Monday, July 30, 2012

How Do You Solve A Problem Like A Zombie?

Even before The Walking Dead and Jersey Shore became popular, the world had been introduced to the notion of philosophical zombies, theoretical creatures identical to human beings with one tiny distinction - they have no consciousness, qualia, or sentience. Imagine a twin who is identical to you in every possible material way but lacks any type of inner subjective experience.  Clearly something is different between the two of you, but how and why?   

Many would simply cite the existence of rationality and self-awareness - things we associate with the mind.  But what exactly is the mind, and how is it distinct from or similar to the brain?  For that matter, how important to our humanity are the immaterial aspects of our nature - our consciousness, our mind, our thoughts, ideas, and emotions? And is there a philosophical system sufficient to explain them?

In The Walking Dead and Philosophy, two introductory essays (“Are You Brains or Something More?” by Gordon Hawkes, and “Can You Survive a Walker Bite? “ by Greg Littmann) attempt to tackle these important questions.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Superpowers and Sins

 Question: When is it acceptable for a young man to pretend to respect authority but not actually do so; get revenge on people who embarrass him; break promises just because he doesn't like them; believe himself to be smarter than everyone else; act as a vigilante instead of working within the system; sneak his girlfriend out against her parents' wishes; and steal from other people so he can get what he wants.

Answer: When he is the new version of the Amazing Spider-Man.  Being a superhero, it seems, covers a multitude of sins.
There was a time in which superheroes put their true personality on display.  Who they were when they put the mask on matched who they were when they took the mask off.  The recent movie Chronicle did a great job showing how power magnifies who we already are, and for that reason must be used with caution. The ordinary moments matter.  Not so with the new and improved Amazing Spider-Man.

Here's the thing about Peter Parker in all the other tellings of his of origin:  Peter is a really good guy. He is smart, hard working and devoted to his aunt and uncle.  He usually makes the right choice.  His defining moment is when he dosen't stop the thief who eventually kills Uncle Ben.  Peter realizes that a lifetime of good choices can be wiped out by one lapse of judgement, and he spends the rest of his life making up for it. Whereas Batman was driven by vengance, Spiderman was driven by guilt.  In the Ultimate Spiderman arc, Peter is killed while saving everyone on his block.  As he dies he tells his aunt May, "It's ok, I couldn't save uncle Ben, but I could save you."

The Peter Parker in this movie gets his powers by breaking the rules. He takes no personal responsibility. The famous "With great power comes great responsibility" does not even make an appearance.  He goes after his uncle's killer for vengance.  He breaks a promise to Captain Stacey - who the comic book arc shows to be prescient about the danger Spidey poses to his daughter. This Peter is a mix of Twilight's Edward and Bruce Wayne.  He is brooding, mean-spirited, and full of anger.  Even his quips feel angry.

The first Spiderman ended with Peter saying it was his curse to be alone.  This Spiderman ends with Peter saying that he doesn't care about promises or the risk that Gwen is taking.  He just cares about himself. The new breed of superhero can apparently be self-absorbed, arrogant and dishonest when the mask is off, then transform into someone awesome when the mask is on.

Two scenes stood out to me. In one scene, Spider-Man stands framed in front of the American flag.  It was a great movie shot, but I wonder: what did Spider-Man stand for that mirrors the American Dream?  Arrogance?  Self-aggrandizing? Dishonesty?  Revenge? In the second scene, Aunt May says, "If there's one thing you are, it's good."  Really?  Good how? And at what, exactly?  In order for that statement to even make sense, I had to draw from the older version of Spider-Man, a hero who was kind, honest, empathetic, and sincere.

Being a superhero is a burden and a privilege. Since it magnifies sins, weaknesses and failures along with strengths, the truly heroic seek to become better people in the ordinary moments of life.  There is no better marker for learning who you will be when the great moments arise.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Wolves of Mercy Falls

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.
Maggie Stiefvater has written a a trilogy entitled The Wolves of Mercy Falls.  While her latest, The Scorpio Races, has her on the front pages of literary news, this trilogy has excelled as well. 


Grace lives in Mercy Falls.  As a child, she was bitten by what she now knows to be werewolves.  She never turned, but the connection between herself and one wolf in particular is undeniable.  That wolf saved her from the rest of the pack’s ferocity, and now he lingers at the periphery of Boundary Woods, watching and protecting her still.
When her guardian werewolf reverts to human form and introduces himself, the unobtainable becomes real.  Sam and Grace can finally love each other.  Unfortunately, Sam has this bad habit of reverting to the wolf, and Grace can feel the inevitable rise of the animal within her as well. 
Can two people so badly damaged find true love?  Can Sam and Grace find a way to put the monster behind them and become fully human? And will they live long enough to find out? 
Based on interviews, Mrs. Stiefvater wanted to capture (among other things) the war inside between the human and animal parts of our nature, and as such the story starkly addresses moral dilemmas and murky lines between truth and lies. She noted in an interview with Teen Ink, “I wish teens would step outside themselves and see how their actions are really affecting themselves and others — and then do their best to be heroes in their own lives.” 
That’s not a bad goal. The question is whether or not she achieved it.