Sunday, June 26, 2005

All I need to know I learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer...

One further attractive thing about 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is how well its basic moral messages pander to my basically conservative prejudices:

*Messing with occult forces leads to tragedy and death.

*Smoking leads to tragedy and death. [Smokers are either (a) monsters, or (b) kids who go down the basement to smoke and are eaten by monsters.]

*Lying to your parents (or other authority figures) ends in tragedy and death.

*Premarital sex ends in tragedy and death.

*Underage drinking ends in tragedy and death.

*Staying out late ends in tragedy and death.

*Living in California ends in tragedy and death.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Almost, but not quite, another 'Film Forensics'

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. But it is a perfect illustration of the nightmare postmodernist universe where there is no absolute truth or absolute morality.

I came late to this particular bit of popular culture, since I never saw it when it was on TV, and have been watching the episodes straight through from the beginning on DVD with minimal preconceptions since the beginning of the year. We are now halfway through season six. One consequence of this is that whenever I see the name ‘Joss Whedon’ in the end credits, I immediately think of ‘Palmer Joss’ from Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’. Again, because of the order in which I was exposed, I don’t immediately think of the Palmer Joss in the movie version, played by Matthew McMuahaha, but of Palmer Joss in the novel. While the movie version is vaguely religious in a New Agey way, the original Palmer Joss is overtly Christian, though in a relatively vague and undogmatic way. He is the rational religious character, as opposed to the irrational religious character whose name I forget, and while he is not particularly believable (he started out as a tattooed man in a circus and turned to the ministry after a near-death religious experience, for instance), he is a serious attempt by a non-religious author to create a sympathetic religious character, and he makes serious contributions to philosophical debates within the novel.

So, when I reach the end of an episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, I often find myself thinking, ‘what would this have been like, if it had been created by Palmer Joss, instead of Joss Whedon?’ This non-Film Forensics blog entry will discuss the interesting philosophical questions that are raised by aspects of the Buffy universe and then ignored (at least as far as the middle of season six), but probably wouldn’t be ignored if Palmer Joss were in charge. I should state that don’t know anything about Joss Whedon’s Weltanschauung, and I don’t particularly care; I will treat the Buffy universe as a ‘thing in itself’, which can be discussed without reference the qualities of its creator.

* The Buffy universe is as mutable as the virtual worlds of Greg Egan’s novels- no, more so. Entire people can be created by magic, and retroactively inserted into reality. Sunnydale can be converted into a Broadway musical by one demon or a chaotic mish-mash by the dreams of an eleven year old boy. The memories and personalities of the characters- and even the whole world- are trivially manipulated by magic. The postmodern guff about reality being a social construct is made flesh. Characters in a Greg Egan novel would be disturbed by this; they always work hard to maintain their personalities in a mutable universe. Characters in Buffy never talk about it at all. They worry about their trivial personal problems, but not about this nightmarish quality in their universe. Do they not notice it? They have no science and no religion. Perhaps they thought their reality was a social construct, even when it was like our reality? They ought to be self-aware enough to talk about this. Is the Buffy universe the collective dream of everyone? Is it a solipsistic universe, the dream of one person? Is it something like the dream of Brahman, with some underlying unimaginable reality? Or is it not really as mutable as it seems, but governed by yet undiscovered laws? I would certainly talk about these things if I was a character in the Buffy universe, and so would at least some of the characters if Palmer Joss had created it. This postmodern mutability is so much a part of the Buffiverse that I will not consider discarding it in this hypothetical. Although Palmer Joss does not believe in such a universe, it would be within his powers to postulate such a universe for the purposes of entertainment.

* At the very beginning of the series, the traditional religious weapons against vampires are used- crosses, holy water. It even looks like there is a container of consecrated hosts in Buffy’s war chest in the first episode. The camera keeps drawing our attention to the silver cross that Sad Puppy Vampire gives Buffy. These religious symbols are gradually forgotten and fade away as the series progresses. Later on- when Adam’s vampire minions attack the church- it is implied that their effects are purely psychological. The only overtly Christian character ever presented, the old lady who kept the orphanage that later became Finn’s residential college, is presented as thoroughly unpleasant, and her world view is denigrated. If Palmer Joss had created the Buffiverse, this efficacy of Christian symbols would not have faded away, and it would have had some internal consistency, even if it was never explained to us. And the characters ought to wonder what it is in holy water that makes it work.

* The afterlife in the Buffiverse is utterly terrifying. There is no salvation, through works, faith, or ritual. Everyone is apparently at the mercy of a variety of strange powers, whatever they do, to an even greater extent than they are in the pre-death universe. This is the animistic universe of some of the nastier primitive cultures, like the Bataks of Sumatra. Nobody ever sits down and talks about what happens after death. In Palmer Joss’ Buffiverse, they would.

* What are Vampires? Early on, Buffy says they are demons inhabiting human forms, sharing the memories of the original human, but not being human. Do they have demonic memories of a previous existence? They don’t seem to. Do they return to their own dimensions when their human shell dies? They don’t seem to, and when Adam is talking to his vampire minions their fear of death is mentioned. If human memories are the only memories vampires have, and they cannot return to their demon dimension, how are they not human? What makes them intrinsically evil and deserving of death? Their slayage is never questioned, even after Buffy gets to know the neutered vampire Spike quite well. He doesn’t have a ‘soul’- whatever that is- and yet is something other than intrinsically evil. Only his external behaviour is controlled by emasculating technology; he should remain a beast. But he is- imperfectly, fitfully- redeemed. At least up until the middle of season six. The implications of this for vampire slaying in general ought to bother Buffy. But they don’t.

The characters in the Buffiverse are flawed because none of them ever ponder the big philosophical, religious, and moral problems thrown up by their universe. In this they are much like characters in our universe, I suppose. In the long run, like a very very old character in a Greg Egan novel of the far future, their personalities are too mutable, too dependent on the whims of a chaotic universe, to hold my interest. If they talked about the big questions of their universe, they would remain interesting regardless. And they would, if Palmer Joss had created them.

On the road to the Emerald City...

Now, when you have the cosmic o’erweening arrogance of a Dr Clam, you naturally assume that anyone who disagrees with you has simply misunderstood your position. The venerable Marco has outlined our points of difference on abortion, but his statements of my positions on these points look so much like straw men that I think that I need to restate them again. I recognise that I have tended to muddle things up by making rash statements out of hubris- for example, on the separation of Church and State- and then defending them just to see if I can. Our two main points of difference on abortion are not of this kind, however. They are my grounds for optimism that this particular atrocity will come to an end, and hence my excuse for not doing anything about it.

I am not at all sanguine about ‘education’ as a grounds for optimism. ‘Education’ is a value-neutral thing; you can educate children to be good Nazis, or good disciples of the Squid God, or whatever. I do not yet see any trend in our educational institutions back towards absolute truth and absolute morality. Without these, we will continue to do what is most convenient for us, and no matter how educated we are our education will be inferior to that of a Pathan tribesman.

My hopefulness about the role of advancing technology for keeping the very young alive, which Marco summarises as ‘artificial wombs’ is based on their psychological impact, not on the assumption that they will necessarily be widely used.
Today, the only choice is between getting rid of something, or putting up with it at great personal cost. In the future, my argument is that the choice will in principle be between getting rid of something and killing it, or getting rid of something and letting it live. I think this has to make a difference. Like ultrasound, I see the role of ‘artificial wombs’ as primarily ‘educational’. To make an analogy: Our response to news of a new plague in Africa in the 21st century is qualitatively different from our response to news of a new plague in Africa in the 19th century because, in principle, we can now do something about it, whether or not we actually do. This technology might not make a difference, of course; since I first outlined my grounds for optimism, I have learned a lot about how non-self-evident the things I assumed to be self-evident were...

My hopefulness about demographic change would remain even if there was no immigration at all. I challenge Marco to look at all the people he knew in high school, and consider which ones now have children. It is not a matter of ‘Westerners’ not reproducing themselves and being replaced by righteous foreigners; it is a matter of ‘liberal’ people, wherever Western culture and technology spreads, not reproducing themselves and being replaced by more ‘conservative’ people. This is my core point about demography.

It is disingenuous to say that demographic change is unimportant, because immigrants from Islamo-catholic countries will be poor and hence necessarily have a high abortion rate. They probably will; but economics is not everything. I would argue that they will have a lower abortion rate than people of an equivalent socio-economic status raised without the benefit of absolute truth or absolute morality. I think this will make a difference. The ideals that we pay lip service to are important.