Expressing Philosophy as Fiction, Composing, 18/11/2013

I’ve mentioned my first philosophical publication to be accepted earlier on the blog, a chapter in Doctor Who and Philosophy that interprets the Doctor as a Nietzschean Übermensch. It had quite a lot of personal importance to me, because Doctor Who has always been important to me as a piece of culture, and I was glad one of my earliest efforts would contribute to a book of essays about it. Plus, it was a popular philosophy volume, so I could have many more people see, and hopefully enjoy, my work.

In a way, my work in philosophy and fiction converged there in multiple ways. I was writing a philosophical essay that used an example from fiction to illustrate an interpretation of one of Nietzsche’s concepts. In my mind for the potential audience was simply regular people who’d like reading a softly challenging, maybe slightly kooky, book. More like the readers of my fiction than my technical philosophical work. 

There are many ways philosophy can inform fiction, and fiction can inform philosophy. I see the two as similar in many respects, in terms of the analysis of form and content that the best works require. The author’s level of craftsmanship in both fields be very high, as a slight change to a word’s place in a sentence, or the precise expression of an idea, can cause serious changes in what the reader tends to interpret. We work in dialogue with the figures of our past; so much of the best undergraduate philosophy programs expose students to the highlight of the canon, and the best authors are lovers and systematic appreciators of literature. I could go on.

It's important for young writers to know, starting out, that
we all have to take on a variety of unexpected and different
work than we may have initially planned. Like
impersonating Rasputin in a Vegas retro dance show.
One way to go on is to discuss my current entertainment reading, Alan Moore’s From Hell. The book is actually informed by many themes in my own broader approach to political and ecological philosophy. I’m no expert on Moore’s work; I only got into comics in the last few years, a latecomer to the medium. And I know he’s an obvious choice to talk about the creators of great comics. But I do think his work is incredible, and when I compare it to other comics that I read, his work is original and accomplished in so many formal and emotional ways simultaneously, that he’s far beyond the talents of any other comics author I’ve come across so far. And I think I can assert that I will continue to find other comics writers are not as good as Moore. So I’m sort of a fan.

As for the ideas I see in his work, they express many elements of my own thought. I’m very interested in understanding social relationships as ecological relationships. No social link, even to institutions, is reified as permanent in any real sense. All is changeable and flexible, and its changes are interdependent. So while we’re actually free in that there’s no physical necessity precisely determining our thoughts and acts, our freedom is very restricted because we move in a world of pressures from many other movements, often occurring at distances and levels that we can’t usually comprehend in our immediate experience. 

Just as you must diagnose a culture to diagnose a single crime, Moore’s central idea in From Hell, we act freely to create a culture that conditions and guides us as individuals. The human personality is fashioned from the give-and-take of cultural movements and traditions guiding our development and values, in conflict with our desires to adapt and innovate to forge unique paths. The tension of conservatism and rebellion.

In those two paragraphs are ideas about the nature of determinism, a meditation on the problem of moral responsibility in a world of contingent cultural influence on individuals, an epistemological problem about our limits in knowing what affects us beyond what we experience, an existentialist problem of an individualist vs a communitarian ethics, and the political version of that debate as well. All this from thinking for a moment about the basic ideas that went into the production of From Hell.

My Assignment: Earth essays over the last couple of months essentially did the same thing. I’d like one day to be able to write a work of fiction in the form of a comprehensive production guide and history for the fan market of a show that never existed. It would be a show that covered philosophical and ethical ideas (like whether there is a single perfect morality to which lesser peoples should be guided, meditations on the nature of empire, or the ability of friendship and empathy to build virtuous people) in its stories. It would be a work of fiction, in part, about the possibilities of popular fiction to express philosophical ideas. 

The major difference between philosophy and fiction is that philosophy is much harder than philosophical fiction writing. A fiction writer can build his characters and include enough moments in the narrative that allude to the philosophical ideas he’s working with. A philosopher has to be explicit and precise about the ideas; philosophy is a mode of human knowledge that deals with raw ideas in this sense. When I write philosophy, I can’t obfuscate or imply; I must display my concepts blatantly in your face. 

This also touches on another difference of philosophy and fiction. Moore doesn’t have to come to any solid conclusions, as if From Hell was an argument for a specific position. He can introduce the idea, let it play out in different ways, and let the reader think over it and come to their own conclusions. Philosophers have to take a stand on their issues. Even when a stand is a refusal to take a stand, we must explicitly justify that stand. It’s far more difficult to achieve, and far more rewarding when you do.

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