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.
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