Tuesday, December 06, 2005

**2005: An End of the Year Message


This is my December Eye on Africa column. I believe What the Bleep Do We Know? was one of the most extraordinary and important films of the past year--not only because of its novel word-of-mouth marketing, but also because of the way it affects the way people think and perceive. It was one of my precious gems of 2005. I think What the Bleep Do We Know? can have unique significance for Africans and African Americans, particularly for those who are willing to open their minds to see new models of reality and to develop their intuition about science, the brain and consciousness. In fact, it's imperative that we find new ways of seeing things. The world is changing at hyper-speed, and the old paradigms are falling apart... What is perplexing and frustrating (and sometimes funny) is that a lot of people don't even realize that their thinking is actually confined to 'limited paradigms'...


2005: An End of the Year Message

With 2005 coming to an end and the holiday season upon us, we always look for meaning in the past. Looking back, this year has brought unprecedented attention to the Motherland, with the worldwide Live 8 concerts for Africa and a seemingly endless stream of journalistic reports: genocide in Darfur, pirates off the coast of Somalia, famine in Niger, and the election of Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in Liberia. All too often media images of poverty, war, political instability and the HIV-Aids crisis bombard us, but the real Africa, the true Africa, is something far more vast, beautiful, daunting, and innocent than people who have never been there can sense. It becomes a challenge to look for the small fine threads of stories, telling pictures, and human perspectives that paint something beyond the dark electronic vignettes that dominate the Western view of Africa.

Standing on the threshold of change, Africa pushes forward, pressing itself into the consciousness of the Western mainstream world, in dribs and drabs, subtle and overt. Cell phones and the Internet are making startling new connections between remote African villages and the global village, adding a new, direct human dimension to aid initiatives and organizations. Solar energy, open-source software, $100 laptops and World Wide Web connectivity are gradually seeping into the Motherland, bringing new visions of access to knowledge, education, and enlightenment in Africa’s dawning Information Age. In the United States we face a very real scenario where an American of Kenyan descent, Senator Barack Obama from Illinois, may become the first Black president or first Black vice president of the United States. Worlds of possibility, worlds of change and quantum leaps of growth surround us, although they are sometimes clouded and discounted in the weary dust of ordinary mundane day-to-day survival.

Sometimes we, as African Americans, have a tendency to get caught up in our own media reflection. The barrage of our own images in advertising, film, and television have power far beyond our measly 12 percent of the American population. Online, at the office water cooler, in clubs, bars, and theaters we catch up on our Black celebrities, artists, and entertainers, and movies like Crash, Hustle & Flow, Four Brothers, or Mike Tyson’s porn flick, or CDs from John Legend, Kanye West, Mashonda, Trina, or Toni Braxton. We are so immersed in our own cultural creativity that we often take its omnipresence and growth for granted, diminishing its extraordinary history and emergence, and detaching from or blinding ourselves to what is coming out of Africa and the Diaspora. In terms of entertainment in this post-modern world, we become our own spectacle, consuming ourselves, sometimes to the detriment of participating in other media audiences and dialogues.

What the Bleep Do We Know?, a movie about the brain, consciousness and quantum mechanics, was a pop culture phenomenon in 2005 that did not appear as even a tiny blip on the African or the African American radar. The movie, which featured interviews with scientists and psychologists and an accompanying storyline with actress Marlee Matlin, managed to gross $12 million at the box office with limited marketing, no reviews or publicity, relying essentially on word of mouth and targeted marketing on the Internet. What the Bleep Do We Know? was panned by a few critics who felt its message was incoherent and obtuse and the scenes with Matlin seemed stiff and contrived; but box office success and the film’s nonchalant marketing strategy testified to its popularity and broad appeal. While the title may not catch our eye like The Gospel, Jarhead, or Get Rich or Die Tryin’, What the Bleep Do We Know? may be more relevant to African Americans and Africans than many of the flashy celebrity blockbusters we’re constantly ranting and raving about.

What the Bleep Do We Know? is relevant because it offers insight into sub-atomic physics, consciousness, and the brain in a way as that allows people to see everything--matter, emotions, thought and feeling, even perception itself--from entirely fresh perspectives. The movie is a journey inward that is both structural and scientific as well as philosophical and mystical. The film is strung together by a series of edited interviews and sound bites, but with no narration, and hence at times may be confusing or difficult to follow, especially since the concepts are novel and unfamiliar to most people. Nonetheless, What the Bleep Do We Know? is highly popular because it presents compelling views on how emotion affects one’s biochemistry, how addiction reinforces itself neurologically, and how we can even become addicted to emotions like anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, resentment, self-pity and sadness.

One of the advantages of being Black or African is that we have an easier time deconstructing many of the myths that American society builds around itself and its people. We have the opportunity to approach religion and science from our own unique soulful African perspective. We have the opportunity to reject science as materialism and we can also reject religious fundamentalism’s attempt to define everything about life and the universe in exclusion of facts. We can feel and use our intuitive cultural perspectives to find truth in qualities and experiences that resonate with us. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we have the capacity to see the spaces in between, the syncopated beats and jazzy impressions of an unorthodox worldview. One would not expect a film about quantum mechanics and the brain to mention Blackness or African qualities, yet What the Bleep Do We Know? inauspiciously presents a world view and psychological concepts that potentially fit and augment our own intuitiveness.

More importantly, in a world where many Black youth are often hypnotized by their environment and over-identify with destructive behaviors they see around them, this kind of film may stimulate a youthful mind into a mode of self-examination that allows the old concepts of how they view themselves and the world to change. We are also very much in need of new models for how we understand and cope with addiction, and new ways to look at how people get trapped in repeating cycles of negative emotions. With thoughtful analysis and careful examination--all of the scientists and contributors and their writings can be researched on the Internet--the model can be extended to ideas about meditation, developing more coordinated and extensive thought activity and neuronal connections in the brain, and understanding the soul or the “Observer” in all of us, the conscious spirit lying behind manifestation.

I’m not saying that What the Bleep Do We Know? is without its flaws or imperfections or controversies. Some scientists say the film takes scientific concepts and tries to convert them into a kind of new age religion. But everyone can consider the film on its own merits. I think the What the Bleep Do We Know? might be beyond the grasp or at least difficult to understand for those who lack basic middle or high school biology and chemistry. But if offers a wealth of knowledge and ideas for those who want to see “how far down the rabbit hole” they can explore. One usually needs to see the film more than once to absorb the material, and it helps to discuss it with others who might see different things and talk about different interpretations. During the holiday season, the What the Bleep Do We Know? DVD might make an inspiring Christmas gift, or maybe a Kwanza present to be shared with family and friends. That may be quite an appropriate modern African offering for a world that is changing at hyper-speed and moving into a New Year, in a New Millennium.