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.

Moral Personality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Many examples exist in Joss Whedon’s TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of the ambiguities of moral personality. Characters move between extremes of good and evil which make it difficult to say what moral personality they have, though they are very recognisbaly the same people.

Many examples exist, but here we will concentrate on one example which has been particularly popular with fans and for good reasons. The vampire Spike is the second of two morally ambiguous vampires who appear on the show. Spike, played by James Marsters, appears fro the first time in season 2, episode 3 ‘School Hard’. The character was originally written s a brief appearance, but grew and grew. The fascination of Spike can traced back to his first appearance where we see him as a a swaggering evil bad boy, but then see his vampire face disappear when his then girlfriend, Druscilla, appears. Spike instantly becomes the concerned sensitive boy friend. The first time he sees Buffy produces a similarly striking effect. Though sincerely in love with Driscilla, when he sees Buffy for the first time looking very innocent dancing with her friends at a club it looks like Spike is instantly in love. This confusion about whether he is in lovw with Buffy or Druscilla is typical of the confusions Buffy and other characters deal with in the series. The demonic threats, and the fight against evil, are ways of making sense of inner lives full of contradiction.

Spike’s first appearance is as a vicious killer devoted to merciless destruction. Nevertheless he shows noble qualities. He keeps a deal to turn a human into a vampire, though the deal produces bad consequences for Spike. He always puts Druscilla first in his concerns, though there are growing suggestions that he is obsessed with Buffy. The obsession frefers to killing her, but Druscilla clearly finds the obsession discomforting. In season 5 Spike will realise he is in love with Buffy. In season 2, he just finds it necessary to work with Buffy to undermine his ove rival Angel, who is also trying to destroy the world. In a memorable speech, Spike explains to Buffy how attached he is to the world, referring to love of football, dog racing and humans even if what he wants from humans is to eat them. The alliance with Buffy is recoded at a later point as a brief fling he has to excuse to Druscilla, ‘I told her I was thinking about her all the time’. Druscilla who has precognitive powers is not fooled and realisies that Spike is in live with the Slayer even if he hides from this reality.

In season 4, Spike is captured by government demon hunters and escapes. Before he escapes they give him a behaviour modification chip which gives him great neurological pain he harms, or tries to harm, a human. Spike fights this restriction, but bit by bit he is drawn into humanity and its moral standards. It is Buffy who provides the motivation. At one point Spike is sheltering with Buffy’s watcher Giles. Conflict between Spike and Buffy acquires flirtatious aspects, and the story line draws attention to this when accidental consequences of a magic spell turn them into fiances for few hours. Giles tells Spike he may have been given a new purpose, and Spike rebuffs him. Giles never seems to forgive him for this. Spike does start to find new purpose in season 5, when he does realise after a dream about Buffy that he is in love with her. This does not lead him to be clearly good, it does lead him to try to impress her which includes doing the good things she approves of. Buffy does not notice Spike’s feelings at first and is horrified when she does. Nevertheless, it is clear that she has begun to accept Spike as a friend and ally and that she has her own ambiguous obsession with him. The ambiguity leads her to great and excessive cruelty to Spike even when he has helped her, and raises the question of he rown moral development.

Later in Season 5, a particularly self-sacrificing act leads Buffy to accept Spike as an ally and friend. She dies through mystical means at the end of the season 5. At the beginning of season 6, we see Spike looking after Buffy’s younger sister and helping Buffy’s friends to fight demons. We see that he has progressed from wanting to impress Buffy to wanting to do things he know would please her if she was still alive. However, after Buffy is revived, he reverts back to a more shadowy lifestyle, where though he will do anything for Buffy, he also unconcerned with being morally right except where it directly affects Buffy. The tension between them revives and increases until a fight leads to love making. Buffy feels she has to hide he affair and feels ashamed. She breaks it off when Spike repeals his continuing immoral side. At first she is friendly with Spike but the old ambiguity returns in which she expresses her feelings for Spike by being cruel to him. When he realises that she still has feelings for her, he tries to ‘make her feel’ by starting a sexual assault in her bathroom. She fights him off and he leaves her alone when he realisies that his violence is unacceptable to her. This extreme low point morally, is followed by Spike disappearing from the town. Buffy’s extreme ambiguity continues as she is willing to let her younger sister stay with Spike and seems disappointed when she realises Spike has disappeared. This might seem to contain the disturbing insinuation that Buffy is attracted to someone who started to rape her, though she finds the act unambiguously horrific there is no doubt she still feels drawn to Spike (though commentators who want to make Buffy into a one dimensional feminist icon find this hard to admit). The end of the series shows that Spike disappeared in order to get his soul back after a series of physical and psychological torments. He was feeling torn between the demonic and the human, now he wants to be just human which he thinks will make him good enough for Buffy.

In season 7, Spike turns up again in town maddenned by his conscience, particularly by the memory of his attempt to rape Buffy. Buffy is clearly sorry about his condition, she accpets his help and eventually gives him shelter, first at a friend’s house and then in her own home which is by then very full of friends seeking to fight the big evil of that season. Spike is penitent and accepts that Buffy cannot love him, but this moral renewal is questioned in episode 7, ‘Conversations with Dead People’ when Buffy realisies that Spike is maybe killing and creating new vampires. She is not happy with this realisation, does not want to believe it and shows her depth of feeling for Spike in this way. It turns out that Spike is under the control of a mind trigger mechanism. Various events show Buffy wanting to help Spike and Spike wanting to resist the power of the mind control. The issue reaches a crisis when Buffy arranges for Spike to have an operatoin to remove his now malfunctioning chip. Her friends are concerned but the connection with Spike has become the important thing for her, though they have not resumed intimate relations and are apparently just friends.

Spike justifies Buffy’s trust by overcoming the trigger in a fight which results from 2 of Buffy’s friends wishing to eliminate Spike. However, we have also seen that Spike can be very dangerous and has been hovering between his noble moral intentions and the external demonic influence. Spike is faces with the further ambiguity that he wanted to make himself fully human for Buffy, but she needs him to be a demon when fighting on he side.

All the confusions are resolved in the last episode, ‘End of Days’. Spike sacrifices himself to save the world, and has clearly saved Buffy from a relationship which creates pain and uncertainty. Spike’ s death is sad but necessary to rescue Buffy’s life from the confusion and pain.

Spike becomes the perfect moral hero, but that heroism is premissed on the demonic. Buffy herself finds that her strength has demonic sources. Spike’s heroism rests on his unstable and dangerous personality. As Buffy said when rejecting him’ he is in love with pain. Spike’s moral journal is a redemptive story in which a personality lacking in morality, gains moral guidance from love, and then some grasp of the moral as a good in itself. That up lifting redemption can only rest on Spike’s outside status in which he has never completely trusted and can never be sure that he will remain good. The fight for the good resorts to evil of some kind to win the fight. Spike is an outcome of that reality, and the reality that good can never be passive. The fight for the good takes Spike to the same rage and destruction he has as an evil vampire. Buffy ends her outsider stauts by sharing her slayer powers, Spike can only exist as an anomaly, as what does not deserve to exist. Spike does evil in his violence against himself but turns that into an act of giivng, or pure generosity. He is individuality as pure evil, the danger Hegel warned of and which Kierkegaard tries to overcome.