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Tag Archives: Existentialism

“Remember, Remember…” that you too must bear the Blame

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…

Today is the fifth of November. Across the pond in ol’ Blighty at least some people will be celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. I imagine that even as I type this, many have seen their Facebook walls spammed with various quotes from V for Vendetta – in particular with quotes from the inferior film version. I’ve talked before about how people frequently seem to miss a point that Moore was making, and in honor of Guy Fawkes I am going to do so again, albeit as relates to a slightly different point.

I have lost count of the number of times I have read V for Vendetta for both academic research and personal pleasure. It would not be unfair to say that the scene central to today’s discussion is a large part of what made me focus on comicbooks as my primary locus from which to start philosophical discussions. The scene in question comes to us from Book Two (“The Vicious Cabaret”), Chapter Three (“Video”) of V for Vendetta. For those of you who might like to refresh your memories, or reread the relevant section before or after this post, it occupies pages 108 – 117 of the tradepaperback edition of V.

This particular chapter features V taking over the state controlled video station and broadcasting a message to the people of London. It was this message that transformed me into the Comicbook Philosopher, as upon reading it I recognized in its words a paraphrasing of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Which is all well and good I hear you say, dear reader, but what is the content of this all important message?

Couched in the mask of a dismissal from one’s job, V informs the viewers of fictional London, and by extension we the presumably non-fictional reader, that we share as much blame for the state of the world as those directly responsible for Norsefire. Not because we approve of Norsefire’s pogrom to cleanse the impure from society. Not because we are actively part of the machinery which allows the wheels of state to function. Rather, our blame lies squarely with our refusal to take responsibility for the culture we created, and the world that gave birth to.

Yes, yes, I admit that for the sake of space and simplicity, in my last analysis of V I presented us as innocent victims caught between V’s actions and a repressive government. With the exception of our innocence, what I said there remains true; yet just as V is not unambiguously heroic, we are not unambiguous victims of his campaign.

If the world ended in nuclear fire, V tells us, it is because we elected the governments that brought us to that point. Even though we might turn our eyes, a single, dramatic crocodile tear rolling down our cheeks as the undesirables are lead away to the camps, we are the ones who allowed this situation to come about.

In the world outside of the comic page, V is indicting not merely the banks and the governments who colluded with them for the state of the economy; he is demanding that each and every one of us take responsibility for the world we helped create. He is reminding us that if corporations are building sweatshops in some third world country it is because we were more concerned with our Nike shoes,  and iPods, with our cellphones, and watching the disintegration of Kim Kardashian’s 18 million dollar marriage, to say no before the fact, preferring instead to offer token protest only after we have allowed others to pay for our conveniences.

We might not be responsible for the day-to-day running of corporations and governments. We might cry out at the actions those corporations and governments take, but as much as we might deny it, these are actions done in our name. V tells us that with our refusal to take responsibility for our lives, to take proper stewardship of the world, we are all responsible the results.

It isn’t a pleasant message to hear, which is why I suspect so many prefer the unambiguous illusion of the film. Yet V reminds us that refusing to accept this responsibility means not only a failure to move toward authenticity, but that these events will simply repeat themselves.

We can spout quotes from V all we like, and rage against the Powers that Be so loudly that the heavens shake. Yet what Moore as the existential V, as Sartre’s mirror, is reminding us of is that the world will only change when we change ourselves, and that our continued refusal to accept responsibility only makes the road to get there that much longer.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2011 in Alan Moore, Comics, Philosophy

 

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V’s Vendetta: Virtuous vel Vicious?

I begin this post back in June of this year. Since that day it has pressed its nose against the glass like an annoying puppy. Perhaps it is time to finally let it come inside, though if it pisses on the floor I’m taking it to the pound in the morning.

As the title of this post might suggest, I want to talk about Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. In particular I vaguely recall reading an article back in June, and it once again struck me the way that many people regard V as an unambiguous hero. This seems to happen most frequently with those who are only familiar with the watchable, though much inferior film version of Moore’s story, but I’ve seen it in those who have read the comics as well.

It is true that Norsefire is an evil organization. Norsefire has engaged in a pogrom designed to remove “deviants” from society. It engages in propaganda campaigns, and closely monitors the words and deeds of the English public. It is unsurprising that the actions of Norsefire closely resemble those of the Nazi party, as Moore was one of many who were disturbed by the creeping overtones of fascism that were becoming increasingly common in Thatcherite England. (Though it should be said that Norsefire is not presented without humanizing features. Unfortunately, a deeper discussion of that element is beyond the scope of this current post.)

At first blush it seems unsurprising that we here in the West might respond to V as an unambiguous hero. He is, after all, going after fascists. Despite the misbehaviors of our own governments, we’ve been taught that this is a cause we can unambiguously rally behind, right? I’m quite fond of kicking fascism in the teeth myself, as is Mr. Moore. Despite his feelings on fascism, Moore does not present V in an unambiguously heroic role.

Throughout the course of Moore’s narrative, V makes it clear that he is a kind of arch-existentialist. He is concerned that mankind through off their shackles, all their shackles, and if we aren’t willing to do it ourselves then he will give us no choice but to confront the horrors of existential freedom. This in and of itself is a rather glaring question, and one Moore would return to in later work; is it ever ethical to force another person to confront their own freedom? Telling people about existential freedom and what it means, even guiding them toward a recognition of that freedom is one thing. What V is doing is wrapping the people’s chains in philosophical C4 and blowing them into the stratosphere whether they want it or not.

As someone who works with existentialist ideas, who as both philosopher and human thinks that confronting the terror of Nietzsche’s abyss and the horror of Sartre’s existential freedom is a good thing… I’m conflicted about this. The goal of these confrontations is supposed to motivate us towards is that of authenticity; yet if we force another into this confrontation, if we take the choice to move toward authenticity away from someone, can the result still be said to be “authentic” as such. I must confess that my general inclination is to say no.

That said, V’s philosophical ambiguity has its physical analogue. We can take the classic route and argue that those who work for Norsefire, even if they are not secret police or members of the party’s ruling echelons, have sealed their own fates. They knew what they were getting into. Their actions, however innocent they might consider them to be, support a fascist regime. As such, their deaths are necessary, and even just. Even here I don’t think Moore is unambiguous, but again for the sake of space this particular element will have to be tabled for another time, because even if we were to accept this simplistic view, V’s predations are not limited to those actively in the employ of Norsefire.

In particular, part of V’s plans to bring down Norsefire’s corrupt regime is to instigate food riots. It is certainly true that Norsefire is harmed by this action. Norsefire’s control of the populace is weakened, and various soldiers and police are either actively injured in the riots, or forced to focus their attentions on rioting areas. It is quite clear that the general populace of V’s England suffer their own losses because of V’s actions. People die. People suffer injury or lack of food. V is… unconcerned with this. For V, if you are unwilling to accept the enlightenment he brings, you are part of the problem, and if your life is lost in pursuit of his goal then your life is lost in pursuit of his goal.

Again, this is something I find troubling. It raises that classic question; do the ends justify the means? V reduces human lives to the status of objects, of tools to be used against Norsefire. This is not an unambiguously heroic action.

I also believe that Moore deliberately invokes V’s ambiguous status. V tells his protege that he (the V that is) is the destroyer; he tears down the evil that is now; while she (the V that will be) is the creator; she will guide (but not lead) us from the rubble toward a brighter future. I think it is clear that Moore is telling us that just as Watchmen‘s Adrian Veidt is a villain, but not one whose actions can be regarded as the classic, simplistic mustache-twirling villain, V is not a knight in shining armor. He engages in acts that are morally questionable at best, morally objectionable at worse. I also suspect that if we limit ourselves to reading V as unambiguously heroic Mr. Moore might tell us, in his inimitable way, that we are missing the damn point.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2011 in Alan Moore, Comics, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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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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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Who’s the Most Philosophical Superhero of Them All?

Looking at the posts I’ve made so far, I’ve yet to talk about superhero comics and philosophy. This must of course be because there’s nothing of philosophical merit to be discussed in mainstream superhero comics, right? … well, no, it’s not because of that at all. I’ll admit it certainly is easier to sit down with the work of Alan Moore, or Grant Morrison, or Warren Ellis etc. and see the philosophical reflections. If I want bad philosophy I can sit down with one of the various Objectivist-influenced characters or books I mentioned in a previous post. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t philosophical thinking to be found in mainstream superhero comics, it just means it can harder to find. So today we’re going to find some, dear readers, and I’m going to reveal to you the name of the most philosophic superhero of them all.

And the winner is…

Deadpool!

“Wait, wait,” you cry, “is Deadpool even a #$%##!@& superhero!?” The answer is sometimes… and sometimes is good enough.

I could say that the origins of everyone’s favorite Merc with a Mouth are shrouded in mystery, but that would be a lie. Deadpool first showed up as a supporting character in X-Force way back during Rob Liefeld’s run on the title. From there he went on to do a couple of limited series, and then got a series of his very own before sharing billing space with Cable, only to wind up with a book of his own again, not to mention his numerous guest appearances in other books.

Over the course of his adventures Deadpool has died (repeatedly). He’s been a hero. He’s been a villain. He’s also suffered from doubts about what he is, and where he fits into the grand scheme of things. He also went through a nasty run where every time a new creative team came on board his world would go to shit and he’d have to start again from scratch. All of which is a rather truncated retelling of the (mis)adventures of Wade Wilson.

Most of our lives aren’t like a comicbook. We don’t fight supervillains (or superheroes). We don’t get to come back from death time and time again. We are, however, conflicted. We all face pressures from the world around us, and we all ask, or should ask, the same kind of questions that Deadpool does. Who are we, and where do we fit in the world?

Some people might wonder why we have to ask ourselves who we are and where we fit into the world. The answer to that one is simple: the world is meaningless. Yes, I said it. There is no secret plan, no purpose behind the existence of the world. The only reason any of us are here is because our parents happened to fuck. Not that it stops there. One day I will die. One day every single person reading this blog will die. Even the universe itself will one day come to an end. In that respect the universe isn’t just meaningless, it’s outright absurd. Which isn’t a very cheery thought. So why should we get up in the morning and do anything at all? Why not just commit suicide? Well, you could lie to yourself and pretend that there is meaning in the universe. You can just ignore the question and let your job, or your family, or other outside forces dictate your identity to you. You can also suck it up and be like Deadpool.

Deadpool is aware, at least at times, of the absurdity of his own existence. He knows that he is simply a comicbook character. In that respect his awareness of absurdity is somewhat different that ours, in that it is an absurdity thrust upon him by the will of an evil overlord. However, just like us Deadpool has to go on knowing that the universe is absurd. When he’s confronted by an old foe by the name of T-Ray, and told that he is not who he has always thought he has been, Wade goes into a crisis of identity before finally saying “Fuck it, I’m me, and nothing you say is going to make me anyone other than me.” Admittedly I’m paraphrasing a bit. The point is that Deadpool resists the imposition of identity; he is not a collection of statuses, be they achieved or ascribed, he is instead the man he chooses to be.

Even if the world wasn’t meaningless, it’s important that we ask these kind of questions. If we don’t question, we never find answers. More importantly, if we don’t question we never really look at the kind of assumptions we operate under, and if we don’t do that we end up with the kind of nonsense I’ve discussed in previous posts. Deadpool, for all his sometimes sophomoric antics, is frequently a walking example of the kind of questions we all need to ask. So the next time someone tells you that superhero comics are just silly men in tights punching each other, go ahead and smack them in the mouth with a copy of Deadpool. If the ask you why you did it, I refer you to the man himself, and what is perhaps the deepest response of them all, “The answer to your first question is shaddup!”

P.S. Dear Mouse Overlords. Still waiting for that job offer. Just sayin’.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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