Green Lantern and Philosophy

by John Holbo on May 22, 2011

Yep. Green Lantern and Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape this Book [amazon] is a book. I can’t believe there is no mention of Matthew Yglesias. Not even a chapter on foreign policy.

Let’s be serious. Example: the entry on ‘serious’ from the Super Dictionary. A reference work that, of late, is slouching toward canonicity.

I think Green Lantern has just proposed Jonah Goldberg’s book for the JLA Watchtower reading group. Hence the wooden floor.

Did I mention that my daughter recently took the Super Dictionary down from the paternal shelf to look up ‘beautiful’, which she couldn’t spell well enough to Google or look up anywhere else. She prefaced her act with the angrily despairing remark: ‘I can’t believe I have to use the Super Dictionary.’ I couldn’t have been a prouder pop.

Speaking of despair, there are some other Super Dictionary entries that suggest Green Lantern-related philosophical topics. Something like: “Green Lantern, The Ethics of Suicide and the Ethics of Silence: The Transcendental Willing Subject and Tractatus 6.54”

Possibly this could be related to the later Wittgenstein in some duck-rabbit-y way.

Maybe “Green Lantern, Semantic Ambiguity and Natural Kinds”. I dunno.

Something Leibnizian-Lewisian to write here. Or maybe it’s a Swamp Man case.

Next, “The Greening of the Lantern: Environmental Philosophy and Particularist Theories of Value”:

Or “Green Lantern, Green Arrow and the Ethics and Tactics of Lying”:

By the way, is that David Broder, do you think?

But I digress. There are a lot of these philosophy and pop culture books coming out, just in this series. In principle, I’m in favor of this kind of thing, done well. (And if I really wanted to improve the field I should just haul off and answer the next call for papers, rather than grumbling from the sidelines.) But my distinct impression, having read a few of these titles and browsed several others, is that the contributors are erring on the side of sober-sided self-seriousness and, as a result, are starting to repeat themselves, among other minor disappointments.

Not that everyone needs to roll around on the floor laughing all the time, like Batman. Not that these authors fail to crack a joke, here and there. But the whole ‘comics and pop culture are dealing with serious issues, such as thinkers have thought about for centuries’ line, needs to go together with more careful address to the sorts of features that caused people to dismiss this stuff as crap for decades. Namely, the sorts of features that look like crap. Fun crap.

Too many of these articles seem to take the pop culture as occasions for taking up what look to an old hand like me like stock arguments, ideas and problems, presented in fairly stock ways – with just a little Green Lantern/Batman/Watchmen on top. This is fine for the kids, if it is just a matter of leveraging interest in pop culture into an interest in philosophy. But there doesn’t seem to be much here for anyone who is looking for a little more. (Perhaps there are some great papers in some of the pop culture and philosophy titles I haven’t read, and someone in comments can kindly inform me of their existence, and how they constitute counter-examples to my complaint.) It seems like we could do better. And the place to start is surely the place where Yglesias starts with his Green Lantern theory: namely, this is sort of a stupid power to have, as befits a B-list superhero, perhaps. And the whole thing is very suggestive of a really stupid philosophy of geopolitics.

Now, as an editor, naturally you want to avoid ‘the subject of my book is really stupid’, front and center. But that’s a mistake. Actually, you want to go there. Philosophy really is, substantially, about craziness and the peculiarly stable attraction of absurd and apparently stupid ideas and attitudes. You’ve got Green Lantern in the room. Run with it. You don’t have to advocate for stupidity. The way to connect Green Lantern with the Ring of Gyges – as I see one author has done, inevitably (not that there is anything wrong with doing inevitable things!) – is to highlight the fact that this classic Platonic myth or image is quite close to stuff that’s silly and/or the sweet sugar of really funny-dumb power fantasy. That’s the way (if any) to get the kids interested (assuming the film isn’t a bomb, which I trust it will be!) and the way to say something maybe actually new about Plato. Comics are so intensely pseudo-philosophical. It’s interesting. Because philosophy is that way, too, after all.

In fairness, I should read more than I can see in Amazon look-inside before passing judgment.

{ 20 comments }

1

shah8 05.22.11 at 5:09 pm

The best of such is probably a paper on Motoko Kusanagi I read last year.

I don’t think reasonably serious and well done paper/books of this nature are going to be very common. They are mostly a gee whiz for fans of the show/movie/comic books. Cultural media that *is* challenging and aimed at popular audience can get some really weird reactions. My personal favorite is Matrix Reloaded, because I think it’s considerably better than the first in a number of ways…Anyways, looking at how sophisticated comics made it to the screen, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, crucial elements of the story were gutted (pretty much exactly as how Warren Ellis shows in Transmetropolitan) so that the essential critiques aren’t heard by the audiences. Also, movies that do challenge have very narrow advertising efforts. I wouldn’t mind watching an audience watch Primer, for example.

2

Mark D. White 05.22.11 at 8:09 pm

John, you write:

Too many of these articles seem to take the pop culture as occasions for taking up what look to an old hand like me like stock arguments, ideas and problems, presented in fairly stock ways – with just a little Green Lantern/Batman/Watchmen on top. This is fine for the kids, if it is just a matter of leveraging interest in pop culture into an interest in philosophy.

That’s exactly what the Blackwell series aims to do (albeit not for “the kids”): attract people to philosophy by introducing some basic ideas (along with some less basic ones) using the pop culture phenomena they like.

For a defense of the approach taken by the series, see series editor Bill Irwin’s piece “Fancy Taking a Pop?” at the philosophers’ magazine at http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=1131.

3

John Holbo 05.22.11 at 10:51 pm

Hi Mark,

Yes, I appreciate that the books are basically doing what they advertise themselves as doing, and that’s basically an ok thing, so I’m not trying to slam the series. By ‘the kids’ I mean, of course, mostly college kids taking intro philosophy – not my 9-year old daughter, consulting the Superdictionary. (I’m not alleging that your contributors are writing at a 9-year old level or anything like that.) I also feel that the world contains quite a number of good pop culture books that are, unfortunately, weak on the philosophy side. So I keep hoping for satisfactory higher synthesis.

Thanks for the Irwin link. It helps me to crystallize my complaint, like so:

“The recent call for submissions for Avatar and Philosophy resulted in several philosophers criticising the topic as unworthy and criticising my series for choosing topics badly. Some may have the mistaken impression that my series has the mentality of “any idea will do”. But that’s not the case. My series rejects over ninety percent of the ideas that are proposed. Not just anything will work. For example, American Idol, though massively popular, wouldn’t work as the basis of an “and Philosophy” book because it isn’t the kind of thing the general public thinks seriously about.”

I disagree. I think “Philosophy and American Idol” is at least as good an idea as “Green Lantern and Philosophy”. I say this as a person who loves comics and is bored to tears by American Idol. American Idol is an interesting cultural phenomenon, one with a kind of cultural-philosophical appeal, even an implicit philosophy. Philosophers worth their salt ought to be able to think and write about it. It just isn’t the case that the general public thinks more ‘seriously’ about Green Lantern, just for example. It’s true that there is a lot of good and evil and will and emotion talk in Green Lantern, but, as I say in the post, what’s interesting about that is not that it’s serious but that it’s unserious. It’s, at best, pseudo-philosophical. But pseudo-philosophy is interesting, especially when it really tugs at something in people.

I like Chris Sims’ take on ‘Green Lantern and Philosophy’, for example:

http://www.comicsalliance.com/2010/05/25/super-hero-term-papers/

That doesn’t make it unworthy of talking seriously about, but it does make it the case that American Idol is as likely an occasion for good philosophy.

I guess I think these books need to contain more cultural criticism. More philosophy of culture and pop culture. To supplement the kinds of discussion you’ve got, not necessarily to displace it.

Irwin says: “Studying popular culture as philosophy rather than using it for examples and communication would be abuse, at least abuse of philosophy.”

This gets at the unseriousness issue, obliquely. You aren’t just going to take your philosophy of will and emotion straight from the pages of Green Lantern. That way lies madness. But, then, it seems to me, you have to study Green Lantern as pop culture, and then, if you are extracting philosophical wisdom, you are, in effect, drawing philosophical lessons from the ways and means of pop culture. You are doing the philosophy of pop culture, in the same sense as you might do philosophy of mind. If you aren’t taking that road, at least somewhat, then the results are too thin, it seems to me. Or, putting a more positive spin on it, you can avoid the regrettable – if perhaps pardonable – thinness by taking the former road.

So I guess I do have a substantive philosophical disagreement with Irwin, even though I actually don’t buy most of the objections he is busy swatting down. I don’t think it makes any sense to suppose these books hurt the reputation of philosophy, or threaten to trivialize it, or anything like that. It doesn’t strike me as a sordidly commercial venture, just one that could be improved by various thoughts that follow on the realization that hey, the Philosophy of American Idol really is just as likely a topic as these others.

4

Matt 05.22.11 at 11:35 pm

My impression has always been that the first of these books, _The Simpsons and Philosophy_ made, by the standards of an academic press, a huge amount of money, and that people have therefore been prospecting in the same hills for any remaining bits of gold they might find, and that’s the main explanation for these things.

5

phosphorious 05.23.11 at 12:03 am

Just glancing at the Green Lantern book, I saw that there is no chapter on natural kinds.

That would be the only interesting philosophical issue raised by the Green Lantern.

I mean c’mon. . . what do all yellow things have in common (apart from having surfaces that appear yellow to observers with the appropriate kind of eyes) that would make them immune to GL’s power ring?

Any “philosophical” book that does not address this is a waste of money.

6

John Holbo 05.23.11 at 12:21 am

“I mean c’mon. . . what do all yellow things have in common”

Good point!

7

Camus Dude 05.23.11 at 4:54 am

Too many of these articles seem to take the pop culture as occasions for taking up what look to an old hand like me like stock arguments, ideas and problems, presented in fairly stock ways – with just a little Green Lantern/Batman/Watchmen on top.

I was just tweeting about this the other day. I have read probably seven different volumes, some from each of the two major publishers of these types of books, and I think this assessment is spot on. Additionally, the topics in these books are very often repeats – e.g. “Virtue ethics and some superhero” is a very common essay to find, in my experience. Most authors fail to really engage with the text in a meaningful way. And if there isn’t substantial philosophical meat to tear from a text, then I think publishers ought to think again before publishing a given volume.

8

icastico 05.23.11 at 5:16 am

I mean c’mon. . . what do all yellow things have in common (apart from having surfaces that appear yellow to observers with the appropriate kind of eyes) that would make them immune to GL’s power ring?

Well, given that his ring is a “lantern,” there is some indication that the magical powers it has are light-based at their core, so the way an object reflects and absorbs light can reasonably be said to be relevant. But you only need to go there if you don’t know the true source of yellow’s effect.

Yellow Impurity: Formerly, the rings were unable to directly affect yellow. Now, a wearer can bypass this if they can ‘accept fear’, which is personified by the color yellow. Rookie lanterns are more susceptible to fear and thus vulnerable to the color yellow.

9

John Holbo 05.23.11 at 8:11 am

“Additionally, the topics in these books are very often repeats – e.g. “Virtue ethics and some superhero” is a very common essay to find”

Precisely.

10

John Holbo 05.23.11 at 8:20 am

Also, Belle publicy lets it be known that she deserves a hat-tip for this one. Which is true. She called me to report the presence of the book in the bookstore. She instantly appreciated my interest, and the need for an Yglesias entry in the index. (I kept her name out of the post out of consideration for her maybe not wanting to seem y’know like a comics geek, like me. But she’s cool with it!)

11

Stephan 05.23.11 at 9:39 am

Too many of these articles seem to take the pop culture as occasions for taking up what look to an old hand like me like stock arguments, ideas and problems, presented in fairly stock ways …

I’ve read only one book of the series so far: Terminator and Philosophy. But this book doesn’t trade stock arguments, ideas and problems, presented in fairly stock ways. Most of the chapters shine a light on a philosophical problem in a novel original way.

My favorite is: James Cameron’s Marxist Revolution. To analyze the development of Skynet and the dynamics of the Industrial-Military-Complex behind Skynet from a Marxian Perspective seems to me a quite original idea? And the author goes one step further by drawing comparisons to the real thing: the Industrial-Military complex in the United States.

12

CJColucci 05.23.11 at 4:49 pm

I never got the practical problem with the power ring’s yellow flaw. Even if GL couldn’t zap a yellow-clad baddie directly, he could certainly use his ring to pick up a large, brown boulder and fling it. Or do something similar.

13

dsquared 05.23.11 at 4:56 pm

My series rejects over ninety percent of the ideas that are proposed.

terrifying. absolutely terrifying.

And what about a colour-blind Green Lantern? He wouldn’t know what was yellow other than through the non-operation of his lantern. But since the lantern works on yellow things if the wielder isn’t afraid, and a colour blind Green Lantern wouldn’t know to be afraid of yellow things …

14

nnyhav 05.24.11 at 6:16 am

Inefficacy against yellow is clearly explained by Goethe’s theory of color, which posits green as a reduction of the pure colors blue and yellow, suggesting the Lantern is actually Grue.

15

John Holbo 05.24.11 at 8:01 am

Wow, The Grue Lantern Corps is a great idea for a series.

At any time before time T
There’ll be no evil I can’t see!
Let those who evil do with glee,
Beware my power… Grue Lantern’s …. um, light.

Gotta work on that last line. But otherwise a very serviceable oath.

16

Lurker Grad Student 05.24.11 at 10:56 am

“And what about a colour-blind Green Lantern?”

It’s been done. I believe that Alan Moore created him (or “it.” I’m not sure if his species had gender).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F_Sharp_Bell#Rot_Lop_Fan

17

phosphorious 05.24.11 at 7:16 pm

“In blightest nay, in brackest dight. . . “

Etc, etc.

18

chris 05.24.11 at 8:14 pm

But since the lantern works on yellow things if the wielder isn’t afraid, and a colour blind Green Lantern wouldn’t know to be afraid of yellow things …

By that logic, any sufficiently ignorant Green Lantern would work just as well. If he didn’t know that there had ever been a “yellow problem”, then ipso facto, there wouldn’t be, at least for him.

19

Brookside Institute 05.25.11 at 4:57 am

Hal Jordan was resurrected and exonerated of his past crimes in the 2004 miniseries which revealed that Parallax was actually an alien parasitic entity that caused his prior villainy. He enlisted writer and artist who in 1959 would reintroduce Green Lantern to the world in 22 September October 1959 ..Like s the new Green Lantern was a member of an intergalactic constabulary made up of many different alien species who were given a device that provided them with great mental and physical abilities however both Broome and Schwartz have denied a connection between those stories from science fiction pulps and the Green Lantern comic book stories. Gil Kane drew from actor in creating Hal Jordans likeness contrary to the myth that he was based on Errol Flynn and redesigned the Green Lantern uniform into a sleek form-fitting green black and white outfit a distinct departure from Alan Scotts red yellow green purple and black costume with a puffy shirt and cape..The character was a success and it was quickly decided to follow-up his three issue run on Showcase with a self-titled series.

20

gmoke 05.25.11 at 9:08 pm

I got free tickets to a preview showing of the movie but I’m philosophical about it.

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