Link: Joss Whedon gets Cultural Humanism Award

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Joss Whedon Cultural Humanist. Whedon receives 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Harvard Secular Society. 90 minutes streaming video, or audio only mp3 file. Joss Whedon is the creator of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and the film Serenity.

Whedon is introduced and then gives a speech followed by a lengthy question and answer session. The reason he was given the award is that all his work reflects a view largely critical of religion, and supportive of a humanist vision of struggling to achieve good within this world. Though as Whedon points out at the event, he gives a place to religious views, as part of his interest in multiplicity of voices in his work, including the difference points of view within one character.

In his speech Whedon refers to violence and cruelty in the name of religion, but also says that the enemy is not religion but dark tendencies within everyone. In that sense Humanism is more of an act of faith than religion, because it is the faith in overcoming evil without an other worldly entity, sometimes referred to by Whedon as the ‘sky bully.’

In his speech and answers to questions, Whedon refers to his own fear of death which he says has been overcome since becoming a father. The vampire in Buffy are identified as disturbing because they want to deny the possibility of death, and therefore the possibility of something more important than themselves. In the last part of the question and answer session he rounds off with his anxieties about power, the fear of not having power and the fear of the consequences of having power. This is an underlying issue in all of his work,

Whedon discusses the connections and conflicts between emotional realism and mythological symbolism in his work. He talks about what ethics there is without God, and says that a conversation with his wife led him to the idea of evolutionary ethics, before he knew about is a widespread theory. Whedon is referring to the idea that ethics evolves as part of the need of the human species to survive through co-operation. He identifies the basic point of ethics as to avoid pain in other people, because we don’t want it happening to us, or people to whom we are close. When discussing different ethical decisions made by Buffy at different times, Whedon refers to way that a moral system may simply be a convenient way of justifying what we choose at some moment. This leads to situationist ethics (ethical choices as contextual rather than universal) and to Whedon’s only early interest in existentialism and absurdism in Camus and Sartre. That interest was apparently spurred by a transformational viewing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which led Whedon to question the reality of a normal point of view. Near the end, Whedon also refers to the need for redemption, the way that we all do things we regret, and use power in ways which are wrong. A very recognisable theme in his work. At another point, Whedon refers to the need to to keep shocking people and causing pain in the view for dramatic reasons. This seems a bit contradictory with the idea of avoiding pain, and part of Whedon’s feeling that having power in making TV and cinema leads to badness might refers to this, though he does not say so. Given this concern with not causing pain, it’s not surprising that Whedon expresses some interest in Buddhism, though recoiling from its theology. Whedon’s attitude combines a feeling that existence leads to evil, with a utopian hope for a society in which there is no power and no pain.

On more specific points in his own work, the influence of John Ford comes up twice in relation to Firefly. He refers to the preacher Shepherd Book in the series as like the preacher played by Ward Bond in The Searchers. Whedon partly explains the rapid introduction of a large number of characters in Firefly with reference to Stagecoach, where a bizarre range of people are forced together in the stagecoach. He refers to the difference between Angel and Buffy as characters who begin as heroic; and Spike and Faith who come to humanity and heroism from an evil beginning. Whedon refers to the difficult in Angel as being to define the character of Angel and his reason for fighting evil, every series offers a new solution. Buffy and Angel reach the same point of getting beyond the idea of unique heroism and destiny, and seeing good in individual actions. Whedon defines Dollhouse as being about all the ways we inevitably objectify everyone else, and project onto them. He had a few things to say about the development of Dollhouse being slowed down by concerns with audience figures and keeping the production company happy.

Joss Whedon and Libertarianism

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has a complex relation with Libertarianism. His political views appear to be standard left-liberal Hollywood. Together with most of the cast of Angel (a spin off from Buffy), he endorsed the John Kerry/John Edwards Democrat ticket in 2004. Whedon’s normal views appear to be pro-civil liberties for all. In creating a positive lesbian character, Buffy’s best friend Willow, he signalled a committment to equality for gays.

Feminism
Buffy was designed as a feminist hero, tough and independent though also distinctly feminine. She has been referred to as ‘Buffy the patriarchy Slayer’ and though the character does not tend to be overtly politicla or ideological in any way, there are signals of her attitude. This culminates at the end of season 7 when she pulls an Excalibur type weapon out of its place, only the Slayer is destined to do this. This also allows an emphasis on Buffy the Post-Feminist. The woman who was watching her Excalibur weapon appears, and it turns out that she belongs to a female order that has been watching the male dominated watchers (trainers and supervisers of slayers). Buffy is rather different from the stereotypical earth mother type feminist. Buffy’s fashionable style and immersion in popular culture contrasts with the grand prophetic tone of her new protector. The new protector cannot believe that Buffy is called Buffy, signalling the distance between them. Significantly the woman is killed a few minutes after she appears on screen, she is part of what is passing away. Whedon’s shows refer to pornography and male fantasies abut women in a jokey way which distances them from the kind of feminism which looked with extreme aversion on such phenomena, and which resorts to a mixture of moralising condemnation and a reductive account of power through representation. Though many commentators on Whedon maintain a condemn male fantasy stance, it’s clear that Whedon regards that attitude as a distraction from central issues of power, violence and equality.

Political Correctness and Libertarianism
Libertarianism may take political correctness as a target. That particularly applies to Libertarianism of a kind which mixes social conservatism and capitalist free markets, essentially the constituency that Ron Paul is appealing to in his current run to be Republican candidate to be elected President of the United States. Such people may look askance on feminism and gay rights as ‘politically correct’ impositions of a left-liberal elite which dominates the state and education, in their view. Sometimes they seem to think big corporations are dominated by such people conspiring with the state elite, though sometimes they seem to think private corporations are necessarily beyond criticism. Conservative libertarians say they do not favour discrimination, but do not believe that the central state has the right to impose non-discrimination on local communities. Strangely enough I’m rather suspicious of the line, ‘I’m not a racist/homophobe but I do not think anyone should be forced to respect blacks and gays and it would be wrong to force communities to give them equal rights, therefore I will vote in congress against any such rights’ which as far as I can see is an accurate representation of Paul’s views. One of the Whedonverse actors is a Paulite, Emma Caulfield who plays Anya in Buffy. Appropriately her character is a parodic capitalist who puts money before people, and enjoys the dance of capitalist superiority when closing the Magic Shop at nights. It would be wrong to represent capitalist libertarians in that way, evidently they believe free markets are the instrument of liberty, but it’s still funny.

There is a comparatively liberal progressive kind of Libertarianism at the Cato Institute, or even the Ayn Rand/Objectivist groups, though I struggle to take seriously anyone who follows Ayn Rand (fifth rate philosopher, fourth rate novellist, third rate screen writer and first rate grotesque destructive egomaniac). While these people are generally closer to the Republicans than the Democrats, unlike Paulites they tend to respect Lincoln and think the right side won the Civil War, so conceding that there are times when use of central state power for a liberatory object maybe a lesser evil than just letting communities deny basic liberties to certain community members. These people tend to more careful about distancing themselves from social or national conservatism. It must also be said that Paul has left-libertarian fans who support a return to weaker federal government.

X-Files Libertarianism
That leads us to what I will very unkindly and unfairly label X-Files left-libertarians. X-Files
is of course a reference to the TV series (some of whose writers have worked with Joss Whedon) in which two FBI agents unravel many layers of a conspiracy of the central state to allow aliens to take over the world. For those who have not seen the show, it must also be said that the show is very funny and self-parodic, and that one of the FBI agents in particular can be read as a delusional obsessive. The show deals very acutely with fears of central government and fears of hidden forces, and often refers to quite real ways in which power may become secretive and unaccountable. The show lacks a direct political message but on the whole I would say it is most consistent with a left-libertarianism that is critical of corporations, the state and social conformism.

Joss Whedon: Statist or Libertarian?
As was indicated above, Whedon is comfortable with Democrats of a kind who wish to preserve the and expand New Deal big state, which has been the major function of the Democratic Party since F.D. Roosevelt. That New Deal big state is tied up with an Imperial Presidency which commands vast military resources and has an interventionist foreign policy trying to shape every region of the world. Whedon is rather neutral about foreign interventionism. Buffy’s one serious non-vampire boyfriend, Riley Finn, leaves her to join a covert military squad destroying demons in Central America. The associations with regional American intervention of a very aggressive kind, leaning towards authoritarian right right wing governments and paramilitary groups are left unremarked. The political tone of Buffy and Angel is standard left-liberalism. The death penalty is implicitly rejected, very pro-capitalist views are seen as amusing, large companies tend to be represented as operating in a sinister way. It must also be said that left wing political correctness is parodied, most obviously in the episode Pangs in season 2. What we also get is an interest in insurrectionism. This becomes most obvious in the penultimate episode of season 4, which ends on an X-Files tone. A hidden man of power refers to Buffy and her allies as ‘civilian insurrectionists’, and notes that in the end they were correct to resist a secret government demon fighting initiative and fight demons in their own way. This hint at the justification of insurrection has rich American associations. The right to rise up and resist the central state was recognised by the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson. It is Jefferson who favoured self-governing rural communities under a very loose central government and who is often invoked by libertarians. That role for Buffy and her allies is paralleled in Angel by Angel’s unlicensed detective agency. In both cases, the aim is to uphold law in ways the state cannot, but certainly there is an emphasis that law rests on basic action by individuals.

The libertarian tendencies in Joss Whedon come to the fore in the science fiction series Firefly. The series takes place in the aftermath of a failed rebellion by Independents against the central authority of the Alliance. The central character Mal leads a gang which makes a living from smuggling, illegal salvage and robbery, along with legal work. There is some connection with stores of the James gangs, Confederate guerillas turned bandits. However, the series also clearly distances the Independents from the slave holding aristocratic Confederacy. They are seen as west coast libertarians, poor but self-reliant people struggling to hold on to their free wheeling individualistic society. Mal is the spokesman for the view that governments exist to get in the way, that they interfere without helping. Whedon says that he does not share all of Mal’s views, but he created a series which makes Mal the hero and the spokesman for world view which is clearly Whedon’s own: anti-religious, anti-transcendent, an individualism of tough self-reliant characters. The series is quite explicitly an anti-Star Trek. Star Trek features an earnest liberal technological interventionism even though at the explicit level the Federation the space ship serves is anti-interventionist. The Federation is socialistic, and capitalistic characters, particularly the Ferengi in Next Generation, are presented as morally questionable.

The series and the spin off film Serenity certainly impressed libertarians. The film received a Special Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society. LFS is devoted to libertarian science finction, which is a major part of the libertarian canon. The write Robert A. Heinlein is the most famous in a large group of capitalist libertarian and anarcho-capitalist writers. Joss Whedon belongs with Ayn Rand and Heinlein in the receipt of an award from Heinlein, and has produced a TV and cinema classic of futuristic capitalist libertarianism, though the emphasis is still on the poor small entrepreneur.

Why Buffy and Joss Whedon’s other work matter

Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after three series this lead to the spin off Angel. Buffy ran for 7 seasons, Angel ran for 5 seasons. Towards the end of that period Whedon made 14 episodes of Firefly before it was cancelled by the network. The sequel to Firefly was the film Serenity. All these things have sold in massive amounts on DVD, unfortunately TV and cinema have been more mixed in their returns.

I’ll be returing to the Whedonverse. First of all, why does it matter? Today we’ll concentrate on Buffy. A series with a silly sounding name. The full name of the series, as Whedon points out, combines comedy, horror and drama. The silliness already indicates an interest in combining genres and crossing boundaries. What are the themes that appear and make Buffy important 8and which appear in the rest of the Whedonverse).

Buffy is an icon of female power, often defeating patronising enemies.
Buffy is also an ambiguous character: the hero and the disturbed individualist
The apparently simple conflict between good and evil moves switches back and forth between moral ambiguity and moral absolutes.
Buffy is drawn in different ways to 2 vampire characters (Angel and Spike) who make journeys from good to evil.
Buffy, Angel and Spike finds that despite the elemental conflicts she participates in, that the world has no meaning. The only morsl perspective is what the individual brings.
These characters refer to alientated states of mind and the struggle to overcome subjective alienation.
Characters find that passion drives them and is the basis rather than moral judgement.
Spike shows a moral evolution driven first by the restraint of a violence inhibiting implant, then by love for Buffy and then by regaining his ‘soul’ (soul=conscience in the Whedonverse). Many questions arise here about what morality is and what moral motivation is.
Individual difference and liberty are promoted along with an awareness that they can become alienating and disturbing.
Buffy is drawn towards ‘the dark’, towards violence, aggression and chaos in her own struggle against them.
The struggle against demonic chaos is a struggle to impose the order that Buffy resists.
Characters go through remarkable changes from apparent good to evil, and from evil to good. This is made very material in the vampirasation of Spike and Angel, both events are shown in flashback, and in the ways in which Angel and Spike get their souls back. For Angel, a soul is a punishment, for Spike it is a reward he seeks to make him worthy of Buffy. These tranformations and many others, raise questions about the limits of personal identity and the posisbility of change within continuous identity.
It deals with different possible worlds, as do many philosophers.
It’s very funny, all serious themes are ironised and everything is ironised. This is an important message in itself. Comedy and tragedy are always close together.