August 4, 2010

Inception, Dreams, and Caribbean Culture

Over the weekend, my family and I went to see Inception and like Don Florio at the end of the movie, I was forced to ask: Was this all a dream? Whose dream?”

This is not to say I disliked Inception. Compared to Memento, one of Christopher Nolan’s earlier films, Inception is a further exploration of “the ways memory, identity and narrative shape our lived reality.” And like its first cousins, Blade Runner and The Matrix, Inception has already yielded several differing interpretations, including a Buddhist analysis of the film.

In this sci-fi thriller, Nolan has found a clever way to illustrate how ideas (memes) can either help or hurt us.

The plot revolves around Dominic Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio), a dream “extractor,” and his attempt to infiltrate the subconscious of Robert Fischer, (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s business empire. But instead of extracting information from his target, Cobb’s client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), requests a different strategy. Saito wants a meme to be placed in Fischer’s subconscious—an idea that will ultimately lead to the dissolution of his father’s business empire. Cobb assembles a team of dream architects and doctors to carry out their plan, which involves creating dreams within dreams on varying levels.

That’s just the first thirty minutes of the thrill ride.

And although the plot is muddled by an overreliance on mimesis, Inception left me, as a creator of memes within Caribbean writing, with more questions than I could answer.

Which, I suspect, was the point of the film?

Inception is the act of invading someone's dreams for the sole purpose of planting an idea. It is the opposite of extraction, which is the process by which one gathers important information from the subject’s subconscious. Inception is thought by some to be impossible because the inceptee's mind has an uncanny ability to trace the planted idea back to the person who planted it. For example, if someone tells you “Don’t think about elephants,” you may think of elephants, but this fails as inception because the originator—the person who ordered you not to think about elephants—can be traced as the source too easily.

“What is the most contagious parasite?”
What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? Virus? Intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient and highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.  An idea that is fully formed, fully understood, that sticks. [pointing to his forehead] Right in there somewhere.
An idea is like a virus...the smallest seed of an idea can grow to define, or even destroy you.”

This section of dialogue is the one that stuck with me the most and it made me realize that human beings are biological and spiritual memeplexes. Our health or lack depends upon surveillance of the memes we take into our minds and bodies. The journalist, John Maxwell, once compared the free press to the "central nervous system of the body politic" and I believe writers and artists fulfill the same function.

Kwame Dawes likes to say, "All memory is fiction," and I agree. History, literature, songs are all forms of memory--complex memes about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Caribbean history, literature, and music are filled with memes, some of which have helped us and some that have hurt us. The most damaging meme, which has been perpetuated by writers such as VS Naipaul, is that the Caribbean is populated by uncreative, barbaric people who are less than human and are destined for failure.

Luckily, we have had many other writers to counter Naipaul's poison with memes that continue to define us:

Marcus Garvey:  New World Africans have fallen asleep in their former masters’ dreams and have forgotten the nobility of their ancestry. This has led to all kinds of behaviors that are not only harmful to our bodies, but also to our minds and spirits. Garvey urged, ‘Rise, ye mighty people!”

Derek Walcott: The beauty of the Caribbean should be celebrated in the same way that the landcapes in Greek, Roman, and British literature have been portrayed. The grandeur of Walcott’s diction (some would say “florid”) exemplifies his desire to honor people, who despite the tragedies of history, lead heroic lives.

Kamau Brathwaite: The history and literature of New World Africans began in West Africa. The roots of the music, language, rites, and mythology can be traced back to this rich heritage. His video Sycorax style is a visual representation and reclamation of an aural tradition.

Lorna Goodison: Caribbean women are strong and resilient. This strength comes from the stories women have told each other while sewing their children's clothes, cooking a meal, growing a garden or burying their loved ones. Goodison’s compassion is woven into the fabric of stories passed from hand to mouth and mouth to hand.


Cobb: "I will split up my father's empire.” Now, this is obviously an idea that Robert himself will choose to reject. Which is why we need to plant it deep in his subconscious. The subconscious is motivated by emotion, right? not reason. Which is why we need to find a way to translate this into an emotional concept.
Arthur: How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?
Cobb: That's what we're going to figure out. Fischer's relationship with his father is stressed to say the least.
Eames: Can we run with that? We could suggest breaking up the company as a "screw you" to the old man.
Cobb: No, because I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We all yearn for reconciliation. For catharsis. We need Robert Fischer to have a positive emotional reaction to all this.
Eames: Well, why don't we try this? "My father accepts that I want to create for myself, not follow in his footsteps."
Cobb: That might work.

Memes work when a “positive emotion trumps negative emotion.” This is where the work of singer/ songwriter such as Bob Marley transforms a culture. The Wailers uprooted many negative memes in pop culture and gave us memes to which we could dance. Songs by the Wailers were almost like the spiritual practice of affirmations and renunciations whose aim is to bring about psychic wholeness: “Now you see the light/ Stand up for your right!”

Bob Marley:  InI is a man/son of the Most High Jah Rastafari in whose image/likeness InI have been created. InI claim I birthright in the face of Babylon: “Wake up and Live!”

Contrast Marley's meme to the meme that was introduced during slavery.  Stripped of their humanity by coercion, New World Africans accepted these memes as self-definitions:

I am man because of the many children I have sired.
I am a woman because of the many children to whom I have give birth.

Compare this to the dancehall meme:

I am a man because of my sexual prowess.
I am a woman because of my sexual prowess.

I don’t see much difference between the slavery meme and the dancehall meme. Do you?


“Your mind is the scene of the crime.”

Whose dream are you living?


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Annie Paul said...

After such a sophisticated reading of Inception and Caribbean writers you surprised me with your ultra simplistic Reading of Jamaican music. Dancehall is hardly reducible to songs abt sexual prowess. More than half are songs about social and economic injustice. Also why is it that with all the positive menes in Marley's music things haven't changed at all for the average ghetto dweller?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Annie, great to hear from you!

I will admit to not being immersed in dancehall, so let me say that the music that reaches my ears is usually about sexual prowess. Also, the music does not promote itself, esp. here in South Florida as a music that promotes social and economic injustice.

The benefits that Marley's music have brought to Jamaica are immeasurable. From the singers who greet us at the airport, to the guy making a selling paper with Marley's photo, to the kid who sold my daughter a t-shirt at the foot of the Himalayas--Marley makes a (part) of living for them.

I think the burden is now on us. Marley was a producer who sold and managed his product. The models are their and as a follower of Garveyite principles, we could learn. There are things InI can do to make Ja better (yes, global forces, America), but it is up to InI.

Summer Edward said...

After watching the show, I had to conclude that since Cobb did not care to see if the totem stopped spinning or not (in the last shot of the movie) , the message is essentially that your reality is what you make it, or perhaps, whatever makes you happy at the end of the day.

Have you seen this Inception discussion with an explanation of the end? (the explanation favors the view that Cobb has woken up in the end and is back in an objective real world.)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Hi Summer,

I think the problem is that we have invested so much in whether Cobb is awake or sleeping that to leave it open-ended was disappointing. I understand why he did it--any other ending would have been anti-climatic.

I'll look at the clip now.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Summer, I don't think the question was never about Cobb's happiness because the question was "Am I awake or asleep?"
That question is never answered, which is what makes it frustrating...and pleasurable

Summer Edward said...

I think much dancehall music has strayed away from the uplifting mission that your friend alludes to. Of course there are some dancehall artistes and songs that continue in the social justice tradition, but unfortunately, these artistes and their memes are being pushed to the background by the counterproductive, more popular memes Geoffery described. You can say that those negative ideas have and are spreading like a virus overtaking and contaminating the purer ideals of dancehall. Sad, but true. Just look at warped patriarchal dynamics of the passa passa dances/culture.

Summer Edward said...

Yeah, Nolan, the director, is a boss at playing with multiple meanings. The last scene of the movie couldn't have been more ingenious. Did you realize that once they all wake up in the plane, there is absolutely no dialogue between the characters of the Inception team?! Those actors pulled off that closing dialogue (both between themselves and between them and us, the viewers) without a single word!

I couldn't help but be invested in Cobb's happiness, but perhaps that is because of my own personal investment in this question of what it means to be happy or at least contented here on this earth.

Jdid said...

interesting thoughts. the slavery meme vs the dancehall one. i think you may be right, not alot of uplifting going on these days in dancehall

Geoffrey Philp said...

Summer, yes it was much so that it xtended the dream-world feeling...

I was also invested in Cobb's happiness which is why I wanted him to wake up.

I think Nolan, as a director/storyteller, ended the film where he had to end it...for the viewers , it's a different dynamic.

Geoffrey Philp said...

JDID, and dancehall as a different set of beats etc. is very exciting...