Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Our dark materials

I was spending my time in the doldrums
I was caught in a cauldron of hate
I felt persecuted and paralysed
I thought that everything else would just wait

(Pink Floyd, "Lost for words")

There's another trip coming up, another attempt to fight for survival, and so I revert once more to this unpleasant use of blog posts as a "message in a bottle" tossed out into the deep sea of the world wide web. It is really not all that surprising to read in the news of last desperate messages left out on some web site by would be victims or assassins prior to their last bloody journeys. Reversing personal anguish on the web has become a modern version of the vox clamans in deserto: a cry of despair sent out into a wilderness where no one will hear. The paradoxical nature of the world wide web as being at the same time the busiest and most highly frequented "place" (or perhaps entity) in the world and yet so dispersed in its nature as to make sure that most of the huge body of written and visual material uploaded every minute will hardly ever be seen by anybody is what makes the allure of the internet post: it is easy to imagine flowing at the heart of a mighty river of information and human activity and yet most likely be completely alone and unseen. Sometime only after some concrete real life event the existence of a long trail of prior virtual shadows is uncovered, dug out from the depth of the virtual ocean and displayed for human eyes to see. Do not worry, imaginary reader, mermaid of the electronic abyss, I am not planning any crime: no splatter, no gruesome act of retaliation against anybody. I think not. I merely observe how easy it is to enter this fictional universe of communication without an emissary or a receiver. The medium is the message, or perhaps a version of Marshall McLuhan for our electronic age would assert that the disembodied message becomes medium, signifier, receiver and emitter at the same time, in a solipsistic game of recreation of the whole process of communication without anything being communicated at all, creating an absolute and irresistible esthetic of loneliness.

While you are wasting your time on your enemies
Engulfed in a fever of spite
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades
Like shadows into the night


There's going to be finally a DVD release of the movie "Dark Matter", shot in 2007, briefly out in selected movie theaters in the US and quickly withdrawn from circulation, despite having won the Sloan price at the Sundance film festival. The accusation: having "humanized" the figure of the main character, Liu Xing, a Chinese graduate student of cosmology in the US, who ends up committing an act of violence against fellow members of the same department. The story is (very loosely) based on real events happened in a university in the midwest, in a completely different context and field of science, sometime back in the 1980s, if I remember correctly. Never mind, since the story is certainly fictional in all its aspect, except for the very real portrait of the tragic combined effect of the enormous psychological pressure that is so common among people doing research in cutting edge branches of science, together with the feeling of alienation caused by being uprooted from one's own culture and environment, as again people working in science so commonly experience. When, as it is often the case with foreign graduate students in the US (the movie argues, especially students from China) one adds to this volatile mixture the additional pressure caused by overt or thinly disguised racial discrimination, it may reach well beyond the limits of a person's resilience and endurance and ignite a tragic and violent ending as the one described in the events portrayed in the movie plot. The same sort of observations could of course apply to other forms of discrimination, such as gender discrimination, instead of a racially motivated one: added to the combination of all the other factors, it could prove just as explosive. It is convenient to believe that the people who are driven to commit such unspeakable acts of violence are just monsters: who else would unload a gun onto innocent fellow students or colleagues? It is perhaps out of understandable respect for the families of the victims of such campus shootings that hardly anything is ever said about the perpetrators other than condemning the senseless violence of the act. Yet, it would be better if the unspeakable would sometime be spoken. Understanding what chain of events may lead an ordinarily normally functional, sometimes even very bright, individual to commit a hideous crime is important, more important than hiding behind a convenient accusation of madness or intrinsic evil. Anybody can be pushed to the limit under suitable circumstances: each one of us, men and women, of whatever ethnicity, age, and social extraction could become that senseless killer of the campus shooting. The right chain of events has to come along for such a thing to happen, a deadly combination of fear, frustration, isolation, and sense of abandonment, of being betrayed by the people one most closely trusted. The feeling has to last long enough and be reinforced by a nearly continuous chain of events for a long lasting stretch of time, of the order of months if not years, so as to wear out all the natural regulatory mechanisms of self defense and resilience every individual possesses. Such chain of events do happen, and in environment where pressure is high and continuous, and people are more often displaced and uprooted, they are more likely to happen. I think a movie like Dark Matter helps us understand what it means to slowly slip past the boundary dividing the sane from the insane, joining madness and despair. It is by no means an apology of crime perpetrators, but it makes people understand why such crimes may happen and what are the wheels that turn beyond the surface of a person's life, and wind up the charge of an explosive mixture of unexpressed feelings and fears. A desperate act of violence is a fruit that ripens on a plant rooted in societal rejection of certain groups of individuals combined at the same time with the expectation, often self imposed, that such individuals ought to perform far better than all those surrounding them in order to make up for the bias in the other people's perception. Humiliation, isolation, rejection, demands: the tension is sufficiently contradictory and painful to make one's mind explode.

To martyr yourself to caution
Is not going to help at all
because there'll be no safety in numbers
When the right one walks out of the door


The rampage killing portrayed in the Dark Matter movie is primarily an act of self violence: the perpetrator kills what he had once loved and that by which he felt betrayed. Is this way of presenting the story condescending? Is it trying to create sympathy for a murderer? Yes and no: it primarily seems to be attempting to comprehend what appears at first incomprehensible. In the way the story is constructed in the movie, things do indeed make a whole lot of sense, perhaps,
some may argue, too much sense, to the point of appearing to justify, not only explain, the character's conduct. In the movie Liu Xing is a hard working brilliant and very promising young scientist. As such, he is quickly spotted and nurtured by the leading senior scientist in the field. This process of initiation and acceptance into the community already portrays very well some of the aspects of the sociological functioning of this community, the almost tribal primitive structure barely hidden behind the clean surface of the heroic quest to explore the frontiers of science. The role of the dominant male in the monkey tribe (a theme I keep returning to frequently in my own reflections upon the functioning of the scientific enterprise) is quite clearly visible from the beginning of the story, even in the early phase where the future looks bright and full of promise. Liu Xing joins into the research group: he is sharing a dream, an exciting research project that promises to unravel some of the most intriguing mysteries of contemporary science: the problem of dark matter in cosmology. He invests in this shared dream all his emotional and intellectual capacities. He internalizes it, binds with it: his science becoming the hard essence of his own life. Things slowly begin to take a turn when, in his quest, his own results and approaches begin to question the paradigm established and maintained by his mentor. Here is where once again the movie hits on another quite essential target in its very well crafted critique of the functioning of the scientific community. Again this has to do with the hidden monkeys behind the human clothing. Liu Xing falls out of favor in the community for having dared to challenge the authority instead of blindly following it. In his place, another young Chinese researcher in the same group is chosen as the new favorite of the boss. He, unlike Liu Xing, plays along, never challenges, only praises, and while Liu Xing is more and more pushed to the margin, excluded from what was previously a joint dream, his antagonist rises. It is the emotional aspects that come to dominate the story at that point: Liu Xing's attitude towards his mentor had, up to that point, been dominated by true love and admiration. His challenge of the accepted paradigm was well within the honest manifestations of this love for both his mentor and the topic of their joint research. It is only as a reaction to his perceived exclusion from that very same joint dream that this love begins to turn sour. The dynamics of inclusion and exclusion is the most powerful weapon that tightly knit communities can brandish. This has been seen in action every so often in religious contexts (excommunication, apostasy) or in political contexts (party expulsions, maoist style self-criticism). Perhaps this movie is the first attempt I've come across that shows how this dynamics plays itself out in the context of the scientific community. The process of exclusion can have devastating effects in an ambient like science where, on a highly specialized field, the community of experts is very small: once someone is cast out there is really nowhere else to go. The process of retraining for a scientist is an extremely long and painful process: being able to work at a respectable professional level in any field of science can easily require ten years of training. Being forced out of one's established field of expertise is something that can well trigger the kind of desperate reaction portrayed in the movie.

Can you see your days blighted by darkness?
Is it true you beat your fists on the floor?
Stuck in a world of isolation
While the ivy grows over the door


Not all cases of "campus shooting" arise as described in Dark Matter. In fact, this is perhaps the most serious criticism that one can make of the movie, that it risks portraying as typical a case that is in fact quite exceptional. Often in real life the perpetrators of such crimes are not bright young scientists cornered into despair by the cruelty of the sociological functioning of the scientific community, but more likely failing students with more frustration than real talent. Conversely, not all cases of young scientists whose life is devastated by their inability to fit into the tribal structure of the scientific community end up in murder and suicide. Yet some do, and this movie does dare to talk about those people in a way that is human. I think it is not a mistake to openly discuss such possibilities: at least it should help raising awareness or what is a very real risk. One should not underestimate the effects of prolonged periods of high intensity and stressful work of the type that is involved in scientific research. There are ideas, beautiful ideas, and behind the ideas there are human beings, who have an enormous emotional baggage they carry with them as they try to develop those ideas. Research work requires long stretches of intense concentration. Nothing comes easy. There is a misguided widespread belief in the stroke of genius that solves everything in a single "eureka" cry. That makes no sense: science is a struggle, a continuous fight where advancement is only made one small step at the time, one after the other, slowly, painfully, always painfully. There are moments of joy too, of course, we do like, love, the act of doing science, but it is precisely this emotional roller coaster involved in the process that makes it enormously difficult to cope with the stress that accompanies it. The issue of recognition is a minefield: it helps to gain recognition within the community, it temporarily makes the burden easier to carry, but it easily becomes a trap because its workings are more volatile than the stock market and if one comes to rely on recognition as a source of strength the fall out of favor, when it eventually comes, may be much harder to take. That's how the sociology of the community comes to have nearly infinite power of inflicting deep wounds. Human beings have a wonderful mechanism of resilience, a homeostatic control system whose main purpose is to prevent us from killing ourselves and come up, at any given time and in any possible circumstance, with new motivations to keep on living. As all mechanism, the homeostasis of resilience can also occasionally break down. The typical way in which this can happen is through accumulation. As in the story of Liu Xing in Dark Matter, the accumulation of events finally breaks the homeostasis and the resilience mechanism fails. Too much emotional and intellectual investment goes astray, leaving behind a feeling of not having anywhere left to go both mentally and physically. It is nice that the movie will soon be available again, this time in DVD form. It will give an occasion for thought, both for the people who are in the position of Liu Xing's mentor in the movie, who will hopefully pause to reflect on the devastating effects that their role in the scientific community can occasionally have, as well as of course for all those who are or will find themselves at some point during their scientific career in the shoes of Liu Xing. These will hopefully reflect on how to build safety mechanisms preventing them from investing the totality of their lives, intellects and emotions into a dream whose course is ultimately controlled by others, who wield the levers of inclusion and exclusion and pull them at their whim and fancy.

So I open my door to my enemies
And I ask: Could we wipe the slate clean?
But they tell me to please go fuck myself:
You know you just can't win.