Sunday, January 04, 2009

Antiheroes (Again)

There's an article in the current issue of Newsweek by Joshua Alston entitled "Too Much of a Bad Thing" (without a question mark, but I'll come back to that later) that claims we are all suffering from "Antihero Overload" and bemoans the fact that "no one on TV can be merely good or evil anymore." A little more than a year ago, we had a fascinating discussion on this blog about antiheroes-- like Tony Soprano, Dr. Gregory House, Dexter, Patty Hewes, Jack Bauer, and most of the guys on Mad Men-- and why we love them, in response to my post titled "Why Do We Love the Antihero?", so I was particularly interested in what Alston had to say on the matter.

[An Interesting Aside (that might also be classified as a Delusion of Granduer): For the last 3 weeks or so, I noticed on my blog traffic feed that I was getting a lot of hits on my antihero post, which seemed rather odd since it was over a year old and the conversation there had long since died. Then, lo and behold, this Newsweek article appears... replete with striking similarities to my earlier post on the same subject! Ultimately, Alston takes the opposite position in his article than I did in my post-- he obviously does not love the antihero-- but he references all the same characters that I did and many of his descriptions parallel mine. So, whatever, that's that. Deduce what you will.]

Anyway, Alston wants good guys and bad guys back, rather than what he calls "morally ambiguous" guys. Although he tries very hard to avoid it, there's a little bit of hearkening-back-to-simpler-times nostalgia in his article that seems a little too precious and a lot too naive for my taste. But one good thing that he does in his article is question why it is that this phenomenon has arisen now. Alston writes:

"You could argue that the political climate of the past eight years primed audiences for antihero worship, that in the midst of a war started with faulty intelligence, suspected terrorists sent to black sites and a domestic eavesdropping program, it's no wonder we would be interested in delving deeply into the true motives underlying the actions of powerful people."

That seems right-on to me. One of the things that I (and many other people) have said about 9/11 was that the most terrifying and terrorizing thing about it was that the acts of that day exceeded our imagination. That is, something happened that we literally could not have imagined happening. The world actualized a possibility for which we were not prepared and could not be prepared. The result of this, as we know from Hegel, was that the world no longer made sense to us, it was in conflict with our Reason, and we no longer felt at home in it. Unfortunately, as Alston rightly notes, the events of 9/11 were not the last of such shocks. For the last 8 years, no matter how hard you might have tried to look rationally upon the world, the world has not looked rationally back.

So, it's not surprising to me that we love the antihero in the way that television ratings these days seem to suggest. Pace Alston, we don't want characters to be "merely good or evil" anymore, because that sort of reductive simplicity is what now strikes us as unimaginable, unreasonable, and not-at-home-in-the-world.

In the conclusion to his essay, Alston paradoxically makes an appeal for "characters who aren't trying to save the world or plunder it, but are just trying to subsist in it," and it is there that I think Alston reveals that he really doesn't understand the antihero. What we love about antiheroes is that they are trying to subsist in the world in just the same way that the rest of us do, which means that they often plunder when they are trying to save, save when they are trying to plunder. They aren't heroes and they aren't villains, because there is no such thing as a hero or a villain in the world that we look rationally upon. These television shows are able to bring about what Aristotle claimed was a central component of the kind of education that art accomplishes: anagnorisis (from the Greek, meaning "discovery," "recognition," or "identification"). We discover some truth about ourselves and our world when we recognize or identify with the antihero, a truth that neither heroes nor villains can indicate.

I think Alston should have titled his article "Too Much of a Bad Thing?" (with a question mark). My answer is "no"-- and if the TV ratings are any kind of indicator, I think more people agree with me.

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UPDATE: One of my favorite fellow-bloggers Anotherpanacea weighs in on this same topic over at his blog in a post titled "Subsist or Save?". Feel free to join in the discussion there, too.
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4 comments:

DOCTOR J said...

I should say by way of clarification, and in the off-chance that Mr. Alston actually reads this blog, that I didn't mean to suggest (in my Interesting Aside) that he copied my earlier post. Even still, how odd...

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I'll have to read. But if we're talking only about TV (and I can't remember if this was true of the earlier assumption) then one hypothesis I'd put forward is just that TV has gotten more sophisticated lately compared to other forms of story-telling (where anti-heroes have been in vogue on and off for the last hundred years)

Anonymous said...

Dr. J,
Working on an article about TV's antiheroes for Newsday in New York. Would like to converse with you. If you would, please email me a nholston@uga.edu.
Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Dr. J,
Working on an article about TV's antiheroes for Newsday in New York. Would like to converse with you. If you would, please email me a nholston@uga.edu.
Thanks.