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The Alien and the Existentialist

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

 

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Life’s a Stage and All That….

I apologize for my slowness in updating. The past couple weeks have been somewhat on the rough side.  I’ve been feeling ill, and have had a fair bit of work on my plate. In addition to the usual shenanigans of life I was drafted into some extra work this week, and was also cast in a local production of Arms and the Man (that last has thus far been the least of the extra work, as we’ve only had one rehearsal). Though I suspect there’s a more… emotional reason I’ve been retreating into hermitage. As I write this post it is currently not quite 10pm, February 16th 2011. A few hours from now it will officially be one year since I sat in a hospital for five hours watching my mother die.

My life hasn’t exactly been hugs and puppies. Sure, there are any number of people that have had it worse than me, but I’m not those people, and I can say that in a life that has had its share of shittastic moments, the events of February 17th 2010 pretty well tops the list. I’d lost one parent by that point – my old man had died several years previously, but we hadn’t really been on speaking terms since well before his death, and I suppose the same goes for my old man’s old man. I’d had an uncle die, but I hardly knew the man. I’ve known a few other people over the years who’ve died, but again I wasn’t particularly close to any of them. Maybe my lack of being more profoundly touched by these particular deaths is indicative of some deep flaw in my character. Right now I don’t really give a shit. Right now I only know that it was with my mother’s death that death stopped being a source of abstract existential dread and came by for a cup of tea.

But what is death? One could jump in with the easy answer about how it’s a cessation of the biological functions we call life, but what is it really? Think about it for a minute. One of the bits Ayn Rand stole from actual philosophers (yes, I’m using a profound moment of self-reflection to take another cheap shot at Ayn Rand… I never said I don’t have my petty moments) is the idea consciousness is always conscious of something. That’s really just a fancy way of saying that our consciousness, our “mind,” always is. When we’re awake we’re constantly receiving sensory input, thoughts are always bouncing around like pinballs; even when we sleep our tasty, tasty gray matter is chugging away with the firing of the neurons, and the managing of those handy autonomic functions. This is what it means to be. Whereas death, death is not being. Try and think about that for a moment. We are beings. We only understand what it means to be. Can we ever really understand what it means to not be?

For that matter can we ever really even understand the death of someone else? There are people who I was friends with at one point in time that I haven’t seen in years. I never expect to see the majority of them again (and with a few rare exceptions I don’t particularly mind this fact). How is this so different from my mother’s death? On the one hand I know that she is gone. She no longer exists as anything but some ashes in an overpriced box underneath the dirt. That’s not something you get to come back from. I know that… but do I understand it?

There was a German chap by the name of Heidegger who said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Probably fucking not, but we really need to try anyway.” For Heidegger the act of wrestling with the inherent contradiction of not-being was a pretty crucial step in moving toward authenticity. If we don’t engage in this process we can’t really be whole as persons, for lack of a better term. If you’ve ever seen the film The Fountain and didn’t understand it, now you do. All that crazy zen spaceman flying around, and the Conquistador drinking magic tree spunk, it was all about confronting the spectre of mortality, both of the self and of others.

What does this have to do with comics? I suspect that anyone who has been reading the funny books for any length of time has long since realized that death is revolving door. I’ve long since lost count of the number of characters who’ve died and come back, though I think Jason Todd’s “resurrection because Superboy Prime punched the universe really fucking hard” is still at the top of the list of lamest returns ever. If we look at it from a business perspective it’s easy enough to justify, right? If Superman makes you a shitload of cash you’re not really going to want to get rid of him, not even if your silly ass event centered around his death is part of the speculator crash that left comics right fucked in the arse for a while*.

However, if you’re reading this blog, then you know I’m less concerned with anything so shallow. Yes, I said it. Money might be a necessary evil, sometimes the things it can get you might be nice, but it doesn’t really mean shit. What I’m concerned with is what the revolving-door of the afterlife means for comics as a medium. The simple answer is that it robs comics of much of their power to touch, or to tell meaningful stories. Which doesn’t mean death and a return from same can never be used as a powerful storytelling tool. One example I can think of comes from Bufft the Vampire Slayer. Sure, I thought that with the exception of “Once More, With Feeling,” which thanks to Anthony Stewart Head and Amber Benson was the best episode of the entire series, that Buffy’s sixth season was largely crap. I just didn’t like it. On the other hand it did feature Buffy’s return from the beyond as a major plot point that actually had, you know, ramifications and opportunities for growth. Comics, though… as a general rule not so much.

I’ve already cracked 1,000 words with this post, so I fear I’ll have to limit myself to what I consider a couple of the biggest offenders.

First up is Colossus. I generally liked the big, metal, Ruskie bastard, right? His little sister, another character I was found of, had died as a result of the Legacy Virus. For those of you not in the know on that one, the Legacy Virus was a nasty bug that had been floating around the Marvelverse for a while and generally causing problems in the X-Men related books. Beast finally comes up with a way to cure the fucker, but it requires someone to step up to the plate and sacrifice him, or herself in order to make the cure. Pete, he stepped up to the plate. For him, a world in which no one else had to watch their little sisters die from a disease that he could cure was more important than his own life. That’s pretty touching, you know? It was meaningful. Which was pretty much a guarantee it wouldn’t last.

See, it turns out that this annoying alien bastard, in cahoots with a government agency, had snatched Pete’s body, brought him back from the dead, and was using him as a guinea pig. Said alien’s planet apparently had some dipshit prophecy that mutants would be their doom. Because, you know, if mutants are going to be your doom the thing to do is kidnap a well-loved guy and then perform torturous experiments on him. That’s not going to bite you in the ass. That aside, when they brought Pete back it felt cheap. Sure the Legacy Virus was still cured, at least unless/until they decide to bring that back, but not only did they take away the meaningfulness of what Colossus had done, but they did it in a cheap way. The real kick in the teeth about this one? It was written by Joss Whedon, the guy who’d created Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure, it was likely an editorial mandate, but he couldn’t have found a way to execute said mandate in a way that’s not crappy and meaningless? Way to go, jackass.

On to example two. Hal Jordan. Hal was the Silver Age Green Lantern. Supermagitech ring with a weakness to yellow, silly mask etc. Hal was around for a while. During the whole Death/Return of Superman event Hal’s town of Coast City was wiped off the map. This kind of threw Hal for a loop. I don’t really blame the guy for that, yeah? I mean it was a pretty fucked up thing what happened. Hal eventually goes over the edge, smacks the shit out of the rest of the Green Lantern Corps, and eventually tries to wipe out and reboot the whole universe. His intentions might have been good, but I don’t generally approve of wiping out and rebooting universes unless I’m the one doing it. Of course comicbooks generally being all about the status quo, Hal eventually gets taken out by his old buddy Green Arrow. At some point he becomes the new Spectre, but that’s not important right now.

What’s important is that they eventually brought Hal back. Now they could have done it well. They could have done it in a way that Hal having to really confront what he had done, and deal with some pretty serious consequences. You might have guessed that since I’m using Hal as example number two they didn’t do that. No, what they did was decide that Parallax wasn’t crazy Hal, Parallax was a “fear entity” that has possessed Hal after the destruction of Coast City. So we get back a Hal who is not only a raging jackass, but other than a few people who are miffed at him over the whole trying to kill them thing, a Hal who went from having depth, from having interesting possibilities to being… shit, I already used raging jackass to describe him… a raging jackass who was largely robbed of the very traits that could have given him some real depth.

I wish I could say that I thought this trend would change. Sadly, with the focus on the status quo, and on the making of money, I really don’t see that happening. So while I could say more about this I’ve already cracked 1700 words at this point, it’s getting late, and I’ve got beer to drink… I should also at least attempt to get some work done, and there’s the whole trying to sleep while gripped with existential dread that needs to be attempted.

* I almost forgot to sneak in this last bit. For all I bag on Superman’s death, and it does deserve to be bagged on, I also reread the whole shebang shortly after my mother’s death. The Funeral for a Friend portion of the storyline, at least, was rather good in its way. As someone who was going through that experience it did resonate with a lot of what I was going through. So I’ll at least give it some props on that.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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