When actions are determined, consequences must be too

This is one of the most idiotic views I’ve ever seen advocated by tenured staff at a Western university. Let me explain why.

Let’s think about this logic for a moment. The statement above effectively states the following: since the decision as to whether or not you will eat the dessert is out of your control (proposition) therefore you are absolved of responsibility for it, and should not feel bad (conclusion).

To assess this proposition, we first have to come to a definition of ‘control’ – which is far more tricky than it seems. In this context people typically define ‘control’ in relation to various free-will arguments which can be broadly dichotomized into ‘pragmatist’ or ‘logico-determinist’ categories. Logico-determinists such as Sam Harris would state that since no neurobiological evidence exists whatsoever to support any mechanism isomorphic to free will or free choice, either for humans or for any other organisms, and as such we are not technically in control of anything. Pragmatists would broadly agree with these arguments, but would protest that such argumentation tautologically precludes the meaningfulness of free will as a term, which is contradicted by the semantic significance and lexical omnipresence of the term to modern humans.

I think that whichever view of free will or control we take, the proposition outlined above by the McGill Psychology Department is almost certainly true, but in a far broader sense than you might realize. We live in a world where our actions are contextualized by the sum total of all actions that preceded these, which effectively means that actions are really reactions, and are thus determined by that context. As such, when you inevitably act in accordance with the predispositions encoded into your neural hardware, your brain has in fact “already decided for you,” as per the statement above.

But how about the conclusion. Should this really absolve you from responsibility? If we say that you aren’t responsible for your actions because they were predestined by your brain, then what about in the case of rape? It’s not uncommon to hear, in courtrooms, defendants talk about ‘not being able to control themselves’. The Iraqi refugee who raped a 12-year old boy in an Austrian swimming pool a few years back defended his actions as the inescapable consequence of a “sexual emergency.”

Murder is another case we might examine. The circumstances typically resulting in physical conflict trigger a ‘fight-or-flight’ response in us, activating our endocrine systems and pumping our bodies full of chemicals such as adrenaline that cloud judgment and promote physical action. In such a situation, it’s also possible to say that your brain made the decision for you, precluding free will.
Now ask yourself – what difference does it make if some (or even all) murders and rapes do lie outside of the realm of our control? Are we going to start judging rapists in courts of law on the basis of their proclivity to hypersexuality, refusing to jail any rapists if indeed we see that their brains ‘already decided’ for them? Murder, too? If any country were ever to embark on such an endeavor with the propositions above as guiding axioms, they would quickly discover it impossible to judge any person guilty for any crime.

What am I getting at here? The conclusion you’re seeing above is horrifically wrong and terribly dangerous. A deterministic worldview may be scientifically valid, but this does not – and cannot – preclude holding individuals responsible for their actions. The consequences if we don’t – a world in which murderers, thieves, rapists, and worse are not held culpable due to the inevitably influence of their biology and socialization on these behaviors – are far too high to accept.

Even though our actions may not be subject to the kind of ‘free will module’ that proponents imply, there is no reason to suggest that consequences to these actions should not follow. No basis exists to suggest that where agency in actions is absent, reactions should not follow from those actions. All of which is to say: when actions are determined, consequences must be too.

Why do I write under a different name?

Many people have asked me, since my legal name is Wael Taji Miller, why I publish as Wael Taji. The answer is actually very simple.

Firstly, it’s probably worth mentioning that I have used many different names in my life. Living in China, one has to have a Chinese name, for example (马维尔, if you’re wondering). Yet this is totally different to my (probably unnecessary) Japanese name that I used when I was living and working there (孫威史, for the curious). In hindsight, I probably just wanted to have a kanji for my name because I thought they were cool. This is why for me, working under a name that is different than my strictly legal one doesn’t feel weird – I’ve written and published content using five or more aliases already in my lifetime, usually to suit the cultural or linguistic context, but on rare occasions also to preserve anonymity.

Of course, that doesn’t answer the question: why use a different name now? Again, the answer is exceedingly simple.

Searching for ‘Miller’ in CiteSeer, which indexes citations and author names, we can see over 25,000 results. This is unsurprising, given that the Yiddo-Anglo-Germanic nomen is the third most common surname for Jews in the United States, and the 7th most popular for non-Jews. Because both Jews and Americans (by no means mutually exclusive categories) are powerhouse output demographics for global English-language scholarship, Bayesian inference would make this a predictable result.

This would be a non-issue had I not decided at the age of 12 that I wanted to become a professor. It became an even greater issue when I shelved my previous plans of writing books on culture and philosophy in Japanese in order to become a scientist, working in English. The barrier faced by academic researchers whose names are too common to make them identifiable even within highly specialized fields is widely recognized. A ‘career tips’ section from one university notes:

Consider using a name identifier, particularly if you have a common name, to help people distinguish your research from others and help stop any of your citations from ‘escaping’. The recommended name identifier scheme is ORCID, which works with both Scopus and Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science to allow researchers to ‘claim’ their publications

ORCID is a great system; I have an ORCID ID and use it for my journal submissions. But it’s long, clumsy, and impossible to use in informal language. “Hey man – did you read that article by 0000-0003-0166-248X?” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, at least to me. One solution many researchers resort to is a middle name, which is convenient as mine is technically also a surname anyway.

As you can see here, Taji is a vastly more recognizable name in English-language scholarship. Ironically, many of the Tajis listed here are actually Japanese, but alternate searches using more recognizably Arabic permutations such as ‘Eltaji’ or ‘Al-Taji’ amount to less than 10 results. The difference becomes most stark when using Google Ngram viewer, as you can see here:

So even despite a surprising amount of Taji or Al-Taji activity during the mid-1900s, it would appear that Miller remains the far more widely used surname. It’s also not recognizably Coptic, which becomes bothersome when I write about Christian theology or philosophy referencing Arabic sources and am bombarded by frenetic demands to justify my Ashkenazi surname.

Since you’ve probably been brought here out of curiosity, I hope that this explanation managed to answer all your questions.

P.S: For the etymologically curious, tāj is an Arabic word meaning ‘crown’ that is lexically productive as a loanword in Farsi, Urdu, Pashtun, and probably also other languages. As an adjective, tājī essentially means ‘crownly’ or ‘kingly,’ but isn’t commonly used. In both forms, the word is found in personal names (both forenames and surnames) as well as in place names throughout the greater Middle-East (think Taj Mahal, or ‘crown of the palace’). It’s also the name of a teeny little bird in Farsi.

Film review: Enemy (2013)

Enemy is one of the most stunning films I’ve seen this year. Its genius is composite and gestaltic; it lies in the mind-blowing script of Gullón, the paradisal and dystopic direction of Villeneuve, and the compelling yet disturbing acting by Gyllenhaal.

While the film has received near universal acclaim, the plot and its incomprehensibility to many viewers has presented an interpretative problem that has spawned numerous analyses online. While not intending to sound solipsistic, Enemy truly spoke to me in a way few other films did, and as such my understanding is somewhat different to the majority of these reviews. Because this is an analysis as well as a review, none of it will make sense to you if you haven’t seen the film, so I strongly recommend that you go rent it now. What follows is my own analysis of Enemy, starting with our character pairs.

  • Adam/Mary – history professor and his girlfriend.
  • Anthony/Helen – actor and his wife.

Villeneuve tells us that the film is about dictatorship, and this is true. Beginning at the very start of the film we hear a lecture about dictatorships – a subject which history professor Adam (Gyllenhaal) happens to specialize in.

What dictatorships or totalitarian systems do – and hereafter I want to use the latter – is to subjugate people. But not only do totalitarian systems oppress people – they also suppress awareness of this subjugation, which can happen in a number of ways. As the film begins, Adam tells his students that in Ancient Rome, the government sponsored bread and circuses for the people in order to reduce dissent. Bread and circuses are at their core a type of entertainment. Modern governments act similarly to limit dissent in different ways, we are told – yet the focus on ‘entertainment’ will be relevant later on.

Adam and Anthony meet in a hotel

From here onwards we’ll be jumping around a bit in our analysis, but I’ll break the news to you first: Adam and Anthony are one and the same. Bear with me for a little while longer. When Adam and Anthony meet in the hotel, Anthony explains the presence of a scar on his stomach, asking Adam if he has one too. Adam recoils in fear and horror, and flees the hotel. How might we understand this scene?

There is no scar on Adam’s stomach, because that scar appeared when Adam/Anthony (hereafter ‘AA’ to refer to both) was in a car crash – something which also resulted in Mary’s death. Mary was the girlfriend of AA, or at least his mistress, while he was already with Helen. The scene where AA gets his scar, and Mary is killed in a car crash, is marked by a spiderweb on the windshield of the car. Spiders live inside webs.

Consider spiders for a moment. The spiders in this film are not some loose analogy for dictatorships or other systems of the political kind. But they do represent a totalitarian system. They are avatars of memory, and the totalitarian control that traumatic memories of the past have over people’s minds. Consider your own memories – of trauma, of bullying, of the dissolution of a romantic relationship – and how inescapable they often feel. Having crossed this point, things are slowly beginning to come clear.

At the very start of the film – and remember that it isn’t in chronological order, so this is actually the ending scene – AA is in a club [entertainment] and a beautiful attractive waitress crushes a spider. AA is crushing the pain of his own memories, by seeking entertainment. This liberates him from the totalitarian control they exert over him. What memories, you ask?

The answer is given earlier on, when Adam has a dream of walking down a hallway, passing by a woman who is at once also a spider. He wakes up, and sees a woman whose hair matches the spider pattern. This is another factual memory – it is one of the other girls that Anthony cheated on his wife with. Anthony has a serious problem with commitment and infidelity, and is repeatedly unfaithful – not just to his partner.

The spider – forever the avatar of the oppressive memories of the past – swaggers over Adam/Anthony’s hometown of Toronto

What about the giant spider walking over the entire city? This is explained by the poster for the film, which shows that same spider in the city right over Anthony (who we are able to positively identify because of his jacket) but also inside his head. This is key. The spider (the gargantuan weight of his traumatic memories) is above him, but it is also inside him; its influences on his life are pervasive and absolute like some totalitarian dictator – but these memories, like the spider, are also an integral part of his very being. His experiences are in his head to stay.

At the very end in the movie, Adam has taken the place of Anthony. He goes into the bedroom to see Helen, and is greeted by a horrifyingly giant spider. Why? Because his memories are coming back to haunt him. So what exactly does this mean?

The entire film is a story of Anthony being confronted by his past. Adam is a representative of this past, and his role as a teacher of HISTORY attests to the fact. Adam represents a past version of Anthony that was unfaithful to Helen. Now Adam was meek and quiet, even to the point that he allowed himself to be cuckolded by Anthony. How can we say that he was a representation of Anthony’s unfaithfulness?

The answer is simple; Adam is an unmanly coward, and unfaithfulness is a form of cowardice, or a lack of living up to one’s responsibilities as a man. This is attested to when Anthony is in the car with Mary who he has just tried to fuck – just before they crash, he says to her ‘You think I’m not a man?’ She DOES think he’s not a man – because she has just discovered his unfaithfulness, which precipitates their dramatic exit from the hotel. In this way, Adam’s weakness/unmanliness facilitates Anthony’s unfaithfulness – Adam does not stop Anthony from fucking his own girlfriend, because he represents Anthony’s own past weakness (and thus, his weak masculinity).

That scene where Anthony is having sex with Mary, who then freaks out when she sees the wedding ring [marks?] on his finger? This was real. Mary did not realize that Anthony was married. The freakout did indeed happen. The crash did indeed happen. And Mary died, and Anthony was injured as a result – giving us the scar from earlier.

The windshield after AA’s car crash forms a delicate spiderweb – all is connected

Why is Anthony an actor? Because he is acting out the horrors of the past in his head. The nightmares are all his. The gargantuan spider in the final scene looks poised to consume Adam, who by this point has assumed the role of Anthony before he enters the bedroom. It is memories of sinfulness, and the weight of his guilt, which seem ready to devour him.

Adam IS Anthony, so Adam allowing Anthony to fuck his girlfriend represents AA’s weak, sensitive, humanistic side failing to exert control over his brash, Dionysian side. This failure resulted in the death of Mary and nearly also the destruction of his marriage. This haunts him to this very day.

Simplified, it looks something like this:

  • AA are/is one person
  • The spiders are his memories and the weight of his guilt
  • They constitute a totalitarian system which holds him down and oppresses him, and dictates to him his actions; they force him to continuously remember the past
  • Adam, a history professor (the past) represents the past AA – he is weak and generally a shitty person. He allows himself to cheat on his own wife, because he is weak/unmanly/a coward.
  • Adam’s weakness leads to the death of Mary, his girlfriend and mistress. It gives him a scar, which stays with him.
  • AA suppresses this memory by entertainment, such as by attending clubs where the spider (his past) is crushed. But it keeps coming back to haunt him.
  • The spider is a totalitarian system above him (in terms of his control) but inside him (as it is constituted by his memories).
  • The film ends with AA having gone through all of the memories of this traumatic past. A gargantuan spider shows us how AA is confronted by his memories, and thus his own guilt and shame, when he goes into his wife’s bedroom.
  • As viewers, we are not told whether AA’s suppression of his past, his memories, and his guilt is successful or not. We do not know whether he stays with Helen, or what her transformation into his guilty conscience might entail (perhaps accusing him of another affair).
  • That is Enemy, and it is undoubtedly Villeneuve’s most impressive films to date.

5 out of 5 stars.