Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dying To Be Entertained (The Hunger Games And Philosophy)

In a previous series of posts, I used The Walking Dead and Philosophy to look at the worldview issues in AMC’s hit series. Since the release of Catching Fire is not too far away, I am going to use The Hunger Games and Philosophy as a springboard to dive into some key themes in the Hunger Games Trilogy.

In the opening section, Brian McDonald (“The Final Word On Entertainment”) and Anne Torkelson (“Somewhere Between Hair Ribbons and Rainbows”) look at the power of the arts to shape both individuals and cultures.

McDonald begins with Aristotle’s claim that art is mimeses, imitation, intended to “delight and instruct.” Artists accomplish this by showing the most noble aspects of life within the boundaries of the Golden Mean:
"At the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue."
Art that does not elevate the soul in this fashion is merely empty spectacle. Those who wish to entertain should not seek to be innovative envelope-pushers, good art won’t promote extremes. Virtues such as bravery are destroyed by deficiencies (cowardice) or excesses (rashness) in real life.

Torkelson looks specifically at the power of music. The Greeks believed that bad music resembled bad character: graceless, without rhythm or harmony, and lacking truth. Good music mimicked good character: fearless, courageous, self-controlled, and wise.

Socrates claimed that the music we absorb shapes the souls of individuals, cultures, and even the laws of the city. Mousike, the realm of the Muses, is so powerful that the government needs to make sure it exhibits mimesis, celebrating and promoting all that is known to be good. Assuming the city is just, imitative music will nourish the soul of both the people and the culture; conversely, innovative, envelope-puushing music in a good society will almost necessarily corrupt it. McDonald quotes cultural critic Philip Reiff's blunt assessment of the situation:
 “Every true culture expresses and celebrates the power of re-creation [mimesis].” 
If Reiff is correct, false cultures are those that de-create the good through extreme innovation detached from historical moral norms. Herein lies the problem with the Capital. The city clearly lives, promotes, and is entertained by a life of extremes. The Hunger Games are perhaps a logical culmination of this sickness.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cutting The Baby In Half: A Review of Neal Shusterman's "Unwind"

“In a perfect world mothers would all want their babies, and strangers would open up their homes to the unloved. In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world.”

To help us better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will feature Unwind, the first book in an unfolding trilogy by Neal Shusterman that has justifiably earned an unbelievable amount of critical acclaim. It's set in a dystopic culture that has embraced the killing of innocent human life for the greater good. As Shusterman so adeptly shows, it's neither great nor good.

In the not-so-distant future, the conflict over abortion has worsened. The pro-life crowd is killing doctors at a regular clip; the pro-choice crowd is flaunting their freedom by getting pregnant just to sell fetal tissue. The inevitable war fractures the country and threatens to topple the nation.

The two sides reach a compromise: there will be no more abortion, but parents can have the government Unwind their children when they turn 13. Unwinding is a process made possible by a recent medical breakthrough called neurografting, in which every part of a human can be detached and placed into another human. Since all the parts of the Unwound person are still alive, that person is still alive in some sense – or at least that’s how the argument goes. Abortion without death. All the pleasure of choice with none of the burden of responsibility. It's all very tidy.

It was meant to be a Swiftian compromise designed to shock both parties into sanity, a cultural version of King Solomon's suggestion that two mothers fighting over a baby should cut it in half. In the Biblical story, the real mother begs Solomon to spare the life of the child and give her baby to the other woman - which was exactly the outcome Solomon anticipated. Shusterman stated in an interview with The Trades that he wanted to look at what would happen if a baby's life was on the line and neither side flinched.
“When I go and speak at schools, one of the first things I talk about is the King Solomon story -- how the two women are fighting over the baby, and how Solomon proposes the idea of cutting the baby in half. What if one of those women didn't let go? What if the two sides were so entrenched in their positions that they would rather see the baby cut in half than ever compromise? Unwind is what happens when society decides to cut the baby in half -- figuratively and literally.” 
This kind of horror must be hidden behind a wall of ideology and propaganda. As the kids targeted for Unwinding find out about their doom, they reflexively repeat the mantra that has been droned to the damned: “I’d rather be partly great than entirely useless.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Last Apprentice (Seventh Son)

"Someone has to do it. Someone has to stand against the dark. And you're the only one who can."

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at The Last Apprentice, the first of a dozen books in Joseph Delaney's The Wardstone Chronicles.  The Last Apprentice won New York Public Library's "One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing" as well as the ALA Best of the Best Books for Young Adults. A movie based loosely on the series will soon arrive on the big screen as Seventh Son.

Tom Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son. That's an interesting lineage, sure, but who really cares? John Gregory, for one. He is a Spook, the last line of defense between the forces of evil and the rest of a blissfully unaware world. John's not getting any younger, and he needs an apprentice - namely, Tom, who has arrived after just the right amount of sevens.

You can read the plot elsewhere. I'd rather focus on the messages within the story.