19th century philosophy

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)


This is the clip from the 1982 movie Koyaanisqatsi I showed you in class. The music is by Philip Glass (famous, amazing, and still living (!) composer). The movie is a critique of modernity and what it’s done to our life. ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is Hopi for ‘life out of balance.’ So, the message is not subtle, our life is out of balance.

(Philip Glass, 1937 -)

The rocket-launch-gone-awry is of an unmanned US ‘Atlas’ rocket from the 60s. I picked the clip because it illustrates several features that Schopenhauer points to in his explanation of ‘knowledge of the idea.’ These are notably:

  1. Rupture: The suddenness with which the viewer is ‘plucked’ out of watching an ordinary spatio-temporal, causal event (a rocket launch) into, well, something else that, though still in space and time, is nevertheless strangely contemplative and timeless
  2. Meditation: The way in which the falling piece of the rocket is in a way no longer spatio-temporally or causally placeable, and the neural pathways that opens up
  3. Art: The way this rupture and meditation is specifically related to art (both visual and music)

Let’s take these in turn:

  1. Rupture—The first way in which the Koyaanisqatsi clip illustrates Schopenhauer’s claims about ‘knowledge of the Idea’ is pretty much self-explanatory”
  • Schopenhauer says that “The transition which we have referred to as possible, but yet to be regarded as only exceptional, from the common knowledge of particular things to the knowledge of the Idea, takes place suddenly” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §34; my emphasis)
    • So, two conditions that have to be satisfied if anything like “knowledge of the Idea” is to be possible: the experience has to be both exceptional and sudden and, so, rare and abrupt, or out-of-the-ordinary and, as Schopenhauer implies, transportive
  • Clearly the rocket-launch-gone-awry is an illustration of that: a fairly routine (if amazing) event takes an exceptional, unexpected, and almost instantaneous turn (for the worse)

2. Meditation—The second way in which the clip illustrates Schopenhauer’s claims about ‘knowledge of the Idea’ is a little less straightforward (and that’s, of course, where the fun is)—this concerns Schopenhauer’s claim that what I’ve called ‘transportive’ experiences, while still a form of ‘representation,’ take us beyond the realm of the principle of sufficient reason

  • Schopenhauer explains that (presumably as a result of the abruptness of the experience) the person who gets in touch with ideas “ceases to consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither of things, and looks simply and solely at the what” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §34)
    • The things contemplated in this way are thus taken out of their ordinary relations as governed by the principle of sufficient reason; contemplating them in this way is accordingly “a way of viewing things independent of the principle of sufficient reason” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §36)
    • Now, I say that the clip illustrates this aspect of Schopenhauer’s claims about ‘knowledge of the Idea’ a little less straightforwardly:
  • That’s not terribly surprising because the claim in question—that we ‘cease’ to see things spatially, temporally, causally, conceptually, even though we typically must see them that way—is baffling
    • To put it in rocket terms: the falling, burning piece of the rocket is, of course, still in space and time and nature: it falls, spins, flares up, it has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated piece of engineering, and it’s clearly a part of the rocket that just exploded, etc., pp.
    • All of this means that we have a pretty good sense of the ‘where’ and the ‘when,’ the ‘whence’ and the ‘whither’
    • So, we are clearly not viewing this piece independent of the principle of sufficient reason!
    • But wait! Things are a little more complicated than that
      • First, we don’t really know exactly what this ‘thing’ is:

(Koyaanisqatsi, 1982)

  • Even an engineer might not
    • It’s not a neat functional rocket component, surgically removed
    • It’s more like a jumble of parts ripped from the core

(Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

  • So, we do have a general sense of the thing: ‘rocket part(s)’
    • But they are rudely detached rocket parts and, so—even if they form an identifiable component—they are parts that have now been turned into something desperately non-functional
  • They have, as it were, been put onto a pedestal, like a sculpture
    • They have been put into a frame, like a painting
      • They have literally been put into a 1980s movie, like an actor
  • Schopenhauer says that this sudden and exceptional transition “[art] plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world’s course, and has it isolated before it” (WWR, vol. 1, bk. 3, §36)
    • Conclusion 1: While not fully independent of the principle of sufficient reason, the ‘thing’ has certainly been removed from the usual causal relations that typically explain it
    • Second, and related, this ‘thing’ has become oddly spatio-temporally un-placeable
      • Yes, we know that the piece is falling
      • But how exactly do we know that?
      • From the larger context (the earlier part of the clip)
        • The rocket was fairly high-up when it exploded (‘whence’)
        • Now things are raining down (‘whither’)
      • From the cinematography (the latter part of the clip)
        • The piece is slowly growing (a) bigger (i.e., it occupies more of its frame) and (b) more distinct
        • Since we assume (reasonably) that the camera throughout is on maximum zoom
        • We can see that the piece is coming closer to the camera and, by extension, that it is approaching the viewer
        • Combined with the larger context (above), we can therefore tell that it is falling
      • But note how this is all highly inferential
        • What we actually see is a thing oddly suspended in space, gently swirling and twirling
  • Perhaps appropriate for something that was bound for outer space, there’s a distinct zero-gravity feel to its movements
  • Conclusion 2: This tension between suspension and falling leads us to something more like (a) a meditation on falling, on the workings of gravity, on the nature of bodies in three-dimensional space, etc., as well as (b) even larger notions like the dangers of technology, the cost of human ambition, etc. In other words, it leads us into an intuitive engagement with timeless ideas—or, as Schopenhauer puts it, to “knowledge of the Idea.”

These reflections, moreover, lead us straight to one of the great moments in Greek mythology, The Fall of Icarus :

(Peter Paul Rubens, The Fall of Icarus, 1636)

  • … which is, of course, the ancient version of the 1980s Koyanisqaatsi tale of human ambition gone too far …

… and this, of course, is simply a version of that other great fall of humanity, in fact, THE fall:

(Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504)

Conclusion 3: Schopenhauer, I think, is on to something. The tension between suspension and falling has transported us out of an immediate concern for the falling piece as a falling piece and into a meditation on fall and falling. This meditation has become possible because our relation to the falling rocket piece has in an instant become more immediate than the arms-length relations of conceptual understanding that the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason governs. It has, instead, become the relation between artwork and beholder. While that’s still a representational relation (WWR, vol. 1, bk 3, §32), it is representation stripped down (like Adam and Eve) to its core components of subject and object. It is representational but, as it were, a mere fig-leaf of representation, covering the abyss of the in-itself.

  1. Art—The third way in which the Koyaanisqatsi clip illustrates Schopenhauer’s claims about “knowledge of the Idea” has to do with the role art plays in that form of ‘knowledge’
  • There’s this absolutely magical transformation in the final Koyaanisqatsi scene from inartful NASA newsreel to modernist work of art (think of video installation)
  • This illustrates Schopenhauer’s point that the relation between subject and object that makes knowledge of the Idea possible is distinctively within the province of art and not science
  • The Koyaanisqatsi clip makes this even more explicit—arguably it guilds the lily a bit—by overlaying the NASA video with a deeply moving Philip Glass soundtrack, which turns the arresting visual experience into an all-around artistic experience.