In the Face of Armageddon: Watchmen and the Problem of Nihilism

Posted in Alan Moore, Apocalypse, armageddon, comic books, cosmicism, DC Comics, Ernest Becker, Existentialism, fiction, graphic literature, graphic novels, Kierkegaard, Literature, Love, mortality anxiety, Myth, Mythology, Nietzsche, nihilism, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Science, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2014 by Uroboros

SPOILER WARNING

Deconstructed Superheroes

Deconstructed Superheroes

Mythic heroes are supersized embodiments of a society’s highest values, and their struggles represent its deepest fears. One way or another those fears revolve around our anxieties about death and the problem of nihilism, the belief that life is devoid of intrinsic meaning and ultimately pointless. In The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker said hero narratives are a kind of ‘psychological armor’ that generate:

  • [A] feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning…’an immunity bath’ from the greatest evil: death and the dread of it…Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal.

The emergence of multi-billion dollar superhero franchises over the last fifteen years, therefore, raises some interesting sociological and philosophical questions: what do these particular narratives say about Western culture’s most cherished beliefs? How do they reflect our fears and frustrations? This is what Alan Moore and David Gibbons explored nearly thirty years ago in their groundbreaking superhero comic Watchmen. Philosopher Iain Thomson says Watchmen deconstructs “the very idea of the hero, overloading and thereby shattering this idealized reflection of humanity and so encouraging us to reflect upon its significance from the many different angles of the shards left lying on the ground.”

Smiley FaceWatchmen is set in an alternate 1980s where the existence of superheroes, especially the Superman-like Dr. Manhattan, has resulted in an American victory in Vietnam, more terms in office for Nixon, and a clear strategic advantage in the Cold War. That is until Dr. Manhattan, fed up with humanity, decides to leave earth and live on Mars, thus escalating the threat of nuclear annihilation. The future of the human race looks pretty bleak. This set-up allows Moore to dramatize various reactions to death-anxiety and nihilism. Thomson says that, with Moore’s ironic heroes, “nihilism is a natural fall-back position. It is as if…since our values are not absolute, they must be relative—their absolutism having led them falsely to assume these alternatives to be exhaustive.”

Variations on an all-or-nothing, extremist approach to nihilism are clearly expressed in The Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozzymandias. The Comedian believes life’s lack of intrinsic meaning renders the world absurd, a cosmic joke he chooses to parody with a cynical life-style ironically symbolized by his smiley face button. The Comedian pursues the American Dream by brutalizing, abusing, and killing—enjoying the carnage with a sense of glee, unconcerned with the impact it has on others—because, if the world is doomed to atomic conflagration, why worry? Be happy.

RorschachRorschach agrees that the world is meaningless, but decides to double-down on the need for moral absolutes by taking it upon himself to impose them—vigilantly, violently, if necessary—on a street level, one criminal at a time. He is an extreme deontologist: immoral acts are never tolerable even if their long term consequences are desirable. He says evil “must be punished, in the face of Armageddon I will not compromise in this.” His harsh ethical code is symbolized by his mask: “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape…But not mixing. No gray.” Thomson says Rorschach embodies the modern world’s “deep fear that we are powerless to live up to our own ideals” as well as the “even deeper fear that these ideals themselves are mere projections with which we cover over and so conceal from ourselves ‘the real horror’” i.e. the universe’s utter indifference to our efforts to make it a purposeful place.

 

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias is the most distorted version of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch solution to modern humanity’s existential crisis. He is willing to sacrifices millions of lives in order to save humanity. He has raised himself up to a level of such megalomaniacal self-importance that he no longer feels bound by any moral principle, save the cold utilitarian calculations he thinks necessary to humanity’s long term survival. In the end, Ozzymandias has become the most despicable character in a story full of monsters masquerading as heroes. He’s a genocidal fascist.

Dr. Manhattan represents the opposite strategy. Instead of ironic engagement, he chooses apathy and detachment. His superhuman status gives him a perspective on time and space that makes humanity’s problems seem so small and petty. He reduces the universe to a clock without a maker, an accidental enterprise with no end goal in mind. “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles,” he says. “Structurally, there is no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?” Thomson argues that Dr. Manhattan embodies the scientific disenchantment of the world, “a world science takes to be intrinsically value-free, and so ultimately meaningless.”

Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan

And yet it is this very detachment and withdrawal that allows Dr. Manhattan to revise his nihilism and create new meanings. By helping Laurie re-evaluate her own existence, he comes to see each human as a “thermodynamic miracle.” The unique causal chain that culminated in the emergence of ‘Laurie,’ and every individual for that matter, is an event “with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible.” Doc’s change of heart may reflect Moore’s underlying optimism about the scientific method: by dispelling the objective existence of divinities and spirits, science by definition disenchants the world, but, by relocating the supernatural in the imagination itself, a scientific worldview also opens up the possibility for new kinds of re-enchantment. We can still find miracles in the observable cosmos, especially in the most precious thing of all: the emergence of life itself. In this way, Dr. Manhattan represents a transhumanist perspective: once humans unravel the mysteries of how our own minds and bodies work, and thus transcend the very physiological limitations that shaped us, the challenge then lies in discovering a new life-affirming sense of wonder. Or what is the point?

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

For Dan and Laurie, the point is intimacy. While the other characters are on a Nietzschean quest to create superhuman values, Dan and Laurie turn to each other and take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into the comfort of romantic love. The horrific aftermath of Ozzymandias’ genocidal plan makes Laurie find value not only in human life itself, as Dr. Manhattan helped her see, but in the beauty of the relationships those individuals can create. “Being alive is so damn sweet,” she tells Dan. “I want you to love me because we’re not dead.” Laurie and Dan’s new truth, their new purpose, is grounded in their commitment to each other, a self-sustaining source of order and meaning.

Now, lest one think he’s selling out his ironic ethos by embracing some lovey-dovey, hippified solution to the problem of nihlism, Moore undercuts the Kierkegaardian leap when Laurie says their love smells like “Nostalgia,” a reference to a perfume ad, so Moore is perhaps suggesting that the concept of romantic love is one more commodified myth we are persuaded to buy into, one more fiction we consume in hopes of filling the existential gaps before our time on this planet is up. But if Moore is as thoroughly postmodern as he appears to be, he’ll also acknowledge that ‘commidified myths’ and ‘consumable fictions’ are all we have, so why not buy into ‘love’?

Watchmen‘s deconstruction of superhero tropes twists the function of the text by interrogating its own readers. It asks: what are you really looking for in these panels? What patterns do you see in its words and images? Which ideas and values still resonate long after you’ve closed the book? This is how great art addresses the problem of nihilism, not by teaching us what life means, but by creatively representing the complexity of the issue and giving people the space to think and draw their own conclusions. Watchmen does what all good myths do: they tell stories that help us make sense of the world.

Beating the Bejesus Out of Yourself: Fight Club, Consumerism, and the Myth of Manhood

Posted in archetypes, Christianity, collective unconscious, Existentialism, Film, Jung, Metaphor, Movies, Myth, Mythology, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, politics, Politics and Media, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, psychoanalysis, Psychology, Religion, religious, social psychology, terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2014 by Uroboros
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, a man's man

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, a true ‘man’s man’

SPOILER WARNING: Watch the movie before you read this!

Fifteen years after its release, David Fincher’s film Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, is an excellent example of how modern storytellers can use a timeless mythological structure to explore contemporary social issues. The movie employs elements of the hero cycle to examine the social construction of gender identity as well as the existential emptiness that arises from a blind faith in consumerism and other secular alternatives to traditional religious values.

 At its twisted heart, this postmodern odyssey is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the monomyth, a universal narrative rooted in the collective unconscious and symbolizing psychological development, a process Carl Jung referred to as individuation. From all appearances, the ambiguously named protagonist should be content: he’s a college graduate with a well-paying white-collar gig and a lovely condo full of nice Scandinavian furniture, but he is far from satisfied. His adventure begins when his home is destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and he moves in with his new friend, Tyler Durden. Tyler is too good to be true. Archetypal companion and mentor rolled into one, he assists the protagonist across the threshold and initiates a quest for a more authentic life, providing philosophical guidance along the way.

 

Helena Bonham Carter as Marla and Ed Norton as...?

Helena Bonham Carter as Marla and Edward Norton as…uh?

What the protagonist wants to avoid is Marla Singer, the primary female presence in his life. Marla’s assertive, self-assured style brings out the main character’s insecurities. Tyler helps him channel this anxious energy into hyper-masculine practices that give him a new sense of confidence and self-worth. As Tyler’s nihilistic beliefs and violent rituals, which form the basis of Fight Club, escalate into a domestic terrorist organization called Project Mayhem, the protagonist finally confronts Tyler and comes face-to-face with a stunning fact that he’s hidden from himself. Tyler is actually his own dissociated persona, a fabricated alter ego who embodies everything the protagonist believes he wants to be. In reality, his mentor-companion is a shadowy trickster, a product of his own fragmented unconscious. In terms of Campbell’s monomyth, this is the hero’s apotheosis—the climactic confrontation with his own inner demons—and his ability to overcome and integrate the Tyler persona makes him worthy of his ultimate boon: the chance to have a mature relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Marla isn’t the antagonist his twisted psyche perceived her to be. Instead, she is, in Jungian terms, the object of his anima projection, the feminine side of the male psyche. Now that he’s overcome his shadow, the protagonist has the potential to gain a higher degree of self-mastery and have more mature relationships. Of course, he realizes this as skyscrapers topple—cue the Pixies and roll the credits.

On a fundamental level, Fight Club is a story as old as human history itself: a heroic quest that is metaphorical of both psychological development and successful social integration. On a more immediate level, though, the film functions as meta-commentary on individualism and the problematic task of having to construct a meaningful identity in contemporary American culture. For most of its history, after all, this country has been dominated by patriarchal, Christian values. Fathers were expected to provide for their wives and children, ruling over them like domestic gods. Over the last century or so, those expectations have radically changed, and Fight Club constantly questions the psychosocial impact of this paradigm shift.

fight_club_quote_by_julianmadesomething-d6kp0fmLooking to cure his insomnia, the protagonist joins ‘Remaining Men Together,’ a support group for survivors of testicular cancer. Here, traditional notions of masculinity are inverted. These men openly share their feelings, weep, and hug. One member, Bob, has large breasts, an ironic side-effect of his steroid abuse. The surgery, which has anatomically emasculated them, symbolizes the effect feminism has had on the conventional definition of manhood. And then there’s Marla: her assertive personality clearly troubles the protagonist, which is why he invents a hyper-masculine alter ego in the first place. Through this persona, he voices an anti-feminist ideology: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is what we need.” Tyler refers to himself and fellow Fight Club members as children—as “God’s unwanted children” and “the middle children of history.” According to his philosophy, empowered women have driven their men away, leaving their sons to be raised without proper male role models and thus little chance of becoming ‘real men.’

The film also critiques the idea that consumerism can offer an adequate solution. While riding a bus, the protagonist and Tyler discuss a Calvin Klein underwear ad featuring a young, muscular model. When the protagonist asks if the image is manly, Tyler replies, “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction.” His theory implies that media representations of masculinity only intensify the problem. The superficial ideal is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, which actually serves corporate America’s agenda because men will keep buying more products in a futile attempt to fill the void. That is why Tyler preachers an anti-media, anti-consumerist position: “We were all raised to think we’d be celebrities and rock gods,” he says, “but we won’t, and we’re slowly waking up to that fact.”

Fight-Club-fight-club-quoteThe film’s examination of gender construction and consumerism ultimately converge on a deeper theme: the dramatic changes in America’s religious landscape. Until Marla’s arrives on the scene, the support groups provide a temporary cure for the protagonist’s insomnia, allowing him to find some degree of inner peace. It becomes clear, however, that the New Age pop-psychobabble is a superficial substitute for the existential stability traditional religious beliefs once provided. The meetings are actually held in churches, but rely on secularized language and practices, not scripture and liturgy. Nevertheless, Fincher suggests that piety still lingers in the background. At Remaining Men Together, when the protagonist is finally able to cry, choral music plays on the soundtrack, implying that, despite the secularized context, the weeping has a deeply spiritual quality, a connection reinforced by the main character’s use of evangelical terms to describe the experience. He says the groups make him feel “born again” and “resurrected.” The chemical burn scene connects this ambiguity and ambivalence back to the gender issue when Tyler says, “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that say about God?” Tyler’s answer: “God does not like you. In all probability, he hates you.”

In other words, God is dead: long live Fight Club! In Tyler we trust…

As Fight Club evolves into the extremism of Project Mayhem, the main target becomes the institutions that support consumerism. Like a gang of giddy juvenile delinquents, Project Mayhem terrorizes various consumer enterprises—auto dealerships, coffee shop franchises, etc.—before setting their sights on the institutions that ultimately feed and profit from the modern obsession with fabricated happiness: the banking and credit industry. By blowing up the banks and wiping out everyone’s credit history, Project Mayhem thinks it’s liberating people from the great oppressor, the false religion of consumerism.

Fight Club is about an alienated person’s strange, disturbing search for identity and existential purpose. It utilizes archetypal elements to reflect on what it means to be both a male and a spiritually-hungry consumer in postmodern America. In doing so, the film suggests that changes in the way gender and religious values are now constructed can have potentially destructive repercussions. While the reasons for these changes are valid and noble, e.g. gender equality and scientific progress, Fight Club reminds viewers to pay attention to what is happening to those who once benefited from gender inequality and Christian definitions of power: men. The film is a warning: paradigm shifts in identity and social norms can create gaping psychological holes that the Home Shopping Network cannot fill. In a culture where power relations are constantly changing, dark and violent ideas can fester inside insecure minds and erupt with horrific consequences.

Tyler and Marla together at last...

Tyler and Marla together at last…

Re-imagining Dragons: Gojira, Kami, and the Kaiju of Unintended Consequences

Posted in anxiety, Apocalypse, archetypes, armageddon, collective unconscious, emotion, Film, filmmaking, Horror, Monster, Monsters, Myth, Mythology, Pop culture, Religion, Science, Science fiction, social psychology, Speculative fiction, Technology, terror, war with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2014 by Uroboros
Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)

It must have been an eerie moment when, half an hour after the sky lit up over Bikini Atoll, the flakes began to fall. The crew of a Japanese fishing boat called the Lucky Dragon had no idea the ashes swirling down around them were from Castle Bravo. The 15 megaton hydrogen bomb dropped on March 1, 1954 was the most powerful weapon ever tested by the US military. The blast exceeded its expected radius, and the dust the crew brushed off their heads and shoulders that day was contaminated. Upon returning to Japan, the whole crew was sick, and, seven months later, Aikichi Kuboyama, the boat’s chief radioman, died from the radiation. Less than a decade after the end of WWII, the Lucky Dragon incident reignited the post-Hiroshima traumatic stress still festering in the Japanese psyche, sparking an idea in the mind of filmmaker Ishiro Honda, an iconic character he described as “the A-bomb made flesh:” Gojira (a mash-up of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale), which in English, of course, became ‘Godzilla.’

Operation Bravo: H-Bomb Test

Operation Bravo: H-Bomb Test

In its groundbreaking 1954 cinematic debut, this scaly leviathan, roused and swollen by nuclear contamination, emerges from the sea and smashes its way through Tokyo, whipping its gargantuan tail and spitting radioative fire. The original black and white movie alternates between scenes of fatalistic dread and apocalyptic devastation that are so downbeat and dire one wonders why it was such a hit, spawning, not only an ever-growing brood of sequels, but a whole new film genre. What does it say that, so soon after WWII, Japanese moviegoers paid to witness the simulated destruction of Tokyo again and again? One wonders if it was just a mindless diversion—an escapist fantasy where, in a state of titilation and sublime awe, they could feast their eyes on images of mass destruction—or if something deeper, more cathartic was happening. Were audiences subconsciously cleansing the psychic stain of national traumas and tragedies?

Gojira (1954)

Gojira (1954)

During the postwar occupation, the United States prohibited Japanese filmmakers from depicting anything overtly militaristic, so the Kaiju (“strange creature”) genre became an indirect way for Japanese culture to cope with its collective A-bomb PTSD and critique the accelerating Cold War arms race. Behemoths like Gojira, Mothra, and King Ghidorah were perfect symbols not only for contemporary anxieties but also a repressed, pre-industrial past that must have still haunted Japan. Kaiju can be seen as cinematic incarnations of kami, powerful spirits who often represent natural forces. According to Shinto beliefs, countless kami permeate reality, emerging from a hidden, parallel dimension to intervene in human affairs when our polluting ways upset the natural order and flow of energy. The central concern in Shintoism is purity. Ritual cleanliness pleases the kami and thus increases the chances of a successful, fruitful life, hence Japanese culture’s preoccupation with cleanliness. Pollution, impurity, and contamination, however, incur the wrath of the kami.

Ryujin

Ryujin

From this perspective, Gojira is reminiscent of powerful sea kami like Ryūjin (or Ryōjin a.k.a. Ōwatatsumi), a wingless dragon with massive claws who symbolizes the power of the Pacific Ocean. Fishermen performed cleansing rituals to Ryūjin in hopes of bolstering their catch. In East Asian mythologies, dragons tend to represent the vitality and potency of nature, so here we see a clear psychosocial link between radioactive pollution and a scaly, fire-breathing beast bent on utter destruction. Gojira symbolizes natural forces that, once contaminated by modern humanity’s technological hubris and careless disregard for the environment, return in misanthropic forms to lay waste to the source of the pollution. The King of All Monsters represents modernization run amok—the law of unintended consequences writ large.

It will be interesting to see how Japanese audiences respond to post-Fukushima versions of Godzilla. How do you think Gareth Edwards’ reboot will do in Japan three years removed from another nuclear disaster? Will moviegoers turn out in droves to see the latest incarnation of this wrathful kami? Will Hollywood be able to help cleanse the psychic stain of this national tragedy?

Japanese Godzilla (2014) poster

Japanese Godzilla (2014) poster

For more discussion see:

http://web.archive.org/web/20050203181104/http://www.pennyblood.com/godzilla2.html

http://www.wnyc.org/story/the-making-of-godzilla-japans-favorite-mon-star/

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/02/308955584/the-making-of-godzilla-japans-favorite-mon-star

The Marvel Dilemma: Genetic Enhancement and the Ethics of Supersizing

Posted in anxiety, archetypes, Avengers, comic books, Dystopia, emotion, graphic literature, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, reason, Science, Science fiction, Technology, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2014 by Uroboros
Cap: Supersized

Cap: Supersized

Some recent superhero movies have looked at the subject of genetic research and the implications of transhumanism. Thanks to the science behind Operation Rebirth’s serum, Steve Rogers is a super-soldier with physical strength and skills far beyond ordinary human capacities. Peter Parker’s superhuman powers are the result of a genetically-engineered spider’s bite, and his many of his nemeses, Lizard, Carrion, Jackal, Kaine, for example, are all products of bad genetic science. Hell, at OSCORP, it’s standard operating procedure. And, as mutants, the X-Men are transhuman outcasts whose powers put them in a precarious position in terms of how they view and relate to ‘normal’ humans.

These stories can be seen as Frankenstein-like morality tales meant to warn us about the dangers lurking up head if we lunge blindly into the brave new world of liberal eugenics. Setting aside the use of genetic technologies for the repair of injuries and treating diseases, which is of course less controversial, these stories raise an interesting ethical issue, the Marvel Dilemma: is it morally permissible to improve an otherwise healthy human body so one could run as fast as Cap or react as quickly as Peter Parker?

Among the moral philosophers weighing in on the ethics of biotech, Peter Singer represents one side of the Marvel Dilemma. He believes that, while we should be concerned with possible negative side-effects of enhancement, we must accept it’s inevitability and find ways of minimizing the downside while maximizing the ways improved bodies and minds can benefit society overall. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, questions not only the inevitability of a genetically-enhanced human race, but more importantly, the motives behind the desire to improve, a drive he finds morally suspect. Sandel’s argument praises the X-Men factor, the virtue of valuing life’s unexpected gifts.

Welcome to OSCORP

Welcome to OSCORP

In “Shopping at the Genetic Supermarket,” Singer considers whether a genetically-enhanced life could be happier, more pleasurable as well as the kinds of policies governments could adopt in order to ensure the positive effects outweigh the negative ones. As a utilitarian philosopher, he dismisses arguments based on prohibitions against ‘playing God’ or duties to moral law, focusing instead on measuring and evaluating likely consequences. “I do not think we have grounds for concluding,” he says, “that a genetic supermarket would harm either those who choose to shop there, or those who are created from the materials they purchase.”

Where many are repulsed and even terrified of the idea of designer babies, we must not forget that parents are constantly trying to design their children through what they feed them, teach them, what and who they allow their kids to play with and so on. It is a parent’s job to design his or her kid. The difference is pushing the techniques deeper into the prenatal phase, all the way to the genetic level, which we are becoming better and better at manipulating. Who wouldn’t want a child who is more likely to become a fit, smart, and emotionally-stable person? If you think it is wrong to tinker with ‘Mother Nature’ and decide to leave things to chance, wouldn’t you be doing your kid a disservice? After all, they will one day have to compete in the classroom, on the playing-field, in the boardroom with people whose parents chose to enhance. In deciding not to, you would be putting your child at a considerable disadvantage. Couldn’t that be seen as, to some degree, a form of abuse?

Singer doesn’t see anything intrinsically wrong with buying and selling gametes. A society of genetically-enhanced children could be a happier, healthier one, if properly regulated in terms of safety and equal access. The big fear, of course, is of the 1% who can afford the enhancements becoming a super-race who will lord it over the 99%, thus ensuring a dystopic nightmare for the rest of us. Singer’s solution is this:

“Assuming that the objective is to avoid a society divided in two along genetic lines, genetic enhancement services could be subsidized…the state should run a lottery in which the prize is the same package of genetic services that the rich commonly buy for themselves. Tickets in the lottery would not be sold; instead every adult citizen would be given one. The number of prizes would relate to how many of these packages society could afford to pay for, and thus would vary with the costs of the genetic services, as well as with the resources available to provide them. To avoid placing a financial burden on the state..the state should be directly involved in promoting genetic enhancement. The justification for this conclusion is simply that it is preferable to the most probable alternative – leaving genetic enhancement to the marketplace.”

Cap gets enhanced

Cap gets enhanced

So while Singer believes in a kind of genetic affirmative action, Michael Sandel takes a step back from the issue and asks a more fundamental question: why enhance at all? In “The Case Against Perfection,” Sandel explores what is at the heart of our ambivalence towards these technologies. “The question is,” he says, “whether we are right to be troubled, and if so, on what grounds.” He concludes that:

“[T]he main problem with enhancement and genetic engineering is…that they represent a kind of hyperagency—a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires…what the drive to mastery misses and may even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements.”

As a virtue ethicist, Sandel judges the permissibility of an act, first and foremost, in terms of the desire motivating it, and what Sandel sees here is hubris and anxiety—terror masked as transhumanist optimism—a “one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.” What we fear, what we want to master, is the unknown, the unbidden, the contingent. We once called this aspect of life ‘Fate’ or ‘God’s plan,’ the mysterious unfolding of events whose causes are so complex we can’t learn how to anticipate them and fear having to endure them. So why anticipate and endure them at all? Why be open to randomness? Why not master and eliminate the unbidden? Why not deny nature’s strange ‘gifts’ and order what we want ahead of time, so there are no surprises, no unfathomable errors?

Sandel says it is because the motivation is a sign of weaknesses, not strength. The desire to completely remake the world and ourselves in an image of our choosing actually closes life off, enframing the human experience in a hall of mirrors. It shows a lack of courage. “[O]penness ,” he says, “is a disposition worth affirming, not only within families but in the wider world as well. It invites us to abide the unexpected, to live with dissonance, to rein in the impulse to control.” Furthermore, Sandel argues, this disposition will promote humility, solidarity, and responsibility—invaluable virtues in protecting the integrity of our moral landscape.

Sandel’s approach sheds light on the psychology behind the escalation dilemma. Enhancement, the added value of a genetic alteration, needs a baseline in order to measure the degree of improvement. We won’t be able to make rationally-based value judgments unless we have a standard against which to measure them. For example, potential parents decide they want to have a girl who will grow up to be ‘tall’ because they read an article claiming that, in a workplace environment, taller women are perceived to be more powerful and competent, and therefore, tend to be more successful. Let’s say, five feet and eight inches is the current standard for being a ‘tall woman,’ so they get the doctor to alter the gametes to code for five feet, nine inches.

Now, how many other parents have read this article, too? How many other parents want to give their little Jenny the best chance for success? How many females will be born with the five feet, nine code? Pretty soon, five feet nine won’t be ‘tall’ anymore. It will be ‘the new normal.’ We’ve shifted the baseline, and the drive to enhance has to up the ante, and, within a few years the new mark is six feet and so on. If the motivation is improvement for the sake of improvement, or out of fear of that, since other parents are enhancing you are putting your child at a disadvantage, then the benchmark that defines enhancement will keep ratcheting up exponentially until the positive feedback loop unhinges and spins out of control.

This isn’t about the fear of meddling in ‘Mother Nature’s business.’ You don’t have to posit an essential ‘human nature’ or appeal to God’s laws in order to make sense of an argument against this kind of enhancement. ‘Human nature’ is and has always been a dynamic product of technological improvement from the mastery of fire right up to Lasik surgery and Google Glasses. Human nature isn’t a thing, a substance with a fixed set of properties to be meddled with. It is a dynamic, evolutionary process of integrating our genetically-based bodies with whatever ecological contingencies history brings to the equation. Culture is the part of our nature we invent in order to better ensure our survival. So we change ‘human nature’ each time we adapt to a new set of factors. The question is, what is pushing us to change the rhythm of the process in such a deep and radical way?

Some say it is already happening and is going to continue to happen. Pandora’s Jar is already open, and you can’t stop the genetic arms race now. Singer says you might as well learn how to manage the process so we maximize happiness and do the greatest good for the greatest number. But where is the autonomy, the free-will, in that forecast? Are genetically-enhanced superhumans as inevitable as entropy and the heat death of the universe? Or can we make choices that impact the future? If so, individuals will collectively have to decide to enhance or not. We will have to take a position and express an attitude that will influence the way these technologies are viewed and used. The virtue ethics approach in Sandel’s argument says we shouldn’t  encourage it. If what motivates the desire for mastery are mere vanity and pure anxiety, we should condemn or strongly discourage the use of genomic technology for personal ‘improvement’ and look down on those who do. The question is, are we willing to confront the lack of courage that often drives our perfectionist fantasies and, thanks to the laws of technological acceleration and unintended consciousness, could possibly become the source of our damnation instead of salvation.

X-Men: Mutant and proud!

X-Men: Mutant and proud!

So the answer to the Marvel Dilemma isn’t to escalate enhancement, like in the world of OSCORP, but to the embrace the X-Men ethic of being more accepting toward the unbidden and biologically-given, learn to tolerate and have faith in each other. Granted that there’s a clear distinction between treatment and enhancement (and there are limit cases where this isn’t cut and dry), we should strive to use genetic technology to prevent disease and suffering, but not to enhance an otherwise healthy human body, especially when the motivation behind the changes isn’t a virtuous one. Perhaps we could prevent the self-fulfilling nightmare of a genetic arms race if we owned up to the negative emotions inspiring it in the first place. This would not lead to human ‘enhancement,’ after all, but a tragic dehumanization cosmetically-masked as ‘progress.’ Why not channel the time and money to genetic solutions to over-population, food and energy shortages, and global warming instead? We often think of using this tech in terms of supersizing ourselves, but, as Singer points out, we could just as well use it to downsize ourselves, lowering the amount of food and energy we need to consume. Wouldn’t that be better for the planet and the future of humankind?

No Faith in Superman: Lovecraft on ‘Nietzscheism’

Posted in cosmicism, critical thinking, Existentialism, horror fiction, Lovecraft, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, rational animal, reason, Speculative fiction, Uroboros on January 8, 2014 by Uroboros

In regards to a recent post on the overlapping ideas of Nietzsche and Lovecraft, Allan McPherson kindly pointed out that H.P. had in fact written a short little essay on Nietzscheism, which is posted here on OHHAI’s tumblr page. It’s a typically Lovecraftian take on the problem of nihilism, i.e. it’s equal parts pessimistic and elitist, flavored with some unfortunate hints of racism (you have to hold your nose here and there when you read it–something no Lovecraft fan isn’t already used to.) It nonetheless deals explicitly with a crucial contemporary issue, one I’m exploring in my own speculative fiction series, Uroboros.

Lovecraft (1890-1937)

Lovecraft (1890-1937)

My question is this: are humans the kind of beings who can use our rational capacities and free-will (granted we have such capacities) to create meanings that can ground and sustain our own existence?In other words, can we have values and purposes to which each individual can freely and clearly consent? Or are we essentially superstitious little creatures who need an authority to submit to, real and/or imagined?

What are your thoughts?

Fatal Curiosity: Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the Terror of the Known

Posted in Consciousness, Existentialism, Gothic, Horror, irrational, Literature, Lovecraft, Lovecraftian, Metaphor, Metaphysics, Myth, Nietzsche, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Prometheus, Psychology, rationalizing animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, short story, Speculative fiction, terror, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by Uroboros

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

If you’re a fan, you might think this an excerpt from an H.P. Lovecraft story, one of his twisted tales about erudite, curious men who learn too much about the nature of reality and are either destroyed or deeply damaged by what they discover. But this is actually the opening to Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense” (1873), a biting critique of the epistemological pretentiousness he finds running rampant through Western philosophy. Nietzsche is an iconoclastic philosopher, hammering away at venerated ideas, slashing through sacred assumptions. He gleefully turns traditional theories on their heads, challenging our beliefs, disturbing our values—an intellectual calling that has much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s literary mission. His favorite theme is what he calls cosmic indifferentism. If Lovecraft has a philosophy, it is this: the universe was not created by a divine intelligence who infused it with an inherent purpose that is compatible with humanity’s most cherished existential desires. The cosmos is utterly indifferent to the human condition, and all of his horrific monsters are metaphors for this indifference.

Nietzsche and Lovecraft are both preoccupied with the crises this conundrum generates.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

“What does man actually know about himself?” Nietzsche asks, “Does nature not conceal most things from him?” With an ironic tone meant to provoke his readers, he waxes prophetic: “And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness.” In Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934) this ‘fatal curiosity’ is personified in the scientist Crawford Tillinghast. “What do we know of the world and the universe about us?” Tillinghast asks his friend, the story’s unnamed narrator. “Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature.” His Promethean quest is to build a machine that lets humans transcend the inherent limitations of our innate perceptual apparatus, see beyond the veil of appearances, and experience reality in the raw. From a Nietzschean perspective, Tillinghast wants to undo the effect of a primitive but deceptively potent technology: language.

In “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense,” Nietzsche says symbolic communication is the means by which we transform vivid, moment-to-moment impressions of reality into “less colorful, cooler concepts” that feel “solid, more universal, better known, and more human than the immediately perceived world.” We believe in universal, objective truths because, once filtered through our linguistic schema, the anomalies, exceptions, and border-cases have been marginalized, ignored, and repressed. What is left are generic conceptual properties through which we perceive and describe our experiences. “Truths are illusions,” Nietzsche argues, “which we have forgotten are illusions.” We use concepts to determine whether or not our perceptions, our beliefs, are true, but all concepts, all words, are “metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” [For more analysis of this theory of language, read my essay on the subject.]

Furthermore, this process happens unconsciously: the way our nervous system instinctually works guarantees that what we perceive consciously is a filtered picture, not reality in the raw. As a result, we overlook our own creative input and act as if some natural or supernatural authority ‘out there’ puts these words in our heads and compels us to believe in them. Lovecraft has a similar assessment. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), his essay on the nature and merits of Gothic and weird storytelling, he says the kind of metaphoric thinking that leads to supernatural beliefs is “virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned…there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue,” hence our innate propensity to perceive superhuman and supernatural causes when confronting the unknown. Nietzsche puts it like this: “All that we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them…we produce these representations in and from ourselves with the same necessity with which the spider spins.” This, of course, applies to religious dogmas and theological speculations, too.

From Beyond (1986 film adaptation)

From Beyond (1986 film adaptation)

In “From Beyond,” Crawford Tillinghast wants to see “things which no breathing creature has yet seen…overleap time, space, and dimensions, and…peer to the bottom of creation.” The terror is in what slips through the rift and runs amok in this dimension. His scientific triumph quickly becomes a horrific nightmare, one that echoes Nietzsche’s caveat about attaining transgressive knowledge: “If but for an instant [humans] could escape from the prison walls” of belief, our “‘self consciousness’ would be immediately destroyed.”

Here in lies the source of our conundrum, the existential absurdity, the Scylla and Charybdis created by our inherent curiosity: we need to attain knowledge to better ensure our chances of fitting our ecological conditions and passing our genes along to the next generation, and yet, this very drive can bring about our own destruction. It’s not simply that we can unwittingly discover fatal forces. It’s when the pursuit of knowledge moves beyond seeking the information needed to survive and gets recast in terms of discovering values and laws that supposedly pertain to the nature of the cosmos itself. Nietzsche and Lovercraft agree this inevitably leads to existential despair because either we continue to confuse our anthropomorphic projections with the structure of reality itself, and keep wallowing in delusion and ignorance as a result, or we swallow the nihilistic pill and accept that we live in an indifferent cosmos that always manages to wriggle out of even our most clear-headed attempts to grasp and control it. So it’s a question of what’s worse: the terror of the unknown or the terror of the known?

Nietzsche is optimistic about the existential implications of this dilemma. There is a third option worth pursuing: in a godless, meaningless universe, we have poetic license to become superhuman creatures capable of creating the values and meanings we need and want. I don’t know if Lovecraft is confident enough in human potential to endorse Nietzsche’s remedy, though. If the words of Francis Thurston, the protagonist from his most influential story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), are any indication of his beliefs, then Lovecraft doesn’t think our epistemological quest will turn out well:

“[S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality…we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

"Cthulhu Rising" by_Somniturne

“Cthulhu Rising” by_Somniturne

The Philosophy of Decomposition: Poe and the Perversity of the Gothic Mind

Posted in Ancient Greek, anxiety, Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Christianity, Consciousness, ecology, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, fiction, French Revolution, Freud, God, Goth, Gothic, Horror, horror fiction, irrational, Jesus, Literature, Morality, Philosophy, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, Romanticism, Science, Speculative fiction, terror, tragedy, Uroboros, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2013 by Uroboros

Whether you think Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are expertly-crafted explorations of the dark side of human nature or morbid, overwrought  melodramas, there is no doubt his work has had a tremendous impact on Western culture. Probably his most important contribution, apart from establishing the contemporary short story format and inventing the detective genre, is revitalizing the Gothic genre and pushing horror fiction in a more philosophically interesting direction. His stories are so enduring and influential because of the conceptual depth he added to generic tropes, redefining literature in the process. He accomplished this feat by perverting the Gothic.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

By the time Poe arrived on the scene, Gothic fiction had already fossilized and become fodder for self-parody. What started with the fantastic absurdities of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and culminating in the speculative complexity of Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had eventually led to Northanger Abbey (1817), Jane Austin’s metafictional send up of what had become pretty stale conventions by then: crumbling castles, tormented heroines, supernatural entities, and family curses. Although the external trappings of Gothic plots may have fallen into ruin, its themes remained relevant. According to Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the genre in her own right, Gothic fiction explores the fragmentation of the alienated mind by inscrutable historical and biological forces that can overwhelm one’s ability to rationally understand the world and make intelligent choices, a critical antidote to naïve utopian visions of the future inspired by the Enlightenment and of particular interest to American culture, the intellectual basis of which is rooted in the rational pursuit of happiness. ‘Gothic’ suggests the fear of something primal and regressive that threatens to undermine mental and social stability. In order to be a culturally relevant again, though, Gothic literature needed a writer who could reanimate its tropes. It needed a morbid, hypersensitive, and arrogant genius named Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s key twist is turning the tropes inward and starting with the macabre landscape within—“the terror of the soul,” he calls it. By the 1830s, Poe is focused on composing short fiction, crafting tightly-constructed tales, rendered in dense, pompous prose, spewing from the cracked psyches of unreliable narrators. This is the dark heart of many of his best stories: “Ligeia” (1838), “William Wilson” (1839),  “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), just to name a few (of course, his most accomplished story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), flips this dynamic: an unnamed and relatively reasonable narrator details the psychic disintegration of Roderick Usher). Poe’s disturbed, epistemologically-challenged protagonists aren’t the true innovation. Marlowe and Shakespeare pioneered that literary territory centuries before. The element that Poe adds—the novelty that both revitalizes and Americanizes the Gothic—is, what Poe himself calls, “the spirit of the perverseness.”

-d328znhThe narrator in “The Black Cat” puts forth this concept to explain his violent deeds. He says perversity is “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties…which give direction to the character of Man.” What is its function? It is the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself,” the narrator says, “a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment” to commit a “vile or a silly action” precisely because we believe it to be ‘vile’ or ‘silly.’ In “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), the narrator claims that perversity is “a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment,” so deep and pervasive, that it is ultimately immune to the prescriptions of the analytical mind. In other words, Poe identified the disruptive and neurotic effects of ‘the Unconscious’ half a century before Freud burst onto the scene.

While these narrators claim that philosophers have ignored man’s irrational inclinations, we shouldn’t assume Poe, himself a well-read scholar, wasn’t influenced by obvious precursors to ‘the spirit of perverseness,’ namely Aristotle and St. Augustine. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posits his theory of akrasia, the vice of incontinence, i.e. the inability to control oneself and do the virtuous thing even when one knows it is the right choice. This is his corrective to the Socratic-Platonic dictum that to know the good is to do the good: no one willingly does evil. To Aristotle, this is a distorted view of the human condition. We can know theoretically what the virtuous choice is—wisdom Aristotle calls sophiabut that doesn’t automatically compel us to have phronesisor practical wisdom, which is the ability to do the good. In other words, there is a gap between knowledge and action, a notion that surfaces again in Aristotle’s Poetics. In his analysis of drama, Aristotle identifies hamartia as a key characteristic of the tragic hero, referring to the flaws in judgment that lead to a character’s ultimate downfall. An archery metaphor that means “to miss the mark,” hamartia becomes the main word New Testament writers use to translate the Jewish concept of sin into Greek (they weren’t the first to do this: writers of the Septuagint, the 2C BCE Greek translation of Hebrew scripture, had already made this move). By the fifth century CE, St. Augustine, the most influential Christian theologian of late-antiquity, formulates his doctrine of original sin, describing humanity’s lack of self-control as innate, embodied depravity. For Augustine, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they condemned their progeny to bondage, chaining the human spirit to this corrupt, uncontrollable, and ultimately decaying flesh. Only Christ’s sacrifice and God’s loving grace, Augustine assures us, can liberate the spirit from this prison.

This is part of the philosophical lineage behind perverseness, despite his narrators’ claims to the contrary. There is, however, some truth to the critique if seen from a mid-19C perspective. From Descartes right through to Locke, ‘Reason‘ is heralded as humanity’s salvation (of course, Hume and Rousseau poke skeptical holes in 18C Europeans’ over-inflated, self-aggrandizing mythology. Kant manages to salvage some of the optimism, but has to sacrifice key epistemic conceits in the process). But enlightened humanistic confidence looks like hubris to Romantic writers and artists, especially in the wake of the French Revolution and the international traumas it spawned. This is the mindset Poe resonates with: one that is highly skeptical of the ‘Man-is-the-rational-animal’ mythos. Anyone familiar with his biography can see why he gravitates toward a dark worldview. As a critic, he loves savaging fellow writers whose dispositions strike him as too sunny, and as a storyteller, his characters often confront—sometimes ironically, sometimes tragically—the limits of reason, a capacity Poe calls (I think with a tongue-in-cheek ambivalence) ‘ratiocination.’

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

The ‘spirit of perverseness’ implies that neither divine ‘Grace’ nor humanistic ‘Reason’ can save us from a life of terror and suffering, especially when we ignore and repress our essential sinfulness. Whether you view history through a biblical or Darwinian lens, one thing is clear: humans aren’t naturally inclined to seek rational knowledge anymore than we are given to loving and respecting each other universally. Modern cognitive science and psychology have shown us that the mind evolved to assist in feeding, procreation, and, of course, to protect the body from danger—not to seek objective truths. It evolved to help us band together in small tribal circles, fearing and even hating those who exist outside that circle. Over time we’ve been able to grasp how much better life would be if only we could rationally control ourselves and universally respect each other—and yet “in the teeth of our best judgment” we still can’t stop ourselves from committing vile and silly actions. Self-sabotage, Poe seems to argue, is our default setting.

Poe shifts Gothic terror from foggy graveyards and dark abbeys to broken brains and twisted minds. The true threats aren’t really lurking ‘out there.’ They’re stirring and bubbling from within, perturbing and overwhelming the soul, often with horrifying results. A Gothic mind lives in a Gothicized world—personifying its surroundings in terms of its own anxious and alienated disposition. ‘Evil’ only appears to be ‘out there.’ As literary and ecological theorist Timothy Morton points out, evil isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of beholder who frets over the corruption of the world without considering the perverseness generated by his own perceptual apparatus. It’s an Uroboric feedback loop that, left to its own devices, will spin out of control and crumble to pieces. The most disturbing implication of Poe-etic perversity is the sense of helplessness it evokes. Even when his characters are perceptive enough to diagnose their own disorders, they are incapable of stopping the Gothic effect. This is how I interpret the narrator’s ruminations in “The Fall of the House of Usher:”

 What was it…that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression…There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition…served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy…so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued…

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

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