infinite weltschmerz

politics, philosophy, and other lonely musings

Reflections on the film ‘Focus’

Upon finishing Focus, I was consumed by a single thought: ‘how naive!’ Not, however, regarding the entirety of the work, but merely the ending. The final scene, with Lawrence and Gertrude standing in the police station, and the triumphant musical score in the background, was presumably meant to be just that: triumphant. After countless instances of discrimination, adverse treatment, and bodily assaults, Lawrence finally could take no more. He was moved to take action against the Union Crusaders, for the sake of himself, his wife, and Mr. Finkelstein.

Why, then, could I think on nothing else but the naivete of this ending? My fellow students and I had watched a film brimming with anti-Semitism, as well as racism, nationalism, and nativism, of both a personal and an institutional or impersonal nature. Not only was there speech, physical violence, intimidation, and so on, between individuals (an indisputable part of both the film’s portrayal of reality, and the real lives of those living every day under a kind of sword of Damocles, perhaps best symbolized by the assault on Lawrence and Mr. Finkelstein near the end). But this is not to what I refer. No, what was naive was, at the final breath, the movie’s negation of its own major premise.

The logic is simple to follow. No institutional or structural entities[1] portrayed in the film were free from intolerant bigotry, whether overt or not. The film shows us that anti-Semitism, and, by parody of reasoning, racism, sexism, and the rest, are grounded in the individual interactions between neighbors, co-workers, and friends, on a personal level. But, on a different level, these forces take on a much different and more powerful life, and become concretized or reified in the institutional entities and structure that make up our sociopolitical reality—even if, possible though unlikely, no individual has any intention of specific harms to any discrete group or characteristic.

Given this, how can the director (as well as the author of the novel, presuming the film tracks its source reasonably close) expect an audience to accept such an ending? If anti-Semitism is as pervasive as the movie leads us to believe—to say nothing of the actual, real history of Jews across the world—there’s no reason to believe that the police station is staffed by kindly officers, untouched by conspiracy theories of Zionists and blood libels.

What’s worse, though, is that the film can be see as explicitly repudiating just the sort of ending that it offers up. I refer to the scene where Lawrence is unceremoniously, and quite literally, thrown from the church where the Union Crusaders meet to hear a speech by Father Crighton. After, as he comes to his senses, and yells uselessly at the doors that he is not a Jew, the police urge him to move on, to return home, to head elsewhere. Yes, they inquire after his well-being, but they do not show any significant care towards Lawrence. Inferentially, this must be due to his ‘Jewish appearance’, referred to throughout the film. I doubt that most people[2] would expect police to simply stand by as a bleeding, beaten man is physically thrown from a building by an angry, screaming, perhaps bloodthirsty mob. Yet that is exactly what happens.

But, the above notwithstanding, Focus was a striking psychological portrait of Lawrence’s ascent from apathy to taking the reigns of social responsibility. We began with the quiet, unassuming bachelor, living with his mother into what appeared to be middle age, no wife or significant other to speak of, and only shallow seeming friendships. Unwilling to turn in Petey to the police, and determinedly ignoring what he witnessed the night of Petey’s rape (at least, outwardly), Lawrence yet embarks on an internal struggle to resolve the contradiction between what he feels is right and how he acts in the world with expediency in mind.

At first, and perhaps like many who grew up in a culture pervaded with perverted structures of power and privilege, Lawrence is entirely embedded—almost unknowingly—within a neighborhood rife with anti-Semitic attitudes, to say nothing of racism and sexism. At times, he seems conflicted, unwilling to participate in the ‘game’ yet finding himself midway through a match in progress. In this, he is not unlike Macbeth: prodded by forces that seem almost to take away his agency, his free will, Lawrence finds himself deeply intertwined in a plot that is of his own making and, at the same time, in a curious way, not at all of his doing. Lady Macbeth is all around him, symbolized by Fred, by his superiors at work, even by Gertrude and her insistence that he go to the Union Crusader meetings.

As the plot continues to roll inexorably onwards, Lawrence’s internal struggle to reconcile his moral feelings and intuitions with the terrible truth of his passive, tacit complicity in the increasingly dangerous situation in the neighborhood begins to manifest itself outwardly. Lawrence’s resignation from his job, his apology and eventual relationship with and marriage to Gertrude, his continued resistance to Fred’s influences; these smallish rebellions lead inevitably to the finale, hitting their climax with Lawrence fighting alongside Finkelstein against the Union Crusaders intent on assaulting him, his outright rejection of Fred and Fred’s ideology, his refusal to cave to Gertrude and expediency, and the aforementioned report to the police department.

The final scene in the police station, for all my misgivings above, is the culmination of the radical shift in Lawrence’s Weltanshauung. Like his neighbors, colleagues, and friends, though to varying degrees, Lawrence had been in power. He did not need to define himself, or answer to others in his social circle regarding his identity, or the validity of his person. Unlike Finkelstein, Lawrence’s embeddedness in the Christian culture of his neighborhood was invisible, both to himself and to the others who were similarly embedded. By the end, when the police officer assumes that Lawrence and Gertrude are Jewish, and he chooses not to correct him, the transformation is complete. Lawrence has realized his internal contradiction, and escaped the paradox by fully and totally negating his earlier passive complicity.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Prophets that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Whether Lawrence is among the few is a question without an easy answer, but he has realized the existence of his responsibility, and embraced it with his entire being, his very identity in the world.

[1] The Jewish firm which employed Lawrence notwithstanding, of course.

[2] This may, itself, be an indication of removal from the sort of existential experience of being the ‘other’ in question, of course, but c’est la vie.

Kripke and Wittgenstein: Object and Designation

In this paper, I argue that Kripke is mistaken in classing ‘pain’ as a rigid designator and that Wittgenstein had it right in that “the grammar of the expression of sensation” cannot use the “model of ‘object’ and ‘designation’.[1] I argue that ‘pains’ are essentially the pains of some person, and that the origin essentialism thesis Kripke argues for in Naming and Necessity[2] applies to pains as well. Next, I argue that, based on that last, ‘pain’ (in the sense of the general concept called ‘pain’ or, perhaps, the set of all pains) cannot be a rigid designator. If any rigid designation is to take place, it can only be particular pains. On those grounds, I continue by arguing that if ‘pain’ in the broad sense is a rigid designator, it will give rise to an absurdity in which ‘pain’ might not designate anything at all. Finally, I argue that Wittgenstein was right about how the language of pain is used, and this is fatal to Kripke’s thesis. I conclude by noting that even if particular pains, rather than ‘pain’ in the broad sense, are to be rigidly designated, this is a pointless addition to the language of rigid designation and pain.

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Your Theory of Perception Is Too Much In The Sun: An Objection to William Jaworski and Externalism

William Jaworski’s hylomorphic theory of mind depends on externalism regarding mental content: beliefs, perceptions, etc. Jaworski lays out the theory in his book, Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction.[1] Below, I raise an objection to perceptual externalism that depends on observations in the neuroscientific literature, and in favor of an alternative, which I will refer to as the ‘brain’s best guess theory’[2] of perception.

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