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(Meta) Identity, choice and heroism (with a digression on Existentialism)

9th August 2007 (17:55)

My last season 8 meta talked about the concepts of power and consent in 'The Long Way Home' and the show as a whole. While these are still important in 'The Chain', I think the dominant themes this time are identity, choice and the nature of heroism. The story also, like the Firefly episode 'Objects In Space', strongly expresses Joss's Existentialist beliefs - perhaps too much so: unless you're comfortable entertaining the notions that nothing has inherent meaning and all morality is relative, then you're likely to have problems with this story.

On which note, it's probably best to start with a brief discursion to explain how Existentialism works - especially if, like me before I started writing this, you've only the vaguest idea what it involves. If there are any trained philosophers out there who spot any mistakes in the following, please comment!

In the director's commentary to 'Objects In Space', Joss explains that much of his personal philosophy is based on Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialist theories. At the core of these is the idea that Existence precedes Essence. That is, the universe and the objects and people within it all have a real, concrete and independent existence. However, those objects' identity - their meaning and their purpose - are not inherent to them; we as observers assign our own meanings to them.

To give a classic example from 'Objects In Space', let me ask the question: what is that thing the girl is holding in this picture?

"It's a gun."
"It's a handgun."
"It's a Blue Sun Industries 11mm calibre semi-automatic pistol converted to accept caseless ammunition."
"It's a weapon."
"It's a tool."
"It's a stage prop provided by the Mutant Enemy set designer."
"It's a device for killing people."
"It's a device for self-protection."
"It's a device to intimidate other people and make its owner appear tough and macho."
"It's a valuable antique."
"It's a recipe for unpleasantness if it gets into the hands of a mentally disturbed teenager."
"It's a frightening and unpleasant symbol of humanity's barbarous nature."
"It's a guarantee of individual liberty and freedom from State control."
"It's a marvellous work of efficient design and craftsmanship."
"It's a clumsy and inelegant tool for winning fights that a wiser person would never get into."
"It's some sort of weird-looking metal club."
"It's a group of pixels on a computer screen arranged in a particular pattern of colours."

So many different definitions... but which of them is the real one? The Existentialist answer is that none of them are.

"Just an object. It doesn't mean what you think..."

Or to put it another way: they're all its real identity - but only from the point of view of each person observing the object. We all give our own individual meanings to existence.

For mundane objects like a chair, or a shoe, or a carrot, that's not really a problem. Just about everybody assigns the same meaning to such things, so a consensus definition of reality emerges. But for more controversial concepts like 'love', or 'evil', or 'hero', or for that matter 'woman', there's far less agreement. When one person assumes that the category 'woman' implies a certain fixed list of characteristics, and they meet somebody else who assigns completely different attributes to that same concept, problems can arise...

The realisation that the world and other people's ideas about it are fundamentally beyond our control - are Other to our own existence - can be a profoundly disturbing one. A common reaction is to deny the revelation: to insist that our own concept of reality is the only true one, and that other people must therefore either agree with us or be wrong. Some people go the other way and begin to doubt their own beliefs, accepting those of other people as more correct instead. A few, confronted by this idea that values and beliefs have no inherent and absolute truth, slip into a state of existential angst - where they despair that nothing has meaning and everything is pointless. (It may not be a coincidence that Existentialism is a popular philosophy among teenagers).

However, there is another alternative, which for Sartre was seen as the ideal: entering a state of self-actualisation. This is where you accept that your own beliefs may not be any more 'true' than those of anybody else - but they are also no less true and worthwhile. Or, to quote Angel:

"If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."

You therefore make the decision to live your life according to your own principles and beliefs, not just by default but out of a conscious choice. You shape your own identity and destiny.

So how does this work for the unnamed protagonist of 'The Chain'? The very fact that she is unnamed is suggestive: she is a blank canvas on which we are invited to project our own definition of her identity.

For some readers, she is a victim. A nameless footsoldier in Buffy's army; Chosen without being given any choice about it, manipulated and moulded, sent half-trained and alone into a battle she failed to survive. To other readers, she is a hero: playing the hand fate dealt her with grace and skill, accepting her responsibilities, and ultimately sacrificing her life willingly for a cause she believed was important.

Which is the true picture? If you've read the section above about Existentialism I'm sure you can guess my answer, but Rona spells it out for us in the comic:

"There is no truth. There's just what you believe."

How we explain the events of the story is, in the end, our own choice. The facts are there, and they can support several interpretations.

The protagonist of the story says twice that she had no choice about becoming a Slayer. The first time appears to be literally true - one minute she's sitting chatting with her friends, the next she's flying through the air having visions of Slayers past and becoming strong enough to survive being hit by an 18-wheeler. No sign of Willow popping up to ask her telepathically if she wants to become a Slayer and getting her to sign a consent form and waiver. On the other hand, there's also nothing to say that she wasn't subconsciously willing and ready to become a Slayer, and Willow's spell picked up on that when it Chose her. It's all in how you choose to interpret things.

The second time, the protagonist says she had no choice except to listen to the Watcher's explanation of what's happening to her. Here, though, it seems to me that what she's really saying is that of the alternatives offered to her, only one of them seemed worth taking. That still counts as a choice, even if rhetorically or morally she feels like she had none. Or, to quote Firefly again:

"But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well then he has a choice."
"I don't believe he does."

If we accept that the protagonist of this story was put in a situation where she felt she had no choice, does that make her a victim? Perhaps not. After all, a key point of Existentialist theory is that the universe has its own existence, quite independent of you and your wishes. You can't always affect what happens to you, no matter how hard you hope and pray. All you can do is deal with the consequences. I've already quoted Whistler's words in 'Becoming Part 1' in my review of this issue, but I'll repeat them here because they sum this up perfectly:

"Even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what, are we helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come, can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are."

So was our protagonist a victim of Willow's Slayer empowerment spell, or did she benefit from it? Or both? There is no truth. There's just what you believe. She chose to believe that she wasn't a victim. We, as readers, are free to make up our own minds.

The other questions posed by the episode can be answered in similar fashion. The protagonist appears to have been a competent and effective fighter, based on the alley fight scene we are shown - less flashy and obvious than Simone, the only named Slayer (other than Buffy herself) in the entire episode, but she alone has taken to heart the message Buffy was trying so hard to impart in the previous story arc: "Fight with me, not next to me." Even so, she's clearly had, at most, 18 months of training before being sent on her mission - far less than Buffy's 9+ years (or, for that matter, Kennedy's 13+ years). So she's good, but she's not the best.

Again, Rona lays this out for us explicitly. Her words leave both us and the protagonist herself to decide whether she's being sent because she's strong and good, or weak and expendable. Would Buffy's new organisation treat its Slayers as expendable? The episode doesn't tell us directly, but leaves us to decide for ourselves based on the events shown, and our knowledge of previous story arcs and Buffy's character. (I know which answer I believe, but I've seen plenty of people reading this comic and coming to the opposite conclusion too).

Then there's the final battle. Once again, the protagonist faces a choice that she chooses to regard as no choice at all. Urged to flee and save herself, she decides instead that duty requires her to stay behind and fight the demon army, blocking it from invading the surface world until reinforcements can arrive. Arrive they do, but too late for her. Noble sacrifice or futile waste of time? There is no truth. There's just what you believe...

So what does our protagonist believe? What motivates her to accept this dangerous mission, at the cost of her life?

It's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame.

She explicitly rejects the idea that she's doing it for her own glory. She doesn't want her name on everyone's lips; she's quite happy to go to her death with it unknown. Again, the contrast to Simone, the One Named Slayer, is pointed. The comic also addresses the idea that single Great Individuals are responsible for all the deeds commonly attributed to them. Popular history often puts the whole blame for World War Two and the Holocaust onto Hitler, glossing over the fact that millions of people made their own decisions and choices that ultimately contributed to those events. Gandhi may have been an inspirational leader, but his followers still chose to accept his beliefs and participate in his political campaigns. For that matter, Joss Whedon may be a brilliant writer, but the success of 'Buffy' depended equally on all the other writers, the actors, crew, technicians and the humble unsung administrators and assistants, who all worked together on the show. And in the universe of this comic, the legend of Buffy is also contributed to by all the other people who fight the same fight as her. Is that bad? Is Buffy being selfish to allow it to happen, assuming she's even aware of the phenomenon and could do anything about it if she were? There is no truth...

In the end, the protagonist of this story did what she did because she thought it was the right thing for her to do. She's suitably cynical and subversive about talk of sisterhood and heroism, as befits a Jossian hero, but finds herself accepting its basic tenets all the same.

"You know what? You've probably heard this. It's pretty standard stuff: how were're all 'connected to one another' all over the world and through history and make a difference and we're all equal and do for each other and it isn't bullshit; he was actually really articulate, but... well, it's one thing to hear it."

She made her choice; she tried to feel the chain connecting her to humanity, and to face the darkness. Did she make the right decision? Was she a hero or a victim? The decision is ours to make.


Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 14th August 2007 14:39 (UTC)
Re: Existentialisme est un Whedonisme

As far as I understand it, in Existentialism evil is just a label. After all, almost nobody ever thinks of themselves as being evil, so its definition really does come down to "my word against yours."

Sartre - and Joss - were/are atheists. If you believe in a God, then you can argue that there is an actual, objective measure of evil after all - it's "what God says is wrong". Unfortunately, that only moves the issue one step further. Instead of saying "I believe this action is evil" you're saying "I believe God says this action is evil". You still can't prove it, either to others or even to yourself; it's still your belief (or in this case, faith) set against somebody else's.

The thing is, though, the lack of final, objective proof as to somebody's good or evil nature doesn't stop them being a hero. In fact, I think Joss would argue it's the definition of heroism: making a stand for what you believe is right.

Sure, that means that somebody we see as a hero (such as Buffy) would be regarded as a villain by other people (such as vampires). And conversely, to vampires Angelus would be a hero. But that shouldn't matter to us, because we aren't vampires and so are under no obligation to accept their definition of what constitutes heroism. :-) The labels we attach to things aren't trivial - they're the very core of our identity as human beings.

As for Andrew - I think his problem was what Sartre called "bad faith" - instead of being true to himself, he was trying to live up to artificial roles that he'd invented because he thought it was what was expected of him. Plus, like you say, he was constantly changing his mind: but I think the problem was not so much that he did that, as that he wasn't sincere about it. He was telling stories about himself, but deep down he didn't believe them; not until Buffy forced him to face reality at the end of 'Storyteller'.

Andrew is one end of a spectrum that, at the other, would include Holtz or the Council wetworks team from 'Sanctuary' with their "all vampires are evil and must be killed (even if they have souls and are good now)" attitude. One side constantly changes their view of the world; the other refuses to do so even in the face of a good reason. Neither extreme is shown as a good thing.

(And did you know your post was the one that flipped this page from showing every comment, to showing them threaded instead? I think it must happen when a post exceeds 50 comments...)

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