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The Alien and the Existentialist

23 Jul

As is usually the case, the lack of regular updates has mostly been due to stress. I’ve been dealing with a rather rough patch, and sitting down to talk about philosophy hasn’t been at the top of my list of things that need done. It’s also been miserably hot, and my brain doesn’t like to work when it’s busy trying to melt into a puddle. That aside, lately I’ve been watching the third season of The Boondocks and finally started watching Torchwood. I’m not going to be talking about The Boondocks this time out; not because it’s not worth talking about so much as because I still need to decide what I’m going to say, and how I’m going to say (though I will go ahead and say if you’ve never watched Boondocks go do so – it’s well worth it). So it looks like I’ll be talking about Torchwood.

I never got in to Torchwood when it premiered, or during the course of the three seasons that have run, or the forth that premiered this year.  First and foremost I don’t actually watch telly anymore. Most of it is insufferably vapid, and even when I find something worth watching, finding the time to sit down and watch it on a regular basis rarely happens, or will be interrupted. Less importantly, though still a factor, was my disappointment that Christopher Eccleston had only signed up for one season of the revived Doctor Who. Other than Tom Baker I just haven’t been interested in most of the other portrayals of the Doctor, so when he left so did my interest in the show and its spin-offs.

Still, I finally decided to give it a chance. So far I’ve watched the first nine episodes and to be honest it just isn’t a very good show. These early days are often inconsistently done, and full of plot holes bigger than the Cardiff Rift. That said, it’s a not very good show that has had some good episodes, so I’m hoping that the later episodes live up to this potential. It’s also a show that has had some very philosophical episodes… so much so, that at times it feels like it’s beating me over the head with said philosophy. Some of that may be simply because I’m already familiar with the ideas the show has been trying to express; though for all that I’m not ruling out the possibility of simple ham-fistedness on the part of the people involved with the show.

Of course I wouldn’t really be doing my job if I just said, “Yup, a philosophical show,” and left it at that. Particularly since I can’t rule out that I’m catching things that someone who isn’t familiar with philosophy would miss.

Torchwood, at least in its early days, deals rather heavily with existentialist concepts, particularly taking an existential view of death. This is particularly apparent in the episodes “They Keep Killing Suzie,” and “Random Shoes,” but pops up as early as the very first episode. This is something I’ve talked about before, and something I suspect I will talk about again. The message Torchwood keeps giving us is that death really is the end. Oh sure, fancy alien technology might bend the rules as we understand them a bit, but ultimately when we die we’re gone. There is no bearded fucker up in the sky ready to sweep our souls up into blissful light, or if we’ve broken one of his arbitrary rules, kick us into a lake of boiling sulfur.

This isn’t some abstract, navel-gazing point that’s only of interest to philosophers, but something important to living our everyday lives, particularly of living in a philosophically engaged fashion. What does it mean for us if indeed this life, this world is all we have? Does it mean that anything goes, and that we are not only free to, but indeed should indulge our every whim no matter how petty, selfish, or cruel? There are certainly those who would argue that that’s exactly what it means, either because it satisfies their own desires, or they simply can’t imagine the ability for man to be moral without the fear of heavenly punishment hanging over our heads.

We could take a state of affairs as is posited in Torchwood as an excuse to be thoughtless hedonists. Alternately, we could also take the time to consider that if this is all we get, we should try to make it worthwhile; because we don’t get any do overs, and Auntie Millie won’t be waiting up in heaven to tell you she forgives you for all the times you were a raging douchebag to her. That’s a large part of what the existentialist project was (and for those still engaged in it, or in one of its offspring, still is); to bring meaning and value to an inherently meaningless universe. Though for all that Torchwood encodes this basic message into some of its episodes the characters do spend a rather large amount of time engaging in the hedonistic bits of life.

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2 Comments

Posted by on July 23, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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2 responses to “The Alien and the Existentialist

  1. bleeyargh

    July 24, 2011 at 7:51 am

    I rather think that, at least in part, it is the power of widely accepted religion to promote hedonism or despair in those who ultimately reject that religion. More than once, I have often heard the argument from a few Christian believers, for example, that there is no reason to behave nicely or avoid evil if there isn’t a big, all-seeing Santa Claus with a flyswatter waiting to punish you for being naughty.

    This is the very reason why I value religion. In certain contexts, it really does seem to have the ability to flex its social control muscle. Of course, the destructive side-effects that said religion (especially organized religion with professional worshippers or Jebus Salesmen) can bring to life– crusades, jihad, armoured child molesting– don’t make it universally attractive.

    Philosophy is nice if you’ve got enough under the hood to think. You could even say this of existentialism, but I would argue that existentialism can be just as destructive as religion if applied to the wrong people. If you don’t have the brain and the particular mindset to examine it yourself, the work of Nietzsche in particular is easily misinterpreted. If you don’t have the considerable wealth necessary to have someone else clearly examine and explain it to you, then you’re really up the creek.

     
    • Josh Benton

      July 25, 2011 at 6:19 am

      For the most part I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. Can philosophy be destructive in nature, particularly if misunderstood? Absolutely. I can recall at least one early – mid 20th century case where a couple lads decided that they were the overman, and among other things this gave them license to kill. I’ve seen people that are supposed to be philosophers claim that a Nietzschean worldview could lead one to not value life; despite the fact that this is the exact opposite of what Nietzsche actually said. Not to mention Nietzsche’s crazy anti-Semite sister managed to have certain people believing for years that Nietzsche hated Jews, despite the fact that he was the guy who wrote, “Hey Germans, you really need to start having sex with Jewish folk if you want to remain vital as a people.”

      Yet for all of that philosophy generally has nowhere near the destructive potential of religion precisely because it lacks the elements of social control that religion does. While there are hubris-laden philosophers insisting that “Mine if the only true way!”, there is no organized cult of philosophy. I might think that Nietzsche is the foundation stone for doing any philosophy that is relevant to life, rather than the mental masturbation that certain schools of philosophy take pride in doing, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything that Nietzsche says. I also don’t use things like imaginary stories of torture, or actual burnings at the stake, to force people to my way of thinking.

      I also find the social control of religion to be less than valuable, and not just because I’m an anti-authoritarian. People who honestly believe that there is no reason to be good without the presence of flyswatter Santa terrify me. Do telelogical narratives, in addition to having the dangers Nietzsche described, also destroy our ability to engage in moral reasoning? Or perhaps destroy is a bad term. Perhaps it simply atrophies after years of disuse because people have allowed an old, not very good, story to do their moral reasoning for them. I can’t think of any set of circumstances in which I would consider that a healthy way of being. As much as I disagree with Kierkegaard, he was right in one respect; if you’re going to believe in an invisible man that lives in the sky and watches your every move, doing so because of Pascal’s wager, with it’s attendant ideas of receiving reward/avoiding punishment, is pretty much the worst possible reason to do so.

      I also don’t think that one need be particularly intelligent to engage in philosophy. I don’t, as a general rule, consider myself to be all that bright. Before I’d ever cracked open a philosophy text, these were things I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about. These questions are important questions. When I started reading the works of philosophers I recognized that these were issues I’d already wrestled with, and these were questions that had already been raised in the things I liked to read and watch, that I had encountered in the course of living. That’s one of the reasons why I do philosophy the way I do, rather than in the academic mode; as once philosophy becomes academic, even the stuff that is meant to be relevant to life, rather than the self-congratulatory twaddle that is say an analytic philosopher pontificating over p-zombies, is too often needlessly obfuscated, and rendered inaccessible. Not that decoding it means people will pay a damn bit of attention. Despite laying it out as clearly as I can, these blog doesn’t have much readership. I also suspect that there are any number of people who simply shrug and don’t think twice about what I’ve said, or reflexively disagree because what I’ve said disagrees with their worldview. Yet I think that has less to do with being intelligent enough, and more to do with people needing the calcification knocked from their souls (if you’ll allow me a fanciful turn of phrase, since I don’t actually believe in the existence of souls). The difficult part is getting people to shake aside the years of conditioning, to allow their worldviews to be assailed, and to actually engage with the material of life, and thus participate in philosophy.

       

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