The author of the article below views the movie as an examination of three philosophical traditions of “waking up” in terms of consciousness and understanding. The terms Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism are used to refer to Eastern Philosophy (like Zen). He also uses the term “Situationism” which, quickly defined, works like the reference to post-modernist ideas—it views modern man as uniquely defined by-- and ultimately the victim of-- cultural and societal constructs. Below is a discussion of Existentialism in the film, the third philosophical tradition. Way-too-briefly-described philosophical dispositions in this article: Eastern Philosophy/ Vedanta: The world is an illusion—we are one with all things and time is an illusion. See past the illusion and find peace. We are all one “energy force” and seek to forget our ego (individuality) to find enlightenment (realization that you, me, the tree, and God are actually the same thing). Existentialism: The world is an absurd test if it has any meaning at all. You are defined by your choices and actions—not what you think or believe. You have no soul or “essence” except that which you create through your actions. Take responsibility (sorry, no peace for you).
Situationism: Post—modern idea that you are more the product of social constructs (school, family, America) and you can’t really be making choices because all your decisions come from social conditioning or even the lies told to you about the world. Watch the Super Bowl and stop worrying. Or, in the author’s words: The situationists see modern consumer society as a society of the spectacle where our selves are absorbed into the mass entertainments provided by film, TV, pop music, advertising, and consumer goods. Authenticity is swallowed up by the passivity encouraged by absorption in the spectacle. We are caught up in false choices between spectacles in a society which offers us spectacular abundance, yet at the same time separates us from each other and from active resistance to the cultural alienation this society represents
Second Wake-Up Call: Existentialism and the Call to Freedom---The second wake up call in Waking Life comes from existentialism, especially Jean-Paul Sartre's notions that we are condemned to be free, and that if we make excuses for our not having this freedom, we are living in bad faith. Sartre distinguished in-itself physical being, like that of rocks, which have no consciousness and thus no freedom, from for-itself conscious being, which we human beings have. As in-itself beings, we are fundamentally free to make our own choices, to chart our own course in life. Brute matter may frustrate our plans, yet we always have a choice. We are thrown into this world, and it's up to us to do the best job we can at creating our selves, much as an artist strives to paint an evocative painting, or a sculptor chisels away at a mass of rock to create a compelling statue.
For Sartre, every time we make an excuse for not doing something we desire or feel obligated to do, we are living in bad faith. On the other side, if we blindly follow the dictates of social custom or the commands of others, and refuse to take responsibility for our actions, we are once again in bad faith. Since we are responsible for creating our own actions, we are responsible for creating our selves. We need to wake up to the reality of this act of creation, of our personal freedom. So the wake up call here is to freedom, to the acceptance of a transcendent being-for-itself that isn't enchained by the grimy materialism of the body or by the slightly less grimy socialization of our economic and social roles.
The key scene here is Scene 3, Condemned to be Free, when Wiley Wiggins, our hero, visits Robert C. Solomon, an important commentator on and champion of existential thought. He doesn't like the socially constructed and fragmented self of the postmodernists: this just opens up a whole world of excuses. What we do in our lives does make a difference. In Solomon's own words:
[Solomon in the classroom]... The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion, or historical curiosity, is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I'm afraid we're losing the real virtues of living life passionately, in the sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feeling good about life. Existentialism is often discussed as if it's a philosophy of despair, but I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre once interviewed said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. The one thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life, so much as a real kind of exuberance, of feeling on top of it. It's like, your life is yours to create... [Solomon and Wiley walking] I've read the post-modernists with some interest, even admiration. But, when I read them I always have this awful, nagging feeling like something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more that you talk about a person as a social construction, or as a confluence of forces, or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. And when Sartre talks about responsibility, he's not talking about something abstract. He's not talking about the kind of self or soul that theologians would argue about. It's something very concrete; it's you and me talking, making decisions, doing things and taking the consequences. (Waking Life, Scene 3)
Solomon's monologue hints at the idea of everyday life held by most people, including the postmodernist ideological justification of this life: the idea that we are pushed and shoved by large institutions like corporations and the state, or are trapped in our roles as members of a given sex, race, or religion. The existentialists critique this idea as radically underestimating our personal responsibility for our actions. Given a Whiggish theory of history, one might think that the more recent (historically speaking) postmodernists, with their socially constructed view of the self, would trump the "old-fashioned" existentialist view of the self as transcendental and fundamentally free. But not so for Solomon, and one would imagine Linklater. The fat lady has yet to sing in the arena of personal responsibility. Matter and social roles are tests of our freedom: can we transcend them, or do we surrender to in-itself being, becoming moving blobs of flesh and bones animated by nothing more than custom and habit?
Existentialist freedom arises again in Scene 25, when Speed Levitch waves his hands like a sorcerer, excitedly informing Wiley that:
We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance, for even our inabilities are having a roast. We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoevsky novel starring clowns. This entire thing we're involved with called the world is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be. Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments flabbergasted to be in each others' presence. The world is an exam, to see if we can rise into the direct experiences. Our eyesight is here as a test, to see if we can see beyond it. Matter is here as a test for our curiosity. Doubt is here as an exam for our vitality. Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write a hundred stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling into a lucid faint - a sudden exhilaration as he realized at last, something was happening to him. (Waking Life, Scene 25)
Here are some all too familiar existentialist themes: we write our own lives, the self is made over time through experience, and physical matter is a sort of test for our willingness to live in good faith, to exert our freedom. Of course, Levitch's existentialism is mixed in with some jolly Buddhism and some self-affirming situationism: the gigantic Dostoevsky novel that is our lives stars clowns, not Raskalnikov or the brothers Karamazov. Yet it is an existentialism all the same. Alienation is exciting, doubt a test of our vitality. Perhaps one-third Sartre, one-third Nietzsche, and one-third Camus in one of his happier moods.
As a counterpoint to all this freedom, in Scene 9, Free Will and Physics, philosophy professor David Sosa brings up a central criticism of existentialism, the idea that we live in a pre-determined universe. He starts by discussing a basic problem faced by medieval Christian thinkers like St. Thomas: if God is all-powerful and knows everything that will ever happen, how can human action be seen as free?This is the same question posed by modem science, transferring the power to determine events from God to natural laws. In his speech Sosa in effect asks, "how can we have free will if we're just bundles of matter and energy determined by physical laws?" It doesn't do any good to bring in quantum mechanics with its probabilistic account of the random swerving of atomic particles - this hardly preserves human dignity. Sosa prefers a "deterministic physical machine" to such swerving. He concludes without a real solution, insisting that we can't ignore the problem of choice and of freedom, since our very notions of responsibility and of individuality depend on our understanding this problem.
A second major more-or-less existentialist thinker hinted at a number of times in the film is Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche argues that all life is will to power. Yet the will to power of some is weak and dyspeptic - they follow a slave morality which celebrates pity, physical illness, and servitude. Those bursting with a more positive will to power can master both themselves and others. They revel in creativity, struggle, and self-mastery. They embrace master morality.
Nietzsche was no democrat - he saw the greater mass of humanity as bleating sheep whose chief preoccupation was avoiding marauding birds of prey. For him, they invent slave morality to enslave their enemies in mind-forged manacles of self-renunciation and self-pity. The true test of the presence of master morality was the amor fati, or love of fate. What if the universe eternally recurred, eventually repeating your life just as it is now? Could you embrace this fate? Live your life over again just as it is now? If you say "yes," then you love fate, and are indeed a master.
We've already seen how in Scene 11 Otto Hoffman asks us to say Yes to all existence. Seen from this point of view, his claim that the essence of the human quest is to be "liberated from the negative" parallels Nietzsche's own attempt to escape from the nihilism (life is pointless) that he saw engulfing European civilization all around him. Hoffman's "Yes" to existence can also be seen (in addition to its Buddhist connotations) as evoking Nietzsche's amor fait, love of fate.
A more aggressive Nietzschean can be seen in Scene 15, which I've called The Overman. Here Louis Mackey says that there are two types of people in the world, "those who suffer from a lack of life, and those who suffer from an over-abundance of life." These roughly parallel Nietzsche's master and slave moralities. Mackey goes on to suggest that the distance between the average person and Plato or Nietzsche is greater than that between a chimp and an ordinary human. So few of us reach our real potentials, become great artists, saints or philosophers. Why? Mackey says that the answer to this simple question can be found in another - what's the more universal human characteristic, fear, or laziness? However we reply to this second question - one assumes that the true answer is "a mixture of both" - Mackey's short monologue hints strongly at Overman, the higher type of human being who embraces master morality, who overcomes all obstacles to achieving his full potential. Even the most dedicated Nietzsche scholars debate over who are the best examples of Nietzsche's Overman. He himself seems to suggest Napoleon and Goethe, diverse human types to be sure, one a military conqueror, the other a poet. Whichever pole we think more accurately reflects Nietzsche's Overman, we can be sure that most of us are neither Napoleons or Goethes. At the end of our lives, we are probably closer to being animals that Overmen - we eat, sleep, have babies, go to work, watch television, but produce nothing great. Our names are erased from history with the millions of others who have led similarly humdrum if not slavish lives. Sadly, most of us are Nietzsche's bleating sheep, ever watchful of the circling birds of prey, the truly "evil" masters of their own fates.
Finally, Scene 33 returns us to Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. Linklater, speaking of his dream of Lady Gregory, talks about how there is only one story, moving from the "No" to the "Yes," embracing eternity and the unity of things underneath their phenomenal differences. With a bit of a stretch we can see this once again as Nietzsche's rejection of nihilism and his challenge that we embrace life and fate, even if it eternally recurs. So whether it's Sartre's clarion call to freedom, or Nietzsche's demand that we become masters of our own selves and destinies, Waking Life oozes existentialist ideas out of its many cracks and fissures. There remains one more major philosophical theme on display in the film, a theme which, historically speaking, was very much a continuation of existentialism.
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Scene in Film
What It's About
1. Dream is Destiny
Wiley Wiggins dreams of playing with origami fortune teller ("dream is destiny"), then floats away, touching a car handle.
Dreaming vs. Reality
2. Anchors Aweigh (The Boatisattva)
Bill Wise picks up Wiley in his boat car, telling him to go with the flow. He's in a state of constant departure. Random choices important. Linklater is with them.
3. Condemned to be Free
Philosopher Robert C. Solomon defends existentialism against socially constructed, fragmented self of postmodernism: "it's your life to create."
Existentialism (especially Sartre on freedom)
4. Signifier and Signified
Kim Krizan tells Wiley that words are inert, dead symbols. At first they were survival tactics. They try to help us transcend our isolation, allow for spiritual communion.
5. Neohuman Evolution
Eamonn Healy, a chemistry professor, predicts the evolution of a neohuman manifesting truth, loyalty, justice, freedom.
Journalist J. C. Shakespeare rants about human self-destruction & the media making us passive observers; sets fire to himself like Vietnamese Buddhist monk in 1963.
7. Collective Memory
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke muse in bed about dream and multiple consciousnesses, death, collective memory, and the simultaneity of scientific discoveries.
8. The Prisoner
Prisoner swears revenge against his captors. He's trapped in his self-created hell, like Sartre's characters in No Exit.
9. Free Will and Physics
David Sosa, physics professor, discusses free will in Augustine & Aquinas, and how it's compromised by modern physics.
10. Systems of Control
Alex Jones, radical broadcaster, rants over a loudspeaker about how political systems of control turn us into slaves.
11. Say Yes to Existence
Otto Hoffman, a Quaker, wants us to be free from nothingness, to say Yes to one instant, and thus to all existence.
Existentialism (Nietzsche's love of fate)
12. Liminal Experiences
Aklilu Gebrewold, African-American writer, speaks of liminal experiences, radical subjectivity, and the great moment.
13. The Aging Paradox
Carol Dawson, novelist, and Lisa Moore, English professor, speak of feeling freer as they age and the fiction of personal identity.
14. Noise and Silence
A chimp speaks of subversive micro-societies and the possibilities of art while screening a rock performance and a showing of Kurosawa's film Dreams.
15. The Overman
Louis Mackey, a philosophy professor, laments people's fear and laziness, their inability to reach their true potentials.
Existentialism (Nietzsche on the Overman)
16. What's the Story?
Violet Nichols asks Alex Nixon what's the story he's writing; it's just gestures, moments, fleeting emotions, he says.
17. The Right to Bear Arms
Steven Prince tells a bartender how he treasures his right to bear arms. He shoots the barkeep, who shoots him in return.
18. Lucid Dreams
Clips on television: a man talks of flawed reality of the present; Mary McBay of lucid dream state reached by sorcerers, shamans; man talks of narrowness of the single ego.
19. Dreamers Muse
Three men: Jason Hodge identifies waking & dreaming perceptions; Guy Forsyth wants to combine waking & dreaming abilities; John Christensen says fun rules.
20. The Holy Moment
Caveh Zahedi talks about film allowing us to see holy moments (Andre Bazin saw God as reality, film as presenting God). He and David Jewell have such a moment.
21. Society is a Fraud
Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt, two others want to rupture the spell of the consumer society, interrupt continuum of everyday life. "Mr. Debord" discusses not working.
22. The Train Arrives
A man pops out of a train car, tells Wiley he's a dreamer, and that it's the most exciting time to be alive: don't be bored.
23. One Thousand Years
Ryan Power, an autistic kid, tells Wiley that 1000 years is but an instant, to build beautiful artifacts, feel joy, sorrow, etc.
24. The Human Ant Colony
Tiana Hux, performance artist, compels Wiley to communicate with her, rejecting the "ant" autopilot most of us use everyday. In lucid dreams we're in control.
25. The Ongoing Wow
Mad poet/tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch speaks of the ongoing wow, Lorca's poems, that we're the authors of our lives, that life understood is life lived.
26. Dream Self
Short scene: Steve Brudniak, artist, says person you are in a dream isn't your real self - you haven't yet met yourself.
27. Channel Surfing
TV: Catholic puppet speaks of heaven & hell; Steven Soderbergh tells joke about Billy Wilder and Louis Malle; Mary McBay discusses post-death dream body.
28. Swept Along
Short scene: man on street says that as pattern gets more intricate, being swept along is no longer enough.
29. Exploding Burritos
Bill Wise returns as convenience store clerk (denies other role) bemoaning customer who explodes burritos in his microwave.
30. Every Moment is Magical
Mona Lee, actress, sees the self as a logical structure. Life was raging all around her, and every moment was magical.
31. Garden and Portrait
Short scene: an elderly woman draws Wiley's portrait in a garden.
32. Sweep Me Up
Short scene. Passing man: "Kierkegaard's last words were, 'Sweep me up'".
33. The Tango of Yes
Orchestra from earlier in film plays a tango, dancers dance. Linklater plays pinball, tells Wiley about Philip K. Dick story coming true in his life, dream of Lady Gregory: there's only one instant, it's right now. God invites us into eternity. There's only one story: moving from the No to the Yes.
34. Wake Up!
Wiley wakes up, walks down street on beautiful day, begins to float again.