The Un-Ethics of Watchmen Part III: Dance of the Philosophers
Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test , edited by Mark D. White from CUNY’s College of Staten Island and a veteran of Wiley’s (Blackwell’s) Philosophy and Pop Culture series, is a volume with results as mixed as the characters in its subject matter, but not nearly as dark. Philosophers are generally optimists and idealists, by character (unless you’re a grumpy nihilistic existentialist, like Camus or Sartre).
This volume happens to be heavy on professors and related professionals from the NY area (6 out of 17 contributors), a comics mecca, but has no dearth of experts from around the world (UK, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Venezuela). All but one are at least part-time academics. The book itself (trade paperback, 227 pp., $17.95/$19.95 Canada) has solid production values, a good table of contents and index, and snappy little contributor bios, complete with Watchmen in-jokes.
I wish it had a glossary and story summary included amongst its study aids. Some of the articles are overly verbose in their explanations, to my mind – get to the point! But this is always one of my irritations with academia, even as an academic in one aspect of my life, myself. Say it simply, succinctly, and straight-forwardly, especially in a volume aimed at the every-person who wants to expand their knowledge and experience of the genre they’re reading or viewing. But what most of the authors have to say is thoughtful, insightful, and has some meat for comic book carnivores to gnaw on. Of course, this volume would mean nearly nothing to someone who hasn’t read the novel or seen the movie, despite its solid philosophical groundings, as the world and the characters and their dilemmas are essential to the whole discussion, some of which has been going on since Watchmen was first released more than 20 years ago. This is a bone people love to chew on and probably one of the reasons why Time magazine included it on its list of the 100 Greatest American Novels of All Time.
White saved the best article for last and it couldn’t be categorized, so ended up in the otherwise weaker catch-all final section, “This is not your father’s comic book”. It is by Finnish contributor Taneli Kukkonen. He focuses on Rorschach, our point of view character, and The Comedian, our two characters who’re the least ethical, rough around the edges, to say the least, and the ideas of irony, jokes, and humour in general are all seen through the lens of Kierkegaard, a Finnish Philosophical hero (and considered the founder of the school of Existentialism, but without the nihilism that would later creep into it).
Kukkonen’s brilliant writing and exposition of Kierkegaard and Watchmen in light of this philosopher almost seduces you into believing that Rorschach really is wholly ethical and therefore a real good guy. So close!
He romanticizes Rorschach, even considered through the window of Kierkegaard’s brand of existentialism and concepts of the knight of resignation (no hope of positive outcome) vs. the knight of faith (hope of salvation from the infinite, but not from people). But Kukkonen never touches on Rorschach’s wanton violence, oddly enough. Rorschach’s feelings (evil must be punished – wholly ethical) do not match up with his actions in this essential way, as the author describes them, so I cannot get on board with his assessment of this character’s character. His assessment of Blake is really thought provoking and both make me have an ah-so moment and reassess the details of how I view these characters. A beautiful exploration, even with its blind spot.
The Gay article by Robert Arp (a cancer specialist in Buffalo and a series veteran) reads as too disconnected from Watchmen, in particular, despite some very fine points made. I would have liked to have seen it stand on its own in defense of Gay Rights, apart from any reference to Watchmen and the original Minutemen characters of Hooded Justice and Capt. Metropolis and their implied Gayness without ever showing any real relationship. This Gay Rights manifesto seems to be the author’s whole point, with which I wholly agree, and Watchmen is just a thin excuse to make it. He needs another venue.
The Feminist article by Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson (two colleagues from Wagner College here in NYC) read as not deep enough a discussion to be satisfying. Then again, with the portrayal of women in Watchmen – more as Aristotelian objects moved about by other forces than humans of actions who move things and make things happen – maybe no one could have written a satisfying article on this subject. How do you go deeper on this without it turning into a rant? Not sure.
Meskin’s aesthetics discussion on whether or not Watchmen is literature seems wholly besides the point. So what if it is? So what if it isn’t? If it’s not, what do you call it, anyway? People will still read it, view it, and talk about it. Isn’t that all any author or viewer/reader could want?
Aristotle said that ethics is the highest, most complete, and most difficult of the philosophical disciplines, to be studied only after you’d covered all the other facets in the field, including metaphysics. You have to know what you are and what something/one else is in order to know how to behave and how to treat others. Part three on the Metaphysics of Dr. Manhattan is fascinating. DiGiovanni covers his ontology (philosophy of being) and the mind-body split, through Hume, Descartes, Locke, Parfit, and Nagel. A thorough examination. Drohan covers Bergson’s dilemmas of linear time and epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) in fine fashion. Ward tackles the issue of what happens to free will with foreknowledge through the lenses of Boethius, Aquinas, Paley (Cosmic Watchmaker theory), and Bergson in a brief but satisfying way. Terjesen does a beautiful job of explaining Osterman the human and super-human through the lens of Stoicism and not so much apatheia (no emotions, reason only), but eupatheia (good passions – joy, caution, and wish). Through Seneca, Chrysippus, Descartes, and Spinoza, Terjesen explains, using the core of virtue ethics (focus on what is good in human character – see Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics), that the sage doesn’t value one person above all others but sees the whole of humanity as something to be studied and valued, rationally, and thus he can be misunderstood and seem harsh and detached from particular humans (such as Laurie). Consider the good doctor’s decision to separate himself from the messed-up world he’s been a part of after the Veidt Plan and he goes forth with the intent to create more humans in a new world. That is either the ultimate withdrawal or the ultimate participation, wholly embracing his divine heritage and übering the other so-called übermensches in the story.
The meat of the volume really is in the first two interlocking parts on Political Philosophy and Ethics. Back to where our discussions started three weeks ago. Robichaud’s article focuses on Hume and Kant to explain why America, as it takes on greater risks than most nations (in Moore’s world or ours), is allowed greater latitude on the world stage and how the drama of Watchmen illustrates this struggle for balance and promotion of Good. Held explores Rorschach and Retributivism (justice and deserts) through Kant and Hegel but, oddly, not even a passing nod to the update of Kant done by Ross in the 20th C. (e.g., exceptions to the categorical imperative, such as do not kill, do not lie, keep your promises, for one-time extraordinary situations without falling into ethical relativism) and his arguments are provocative and have some real guts, even where I don’t agree with him. Max Weber’s views on sociology are highlighted in Spanakos’ arguments about from whence comes the authority to use force. And Keeping gives us Nietzsche 101 as a grounding for Watchmen.
No discussion of Watchmen would be complete without a look at the problem of means and ends. Loftis faces this head-on through the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill (the good of the many, including the one among them). Was there really any virtue in Veidt’s plan? How does that compare to Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb in WWII (e.g., one was authorized and one was not, the latter could be argued as self-defense by a reasonable person, with invasions believed to be imminent)? Nightowl (Dreiberg) gets an article of his own by the book’s editor, Mark White, focused on Aristotle’s virtue ethics (so we agree on his being the most ethical character in the story, even though he faces the hard choice, at the end, and remains silent). And Nuttall caps the discussions with a utilitarian (results-driven ethics) argument that flies in the face of Kant’s deontology (duty and rule-driven ethics) and categorical imperative to always tell the truth – sometimes telling the truth can be Wrong. Dead wrong. We’re back to our point of view character, Rorschach.
This is a humanly imperfect but relevant volume with some brilliant work in spots and certainly competent work throughout for a popular look at philosophy by professionals and academics. If you’re a happy geek on such things, I’d recommend it as a thoughtful and enjoyable read, but I wouldn’t base my dissertation upon it.