Modeling A Conscious Evolution: The Role of Reflexivity In Film & Sustainability

Achieving sustainability is rapidly becoming our society’s greatest challenge. As Buckminster Fuller says in Critical Path (1981), “Humanity is in ‘final exam’ as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance in Universe.” 1 How does this boundary-crossing social movement coincide with other trends in art, particularly filmmaking? And how do art and the sustainability movement relate to evolving consciousness?

Release: I cannot claim to be a scientist, but I do claim to be an inquirer.

Introduction

Recently, I had the pleasure of holding a pre-interview with Aleco Christakis, co-founder of Institute for a 21st Century Global Agoras and cybernetician/social systems thinker extraordinaire, for Sust Enable: The Metamentary, my feature-length experimental documentary about the meaning of sustainability. I was excited to speak with Aleco about his understanding of sustainability in terms of human organizations. He was excited to speak with me, however, about the content of my film.

“The Metamentary, huh? What a good name. Did you think of that?” he asked. I conceded that I had, but with some embarrassment, commenting that it was only an unwieldy working title. “You do know what meta- means, don’t you,” he probed. I asked him to enlighten me.

“Meta- comes from the Greek word for beyond. It was first used to describe metaphysics, a field of study that went ‘beyond physics,” he replied. “Your film is so exciting because it is trying to go beyond documentary. No?”

I was floored. What did Aleco mean? What does it mean to go “beyond” traditional filmmaking? What would that look like, and why try? This essay is an attempt to reconcile emerging movements and social trends with a parallel movement in cinema, and to explore how my own film, Sust Enable: The Metamentary, may contribute to this socially and creatively significant moment in time.

How does consciousness evolve?

What is the hallmark of a sentient being?  What differentiates human consciousnesses from other life forms?  In what ways is human consciousness an evolution of consciousness in general?

These are some of the questions addressed in Douglas Hofstadter’s boundary-smashing literary fugue on meaning between forms (and indeed, between minds), 1989’s Godel Escher Bach.  Still a classic, many who have read it will remember it for its fascinating explanations of how learning, meaning, and creativity occur, using a special style in which careful exposition is paired with narrative examples that embody the concepts discussed.

Hofstadter holds that all learning–whether done by a human or by a computer–consists of essentially the same process.  Forming analogies, using symbolic language, and an increasing capacity for reflexivity (self-reference) are hallmarks of a developing consciousness.  Then halfway through the book, Hofstadter delivers a shockingly anti-climactic climax.  After painstakingly building his case for how the human brain understands anything at all, reinforcing Turing’s theories about critical size, he suddenly reveals that once a certain level of complexity of associative connections is made within a brain, the brain becomes self-aware.

…This does not elevate consciousness or awareness to any ‘magical’, nonphysical level.  Awareness here is a direct effect of the complex hardware and software we have described.  Still, despite its earthly origin, this way of describing awareness–as the monitoring of brain activity by a subsystem of the brain itself–seems to resemble the nearly indescribable sensation which we all know and call ‘consciousness’.  Certainly one can see that the complexity here is enough that many unexpected effects could be created.2

It’s a tremendously intriguing claim.  No matter whether it’s a brain or a computer, once a certain level of complexity is reached, the entity becomes aware of its own processes (by creating a “self” subsystem within the complexity of symbols it utilizes to understand the world).  This is what distinguishes humans from animals–the knowledge that we exist–and this is what amplifies our pleasure and our pain–our deductive knowledge that we will, in all likelihood, die.  One could argue that the purpose behind Buddhist spiritual practice and transcendental meditation is to abide in that “meta-cognitive” realm, by directing one’s concentrated attention to one’s own processes, simply observing but not identifying with the emotions, thoughts and sensations that pass through the body.  The underlying faith is that nourishing one’s awareness in this way provides inherent, if unpredictable, rewards.

So when we talk about our hope for “evolving consciousness,” is this intrinsically but mysteriously rewarding process what we want?  What we relate to?  What we mean?

1Fuller, Buckminster. Critical Path. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s, NY. Print.

2Godel Escher Bach, pg. 388

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A Letter to Our Fans, Friends and Family

To Everyone Who Has Supported Us,

THANK YOU for helping to make Sust Enable: The Metamentary possible!

Thank you for believing in our commitment to a holistically sustainable film, thank you for wanting to join us on this journey to discover deep truths about sustainability, thank you for sharing this message with your friends. You are an integral part of the dialog we are hoping to create through our film.

Lots of things have been happening. I have some big news to share…

  • Sust Enable: The Metamentary will be officially kicking off production on July 30, 2011 with an interview with author Charles Eisenstein. Charles is the author of “Sacred Economics,” “The Ascent of Humanity,” and is a popular contributor to RealitySandwich.com. He is in the process of writing a “meta-book” that incorporates comments and critiques from readers into the book’s story. Check him out at www.charleseisenstein.com.
  • We have also just made a big purchase of the film’s main video camera! This is a commitment toward starting production, and I’m very proud of our decision. We will continue to explore how buying and renting film equipment contributes to unsustainable systems. Please explore our NEW and improved blog-style website for our ongoing reflections on our process.
  • Our first ever Sustainability Jam on July 14 was a wonderful success, with about 20 people turning out to learn about jam and sauerkraut making. Video and photo gallery coming soon! Stay tuned on our website to find out what the next Sustainability Jam will be about, or suggest a topic! Always the 2nd & 4th Thursdays, 7-9pm.

And in preparation for production, Sust Enable is hiring for crew positions! Please get in contact with us if you would like to volunteer or work for Sust Enable by emailing sust.enable@gmail.com.

We have come a long way since the naive Sust Enable episode series in 2008. After three years of development, I couldn’t be more proud of how far this project has come. But we still are shy of our $5,000 that will truly help us be ready for our production launch. Please share this site with your friends and encourage them to donate! We are dedicated to a flexible, transparent and inclusive filmmaking process. We believe that by committing to a sustainable process, we ensure that we can tell the fullest possible story about what sustainability may mean. Your engagement at this time is critical!

THANK YOU!

Sincerely,
Caroline & The Metamentary Crew

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Sustainability and Sust Enable: Reflexivity

This theme is closely related to the theme of holism.

If we are to assume that in a sustainable system, all aspects of the system are somehow unified, somehow all-one, and are in fact irreducible (systems-thinking), then it follows that in that same system, anything the system does ends up impacting itself in some way. Therefore, if an organism pollutes its environment, it will end up polluting itself. If an organism enriches its environment, it improves its chances of survival overall. In a sustainable system, meaning and value come from the system’s own processes.

For further resources on reflexivity in art: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Modules/MC30820/reflexivity.html

Interpreting Reflexivity in Sust Enable

Reflexivity and holism are particularly important themes because their influence pervades through all levels of our film. By seeking to embody sustainability at one level (the story), we are compelled to apply it reflexively on all levels (the style and the process).

On the level of the story, we choose to follow the organically evolving lifestyle of the film’s director, and, to a smaller extent, the film’s own processes, in looking for evidence of the generic claims about sustainability made by our interviewees. For example, if an interviewee argues for why a sustainable system must be adaptable, that section of the narrative will explore how our director Caroline’s life now, and in contrast to her extreme lifestyle-change project in 2008, incorporates (or fails to incorporate) said principle.

On the level of the style, as the film’s story progresses from simplistic to increasingly complex facts and models of sustainability, with each sustainable feature comprising a small sequence, the film’s style will adapt and mirror the feature being discussed in the narrative. For example, while an interviewee discusses the significance of stakeholder participation to a sustainable system, the camera may passed around to several different crew members to “show” their perspectives and the role they play in the story.

On the level of our processes, we will constantly challenge ourselves to consider how our own processes incorporate the principles of sustainability that we learn about. Since we can never know absolutely what the meaning of sustainability is, we will closely analyze our own processes to determine what works best for us, and with this knowledge, we will shape our narrative structure around which themes resonate most with us.

This post is one of a series about The Sust Enable Project’s main themes and principles.  These are themes that have emerged from our sustainability research, that we plan to fully embody in our sustainable filmmaking process.  For more posts like this, check out the Core Themes and Principles category of posts.

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Sustainability and Sust Enable: Holism

Holism

In a holistic model, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

At first impression, this theme suggests that everything is unified. We are all one. Any human being is actually a complex of other organisms, and the natural environment from which we receive sustenance, is made up of other organisms. Thus, all living things are profoundly interconnected, and the boundaries between us are fluid.  Our world is thus defined not through objects, but through relationships between subjects; not through hard boundaries between things, but through networks among beings.

This requires a shift from the way we tend to view the world, as clearly defined objects and patterns that can be rationally reduced and parsed. In a holistic situation, breaking the system down into parts actually obscures a more subtle nature of the system, that can only be understood when considering the system as a dynamic whole. For our film, interviewees that will touch on this theme include Charles Eisenstein, Phil Seneca, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, Dr. Allenna Leonard, and more.

Interpreting Holism in Sust Enable: “Systems Thinking,” Holistic Design, and Focusing on the Process

The means must reflect and embody the ends. You must have a sustainable process to achieve sustainable results. Holism is perhaps the theme that most profoundly influences the design of Sust Enable: The Metamentary.

We will interpret this theme in the story by drawing attention to the unity of purpose in the two Sust Enable projects, despite their vast differences in approach. We will illustrate how my current lifestyle holistically incorporates sustainability choices in dynamic balance with other goals in my life—for example, commuting by bicycle is an integrated daily choice that balances my needs for fitness, transportation, community, acquiring skills, and conserving fuel.

Stylistically, we may begin the film with a scene that we revisit at the conclusion with deepened meaning. Or we may, when appropriate, look for parallels between ostensibly divergent points of view and show how they line up conceptually (for example, juxtaposing an indigenous activist’s interview commentary with that of an academic specialist to illustrate agreement.)

Our production processes reflect this theme through our film’s unique approach of seeking to embody sustainability principles (including holism!) at all levels of the film’s creation. We must consider how every decision incorporates sustainability principles as much as possible, and how a choice regarding the story layout, for example, has implications in the real world, and vice versa.

This post is one of a series about The Sust Enable Project’s main themes and principles.  These are themes that have emerged from our sustainability research, that we plan to fully embody in our sustainable filmmaking process.  For more posts like this, check out the Core Themes and Principles category of posts.

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