Archive for the mortality anxiety 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.

Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate: Terror Management and the Politics of Fear

Posted in 1984, 2012 Presidential election, Big Brother, Brain Science, Dystopia, Dystopian, Ernest Becker, freedom, Freud, hate, History, Ingsoc, Literature, mortality anxiety, Neurology, Nineteen Eighty-four, O'Bama, Orwell, politics, Politics and Media, Pop Cultural Musings, propaganda, psychoanalysis, Psychology, Romney, Terror Management Theory, thoughtcrime, Two Minutes Hate, Winston Smith with tags , , , , on May 17, 2012 by Uroboros

The opening chapter of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare Nineteen Eighty-four centers around the “Two Minutes Hate.” Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, describes pulling up a chair in front of the big telescreen, taking a seat among his Ministry of Truth co-workers, and participating in a ritual designed to reinforce party orthodoxy, Oceania’s version of Must-See-TV.

What follows is a wild display of enmity, precisely channeled and orchestrated by Ingsoc, the totalitarian rulers of Oceania. The chorus of hissing, squeaking, and screaming is focused on Goldstein, the ultimate enemy of the state, “the self-satisfied sheeplike face” that automatically “produced anger and fear” in everybody. Why? Goldstein stands for everything Ingsoc reviles. He demands peace and advocates “freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought.”

The Hate celebrates Ingsoc’s slogans—WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH—and helps stamp out thoughtcrime, i.e. the right to hold personal, unorthodox beliefs and value privacy, the very thing Winston secretly lives for. He’s actually a big fan of Goldstein. But even this devout intellectual heretic feels powerless to the overwhelming wave of emotion that ripples though the crowd and makes otherwise reserved and terse people start “leaping up and down…and shouting at the tops of their voices.”  Take a look at a cinematic interpretation of this.

The most horrific thing, Winston says, isn’t simply that he feels obliged to go along with it. It’s that even a true thoughtcriminal like himself finds it “impossible to avoid joining” the “hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer.” Winston helplessly watches as his secret loathing for Big Brother, the face of the Party, becomes, for a brief, but terrifying moment, true adoration. This foreshadows the fate of his desperate revolt. In the end, Winston’s rebellion fails. He is destined to love Big Brother. The Two Minutes Hate gives us a disturbing glimpse into the psychological, and indeed physiological, means by which totalitarian control is possible. Orwell takes the reader right to the intersection of nature and nurture, where political propaganda sets its scalpel and goes to work, ‘healing’ us through the power of ‘proper’ beliefs—the pseudo-salvation of mind and body that comes from loving and hating the ‘right’ faces. Being an accepted member of your tribe, Orwell argues, is invariably linked to being fervently hostile towards the other tribe.

In this way, Orwell’s diagnosis of totalitarian tactics prefigures a recent breakthrough in social psychology called Terror Management Theory (TMT). The idea is rooted in anthropologist Ernest Becker’s seminal work The Denial Death, which proposed that all human behavior is instinctively shaped and influenced by the fear of death. Whether we realize it or not, our ‘mortality anxiety’—a quality that appears to be unique to our species—is such a potent and potentially debilitating force, we have to repress and distract ourselves from it. But as Freud says, the repressed always returns, slipping into our conscious minds and affecting our behavior in lots of weird ways. This anxiety, according to Becker, feeds back into our psyche and influences everything we think and do. Our social practices and institutions—from politics to religion to art—are systematic attempts to explain away and allay this fear, which is why we can lash out so viciously at those who seem to threaten or undermine our beliefs. We can’t let their existence weaken our psychological armor against the ultimate enemy, Death itself.

Researchers Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg decided to put Becker’s hypothesis to the test by devising clever psychological experiments to isolate and measure the anxiety factor. Time and time again, they found that when people were made to think about their own death, they reacted in a more hostile way to those who were perceived as an ideological other than they did when they were not asked to contemplate it. You can check out these weird but illuminating experiments here.

Terror Management Theory (TMT) can explain everything from the bloody sacrificial rites carried out by the Aztecs to the sudden and unquestioning support Pres. Bush received from many liberals after 9/11, people who on September 10th didn’t even think he’d legitimately won the office. The theory helps us grasp not only the irrational, cult-like power of charismatic leaders and the effectiveness of negative political ads, it presupposes a neurological basis for our susceptibility to the Love/Hate style of propaganda—how it taps into the way we’re wired and re-routes the circuitry so we become unwitting puppets to elitist agendas that don’t actually serve our interests. We become mouthpieces and pumping fists for the very forces that oppress us. In other words, you are not in control of your own beliefs and behavior, Big Brother has already gotten to your amygdala—the brain’s subcortical fear factory—and told you what to love and what to hate, the faces worth admiring and the faces that need to be smashed with a sledgehammer…or with a prejudicial slur or with a cruise missile.

Orwell may not have grasped the neurology (he predates the f-MRI technology that allows us to see the amygdala in action), but he certainly understood the psycho-dynamics of TMT, fifty years before it was empirically verified by Solomon and Greenberg. The hate, Winston explains, flows through the group “like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.” And yet, since its a primitive instinct which has been manipulated by social conditioning, this hate is “an abstract undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another,” like a flashlight. In other words, we love and/or hate by nature, but the particular objects of our adoration and enmity are learned. The question is, have you learned how to consciously control this dynamic? Or has Big Brother already beat you to the punch?

Tragically, Winston can’t choose who to love and who to hate, and this, Orwell implies, is the ultimate agenda of an effective totalitarian state, one of its defining properties and ultimately its most fundamental power. Nineteen Eighty-four‘s dystopian vision—unrelentingly bleak and terrifying—still resonates because the kind of manipulation it describes hasn’t gone away with fall of the Soviet Union. Its machinations have just grown more subtle and are all the more powerful and hideous for it.

Hate on the Left and Right

Orwell’s novel reminds us to step back from the histrionic media frenzies that pass for political discourse these days, take a rational breath, and ask ourselves: am I really in control of what I believe? Or am I motivated by fears I’m not even aware of? When I step into the booth and cast my ballot, am I making a conscious choice or has Big Brother already pushed the button for me?

Remember, Hitler initially gained power through the democratic process, which he then systematically dismantled. Do we really want to be free and rules ourselves or is there, as Freud argued in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922)  something deep within in that longs to be subjugated and dominated? Do you secretly like it when Big Brother mashes his political finger against your limbic button?

 Take a minute or two and think about it.

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