The only reason this post isn’t called this fuckin’ ‘verse! is cos I was scared of the search-spam said title would generate.
I have been burned, and I repent, whatever Gibbon might think.
Well, then. Last month the mylaw books column was all about women. It was an exercise I undertook with a fair measure of derision — and it was one I didn’t want to be ‘seen’ taking. It wasn’t camaraderie, or redressal, or anything so simple; it was, if anything, acknowledgment. Women aren’t talked about enough in our world, in any field, and four weeks of me writing about female writers is hardly about to change this. The women I wrote about – Barbara Ehrenreich, Diana Wynne Jones, Zadie Smith- are all in their own way spectacular, but in no way representative. They aren’t the women I look to for guidance, or direction; they are merely the women my eye turned to this month. I felt it was important to make a statement, thus I did, and shall we leave it at that? I equivocated with Zadie, I gad about with Diana, I damn Don Draper with faint praise. The death of Diana Wynne Jones a week after I wrote about her makes an unhappy tribute out of that essay, much as I ardently wish she was still around spinning capital yarns. If I had known, I’d have made a grander task of it. The grim reaper stalks us all, and seems determined to steal away the best of us.
Anyway, there were also essays about Chabon, and comics, and that’s been the month on mylaw. In other news, my Whedon essay is published, and I am inordinately proud of it, so perhaps one of you could trash it and restore the karma of the universe.
This is the unedited version. It holds the ‘temperance’ card in my arcana, inspired as it was by Macaulay: virtue is vice in just temper.
The Big Bad Universe.
Joss Whedon’s great gift is his ability to extrapolate into the clear blue sky from mundane speculative fiction stereotypes: fairy tales, space travel, mind control. It was this uncanny momentum that lifted Dollhouse’s torpid first season into the sublime second season and propelled Firefly into Serenity. The most consistent application of this talent was in the crafting of his ‘Big Bads’. Whedon might not have invented the seasonal arc on television, but he certainly made great strides towards perfecting it, and he did it by dancing through shadows.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s most influential cultural product, chronicles the rebellion of a champion. Buffy is the chosen one, strong enough to bear the weight of the world, until she finds a way to scatter and delegate her burden. The superhuman strength is an imposed fate, it is her destiny to be the slayer. Her true skill lies in an ability to forge friendships and build pragmatic alliances; with a little help from her friends, the Scoobies, she helps protect human civilization against the forces of chaos and anarchy. Yet, it is only by breaking ancient laws that she ultimately liberates herself, and the evidence is clear: sometimes you have to break the rules to preserve them. Whether this is an improvement remains to be seen. The season eight comics delve into the consequences of creating an army of slayers, but this essay is restricted to Whedon’s television.
A lot has been made of in fandom about Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Joseph Campbell’s work. A quick scan of Hero with a 1000 faces reveals his debt, and certainly the narrative structure of Buffy draws heavily upon the “monomyth” of the hero. However, I think the emphasis on Campbell elides more important themes within Whedon’s television, and evades his central cultural point: that evil is an empirical question, not an epistemological one. Evil is as it does, not as it is conceived.
Evil is a behavior, not an ineffable Kantian category. Like all behavior, it is mutable and socially constructed. The hero and the devil in the Whedonverse are interdependent, and morality is born in the space between the within and the without. One generation’s savior is another generation’s terrorist, ethical positions exist only in the eye of the beholder. The Initiative’s experimentation upon demons in Buffy is as repellent as the Alliance’s experiments on River in Firefly; the humans who trap demons to fight as gladiators are as surely villainous as the demons who trap humans for slave labour.
What makes the world run is neither good nor evil, but rather the balance, the paradox that neither has any meaning without the other. This paradox is at the crux of all Whedon’s television, whether inspired by the tech-heavy future or fantastic pasts. Like all speculative fiction, they are a comment about the here-and-now, not about the far future or a mystical alternate reality. It is true they deploy different modes and tropes; Buffy is epic and Angel tragic; Firefly is satirical and Dollhouse dystopic. But this is typical of Whedon’s holistic conception of human experience, as his prophet, Joseph Campbell, explains:
The happy ending of the fairytale, the myth, and the divine comedy is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the individual tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift in emphasis within the subject, it is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest — as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as the cosmos is to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the shattering of forms and of our attachment to them; comedy the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible… [together] they constitute the totality of the revelation that is life, and which the individual must know and love if he is to be purged of the contagion of sin and death.. It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy
Where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.
Whedon makes his point in several layers, woven into the plot, the people, the philosophy of the Whedonverse, his “metaplay”, a theatre whose leading metaphors state that life is a dream and the world a stage. His people are not classical heroes- everyone’s emphatically self-conscious—but they are reluctant, if not ignorant, heroes. He takes the identity crisis furtherest with Echo in Dollhouse, but the dilemma of alternate personalities exists early in Buffy. For every Buffy there must be a Faith, for every Giles an Ethan Rayne. Doppelgangland, for a Willow fan, is the best thing about season three. Later in Buffy, Whedon focuses more sharply on the human self – that pesky soul – as a source of ethical conflict.
This is a theme that marks its appearance with that existential Frankenstein, Adam, in season four and finds its apotheosis in Dark Willow and the nerds by season six. In season five, which featured Whedon’s first god, the Grandiloquent Glorificus, the biggest betrayal of all was by her human alter-ego, Ben. Gods, even malignant, capricious gods, are no match for what humanity is willing to do to itself. With questions of the self squared away, Buffy moves on yet again in season seven, debating choice (Demon Anya) and free will (Spike).
With Spike, admittedly, the conflict muddies, for re-souled Spike is not recognizably different from de-souled Spike. Angel/us does us the favor of being schizophrenic—Angel is as ‘good’ as Angelus is ‘evil’—especially in the early seasons of Buffy. No such switch exists for Spike. As demons go, Spike was always capable of reckless love and relentless pragmatism. He concedes as much in the episode Lover’s Walk: “I might be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it”. He allies with Buffy to keep “Happy Meals with legs” kicking along in season two. Spike’s noblest moment isn’t season seven’s gibbering lunatic, nor is it his stint as champion in Angel. It occurs long before the acquisition of his soul, when he protects Dawn from Glory in season five of Buffy.
The fundamental question is —does having a soul mitigate attempted rape, even assuming lack of free will does mitigate murder? It is true the Buffy-Spike sexual relationship is exploitative on both sides, which is perhaps more justified in a demon like Spike than in a hero like Buffy. She abuses his affection for her almost as badly as he attempts to abuse her. The bathroom-rape is a touchy subject for Spike fans. Does recognizing that both parties enjoyed hurting each other make the question of consent irrelevant? What makes the scene most jarring is that it is inconsistent with Spike as a person, rather than as a vampire. It is his pride, not his soul, that we presume will prevent such abhorrent behavior. Plenty of human men, after all, are capable of rape, souls or not. All this agency placed on the fragile soul in the Buffyverse makes me wonder: what makes humans so magnificent that it comes as part of our packaging, while demons must undergo terrific trials to attain it? There are as many valorous, compassionate demons as there are shiftless, sadistic humans, so why attach a metaphysics to destructive impulses?
In Angel, human evil becomes the dominant motif, and the ranks of helpful demons greatly multiply. Doyle dies trying to prevent demon-on-demon genocide, and the worst evil in town is a bunch of corporate lawyers. In the industrial city, good and evil have never been considered distinct. The city and its sewers learned to coexist long ago; the apocalypse chugs comfortably along in the slums whilst the party proceeds apace uptown. Angel’s central theme is that there is no true innocence in this world, that life is a series of competing betrayals. The entire cast of Angel is corruptible, and corrupted, over the five seasons. It is Angel, not Angelus, who tells Darla that sex with her was “perfect despair”, Angel that treats her so shabbily upon learning of her impossible pregnancy. It is Angel who sires Sam Lawson on the submarine, though he could probably have convinced Spike to do it. It is Angel who agrees to take over the LA offices of Wolfram and Hart to protect his son (ineffectually, as it turns out).
Angel is all about atonement, redemption, remorse; it highlights the scar tissue of learning to live with oneself rather than with a cruel world. It is Angel, more than Buffy, that is the spiritual predecessor to all the soulful vamps and cylons that litter this decade’s popular culture. What Angel sought to do with tragedy and angst, Being Human’s Mitchell seeks to do with humor and perspective. With Mitchell, being a vampire is an extension of being human, rather than a perversion, something that Whedon’s tormented Angel could never get himself to believe. Despite the fact that Mitchell’s bloodlust must be intolerably worse than Angel’s – Being Human’s vamps can’t satisfy their thirst with bottled blood – his overcoming of it isn’t portrayed to be a victory for human nobility, merely for human decency. This profound shift in the paradigm of the vampire, from someone intrinsically evil to someone battling addiction, would’ve been impossible without the dialogue about the nature of evil that Angel began in speculative television.
It’s as if the world today were a cinder of yesterday’s fire.
Whedon’s skillful shadowing goes past personality; even the institutions of good and evil in the Buffyverse are built to reflect one another: the Watchers’ Council here, Wolfram and Hart there. As Lucifer Morningstar once told Dream of the Endless, hell is heaven’s shadow, its dark reflection inverted upon the lake of reality. The clearest instance of this balance is the Ra’tet’, a collection of five entities responsible for the sun’s journey across the sky. Two are evil, two good, and one is human.
Consider, for a more dominant metaphor, the two “families” we track through the Buffyverse: the Scoobies and the Order of Aurelius. If the Scoobies are all facets of what we consider “the greater good”- as the adjoining spell in Primeval indicates – the vampires are all embodiments of aspects within the greater darkness. The Aurelians symbolise the sum total of the “dangerous classes”—Darla (vice), Angelus (predation), Drusilla (madness), Spike (aggression), the very impulse from which the fantastic was born.
Scholars of the genre draw its protohistory back to the 19th century, arguing that the fantastic was founded upon schisms that the Industrial and French revolutions introduced into genteel European society. “The dream of reason produces monsters” proclaimed the famous Goya painting. It was a genre beloved of the romantics, with their wild and varied crazes, and imbued with their inconstancy, flippancy, and eternal doubt. The Buffyverse, in its distinctive postmodern way – Buffy is very much a 20th century slayer – draws heavily on this conflict between reason and romance that so animated earlier centuries. It is no co-incidence, in my opinion, that the chief vampires in the two series were all sired to prior to 1900; each represents a different ethos in the evolution of modern thought.
Whedon’s penchant for the long narrative makes Dollhouse and Firefly feel condensed, accelerated, unresolved; barely is the Big Picture revealed than the plot abruptly halts. This has great narrative benefits, but it makes analysis a wild walk down whimsy lane. The early episodes of Dollhouse notwithstanding, Whedon’s foray into science fiction matches the best of the Buffyverse. Firefly is a satire on colonialism, a lesson about the price of hubris. The plot details the exploits of a band of pirates – let us call them the malcontents – that crew the spaceship Serenity. The backdrop is a throwback to 19th century imperialism with its bandits, cowboys, and outlaws. Firefly is a story from back when the metropolis and the colonies were presumed to be mutually exclusive, each quarantined in their little bubble of privilege or squalor.
From bluefloppyhat’s spanking new tumblr avatar.
The movie Serenity is a twisted slayer origin myth. The shadow-men invested the first slayer with the heart of a demon through magic; the Alliance manufactures superheroes with technology. In both cases, the girl herself is considered little more than a weapon, and the forces that foster her also propel evil. Demons are the living embodiment of the perils of magic, Reavers of the perils of technology. Slayers presage monsters, and Serenity explores, appropriately, the origin of demons and heroes alike. Whedon is making the same point with the Reavers of Firefly/Serenity as he did with the power-that-was, Jasmine, in Angel: to pacify humanity is to enslave humanity. Unmitigated ‘good’, in Whedon’s worlds, is as dangerous to humanity as unmitigated ‘evil’. Peace can be as brutal as war for those caught on the side that lost; for most, the war is never over. Angel Investigations and the malcontents fight, as champions of the under-represented, for their own survival as much as anyone else’s. Neither the Alliance’s Pax nor Jasmine’s World Peace has any place for rebels, and survival is a constant battle at blurred boundaries of humankind.
The Jasmine-arc in season four of Angel was much maligned, buried as it was beneath many episodes of Oedipal frenzy. Deficient fathers and prodigal sons are a consistent feature of Angel, and disappointing parents are a feature of the Whedonverse generally. Joyce Summers is the best parent in the universe, yet she manages to entirely overlook two years of slayage. Amy’s mother snatches away her youth, River Tam’s parents allow the government to experiment on their daughter. Whedon inverts this tendency to devastating effect in Angel. ‘The father will kill the son’ reads the false prophecy, while it is the sons of Angel that are forever plotting to kill their parents. Another Angel staple is the implausible impregnation of Cordelia with an assortment of grisly demon-spawn. In season four, one such pregnancy comes to term after an apocalyptic comshuk with Angel’s son (I warned you). Cordy finally dies, swallowed whole by her fertility, and Jasmine is born.
Jasmine is an aspect of the powers-that-be, the purest force for ‘good’ in the Buffyverse. Like the First Evil, the powers prefer to work through intermediaries; oracles and seers opposing lawyers and preachers. Embodied, as with Jasmine, they are every bit as pompous and megalomaniacal as the First. The First has the legions of hell intent on destroying humanity, Jasmine has legions of ‘saved’ humans crusading against demon-kind. The opposition is predictably symmetrical: while the First Evil is unleashing itself in Sunnydale, Jasmine and her minions are wreaking havoc in LA and driving demons to the Hellmouth. With Angel’s Jasmine, as with Serenity’s Miranda, the price of salvation is savagery; the relinquishing of nuance and judgment. They are both, in effect, anti-utopias.
Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.
Dollhouse carries this skepticism forward into a full-fledged dystopia, which is where utopia meets tragedy. The people of Dollhouse begin slaves and shells, ensnared and enamored of the Big Bad. Some of them- Adele, Topher- are acquiescent harbingers of catastrophe, wholly immoral if somewhat benevolent. Perversely, they are thus the only people capable of averting the apocalypse, which is perhaps why they fail so remarkably. Where powers-that-were and ancient evils fail, the modern corporation succeeds. Rossum’s Attic is the only part of the Whedonverse in which previous centuries fall away, for a dystopia, more than any other literary form, is born from the crucible of the present.
In “A Utopia of Fine Dust”, analyzing the futurists Fourier and Saint-Simon, Italo Calvino once argued that the trial by fire for utopias lies is the narrowing of their distance from reality. The more the imaginary world breaches into to our own, the more potent are the values it seeks to convey. Utopia, he writes, is a city that cannot be founded by us, it can only found itself in us, build itself brick by brick in our ability to imagine it, to think it out to the ultimate degree. It is a city that claims to inhabit us, not to be inhabited, thus making us possible inhabitants of a third city…a city born of the mutual impact of new conditionings, both inner and outer. In the 21st century, utopias have mostly given way to dystopias, and the values to warnings, but the form itself remains unchanged. It elaborates worlds that, like utopias, ‘must be sought in the folds, in the shadowy places, in the countless involuntary effects that the most calculated system creates without being aware that perhaps its truth lies right there.‘ (“On Fourier”, The Literature Machine)
Dystopias are worlds where the best of intentions are married to the most cynical of outcomes, stories about the cost of a tailored humanity. The fundamental anxiety of Utopia, Jameson notes, is the fear of losing that familiar world in which all our vices and virtues are rooted (very much including the very longing for Utopia itself) in exchange for a world in which all these things and experiences- positive as well as negative- will have been obliterated. “My project, as Sartre puts it, “is a rendezvous I give myself on the other side of time, and my freedom is the fear of not finding myself there, and of not even wanting to find myself any longer”. In Brave New World, a new humanity was fabricated with hedonism and eugenics, in 1984 with repression and rage, in Dollhouse it is done with technology and desire. In each, the price was free will and individuality, in each the protagonists are subtly different from fellow drones and thus capable of transcending their ‘conditioning’. Slowly, out of the cohesion of Society, the individual is born and betrayed – John Savage, Winston Smith, Echo/Caroline – returning, in the end, right where they began. Savage goes back to the wild, Winston to his bleak acceptance, Echo to the Dollhouse. Unlike the others, Echo has a family to fall back upon, and thus survives to set the world right; how far and how well, we will never know.
In the last decade, dystopias have proliferated as a format in popular culture, spawning endless movies, television shows, books and videogames. Even that most cheery of movie formats- animation- explored dystopia in Wall–E, while television shows like V and books like The Hunger Games have made it a familiar feature of 2011‘s cultural landscape. It says a lot about the human condition that all we see everywhere are tragic futures, the pathetic mangling of the illusions of progress and human perfectibility. Yet, if one is to draw a line between Brave New World and our present deluge of dystopias, it must be done mindful of the circumstances they mediate. If Huxley wondered “Can humans become robots?” back in 1932, today we wonder, “Can robots become human?”. Our conclusions, nonetheless, need not differ from Huxley’s, who condemned mankind to either lunacy or insanity. Joss Whedon, less pessimistic, relies on his unconventional families- such as Adele’s Rebels in Dollhouse– to recover the world from its apocalypse. Are we likely to be as lucky?
All the art in this post that isn’t from bluefloppyhat was discovered on 50watts, which has some of the most spectacular illustrations I’ve found yet on the web. Expect to see much more from that carnival of wonders in upcoming posts.