiot is in dangerous waters when he confuses the values of collective societies with intrinsically held values and the values of Hobbesian societies that pay lip service to individualism, freedom, egalitarianism and democracy but understand neither (or distort the concepts) with extrinsically held values. The example of Japan under shogun (especially during its Tokugawa period from 1600 to 1868) and military rule in the early 20th century alone shows how a nation based on collective structures and values can oppress its own people and the people of other nations it conquers.

The issue that remains unaddressed is that the neoliberal capitalist project serves a small wealth cabal that wields enormous influence over people’s thinking and feeling through the exercise of both hard and soft power. Hard power as in spending on large armed forces and using them to repress people or to destroy rivals rather than to defend the weak is bad enough but perhaps even more insidious is the use of soft power to mould people’s minds, emotions and thus their actions through media and media technologies, advertising, drugs and other psychological tools and methods. In this respect the call for people to “mobilise” is so useless it can be likened to rain falling on barren ground bereft of bacteria and other microbes and life-forms to turn it into soil. Oppressed people will simply be too afraid to resist the brainwashing or be unaware that what they believe and feel is natural, is not.

It seems that the work of the 21st century world is to undo the psychological harm to humankind caused by nations and corporations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Drones, detention and dormant journalism in “Coffee and Papers …” at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival

“Coffee and Papers with The Sydney Morning Herald, Jeremy Scahill and Antony Loewenstein,” Sydney Writers Festival (The Bar at the End of the Wharf, Sydney Theatre Company, The Rocks, 23 May 2014)

A lovely way to enjoy the extended Indian summer Sydney has been having in May 2014 was to turn up to this morning 1-hour panel session featuring Helen Pitt, the Opinion Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, one of her colleagues whose name I unfortunately didn’t quite catch, and guest journalists Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept and Antony Loewenstein at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival. The panel session facilitator was Sherrill Nixon, also of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Wending my way to the session through The Rocks area and Walsh Bay, I nearly got run over by a car because my head was buried in a Google Maps print-out and I lost my way a bit around the various Sydney Writers Festival venues. I managed to reach the venue in time to buy cappuccino and chocolate brownie and settle down in the lounge area. I even managed to snatch a quick look at the Friday issue of SMH and check out my fellow audience members: a mixture of people of about mature or retirement age and some young journalism students. Everyone was in a good mood, expecting a stimulating hour of talk on current politics and issues.

Well the panel didn’t disappoint. After introductions, Scahill plunged into talking about the United States government’s use of military drones to prosecute global wars and eliminate people it considers to be major threats whether they actually are or aren’t. This topic is in connection with a recently published book of his, “Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield”, and a film “Dirty Wars” in which he features (and which I have reviewed elsewhere on Under Southern Eyes). Scahill in particular talked about Christopher Harvard, an Australian citizen, and Muslim bin John, a dual Australian-New Zealand citizen, who were both killed by a drone strike in Yemen in April 2014, and the reaction of both the Australian and New Zealand governments to their deaths: Australia’s reaction was silence and New Zealand’s response was to accept bin John’s death as “legitimate”.

Scahill also mentioned Anwar al Awlaki, the American Muslim cleric who was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen, in violation of his rights as an American citizen under the US Constitution to hearing and knowing the charges against him and being tried in a court of law by his peers. The journalist also referred to an Afghani family who features in “Dirty Wars”: Scahill spoke of the midnight raid on their house by US soldiers in which family members including two pregnant women were killed and a couple of men were arrested. The men were later returned to the family with no explanation of why they had been arrested other than that the whole raid had been a mistake, no apology and little in the way of compensation.

Loewenstein referred to his experiences of interviewing asylum seekers detained on Manus Island after risking their lives on the high seas to come to Australia, and the difficulties he and other journalists experienced in trying to gain access to their interviewees from prison guards and security personnel.

The panel wove these seemingly disparate topics into a whole by discussing the current news media landscape and how it hinders the public’s right to know what governments are doing or not doing in their name. Few news reporters these days question their governments or government agencies and representatives and instead parrot the press releases given them by governments and pass them off as news. Scahill and Loewenstein spoke at some length on the nature of US President Barack Obama’s administration, how it has been instrumental in sinking the US’s reputation throughout the world and the news media’s role in shaping and disseminating misinformation and propaganda. Scahill referred briefly to the hold that corporations have upon the US government.

The panel guests were forthright and articulate in their views and opinions, and demonstrated journalism-as-advocacy in its best light. In the brief Q & A session that followed the panel discussion, Scahill and Loewenstein patiently dealt with questions on conspiracy theories: it was obvious that the two have been quizzed in the past about whether they thought the US government had played some role in the World Trade Center attacks in September, 2001. The panel seemed to perk up at a question from Yours Truly on journalism education in universities and colleges and whether it was too narrowly focused on media technologies and not enough on critical analysis of the news. (The thought had occurred to me during the panel discussions that one reason that journalists these days seem so compliant and do not challenge power is that their education may be essentially vocational with an emphasis on knowing current technologies and how to use them but not on developing critical and analytical skills that a generalist, humanities-based education would give them.) The SMH representatives admitted that in recent years, new recruits often did not have knowledge or experience in sifting through and judging the worth of information. Scahill and Loewenstein both stated that their education and training as journalists occurred on the job, apprentice-style, and that they had very good mentors (Amy Johnson and Margo Kingston respectively) to guide them.

While there wasn’t a lot in the session that was new to me or other audience members – apart from Scahill exclaiming that Australian journalism was old-school muckraking journalism – I did come away with a better appreciation of what he, Loewenstein and other investigative journalists are trying to do and what they are up against in a news media world that acts on the whole as a public relations front and cheerleader for governments and large private corporations. I may not always agree with the likes of Scahill on issues like the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine and Russia’s role in these but I respect that he and others are chipping away in their own way against the arrogance and indifference of powerful forces destroying freedom and democracy, and the despair and anger of people at their governments around the world.


Ag-Gag Laws: The Bid to Silence Animal Advocates – a powerful presentation for animal rights advocacy

David Ritter and Will Potter, “Ag-Gag Laws: The Bid to Silence Animal Advocates”, Voiceless 2014 Animal Law Lecture Series, Corrs Westgarth offices, Sydney, 2 May 2014

I had the opportunity and privilege to attend this very powerful seminar given by Voiceless, an animal rights and advocacy organisation, and its guest speakers David Ritter of Greenpeace Australia and Will Potter, an American investigative journalist, in the Sydney offices of the law firm Corrs Westgarth. The theme of the talks given focused on the rise of ag-gag legislation which is designed deliberately to target and silence animal rights advocates and reporters, preventing them from documenting and reporting on the suffering of animals in factory farms and abattoirs.

After introductions in which the audience learned about the work done by Voiceless since its inception in 2004 on animal rights, principally in the areas of the rights of animals living in battery conditions on farms and of the commercial hunting of kangaroos, the talks by the guest speakers began in earnest. David Ritter concentrated on the issue of dredging for coal in one part of the Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast in the main. His speech also included a summary of marketing campaigns undertaken by animal rights activists in the past and the effectiveness of these campaigns. Not many visual aids were used but those that were – a brief film of an ad campaign linking a corporation’s palm oil product with the deforestation of rainforests in Indonesia and the effects on the orang utang populations was included – proved to be very moving indeed.

Despite his jet lag which affected his voice, Will Potter proved to be a passionate and determined speaker, and a highly entertaining one into the bargain, holding most people if not everyone spellbound with his and other people’s experiences as animal rights and protection advocates and their brushes with the law. He spoke at length on the recent history of animal rights protest and advocacy and moves within the US government to curb such activity at the behest of lobby groups acting for agribusiness. The experiences of two activists he personally knew were quite horrific, with one of his friends re-arrested, thrown back into jail and even threatened with solitary confinement for speaking about his time in the slammer. Potter also spoke of how various acts pertaining to animal protection have been amended over the years until the language and particular definitions have been changed to mean something very different, even diametrically opposed, to what their original intention and meaning were.

Especially insidious was Potter’s mention of how terrorism and the meaning of the word “terrorist” have been re-defined to include environmental and animal rights and protection activists and campaigners. This is one example of many of how the US government uses fear and the language of fear and defensiveness to divide Americans against one another and control the public’s thinking and behaviour. The manipulation of public opinion through the news media and advertising campaigns is apparent. At the same time the manipulation can be jaw-droppingly arrogant and crude, with ad hominem attacks, false associations and cut-and-pasted language copied from past campaigns to denigrate activists.

The time passed very quickly and the presentations finished ten minutes later than originally scheduled but an informative 90-minute session was had by all.



Metaphysics goes to the movies with “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame”

Ray Younis, “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame” (The University of Sydney / Centre for Continuing Education, Saturday 8 February 2014)

Not often does a person get an opportunity to attend a discussion on metaphysics and its central concerns based on a dissection of a science fiction film so of course when I found out about this particular one-day seminar, I just had to go! I have attended quite a few of Ray Younis’s one-day adult education courses in the past at the University of Sydney so I had high expectations of what he would talk about and I was not disappointed in this respect.

Younis is quite an avid fan of Hollywood sci-fi films that dwell on issues like meaning and purpose to life, what it means to be human and the nature of freedom and free will. If there was money to be had in combining film reviewing and philosophy in an online or print newspaper column, he ought to be there. Unfortunately not even the ABC, SBS or Guardian Australia is quite up to this level of sophistication. The class basically ran through a screening of the entire film in its director’s cut version and particular scenes were analysed in detail with respect to cinematography, the genres that were referenced (science fiction and film noir) by the film, the use of lighting and shadow, and the scenes’ relevance to the film’s themes and the philosophical concepts and values expressed.

Metaphysics refers to the discipline of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts outside the physical world such as whether God exists and what the nature of that god might be, whether humans or their souls survive death and/or have immortality, and questions of freedom, free will and what it means to be human. The issues that “Blade Runner” addresses are those of what makes a human being human, what is the purpose of individual human beings, and what are worthwhile goals of human beings as opposed to mere beings. Tied up with these issues is the issue of how human beings should conduct themselves within a community of other beings, some of whom might qualify as “human” and others not by the standards of the community’s leaders, and whether those standards are fair or unfair, moral or immoral. How should humans behave towards others and live lives of purpose and integrity in societies that operate on principles and with values that are clearly at odds with living with purpose, dignity and respect for others?

The film portrays a hierarchical society with enormous social inequalities and a complicated class structure in which a small human-only elite dominates a vast underclass of both humans and replicants (cyborg beings created to perform the most dangerous or disgusting work). The human characters throughout the film, and the blade runner (professional killer of runaway or rebellious replicants) Deckard in particular, are portrayed as ciphers content with their allotted status in life and not knowing anything more than what is necessary for them to do their jobs and survive. The replicant characters are complex beings who know more than what they should, who have achieved self-awareness and can quote poetry, play chess and plan chess strategy, and talk philosophy. They thirst for more life because they are all too aware that their life-spans are limited and time is running out for them. Though the plot is fairly standard – Deckard hunts down the runaway replicants and manages to dispose of most of them – the narrative turns the plot elements on their head: the hunter becomes the hunted, humans are shown as dehumanised and the replicants end up teaching Deckard what it means to be human and to have a worthwhile purpose in life.

Pivotal scenes in this respect (and these were discussed in the class) were those in which Deckard confronts Zhora, Leon, Pris and Roy Batty in turn: what these characters say and do to Deckard is important as a wake-up call to him. Zhora is shown as a trapped prey during Deckard’s pursuit of her in the crowded Los Angeles streets. Leon’s last words to Deckard are  “Wake up, time to die” before he himself unexpectedly is killed. Pris chooses to go down fighting even though she knows she has no chance against Deckard. Batty resists his programming as a replicant designed for combat and assassination duties by saving Deckard’s life and shows Deckard that he too can choose a new path in life and resist orders from an oppressive authority. Deckard is reminded of what he has lost in his career as a blade runner: honour (he killed two women in the back in cold blood), mercy and compassion for others weaker than he is.

Significantly though the replicants know they are going to die, they insist on choosing the mode of their deaths and if they have to die violently, they face their deaths as bravely as they can. Zhora, a combat model, keeps running for as long as she can and exhausts Deckard in the process; Pris, a pleasure model (and presumably not programmed to resist), fights Deckard hard with whatever resources she has; and Batty perhaps even accelerates his death by using up his strength to rescue Deckard from a fall, then calmly faces the inevitable with Deckard as his witness. In acting as they do, they go beyond their programming and exercise choice and will: they finally realise what it is to be human.

Other important scenes include Batty’s confrontation with Eldon Tyrell in which he converses with his maker on genetics and Tyrell tells him patronisingly that a life that burns twice as bright is only half as long. In his few scenes, Tyrell comes across as smug and somewhat slimy: the irony is that as the de facto ruler of the new Los Angeles, he is also constrained by his role and status and becomes less of a human than the creatures he created.

The frame-by-frame analysis of the film allows viewers to appreciate the ways in which elements of the film noir genre was employed to suggest the panopticon-style society that characterises Los Angeles in 2019: the use of flashing lights  in certain scenes reinforces the 24/7 surveillance and the prisons, both mental and physical, that bound Deckard’s character as he hunts down the replicants. Various motifs such as eye images, the repetition of musical melodies at particular points in the film, blue lighting, hazy atmosphere and the film’s setting in a dingy, rundown part of the future Los Angeles help to paint a picture of a complex yet brutal society in which just about everyone is an insignificant being of some sort.

Although there wasn’t much mentioned about the film’s themes that I wasn’t already aware of – for me, the film possesses great clarity – I did appreciate additional insights about aspects of the film’s messages that either reinforced or challenged my views.

My original post of my views about “Blade Runner” can be read here.