Archive for the Pop Cultural Musings 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.

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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…

The Marvel Dilemma: Genetic Enhancement and the Ethics of Supersizing

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

Cap: Supersized

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

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

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

Welcome to OSCORP

Welcome to OSCORP

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

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

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

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

Cap gets enhanced

Cap gets enhanced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X-Men: Mutant and proud!

X-Men: Mutant and proud!

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

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?

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.

The Promethean Urge

Posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Forbidden Fruit, God, Literature, Morality, Mythology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Technology with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by Uroboros

When Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man, his punishment is to be bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again. The idea of breaking through boundaries is the key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth. Humans can’t help being curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be.

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. If we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals. Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. With the power of genetics, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances, and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. We can create tools of mass salvation and destruction. The sci-fi authors and filmmakers I admire most tend to imply that the sin isn’t necessarily in wanting to explore unknown territories. Hubris isn’t an epistemological issue. It’s a moral one. The sin is in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it too.

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