"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


Lucy: Another Popular Swipe at Boring Old Literacy?

July 30th, 2014 by

In summer, my wife and I, both teachers, have afternoons free and can pay matinee prices.

The other day, we saw Lucy, the new film starring Scarlett Johansen and Morgan Freeman. Though similar to all the other blockbuster, three-act, explosive summer offerings, this film has the added value of some fifth grade reflections on what increased brain use can do for the old “being and time” problem. This was fine for me as long as I ignored a few basic issues I had with this film, which became noticeable once I dealt with the tension I felt over the violence Scarlett Johansen faces from this film’s start to its finish. I’m not sure what connection is being asserted between violence against women and thinking. Perhaps the director is into Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. But that almost made me miss two other issues.

First–and I don’t mean to be too picky here–the model of the brain this movie is premised on, especially the idea of “increased brain function,” doesn’t really square with current brain research. Second, the accompanying riff on what drugs can do for a social life and a daily schedule is probably not one most fifth graders should hear.

I won’t spoil anything. For the full summary, click here if you don’t plan to see the film. I will note just a few plot points for the sake of context. Lucy is a fairly typical young American woman living in Taiwan who doesn’t seem to use even half the brain capacity of normal, semi-awake bus riders. She doesn’t seem to know that her boyfriend of one week is working for gangsters. She is abducted and a packet of synthetic drug is stitched into her abdomen. When the drug enters her system after the tenth or eleventh act of violence against her, she begins to use more and more of her brain, which includes extra-linguistic and psychic abilities that render all computers too slow for her. The more she learns, the more powerful and threatened she becomes.

Primitive or Divine?
I admit that I find summer movies more and more exhausting these days. With the same three-act hero structure wearing thin earlier every year, I now experience a deepening spiritual exhaustion by mid-June that can only be remedied by work. But that is material for another blog.

When it comes to understanding intelligence or school success, we prefer numbers, of course. This movie gives us numbers we can understand. Since childhood, I’ve heard that we use about seven percent of our brain capacity. As Lucy is beginning to use, say, 30% of her brain capacity, Morgan Freeman, who is supposed to have spent over 20 years doing research on this subject, states that humans are “primitive,” and math and literacy represent human symbol systems that are “primitive” and “bring reality down to a primitive, human level.”

So much for what researchers in the field of literacy are finding about the importance of literacy to consciousness.

This is, I should note, one of Mr. Freeman’s weaker roles. His lectures to an enraptured audience, spliced between Lucy’s violent abduction, seem unresearched.

The problem for the movie is that as we now have ways of observing actual brain activity, cognitive researchers are apparently abandoning this model. It reminds me of what my father used to say about reality. It is so much more interesting than the movies. But it’s not as attractive or exciting.

But no matter. It is pleasant to think that we are simply giants–or perhaps, gods asleep, that we really are so much more intelligent and sophisticated than the systems we use: So why bring ourselves down to a primitive level?

I admit that as the movie approached this divine conclusion, I had a moment when I thought of Boethius, an ancient Roman writer, who speculated on divinity and eternity as all moments in one. This was only for a moment, however, as this film showed no sense that anyone on the writing or production team had heard of Boethius.

Public Service Announcements
The other message, of course, most fifth graders will also get: Drugs are needed.

I basically was entertained but not fooled. I’m still not going to look for drugs to build my brain. As a reader, I already know how “Flowers for Algernon” turns out.

And here is my public service message for the month: Literacy is a system that brings primitive humans up to a divine level—if we are willing and want to put in the time.

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Comment by Audrey on July 30, 2014 at 9:22 am

I agree that literacy is a cut above the primitive, but I think it is a necessary though not sufficient condition for approaching the divine (whatever concept thereof you choose). I can imagine literacy being surpassed, but not without passing through it.

Comment by Tom on July 30, 2014 at 11:12 am

Audrey, the question as to whether we can know anything outside of or other than the symbol systems (letters, numbers, pictographs, musical notation, ect.) we use to represent knowledge is ignored in this film. Rather, it seems to accept that we can intuit a higher, nonrepresentational intelligence apart from symbolic representation, the latter being tagged as “primitive.” Symbol systems certainly are “human made,” but they are not “seen through” to something beyond. In literacy, what we really seem to know are the symbols themselves. Words are not transparent but loaded with ideological structures, carriers as it were. (Sorry if it sounds like I just took a trip back to grad school momentarily there.)

Comment by Emily Griesinger on July 31, 2014 at 7:45 pm

Oh, yeah. I remember Algernon. He had to race a mouse through a maze. Right? Or was Algernon the name of the mouse? I think I’ll pass on this movie, even at matinee prices. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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