Archive for the Existentialism Category

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…

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

Reflections on The Walking Dead

Posted in Apocalypse, Brain Science, Consciousness, Descartes, emotion, Ethics, Existentialism, God, Horror, humanities, Metaphor, Metaphysics, Monster, Monsters, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Psychology, Religion, religious, Science, State of nature, terror, The Walking Dead, theory of mind, Zombies with tags , , , on October 19, 2013 by Uroboros

walking deadWARNING: SPOILERS. The Walking Dead’s violent, post-apocalyptic setting always makes me wonder: what kind of person would I be under circumstances like that? Given what one has to do in order to survive, could I still look at myself in the mirror and recognize the person gazing back at me? Would I even want to?

Critics sometimes complain about the show’s pacing and quieter, more reflective scenarios, but the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down, developing the characters, and exploring the thematic implications of their struggles. The Walking Dead knows how to alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite. Utilizing this key dynamic means including lots of slower, quieter scenes. Setting up psychological conflicts and tweaking character arcs enhances the terror because we are more invested in the outcomes—we care about what is lurking around the corner, and, when the horror is finally unleashed, the gore is all the more terrifying because we know more about the victims. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the hyperactivity you get in shows like American Horror Story, a series that flows like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation.

The slow-burn approach also allows viewers to reflect on the shows themes, like the existential and moral status of the Walkers themselves. During Season Two, Herschel didn’t share the kill ’em all approach that Rick and company had pretty much taken for granted—and who could blame them? After what happened in Atlanta in Season One, there was little reason to contemplate the possible personhood of the Walkers chomping at the bit to eat them. But, when farm life slowed things down and gave characters more time to reflect on their situation, the issue slowly but surely lumbered out into the open and became the turning point of the season.

Rick and Herschel's Moral Debate

Rick and Herschel’s Moral Debate

When Rick confronted Herschel about hiding his zombified relatives in the barn, the conviction in Herschel’s moral reasoning was hard to dismiss. From his perspective, a zombie was just a sick human being: behind the blank eyes and pale, rotting skin, Herschel saw a human being waiting to be saved. After all, what if zombiehood could be cured? If that’s your philosophy, then killing a zombie when you don’t have to would be murder. By the end of Season Two, of course, we learn that everybody is infected and thus destined to be a zombie. We’re all the Walking Dead, so to speak. In Season Three, even the duplicitous, devious Governor struggles with the issue. As much as we grow to hate him as a brutal tyrant, he’s also a loving father who can’t let go of his daughter. She’s not just a zombie to him. In the Season Four opener, the issue resurfaced again with Tyreese’s ambivalence about having to kill Walkers all day at the prison fence and then later when Carl rebuked the other kids for naming them. “They’re not people, and they’re not pets,” he tells them. “Don’t name them.” This is after Rick warned him about getting too attached to the pig, which he’d named Violet. To Carl, animals are more like people than Walkers are.

‘Personhood’ is a sticky philosophical issue. We all walk around assuming other people also have a subjective awareness of the world—have feelings and memories and intelligence, can make decisions and be held responsible for them. This assumption, which philosophers call ‘theory of mind,’ frames our experience of reality. But, some philosophers are quick to ask: how do you know others really have feelings and intelligent intentions? Sure, they have the body language and can speak about their inner states, but couldn’t that be mere appearance? After all, that’s just behavior. It could be a simulation of consciousness, a simulacrum of selfhood. You can’t get ‘inside’ somebody’s head and experience the world from their point of view. We don’t have Being John Malkovich portals into the subjectivity of others (yet). Philosophically and scientifically speaking, the only state of consciousness you can be sure of is your own.

That was what Rene Descartes, the highly influential 17th century philosopher, meant when he said cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. He was trying to establish a foundation for modern philosophy and science by basing it on the one thing in the world everyone can be absolutely certain of, i.e. one’s own consciousness, which in turn has the rational capacities to understand the clock-like machinations of the physical world. Descartes, therefore, posits a dualistic metaphysics with physical stuff on side of the ontological divide and mental stuff on the other. Minds can use brains and bodies to get around and know a world made up of mindless stuff. Only humans and God have souls and can ‘know’ what is happening, can understand what is going on.  Zombie girl

The problem with Descartes’ cogito is that—unless you assume the same things Descartes did about God and math—you can’t really be sure about the existence of other cogitos or even the world outside your own head. You could be dreaming or in a fake reality conjured up by a Matrix-style evil genius. ‘I think, therefore I am’ opens up a Pandora’s jar of radical skepticism and solipsism. How do you really know that others aren’t ‘philosophical zombies,’ i.e. beings that behave like they’re conscious but are really only organic machines without subjective experiences and free-will? This is what some philosophers call the ‘hard problem:’ how do brain states generated by the synaptic mesh of neurons and the electrochemical flow inside the skull—purely physical processes that can be observed objectively with an fMRI machine—cause or correlate to subjective awareness—to feelings, images, and ideas that can’t be seen in an fMRI?

This theory was dramatized during Season One by Dr. Jenner when he showed an fMRI rendered transformation from human to Walker. He said the brain holds the sum total of the memories and dreams, the hopes and fears that make you who you are—and the death of the brain is the irrevocable end of that identity. What is revived through zombification is not that person—it’s not even human. In other words, you are your brain. The zombie that emerges may resemble you in some uncanny way—but it’s not really you. That’s of course most characters’ default theory until we meet Herschel and get an alternative perspective. He’s not interested in scientifically or philosophically ‘proving’ the personhood of Walkers. They’re family members and neighbors who happen to be sick and might someday be cured. He can’t kill them. What’s intriguing is how his response bypasses the metaphysical problem and goes right to the ethical question. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that zombies aren’t conscious—that there isn’t some sliver of humanity swirling around inside those rotting skulls—then isn’t Herschel’s theory a more appropriate moral response, a more humane approach?

What matters most, from this perspective, is how you treat the other, the stranger. It’s no accident that Herschel is a veterinarian and not a ‘human ‘doctor, which would’ve served his initial plot function—saving Carl—just as well, if not better. As a vet, Herschel has to care about the pain and suffering of creatures whose states of mind he can’t know or prove. What matters isn’t testing and determining the degree to which a creature is conscious and then scaling your moral obligations in proportion to that measurement—after all, such a measurement may be in principle impossible—what matters is how you treat others in the absence of such evidence. In short, it depends on a kind of faith, a default assumption that necessitates hospitality, not hostility. The perspective one adopts, the stance one assumes, defines how we relate to animals and the planet as a whole—to other human beings and ultimately oneself.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

I think this is one of the most relevant and potent themes in The Walking Dead, and I was glad to see it re-emerge in the Season Four opener. In future episodes, it will be interesting to see how they explore it, especially through Carl and Tyreese. I’ll be focused on how they react to the Walkers: how they manage their feelings and control themselves in the crises to come. Walkers are like uncanny mirrors in which characters can glimpse otherwise hidden aspects of their own minds. What do Tyreese and Carl see when they look into the seemingly-soulless eyes of a Walker, and what does that say about the state of their souls? Will they lose themselves? If they do, can they come back?

Sublimity and the Brightside of Being Terrorized

Posted in Consciousness, conspiracy, critical thinking, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, Existentialism, fiction, freedom, Freud, God, Gothic, Horror, humanities, Literature, Lovecraft, Lovecraftian, Morality, nihilism, paranoia, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, reason, Religion, religious, Romanticism, superheroes, terror, Terror Management Theory, The Walking Dead, theory, theory of mind, Uroboros, Zombies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2013 by Uroboros
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sleep_of_Reason_Produces_Monsters

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

We live in a terrorized age. At the dawn of the 21st century, the world is not only coping with the constant threat of violent extremism, we face global warming, potential pandemic diseases, economic uncertainty, Middle Eastern conflicts, the debilitating consequences of partisan politics, and so on. The list grows each time you click on the news. Fear seems to be infecting the collective consciousness like a virus, resulting in a culture of anxiety and a rising tide of helplessness, despair, and anger. In the U.S.,  symptoms of this chronic unease can be seen in the proliferation of apocalyptic paranoia and conspiracy theories coupled with the record sales of both weapons and tickets for Hollywood’s superhero blockbusters, fables that reflect post-9/11 fears and the desire for a hero to sweep in and save us.

That’s why I want to take the time to analyze some complex but important concepts like the sublime, the Gothic, and the uncanny, ideas which, I believe, can help people get a rational grip on the forces that terrorize the soul. Let’s begin with the sublime.

18c philosopher Immanuel Kant

18C Philosopher Immanuel Kant

The word is Latin in origin and means rising up to meet a threshold. To Enlightenment thinkers, it referred to those experiences that challenged or transcended the limits of thought, to overwhelming forces that left humans feeling vulnerable and in need of paternal protection. Edmund Burke, one of the great theorists of the sublime, distinguished this feeling from the experience of beauty. The beautiful is tame, pleasant. It comes from the recognition of order, the harmony of symmetrical form, as in the appreciation of a flower or a healthy human body. You can behold them without being unnerved, without feeling subtly terrorized. Beautiful things speak of a universe with intrinsic meaning, tucking the mind into a world that is hospitable to human endeavors. Contrast this with the awe and astonishment one feels when contemplating the dimensions of a starry sky or a rugged, mist-wreathed mountain. From a distance, of course, they can appear ‘beautiful,’ but, as Immanuel Kant points out in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, it is a different kind of pleasure because it contains a “certain dread, or melancholy, in some cases merely the quiet wonder; and in still others with a beauty completely pervading a sublime plan.”

This description captures the ambivalence in sublime experiences, moments where we are at once paradoxically terrified and fascinated by the same thing. It is important here to distinguish ‘terror’ from ‘horror.’ Terror is the experience of danger at a safe distance, the potential of a threat, as opposed to horror, which refers to imminent dangers that actually threaten our existence. If I’m standing on the shore, staring out across a vast, breathtaking sea, entranced by the hissing surf, terror is the goose-pimply, weirded-out feeling I get while contemplating the dimensions and unfathomable power before me. Horror would be what I feel if a tsunami reared up and came crashing in. There’s nothing sublime in horror. It’s too intense to allow for the odd mix of pleasure and fear, no gap in the feeling for some kind of deeper revelation to emerge.

Friedrich's Monk by the Sea

Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea

While Burke located the power of the sublime in the external world, in the recognition of an authority ‘out there,’ Kant has a more sophisticated take. Without digging too deeply into the jargon-laden minutia of his critique, suffice it to say that Kant ‘subjectivizes’ the concept, locating the sublime in the mind itself. I interpret Kant as pointing to a recursive, self-referential quality in the heart of the sublime, an openness that stimulates our imagination in profound ways. When contemplating stormy seas and dark skies, we experience our both nervous system’s anxious reaction to the environment along with a weird sense of wonder and awe. Beneath this thrill, however, is a humbling sense of futility and isolation in the face of the Infinite, in the awesome cycles that evaporate seas, crush mountains, and dissolve stars without a care in the cosmos as to any ‘meaning’ they may have to us. Rising up to the threshold of consciousness is the haunting suspicion that the universe is a harsh place devoid of a predetermined purpose that validates its existence. These contradictory feelings give rise to a self-awareness of the ambivalence itself, allowing ‘meta-cognitive’ processes to emerge. This is the mind’s means of understanding the fissure and trying to close the gap in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, by experiencing forms and magnitudes that stagger and disturb the imagination, the mind can actually grasp its own liberation from the deterministic workings of nature, from the blind mechanisms of a clockwork universe. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant says “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.” One is now thinking about their own thinking, after all, reflecting upon the complexity of the subject-object feedback loop, which, I assert, is the very dynamic that makes self-consciousness and freedom possible in the first place. We can’t feel terrorized by life’s machinations if we aren’t somehow psychologically distant from them, and this gap entails our ability to think intelligently and make decisions about how best to react to our feelings.

Van Gogh's Starry Night

Van Gogh’s Starry Night

I think this is in line with Kant’s claim that the sublime is symbolic of our moral freedom—an aesthetic validation of our ethical intentions and existential purposes over and above our biological inclinations and physical limitations. We are autonomous creatures who can trust our capacity to understand the cosmos and govern ourselves precisely because we are also capable of being terrorized by a universe that appears indifferent to our hopes and dreams. Seen in this light, the sublime is like a secularized burning bush, an enlightened version of God coming out of the whirlwind and parting seas. It is a more mature way of getting in touch with and listening to the divine, a reasonable basis for faith.

My faith is in the dawn of a post-Terrorized Age. What Kant’s critique of the sublime teaches me is that, paradoxically, we need to be terrorized in order to get there. The concept of the sublime allows us to reflect on our fears in order to resist their potentially debilitating, destructive effects. The antidote is in the poison, so to speak. The sublime elevates these feelings: the more sublime the terror, the freer you are, the more moral you can be. So, may you live in terrifying times.

Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

The Dark Knight: Why So Existential?

Posted in Alan More, Batman, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, Christopher Nolan, comic books, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC Comics, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Film, Frank Miller, Gotham, graphic literature, graphic novels, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith, Literature, Morality, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, superheroes, teleological suspension of the ethical, The Dark Knight Returns, The Joker, The Killing Joke, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by Uroboros

Four years after first seeing The Dark Knight, I still marvel at how Christopher Nolan managed to sneak so much thought-provoking material into such an action-packed Hollywood flick—how, amidst all the clever heists, over-the-top chase sequences, and ear-popping explosions, this sleek auteur didn’t shy away from post 9/11 political commentary; he neither neglected the psycho-social dimensions of the characters, nor waved his hand at the existential implications of the film’s wildly suspenseful dilemmas. Like no other filmmaker before him, Nolan and his co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, respect the literary depth of the comic source material. They see, and unapologetically embrace, the existential potency at the heart of the Batman mythos.

Influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, existentialism focuses on the individual’s struggle to find meaning in the modern world, one increasingly devoid of traditional notions of order and authority and constantly threatened by the specter of post-Darwinian nihilism. Existentialists argue that the cosmos doesn’t have a clear, predetermined plan. There’s not even an essential ‘human nature’ to help guide us through life’s obstacle course. There is only the purpose we create through our choices, and we can’t know with absolute, God-like certainty whether we’ve made the right ones. Rational debate and scientific research can help, but ultimately such truths, being contingent upon the evidence we have at the time, are provisional and may be revised in the future. Free will, an existentialist is likely to argue, is predicated on a state of inescapable doubt.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century Protestant theologian, coped by imagining a kind of philosophical hero tailor made for an uncertain reality. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Knight of Faith.’ Exemplified by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a Knight of Faith doesn’t tremble at life’s uncertainties or delude himself about its fundamental absurdities. He embraces them as a call to adventure, a test of one’s commitment to his or her most cherished beliefs.

Kierkegaard’s paragon of faith resembles the Dark Knight in several key ways. Existential quests begin with absurd events that defy easy explanation and haunt our thoughts long after they’ve passed. For Bruce Wayne, of course, it’s his parents’ senseless murder. At eight years old, the orphaned Bruce inherits a fortune but is robbed of one of life’s true treasures: the sense of security that comes from belonging to a loving family. He spends the rest of his adolescence struggling to overcome grief, terror, and rage–the deafening psychological echo of the gun shots fired in Crime Alley on that fateful night.

Existentialists are quick to point out that we don’t choose to exist (our parents do that for us), but at some point, we do get the chance to take the reins and make decisions that shape our destinies. As Bruce matures, he refuses to become a helpless slave to his emotions. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he says, “We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.” His parents’ murder teaches him that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.” Instead of becoming fatalistic, Bruce takes up the cape and cowl in pursuit of something that will bring meaning back to his life: a sense of justice.

The choice of the bat totem isn’t arbitrary. It symbolizes Bruce’s mastery of the fear and rage that threaten to turn him into the very criminals he’s battling against. In Nolan’s Batman Begins, Alfred, Bruce’s butler, asks him about his preoccupation with bats. “They frighten me,” Bruce replies, “and it’s time my enemies share my dread.” Batman takes on Gotham’s underworld and tries to rectify the forces that victimize people. This is how Bruce atones for the loss of his parents, who used their wealth and power to make Gotham a safer city.

While Bruce embraces conventional philanthropy, too, his fractured psyche craves a more concrete way of pursuing his goals. Batman turns fear and grief into an existential weapon, stalking the shadowy space between institutional order and criminal chaos, placing himself beyond the law, but not above it. It’s a place of paradox and uncertainty—a place also explored by Kierkeggard’s Knight of Faith. Through what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,‘ the Knight Faith doesn’t have to limit his passion for moral order to conventional understandings, which are always temporal and flawed. Likewise, Bruce never lets the letter of the law get in the way of preserving its spirit, especially when the institutions charged with protecting us are so corrupt. That’s why he feels compelled to dress up as a bat and “strike fear in the hearts of those who prey upon the fearful.” It’s a leap of faith that, to others, looks irrational and absurd, but, according to Kierkegaard, that’s a risk the Knight of Faith has to be willing to take, and Bruce/Batman does, using all of his physical and mental abilities toward his teleological end.

A superhero’s greatness, however, depends on the nature of the nemeses who stand in his or her way, and arguably there’s no better rogue in any graphic lit gallery than the Joker. His relationship with Batman is a yin-yang of stark existential contrasts. For example, while Batman struggles to create order, Joker revels in disorder. Where Bruce’s world revolves around his parents’ murder, the Joker’s past, prior to the chemical bath that hideously deformed him, is ill-defined. In Alan More’s The Killing Joke, the Clown Prince quips, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, each time the Joker explains how he got his scars, he puts a different spin on the story.

These dichotomous hero-villain origins reflect the diametrically-opposed nature of their subsequent crusades. Born of a singular act of random violence, Bruce channels his passions and focuses on a clear, if ultimately unachievable, goal: a war on crime itself in order to create a safer, more just society. The Joker, on the other hand, lives to create total chaos and debilitating fear. In the spirit of his ‘multiple choice’ origins, he is an advocate for meaninglessness, a champion of the purely arbitrary.

The Joker mocks Batman’s attempt to protect Gotham’s citizenry. In The Killing Joke, he claims the average man is “nature’s mistake.” With an air of dark, Nietzschean glee, he argues that it takes a “deformed set of values” and a “clubfooted social conscience” to pretend that life is anything but “mad, random, and pointless.” This was the point of his ‘social experiment’ in The Dark Knight. The Joker puts seemingly ‘good’ Gothamites in a situation where the corrosive power of fear would erode their consciences and reveal what lies beneath: a horde of primitive, selfish little ids only pretending to be civilized folk governed by high-minded morals. To him, the Dark Knight’s quest is the ultimate absurdity because life itself is just one big cosmic joke: “Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for,” he says in The Killing Joke, “it’s all a monstrous, demented gag.”

This contrast is part of what makes the Batman mythos one of the most profound in all of graphic literature. It speaks to the fundamental things we cherish and fear. The philosopher Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into existence, and once we wake up to the reality of our predicament, the rest is up to us. The true challenge is to face one’s fears and be an authentic person. As for the anxiety and dread of being a self-conscious creature, it’s the price of free will, and the suffering that comes with it is what makes the pursuit of happiness worth the effort—it’s the dark background against which moments of illumination stand out in joyous relief, the bitter seasoning that makes little successes along the way taste so sweet.

Batman and Joker represent divergent paths in the struggle. There’s Bruce’s effort to accept his past and prevail, not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He chooses to make it meaningful. Then there’s The Joker’s quest, which starts with the question: “Why so serious?” and ends in chaos. He embodies the nihilistic suspicions that haunt anyone trying to lead a sensible, purpose-driven life. Batman overcomes these suspicions and commits himself to a worthy cause—even if it requires a seemingly absurd leap of faith in order to sustain it. Nolan brilliantly captured this yin-yang dialectic in The Dark Knight, and I never get tired of watching the interplay of all those wonderful ideas.

Jules Finds God. Vincent Gets Got.

Posted in Christianity, Entertainment, Existentialism, Film, Filmspotting, Hubert Dreyfus, Kiekegaard, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, Uncategorized, William James with tags , , , , on March 20, 2012 by Uroboros

Pulp Fiction’s Themes Re-visited

If I had a dime for every time I’ve debated the meaning of that damn briefcase in Pulp Fiction I could buy a round of milkshakes from Jack Rabbit Slim’s.  It’s the mark of a film’s greatness that 18 years later people  are still talking about it. My favorite filmgeek podcast, Filmspotting, recently explored Pulp Fiction’s legacy and re-visited it’s deeper meanings (or lack there of).

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading All Things Shining by philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelley which briefly touches on the existential themes in Pulp Fiction, too. So, film/philosophy geek that I am, I had to revisit Tarantino’s masterpiece in search of deeper meanings. Every frame of that film is bursting with style, but, as Adam and Josh from Filmspotting ask, does Pulp have any substance? Is there any ‘there’ there?

Dreyfus and Kelley argue there is. They call the ‘hand cannon’ scene a contemporary version of an ‘Odysseus event,’ an incredible experience which forces you to feel either extraordinarily lucky or grateful to a higher power. In Homer’s Odyssey, when a barrage of spearheads miss the mark and Odysseus escapes, he thinks it’s because Athena is looking out for him. When the Jerry-Seinfeld-looking dude charges out of bathroom and unloads point blank on Jules and Vincent, they have irreconcilable interpretations as to what the inexplicably errant shots mean. Take a look: http://youtu.be/anhdphUxNVo

Vincent says they were lucky. Jules says it was divine intervention.

As Dreyfus and Kelly point out, Jules and Odysseus both felt a power outside of themselves had gotten involved. Vincent, of course, doesn’t accept the metaphysics. He’s a Han Solo-style skeptical realist: higher powers don’t exist, and the fact that they’re still alive is a fluke. Nobody’s ‘up there’ pulling the strings.

One event. Two different experiences.

This moment mirrors the modern existential concern with subjective freedom, choices, and responsibility. Jules suddenly sees the world in a new light. He decides to leave the business and walk the earth—an inner transformation evident in the new meaning he finds in his (largely made-up) Ezekiel quote. What was once just some cold-blooded shit to say before he popped a cap becomes a formula for how to see himself and his place in the world. He’s finally connected with the spirit of what he’s been saying and now wants to lead a more authentic life. Vincent, on the other hand, rejects the religious interpretation, scoffs at Jules’ plan, and tries to change the subject.

Take a look: http://youtu.be/YujYTVQ4_S0

The debate ends when Vincent goes to the bathroom and the robbery goes down. Afterward, when Jules and Vincent leave the diner, there’s a sense of accomplishment and finality. The two men exit, the movie ends, and we’re left to wonder if Jules will actually retire and pursue his new path. Thanks to the non-linear structure, though, we know what happens to Vincent at least. Accidentally shooting Marvin in the face and the close call with Mia fail to make an impression. It’s almost comical how Vincent refuses to be spooked by all his ‘bad luck.’ The only thing he really agonizes over is whether to have sex with Mia or not, a debate that happens while he’s in the bathroom and not outside preventing Mia from snorting the heroin. Turns out, Vincent is pretty dense. His fate, of course, is to be gunned down by Butch after…emerging from the bathroom.

Coincidence? Is somebody trying to tell us something? Is there a ‘there’ there?

The scenario prompts some intriguing questions: Is the hyper-stylish Pulp Fiction—a brutal, often sadistic film about the apparent morality of immoral men—actually a deeply spiritual story? Is Vincent’s fate a subtle critique of the agnostic/atheist worldview? Setting metaphysical issues aside, is Taratino rewarding Jules’ existential openness while punishing Vincent for his close-mindedness? It’s almost as if Tarantino is daring me to call Pulp Fiction a religious movie.

After all, if we had absolute insight into how the cosmos works, then there would be no room for faith, and we wouldn’t really be free. The choices that matter—the ones which define our identity and imbue our days with meaning—are always made from behind a veil of uncertainty. There’s an inexorable element of risk. Otherwise, we’d just be taking marching orders. We’d be drones. The miracle/fluke dichotomy dramatizes the rare opportunities life offers: the chance to reassess who we are, take a long, hard look in the mirror, and ask, ‘Is something up there sending me a message? Is it time to consider another path?’ That’s the question Vincent should’ve asked himself. Jules asks these questions and gets a clear response.

One event. Two experiences. Two divergent paths.

Of course, you could also say that if Jules hadn’t walked away, he would’ve had Vincent’s back and Butch wouldn’t have killed him. Again, Tarantino leaves it open to interpretation because life itself is an open text, and we have to connect the dots. We may never see the big picture, but we can learn a lot about ourselves from the connections we try to make.

Zombocalypse Now!

Posted in Apocalypse, Enlightenment, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Morality, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, State of nature, Television, The Walking Dead, Uncategorized, Zombies with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by Uroboros

The Walking Dead as Dark Thought Experiment

Glimpse Behind the Apocalyptic Door

One thing I love about zombie stories—from Romero’s groundbreaking Dead   saga to AMC’s brilliant The Walking Dead—is how they flip the script of history and imagine an inverted world. It’s a dark thought experiment. Post-apocalypse, what would our lives be like? What kind of humans would we be under those circumstances?

Contemplating such extremes, I can’t help but wonder if I could survive at all, a curiosity which taps into my anxieties over the fact that, if I had to feed, shelter, and clothe myself, I’d be  screwed. Long ago, our culture off-loaded these life-skills to specialists and technological capabilities most of us take for granted     and are pretty clueless about. We’re alienated from our own livelihood. That’s why there’s a growing subculture in this country devoted to learning survival  skills and preparing for the social calamity so many see coming.

As a student of history, I can’t just dismiss this anxiety as pure paranoid fantasy. One of the properties all civilizations seem to share is their inability to overcome the law of entropy. Even the mighty Roman Empire fell. Dark ages do happen. So where do we get off assuming the modern West will be the one culture that bucks this trend?

While I graze the aisles of my beloved local supermarket, sipping my bottled water and pondering which shrink-wrapped package of factory farm beef to buy, I’m haunted by the notion that, if this easy access to sustenance were to vanish suddenly, I’d be hard-pressed to find an alternative source. After all, I’m not a hunter and gatherer. In the zombified state-of-mindlessness, in which I often find myself these days, it’s a struggle to remember to water the plants sometimes. After all, I’m not a farmer. I’m a consumer. I’m a debit card-swiper and button-pusher.

How in the world would I survive the end of the world?     

[Warning: Walking Dead spoiler alert]

Andrea vs. Dale

Zombie mythology raises an even deeper issue: would I even want to survive? The characters in The Walking Dead constantly wrestle with this core existential dilemma. Andrea’s nihilism in particular gets under my skin. You want to reach through the screen and slap her—you want to tell her that, yes, what happened to your sister is  tragic—you’re obviously entitled to your grief—but be glad you’re still alive and that someone like Dale, the post-apocalyptic Obi-Wan, is there for you. Your life matters, Andrea, because life itself still matters. I hope I’d be like Dale—optimistic, determined, not cynical and defeatist. But how do I know I wouldn’t feel like Andrea? After what she’s experienced, isn’t she entitled to her nihilism? What’s even more disturbing is, what if she’s right? Under those conditions, the right to check out—to call it a life—could be just as ethically-viable as making the effort to survive. If I decided to stockpile booze and pills and go out like Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, who’s to say that, under those circumstances, I’m ‘wrong.’ Live fast, die young, and leave a rotten liver for the Walkers to munch on.

Why not?  

The first half of Season Two has been particularly good at exploring the existential implications of a zombocalypse. But finding the will to go on is just the beginning of your troubles because, even if your will to live survives intact, the anxiety just switches from ‘Do I want to live?’ to an even harder question: ‘How do I want to live?’

I tell myself I wouldn’t become like Shane, whose cold pragmatism has grown more brutal and vicious as Season Two has progressed. Watching his transformation from wily, but redeemable trickster to a truly duplicitous, anti-heroic killer has been the creepiest thing about this season, punctuated with startling irony and tragic pathos in the climax of Episode Seven.

But what really disturbed me about the ending was who wound up resolving it. When Rick pulled the trigger, his intentions seemed so ambiguous. Was he doing “the right thing” by putting Sophia and, by extension, the rest of the gang out of their misery? Or was he really just reasserting his authority over the tribe after Shane’s over-the-top attempt at a coup de ta? Are the two intentions so conflated in his mind they could never be pried apart and judged?

Shane vs. Rick

Looking towards the future, will Rick have to become like Shane in order to keep him in line? One thing’s for sure, they can’t go back to the relatively stable and orderly life the farm has provided. No doubt, after what happened at the barn, Rick would have to adopt a Shane-like mentality in order to keep the gang there. At any rate, his attempts to persuade Herschel and entertain his zombies-are-people-too ethic are all moot now. Unless Herschel has a mental breakdown or a radical change of conscience, Rick and company have certainly worn out their welcome in this pastoral paradise. So what are they going to do? Again, for Rick, it’s not a question of ‘Do I want to live?’ but ‘How do I want to live?’—a conflict made all the more poignant when you consider that his wife is pregnant. Now we’re left to wonder if, by stepping up and pulling the trigger, he hasn’t compromised some core element of his morality.

What is Rick willing and prepared to do now?       

Some fans have complained about the pacing and melodrama of the farm episodes, but I think the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down and developing the characters and the thematic implications of their struggles. The last few episodes have focused more on tweaking the character arcs in order to enhance the terror lurking around the corner and in the woods. It’s a refreshing change from the hyperactivity you get with True Blood and American Horror Story, two series which flow like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation. 

The Walking Dead knows how to spread out the story and alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite, and the monster isn’t always a zombie, either. This kind of structure and pacing not only builds the dread, but it lets the viewer contemplate the dark thought experiment, too. In short, in the midst of the suspense, The Walking Dead gives its viewers the time and space to think about the truly terrifying aspects of the scenario and care about the implications because we’re invested in the characters and understand the stakes.

This approach lets us wonder about the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives, as well, the desires that get us out of bed in the morning, the fears that won’t let us sleep at night. If the script of history does flip, would you want to throw away the old morality? To hell with having to be altruistic, especially to strangers or people who can’t help you survive. To hell with reasoning and debating ‘the right thing to do.’ It’s shotgun politics. The one with the biggest gun and the most ammo makes the rules—pure might over right.

Seen in this light, zombie fiction is a pop cultural version of Enlightenment philosophers’ state-of-nature theories. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, three highly influential thinkers, imagined a prehistoric past to justify modern ethics and politics. In doing so, they helped articulate the West’s new vision of human nature—the rational individual with unalienable rights—and argued for the proper political structure in which said individual should live. Their theories helped inspire the American and French Revolutions, reshaping the modern world. Conversely, a zombie state-of-nature story allows us—not to retroject like an Enlightenment philosopher—but to project visions of human nature, politics, and ethics onto the great hypothetical that’s haunting us all these days: what if the world founded on Enlightenment principles falls apart, and we’re back to square one?

Rick’s Existential and Moral Dilemmas

In a world where life is brutish, nasty, and short, who would you be like? Rick and Dale or Andrea and Shane? Not only does The Walking Dead’s spin on the zombocalypse pose this query, it prompts an even more pointed and immediate question: what kind of person are you now? What’s your character like, morally speaking, under your current existential circumstances? Are we fulfilling our individual potential as human beings and living up to our social duties? Would it take a zombocalypse to find out who we really are and what we truly value? Maybe if we confronted these issues in the here and now, we could  redirect or squelch the very forces which make the End of Days look so inevitable sometimes.

We’re the Monsters, Man. We’re the Living Dead.

Posted in Apocalypse, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Hubert Dreyfus, Metaphor, Monsters, Morality, Myth, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, State of nature, Television, The Walking Dead, True Blood, Twilight, Uncategorized, Vampires, Zombies with tags , , on February 11, 2012 by Uroboros

You can tell a lot about a culture by the kind of monsters it craves. John Landis, director of the classic American Werewolf in London and author of Monsters in the Movies, reminds us that monsters are always metaphors—symbols of disturbing feelings buried deep inside of us. Wikipedia says monsters are also warnings—that’s the Latin root of the word, actually—a sign that something’s gone horribly wrong.  Chaos personified.

Monster are metaphors?

So, if monsters are metaphors, what do zombies represent? By considering their image, what can we glimpse and glean about ourselves? For one, the current zombie craze taps into the apocalyptic fever—this entropic vibe—which is gripping the collective conscious now more than ever. After all, it’s 2012. Time to start thinking hard about the End of Days, and zombies are a perfect means to that end.

The zombie evokes existential and moral questions, and The Walking Dead milks the symbolic potential for all it’s worth. It’s a commentary on the issue of human nature itself: Who are we as a species? Is there even such a thing as ‘human nature,’ if so what is it? Do we have core needs and unique abilities which define us, or are we socially-conditioned creatures who can evolve into just about anything? Could we turn into creatures which would be unrecognizable to us now, something inhuman, something monstrous? What if this transformation has already begun? 

 

The Zombie Herd

Watching The Walking Dead, I often wonder if I’m not already morphing into a zombie. When I saw the roaming herd of Walkers in the Season Two opener, I was struck by a question I haven’t been able to shake: Is the zombie-virus already here, slowly, invisibly creeping in and changing us? I’m not just talking about the kind of mindless consumerism that Romero satirized in the 70s with Dawn of the Dead. I mean the state-of-mindlessness I often find myself in these days and the inner battle against personal zombification. I’m talking about the zoned-out, autopilot existence—about simply going through the day-to-day motions, being little more than a creature of habit, a robot of routine.

Sometimes, while driving, I suddenly find myself unable to consciously recall having driven the last few miles. I was off in La-la land, daydreaming and worrying while my body was steered, changed gears, accelerated and braked. Have you ever caught yourself gazing into the fridge, wondering what you’re looking for—why you opened the fridge in the first place? Isn’t this state-of-mindlessness sort of what it’s like to be a zombie? That plus the pale, decaying complexion and a taste for human flesh, of course. Sometimes I hear myself and others spouting off platitudes and bullet-point truisms—spinning worn-out, jukebox references and anecdotes laced with ubiquitous terms like ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ and ‘really?’—I hear the noise that passes for conversation and think: We are the Talking Dead.

Zombificiation is not a psychological mood one can easily fight against or simply dismiss, either. In fact, as philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus have pointed out, there is value and purpose in being able to zone out. After all, athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, etc are all better at what they do when they’re in ‘The Zone.’ Dreyfus interprets the great poet Homer himself as saying that humans are actually at their best when they’re in the zone—when the self-conscious, hyper-aware mind shuts down and we’re moved by the muses. I take Dreyfus’ point, but there’s still something creepy about letting the mind go offline and just going with the flow. The beauty and danger of going with the flow is you don’t always know where the flow might take you. In this day and age, can one afford to do what Homer waxed poetic about in 700 BC?  

We have all of this state-of-the-art communication technology at our disposal, and we’re already so immersed in the flow of information we take it for granted, like water to a fish. We now have instant, global access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom, and we’d rather double-check our Facebook wall or click on OMG! How often does the flow go to places designed to make you zone out? In short, the smarter my phone gets, the dumber I feel—iPhone smart, iMe dumberer.

Who’s the real Droid?

Modern science tells us there’s a rational explanation for everything. Love and fear are just neurochemical cocktails, products of an organic machine—you know, the same one that can drive a car with little input from the iMe—a mechanism with interchangeable parts that’s adjustable through medication. Sometimes it seems like there’s no more mystery, no more true romance or adventure. So we make up or hype things to distract ourselves—we seek out celebrity exhibitionism and political histrionics; we ponder alien conspiracy theories and the plausibility of ghost-hunting. Perhaps the advent and enduring popularity of reality-TV is the canary in the coal mine. What does it say about a culture when, instead of wanting to watch fake people having realistic experiences, it starts to prefer ‘real’ people having fake experiences?

Is it that—somewhere in our collective unconscious—we’ve already marked a subtle existential shift, a barely-perceptible but palpable transition into a fake, fabricated existence unworthy of our humanity? Does the apocalyptic fever embodied in the zombietype represent a secret collective desire? Pardon the Freudianisms, but one could argue that the viral zombie craze and apocalypticism circulating in our culture is a sublimated version of a dark, unspoken wish that this deadening, diseased world will end soon. Could it be that many of us actually hope we’ll wake up one terrifying morning to see the world in utter chaos and rapturous ruin, so that, for the first time, we’ll get a chance to find out what it’s really like to be alive? You can’t drift around like a zombie in a world where there are actual zombies and hope to survive. What if  a ‘zombocalypse’ can show us who we truly are—what human beings are actually made of?

A show like The Walking Dead lets us vicariously fulfill this wish—lets us enter a world where what we crave and slave for now—a higher rung on the corporate ladder, the right house, the impressive car, the self-expressive clothes and accessories, the latest technological do-dads—all that stuff is suddenly rendered less valuable—if not totally worthless—and certainly less meaningful. 

If we are what we consume and what we consume becomes pointless then don’t we become pointless, too? If monsters are metaphors, then, perhaps zombies are symbolic warnings of not only how fragile and tenuous our world is, but also just how much of its true value and potential we take for granted, especially when we become mindless creatures of habit.

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