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Monthly Archives: December 2010

One Muslim Batman, One Lesbian Batwoman, and a Shot of Insomnia Driven Self-Reflection

R. K. Milholland, the man behind the webcomic Something*Positive, recently did a guest strip for the comic Shortpacked!. I can’t claim that I’m particularly familiar with the series in question, but Mr. Milholland’s strip deals with the recent brouhaha surrounding the fact that one of the members of Batman, Inc. is going to be a Muslim. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with this. Despite the fact that Muslim terrorists have become the flavor of the zeitgeist in that since the events of September 11th, 2001 they’ve become the pop culture go-to villains that everyone in the West can hate, I’m pretty sure Muslims are still people.  That means that just like everyone else they may fall broad, socially constructed and determined categories, but just because one Muslim, or a given group of Muslims does something doesn’t automatically mean that all Muslims hate the West, and think it is best brought down with high explosives. You’d think that would be self-apparent, eh?

As frustrating as the kind of bullshit that has cropped up around DC’s ann0uncement, that’s not what I’m here to talk about right now. This is my blog, so I’m going to talk about me, my reaction to Mr. Milholland’s comic, and a DC announcement from a few years ago. Back in the days of the dinosaurs I wrote for a now-defunct website called Comic Avalanche… all right, it was only a few years ago, but there have been several miles of bad road since then, so it feels like longer. Regardless, at the time DC was announcing the imminent arrival of their new “lipstick lesbian” Batwoman.

I admit that within the space of one of my columns I raised something of a fuss about this. My problem wasn’t that they were introducing a lesbian Batwoman, my problem was with DC’s use of the word “lipstick” in their promo announcements. Among the gay community the phrase lipstick lesbian seems like it generally has negative connotations, and outside of that community it seems to be used most frequently as a way to advertise female-on-female porn to an audience of straight men. So this struck me as less of a move toward diversity, and more as a marketing ploy to draw in the undersexed fanboys.

Since then I’ve had a chance to read some of the Batwoman stories. In particular I’ve read the “Elegy” arc by Greg Rucka and J. H. Williams III that ran in Detective Comics. I enjoyed reading it. While I won’t say it was the best comic I ever read, I had no particular objections to the way Kate Kane was portrayed. That said, I still like to think that I had a valid objection to the way in which DC was hyping the character’s introduction. After all, I didn’t have that kind of negative reaction upon hearing about Grant Morrison’s hermaphroditic Negative Man or Danny the Transvestite Street. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Northstar finally coming out of the closet. And yet…

… and ask why it is everytime a hero shows up who isn’t white, male, hetero, or possibly Christian, it’s a P.C. stunt?

On the other hand, when I read quotes like this (taken from the comic by Mr. Milholland that inspired this post), I have to wonder. Was my objection a valid one, or was I simply engaging in the kind of xenophobia and bigotry for which I condemn the people whining about a black actor in the upcoming Thor film, or the nonsense that has cropped up in relation to a Muslim Batman?

I would like to think that the answer is no. However, because I am a staunch believer that living philosophically means to engage in a constant critical and reflective engagement in the world, I can’t let it go at that. Is there a part of me that objected to the new Batwoman simply because the character is a lesbian? Did I really have a valid objection, even if that objection would have perhaps been better focused on DC’s marketing department rather than on editors and creators? Or maybe, just maybe, is there still some baggage I’m carrying around, some social conditioning that is implanted so deep that I’ve never even thought to question it?

I had many of the same questions when I was working through the challenges raised by George Yancy’s* Black Bodies, White Gazes. In both his own words, and the words of others, he articulates the idea of the race traitor as someone who doesn’t behave as a “good” white person “should.” I would like to think I am one of those people, and that it extends beyond race. I would like to think that I do not behave as a good hetero should, or as a good person of my economic class should. Yet at the end of the day, the only honest answer I can give to any of these questions, including the question raised by Mr. Milholland, is “I don’t think I’m that person, but I just don’t know.”

Yes, I would like to think I’m a better person than the unwashed hordes and whores who live uncaring, unreflective lives. I would like to be able to say “Yes, I live every moment of every day in philosophical engagement, and at no point is my thinking influenced by an unconsidered opinion.” I’d like to be able to settle for that, but sometimes saying “I don’t know,” isn’t a bad thing, just so long as we follow it up with, “but I’m not going to stop asking the question.”

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2010 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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The Doktor is in.

I dig Warren Ellis. Not in a I want to have his bald-headed babies kind of way, but Ellis is near the top of my list of favorite writers. I haven’t read everything he’s ever written, because he’s written a lot of words, but I’ve read a fair bit of his stuff. I’m particularly fond of a little comic he does called Doktor Sleepless.

Doktor Sleepless takes us on a relentless tour through the dystopian future of Heavenside. There are no flying cars, and no jetpacks, but people do have contact lenses that let them keep track of (and communicate) with their friends, their is a pharmaceutical for every occasion, and modifying one’s body with technology is taken for granted. Heavenside is us run rampant. I might not have an instant-messaging system enabled contact lens, but I have a cellular phone that can access multiple messaging networks, take pictures, play music, and uplink to a GPS satellite. With a touch of an icon this little device lets me see the musings of people half a world away; people I have never met, and who have never even heard of me.

I’m not all that old quite yet, and when I was younger these sort of things were strictly the stuff of science fiction. Yet, despite how quickly things like cellphones have come to prominence, how many times have we stopped and really questioned them? Oh, I don’t mean just question whether or not they are useful, because they certainly can be; though on the other hand we managed to live just fine in a pre-cellphone world. So if we’re not questioning their utility, what should we be questioning?

How many cellphones are responsible for car accidents? How many of us have had a conversation interrupted so someone could answer their phone? These sort of questions could go on, and these are the easy ones. How many of us have really, and I mean really, stopped to consider the fact that without ever putting anything into our bodies, by letting them put a cellphone into our hands we have made changes to ourselves? It’s an important question, and one that seems to be set aside in favor of novelty and utility. That isn’t living philosophically. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s really living.

Maybe the changes that callphones and similar technology have made in us have all been for the better. I certainly won’t deny that our quality of life has been vastly improved by modern science and technology. Hell, I’m even a big fan of science. What I’m saying, is that when we are introduced to something we should ask hard questions about it. Please notice, that this does not include silly, already answered questions, or making ridiculous claims along the lines of vaccines causing autism, or cellphones causing brain tumors. We have answers to those questions, and the kind of people who go about crowing about conspiracies are ignorant, irresponsible, and unethical.

I’ll let an excerpt from a 2007 post by Mr. Ellis sum up the kind of questions we should be asking:

You are never going into space.
You will never own a jet pack.
Your car will never fly.
HIV will not be cured in your lifetime.
Cancer will not be cured in your lifetime.
The common cold will not be cured in your lifetime.
Don’t these things bother you?

Yes, Mr. Ellis, these things sure as shit bother me. They bother me because most of us never think to ask, or we ask and then let it go. How often have we stopped to consider that this constant influx of devices to make our lives easier, to amuse us, might just be a 21st century version of Rome’s bread and circuses?

I own a cellphone. I own a decent computer with a high definition monitor. I own a Playstation 3, and a PSP to go along with it. I like technology and gadgets, so I’m not going to tell you not to buy them, or that you should throw away the ones you have now. What I am telling you is that you should always, always ask yourself why you need it, and what accepting it into your life will mean. Not only that, but even when we buy what they are selling we should never stop asking “Where’s my fucking jetpack?”. If we continue to refuse to engage with the material of our everyday lives in a critical and reflective fashion, if we continue to simply take technology for granted… well, we might have cellphones in our brains, and nanites in our blood, but we’ll also be living in Heavenside sooner than we think. We’ll be living in Heavenside, and I still won’t have my fucking jetpack.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2010 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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Adrian Veidt: Üntermensch?

As this blog creeps forward I’m likely to spend a fair amount of time talking about the work of Alan Moore. I’ve read a significant portion of Moore’s body of work, as well as having engaged in academic study of same. There is also the fact that portions of Moore’s work are obviously influenced by the work of certain philosophers. V for Vendetta and From Hell being two that instantly spring to mind. As the title of this post hints, however, I will not be talking about either of those worthy works, but am currently focusing on a small element of Watchmen.

Watchmen is considered to be a cornerstone upon which the modern comics genre rests. Many words have been spent discussing the sociological, political and philosophical content embedded in the work. There is even a “Pop Culture and Philosophy” volume devoted to it in the form of Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test. As with the other volumes in this series WaP is made up of various articles which attempt to introduce non-philosopher readers to philosophical concepts through media they are already familiar with. A worthy task, indeed the selfsame task as I hope to achieve through this blog and elsewhere. One of the articles in WaP sets out to analyze the characters of the comics in light of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch.

To provide a bit of background, Nietzsche was a 19th century German philosopher who is perhaps best known for his scathing critique of Western culture and thought, a critique which included philosophy. He is the man who originated the oft repeated, and frequently misunderstood phrase, “God is dead.” This isn’t meant as an actual pronouncement of death. Nietzsche didn’t believe that there was a god to which could have died. Instead, what Nietzsche was pronouncing was the failure of Western ways of being, particularly in the very ways we define the world. For Nietzsche, one of our biggest failures was dividing the world in two, and telling a story that kept us focused on living our lives for something other than the here and now (philosophers generally refer to this as a teleological narrative, which is more or less a fancy way of saying goal-oriented story). Perhaps the most familiar form of this comes in the Abrahamic idea of a physical, lower realm separated from the realm of Heaven, though in truth this is a rather old idea that can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Nietzsche also did not limit this particular critique to religion, but leveled this charge against Marxist socialism and other belief systems.

I could spend a great deal of words simply talking about this particular element of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but the thrust of it is that when we are confronted with the failure of Western thought we fall into a state of nihilism, a state in which because we are forced to face the fact that there is no transcendent value, everything must therefore be valueless. This is another area where those who haven’t really paid attention to Nietzsche get Nietzsche wrong. Nietzsche was not a nihilist. He did not want us to sit around being emo; the tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth and wailing for lost hope is not the desired end result, it is just a necessary first step. This is where the Übermensch, the “overman,” comes in.  Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that we navel-gazing philosophy types can’t quite agree on what the overman is supposed to be. For that matter most people will probably tell you to look for clues in Thus Spoke Zarthustra. Like many Continentalists I seem to be rather contrary by nature, and I say that one should turn toward The Gay Science not only to learn about the overman, but for Nietzsche’s most robust work.

Philosophical bickering aside, the one thing that is generally agreed on is that the overman is one who overcomes this state of nihilism, and rather than becoming a servant to the failed values that have come before him, instead becomes a creator of new values. From here we can go back to both Watchmen as well as Watchmen and Philosophy. Is Adrian Veidt an Übermensch? He gave up an inherited fortune to recreate himself (and earn gobs more money in the process). When the world is on the brink of annihilation he takes it upon himself to “transcend” traditional morality and save humanity from itself. Then again, maybe note. More than one article in Watchmen and Philosophy accuses Veidt of consequentialist thinking. As the name implies, consequentialism is an ethical stance in which one measures one’s actions in light of their consequences. In the case of Veidt he decides that it is ethically better to kill a few million people now, then to let humanity turn the world into an irradiated cinder. The ethics of his actions are debatable, and we could ponder all day over whether or not one can be the overman and engage in consequentialist thinking. At the moment I’m not particularly concerned with that, because there are more telling reasons why Veidt fails as an overman.

Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, never actually creates himself. Veidt’s early life, those years in which, like Batman he journeyed the world, were dominated by an obsessive focus to recreate himself as a modern Ramesses II. Recreating one’s self in the image of a dead guy, particularly a dead guy from the elite caste of a culture obsessed with the afterlife is not exactly a great start for a candidate to the title of overman. While I would argue that this alone is enough to disqualify Veidt, there is a more telling failure. In section 353 of The Gay Science Nietzsche talks about Paul and the formation of Christianity. Nietzsche charges Paul with having come upon individuals who were already living a certain kind of life, and even though that life was not a virtuous one in a Nietzschean sense, Paul praised that life, endowing it with virtue. In particular he endowed it with that wicked teleological narrative that gave it “higher” virtues than could be found in the physical world. While it is not an exact match, I see Veidt as doing exactly this. It doesn’t matter what ethical mathematics his decision was based on. Veidt “saved” the world not by overcoming the nihilistic virtures of the world, but by strengthening them. He hatched a plot that simply rechanneled the world’s violence and xenophobia, he creates peace through paranoia.

Adrian Veidt did look into the abyss, and he flinched. Worse yet, in his own weakness he put a bandaid on an amputated limb and told himself he was saving the world. Adrian Veidt is not the Übermensch. Rather, I would say he is an Üntermensch, an underman. Whatever charges Nietzsche lays against the teleological narratives that have trapped humanity, what Veidt does in the course of Watchmen‘s narrative is as bad or worse.

At this point I have spent nearly 1200 words, and have yet to mention how this is actually important to you, the reader. As I mentioned in my introductory post it is Nietzsche who I feel best articulates what philosophy should be, and what it means to live philosophically. Life is life, and life is to be lived. I will not tell you that one must give up faith, and discard all teleological narratives to do so, though I suspect Nietzsche would applaud that decision. However, it does mean that we should not live our lives for tomorrow’s paradise, be it Heaven or the the mythical destruction of private property. We should strive every day to make a paradise of this world, because it is in this world that each and every one of us must live. I’ll admit that isn’t going to be an easy task, because so far we’ve a shit track record at doing the job, and at this point I’m not sure it’s a job we’re up to doing.  Now get out there and prove me wrong.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2010 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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Comic Book Philosopher?

How can philosophy and comic books go together? What could the “lofty” thoughts of philosophy possibly have to do with four-color persons in spandex smacking the shit out of each other? Quite a lot, really, and that’s even without including jokes about how both are filled with unshaven fanboys trying to break into the industry so they don’t have to get real jobs.

Philosophy isn’t huge, abstract thoughts about nothing important that pretentious bastards go on about to make themselves feel important… okay, so sometimes that’s exactly what it is as a formal discipline, but I’m about to let you in on a secret; that isn’t real philosophy, it’s academic twaddle. I’m also going to let you in on another secret: you don’t have to study philosophy, or be a philosopher in order to live philosophically. Whether you love him or hate him, it was Nietzsche who best articulated what philosophy should be, and what living philosophically is; a state of critical and reflective engagement with the world.

So how does that relate to comic books? Comic books, films, novels, and the material of everyday life have all exposed us to the same ideas and questions that are the philosopher’s lot. We’re simply not taught to think about them as philosophy, or to address them in a philosophical manner. One of the things I hope to do is to examine works of comics and popular culture, and to illustrate how those ideas not only tie to the formal execution of philosophy, but how those ideas relate to our lives, and how a philosophically-oriented engagement can deepen our understanding and enjoyment of the things we watch, read, and do. I’m also going to try and always make sure that when I do this what I’m saying is as clear and understandable as possible. You should never need to have studied philosophy to understand what I’m saying. The caveat being that I can’t promise I’ll always succeed.

Of course I’m not just going to limit myself to talking about comics and philosophy. Sometimes I might talk about comics without philosophy, or philosophy without comics. I might talk about sex, pornography, film, music, videogames, something that annoys me, or just my thoughts in general. That’s the advantage of having one’s own interweb soapbox.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2010 in Comics, Philosophy