The Abs•Tract: Ep. 2, First Principles
Fundamentals of MetaPhysical Fitness and Socratic Irony
Film Synopsis: A philosophical fitness program called The Abs•Tract, based on a mystical treatise containing the core truths, inspires a student who experiences massive gains in knowledge and understanding, all while getting ripped, abs. As his journey goes from the trivial pursuit of abs to profound abstract revelation, the program is revealed to be an underground plant-powered mystery school, dedicated to saving the world through freethought and satirizing stupidity.
Welcome to part 2/18 of the director’s commentary and book exposition of The Abs•Tract: Core Philosophy. In Ep. 1, I introduced the film/series as a whole and discussed the details of the first webisode, Introduction to Abstraction. I articulated the background, themes, and its relation to metamodernism. The title of the second webisode is First Principles, referring to a set of ground rules or primary values as well as the meaning of the word metaphysics, to establish some prerequisites for serious abstraction.
Metaphysics means ‘beyond’ physics, and is defined on Wikipedia as “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.” Metaphysics also has a pejorative connotation, meaning “abstract theory or talk with no basis in reality.” (wiki) So it begs the question of how to use that word correctly; how we separate woo from wisdom. The film is a meditation on this double meaning as well.
I like a more ‘classic’ definition, from my big 1980 Webster’s dictionary:
“That science which seeks to trace the brances of human knowledge to their first principles in the constitution of our nature, or to find what is the nature of the human mind and its relations to the external world; the science that seeks to know the ultimate grounds of being or what it is that really exists, embracing both psychology and ontology.”
Webisode 1.1.2 First Principles
This webisode opens with David Vitruvius instructing the three students. This is the first expression of a proper “scene” after the introductory montage. We are now fully in the training space, which has a very abstract composition, that we got a glimpse of in Ep. 1. The location used is in fact an abstract Christian church (non-denominational). The Abs•Tract is as much a program for spiritual salvation as it is for ripped abs. Vitruvius is solemn, holding his hands together in what looks like a prayer pose.
David Vitruvius: “What is the first principle of abstraction?”
Students (in unison): “I don’t know.”
Vitruvius tries to teach his students how ignorant they truly are, and they genuinely don’t know. How can one be aware of their own ignorance? It seems paradoxical. The truth (of ripped abs) is within them, but they do not yet have the technique and epistemology to discover it what is innate. (Perhaps there is a corollary to the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people underestimate their intuition instead of overestimate their intelligence.)
There is a joke here, in that the students actually don’t know the first principle, but that “I don’t know” is also the correct answer. ‘The first principle of abstraction’ (or a first rule of philosophy) is to acknowledge one’s own ignorance. Socrates was famous for this. The students’ cult-like response reflects their earnestness and eagerness while also mocking the mantras of commercialized pitch sessions. Vitrivius affirms their answer.
David Vitruvius: “That’s correct. Yes! The socratic imperative of humility before knowledge. Excellent, congratulate yourself with some LatGrats.”
Vitruvius uses positive reinforcement to keep the students engaged, despite their failings. Even though the students (and audience) might have missed this quick point, there is a sense of urgency to do right by the world, so Vitruvius presses on. He’s optimistic, although beset by things like widespread obesity and the industry that feeds on it. He’s acting out the new sincerity movement.
Being a student is a noble endeavour, but many fitness or self-help programs undercut this process by replacing serious study with fluff and tripe. Quality of education is not consistent across all organizations that might call themselves schools or institutes; there is a false equivalency. And not all elite institutions produce the highest truths. The Abs•Tract tries to instill the spirit of learning in its followers, so that they may discover the (objective) truth themselves.
David Vitruvius: “The reason all these ab-gimmicks don’t deliver results, besides that they suck, is because of what’s called “User failure”. The Abs-Tract works to make you smarter. Healthy mind, healthy body. Get abs, with The Abs-Tract.”
The truth, in the sense of getting ripped abs, is whatever works most efficiently. And what works is knowing how to expand and contract your muscles properly, so one must know thyself. And that is the crux here: if ab-gimmicks don’t work, why do they exist? Why is fitness so hard to achieve for many? The answer is largely because the truth is obscured, not because it is difficult. The truth about health and fitness has been muddied by the market. The appetite for simple solutions leads to poor informational nutrition. This is a manifestion of what I call systemic-conspiracy:
“Systemic-conspiracy is the malicious, sinister, impersonal features of “the system” that manifest in power structures, which then have criminal and counterproductive effects against innocent people. In the broadest sense, it is so widespread that it applies from the horrors of totalitarian war down to the absurdities of ab-gimmicks.” — Systemic-Conspiracy as Social Pathology
I think it is safe to say that 100% of overweight people have tried to lose weight by various means, and 100% of those people have probably purchased at least one ab-gimmick. After all, there is a thriving market of dozens upon dozens of fitness gimmicks. When I say “gimmick” I mean the definition: “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.” That is to say, its a fraud, a deception, and I intend to expose it.
Everyone is prone to being a sucker of one-kind or another. Suckers for gimmicks are kept in a state of servitude to ideology. And gimmicks are the easiest type of fraud to expose, so if we could just equip people with gimmick-defence mechanisms, we might be far better off as a civilization. If “self-help” systems actually helped people help themselves, they they wouldn’t need another guru to show them the way. Instead, they are profit schemes.
David Vitruvius: “You are your own life coach. Remember that.”
Vitruvius is post-ironic, at once sincerely playing the role of some sort of life (of mind) coach while telling the students that they don’t need him. He wants his role to be obsolescent, along with other banal and corrupt aspects of capitalism. Ab-gimmicks are on the bottom rung of consumer capitalism, as legitimate and functional as a degree from Trump University (defunct), or, god-forbid, a Trump fitness regime.
The Abs•Tractors are in a sense undercover, infiltrating the racket of self-help and fitness to plant the seeds of philosophy and critical thinking. A sort of peaceful and playful Trojan horse. Like any informercial that tries to seduce you, the claims are sensational (“You can get ripped abs just by thinking it”), but its a slow burn, to teach you a long lesson.
Adam Kadmon: “You can’t harness the power of positive thinking, if you don’t know how to think at all. The Law of Attraction? It’s just a distraction from abstraction.”
“Positive thinking” and the “Law of Attraction” are staples of the self-help movement. They do reflect a good message, that is to not beat yourself up too much, but often at the expense of being self-critical. The “law of attraction” promotes a happy-go-lucky lifestyle that delivers on its promise of being self-serving. It tells people to get rid of friends that are going through hard times. And it encourages delusions such as being able to manifest wealth out of thin air.
The Abs•Tract challenges that paradigm with a reset, getting us to reconsider thinking itself. And it is true, if there is power to be harnessed from positive thinking, you must know how to think critically. You must understand abstraction. Thus, First Principles gives us a concrete concept to practice. This webisode introduces the concept of WhyCepts; asking why recursively until you get the right answer at the right level of abstraction.
David Vitruvius: “You think you’ve worked your biceps and your triceps before, but you haven’t, until you’ve learned WhyCepts, and strengthen your cerebral core.”
We see the students in meditation as Vitruvius speaks to the camera. These fresh recruits are not at Abstract Meditation just yet, but that article is the program they are on, and what they are aspiring to. The physical goal of WhyCepts is to focus on stability and the rhythmic rise and fall of the diaphragm.
Adam Kadmon: “Scientific studies show that flexing your WhyCepts just three times can make your more politically moderate. Just imagine what being centered can do for your abs.”
The idea behind WhyCepts is supported by two major studies, which are cited in the film. They show that asking “why” (which they describe as abstract thinking) disrupts one’s own confirmation bias. The practical applications of thinking abstraction are manifold, but being more politically centred is one of the most tangible ones. I wrote about this in much more detail in Abstraction Will Make You More Politically Moderate. One student struggles greatly with this, and Vitruvius tries to motivate him;
David Vitruvius: “C’mon, it’s mind over matter, even a kid can do it.”
Children are generally better at learning and questioning than adults, which is why kids are often able to do things easier than adults can. Kids are sponges, and have an innate rationality that can see through the social paradoxes of adults (ie. Are kids racist? No, they are taught it). Once we become adults, we settle in to modes and routines, and take for granted the social world as it presents itself to us (‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’). The Abs•Tract urges students to exercise a child-like innocence and skepticism about the world — to empty their cup, so to speak— so that they may begin to learn anew.
Luc, the more ambitious and able student, is abstracting a little too hard, and Vitruvius takes notice;
David Vitruvius: “Relax! Why are you flexing your face? These are core exercises, we’ll get to FaceLifts and HighBrows later. You have to focus. I know its a lot of mental lifting.”
FaceLifts and Highbrows hint at heuristics buried deep in The Abs•Tract, that do not get exposition in the film. A facelift is cosmetic surgery to remove wrinkles by tightening the skin, but FaceLifts are the natural remedy of not giving a fuck about such vain concerns. Highbrow means ‘intellectual and rarefied’ and HighBrows refers to the correlated soft arching of the forehead, denoting openness or a realization such as an “aha!” (Eureka) moment. By doing FaceLifts and HighBrows as exercises while reading The Abs•Tract, one is well on their way to getting a ripped mind and body.
At the bottom of a long chain of asking “why,” we are confronted with a primordial question: “To be, or not to be,” to quote Shakespeare. Or in the wise words of our philosophical life coach;
David Vitruvius: “At a fundamental level, we have to ask ourselves why we do anything at all.”
If you don’t question everything, you hardly question anything. Why exercise? Why even get up in the morning? Surely, there are good answers to these questions, but there’s also bad answers. The existence of ab-gimmicks must give us pause. Sometimes the secret to ripped abs is not doing something extra, but not doing something you are already doing, like eating that donut or drinking that beer. The more we question ourselves the more we challenge all our automatic (programmed) behaviours that are leading us to undesirable outcomes; obesity, addiction, ignorance, poverty, etc…
In order to undo and prevent that damage, we must practice non-action, or wu-wei, a core principle of Taoism. One cannot meditate and act at the same time. Stillness presupposes non-action, immovability. In order to achieve proper technique of meditation (or consumerism, for that matter) this non-action has to be the goal. Do nothing. In a way, this first lesson of The Abs•Tract can be summed up as ‘don’t do anything’ because ‘you’re ignorant.’
Such a radical proposition is the necessary foundation for the deep lessons contained in the rest of the film/series. Only these First Principles will ultimately lead to supreme knowledge and the greatest good, and an absolutely shredded six-pack.
Finally, this episode sees the formal introduction of Luc Rivard as one of the main characters. He is showing excellence over the other students. He is given a titled card and interviewed against a flowing milky backdrop, where he recounts his first experiences practicing first principles:
Luc Rivard: “The WhyCepts proved to be a challenge. Uhh.. I wasn’t thinking about thinking the right way yet, and, uh, I definitely fell into one of the traps… got caught into Paralysis by Analysis.”
Luc is talking about ‘metacognition’ here, one of the basic concepts from The Abs•Tract book. He got stuck in a recursive loop, asking “why?” ad infinitum and blowing his own mind. This is what we call ‘paralysis by analysis.’ Luc learned from his mistake and shows the most promise out of the three students.
The Abs-Tract Organization is globally oriented meta- think tank, specializing in ‘abstraction’, but also moonlights as a mystery school for metaphysical fitness.
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