Monday, January 21, 2013

Whedon's Dollhouse - Week 1

This is a short post, as the readings are not particularly dense (though Rennebohm's essay does touch on particularly complex and difficult issues).

From the television series Angel: "If there's no great glorious end to all of this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is: what we do now, today."

Do you agree that this is what the show is about, at least at this early stage?

"the unique, specific human body is an integral aspect of identity, not to be forgotten or left behind." (8)

Yes or no? Explain. How much of our identity comes from our human body?

"Identity exists in this moment." What do you think of this?

Is it true that our identity is quite different apart from our physical bodies? Can our identity exist without the physical body? These are not easy questions, and are ones that touch upon theologies and eschatological musings. In any case, I look forward to your responses.

Finally, which of the three episodes for this week worked well, and which did not? Why?


Phil Wiebe said...

The Angel quote: At first blush, it does not seem to thematically encapsulate the show - Rennebohm says as much. It is very representative of Joss Whedon's brand of existentialism that filters through in both small and large doses throughout his shows. In Dollhouse, however, we see apparent determinism (no choice in identity or action) tempered by a general feeling of existential meaninglessness (actions are forgotten, will is irrelevant). Of course, these are the presuppositions of the Dollhouse itself and the primary, overarching conflict that is being set-up is that these presuppositions, though dogma, are possibly wrong or flawed as the Dolls, such as Alpha or Echo, defy their programming or the limitations of the system.

So, for now, the show is about the conflicts of identity (primarily an exercise in the philosophy of mind) and the ethics of control (broadly, the morality of running a Dollhouse). However, the stage is set to bring existential questions on the body, agency, and authenticity into the mix.

Rennebohm 8: This is an excellent premise. This theory makes the 'mind' (what is/can be imprinted) and the body coagents in the determination of identity. This 'imprint' is only 'authentic' when it inhabits the correct body. These ideas make a lot of sense in the framework of Joss Whedon's existentialism. Existentialism is in part a reaction to the mind-focused rationalism and idealism that preceded it; a commentator posited that Kierkegaard was the first existentialist and that this was in part because he was empirical realist and that all following existentialists shared this disposition (read this in a friend's book of essays on Sartre; will throw a reference into the comments when I get the name from him). For an existentialist, the body is one of the 'facticities' of life - we have no choice in what body we have, only how we respond to it. This facticity shapes the identity our actions form; it is our only actual reference point in the world and our only conduit of agency. At face value, existentialism may not seem to give high value to the body, but its emphasis on the physical world and the individual affirm it. Lately, it seems that there has been a general trend in recognizing the neglected importance of the body, especially in Christian circles where the label 'gnostic' has been applied to many ideas and practices as a criticism. It's interesting though that there is some discussion of the soul in Dollhouse, as Joss Whedon is fairly atheistic and probably a materialist. Again existentialism helps us understand this one (not so much on the theological/religious level but more metaphysical): if existence precedes essence, then perhaps our choices of existence create an essence for our selves - the 'essential nature' our actions have wrought is what could be called a soul. Maybe the combination of correct mind and body is what constitutes the soul and from there the person. Echo is not really Caroline anymore, but if you put Caroline's personality back into her original body - the soul is harmony with the mind and body. Perhaps what we will see is that the mis-attunement of mind and body is the source of angst for the characters, both consciously and subconsciusly.

Identity exists in this moment: If the past exists just as a memory that can be stolen, traded, or completely destroyed, and the future is something that is never experienced, only anticipated, the only point of value for the identity is in the very present moment.

Phil Wiebe said...

Identity different apart from our body: Yes, at this point I would say that an identity cannot exist apart from the body - if removed, the identity becauses a similar identity but not identical (morphological pun there).

Episodes: The pilot was excellent in pacing and it avoided a lot of trope-related pitfalls (almost said tropical, I should coin that) by playing with the viewer's expectations of narrative development and then alternately denying or rewarding the viewer what they want/expect. However, I get the feeling of that classic Whedonian problem where the original pilot had extra, important details that had to be cut (like how Ballard got Echo's picture in the first place). The second episode was also exciting as it introduced the Alpha storyline and showed us through that as well as the date storyline that the Dollhouse is not infallible or all powerful (though it might seem so in its dealings with Ballard). One weakness it had was that I was occasionally confused as to what was a flashback and what was not. Episode 3 was not very enjoyable to me, possibly because of subject matter and theme, but it was interesting to see how 'helpless' the Actives can become based on the personality they are given - especially Sierra. Good twist with Victor though - I actually liked his Russian mob character a lot.