Monday, 5 March 2018

The Creed and the Sanctity of Consciousness

There is a scene in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag in which the pirate Charles Vane is trying to enlist the aid of Edward Thatch (Blackbeard) in his crusade against Governor Woodes Rogers.  Thatch declines preferring to retire from the life.  Later, Edward Kenway shares his thoughts on the matter saying, “I'm not of the same mind, mate. But I won't begrudge you the state of yours”.

It seems a throwaway line, but it made an impact on me.  In fact, I would put it among in my favourite lines from the series.  So why is this statement so important?  While researching my previous essay outlining the theory of the Zoroastrian origins of the Assassin, I stumbled upon a concept that I call the sanctity of consciousness and immediately remembered that line from Kenway.

The word sanctity means holy or “set apart”.  In other words, it is something special and worthy of unique consideration.  For example, a holy mountain is considered special by those who see it as significant among mountains.  To say that consciousness is holy is to recognise that human consciousness is something unique and special to be treated with consideration.

This is not to say that every point of view is valid, or right, or not bat-shit crazy.  A person may say things or behave in a manner that seem totally insane to us.  However, to them, it is perfectly reasonable. Their consciousness is just as rational to them as yours is to you.  Observing the sanctity of consciousness is to recognise that this is someone’s personal subjective universe, formed from a lifetime of thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and we have no access to that universe.

When Edward Kenway says to Blackbeard, “I'm not of the same mind, mate. But I won't begrudge you the state of yours”, Edward is recognising the sanctity of consciousness.  He is saying that even though our subjective universes do not align, I respect your right to agency.  To deny a person their agency is say to them, “You are an object to be exploited for my purposes.”

An object possesses three aspects: purpose, form, and function.  What it lacks is agency.  The purpose of a hammer is to hammer, and it has the form necessary to perform this function without any choice in the matter.  It hammers only when a user exploits it for its purpose.  When we objectify a person we wilfully choose to perceive them as a thing devoid of agency to be exploited for our purposes.

These two terms, objectification and exploitation, are used quite a bit in modern socio-political discourse.  The word exploitation has some dark connotations, but the word itself simply means “to use”.  I exploit objects everyday: chairs, table, and coffee cups.  In this context, the words object and exploit work hand-in-hand. Objects exists to be exploited.  When we objectify a person, we impose a purpose and function on them, thus denying their agency which we then replace with our own.

Given this revelation, it would be easy for the would-be Assassin to declare objectification to be a sin, but it is not as clear cut as that.  Objectification is a normal and natural part of being human.  The recognition of the sanctity of consciousness serves as more of a gentle reminder that every stranger on the street, every Facebook poster and commentator, and every famous person is a unique consciousness existing in their own subjective reality as the star of their film just as you exist and star in yours.

The Meta-Subjective

The Creed shows us the distinction between Objective Truth and the Subjective perception of that truth.  From here it is a small step to what I call the meta-subjective.  The meta-subjective recognizes that beyond the individual perception of Objective reality and the construction of an individual’s unique Subjective reality, there are literally billions of other Subjective realities.  Here is another way to compare these concepts.

From the Objective perspective, your existence is a meaningless spec amid the billions of years and light years that constitute reality.  From the Subjective view, you are the centre of everything. Nothing occurs in your existence where you are not involved directly as either actor or observer. You are the hero of the story that is your life, from birth to inevitable decay and death when your universe ends.  The Meta-subjective recognises the consciousness in others. Your special and unique Subjective reality is just one of about 7 billion such realities existing simultaneously within the context of one objective reality. You are nothing but an extra, or at best a side character, in someone else's story.

Jean Paul Sartre illustrated the meta-subjective in what he called “The Look”.  Imagine spying on two people when you suddenly notice someone is observing you.  In a moment you have moved from being an observer judging another to the one being observed and judged. Notice that Objective reality has not changed, the Universe is indifferent, however your Subjective reality has changed.  It was one way when you were the secret observer but became something else when you realised you were discovered. In becoming aware of another consciousness, you were reduced from a state where you were the centre of the universe to one where you are a subject in someone else’s universe. 

There is one more step in this thought experiment. Suppose the people that you were spying on suddenly become aware of your presence.  Now there are three separate subjective universes all focusing on you.  How does that feel?  Now, not only are you dethroned from your divine status as the centre of your universe, the affect is multiplied by three.  Now multiply these “Others” by ten, a hundred, a thousand or a billion-fold.  Then you realise the scope of your tiny universe in a sea of other subjective realities.

This realisation can easily lead to a form of Existential anxiety not covered by the common Existential angst or crisis.  You think you are special until someone in the shop makes you realise that to them you are just some random, annoying customer in their universe. To the number cruncher you are a statistic.  To the stranger you are some random, they/them, a thing – an object.  As with any object they encounter, you will be either positive, negative, or neutral according to their judgements.

A solitary person existing within his own consciousness enjoys absolute freedom.  Once another consciousness is introduced the dynamic changes.  In the Garden of Eden story, eating the forbidden fruit granted Adam and Eve consciousness and with that came self-consciousness.  They became aware of their nakedness through the awareness and judgement of the Other.

A person in this state of hyper-awareness of the Others becomes self-conscious to a degree where they cannot function.  The psyche copes with this through the natural process of objectifying others.  We perceive people and groups of people as things and not as unique Subjective universes competing with our own.

Objectification and Exploitation

Imagine that you are walking alone upon a paved road cutting through a vast park.  It is early morning and the sun it just making itself known but not yet fully manifested casting a blue hue over the scene.  Along the road empty benches punctuate the edges where the manicured grass touched the road.   Although your senses absorb the environment, your mind is other places.  Your focus shifts in seconds through time and space in the universe of your consciousness.  You think of an event from childhood; then a scene from the film you saw last night, then the face of someone you once loved, and over it all there is the incessant chattering gibbons in your head.  In literature this is call stream of consciousness, the eternal flow of the contents of your psycho-emotional make-up.  This is your world.  It is your unique universe.  It is this thing that you call you, and you are the master of this realm.

Suddenly, your thoughts are disturbed.  Ahead of you along the road on a bench sits an old man staring into the distance at some unknown thing.  At first you are startled by the unexpected presence of another, then you wonder what he sees.  Is he looking at something physical or at an idea in his universe over which he is the master.  A universe to which you have no access and can never know.  It is at this point that he notices you.  You are no longer the silent and unseen observer but the object of another’s gaze -- another’s judgement.

The old man on the bench is a thing to us.  He is “an old man”.  However, in his universe he is Bob Jones with a lifetime of experiences, loves, hopes, fears, and dreams.  Where we see an old man, from his perspective he is the same person looking through his eyes now who did so forty years ago. There is a part of him that cannot understand why the beautiful young women who once adored him now see him as invisible.  Inside he is twenty but outside he is sixty.  He looks at the person walking towards him along the road and wonders what this person thinks of him.  Would it disturb him to know that to us he is just, “an old man”?

We choose to perceive him as an object no different from the bench on which he sits.  Should the man suddenly stand-up, we can deny his agency still and choose to perceive this as part of the function of the object.   This can be extended to include a scenario where the man speaks directly to us.  He speaks to us because that is what these objects do sometimes and not because he is an equal other consciousness.

This is referred to as solipsism, the belief that ours is the only consciousness and other people are like zombies responding to stimuli thus creating the illusion of consciousness where none exists.  Of course, if pressed, the solipsistic person would admit that other people have a consciousness too, but in practice they live their lives as if they do not.  Solipsism is closely linked to narcissism meaning a person believes that everything is about them.  I once heard a story illustrating this where a woman became frantic because a bird was aggressive pecking at her window.  She feared that for some reason it was after her.  In truth, the bird had found a seed and was using the window to crack it open. The world exists without her.

I have just presented three approaches to dealing with what Sartre called “The Other”.  One in which we acknowledge another’s consciousness through projection, one where we objectify another, and one where we deny their consciousness altogether.  The natural state is to objectify; however, it is important to occasionally take a step back and remind yourself that others have their own unique consciousness too.

This is handy in situations where someone says something cruel or stupid.  It is very easy to write them off by identifying this behaviour as being the nature of the object in question, however when we enter our universe and think of the time we said something cruel or stupid and we reexperience the shame or embarrassment of that incident, then we can better make allowances for those behaviours in others.  Perhaps this person is thinking, “God, I can’t believe I just said that.  This person probably thinks that I’m an idiot.”  Through this process we can start to develop things like compassion, respect, forgiveness, and consideration.  All these are part of recognising the sanctity of consciousness. 

The negative is when we completely deny the consciousness of the Other.  We see this in narrative fiction where someone is abducted, and another character seeks to humanise the victim to the victimizer.  This is done in the hope that if the criminal will acknowledge the consciousness in the victim, then he may let the victim go free and unharmed.  We see this everyday on a smaller and less dramatic scale.  How often does a cruel comment get posted on Facebook or Twitter with no regard for the consciousness that will be hurt by this cruelty?  This is played for laughs on a TV show where celebrities are asked to read aloud mean tweets about them.  In a sense it humanises the celebrity as a real person with real feelings.

Despite objectification being a normal part of our perception and our experience of reality, we can choose to remind ourselves of the sanctity of consciousness or we can choose to deny it. Likewise, exploitation of objects is also normal. Objects exist to be used and this sometimes includes people we objectify.

Part of the human experience is that we choose to objectify ourselves in exchange for money to be exploited by others.  This is commonly referred to as “a job”.  The man who drives the city bus is a unique consciousness living in his own subjective universe within which he is the centre, the main character in his story, but to the passengers on the bus he is objectified as simply “the driver” to be exploited for the purpose of reaching their destination.  At any point the driver can exert his agency, pull the bus to the side of the road, get out, and walk away, however he chooses to play the role of the driver and be exploited by others for the sake of money that he will use to better his universe when he is not playing the driver.  We expect taxi drivers to behave like taxi drivers, salespeople to be salespeople, and waiters to be waiters. 

At any point the individuals playing these roles can exert their agency and behave like people rather than an object.  That is the difference between normal objects with no agency, like a hammer, and objectified people who ultimately have agency whether this is acknowledged or not.

In our mass media age there is a type of objectification that largely goes unnoticed.  As an example, let’s look at the difference between Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones.  Harrison Ford, a unique consciousness, surrendered his agency to become the object Harrison Ford the actor in exchange for money.  He was exploited by directors and photographers for the purpose of creating a character known as Indiana Jones.  While Harrison Ford has agency, Indiana Jones does not.  He is a fictional character like any other object with purpose, form, and function but without agency.  Indiana Jones does not choose what to say or how to act.  He cannot choose not to find the Ark of the Covenant in the way our bus driver can choose not to drive his bus.  This is decided for him by writers exploiting the character like they would any other object. 

Likewise, a model takes part in the creation of a photograph.  The model is a person and the photograph is an object, in the same way that Harrison Ford is not Indiana Jones.  One is an objectified person and the other is an object. Harrison Ford does not own the copyright to Indiana Jones in the same way that the copyright of the photograph belongs to the photographer and not the model. 

It may seem silly to have to point this out because it is so self-evident.  No one confuses a picture of a Pamela Anderson with the actual person Pamela Anderson, and yet in practice they might look at the picture and say, “That’s Pamela Anderson”.  So here is a question.  If someone is being naughty to a picture of Pamela Anderson, then who or what is being exploited?  Pamela Anderson or the picture of Pamela Anderson?   The answer is the object, the picture, and not the person.  This picture may be twenty years old and the model no longer looks like picture.  Perhaps the picture has been photoshopped in which case the picture is fictional, and the model is merely the starting point in its creation, like the model who posed for the Mona Lisa.

Yet it is common to hear that the media and advertising objectifies and exploits women.  The irony is that this statement is itself objectifying and exploitative to women.  The essential argument is that the creation of objects derived from certain women leads to the objectification and exploitation of all women.  Some women may not like the fact that other women choose to participate in the creation of an object, a sexy photograph, that other women might find intimidating.  However, this does not constitute exploitation beyond the exploitation inherent in having any other job. However, perceiving the world in terms of group identity denies individual agency, and therefore consciousness, which then leads to objectification and exploitation. 

This is the third type of objectification and exploitation.  The first is self-objectification; the job we chose.  The second is the creation of media objects, like fictional film characters or pictures.  The third is group objectification. 

It is natural for people to form groups and it is again natural for people to objectify and judge these groups.  The important points to consider are which groups are formed through agency and which are not.  I may choose an ideology to believe in or a political movement to be a part, however I did not choose my race, gender, social status at birth, or nationality. 

Suppose someone says that not enough women are enrolled in the sciences in university and they want to address this imbalance.  Okay, first look at how many women requested to be enrolled in the sciences, how many were denied, and why.  If it turns out that only a few women as compared with men chose the sciences, then the problem is that women were exercising their agency in a manner that did not suit someone else’s purposes.  At this point is becomes clear that individual women are being objectified as a universal idea of womanhood to be used for someone’s socio-political purpose, in other words, exploited.

There is a cognitive fallacy known as “No true Scotsman”.  It goes like this. 

Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
Person B: "But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge."
Person A: "Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."

In this illustration, Person A is making a statement of fact which Person B refutes with an example. Person A then modifies the original statement in a way that will refute the example.  This also applies to group objectification when the illustration can be taken more literally.

So, someone might say that all Black Americans are Democrats.  Someone else might respond saying that there is an entire group of Black Republicans.  Yes, but they are Uncle Tom’s, in other words, “they are kissing up to the white man at the expense of their own people”.  This is like saying that they are not true African-Americans because they do not conform to my idea of reality or to my expectations.  This becomes another example of objectification based on group association and then exploiting the very group that they propose to be protecting.

There is no such thing as a group consciousness. There are individuals who choose to be part of a group, other groups we are born into, but either way humans are not a hive mind like the Borg in Star Trek.  Every person possesses their own special and unique consciousness.  Honouring the sanctity of consciousness means reminding ourselves of this fact particularly in this era of identity politics.

The sanctity of conscious is not a great discovery by any stretch.  People recognise it every day, but not by name.  I have always thought that being inconsiderate is the worse bad behaviour.  Not because it causes more harm than something like anger or envy, but because it is insidious.  An inconsiderate person does not know that they are inconsiderate because they do not consider the consciousness of others.   Acknowledging the sanctity of consciousness simply underlines the point.

Therefore, it is important to remember the words of Edward Kenway when dealing with the Subjective universes of The Others.  “I'm not of the same mind, mate. But I won't begrudge you the state of yours”.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Whose Assassin's Creed? -- Looking at AC Origins

Having completed the main story in the new Assassin’s Creed Origins, I felt obliged to post my general impressions.  Please bear in mind that this is not a review so much as a collection of thoughts -- -- complete with spoilers.

The latest instalment of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise has hit market and the consensus has been a positive one. I confess that I approached this game with some reservations.  I have written my own theory regarding the origins of the Assassins based on both the real-life history of the Assassin’s Creed and clues in the game, both of which consistently point to an origin in ancient Persia, not Egypt.  If I was expecting disappointment, then I was not let down.  From a gameplay standpoint the game was a very good game, but from a narrative and philosophical perspective the it failed.

One of the first essays written for this blog page looked at the idea of ritualising philosophy.  The Assassin’s Creed video game franchise was able to take an existing philosophy and create ritual, history, mythology, and symbolism around it.  For example, the phrase, “Nothing is true, Everything is permitted” first entered the English language in the 1960’s, French in the 1930’s, and German in 1818 where it was referred to as “the secret doctrine” of the Assassins.  The video game series gave this phrase a proper name, the Assassin’s Creed.  It is extremely likely that any future proper academic study of this phrase will refer to it as the Assassin’s Creed.  That is quite a contribution for a video game series.

I believe that Assassin’s Creed Origins in an attempt to provide an origin story undermined all that the series has accomplished thus far in creating this Existentialist lore.  The most obvious sins are the break from canon, the origin of the symbol, the devaluation of the Creed, and even a misrepresentation of the Templars.

Storytelling has been a means of illustrating philosophy since the beginning of both disciplines, but video games are not a storyteller’s medium.  A video game is first and foremost a game.  As I understand the process of video game production, the game is pretty much complete before the writers start and the writing must accommodate the game play.  This is in stark contrast with traditional storytelling where there is no film or play without a script.  These writers begin with a blank page, whereas video game writers have to work within an obstacle course to tell their story.  This is even more difficult with historical fiction where the story has to weave through established historical events.

Another obstacle for the writer is canon.  Remember the children’s game where everyone in a circle tells part of a story?  Now imagine the same game except this time the players are writers each telling their piece of the greater story over many years.  On the one hand they want to tell their own story, but on the other they are bound by the parameters established by previous writers.  

Maintaining a consistent canon has become important to fans in our age of franchise storytelling.  The Star Trek, Star Wars, and Marvel comics (not cinema) have all rubbed fans the wrong way this past year by releasing materials that contradict either canon or an individual's idea of how fictional characters and worlds should be portrayed.

I for one do not envy these creators.  Their work is judged by fans with strong feeling for these stories.  The feelings fans have for fictional characters, and to degree fictional realities, stem from what are known as parasocial relationships, where the relationship is one sided.  The fan knows all about Han Solo, but Han Solo does not know the fan exists. Or, to make it a bit more grounded, the person writing Han Solo does not know the individual fan exists.  The stories unfold independent of the fan and he has no power as to where it will go.  Captain America can be written to say, “Hail Hydra” and fans are powerless to stop it because they do not own these franchises, the corporations do.  As a result, fans feel betrayed.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has a very poor track record when it comes to maintaining a consistent canon, and fans are often forced to do all sorts of mental gymnastics to keep the greater story consistent.  Assassin’s Creed Origins is no different.

Here’s an example of these gymnastics in action. In Assassin's Creed II there are seven statues of previous Assassins in the Sanctuary beneath Monteriggioni.  For those who pre-date the setting for Origins, the Assassin’s Creed Wiki has updated their status from Assassins to “proto-Assassins” to keep the canon consistent.  One might point out that these statues bear the Assassin symbol on their clothing thus making them true Assassins.  To fix this we now must call this artistic license on the part of the sculptor because according to the new story the symbol was not created until 44 BCE.  Fans should not have to work this hard to keep a story straight.

Before AC Origins, the oldest known Assassin in the canon (to my knowledge) was Darius, who killed King Xerxes I in 465 BCE in Persia.  According to the established lore, he was the first to use the hidden blade.  It has been speculated that this is the blade given to Aya by Cleopatra who in turn gives it to Bayek in AC Origins.  The path of the blade is easily speculated.  Alexander the Great found it in Persia and gave it to his general Ptolemy where it remained in his family until the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra, passed it on.  So, we can say that some effort was made to maintain canon.  Another connection to canon is the revelation that the assassin Amunet, depicted among the statues in Monteriggioni, is a pseudonym used by Aya.  Despite these attempts, I still believe that AC Origins should have been set in 6th century BCE Persia, perhaps with Darius as the protagonist, but this is not the story the game makers wanted to tell.  They wanted the Egyptian setting and the story was forced into the existing mould even if it broke the mould in the process.

Assassin’s Creed Black Flag was accused of being a pirate game masquerading as an Assassin’s Creed game.  I found this not to be the case and consider it to be one of the best in terms of mythology.  Origins however really is just an Egyptian setting posing as an Assassin’s Creed game.  We see no progress of the ideological underpinnings of the Assassins Brotherhood.  There is no great change of character or discovery of purpose like we see in Edward Kenway. The game is played as Bayek the medjay until the very end when Aya, his wife, basically lays out the Assassin’s Brotherhood in full. It has been pointed out by fans that it is Aya who acquires the hidden blade, creates the Assassin’s symbol, and establishes the brotherhood, and yet she is not the central protagonist.  Bayak essentially just follows her lead.

Regarding the Assassin’s symbol, I have argued that it is likely a negative space image of a flame rising from an oil lamp called a diwali.  The flame representing enlightenment and the pursuit of wisdom, a common theme among the Assassins throughout the series.  While researching this I came upon another theory suggesting that the symbol is a representation of the palate bone of an eagle.  I dismissed this as nonsense and never added it to my essay on the subject, but lo and behold this is now the canonical meaning.  

In AC Origins, Bayek wears an eagle skull around his neck.  When he rejects his position as medjay he throws it onto a beach. To this point in the story we are not told why he wears this skull.  It is certainly not shown to be the symbol of his position as medjay.  Then Aya, for some unknown reason, lifts the skull to find the Assassin’s symbol imprinted on the sand and adopts this imprint as the symbol for “the Hidden Ones”.  We the audience are being told that this is its origin.

When people unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed see this “logo”, some assume it to be the Masonic compass. Other’s simply ask me what it means.  People expect symbols to have meaning.  I was comfortable to tell them it represented the flame of enlightenment rather than something so trivial as a video game logo.  With the first interpretation I was identifying myself as someone committed to the idea of enlightenment, but the second meaning trivialises it saying that I am a fan of a corporate product.  

According to the new official meaning the symbol does not mean enlightenment.  It is not symbolic of a flame or even an eagle.  It is the representation of an eagle’s skull.  Now it is simply a mark that refers to the Brotherhood of Assassins.  It is effectively now just a logo that means nothing.

There is another scene that bothered me where a member of the Order of Ancients says that Julius Caesar is the Father of Understanding.  Before Origins, the Templars would refer to the Father of Understanding as a sort of vague higher power.  This is in keeping with the conspiracy theory stating that the Masons are the modern Knights Templar.  To be a Mason, the only religious requirement is a belief in a higher power no matter how vague.  This being is sometimes referred to as the Supreme Architect, or creator.  Ultimately, the Father of Understanding is a god of order. It is right that the Templars refer to themselves as an order with the word’s double meaning as both a group of individuals and the concept of order itself, as opposition to the chaos bred by freedom.  Now Origins would have us believe that their “god” is Julius Caesar, a great general but not a great philosopher and hardly a father of understanding.

This trivialisation continues with the Creed itself.  For a series that calls itself Assassin’s Creed, it is amazing how inconsistent the series is regarding the Creed.  As mentioned in previous posts of mine, the series presents us with two versions and again the fans have to bend over backwards to make it consistent.  One version I call the Assassin’s Code for clarification.  A code is a standard of behaviour whereas a creed is a belief.  The Assassin’s Code is described in the three tenets: hide in plain sight, do not harm the innocent, and do not betray the brotherhood.  What I see as the Creed is, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

As with many games before, the characters in AC Origin refer to the Creed, but never actually speak it, so it is never clear whether they are referring to the Code or the Creed.  The games seem to indicate that the original Creed was the Code, but after the reformation of the Brotherhood by Altair it was changed to the Creed, but this is never confirmed in the games.  This leaves us wondering because some games say the one, some games say the other, and some say nothing at all. In AC Origins we have a scene with Bayek declaring his commitment to his new creed, but he never actually says what this new creed is.  In another scene, Bayek and Aya speak of protecting the people and remaining hidden, so it seems their new creed is the Assassin’s Code. This seems to be consistent with the canon, but we are never told what this creed is.

As for the Assassin’s Creed, this is mentioned in two side missions. In one, Bayek helps a stutterer who later has no stutter.  When Bayek asks about this he is told that the speaker only stutters when he is nervous.  Bayek responds by saying, “I suppose nothing is true”.  The other scene involves a storyteller who tells a highly embellished story which he claimed to be true.  When Bayek questions this he is told that when telling a story “everything is permitted”.  These two scenes felt like being struck in face by a contrived Easter egg that trivialised the philosophical importance of the Creed.

With what I have written thus far it may seem that I did not like the game.  I did like it, but only as video game.  I felt that not only did it fail to contribute any meaning to the lore, it completed disregarded or trivialised it.  It highlighted the divide between the Assassin’s Creed franchise and the philosophy that once supported it.  Ubisoft owns the rights to Assassin’s Creed and they are the ones to decide the story and the meanings.  

The human soul is essentially made of story.  Stories are the language of consciousness.  Our past and future are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves.  The same holds true for our hopes, dreams, and fears.  Therefore, we form an affinity for the stories that resonate with us, but sometimes that we forget that they are not our stories and we are left disappointed when the storytellers remind us of that fact.

The stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Sherlock Holmes are part of our collective culture.  Sure, King Arthur and Robin Hood are from legends, but a character like Sherlock Holmes only entered the public domain in 2014.  If not for countless court cases, characters like Superman, Batman, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny would all be public domain characters by now.  Star Trek just turned 50 and traditionally copyrights expired after 35-70 years, but I doubt very much that the Enterprise crew will become public domain after 2037.

So, we find ourselves in an interesting position.  On the one hand we psychologically bond with these stories, but on the other, they are not our stories with which to bond.  It is kind of like renting your home instead of buying it.  You have an emotional attachment to the place, but ultimately it is not yours.  

Ubisoft is a games company and they are in the business of making entertaining video games.  If the trend means having the Assassins wear pink tutus they will do it.  It just so happens that at present they are aligning their stories to existent history and philosophy that forms a core belief system that transcends into the real world, and yet I feel Origins took a major step backward in that regard.  In other words, it was a great game but not a great story from the lore perspective.  

I was reminded that Assassin’s Creed may be owned by Ubisoft and as the owners and caretakers of that lore they decide its origins, however, before there was Assassin’s Creed, there was the Assassin’s Creed and that belongs to us all.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Ezio's Creed

The year is 1511 and the place the winding streets of Constantinople.  The Assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze, age 52, is escorting his future wife, Sofia Sartor, to their destination when she asks him about the Assassin’s Creed.  Ezio speaks the words, “Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted.”  The phrase strikes her as being rather cynical, but then Ezio goes on to explain:

“It would be if it were doctrine. But it is merely an observation of the nature of reality. To say that nothing is true, is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”

When we speak of secret societies, like the Assassins, we associate them with manipulating events from the shadows to further their mysterious goals.  I see it a bit differently.  I believe that such societies may also safeguard dangerous ideas and control how these ideas are interpreted.

The Creed may once been such a secret, but it has entered the public sphere over the last hundred years.  As such it has been used by people like the beat poet William S. Burroughs to justify nihilism and hedonism.  I believe the writers of Assassin’s Creed have been successful in reclaiming the original prescribed meaning of the Creed as something more and this is illustrated by Ezio’s description of the Creed found in Assassin’s Creed Revelation.

Ezio’s first point is that the Creed is not doctrine.  We see this repeatedly in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  Edward Kenway observes, "It might be that this idea is only the beginning of Wisdom, and not its final form."  Minerva also addresses this when outlining Desmond Miles’ potential post-apocalyptic future by describing how good ideas become transformed into doctrines and then twisted into messages contrary their their original meaning, like the Creed.

The Creed is not hard, fast doctrine and is not to be taken literally otherwise it does become cynical, nihilistic, and hedonistic.  Instead it must be treated as a mere observation on the nature of reality that we must learn to accept.

From the statement, “Nothing is true” Ezio extrapolates the lesson that the foundations of society are fragile and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization.  How did he get from point A to B?  A good place to start is understanding the difference between objective and subjective reality.

Objective Reality is the world that is. This is the reality governed by the laws of science, reason, and logic. The Creed does not deny this truth.  Gravity is, whether you believe it or not. Subjective Reality is the world as each individual perceives it with their beliefs, biases, value judgements and imposed meanings.  This is the truth the Creed rejects. Far too often people present their subjective beliefs as objective truths.  This is a dangerous confounding of reality. Objective truths exists regardless of human consciousness, but the products of human consciousness, like society and its institutions, do not.  Societies, nation-states, and civilizations are ostensibly real, but ultimately they are all the products of human consciousness that will cease to exist without human belief.  This makes them fragile.

At the heart of the Creed is the Existentialist belief that nothing has inherent meaning and that all meaning is imposed upon things by individuals, therefore we must find the “best” meanings to bestow. Ezio extends this process to include human civilization placing the followers of the Creed in the role of shepherds helping to protect and guide individuals toward assigning the “best” meaning to support this fragile idea.

You may have notice that I placed the word best in quotes.  Whenever someone makes a value judgement by saying something is good, bad, or the best, we need to determine their criteria.  Ezio places the Assassins in the role of shepherd, but does not say to what end or purpose.  Throughout the Assassin’s Creed franchise is is made clear that the goal of the Assassins is wisdom.  The good is the wise and the moral is the rational.  As Mary Read said, “We're Assassins and we follow a creed, aye. But it does not command us to act or submit - only to be wise.”  We also have the appearance of Minerva, the Roman goddess of Wisdom, as a member of the precursor race, and this conversation Ezio is having with Sofia, whose name means wisdom.

What then is wisdom?  There are countless answers to that question.  My answer is that wisdom is simply knowing how the world works and learning to apply that knowledge effectively according to the rules of Objective Reality. Of course no one can know everything, so we must take a scientific attitude towards life by which we can change course in the light of new information backed by objective facts and reason.  This is part of another interpretation of the Creed in which nothing is true is also applied to scientific truths.  Our scientific knowledge is based on the information at hand but can change with new information. So we must be psychologically prepared to change our beliefs at a moment’s notice.

From this apparently cynical statement that nothing is true, Ezio positions the Assassins as the shepherds of civilization guiding them to wisdom.  This is in keeping with a statement from Ezio in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, where he says, “One must choose to search for truth. Forcing it on others accomplishes little”. Assassins are not in the business of imposing their ideas on others through the use of social institutions but rather acting as guides from the shadows working in the dark to serve the light.

Ezio’s analysis of the second half of the Creed is more straight-forward. Everything is permitted seems like a call to hedonism.  In the 1960’s this translated into the phrase, “If it feels good, do it” which drove the hippie culture of the time and the sexual revolution that followed. But if you take a moment to consider this half of the Creed you find that this is not an accurate interpretation.

Ezio says,  “To say that everything is permitted, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”  There are a few points being made here.  The first is that we are the architects of our actions.  Notice the use of the word architect.  This implies a creative force and decision making process within the confines of Objective Reality.  An architect’s designs must take the forces of nature into account or the building will collapse, likewise we must make our choices according to the limitations of Objective Reality to avoid negative outcomes.  You may choose to leap from a tall building, there is nothing stopping you, but the forces of nature will pull you to the ground and you have no say it that.

Actions have consequences.  This is the nature of reality and the power to act as you choose does not negate this. Reality as we understand it is the product of a complex chain of action and consequence reaching back to the beginning of existence with every individual choice ever made by every person who ever was comprising each link.  The Sanskrit language has a single word to describe this -- karma.

This recognition of consequence makes the Creed both an affirmation and a warning.  The affirmation encourages us to liberate ourselves from the limitations born from fear, doubt, law, or moral restraints to rise above and achieve glory.  The warning is twofold.  Our choices may bring tragic consequences to ourselves or others.  The second reminds us that other people have the same freedom to act as we do and their actions may have dire consequences for ourselves or others, so we must drive defensively through life.  

So how do you choose the right actions to gain glory and avoid tragedy?  This concept of right action is covered by the branch of philosophy called Ethics.  In this context, Ezio does not provide any instruction.  He does not tell us how we should act. This is expected given his speech at the Bonfire of the Vanities in Assassin's Creed II where he declared,

"We don't need anyone to tell us what to do...We are free to follow our own path.  There are those who will take that freedom from us, and too many of you gladly give it...Choose your own way.  Do not follow me or anyone else."

This brings us back to the only admonition to action that the Assassins provide.  Be wise.  The Creed is a starting point.  To be wise you must first empty your mind of certainty of everything you think  you know and the ego attached to it. Nothing is true. Only then can you critically develop new ways of thinking divorced from cognitive biases, preconceived  notions, and prejudices. This is like the famous Buddhist analogy of emptying the cup before it can be filled.   In the spirit of opening new mental attitudes, we find new opportunities for action by breaking unproductive habits and not succumbing to the comfort found in following the common wisdom of the herd.  

Far from being cynical, as Sofia first observed, the Creed is an observation, a guide, and a gateway to a new way of thinking and acting.  Once we recognise that the world as we know it is built upon something as fragile as thought, we can then use those ideas as shepherds and architects to guide the world to something truly enlightening.  This is Ezio’s Creed.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Assassin's Creed -- The Movie

The Assassin’s Creed film has finally arrived to the sounds of boos from critics and fans alike.  It currently sits with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 17% as the latest in a long line of video game to movie flops.  A few reviewers whom I watch on a regular basis placed it in their top ten worst film lists.  I decided to avoid the film and wait for the Netflix premier, but a few impassioned Youtube fans encouraged me to  make-up my own mind and see it.  As someone who has been writing about the philosophy behind the Assassin’s Creed games for over six years now, for me – personally – this was one of the best films of 2016.  So, what did I see that the critics and fans missed?
First -- a quick disclaimer.  What I’m writing here is not a review of the film, but really the same sort of analysis that I apply to the Assassin’s Creed games in my other articles.  So, yes…spoilers.
The critics all praised the acting, the directing,  and the action sequences in the film, but collectively criticised the unlikable, boring characters and the baffling storyline.  It could be argued that the critics simply did not understand the film as it was told in the language of the game with concepts like the Assassins, Templars, artefacts of Eden, and the animus being alien to them and not fully elaborated on in the film, however fans turned their backs on it as well.  
As for the fan reaction, I have noticed three types of Assassin’s Creed fans.  The ones who are into gameplay and enjoy jumping off rooftops and stabbing people in the face, those who are into the story and the lore, and finally those who are into the philosophical messages  and themes  behind it all.  Of course you can enjoy more than one element, so there is overlap, but most people would fall primarily into one category or another.  
For those fans of the gameplay, the film delivers through the historical sequences, but they complained that this is only a small fraction of the film.  They were given a taste of the film they wanted but never got.  Fans primarily of the story and lore got their service too in the form of Easter eggs scattered throughout the film.  What no one expected from Assassin’s Creed was a film made for that minority third type of fan in the form of a psychological drama with socio-political overtones.
Fans expected Assassin’s Creed to be an action-based historical romance, the same genre as the games, where the modern story serves as a frame for the real historical story that the game-makers wanted to tell.  The “protagonist” of the first five games is Desmond Miles, but he just sits in the animus the whole time with all of the action happening in the past.  That said, we do see Desmond grow throughout these games with the expectation that the series would eventually shift gears to give us a modern Assassin’s tale with Desmond as the hero, but this promise was never fulfilled and ended with Desmond’s shoehorned death.
The film takes a different approach by telling the modern story the games never delivered.  The relationship between past and present is reversed with the past serving to inform and move the present day story.  Many fans were disappointed with this change in perspective, especially since it reduced the Assassins of the Spanish Inquisition to action sequences and did not fully developed characters.
Why did the filmmakers shift the genre from historical romance to a modern psychological drama?  It was a risky decision that did not pay off for them.  I see two reasons.  The first is that  it is easy to view history as fiction simply because it is the past.  By setting the game primarily in the modern, that wall is broken down and strengthens the Templar and Assassins metaphor in terms of the films socio-political message and call to action.  The second reason has to do with how the filmmakers re-thought the animus.
In the games Sean, Rebecca, and Lucy all speak of the dangers of the animus and the harmful toll it can take on the psyche, but we never really see it.  We see that Clay Kaczmarek, Subject 16, drew crazy shit on the walls and we are told that he lost his mind, but that is about it.  Lucy speaks of the dangers of the bleeding effect, but this plot line is completely dropped.   I had thought while playing the game that eventually Desmond would learn to use the bleeding effect to his advantage and summon the power of his ancestors when outside the animus, but this never happened.  However, it does happen in the film.

The film explores how experiencing the animus would affect a person’s mind.  Imagine if such a device existed.  The subject would experience the thoughts and feelings of another person. No big deal right?  Fact is that a person’s entire psycho-emotional grasps on reality would be broken down.  This pairs with John Locke’s memory theory of identity.  He wrote that identity exists within the context of consciousness and consciousness is connected to memory.  

It is a common trope in science fiction where a person’s (or android’s) identity is called into question when it is discovered that their memories are false.  What the animus does by visceral exposure to another’s memories is create a psychological blending that undermines an individual’s sense of identity.  Basically, the person no longer knows where their identity stops and the other person’s starts.  There is a scene where one of the animus subjects introduces himself to Calum by the name of his ancestor as if he could not distinguish the two identities.  Other subjects were not so fortunate as the experience caused a complete psychological breakdown rendering them  psychotic.  

This is compounded by the bleeding effect, which became a key concept in the film.  Adding to the problem of merging memories, and therefore identity, there is a manifestation of these memories as real time visions.  The result is that exposure to the animus causes both an identity breakdown and a collapse in the perception of reality.

What we have here is a forced Existential Crisis where the character realizes that everything that he believed to be true, himself and the reality in which he operates, to be a construct that can collapse.  We have two choices in these situations.  We can either fight that realisation and become psychotic or accept it to become empowered, which is what Calum Lynch does when he successfully achieves the leap of faith with full synchronisation with his ancestor Aguilar.

This is the main character’s psychological journey.  A story is a person with a problem and how that problem is resolved.  Once the problem is no longer a problem, the story ends.   The person with a problem in Assassin’s Creed is Calum Lynch.  As a young boy, he entered his home to find his mother’s throat cut.  In his shocked state, his father suddenly appears wearing the trademark Assassin’s hood.  He tells Calum, “your blood is not your own” and orders him to flee just as several police vehicles arrive on the scene.   Calum’s problem is that he does not understanding what happened.  His world suddenly fell apart -- again an existential crisis.  Why did his father suddenly murder his mother?  The problem is resolved not when he learns why, but when he truly understands why on a psycho-emotional level.  

Both of Calum’s parents were secretly Assassins.  We see this quite often in the games, such as with Ezio Auditore and Haytham Kenway who were both ignorant of their parent’s hidden life.  The police vehicles that arrived were actually Templars, the ancient enemies of the Assassins, and Calum’s father killed his mother at her requests to spare her being captured and experimented on at the Abstergo labs. So for Calum to reach resolution, he must first come to understand the Assassin’s,  their devotion to the Creed, and why they were willing to sacrifice everything they loved for it.  Every event in the film works to this end.  The conclusion comes when Calum finally reaches that state of acceptance.

This brings us to the central theme of the film.  The Templars and the Assassins represent two groups in society which can be conveniently split politically between right and left, or the establishment and the anti-establishment.  The establishment believes that the wise should rule.  Today, the establishment takes two opposing forms.  One that defines wisdom primarily by success and the other primarily by intelligence.  In both cases, they believe that the populations needs to be controlled and they do so with the consent of the people who want to be ruled by “the good king” who will make everything better.  The games and the film both depict these good and bad Templars.  The bad Templars who simply want power over others and the good Templars do the exact same thing, but sincerely believe that they do so to help others.

The anti-establishment rejects both positions.  They believe that every individual person is free to make their own choices without force or coercion.  A person cannot be made to be good.  Goodness is a choice.  They also believe that every person is accountable for their actions.  Traditionally, this would have been the position of the Left.  However, since the turn of the 20th Century the “good Templars” have moved themselves into that position in the minds of the people.  What most people think of as the Right or the Left today are just the two forms of the establishment – the two types of Templars.  The true anti-establishment is more like the libertarians politically.
In the film, the Templars want to end violence by destroying free will.  There is a critical scene where the Templar Master and the head of Abstergo are discussing tactics.  The Master wants to abandon the search for the means of destroying free will because they have already accomplished their goal.  First they tried religion, then politics, and now consumerism and this has worked.  People care more about preserving their lifestyle than they do about civil liberties.  This is the core message of the film.  The Templars have won because you – the viewer – have chosen not to make sacrifices to fight for freedom.
I noticed a few critics missed the importance of this scene.  They approached the film as a traditional macguffin plot seeing who will get the Apple of Eden, but the chief baddie says straight-out that they do not need it.  All the Apple is to the Templar leadership is a vanity project that is costing too much money.
The Creed is mentioned a few times in the film, but there is no scene going into its deeper meaning.  I first thought this was an omission that created confusion for the first-time viewers, then I realised that the film is not preaching the Creed.  It is preaching the concept of freedom and is using the Creed as a metaphor.  When the Assassins say things like, the Creed comes first or the Creed is more important than love, what is really being said here is that freedom comes first and is more important than love.  To be more specific, it is more important than the things we love.  
This addresses the control by consumerism mentioned before.  We love our things: our cars, homes, electronics, etc.  We love the things that comprise our lifestyles.  The film is telling us that our freedom is more important than these things that we love and we must be willing to sacrifice them if we want to be free as they are the instrument of our slavery.
Seeing as this is the core message of the film, we are presented with two different layers.  Calum through his ancestor Aguilar learns the lesson of sacrifice for the Creed.  In this he understands why his father sacrificed his mother and points him to the sacrifices he must make going forward.  We the audience learn through Calum’s journey the lesson of sacrifice for freedom and the sacrifices we must make going forward.
There is a scene where a guard tells Calum the origin of the word Assassin.  He tells him that the word is derived from the Hashashin meaning outcasts.  This is generally accepted.  The word hashashin literally means hash user, but the connotation of the word was outcast or low-life.  The more modern and academically accepted theory is that the word is derived from Assasyun, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”.  
Consider then that the Templars have created a means of controlling people through consumerism.  There is the basic human need for food, shelter, and clothing, security, and entertainment (mental, emotional, and physical stimulation), but once those needs are fulfilled, then what comes next?  Abraham Mazlow suggests in his hierarchy of values that we then move on to higher values like self-actualisation, but the real world shows us that people who have all they need want more and better of the same.  Better food, nicer shelter, fashionable clothing, safe spaces, and more entertainment. We become consumers.  By rejecting this the individual has no hope of being one of the cool kids.  His values are completely at odds with the social norm.  He could not care less about the latest Kardassian.  He becomes an outcast -- a hashashin.
The Templar plan comes crashing down in regards to the Apple of Eden in the form of the greatest threat to all central planners.  The spectre of unintended consequences.  Central planners think that they know best so their plan is perfect, but the unintended consequences reveal themselves showing that the “wise ones” are not all that wise.  One classic example of unintended consequences comes from the days of British India when the government placed a bounty on cobras in an effort to decrease the snake population.  The enterprising Indians took advantages of this and started cobra farms.  When the government learned of this the bounty was discontinued and the Indians released their worthless cobras into the wild.  The unintended consequence of the policy was more cobras than when they had started.  In their arrogance they forget that  the best laid plans of mice and men most oft go awry.   
The Templars in their quest to learn the secrets of the Assassins force normal average men and women into the animus, but in the process actually creates (or more precisely re-creates) the Assassins.  As one guard warns the villain, “you are feeding the beast”.  By the end of the film, those individuals who survived their experience in the animus relatively intact psychologically have fully integrated their ancestor.  Abstergo has unleashed some of the greatest Assassins in history onto the modern world as the unintended consequence of their desire to control that which should not, or cannot, be controlled.

There is one final criticism that I have yet to address and that is characterisation.  Critics found the characters to be boring and unrelatable.  What Calum Lynch suffers from is the lack of a sidekick.  Batman has his Robin, Sherlock his Watson, and the Castaway his Wilson.  These sidekicks exist to give us, the audience, a glimpse into the character’s psyche through the interactions of the two characters.  The only alternative is a voice over narration from the character as an inner monologue or a character who talks to himself.  Either way, the audience needs this kind of access in order to care about the character.

Calum has no sidekick, no inner monologue, and does not talk to himself.  He is completely alone in a crazy place, thus robbing the audience of any true insight into his thoughts, feelings, and motivations.  What we see are his interactions with his captors and his fellow inmates, both of whom he holds in contempt and distrust for understandable reasons.  Is it any wonder that he comes across as unlikable?  We are left to interpret his actions as outsiders.  In a sense, this is consistent with the Creed in that we the audience are left to come to our own conclusion without being told how to feel about him.  Likewise, we do not get into the minds of the historic Assassins because their purpose in the story is simply to drive Calum to his resolution.

I also noticed that the portrayal of the Assassins seemed a bit more intense than in the games.  The Assassin’s Creed games, to their credit, do not shy from insinuating that the Assassins are not always “the good guys”.  Fact is that evil companies provide desired products and services.  Evil Empires provide economic and political stability.  These desired things come at the cost of freedom.  The vast majority of people are willing to pay this price.  As the punk band, The Dead Kennedys put it, “Give me convenience or give me death”.  The Assassins reject this sacrifice.   They subscribe to a Nietzschean form of radical freedom demonstrated by a willingness to let the world burn for the sake of freedom.  The film shows this through the Assassin’s intense devotion the Creed, thus making them appear far more radical than their game counterparts.  This is possibly due to the film’s central theme of  advocating personal sacrifice for the sake of the Creed (aka freedom).

Ultimately, the film Assassin’s Creed is an origin story.  it is about how Calum Lynch through the machinations of the Templars, became an Assassin.  The film ends when Calum reaches this state and the scenes after are only there to wrap things-up.  This confused critics who thought that the film was about stopping the Templars and getting the Apple of Eden, but the film already established that this was irrelevant as they did not need the apple anyways.

When people ask me what I thought of of the Assassin’s Creed movie, I always give them a disclaimer.  For me it was one of the best films of 2016, but as the author Anais Nin said, “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.”  What I have shared here is the film that I saw.  You will see the same film differently and your film may not be as good as mine.