Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ethical Disruptions, Part 1: The Issue at Hand

There tend to be two elements of the common sense idea of ethics and morality. The first boils down to "what must I do, and what do I deserve to expect from other people?" In other words, the question of morality is about choosing between possibilities. Doing X is good, while doing Y is bad.

The second element is that of justification. There is a persistent search for some way to justify moral judgments and acts. Probably the most common justification has been the afterlife; be "good" or you'll suffer punishment after death. Other common justifications involve human solidarity, or God's holiness and authority.

So the standard moral discourse asks, what should we do, and why should we do it?

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, these questions ceased to be serious philosophical themes. The first question is dismissed as instrumental thought - ie, the insistence on making pure thought "practical" and "useful," as if thinking were nothing other than a factory for producing goods and services. The second question - why should we act in such and such a way? - is dismissed as slavish and repetitive. Acting because of another being's power is the very definition of passivity.

The old categories of ethics and morality have fallen into disrepute. Yet, the 20th century demanded a response from those that lived it, and the 21st century demands a response from us. Viciousness and exploitation were, and are, rampant. If the shining beacon of morality is discarded, than do all conceptions of justice, courage, wisdom and truth follow closely behind?

We must hope not. Alain Badiou, writing decades after the "death" of philosophy was declared, has said that the world (not God, not philosophers - the world) is telling philosophy to get up and walk. We must say the same to ethics.

And yet, we cannot pretend that Nietzsche did not write. We can't go back to the old way of doing things. New concepts must be created. I think the thinkers of the 20th century - and now those of the 21st - have had a common ethical project, and I think this project can be summed up in terms of the disruption of the totality. The disruption - and remaking - of the world. From Heidegger's call of conscience, to Levinas's encounter with the Other, to Lacan's traumatic encounter with the real, to Badiou's fidelity to the event - the common thread is the traumatic disruption of everyday life.

Ethics is coming back, and it will have no truck with humanism (reach your inner potential!) or liberalism (choose what you like, just don't hurt anyone else!) or theology (bow!).

Friday, March 14, 2008

Infinity Gauntlet

Back in 1991, I was fairly new to comics. I was dabbling in the X-Men, especially the Jim Lee series that began later the same year. I basically just like awesome fights and Rob Liefield's giant boobs were as yet uninteresting to me.

So one day, on the strength of the awesome cover, I bought #3 of 6. I put together the basic story line: The villain Thanos had pieced together all six infinity gems, which granted him unlimited power. Thanos was all but God. The point of all this was for Thanos to win the love of embodied Death. In #2, he snapped his fingers and killed exactly half of the life in the universe as an offering to his love. That was unbearably dramatic for my 11 year old mind.

The real action didn't really begin until #4, though. The most powerful of the heroes - roughly 30 of them - that weren't raptured in #2 descended upon Thanos en masse. What resulted was a vicious slaughter, a level of violence I had never come across in comics before. Because I didn't realize that comics basically cheat concerning death, and so none of the deaths would be permanent, this also was unbearably dramatic.

At the time, the art hit the spot for me. I would have been too young to appreciate any fancy. Everything was crisp, clean and bright. Some characters, such as the Silver Surfer, have been through several artistic iterations; the two most common begin the Greek godlike, perfectly sculpted body, the other being a thinner, slightly more melancholic version. IG wisely used the much flasher Greek god version.

So anyways, the heros and Thanos get down to business. He handily wipes out most of the heroes, but has a little bit of help from his girlfriend that he created ex-nihilo.

Let's look at some of the best images. As I said, I had been reading the X-Men, and Cyclops was my favourite character. I identified with him for whatever nerdy reason. Cyclops was one of the few heroes to get one over on Thanos; Cyclops poured his force beams onto Thanos, then switched them off at an opportune time; Thanos lost his balance and fell flat on his face. Ha!

Thanos's retaliation:

Yeah, that's right, he suffocates Cyclops to death. Christ, that scared me. Seeing my favourite character choke to death like that trigged two of my old phobias - claustrophobia and lack of oxygen. I was really hoping Captain America would succeed in his rescue attempt, but I still felt the terrible inevitability of it all.

There was one other X-Man involved in this attack. Back in the day, when Wolverine wasn't everywhere and thus still had a little mystique, this page was a truly fist pumping affair:

He stabs Thanos right in the chest, and the bastard smiles. Come on, try to imagine seeing this as an 11 year old. Anyways, I was always a little bit disappointed with Wolverine's death: his bones turned to rubber.

So I mentioned Thanos's ex nihilo girlfriend. Meet her hand:

All that red stuff on the end of the rock? That's what's left of Spider-Man's face.

Also, she collected an official Ironman souvenir:
That would be his head. Which she tore off. I'll bet that won't happen to Robert Downey Jr.

So all the heroes fall, save Captain America. I have no great love for this character. I think his costume is stupid. I also think jingoism is stupid. But clearly, this is regular universe Cap's greatest moment:

The silent walk up. The square jaw. The smoking body of Quasar providing some much needed colour to the scene.

Ah, the lost cause. It doesn't get much more romantic than this. Cap is the perfect character to deliver this line.

All through this series, a character named Adam Warlock has been in the background, leading the war against Thanos. Warlock is a brilliant schemer, an old nemesis of Thanos. He's willing the role the dice and play for the whole pot; this entire battle has been nothing other than a lead up to this moment:

The Silver Surfer swoops in and attempts to steal the gauntlet from Thanos. He fails.

See what I said about the Surfer's Greek god body? It's visually pleasing, but these days strikes me as a bit generic. I've actually come to prefer the more streamlined version.

So what happens to Cap? He's the last one left alive. He stands definately in front of a virtual God. What grand martyr's death awaits him?

NO LOOK BITCH SLAP. Presumably this shatter Cap's skull.

Anyways, plot stuff happens and Thanos loses the gauntlet. The scene I'm going to point out here beccomes a pivotal point for Thanos's character. He remains a complete jerk, but he becomes something of an anti-hero. Only in Annihilation does he truly return to his villainous ways, and even then he has a limit.

Hmm... the text is a bit too small. This is Warlock pointing out to Thanos that in the end, he constantly sabotages himself. It's a nice little nod the Thanos's unconscious. With this knowledge in hand, Thanos helps Warlock return all things to the status quo.

Fun stuff. The sequels, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, weren't quite as cool but I still really enjoyed them.

Up next: The Ultimates!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Top 10 Comic Series

So not long after discovering bit torrents, I discovered that one could download comics this way. I hadn't read comics for several years, but having any number of free comics right at my finger tips was just too much temptation. I had read in various sources about comics like The Invisibles and Preacher, and maybe a year before the Constantine movie came out, so I had read the Hellblazer TP Son of Man, which was ace.

I downloaded a ton of comics while I was in Korea from the amazing site Alas, the copyright monkeys (may their souls rot in hell) have shut Demonoid down, and comics are now far less accessible on the web. So I've actually resorted to *gasp* buying some comics. Which kinda sucks, since the comic store I live next to never orders enough copies of anything.

I recently had the idea to do reviews of my ten favourite comic series. I mean this to be quite broad; you'll see what I mean below.

This is my basic list, which is subject to change. Over the next few weeks I'll write out proper reviews, complete with images.

10. Infinity Gauntlet - I think this was the first truly great in-continuity crossover. I was too young to understand how comics worked at the time, so the slaughter of the heroes in #4 was pretty traumatic to me.

9. The Ultimates, Vol. 1 & 2 - The Avengers re-interpreted as a paramilitary unit. Thor is a leftist hippie, and the Hulk is STRAIGHT. Volume 3 seems to be intentionally destroying any coolness the Ultimates once had, but the first two Volumes are easily the second best non-regular Marvel universe stories I've ever read. The best is #7 on this list.

8. Scott Pilgrim - "See, I've grazed you!" "How appropriate, you fight like a cow!" I've only read the first two volumes, but I will definately track down the rest. Draw in a vaguely manga style by a London, Ontario native, Scott Pilgrim is hilarious and cool, and his life is precious. Status: awesome.

7. Garth Ennis' run on The Punisher. From the hilarious Welcome Back Frank in which Frank drop kicks an armless, legless old woman* into a burning house to the infuriatingly brutal darkness of The Slavers, Ennis has a serious triumph on his hands.

6. Annihilation - The finest mainstream, in-continuity comic story, ever. Hands down. Not even the sequel Conquest has topped it so far. Annihilation gathered up obscure, second rate characters from the wider Marvel universe and dropped them into a hopeless battle against a seemingly infinitely large military force. The broad collection of genres and themes all mixed into this series make it a truly excellent work.

5. Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits - Another Garth Ennis story. Is there a pattern here? John Constantine finds himself dying of cancer, visits old friends, makes new ones, drinks great beer, and scams the lords of hell. Good times.

4. Preacher - Jessie Custard used to be the Lord's servant -now he's the Lord's worst enemy. A 66 issue run of booze, sex and violence. A wicked sense of humour. Probably the funniest R-rated comic you'll ever read.

3. Naussica of the Valley of Wind - A sprawling, epic story from Hayao Miyazaki, the anime genius. I have to admit that Naussica is probably the most magnetic comic character I've ever come across. Charismatic and invincible. In the hands of any other writer, such a perfect character would be facile; Miyazaki manages to create a wonderful hero. If the conclusion of this series doesn't make you want to dance, you have no soul.

2. The Invisibles - Grant Morrison's 5 year long sigil. An impossibly cool collection of ontological terrorists, trannie witches, and kung-fu fighters. The Matrix stole all its best ideas from this series.

1. Ichi The Killer - A spot of the 'ol ultra violence. A sadomasochistic Yakuza rampages through the city looking for his missing boss, a boss that has already been sliced up the the masochistic Ichi. Brilliant art, and a great meditation on love and hope. The best comic series I've ever read. There is love in this violence.

*Don't worry, she totally deserved it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Certainty: Like the Welfare State

My argument here is that there are going to be 2 kinds of certainty. The first is the banal kind, the sort that we move in every day. Things like the immediate presence of physical objects, or a certainty about a social rule - I am certain I can exchange the appropriate amount of money for the goods I want. In other words, the kind of certainty that no one philosophizes about (except as part of a larger hypothetical) because it is so banal and obvious.

It is the kind of certainty that the world demands from us. Even the most ardent skeptic is certain he has to jump out of the way of the oncoming truck. The world demands that we believe particular things, or we will suffer death, humiliation, or foolishly wasted time.

The idea that the world demands this certainty from us is key to my argument here. We can't question these basic certainties; the problem of whether or not to accept them is taken out of our hands. Individual desires have nothing to do with them.

The problem comes when one wants everything in life to be certain in this way. There are some things that we must make decisions to believe, some things that we must take responsibility for. In other words, there are matters that we must judge rather than discover.

Isn't this precisely what most moral or apologetic reasoning is about? The attempt to find in the world something that will take the judgments out of our hands?

Take moral reasoning. I think the vast majority of ethical thought is about wanting the world to be a place that makes our moral judgments for us. Every time a moral situation comes up, we'd like the situation to tell us what we must do. We want our world to be like a platoon Sergeant barking out orders at us.

So, we find positive laws from theological sources, or from evolutionary psychology, or from "objective self interest."

The point of all that is to avoid making a moral judgment and to do something much simpler: make a moral discovery.

And apologetic reasoning? It's the same thing, isn't it? Rather than making a judgment about God, or a making a wager, one hunts for "reasons," "justifications," and "warrants" that will make the judgment for us. We want to discover that, goodness me, we must believe in God! We have no choice! "Reason" demands it! Or, we must follow this law! "Morality" demands it!

So how is this like the welfare state? It's an abdication of responsibility. Rather than standing behind one's moral judgments or theological wagers, we expect the world to do it for us. We expect the world to give us what we "need" rather than throwing the dice and making a choice. The state gives us the goods we "need" rather than us achieving them for ourselves.

It is those choices that create the second kind of certainty. It is a retroactive certainty; you can't see how the dice will fall until you throw them. Once you make the choice, you walk down the path, and the second kind of certainty will come of its own accord.

I'm not saying that we should believe or do things without reasons; I'm saying that we can't pretend that we can live lives devoid of significant choice because all the answers are ready made for us. Plenty of people do pretend this, especially in politics - what else is the meaning of "Let's not challenge liberal democracy and capitalism, because every attempt to do so has ended in tears"?

I want to make it clear that nothing in this post is about making deductions from these certainties; I'm not Descartes talking about his cogito.