26.10.09

Faker

What does university teach you about people? That we barely care about what happens to others. That self-gratification is always our primary concern. That we lie to each other all the time. Most importantly: that we lie to ourselves constantly -- the projected veneer of who we think we are is there to mask the true horror of who we really are. At least, this is what Faker suggests university is about. Sad to say, but my own experience isn't a million miles off from the picture Mike Carey and Jock present.

What's interesting about the comic, however, is that it forges ahead from this reductive starting point. There is a striking resurrection panel, which is half birth of Venus and half crucifixion of Christ. At the climax of the book, a character sacrifices himself in order to deliver his friends (and mankind?) from the all-pervasive (Satanic?) industrial-military complex. He is identified as a sacrificial lamb who will 'wash clean' the 'fucked up lives and times' of humanity. Maybe Carey is suggesting that above and beyond the fakery that comprises our daily lives is a higher truth -- that of Christian love, charity, selflessness.

Or maybe not. Because the 'Angel's Kiss' substance that kick-starts all the madness is not entirely benevolent. It only gives physical form to our dreams and nightmares. It can boost empathy and bring us closer together, but it can also bring our worst fears to life. Crucially, it can be used as a weapon. Faker is very conscious of both the value and the dangers of religion. The final page perfectly captures this ambiguity.

25.10.09

Murder Me Dead

Young Liars is pretty much the best comics around at the moment. While I wait for the final trade to come out, I got a little David Lapham booster fix reading Murder Me Dead, his 'first full-length comic novel' (as the back cover puts it).

While Young Liars adds pop music, fantasy dreamscapes and suicidal tendencies to its noir underpinnings, Murder Me Dead is Lapham doing classic noir. His introduction namechecks crime films from the 30s, 40s and 50s as primary inspiration, and he's brilliantly successful at bringing these old tropes (where less is definitely more) to a modern context. In short: Murder Me Dead is a perfect noir yarn. That said, the book lacks the crazy energy and invention of Young Liars -- where literally anything can happen. Bound by genre conventions, Murder Me Dead remains more subdued, and so less edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

Interesting to note the close similarities between the two works' protagonists. Both get caught up in the machinations of others. Both are relatively straight-laced. Both are completely besotted with out-of-control, dangerous femmes, and get dragged through seven shades of shit as a result. They even look the same.

One wonders whether these hopeless, obsessive, self-deceiving romantics are what primarily attract Lapham to the noir genre...

21.10.09

TV show of the decade

There's only really one answer. This one is so easy. Drumroll...

The Wire - David Simon (creator)

And is there anything more to be said? I mean, the show's towering superiority over everything else made this decade becomes evident to anyone who starts watching it. There's no real need for justifications. It is just impossible to deny.

My feelings upon completing season one remain unchanged at the end of season three. In the absence of original things to offer, I'll content myself with restating things the makers of the show have themselves emphasized. A lot of this comes from the commentaries and interviews on the season three discs, which are worth a watch.

Sidebar: No, I haven't seen the last two seasons. But even if there is a drastic falloff (and I'm assured there isn't) the achievement of the first three are enough to knock all rivals off the top spot. So I stand by my choice.

First. The Wire requires even closer attention than I first realized. The bewildering world you are thrown in, trying to make sense of it, occupies a lot of your brainpower the first time round. You end up using the overall season-spanning theme to reach some understanding of what you have been watching. Season one set up the ground rules: making close comparisons between a legitimate and a clandestine organization at odds with one other. Season two stretched out to include goings on in the port, in order to address America's betrayal of the working class. Season three pushed further into the political realm, and offered myriad plot-strands structured around the idea of reform.

But what you miss (at least, what I missed) watching the show on DVD is the way an individual episode builds its own internal patterns and symbols. In part, this is revealed through the quotes presented after the credits sequence: snatches of everyday dialogue that take on an added significance when placed at the head of the episode. The other indicator is the title of the episode, at first glance purely descriptive, but in fact offering fitting metaphors for the developments in that episode. The only example I can recall at present is the season three finale, named 'Mission Accomplished', with the epigraph '...we fight on that lie' as its banner. In the context of the episode, these two headings offer a bleak appraisal of America's War on Drugs. But they also go beyond this, linking the never-ending War on Drugs with the never-ending War on Terror. The failure to think outside the box domestically (end prohibition) is tied with the brain-dead shoot-from-the-hip reaction to 9/11. The season finale is a bad example, as it comments on the whole season (as does the season premier), but a quick glance at wikipedia shows me that all the episodes in themselves offer a rich seam of interpretation to pick apart.

Second. Not enough has been said about the show's visual achievements. The thing to note is the way it strikes a balance between realism and genre, gritty and mythic, low-key and operatic. There is no epic score, shoot-outs aren't glamourous, titty-bars aren't sexy. All the characters look real, rather than plastic. And yet those long crane shots over the corners, the sweeping pans, the slow pull-ins, the graceful lingering beats. This is no docu-style camera work. The Wire is artificial, a construct that takes real elements of Baltimore city life and puts them together to make statements the city can't make for itself. It's not fact, but fiction -- artifice -- art.

Third. We need to celebrate the subscription broadcasting business model which made The Wire possible. No commercial network would touch something so difficult and dark, and the creators knew this. It was HBO or nothing. The corporation doesn't need to worry about viewing figures, but the quality of its product. Its shows aren't dumbed down in order to be accessible, their brained up to be exclusive -- something different to the competition. Creators are given space and freedom to push the audience, rather than be pushed by it. Consumers don't always know best. Sometimes artists know better. This is why they need to be subsidized in a way that isn't always subject to the short-term, impulsive workings of the free market.

Honorable mention:
My two favourite television shows -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The West Wing -- both tailed off at the beginning of the 2000s, but I feel like too much of their identity is tied up with the 90s to qualify for the title. The Wire is, on the other hand, firmly a product of the last ten years.

14.10.09

Human Diastrophism

Who is the better Hernandez? On the basis of this graphic novel, I'm going with Gilbert. Sure, the artwork isn't as sleek and sexy as Jamie's, but the cartoony imperfections work for the idiosyncratic characters of Palomar. And as for the storytelling, well...

What I like about Human Diastrophism is that it's a full blown graphic novel, with themes and everything, but through it all Beto prefers to stick with his characters, and tell their story, without trying to corral them into making some overall point. The interweaving soap opera involves an enormous cast, and it's to Beto's credit that we're not lost amidst the crowd. And we get some of the most engaging, affecting developments yet. Luba (perhaps Palomar's most intriguing and mysterious character) is here broken down to bare essentials. She has outwardly been cast as a semi-ridiculous male sexual fantasy, a stick-thin shaggy-haired babe with enormous breasts, and a nymphomaniac to boot. But in this tale we truly appreciate the human costs of her condition -- her disgust with her aging body, the resentment she feels towards her beautiful children, the unfulfilled life she lives in this dead-end village. So having her regain composure and grace at the end is a real winning moment. There are many more: Maricela and Riri pining for Tonantzin, Guadalupe discovering who her father is, and being accepted by the fierce Carmen, Humberto being shown the great masterpieces of western art. All wonderfully touching pieces of tragi-comic human drama.

This is all much more important to Beto than the thrust of a particular unifying idea that will wrap the whole thing together. Then again, this being an epic, a graphic novel no less, Beto inserts into his story some weighty and potent images and patterns, which remain deliciously equivocal. A building crew comes to Palomar. The village is being introduced to outside civilization. The invasion of chittering black demon chimps appear to be a comment on this. They steal books, trash and set fire to houses, spurring the villagers to retaliate with a brutality of their own. The 'civilization = evil' formula may also serve to enlighten one of the opening images of the story, of a half-submerged corpse in a lake, with the twinkling lights of a city seen above in the distance.

Then there's the significance of seeing the serial killer Tomaso walking past Geraldo Mejia in his cell, while he's praying. Both are religious men. Tomaso's murder spree seems motivated by a warped Christian belief. It seems like we can amend our formula to 'religion = civilization = evil'. But there's more, because before Mejia turned to God he was a socialist, and his letters ultimately lead to Tonantzin committing suicide for some hopeless good cause. Not just religion, but all ideologies, are presented as destructive. I think this is contrasted with the simple tales told in Palomar: of falling in love, having a family, children playing, petty jealousies, people falling out and getting back together. This is what's important, Beto appears to be saying. Humanity. And humanity gets deformed, dangerous, inhuman, when they get seduced by the 'ideology = civilization' axis.

The final image, of the ash of apocalypse descending on Palomar, is beautifully elusive. Was Tonantzin right all along? Shouldn't we have fought to avoid this from happening? Then again, Tonantzin's sacrifice was useless. Maybe it's better to stay in Palomar, where humanity remains undistorted, true. Maybe here the fires burning up the rest of the world won't be able to find quick purchase.

The scene right before that, where Howard Miller is comforting his girlfriend Cathy, may be expressing the artist's own thoughts on the story he tells. There's deep felt compassion for Tonantzin's sacrifice: 'it takes real love to want to go that far in hopes of making some kind of serious change for the better'. But while Cathy continues to feel horror and sadness, Howard quickly moves on to the everyday, the job, his life. Tonantzin isn't dismissed as foolish, in fact she ends up as the most inspiring character of all. But there's danger in her example. Maybe Howard's hardened, almost-but-no-quite callous reaction is the best way to deal with the story Beto presents to us.

11.10.09

Culture and Barbarism

An essay by Terry Eagleton over here, of which the last paragraph is the most illuminating:

'The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.'

I've beefed with Eagleton before, just so you know.

I'm slightly less angry this time round, because I think I share Eagleton's 'tragic humanism' and the desire to 'radically remake' oneself (see post here). However, for me there is no gap between a 'vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin' and the belief that we must 'shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition'. By Eagleton's reckoning, I'm both a liberal and a tragic humanist.

How does that work? Well, Eagleton paints liberal humanists as those who believe that reason's conquest of superstition will solve the world's problems. I think this misrepresents what Dawkins and Hitchens actually think. Superstition is only one aspect of an infinite array of methods humanity uses to lie to itself. Destroying it will prevent certain evils from occurring. It won't lead to freedom.

As Eagleton says, the only thing that will lead to freedom is a thorough remaking of humanity. He argues that understanding and assimilating religious or socialist beliefs, even if they are irrational, will bring us closer to this 'transfigured future'. I respectfully disagree. Plato thought in similar ways, and so I shall repeat the misgivings I voiced in my recap of the Republic: TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AND HUMANITY IS STILL WAITING FOR YOUR IDEAL CITY!

Let's be clear. I agree with Eagleton that an intimate awareness of our essentially venal natures is imperative in motivating us to be better people. We are little more than animals, and knowing that will make us strive very hard to be something more than animals. BUT! We also have to be realistic. We will never adequately conquer our natures to the extent that we'll be able to usher in a utopia. Three thousand years of recorded human history and people are still just as evil as they were before. Religion, or any ideology, hasn't changed this state of affairs. Ideologies are human creations that cater to human needs. They do not transform the essential character of humanity, and they never will.

I'm not trying to be defeatist. I'm just acknowledging two basic principles. One: that humanity will always be inspired by the possibility of transcending the drudgery of our life on earth. Two: that no matter how much an individual may be inspired in this way, humanity as a whole won't be able to escape itself. Now. Do you put your faith for a better world in irrational imaginings, or hardened realpolitik? I would soften the two alternatives, and have them working side by side. Let's have rational values to inspire us -- protecting and advancing basic human rights will be a start. As for achieving this, transforming humanity will be put on the back-burner, and we'll rely on pragmatic utilitarianism -- weighing up one interest against another, and balancing them in such a way as to minimize the evil we do to one another.

Apologies for stuffing my dogmatic doctrinaire liberal intellectualism down your throats. I need to get an outlet for these things...

10.10.09

Johnny Foreigner / Tellison / Japanese Voyeurs

What? I can do gig reviews. Leave me alone.

I walked in just as Japanese Voyeurs started tearing up the poo. They delivered punk/metal/hardcore-type goodness, which set the tone of the evening very nicely. Lead singer looked a little dejected, however. Hope she's OK...

A little wait. Sipped Guinness. Spotted members of JoFo wandering up to the bar and back. No drinks backstage? Wanted to wish them luck, but had zero nerve. Waited some more. Sipped Guinness.

Tellison got going. Sound, surprisingly enough, a bit like Johnny Foreigner. The guy on the far left plays keys, sax and guitar, though not at the same time. I'm in love with the lead guitar guy next to him. Frontman says 'awesome' a lot, but I forgive him, because he's awesome. Might have to go looking for Tellison songs on the internet tomorrow.

The girl one from JoFo stands 3 meters away from me during the set. I realize that last sentence makes me sound like a stalker. I totally didn't smell her hair or anything...

Another wait. Finish Guinness. Trip to bathroom. Maneuver closer to the stage, despite knowing I'll be pushed back by mini-moshers as soon as the headliners get going. Old habits and all that. Like the bands before them, JoFo do their own prep. Much too down-to-earth for a rock and roll band, surely? Alex's haircut looks even more ridiculous in real life. I mention this only because I'm insanely jealous of Alex's haircut.

'Hot girls know the words to our songs' and we're off. Summer single 'Feels Like Summer' (clue in the title har har) follows up, then 'Eyes Wide Terrified', although memory could be playing tricks on me. 'Your life is a song' comes out of every throat in the room. The girl one screams, everything explodes, and I go mental. Lovely.

Apparently, 'Sometimes In The Bullring' is an old favourite that doesn't get played much anymore. They play it. I do embarrassing 'Worrd' sign and headbang politely. Would have preferred 'Yes! You Talk Too Fast', but everyone's a DJ...

'Salt, Pepper and Spindarella' remains Johnny Foreigner's finest song. Live, it sounds incredible. The night's best moment.

New songs are difficult to judge properly. What makes the band special is that they do pop, but the pop they do skuzzy and frantic and packed full of stuff. It's overwhelming and disorientating at first listen. You need to spend time with the songs, learn the way they work, and then you can go batshit crazy when they come on. If this sounds like a raw deal, know that Johnny Foreigner make this journey worth it.

A little disappointed that personal favorites 'Lea Room', 'Cranes' and 'The End And Everything After' didn't get an airing. The first half of Waited Up Til It Was Light is amazing. Definitely needed more of that this evening.

Final song, they do the play-every-instrument-you-can-find thing. I could be snarky about that, except that it sounded fucking awesome.

You can't help feeling a little let down at how short the set was. The lack of encore elicited some booing. But after seconds of ruminating, I have deemed this unfair. Few bands play with the energy that JoFo bring to the stage. I'm impressed they lasted as long as they did.

Catch the bus. Mutter JoFo songs under my breath. Come home and write this. Good night.

7.10.09

Album of the decade

Seems like the decade roundups are beginning already, so I'm jumping on the bandwagon. Now, you shouldn't expect a considered, bird's eye view of the changes in the pop landscape in what follows. Ten years ago I was eleven, and my pop music literacy extended to a few Will Smith records. It has only been in the last couple of years, with access to Pitchfork and illegal downloading, that I've started to get my head around all the great stuff there is out there. So no, this isn't about me combing through everything released in the past ten years to choose the 'best' record. This is about the record that had the most profound impact on me during these crucial years of my life. That it came 156th on Pitchfork's list is a bonus. So. Drumroll, please. The winner is...

Silent Alarm - Bloc Party

No, I didn't know who Gang Of Four were. Or Wire. Or Interpol. When I first listened to this it sounded like nothing I had heard before. I mean, those guitars really screeched! And that wasn't singing. It was... yelping. It didn't sound good, man. I recoiled. I put the album away and didn't listen to it for a long while.

Why did I buy the thing in the first place? Well, just about that time I was starting to get into what I still term 'music with guitars in'. Before that, my history was strictly R&B. Before that Eminem. And the Spice Girls during the 90s. But all the kids at my new school were going on about Oasis and the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand. No lie, the first time I heard about the latter, I thought they were a football player that had just signed to the local club. Shows how much I knew. But all this was intriguing. I felt left out of the conversation. What was this stuff? I had to know more. I started to read the music press at my local library. I started listening to the Xfm drive-time show when I got home from school. And what did I discover? Hype about this new band called Bloc Party. In one interview, these haughty upstarts from north London described themselves as having little to do with the garage/indie rock of the time, saying their music had much more in common with the pop and R&B in the charts. All-RIGHT! This was something I could get behind! I bought their debut album on the week it came out.

And, as you've heard, disappointment followed, and the CD was shelved. Still, I continued to listen to Xfm, having developed a passionate obsession with the sound of Lauren Laverne's voice. One day, she played the Bloc Party single 'So Here We Are'. Hold on. This wasn't angular and noisy and possessed by evil demons. This was a ballad. I knew ballads! I understood ballads! But this was a weird ballad. Kele was crooning alright, but the drums were behaving strangely, and the melody consisted of these hypnotizing chimes on a loop. I was entranced, even before I reached that euphoric 'I figured it out! I could see it again!' moment.

Those lyrics proved scarily providential. Because the rest of the album, refracted through 'So Here We Are', finally made sense to me. This was pop music. But it was pop music that was quirky and interesting and spoke to you in a way generic mainstream pop didn't. The album refused to leave my CD player for a long time. When it eventually made an exit, it was replaced with Feeder's Comfort In Sound. A few years later, We Have The Facts, Inverted World and Separation Sunday were doing the rounds. And that was the proverbial that.

Listening back to Silent Alarm now, I'm immediately transported back to when I was fifteen. There's a despondency to this record that fitted perfectly with where my brain was at in those days. Just look at that freezing, isolated cover. Listen to how the vocal sounds echoed and lost underneath the swirling, disorientating music. Silent Alarm was cold. It was depressed. It was hell. Even a song about fucking ('Banquet') sounds heartless and numb. The angry political number ('Helicopter') is devoid of any glimmer of hope -- even a miracle isn't enough. The brightest, most shimmering cut ('Pioneers') gets dissolved in irony and cynicism: 'we promised the world we'd tame it, what were we hoping for?'. The most triumphant moment -- 'we're gonna win this!' in 'Price Of Gas' -- is marred by martial grunting and elusive talk of nothing ever coming for free. And 'Compliments' rounds off the package perfectly. It gets even colder, even more isolated, as Kele mumbles about the loneliness of old age and our body's decay.

It's in the simple beauty of 'So Here We Are' where you find a draught of relief from all the despair. And you're gonna need it, because by then you've already gone through Silent Alarm's icy core: 'This Modern Love'. The song starts off innocently enough, with lines divided into left and right call-and-response: 'don't get offended... if I seem absent-minded', 'baby you've got to... be more demanding'. It's a conversation, a relationship, where only one person is speaking. Layers of sounded are added, the music builds, and Kele gets more desperate: 'what are you... holding out for/ what's always... in the way/ why so damn... absent minded/ why so scared... of romance'. This modern love is numb -- hamstrung by uncertainty and inertia. By the chorus, Kele can only wimper about how it 'breaks' and 'wastes' him. An impassioned, chaotic bridge follows, reaching a climax and then subsiding. Kele gathers himself together, becomes aloof and nonchalant, and asks his girl: 'do you wanna come over... and kill some time?' But the facade breaks, and the song ends on a pathetic plea: 'throw your arms around... me'.

The song, and the album as a whole, captured the spirit of my age (I think it was fifteen). It soundtracked my days feeling ostracized from all those other cool people, who seemed unfeeling in their cynicism and their constant resort to irony. Where did all the idealism go? Why so scared of romance? But the album also captured the hypocrisy of those feelings. I was just as ready to succumb to the twisted, cutting, self-destructive pleasures of cynical irony. I could be just as numb and unfeeling. Silent Alarm captures that contrast between surface calm, and violent internal emotions. In fact, it links the two together. We are lonely and depressed because we are unable to show our true selves. Alarms are ringing in our minds and hearts, but to the world outside we are silent.

6.10.09

Dollhouse Season 2

Why should I bother writing about Dollhouse season 2, when, yet again, Tiger Beatdown has already said everything there is to say about it? Go read.

Although, once again, I'm probably not gonna be able to resist adding my own commentary...

Ultra: Seven Days

Are the Luna Brothers the Great White American Hope for the comic-book industry? Probably not. But the fact that my brain has even cobbled together this idea says something about the work these guys are producing.

Ultra is their first mini-series, and already they display storytelling ability of some sophistication. Cliffhanger pages that rival anything Brian K. Vaughan can come up with. Dialogue that doesn't quite zing with Whedon wit, but engages all the same. More importantly, Joshua Luna is a master at crafting those awkward social moments that are a regular recurring feature of my life. He totally nails it, and I should know. He also has the rare ability to build conversations up into striking moments of epiphany. The last two issues in this collection are particularly brilliant examples of this. They take little details of everyday life and put them together in such a way as to transform them into something eternal and beautiful. It's a mesmerizing feat.

From storytelling on to theme. Ultra isn't really about superheroes. It uses superheroes to talk about celebrity. The fun it pokes at magazines and adverts isn't anything original, but it does elicit several laughs. More important is the conversation between our protagonist and a fellow friend in the superhero business:

'They don't see the real us, they only see a face on a magazine, a pair of tits on a billboard -- abstractions. We're like... Rorschach inkblots, open to every dumbass interpretation.'

All very well and good as a comment on celebrity culture. But what makes these words especially significant is that they are spoken by a fictional superhero. Are the Luna Brothers providing a sneaky comment about the way we read fiction, particularly superhero fiction? Are they pointing out the disconnect between what a reader sees in a particular work, and what the creator puts into it?

Or maybe I just need to get Grant Morrison out of my head...

4.10.09

Welcome to Hoxford

There's something really strange going on with Ben Templesmith's artwork in this horror miniseries. Under the linework, but over the colours, there are these faint crooked squares faded in. It's like you're watching the action through a brick wall which you can somehow see through.

Which is really great, because it totally fits with the werewolves-set-loose-in-a-prison idea. Not only are you constantly aware of the closed, confined atmosphere of the setting, but the weird there/not there visual layer adds to the feeling of unease -- the lurking presence of the supernatural.

Templesmith is rightly lauded as an artist. But what is he like as a writer? Pretty good, I would say, judging from this comic. Sure, there are some clunky lines, most of them coming from the creepy warden doing cliche creepy. Other than that, however, all the characters' voices are believable and engaging -- from Ray spouting phantasmagoria to the educated, earnest tones of Dr. Ainley.

Not only that, but Templesmith actually has something to say. Werewolves can only really be about one thing -- man's beastly nature. Setting the action in a prison is a brilliant way to highlight the point.

And then, of course, we have the last girl standing. The psychiatrist so angelic she actually gives a damn about this collection of murderers and rapists. She tries to cure Ray, but the only way he can survive in a world full of beasts is to become one himself. In a final act of kindness, he spares Ainley, telling her to run. The compassionate impulse is banished, and Ray settles down with his new werewolf friends.

The Republic II: Thrasymachus Strikes Back

[The following is an imagined dialogue between Plato’s Socrates and a re-modeled, modern Thrasymachus. The latter has lost none of his bloated arrogance and spiteful anger. But in this sequel, he is no longer an idiot. He pursues Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates fully, and exposes both the logical discrepancies and real world dangers of the Republic’s argument. As far as possible, I’ve allowed Socrates to speak in his own words. Quotes are marked.]

Socrates and Thrasymachus attend another gathering a couple of weeks later. Thrasymachus is considerably more sober this time. They meet, exchange pleasantries, and resolve to continue the discussion they had before.

Thrasymachus: Right! Let us remind ourselves of the challenge that inspired your rambling dialogue on morality and politics. I confess that your associates Glaucon and Adeimantus defended my position with much greater nuance and sophistication than I could manage. Shall we look at what they said?

Socrates: Let’s.

Thrasymachus: Your friend Glaucon posited that the origin of morality is a kind of social contract: ‘once people have experienced both committing wrong and being at the receiving end of it, they see that the disadvantages are unavoidable and the benefits are unattainable; so they decide that the most profitable course is for them to enter into a contract with one another, guaranteeing that no wrong will be committed or received’. The contract ‘is a compromise between the ideal of doing wrong without having to pay for it, and the worst situation, which is having wrong done to one while lacking the means of extracting compensation’.

This theory is predicated on the view that ‘people do wrong whenever they think they can, so they act morally only if they’re forced to, because they regard morality as something which isn’t good for one personally’. To sum up: ‘everyone thinks the rewards of immorality far outweigh those of morality – and they are right’.

A cynical view, to be sure. But a realistic one. And there is value in such realism, as I hope to show. Instead, your associates desired you to overthrow this social contract theory, and ‘show how morality is worth while in and of itself for anyone who possesses it and how immorality harms him’. A foolhardy task! Many brave men have tried and failed to answer this question. But you were undaunted. Can you remind me of how you began your counter-argument?

Socrates: I would be delighted to. I immediately suggested a comparison which would make the workings of morality easier to identify and understand. I argued that ‘morality can be a property of whole communities as well as individuals’. It can ‘exist on a larger scale in the larger entity and be easier to discern’. Once we did that, we would ‘examine individuals too, to see if the larger entity is reflected in the features of the smaller entity’. My friend Adeimantus thought it ‘an excellent idea’.

Thrasymachus: More fool he! The comparison you suggested is utter CLAPTRAP! Do you honestly think that morality in a community is THE SAME THING as morality in an individual’s soul? Surely you are aware that using a particular word in two different contexts can change its meaning? The thing that makes a community ‘moral’ doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing that makes an individual ‘moral’. So you see? The entire framework of your argument is predicated on a FALSE COMPARISON.

But let us leave that to one side, and examine your ideal community in more detail.

Socrates: Alright. The key principle of a perfect city must be specialization. Consider: ‘different people are inherently suitable for different activities, since people are not particularly similar to one another, but have a wide variety of natures’. So it follows that ‘productivity is increased, the quality of the products is improved, and the process is simplified when an individual sets aside his other pursuits, does the one thing for which he is naturally suited, and does it at the opportune moment’.

Thrasymachus: I believe this logic to be sound. Proceed.

Socrates: Thank you. The same applies to the military and government; it’s another area of expertise. The guardians of our community must be courageous and passionate (and so ‘perceptive, quick on their feet and strong’), but must also ‘behave with civilized gentleness towards their friends’. Balancing these opposite impulses requires a ‘philosopher’s love of knowledge’, so that they are able to determine friend from enemy, and good and bad.

Thrasymachus: And how are we to achieve such perfectly balanced individuals?

Socrates: We start at the beginning, when a person ‘absorbs every impression that anyone wants to stamp upon it’. You see, human nature can be MOULDED, and immorality OVERCOME. To do this, we establish a suitable mythology, culture and education system, designed to instill good values in the community. Let’s break this down:

Poems, plays and songs that undermine self-discipline and morality will be banned. Moral poems, plays and songs are always more beautiful anyway, so it will be no great loss.

A religion is fabricated to promote the idea that the citizens’ country is ‘their mother and their nurse’, and so must be defended at all costs. Thus, the military will give their lives to protect their community.

Religion and education will buttress the government/military/worker class system, to make sure that each order sticks to their allotted task. However, it will maintain that a ‘copper’ child can be born of ‘gold’ parents, and vice versa. Thus, the class system can be penetrated by children with the right natural abilities, and the principle of specialization will be preserved. (There is an element of social mobility here, based on genes. Aristotle’s ideal city, built on the backs of slaves, is more rigid.)

Religion and education will also persuade the elite to treat their subjects as ‘earth-born brothers’, and so prevent the military-wing behaving ‘like brutal despots’. Practical arrangements will enforce this view. Guardians won’t have private property, they will live communally and be given just enough resources to sustain their lives. They will be rewarded only with honour, buried in great tombs and worshipped as gods.

All this indoctrination will engender people of good character. There is no need for me to spell out the specific legislation that will regulate this community, because those that rule it will be good and will know what to do. The important thing is to ensure that the integrity of the education system which produces these good men isn’t compromised.

Thrasymachus: I see. You certainly have an optimistic view of man’s perfectibility! I would counter that NO amount of education will be able to overcome a human being’s inherent immorality. In your ideal community, the powerful won’t enjoy the same material pleasures as the powerless. I don’t think any man, no matter how great a philosopher, will be able to stand this. Perhaps you can, Socrates? If so, you would be in the minority.

Another objection: in the real world an elite will want to pass on power, not only to the most deserving, but to their relatives and friends. This is an ingrained human behavioral pattern, which your system of people transfer goes against. Will guardians really wish their inferior children to work the fields? But we should first explore your radical proposals on women and the family before I continue down this line of reasoning.

Socrates: Very well. As regards women, I believe that ‘innate qualities have been distributed equally between the two sexes, and women can join in every occupation just as much as men, although they are the weaker sex in all respects’.

Thrasymachus:
I don’t quite understand that last bit. You must mean physically weaker, but otherwise equal. In that case, to be able to go against the fundamental assumptions of your society in order to uphold what is manifestly true and fair marks you out as a man of rare intelligence, and a true philosopher.

Socrates: Thank you.

Thrasymachus: Please continue. What about the family?

Socrates:
The population as a whole will mate according to a eugenics programme, presented in the guise of religion. The guardians will ‘take the children of good parents to the crèche and hand them over to the nurses’, and ‘they’ll find some suitable way of hiding away the children of worse parents and any handicapped children of good parents’.

Thrasymachus: Hiding away?

Socrates: Well, ‘those with a poor physical constitution will be allowed to die, and those with irredeemably rotten minds will be put to death’.

Thrasymachus:
Err... You know when I said you are a true philosopher?

Socrates: Yes

Thrasymachus: ....Never mind.

Socrates: OK, well anyway. The other key proposal is that ‘all the women are to be shared among all the men. And the children are also to be shared, with no parent knowing which child is his, or child knowing his parent’. The point of this is to make the community one giant family. They will share in each other’s pleasure and distress, and so be bound together and act as a unity. There will be no factionalism. The leadership will be harmonious and peaceful.

Thrasymachus: Once again, I will counter that transforming human relationships in this way is IMPOSSIBLE. As Aristotle has argued, this big family will produce only a ‘watery’ kind of friendship. Doing away with the family unit ignores the way human beings ACTUALLY BEHAVE: the way they choose their friends, the way they fall in love, the way they quarrel and disagree. Your ideal city is predicated on the TRANSFORMATION of humanity. IS THIS POSSIBLE!?

Socrates: ‘Is it possible for anything actual to match a theory? Please don’t force me to point to an actual case in the material world which conforms in all respects to our theoretical construct. If we can discover how a community’s administration could come very close to our theory, then let’s say we’ve discovered how it’s all viable.’

Thrasymachus: So how are we to get as close as possible to your theory?

Socrates:
Here we come to the crux of my argument. ‘Unless communities have philosophers as kings there can be no end to political troubles, or even to human troubles in general, I’d say, and our theoretical constitution will be stillborn and will never see the light of day’.

Thrasymachus:
And what makes philosophers so special?

Socrates:
They are able to see things like beauty and goodness, each ‘in itself, in its permanent and unvarying nature’. A philosopher’s ‘eyes are occupied with the sight of things which are organized, permanent, and unchanging, where wronging and being wronged don’t exist, where all is orderly and rational’. A ruler who lacks such insight will have ‘nothing absolutely authentic to contemplate and use as an accurate reference-point, before establishing human norms of right, morality and goodness.’ You see, ‘there is no way in which a community is going to be happy unless its plan is drawn up by artists who refer to a divine model’.

Thrasymachus:
Hold on. We need to look at this very closely. Most importantly, we need to question the theory that ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness’ have a permanent and unvarying nature. Your entire argument rests on the proposal that these things are OBJECTIVE. That if everyone acquires enough wisdom, they will all be able to agree on what is beautiful and good. But IS THIS POSSIBLE? Let’s look at what our reason CAN establish as objective. In very abstract fields such as mathematics and logic, we ARE able to arrive at true and eternal laws. In our attempts to comprehend the world around us, we can also arrive at semi-objective laws, which are modified according to the evidence supplied by our fallible senses. But when we find something beautiful or good, reason plays only a part in the decision. We are reacting EMOTIONALLY to external phenomena, and human emotions are infinite in their variety. There cannot be any objectivity in this field. We can’t see true beauty and goodness in itself, because the emotions that decide what is beautiful and good are SUBJECTIVE.

Let’s try another tack. We look at x and find it beautiful. We look at y and also find it beautiful. You haven’t proven why the thing that makes x and y beautiful is THE SAME THING. Can’t the emotions we feel when looking at x and the emotions we feel when looking at y be DIFFERENT, and we just use the word ‘beauty’ to describe them both? You have already made this mistake comparing the city and the individual. And you should know better. Terms like ‘beauty’ can be infinitely malleable; it can apply to all kinds of objects. There’s nothing objective that unites these objects together. They are only united in your own head. Someone else will group a different set of objects under the banner ‘beautiful’.

So when your philosopher king consults his ‘divine model’ of a perfect, pure humanity, the particular aspects he will define as ‘good’ will be subjective. Another philosopher king will come up with a different model. Consider Aristotle. He also shares you opinions on specialization, the need for moderation and the value of reason, and his perfect city ends up looking quite similar to your one. But he also believes women to be inferior to men, and that equality demands that democracy be practiced among the ruling elite. Others may believe that EVERY human being is able to achieve the philosophical life, and is thus entitled to a share in the constitution.

Indeed, I would argue that looking up and contemplating a perfect humanity is an INSULAR and LIMITED way of arriving at the ideal community. In order to understand how human beings can be perfected, isn’t it better to look down and STUDY THEM. Understand their impulses, their talents, and their capacity to commit horrific crimes. Only by knowing intimately the human capital you have to work with can you go on to build a political system that is suitable for them. I believe this will involve, not just education (which can only go so far), but also balancing incentives – social contracts, you might say – in such a way as to limit the evil we do to one another.

But we’ve digressed too far away from your argument. Lets ignore the subjectivity objections for now. Please, explain how the philosopher king will establish the ideal community.

Socrates: Well, ‘they will banish everyone over the age of ten into the countryside. Then they take charge of the community’s children and make sure that they’re beyond the reach of existing conventions, which their parents adhere to, and bring them up under their own customs and laws, which are similar to the ones we were describing before. That’s the quickest and simplest way for the community and political system we’ve been discussing to be established, to attain happiness, and to benefit the people among whom they occur.’

Thrasymachus:
So let’s recap. Your philosopher king will wipe the slate clean using BRUTAL COERCION, and then set up his new regime with a GRAND PROPAGANDA PROJECT – creating foundation myths and a religion that will indoctrinate brotherhood and a clear class system. Education will be completely controlled by the state, to ensure the propaganda keeps working. And the family will be abolished. I will repeat my misgivings, louder, since you appear unable to take note of them. CAN HUMAN NATURE BE TRANSFORMED IN THIS WAY? Won’t your citizens chafe at having their families dissolved? Won’t they rebel against being told what to think? Won’t they want to be able to choose who to have sex with? IS THIS COMMUNITY EVEN POSSIBLE??

Socrates: ‘The community may be difficult to realize, but it’s feasible: the essential prerequisite is that genuine philosophers – one or more of them – wield power’. If even one king, ‘in the entire passage of time’, ‘remains uncorrupted’ and lives ‘in a community which is prepared to obey him, then that is enough: everything which is now open to doubt would become fully-fledged reality’.

Thrasymachus: TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AND HUMANITY IS STILL WAITING FOR YOUR IDEAL CITY! WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE WE DO IN THE MEANTIME??

Socrates: Hmm. Well I guess there isn’t much a person can do. Those few who ‘have glimpsed the joy and happiness to be found in mastering philosophy and have also gained a clear enough impression of the madness of the masses; when they’ve realized that more or less every political action is pernicious and that if someone tries to assist morality there will be no one to back him up and see that he comes out unscathed, but would rather die before doing his community or his friends any good, and so would be useless to himself and to everyone else, he lies low and does only what he’s meant to do. It's as if he's taken shelter under a wall during a storm, with the wind whipping up the dust and rain pelting down; lawlessness infects everyone else he sees, so he is content if he can find a way to live his life here on earth without becoming tainted by immoral or unjust deeds, and to depart from life confidently, and without anger and bitterness’.

‘He could do much more with his life if he just lived in a suitable political system, which enabled him to preserve the integrity of public business as well as his own affairs.’

Thrasymachus:
So where are we? We use the ideal city as an example for perfecting our own souls and for living a moral life. Personal morality is the only true politics we can engage in. We should be content with this. Only in an ideal community will this private struggle translate into common good. It’s not much, is it? Even the rewards for morality seem pretty meagre. We just lie low and wait for compensation in the next world? That’s how you end your Republic, isn’t it? With an elaborate doomsday myth about how sinners will be judged? Do you really believe this? Or are you acting like a philosopher king, using propaganda to convince people to be good? Is this what we’ve sunk to?

You have to admit, there’s very little of your theories that we can salvage.

Socrates: Perhaps... but maybe there’s enough. My ideas can no longer find purchase in a post-modern world. They will be discredited and ridiculed. But the questions I’ve asked remain important, I think, and will continue to be asked. And I hope my idealism, and my attempt to defend the moral life, will live on in spite of my mistakes. I’ve only tried, in my own way, to find something true, beautiful and good in the imperfect world I live in.

2.10.09

Batman Gothic

The wheels on the Grant Morrison season have well and truly fallen off. Re-reading Doom Patrol is suspended indefinitely, partly because all the trades in my library have disappeared (other people read comics too!), and also because I no longer have the time to read anything anymore. University has began, and I shall have to devote myself to serious matters. But before abandoning the wreckage, dousing it in petrol and setting it alight, I'll type a little something about a throwaway Batman comic Morrison wrote. A final, pathetic swan-song to commemorate this ill-considered adventure.

Grant Morrison does a fabulous job recreating the Gothic genre -- the dreamlike, dangerous atmosphere, the uneasy presence of the occult, the touch of madness. Or should I say: Klaus Janson does a fabulous job recreating the Gothic genre. His pencils are just breathtaking. I have the splash-page of Batman leaning out into the Gotham landscape, cape unfurled, in front of my eyes as I type. And it is beautiful.

I am writing chiefly to note a typical Morrison trope. Batman uncovers a fantastical folk tale while in Austria, only to come back to Gotham and discover it's true. At the end of the book, he journeys back, and makes an offering to the unfulfilled ghost that, according to the local legend, still wanders there.

Batman, a detective and a scientist, has his reality invaded by an otherworldly ancient myth. The story becomes real. The last line of the book pushes this idea out to encompass the reader reading Batman's story. For us too, stories can invade our reality and change the way we think. They can make us appreciate and care for things we would have previously dismissed or ignored.

It does look like Morrison can't help but embellish his fiction with a commentary about the way we create and absorb stories. When Steven King does it (in his Dark Tower series), it comes across as self-indulgent and self-obsessed. But when Morrison does it, I don't mind. Maybe it's because he can say more about the imaginative process than King ever could. Or maybe it's because he does his meta shtick with a certain degree of subtlety. I fear subtlety maybe lacking in Animal Man (I know how it ends), which is why I have no desire to pick it up.