Monday, April 20, 2009

Watchmen and Philosophy

I started reading the book Watchmen and Philosophy while I was teaching the book, and now that I've finished I thought I would go ahead and post a quick review here. Like any anthology of criticism, some essays are better than others, having a bit more to say or plunging a bit deeper into the themes and characters of the book, but overall the quality of insight these critics offer is very valuable to a deeper understanding of the graphic novel. There are only a few essays that I didn't like, but more on those later.

The best section of the book is the section which deals with Doctor Manhattan, which has a trio of essays that each explore a different aspect of his character in a very thought-provoking way. The first of these, "Dr. Manhattan, I Presume?", explores the philosophical question of if Dr. Manhattan is still Jon Osterman if Osterman's body has been destroyed, through the Cartesian concept of the mind existing on a nonmaterial plane. It also analyzes the idea of which of the different versions of Dr. Manhattan retain his identity and can be viewed as "really" him when he splits into three, as well as what happens to the mind when a person is teleported long distances. In the second essay, "A Timely Encounter: Dr. Manhattan and Henri Bergson," the author analyzes how Jon perceived the past, present, and future simultaneously, in a non-linear fashion. It shows how perception and memory are different and how Dr. Manhattan's perceptions of his past experiences intermingle with the present. And finally the third of the Dr. Manhattan essays of note is entitled "Free Will and Foreknowledge: Does Jon really Know what Laurie Will Do Next, and Can She Do Otherwise?" It talks about the concept of fatalism (how everything is preordained) and how it jives with the issue of Jon's perception of time as discussed in the previous essay. All of these essays are very insightful, both to the philosophical concepts they discuss and to the graphic novel itself. (There's also a fourth Doc Manhattan essay too, but it's not quite as good as these others.)

There are also several rather good essays that explore the philosophical motivations of Rorschach and Ozymandias. "Can We Steer this Rudderless World?: Kant, Rorschach, Retributivism, and Honor" is about Rorschach's views on right and wrong from a retributivist point of view, that wrongdoing must be punished not to teach the person a lesson but simply because wrong is wrong and deserves punishment. Similarly the essay "Rorschach: When Telling the Truth is Wrong" also invokes Kant in its look at Rorschach's character, how telling the truth is a categorical imperative and must be done simply because lying is wrong, no matter what its result may be.

Meanwhile Adrian is the focus of "Means, Ends, and The Critique of Pure Superheroes" and how his particular brand of utilitarianism is that of a consequentialist, that the ends are the most important thing, whereas Rorschach is more of a deontologist, believing that the morality of the actions themselves is the most important. It also adds in the concepts of egalitarianism, how Adrian weighs the happiness of everyone worldwide against the death of the population of New York and judges them accordingly. Finally "Superheroes and Supermen: Finding the Ubermensch in Watchmen" explores what Nietzsche meant by the term and how it fits in with various characters in the graphic novel, specifically Adrian.

Probably the weak links of the collection are two essays that come towards the end, and they are weak simply because they are the most obvious. The first of these is called "'Why Don't You Go Read a Book or Something?': Watchmen as Literature." As its name implies it tries to define what literature is and whether Watchmen fits the definition. And the end conclusion is that... the authors remain undecided, that most likely comics are a new hybrid art form, not quite art and not quite literature. In all it's a bit elementary and a bit inconsequential.

The second essay which I found uninteresting, "Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis: The Ambiguously Gay Duo," felt out-of-place because of how little it had to do with Watchmen. It mentioned the characters from the book briefly in the intro and conclusion, but it's mostly just a patronizing piece on why homosexuals are people too. It's full of antiquated notions that the author thinks are progressive but only induced eye-rolling in me. Some interesting quotes:

"Regardless of the way someone acts, looks, or sounds on the outside, he may still be an HM [the author's abbreviation of homosexual] on the inside in terms of his basic orientation. After all, if it's true that Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice are gay, they sure as heck don't act and look like they're gay" (187).

"Plenty of HMs I know are very kind, generous, and gifted; the world would definitely suffer for their loss" (188).

"HMs are, however, quite distinct from pedophiles. The actions of pedophiles in molesting children are, by their very nature, harmful to others, but not so the actions of HMs. ... There is no such thing as a good, right, or moral act of child molestation. We can't say this, necessarily, for the HM, because there are such things as good, right, or moral HM acts; not every HM act need be evil" (191).

so yeah, lines like those made me a bit squeamish while reading it. It's very well-meaning but it comes across as just as judgmental as those it argues against. But those are again the two weak points out of the entire book. Overall it is a very worthwhile read that I would recommend to anyone who is a fan of the GN.